Sara Russell: “Healing isn’t linear”

In order to rewire the negativity bias of the brain, we need to practice repetitions of noticing what’s working in our lives. We can spend countless hours recounting our worst memories but quickly skip over the moments of peace, ease, contentment, and connection we experience. Build strength in the positive connections in your brain by […]

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In order to rewire the negativity bias of the brain, we need to practice repetitions of noticing what’s working in our lives. We can spend countless hours recounting our worst memories but quickly skip over the moments of peace, ease, contentment, and connection we experience. Build strength in the positive connections in your brain by building awareness of your successes and satisfactions.

As a part of my series about “How To Learn To Finally Love Yourself” I had the pleasure to interview Sara Russell.Sara is a Skills For Change Coach from a Radical lineage, a Qi Gong instructor, and a Relationship Anarchist in the Santa Cruz Mountains, who helps her clients analyze behaviors, relationships, systems, and transactions to see where old habits are no longer serving them.

She guides them in cultivating awareness of where they have power, how to use it, and how to create spaciousness to accept where they are powerless. Sara teaches radical self-love, bringing compassion to all of her work, because change is hard, and being in a body is hard, and we don’t have to do it alone.

Be the Radical Way

Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.

There was a moment when I was sitting on the floor, feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. I’d tried everything I knew to try to salvage a relationship, but there were too many power imbalances, differences in needs, and conflicting worldviews to save this connection I valued so much. It was draining me. I realized I was spending too much of my life force energy hoping someone else would hold my boundaries for me, all while I was unwilling to hold them for myself.

Once I was able to acknowledge what I wanted and needed from a place of self-love instead of shame, guilt, or defensiveness, I could see the changes I needed to make in order to honor my body, emotions, and spirit.

I sought out people who could teach me the skills I needed in order to quiet the confusion in my mind and heart. I learned how to come from a place of empowered knowing. I fought the belief that I needed to earn love, and shifted my focus to showing up in relationships being clear on what I wanted and needed, including my minimum standards and boundaries. After experiencing how incredible this powerful transformation felt, I wanted to teach others how to do it as well.

The phrase “healing isn’t linear” is common wisdom, and yet we have some idealism that self-love is a destination we can arrive at and stay forevermore. I want people to remember self-love requires ongoing maintenance: just like we feed ourselves, bathe ourselves, and regular sleep, we need to give consistent care to our emotional, mental, and spiritual health as well. As we begin to organize more and more around self-love, those days when we feel ashamed, defeated, reactive, or incapable can feel especially heartbreaking because we’ve experienced something else and feel like we should know better. Loving ourselves as we are trying, learning, and growing is just the first step. The next layer is accepting ourselves even when we fumble and fail. A significant part of my work is reminding people perfection isn’t the goal- it’s knowing we have intrinsic value just as we are.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?

Yes, I recently completed a project for Black Health Matters (BHM), an initiative founded by Cat Willis and implemented by project manager Angela Chambers to elevate the health of the black community in Santa Cruz, California. COVID-19 has disportionately affected Black communities across the country, and BHM helps address the social determinants of wellness to further both social justice and public health. To help support my local community and create opportunities for health and healing, I created a 30-minute video describing the signs, causes and solutions to depletion, because it takes energy to love and care for ourselves and getting replenished is the first step towards a life of more optimism and abundance. Once we have acknowledged and addressed our depletion, we can work on dreaming what it is we truly want for ourselves and protect our energy by holding our boundaries.

Part of attending to our depletion is no denying where we are powerless in the face of systemic oppression, and the grief that comes with acknowledging the real scarcity, competition, and danger we experience. While it’s important to take care of ourselves, we must recognize the necessity of having the support of the community so that we may take action to ensure the well-being of everyone, and not take too much personal responsibility for what is a collective problem. Sharing resources and accepting support are important steps on the path to self-love.

Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self acceptance?

