I have a friend who wants to run for a local elected office. She feels that she’s got the character and ideas to make a positive difference for her city. However, she told me, going into politics just doesn’t feel right for her. “All that conflict and debating isn’t for me,” she said. “It just makes me uncomfortable.”
“What happens to you when you get uncomfortable about it?” I asked.
She gave me a puzzled look, as if the question didn’t make sense, but eventually she humored me and answered. “I don’t know, I just tighten up all over and I feel like a turtle pulling into its shell.”
“What do you look like when you do that?”
It took a little coaxing, but finally—for a few seconds—she tensed up all over her body and drew her arms tightly across her chest. Then she burst out laughing. “Actually, that feels pretty silly.”
I figured this exercise would have a positive effect, because it’s worked so well on me. Whenever I feel like I “can’t” do something because it would “make me too uncomfortable,” I ask myself what my body would look like in that state of discomfort. Then, I do my best to imitate that image—usually hunching over, tensing my muscles and squeezing my eyes shut. Typically, my experience is just like my friend’s—the discomfort feels less threatening, and I feel more free to take the action I was afraid of.
Often, our bodies’ reactions to certain situations seem like they’re beyond our control. This includes both the sensations we experience on the inside—for instance, the heat we feel in our faces when we’re embarrassed—and the movements we find our bodies making—like the widening of our eyes when we’re afraid.
This can be frustrating and scary, as we want to be in control of our bodies—not have them yanked around by unconscious anxieties and compulsions. Because we don’t want to experience that frustration and fear, we tend to avoid situations that provoke strong involuntary reactions in our bodies—just as my friend avoided conflict because it made her body contract and “withdraw into its shell.”
However, when we start getting familiar with our reactions, and consciously reproducing them, they start feeling less alien and separate from us. We start feeling like we have more control over how we respond to events. This is why my friend felt so relieved, and even amused, when she imitated her body’s reaction to conflict situations—suddenly she had a sense that she didn’t “have” to withdraw into her shell, and that she had more control over her body’s responses in those moments than she’d thought.
Christine Caldwell, a somatic psychologist, brilliantly illustrates this process of regaining conscious choice over—or “owning”—our bodies’ reactions to stressful situations in her book Getting Our Bodies Back:
The Owning phase is about finding our reactive habits and working with them consciously. Reacting often involves a movement tag, a subtle gesture that is like a marker of unfinished wounding. The task of the Owning phase is to commit to shifting a reactive habit into a conscious action. In this way we access our ability to respond to an event, dance with it, complete it.
We tend to live our lives as if it’s impossible to change or control the way our bodies react to events. We assume certain situations will always cause our bodies to respond in unwanted ways—that some things just “make us uncomfortable,” and that’s simply how we’re designed. In fact, our unwanted reactions are often habits we’ve acquired over time—perhaps in response to painful events, or because that’s just the way people around us tended to behave. These habits aren’t part of “who we are”—they’re learned behaviors that can be changed, or unlearned.
Each person has a distinct list of situations they feel they “can’t deal with”—for some, it’s having arguments with others; for others, it’s marketing their services and “putting themselves out there”; and so forth. In the career context, we tend—like my friend—to limit our options to only those fields that pose no risk of causing physical discomfort. Or, we say we “just don’t know what we want to do”—when in fact we do know what we want, but are too afraid of the reactions doing it might produce in our bodies.
If you have a career transition you’d like to make, but you feel like the prospect of doing what you want just “makes you too uncomfortable,” I invite you to try this exercise. Think about the uncomfortable situations you believe you’d get into if you entered the field you’re interested in. When you feel unease welling up in you, don’t push the feeling away or try to distract yourself from it. Instead, let it assume complete control of your body. Allow your body to react, to move, in the way it seems to want. Perhaps, for instance, you want to grind your teeth, clench your fists, or laugh nervously. Whatever it is, allow it to happen without shaming or judging yourself.
Repeat this exercise until you start feeling more familiar with your body’s reaction to the problematic situation. As you consciously experience your reaction more and more, it will start to feel less alien and threatening. You’ll also begin feeling more in control of your body’s responses. You’ll come to realize that you don’t have to feel pain or discomfort when you contemplate going for what you want. With this realization comes a feeling of freedom to pursue your true calling.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Inspiration and Motivation, located at http://positivensuccess.blogspot.com/2008/04/carnival-of-inspiration-and-motivation.html.)
We all have behaviors we use to “take the edge off”—to temporarily rid ourselves of anxiety, depression or nagging discontent in our lives. Alcohol and drugs are the most obvious examples, but there are many other, subtler behaviors we use to distract ourselves from our difficult feelings.
For me, until I started consciously catching myself in the act, these included talking to myself, tapping rhythmically on the steering wheel, and constantly checking e-mail. The compulsion to do these things was very strong—so much that I sometimes found myself doing them without even remembering I’d started.
