Recently, I told a distant relative about the career change I’d made, the book I just released, and a few other things I’ve been up to. “I would have been too scared to do all that,” she said. “You must be a pretty courageous person.”
This conversation got me thinking: am I courageous? If being courageous means not feeling afraid, I saw, the answer is clearly no. I definitely recall feeling afraid before changing my career, putting out my book, and doing lots of other stuff.
If I’m not particularly courageous, how was I able to do these things? After thinking about it a bit, I realized it was because I’ve developed the ability to choose how I’ll act when faced with intense sensations. This is one of the most valuable gifts my mindfulness practices have given me.
Learning To Let Go
For many years, when faced with that chill in my solar plexus I call fear, I didn’t really have a choice about how to react. Automatically, without thinking, I’d withdraw from what I saw as the source of the fear. If the prospect of changing my career, or something else, sounded scary, I’d instinctively avoid it. This habit was so deeply ingrained that I didn’t even know other ways of responding to fear were possible.
One important thing I learned to do in meditation was to let my thoughts and feelings pass away, without resisting them. If I felt anxious during meditation, I learned to simply allow the anxiety to flow through me and dissipate, rather than trying to distract myself from it or convince myself I shouldn’t be scared.
What I gradually recognized was that I could bring the same approach into my day-to-day life. I came to see that, when I experienced fear, I didn’t have to revert to my old habit of resisting by running away. There was another option: I could simply allow the fear to pass away on its own, and then go do what I wanted.
As you can probably see, this way of relating to fear is different from a lot of approaches out there. It’s not about “crushing” or “killing” your fear, convincing yourself you shouldn’t feel afraid, or imitating the behaviors of confident people. All of these are forms of resistance, which in the end only holds the fear in place.
Taking Ourselves Off Auto-Pilot
Of course, dropping our resistance to fear is easier said than done. Our habitual ways of reacting to fear, and other thoughts and sensations, have often been with us a long time — so long that we’ve forgotten we can relate to our fear differently. This is why, I think, it’s important to develop a practice of watching the ways we react to the thoughts and emotions we experience.
When we watch ourselves carefully, we start to notice our habitual, automatic ways of reacting to how we feel. We may realize, for instance, that we always seem to yell at someone when we’re feeling angry. Or perhaps, like I used to do, we habitually withdraw whenever we’re starting to feel afraid.
And when we become aware of our unconscious habits, we also start to get conscious of our power to choose how we respond to the situations we face. Maybe, we start to realize, we don’t always have to blame someone else whenever anger arises. Perhaps we don’t always have to back away whenever fear comes up.
In a nutshell, I don’t see fear as something we need to overcome, but as something it’s best to allow. When we learn to do this, I think, our sense of freedom and control over our lives greatly expands.
Do you think you need anxiety to get motivated at work? Several people I talked to recently told me as much. If they didn’t worry about finishing their project on time, what others might say about their work, and so on, they think they’d never get anything done. They’d just kick back on the couch, grab the remote and a bag of chips, and never get up again except to replenish their chip supply.
But is this true? After all, surely we do many things that we don’t need anxiety to finish. We don’t need to worry, for instance, to motivate ourselves to go see a movie. We don’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, fretting “oh, no, what if I never watch that movie? I’ll be a failure!” Yet, for some reason, we think this kind of thing is necessary in our work.
Anxiety Causes Procrastination
Oh, but that’s different, some might say, because watching a movie is fun and work isn’t. But does work have to be a drag? Or does it only seem that way because we worry so much when we’re doing it? Could work be more enjoyable — and could we actually be more productive — if we let go of the anxiety we tend to associate with it?
Many psychologists suggest the answer is yes — that worrying actually creates more procrastination than motivation. For instance, Dr. Joseph Ferrari studied how anxiety affected the test-taking habits of college students, and concluded that “students who have extreme anxiety are most likely to procrastinate, because it is more reinforcing to avoid the anxiety associated with studying than it is to study.”
Similarly, in The Now Habit, Dr. Neil Fiore writes that “procrastination is a habit you develop to cope with anxiety about starting or completing a task.” And in The Tomorrow Trap, Dr. Karen Peterson says that anxiety causes procrastination because, when you’re worrying, “so much energy is needed to control your anxiety that other thoughts cannot receive your full attention.”