Small successes led to deep, lasting changes. I began drinking water and doing a five-minute meditation in the morning before I checked my phone. I practiced not overextending myself as a way to try to be “good” enough to “deserve” love. I wrestled with my fear that if I said “no” I might lose people. When I asserted a preference I stopped trying to defend myself. I slowed down and scheduled daily unstructured time that was just for me, where I could meditate, move, journal, or bake. I asked for deeper commitment and connections from my loved ones and asked for support when I needed it. It took intention and consistent effort over time, as I gradually added more and more of what fulfilling me.

After a time, I began to believe in my belonging. I offered compassion to myself when I didn’t show up as my best self and increased my capacity to understand that sometimes, it just takes more time, practice, and self-acceptance to arrive at change.

According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?

Culturally, we have an oppressive and unattainable beauty standard. We aren’t taught to be satisfied with who and how we are. Instead, we are told all of the ways in which we are not enough or too much. The beauty standard changes across cultures and points in history, but one thing remains the same: the self-loathing that arises from being constantly made to feel less-than is deadly. Eating disorders as well as questioning our belonging on the planet claim lives every day. It’s hard to be your best, brightest self when you are constantly inundated with messages that you are not worthy of love and admiration because of the vessel you were born into.

As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?

It’s critical to love yourself. Loving ourselves creates the self-esteem we need to prioritize our energy and be creative about future possibilities, both for ourselves and for the world.

Suffering from the incredible oppression of shame, guilt, or feeling like we need to do something in order to earn love shackles us from fully expressing our human hearts.

Getting through the grind of our daily lives takes effort. Going to work, feeding ourselves, basic hygiene, creating a safe home environment, and caring for loved ones takes energy. If we do so from a place of depletion and dissatisfaction, it’s hard to have anything left over for our dreams. It’s hard to imagine a place of optimism and abundance from a place of scarcity and self-loathing.

Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?

I don’t think we are taught the skills we need in order to know how to leave without trauma. We don’t learn how to turn towards our hearts and bodies and listen to what they are telling us, to name what it is we are feeling in its fullness.

Instead, we are taught to deny ourselves the experience we are having, to reduce it down to dualistic and oversimplified interpretations of good and bad, right and wrong. We downplay what’s important to us, self-sacrifice to prove our love for others, and put predetermined limitations on what we believe is available.

We need to be clear on what makes us want to limit our engagement in a relationship, know what our expectations and boundaries are, and be aware of what makes us want to stop relating. Then we need to have cultivated a communication style where we can clearly and kindly assert our needs. However, this assumes that we are in a relationship that is a safe place for our honesty and truth, which unfortunately is not always the case. It’s no wonder we stay longer than we want to.

I also think people put limits on how much love they think they deserve or are afraid to reach for their heart’s longing. We don’t live in a culture that teaches us how to be satisfiable, and if we can’t name what satisfies us, it’s hard to put effort and energy into creating it in our lives. Knowing the full, messy complexity of our desires as well as our minimum standards carves a path for a life abundant with more fulfilling relationships. We need to get rid of the “shoulds” and obligations, to stop doing more than our share or more than we want, to stop persecuting and punishing, and instead, step into the enlivened expression of our true desires.

When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?

Accepting our belonging and knowing our intrinsic value means holding the competing truths that we are worthy and loveable just as we are, but that there may also be parts of ourselves we wish to change. We may have goals for our future selves which means transforming our current thoughts and behaviors. If we stay within our comfort zone and never reach for our stretch goals, we can create lives of complacency rather than satisfaction.

While practicing self-love, it’s important to ask yourself: Have you accepted the truth of what is? We are masters of denying and resisting reality. We tell ourselves stories based on our worst-case scenarios, and organize around our past, rather than dreaming of a radically more fulfilling future. We let our worries, anxieties, and survival instincts dictate our thoughts and actions, which we desperately and unrealistically believe will lead us to safety and security. Such thinking keeps us depleted and reactive because we are fighting not to lose rather than striving to win.