I wasn’t always aware I was using these behaviors to distract myself from difficult emotions. I used to think I was simply trying to avoid getting “bored.” Driving my car is boring, I thought, so I’ll drum on the steering wheel to stay occupied. Some of my job duties are boring, so I’ll check e-mail to break the monotony. Paying my bills is boring, so I’ll listen to loud music while paying them. And so on.
I didn’t give this further thought until one day when I was driving with a friend. My friend was reading a map and giving directions. All the while, I was tapping on the steering wheel, playing along to music in my head, to fight the tedium of the drive. Eventually, my friend said “would you please stop tapping? It’s kind of distracting.” I agreed, and we drove along for a while in silence.
After a few minutes, I noticed a tension forming in my chest and jaw—sensations I associate with anger. And with this came a nearly irresistible urge to start tapping again, or do anything that would divert my attention from the mounting discomfort in my body.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that my behavior was distracting—not just to my friend while he was trying to read the map, but to me. I was feeling angry, and the purpose of the tapping was to avoid experiencing my emotions. It definitely wasn’t just a matter of avoiding boredom—the feelings that came up when I stopped my distracting behaviors were deeper and more intense than that. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, “[b]oredom is a sign of too many feelings, too deep and too hard to summon to the surface.” What’s more, I had the disturbing realization that I was distracting myself in some way in almost every situation I entered in life.
With this understanding in mind, I made an effort to stop my self-distracting behaviors. I resolved to find out what sensations I was spending my life avoiding. As I expected, a storm of intense feeling struck my body as I went through life undistracted. But the experience wasn’t purely unpleasant. I also found myself experiencing peace, joy, and fulfillment more intensely than before.
Without my distractions, my experience of the world took on a new depth and richness. As psychologist Christine Caldwell observes in Getting Our Bodies Back, “[o]ur happiness lies in our ability to experience life directly and to the hilt,” and abandoning the ways we divert our attention from what we’re feeling thus helps us to be happy.
Stopping my self-distraction also had a larger and more concrete impact. In my old job as a lawyer, I’d often let my mind wander, checking my e-mail, listening to music, and so on to divert my attention while doing something I found dull. As expected, my dissatisfaction became very strong when I stopped “taking the edge off.”
I quickly understood I had entered my career for a host of wrong reasons, and that for years I’d been desperately desiring a new direction. Through self-distraction, I’d been deliberately keeping that knowledge from myself, so I wouldn’t have to make difficult choices about the next steps in my life.
The result was that I started writing books and articles and began my coaching practice, and ultimately I left my law firm to pursue these activities full-time. This brought a greater sense of purpose and freedom into my life. If I hadn’t stopped distracting myself, I probably would have continued to settle for a career that was, for me, second best.
Perhaps you, like most people, have behaviors you use to keep from getting bored in your daily life. Maybe you talk to yourself, watch TV, play loud music, drink alcohol, or something else. You may not think of these as ways to distract yourself from your emotions—they may seem like perfectly natural antidotes for those moments when you’re doing something you have to do but don’t want to do.
If you do behaviors like these, I’m not going to ask you to stop them outright. Instead, I suggest you just try a few simple experiments and see whether they make your life more enriching and fulfilling.
First, just go through the day as you normally would, observing how often you’re engaging in these distracting behaviors. How much of your life are you living distraction-free? How much time do you spend each day fully focused on what you’re doing, open to every sensation and emotion you’re experiencing? You may be surprised at how little time you spend being truly receptive to the world.
Second, try stopping just one of the self-distracting behaviors you do, and notice the effect. Do you find yourself thinking unpleasant thoughts you haven’t wanted to focus on? Are you suddenly flooded with emotions you didn’t know you were feeling? Do you find yourself compensating by immediately turning to another diversion?
If you consider these questions for a few minutes, I’m confident you’ll get some insight into who you are and the way you see and respond to the world. As Mark Linden O’Meara explains in The Feeling Soul: A Roadmap To Healing And Living, “[j]ust as a doctor becomes quiet and uses a stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heart, so too must you quiet the things around you, focus and listen to what is going on inside. Doing this allows you to obtain the information you need to gain the awareness required to create a shift in your feelings, behaviors and thoughts.”
We use distracting behaviors to hide from the areas of our lives and ourselves we aren’t fully comfortable with. These areas of dissatisfaction are the “edge” we “take off” by twitching, drinking alcohol, talking to ourselves, and so on. Allowing ourselves to see and experience these areas does make life “edgy” for a while—we’re confronted by strong sensations we may not have let ourselves have for a long time.
However, we have to let ourselves see where our lives need improvement to actually begin improving our quality of life. By distracting ourselves, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to make positive changes, and condemn ourselves to a second-best existence. If you want to change your life for the better, a key first step is allowing yourself to fully experience life distraction-free.