Watching Your Worry
It seems worrying isn’t the motivational wonder drug we tend to see it as, and that it would actually help our productivity to stop doing it. But of course, it’s not enough for me to just say “don’t worry, be happy,” because our anxiety often seems beyond our conscious control. So, here are a few ideas for gaining more control over work-related anxiety:
1. Notice how you identify with your results. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into the trap of believing we’re “only as good as our next project” — that our value as people depends on our performance in the task we’re doing at work. If we’re thinking this way, it’s no wonder we’re worried, because we believe a mistake or setback would make us worthless. Becoming aware of this pattern of thinking is often enough to help us let go of it.
2. Notice how you make a virtue out of worrying. Many of us, consciously or not, associate worrying with being diligent and caring about our work. If we aren’t worrying, we think, we must be bad or lazy. Of course, this isn’t true — freaking out doesn’t get your project done better or faster. Remembering this helps keep the compulsion to worry in check.
3. Notice how you’re breathing. Just as obsessing over possible problems can have us breathe shallowly, breathing in rapid gasps can contribute to anxiety. When you find yourself worrying, see if you can slow down and deepen your breathing, and notice how that benefits your mental state.
There’s a simple question I’ve found it useful to ask myself, whenever I find myself getting stressed or tense, which is: “Am I really in danger right now?” When I do this, most of the time, I quickly realize the answer is no, and my body relaxes again.
This exercise has helped me see how many situations in my life I was unconsciously treating as life-and-death, when in fact they were nothing of the kind. Among other things, if someone criticized me, a magazine rejected my article, or I had an argument with a loved one, I’d find my shoulders tightening and my heart accelerating, as if I were facing a dangerous predator. Remembering that these situations usually don’t present a physical danger has brought a lot of peace into my life.
Some of the wonderful benefits of this technique include:
1. Let Go Of Your “Attachments.” Regularly asking this question, and experiencing the peace it’s brought me, has helped me understand what spiritual teachers mean when they say we tend to get “attached” to things in the world — our money, looks, intimate partners and so on. We start thinking about these things as if they were part of our bodies (literally “attached” to us), and that if we lost them we’d be hurt or destroyed.
Similarly, some of us get attached to the image we present to the world, and the risk that someone might see us differently starts to look like a threat to our very existence. If we’re deeply invested in having everyone think we’re happy, upbeat people, for example, letting the world see our anger or sadness can seem like a dangerous thing to do, even though doing that once in a while probably wouldn’t kill us.
We can tell we’re attached to something when our bodies tense up and recoil at the thought that we might lose it. Reminding ourselves we normally aren’t in physical danger when we’re at risk of not getting promoted, losing our relationship, and so on helps us let go of that attachment, and stay calm and composed in the face of challenges.
2. Handle Conflict More Easily. When we feel criticized or put down by someone, many of us automatically react by fighting — shaming the other person or trying to convince them we’re right. Or, perhaps we get so overwhelmed with sensation that we feel paralyzed. If we pay close attention to how we’re feeling in these moments, I think, we’ll notice a “fight-or-flight” reaction in our bodies, as if we’re in the wild and a tiger is approaching.
It’s not always easy to do, but if we can remember, in the moment, that there’s no real threat to us in most heated conversations, those conversations become far less stressful. When we aren’t so hung up on our survival, we become much better at listening to and staying loving toward the other person (and toward ourselves).
3. Explore New Possibilities. Another great benefit of this exercise is that it helps us try new things. When we remind ourselves the activity we’re interested in trying doesn’t really present a threat to our lives, we feel more free to explore and enjoy the world. I found this technique particularly useful when I started doing public speaking — taking care to remember that I won’t die if the audience gets bored or disapproves of me dissolved a lot of anxiety.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savannah probably benefited from seeing nearly everything they did as a life-or-death matter, because many of the things they did in their daily lives actually were. It makes sense that our nervous systems seem geared to perceive the world as full of threats around every corner. But today, although we don’t live in a danger-free society, it’s better for our health and sanity to remember we’re usually pretty safe.
Like many people, finding happiness used to be my goal in life, and as an avid consumer of personal development products I learned a lot of techniques for getting there. You’ve probably heard many of these: think positive thoughts, force yourself to smile, take a warm bath, and so on.
For a while, I diligently used these methods, and at first they did a fairly good job of perking me up when I fell into a funk. But pretty soon, I noticed that using these techniques was starting to feel like a big effort. Constantly countering negative thoughts with positive ones, “turning my frown upside down,” and so on, began to consume a lot of time and energy. And I started wondering: is happiness worthwhile if I have to work so hard for it?
From Rejection To Curiosity
When I started getting deeper into mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and really noticing what was going on inside me, my perspective on happiness began to change. What I began to see was that my emotions are really just sensations I feel in my body. For example, sadness for me is a heavy feeling in my stomach, and anger is a heat and tightness in my lower back. (These words may mean different sensations to you.)