Unfortunately, we can swing too far in the other direction, and tell ourselves stories through rose-colored glasses full of idealism. Wishful thinking and spiritual bypass are clear paths to heartbreak and hopelessness when all of our positive thinking doesn’t manifest the life of our dreams.

It’s game-changing to be able to hold the truth of what is in all its messy complexity. Take an honest look at what’s working, and what’s not. Where do you have power or influence, and where do you need to recognize your powerlessness? What is replenishing your energy, and what is depleting you? Telling honest stories about where you give you the information you need in order to make the most empowered choices to change your life.

There was a time when I wasn’t willing to accept that a previous partner was unwilling to honor my boundaries. I was full of the idealism that because he loved me, eventually he would stop doing the things that hurt me. Unfortunately, love doesn’t solve all differences, and I realized it was up to me to hold my own boundary, rather than continually pining for someone else to do it for me, and persecuting and punishing them when they didn’t. Once I was willing to respect my limits, it was easier for my partner to recognize and respect them as well.

We all have different lived experiences based on the different privileges and oppressions we are born into, and that means there is a multitude of world-views. I had to ask myself, “Can I love people who have a different world-view than me?” I decided to be more curious about how we embody patterns of domination and control that we may not be aware we exert over others when they don’t agree with us or express differences. Our culture has normalized the notion that “only the strong survive” while the hegemony defines what qualifies as “strong.” I believe it is a strength to be adaptable and flexible, while also holding space for differences in our preferences and needs.

So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?

We all need moments of solitude and introspection, where we quiet the cacophony of external voices telling us how we should be, and instead listen to our own inner knowing. Being alone with ourselves can be uncomfortable because we are away from all the daily distractions that allow us to numb out and dissociate from our feelings, fears, and longings. Building the capacity to sit with yourself as you require learning how not to be overwhelmed with the heavy ways we deny ourselves our goodness and our belonging. In the quietness of seclusion, the oppressive ways we talk to ourselves come through clear, and we can hear all of the ways we make ourselves too much or not enough. Our work is not to believe these messages of shame and blame, but instead, create space to accept ourselves as we are even while trying to create change and move in the direction of our dreams.

We are social creatures, so it makes sense we crave companionship and camaraderie. We live in a culture that values individualism and expects us to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” but the reality is we depend on each other for our basic needs, and there is no shame in that.

However, when we need a romantic partner in order to feel complete, we lose touch with our inherent wholeness. We then seek fulfillment from outside ourselves, becoming unsatisfied if we haven’t done the deep work of knowing how to take the tender and honest care of ourselves.

How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?

Once you have fought your own internalized oppression, and are working to believe more life-affirming stories, it is easier to extend compassion towards others because you have gifted it to yourself. If you can truly believe that you don’t need to be fixed because you aren’t broken, but rather whole and valuable as you are, you can begin to see that all living beings have value because of their experience of being alive, rather than their performance of a certain ideal.

Being sincere with yourself about what you want and need, reliably showing up for yourself, and learning the skill sets you need in order to achieve your dreams, builds trust. Once you trust yourself, it’s easier to feel more empowered in relationships, because you know that regardless of the actions of others, you can take care of yourself, including holding a minimum standard for how all people are treated.

In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?

Society has been run by systems of oppression that make self-love incredibly challenging. All of the-isms and phobias create a hierarchy of who is valued culturally and who is demeaned and dehumanized. As individuals, it is our role to work on loving ourselves as we are, then teaching those close to us how to do the same, so that eventually not just tolerance but a celebration of diversity creates “a world where many worlds are possible,” free of oppression. We are limitless spirits encapsulated in limited human forms. It’s no wonder we struggle with conflicting worldviews. Even once we are all organizing around self-love, we will need to figure out how to negotiate our dignified differences, because while we are all part of the whole, we are differentiated vessels.