Another thing I started noticing is that, once I began seeing my emotions as simply physical sensations, they didn’t seem like such a problem anymore. Before, when I’d start experiencing that heaviness in my stomach that I called “sadness,” I used to resist the feeling, telling myself “come on, chin up, there’s nothing to be sad about.” My shoulders and my stomach would actually tense up as I tried to push the feeling away.
But today, when I get that feeling, my reaction is more like curiosity than rejection—“oh, it’s that sinking in my belly again,” I’ll say to myself calmly. And when I have this curious perspective, I start noticing things about my sadness that I never saw back when I was trying to squelch it. For instance, I notice that the heavy feeling seems to have a particular shape, color and temperature, and that it doesn’t just sit there—the energy actually moves around quite a bit before it fades away.
Most importantly, when I stop treating sadness as a problem, acting in spite of how I’m feeling becomes much easier. When my attention is no longer focused on how awful it is to be sad, how I’d rather feel better, and so on, I can start actually thinking about what I want, and going after it, despite the sensations I’m feeling in my body. Sadness, and other so-called “bad moods,” don’t have to paralyze me anymore.
I’d Rather Be Peaceful Than Happy
Today, I think of my goal in life as peace instead of happiness. No matter how amazing my life becomes, I’m probably going to have “negative” feelings from time to time, and when those emotions come up I want to calmly allow them and even be curious about what they have to offer me. I haven’t got this down completely—I have moments when I find myself fighting my emotions and telling myself I should feel differently. But when I’m able to be at peace with whatever experience I’m having, life becomes a lot easier.
Of course, if techniques for making yourself happy are working for you, more power to you. Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and different approaches work for different people. But if trying to make yourself happy is feeling like a lot of frustration and work, I invite you to try something different for a moment.
When you feel unhappy, instead of resisting the feeling, try focusing on how that unhappiness feels in your body—like I talked about with the sinking feeling in my stomach. What sensations tell you that you’re unhappy? Notice how just asking this question changes how you relate to what you’re feeling. Instead of being something threatening that you need to push away, your unhappiness becomes an object of curiosity. And the more you inquire into it and understand it, the more peaceful and composed you can be when it comes up.
Link Love: I want to spotlight Duff McDuffee’s new blog, Beyond Growth, which looks like it will be a welcome step forward in the evolution of personal development writing. I thought about Duff when I was doing this post because I was saying something kind of counterintuitive and his writing often does this as well.
In many of us, there’s an interesting paradox in our behavior: we strongly want to be loved and liked by others, but we won’t admit it. We often design our careers, living spaces, styles of dress, and other aspects of our lives to gain others’ approval, and sometimes even rehearse what we’re going to say to each other. But we feel that, if we admit how much we do to ensure good relations with others, we’ll be rejected and seen as weak. Telling someone “I want you to approve of me” is probably one of the scariest and most vulnerable things we can do.
I’ve come to believe the reason we’re so anxious to hide our desire to be liked is our conviction, on some level, that nobody else wants approval—that we’re the only people who want to be liked and loved, and have anxiety about not getting those things. Many of us walk around assuming we’re the only ones with insecurities, and that everyone else “has it together” and would ridicule us if we admitted to wanting approval. Thus, we try to look tough by pretending we don’t care what anyone thinks and we’re just doing our own thing.
I was reminded of this recently in a conversation with a friend. She tends to get pretty worked up when she feels like someone’s ignoring her or not taking her seriously, even when it’s someone she doesn’t know. Lately she’s been distressed because, when she comes across the woman who lives next door, her neighbor seems to ignore her and doesn’t respond when she says hello. When this happens, my friend starts coming up with all sorts of painful stories about why her neighbor isn’t acknowledging her. She wonders if her neighbor thinks she’s ugly, unsociable, crazy, or worse.
After we’d talked about my friend’s situation a bit, my friend remarked that an interesting thought was entering her mind. She realized her neighbor’s behavior was actually a lot like her own back in college. When my friend was in school, she was even more worried about being disliked, and she tended to shy away from relating with people for fear of being harshly judged. Some days, she felt so shy that she’d walk around campus with a hat or hood on her head, looking down at the ground so she wouldn’t be talked to or seen.
“It sounds like your neighbor might be just as afraid of being judged as you were,” I said.
“Maybe,” my friend replied. “I have a hard time imagining anyone could be as shy and scared as I was back then, but maybe.”
After our conversation, though she was still skeptical that others harbored the same fears she did, my friend found the way she saw her neighbor beginning to shift. Instead of fretting over how much her neighbor supposedly despised her, she found herself feeling compassionate and understanding. After all, she knew what it was like to experience the fear her neighbor might be feeling.
And, she recognized, what if her neighbor does actually think she’s unattractive or worthless, or has made some other negative judgment about her? If her neighbor, when she sees my friend, thinks “it’s not worth my time to say ‘hello’ to this worthless person,” her neighbor must have her own share of anxiety. If she’s really concerned about wasting time, losing face, or otherwise being harmed just by saying hi to somebody, she must have quite a fearful existence.
But at a deeper level, my friend reported, when she started considering the possibility that other people had the same fears of being disliked, she felt the intensity of her anxiety lessening. Her biggest fear, she recognized, wasn’t that others wouldn’t accept her—it was that her desire for acceptance made her weak, alien or strange.
She was ashamed, in other words, of the fact that she wanted to be liked. The tension that gripped her chest and shoulders when she felt rejected or unacknowledged by someone came from that shame. When she started recognizing that her desire to be accepted was only human, her shame began fading away.
Conversations like this one have convinced me that it isn’t our desire to be liked that has us feel so embarrassed or frightened when we think someone isn’t acknowledging us. It’s the common belief that wanting to be liked makes us weak, immature, or otherwise unacceptable.
When a situation comes up that triggers our need for acceptance—maybe it’s someone interrupting us, ignoring us, talking to us as if we don’t understand, or something else—it activates our shame around that need as well.
I think many of us could make our lives easier by simply admitting we want to be loved and liked by others, and recognizing that this doesn’t make us weird, unacceptable, shameful or anything else. When we reconcile with that desire for acceptance, rather than judging it or pushing it away, the desire no longer seems so overwhelming and threatening.
Paradoxically, once we understand that the desire for acceptance is a common human need, it stops feeling so desperately important. Acknowledging that desire actually helps us feel freer to live the lives we want, without having to constantly look over our shoulders to make sure we’re being approved of.
In literature on changing careers or starting a business, one theme you’ll often hear is that the key product you’re selling is yourself, and that you need to fully believe in yourself if you want others to be interested in what you have to offer. If you’re not confident in your ability to run a business or market your services, the usual advice goes, stick with your current 9-to-5 job for now. Take more courses, read more books, get more on-the-job training, and generally get more experience to build up the confidence to strike out on your own.
On the surface, this seems like sound advice. However, it overlooks a problem I’ve often seen people confront when they’re starting, or hoping to start, a business or make a career change. Some people can earn prestigious degrees in subjects related to their business, and spend years getting experience relevant to their field, but still feel like they can’t promote their products or services to others. They have the nagging sense that, if they “put themselves out there,” they’d be arrogant, they’d bother people, they wouldn’t do it well enough, people would attack or ridicule them, and so on. For people with a deep-seated fear of promoting themselves, gathering more skills and experience isn’t necessarily going to help.
For instance, I know a number of professionals in “high-powered fields” like law, banking and medicine who, despite how successful society and their colleagues consider them, are still deathly afraid of marketing themselves. They can do the day-to-day work of their professions superbly well, but the idea of going out and finding clients and customers just doesn’t sit well with them. In fact, some people have admitted to me that one reason they entered their professions was to have a secure, lucrative job without the anxiety of having to sell their services.
If you experience this type of fear around “selling yourself,” an important first step in removing that stumbling block is to carefully observe the thoughts and sensations that come up when the anxiety gets in your way. When you fully understand how this anxiety feels and how it limits you, you experience a separation from the anxiety, and a sense of choice in how you respond to the world. You become able to spot the feeling when it’s coming up, and decide to act in spite of it. As psychologist Phil Nuernberger says in Strong And Fearless: The Quest For Personal Power, “[a]s we become more skilled in our ability to be an observer, we become more aware of the patterns and movements of the mind and we have a greater opportunity to choose the patterns and behaviors we want.”
I’ll recommend an exercise you can do to develop this sort of awareness. Start by finding a comfortable place where you can sit alone and undistracted. Allow any thoughts and feelings that come up to simply occur, without judging them, pushing them away, or turning to some activity to take your mind off them.
Now, ask yourself: what thoughts arise when you consider doing something to market yourself or your products? For instance, does asking someone to pay you for your goods or services feel sleazy or deceptive? Would it feel like you were boasting about, or drawing too much attention to, yourself? Does self-promotion feel like a mundane activity that it’s beneath someone of your qualifications to do? Do you need to accomplish or learn more to “deserve” to promote yourself?