What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Trust Yourself. So often we focus on whether or not we should trust others, when the first person we need to work on trusting is ourselves. When you make a promise to yourself, do you keep it? Do you reliably show up for yourself, and take care of your needs? Do you have the time, energy, and skill set to accomplish the goals you set for yourself? Once you have built trust in yourself, you will have developed a sense of competency and capacity that allows you to believe in yourself and your dreams.
  2. Forgive Yourself. Hindsight is 20/20, and we like to punish and persecute ourselves for all the bad choices we made in the past. The problem is, we did the best we could with the information and resources we had. Maybe we know better now, having lived through it, but that’s no reason to time travel and emotionally berate yourself. Integrate whatever learning you need from your experience, but with compassion and understanding.
  3. Kill Your Idealism. Our culture tells us a lot of fairy tales that set us up for failure. We believe through hard work alone we should be able to achieve all of our goals, but neglect to account for systemic oppression that throws obstacles in our path. We believe we will find “the one”: that mythic person who will love us unconditionally, be there for us in all the ways we need, and never let us down. This leaves us feeling unlovable and heartbroken when this person doesn’t magically arrive. We hold ourselves to a beauty standard that we are told can be purchased with enough money and performed with enough practice, despite the fact that it is an ever-moving target we aren’t meant to reach. Our idealism is the death of our dreams. We need to be willing to hold the complex truth of what is, versus what we wish would be.
  4. Resist Believing Your Worst-Case Scenario. Our brains have evolved over millions of years to develop ever greater methods of keeping us safe. We believe that it is our responsibility to keep ourselves out of danger and that if harm befalls us, it is our fault for not being vigilant enough. Instead of feeling like you need to constantly be on alert for all the terrible possibilities lurking in the future, build a sense of resiliency that you will be able to handle whatever comes your way. It is not your job to prevent bad things from happening to you. It is your work to know how to heal when they do.
  5. Focus on What’s Working. In order to rewire the negativity bias of the brain, we need to practice repetitions of noticing what’s working in our lives. We can spend countless hours recounting our worst memories but quickly skip over the moments of peace, ease, contentment, and connection we experience. Build strength in the positive connections in your brain by building awareness of your successes and satisfactions.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?

My collection of sacred books that are required reading for the revolution include Sonya Renee Taylor’s “The Body Is Not an Apology” and Adrienne Maree Brown’s “Emergent Strategy.” In “The Body Is Not an Apology” Sonya Renee Taylor defines her journey of radical self-love as “the transformative foundation of how we make peace with our bodies, make peace with the bodies of others, and ultimately change the world.” She exposes the ladder of bodily hierarchies and illuminates ways to fundamentally change body shame into radical self-love. In “Emergent Strategy” through a lens that encompasses the microcosm of our individual experiences as well as the macrocosm of the wild wonderful world around us, Adrienne Maree Brown teaches us to assess what we are practicing, to make the unconscious conscious, and how to translate our experiences into curiosity, reflection, and pattern disruption. They each take a turn joining Prentice Hemphill on episodes of the podcast “Finding Our Way” to share visions for possible futures that are more satisfying, loving, and pleasure based.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…

I want a movement where people develop the skills required to post collective liberation. I want people to learn how to come from self-love, and then become well-versed in cooperative communication and conflict resolution. Even once we deeply embody radical self-love, we will still have dignified differences, because we are differentiated beings. What do we need to learn, build, and practice, if we are no longer relying on the tools of oppression to get what we want and need? I want each of us to have a fully expressed human heart and a world with space enough for us all.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

My current favorite life lesson quote is by Adrienne Maree Brown: “I am a microcosm of all the possible justice, liberation, pleasure, and honesty in the universe, and I act accordingly.”

We are in a moment of change, on the precipice of the Unknown. It can feel overwhelming to try to formulate solutions for all of the world’s problems. However, if we can create new possibilities within our own bodies, of how we talk to ourselves, treat ourselves, what we expect of ourselves, and celebrate our existence, we demonstrate new configurations of celebrating life’s many manifestations, which then allows others to witness the multitude of choices we have in how to spend our time on the planet. This quote gives me hope and courage to be the creatrix of my life.

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

Thank you! This is such an important topic.

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