Next, notice the sensations that come up when you think about “selling yourself.” You probably know already that you experience fear or anxiety, but what sensations tell you that you’re having those emotions? For example, is there tension or pain in some part of your body? Where is it? Does your breathing become constricted? Do you feel warmer or colder anywhere? Does your mouth become dry? Do you start to sweat?
Once you’ve fully experienced the thoughts and feelings that come up for you around self-promotion, allow those thoughts and feelings to gently pass away. Let them subside into the space, the emptiness, from which they came. Just as each breath of air into your lungs is followed by an exhale, so too do fear and other emotions enter and flow out of you. Observe that, even though the sensations of the anxiety are gone, you are still there. Allowing yourself to experience the anxiety didn’t destroy or change what you are. You are still a whole and complete being.
This exercise helps you experience firsthand that sense of separation from your fears I talked about earlier. Often, we make all kinds of efforts to avoid experiencing fear, as if just feeling it could actually hurt or destroy us. We hold ourselves back from taking risks, lose ourselves in unfulfilling “busywork,” or numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol to avoid feeling our fear. As with the professionals I described who chose their careers to avoid the need for self-promotion, many of us design our lives around making sure we don’t have to experience certain emotions.
However, when we allow our fear to run its course inside us, and notice we remain unharmed after it’s gone, we feel empowered to act in spite of it when it comes up. As psychologist Barbara Miller Fishman writes in Emotional Healing Through Mindfulness Meditation, “[t]he meditative tool for probing experience allows us to watch how thoughts arise and then fade, how powerful emotions such as anger and fear emerge and then subside. In this way we learn about the impermanence of experience.”
If you aren’t feeling fully confident in your ability to market your products and services, don’t be too quick to assume you need more education and skills to overcome your anxiety. Acquiring more knowledge has its place, but transcending your fear isn’t usually something you can do on a purely intellectual level. You may feel blocked because, until now, you’ve been unwilling to have the full, intense, visceral experience of being afraid. Take a few moments to simply allow your fear to arise and pass away, and notice how much peace and focus this exercise can give you.
I’ve found that one of the most reliable ways to measure the progress of my personal growth is to notice how I feel when I look someone in the eye. Whenever I start doubting that all the inner work I’ve done on myself has had any effect, all I need to do is go outside and hold someone’s gaze for a bit to convince myself otherwise. There’s a world of difference between my experience of looking someone in the eye several years ago and how I feel when I do it today.
A few years back, I had trouble even making eye contact with people in the first place. When someone would look me in the eye, the discomfort in my body would be so pronounced that I’d feel as if I had no choice but to look away. I couldn’t lock eyes with someone long enough to get any understanding of how I felt and thought while experiencing eye contact.
When I first took up meditation, yoga and a few other practices I adopted to further my personal growth, my experience of making eye contact noticeably shifted. I became able to look people in the eye for several seconds, and no longer felt seized by an irresistible impulse to avert my gaze. However, my body did tense up in those moments—particularly in my jaw, where a feeling of pressure quickly mounted. This reaction is probably best described as shame, as if I were doing something wrong by looking into someone’s eyes, or as if the other person were learning something embarrassing about me.
As I continued my journey of personal change, eye contact felt less and less threatening. Eventually, I noticed that, when I held someone’s gaze, I no longer felt tension creeping into my body. However, for a while, other concerns arose when my eyes met someone else’s. Sometimes, when a person broke eye contact with me, I would feel a twinge of anger or despair. On some level, I’d be convinced they were looking away because I’d upset them or they didn’t respect me.
Finally, after I’d spent a few years using various practices to feel more whole and accepting of myself, I noticed one day that the suffering I once experienced when someone looked away had disappeared. When someone wouldn’t meet my gaze, I wasn’t even slightly rattled. Even if I pondered the possibility that the other person looked away because they disliked me or thought I was unimportant, my sense of peace was undisturbed. If that was how they felt, it was fully okay with me.
With my newfound composure around eye contact came an insight. I saw how closely my progress in my ability to hold someone’s gaze mirrored my overall journey toward feeling more whole. When I first resolved to do some changing and growing from within, my main concern was with my shame about aspects of who I was. This shame had me unable to make eye contact with others, for fear that when they locked eyes with me they’d see uncomfortable parts of me that I didn’t want to show the world.
Later, having dissolved much of the shame I used to feel, I shifted my focus to some of my deepest-seated fears. One of these, which I suspect many people can identify with, was the fear of abandonment—the fear that people in my life would leave me, and I’d be alone and defenseless against the world. When I was in the grip of this fear, I’d become anxious even when a stranger refused to meet my gaze—“abandoning” me with his or her eyes. As I came to terms with the fear, the ugly sensations that used to arise when someone looked away began to subside.
More generally, my ability to hold eye contact with people without experiencing discomfort and negative thoughts reflects how I’ve come to perceive the world. Before I began working on improving the way I experienced life, I saw people as basically malicious and dangerous, and my reluctance to look them in the eye signified my desire to escape and protect myself from them. As psychologists Mark R. Leary and Robin M. Kowalski write in Social Anxiety, “averting one’s gaze reduces the saliency of the threatening stimuli that are causing anxiety, thereby allowing a degree of psychological withdrawal while one remains physically in the encounter.”
Today, I have a new perspective. I see people as, at their core, benevolent and compassionate—even though, out of fear and a desire to protect themselves, people often act as if this isn’t their nature. My willingness to hold others’ gazes reflects my new, more open and trusting view of the world.
If you want more understanding of the places in your life where you have room to grow, notice the way you respond to eye contact with others. What feelings and thoughts arise in you? Do you feel exposed, as if the other person might discover compromising things about you? Do you feel the need to stare others down to prove something about yourself? Do you feel upset when people won’t meet your eyes? Simply noticing your reactions when looking into another person’s eyes, I’ve found, can teach you a lot about who you are.
Many of us spend a lot of time fretting over aspects of our lives that might turn out badly in the future. Maybe it’s the fear that we’ll mess up a project at work, that we won’t be able to pay the bills next month, that we’ll have some type of medical crisis, or something else—I could go on for hundreds of pages with possible examples. In all these situations, we worry that something may happen in the world that will create pain or difficulty in our lives.
I used to be plagued by anxiety about negative events that might happen in my life. These days, however, I continually surprise myself with how little I worry about possible setbacks I may face. Much of my change, I believe, happened when I recognized that an event in the world can only make me suffer if I allow myself to react negatively to it. In other words, I acknowledged that my own emotional reactions—not the things that happen around me—are ultimately responsible for any suffering in my life.
I had this realization when I made a few observations about how my mind works when I worry about something. I saw that, when I worry, I imagine something happening out in the world—my intimate relationship ending, my car crashing, or something else. With this mental image of a possible negative future comes discomfort in my body—tension in my neck and shoulders, unpleasant warmth in my face, and so on.
More importantly, I became aware of what I don’t normally focus on when I’m worrying. I saw that, when I’m watching a mental movie of a bad future event, my focus is entirely on what’s going on outside me in the picture—my house burning down, my computer being destroyed by viruses, and so on. I put no attention, however, on my experience of the event—how I’m reacting and feeling, and what I’m doing, in the picture.
I was curious about how putting some attention on myself might affect my experience of my anxiety scenarios. Thus, I decided to experiment with visualizing a negative event as I usually would, but this time focusing on how I was feeling and responding in the imaginary situation. I tried this exercise several times with different possible events I tended to get anxious about.
As one example, a while back, I was having nearly constant trouble with my car for various reasons, and I was often concerned that the car would break down in the middle of the highway or some other inconvenient place. To run my new experiment with this anxiety, I brought up my standard mental picture of my car stopping in the middle of a packed freeway, with smoke billowing out of the hood. This time, however, I brought my awareness to myself sitting in the driver’s seat, and to what I was thinking and feeling in the imaginary situation.
When I put some attention on my mental image of myself, my perspective on the event noticeably shifted. It no longer seemed so obvious that my car breaking down on the highway was a disastrous, terrifying event, and the discomfort that used to seize my body when I thought about this scenario began to fade away. I started to recognize how much control I had over the way I reacted to and interpreted the event. I could choose to “flip out” over it and make it a stressful and uncomfortable experience. Or, I could decide to stay composed and focus on what, if anything, I could do about the problem. This sense of choice was empowering and calming—while I held my power to choose my response in my awareness, anxiety simply didn’t enter the picture.
I also realized that, when I imagined negative future scenarios without directing any attention to my own role in them, I lost sight of my ability to decide how to respond to events in my life. When I wasn’t conscious of that power, it seemed like the world and what happened in it could dictate how I felt and what I experienced, without any input from me. This perspective had me feel helpless and frightened, and see the world as an oppressive and threatening place. With this outlook on life, it was no wonder I was anxiety-prone.
I kept working through my various anxieties using this technique—simply visualizing each event I feared would happen, but placing my attention on myself in the mental picture. Each time, the physical discomfort I used to experience when I imagined a future problem lessened, and I began to generally feel more peaceful and focused.
Some time later, when I started learning about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and hypnotherapy, I noticed my method was similar to what practitioners of hypnotherapy and NLP call dissociation. A therapist dissociates a client when the therapist asks them to visualize a past or future event in their life, but to watch the event from a third-person perspective, observing it as if watching him- or herself in a movie.
When a client visualizes a troublesome possible event while dissociated, users of NLP and hypnotherapy say, the client feels calmer and more ready to take on the potential problem. Psychologist Stephen Wolinsky, for example, describes the empowering effects of experiencing an anxiety scenario while dissociated in Trances People Live: Healing Approaches In Quantum Psychology:
We need to have the new and different experience of discovering that we are more than or larger than the source of distress with which we are so typically identified. If I learn to move outside this misidentification so that I can view it, observe it, describe it, . . . in short, if I am the knower of the problem, then I am bigger than it. Simply put, it is not me. . . . The problem no longer takes up all my inner space; it is surrounded by a context of perception and awareness . . . .
The approach I use—focusing your attention on yourself when you’re visualizing a worrisome scenario—produces this type of effect. When you run an anxiety-provoking mental movie, but stay conscious of your own part in it, you become aware of your ability to choose how to react to events in your life. With this awareness, the problems that arise in your life no longer seem so threatening and beyond your control. When you know that whatever situation confronts you, you can decide to face it with peace and composure, your worries start to dissolve.
My life has taken a few twists and turns recently, and many outside observers would probably call them “turns for the worse.” My car won’t run for some reason, I haven’t been able to sell my condo for three months, and my investments have taken a beating. Five years ago, I definitely would have lost some sleep worrying over these events, particularly because they all happened in a short time period. But today, I’m taking them in stride.
One of my friends couldn’t understand why I’m not worried about these setbacks. “I’d be worried if I were you,” he said.
“What would you be worried about?” I asked.
“I’d worry that things weren’t going to get better.”
“You’d be imagining what might happen in the future?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’d be imagining that, in five years, none of those problems would be solved.”
I found this conversation very enlightening, because my friend pinpointed the exact reason why I no longer find myself stressing about the setbacks in my life. When a problem would arise, I used to do exactly what my friend described—I’d form a pessimistic mental picture of the future. In this imaginary future, the problems I face in the present have exploded to fearsome proportions.
For example, if I were creating mental pictures of the future based on my current problems, I’d be imagining myself being flat broke a year from now because I never sold my condo, repairs for my car ended up being massively expensive, and the stock market never picked up. I’d be preoccupied with fear of that imaginary future, and that fear would have harmful physical effects—my chest and back would be tensing up, and I’d be grinding my jaw and giving myself headaches.
Why did I have this habit of conjuring up negative possible futures in my mind? Like I said, those mental pictures were painful to experience, and creating them didn’t have many practical benefits to me. Constantly worrying about a problem didn’t motivate me, or help me come up with ways, to solve it. To the contrary, all that anxiety about bad possible futures would paralyze me.
Because the imaginary futures seemed so threatening, I’d hold off from making a decision, for fear of doing something wrong and making my mental movies “come true.” Often, I’d try absorb myself in some other activity to avoid thinking about them. Instead of learning the valuable lessons the problems in my life could teach me, I refused to face them because I associated them with frightening mental images.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I had this habit for the same reason many people enjoy watching horror movies. Quite simply, on some level, I get a kick out of getting scared. Because I have a fairly vivid imagination, I don’t need to watch a movie to satisfy my craving for anxiety. I can generate limitless nightmare scenarios from the comforts of my own mind. The problem is that, although watching mental horror movies gets me my “fear fix,” it distracts me from actually dealing with my problems and creates physical discomfort.
People compulsively worry about the future for different reasons. Some people, for instance, don’t do it because part of them likes being afraid—they do it because, consciously or otherwise, it has them feel righteous. To them, their constant anxiety about the future makes them mature, responsible people. Making mental horror movies, in their view, is just part of being an adult. Similarly, some people worry about others’ safety all the time because it makes them feel caring and protective. If they weren’t constantly fretting about others’ well-being, after all, they’d be selfish people.
How do you get your mind out of the business of making horror movies? For me, the key is to stay alert for those moments when your mind starts imagining a negative future scenario. When you sense your mind doing this, simply remind yourself—whether internally or out loud—that your mind is feeding its fear addiction. Further, remind yourself that you don’t need those pictures to address the problems in your life. In fact, if you’re relaxed and composed when you’re solving your problems, you’ll do a much better job at it.
When you come to see them for what they really are, your mind’s nightmare scenarios don’t have the same emotional impact. What’s more, when you can detach yourself from the illusions your mind creates when you run into problems, you’re far more able to calmly and effectively address those problems.
Not surprisingly, when I was thinking of leaving my old job as a lawyer, a number of different fears about the consequences of my decision arose. I was surprised, however, by one of the fears I experienced—the fear that, by leaving, I would “betray” my colleagues. I felt as though I would break some commitment I’d made to others at my law firm by departing.
At first glance, I couldn’t understand why this concern was coming up. I’d never told anyone in my old job I would be there forever—and I suspect that almost nobody does that, regardless of how much they enjoy their career. It wasn’t as if I was breaking any promise I’d made to my coworkers. Why, then, did I feel like I’d betray them by leaving?
After pondering this question for a while, I realized my fear was based on the belief that I’d made “implied” promises to the people in my workplace. I took pride in my work, I was respected by my colleagues, I was often in the office very late, and I did other things that suggested I cared about the firm’s and my own success. By taking these actions, I thought, I effectively promised my colleagues I’d stay indefinitely. The feeling that I was about to break this “commitment” seemed to be the source of my anxiety.
Many of us feel trapped or restricted in various areas of our lives by the implied commitments we think we’ve made to others. Some people believe that, because they’ve been there for their friends in times of need, they’d betray their friends if they ever weren’t around to listen to their friends’ problems. Some people think that, because they’ve done conventional professional jobs in the past, they’d betray their friends and loved ones by pursuing something more artistic. Some parents feel that, since they’ve been caring and responsible with their children in the past, they’d betray their kids if they ever made a mistake or did something less than perfectly. And so on.
The belief that drives these feelings seems to be that, by doing some activity for a long time, you commit yourself to keep doing it in the future—even if you never promised anyone you would. If you stop doing the activity, the belief goes, you’re breaking your implied commitment and betraying others, and you should feel guilty and ashamed. If we buy into this belief, we may never achieve the fulfillment available to us in life, because the belief effectively requires us never to change.
I think there are deeper reasons why we tend to harbor this belief, and I grasped what they were when I closely observed the sensations in my body when I contemplated leaving my old career. When I thought of leaving, chills and tension seized my back and shoulders. I’d felt this sensation before, when I’ve been driving and have narrowly avoided having an accident. The feeling arose when I was entering a dangerous situation and my body was preparing to fight or flee. It was, in short, as if I were risking death by changing my career.
I then recognized that the belief that we must keep doing something we’ve done for a long time stems, at the deepest level, from a fear of death or annihilation. We strongly identify with the ways others perceive us, and the image we project to them with our actions. We sometimes identify with that image as closely as we identify with parts of our bodies. If parts of our bodies are removed, we feel, we’re losing parts of ourselves, and thus drawing closer to destruction. So too, if we change the image we project to the world, it’s as though we give up a part of ourselves in the process. This was why the fear of death gripped me when I considered leaving my firm—leaving my old career behind, to me, was like leaving a vital part of my body behind.
The key to ensuring that this fear doesn’t stop us from accomplishing our goals is to recognize that, in an important sense, who we are doesn’t depend on the image we project to others. Nor does it depend on the activities we do, the careers we enter, or the relationships we have, out in the world. If you’re wondering how to develop this understanding, consider the fact that, at the moment you were born, you were already yourself. You hadn’t done anything in the world, or projected any image to other people. No one had praised, blamed, or come to expect anything from you. And yet, you were already the same person you are today as an adult. Nothing you did in the past, or will do in the future, can change that.
But if this is so, it must also be true that no change in your career, relationships, hobbies or anything else can make you less than yourself. The changes you make to your life in the outside world simply alter the things you do, not the person you are. Nor will doing something out of line with others’ expectations make you a different person. You’ve been “yourself” all your life, and you’ll continue to be yourself no matter what people think of you.
If you want to understand this point on a physical, visceral level, simply close your eyes, put your attention on your breathing, and inhale and exhale five times. Breathing is one of the few things you did while you were in your mother’s womb and immediately after you were born. And you continue to breathe today, just as you did then. Seeing these commonalities between what you are now and what you were then may help illustrate that, throughout your life, you’ve been—at the deepest, most essential level—the same person, the same being, and you’ll continue to be that person for all the days to come.
When I had this realization myself, I found my anxiety about “betraying” others by changing careers fading away. My feeling that I was obligated to others to keep doing what I was doing, I saw, was simply the disguised fear of annihilation I’d associated with changing my life. If you’re suffering from a similar fear, I invite you to review the observations I made above, and see if they help you achieve the peace you need to go for what you want.