A while back, I worked with a client who was interested in leaving her corporate marketing job and opening a health food store. Although she knew a lot about the products she wanted to sell and had a passion for her business, she had no experience dealing with the logistical issues—like finances and inventory—that come with running a store. Thus, she was interested in finding a business partner knowledgeable in those areas. However, she was having trouble making the leap from thinking about finding a partner to actually seeking one out.
She told me the reason she was blocked was that she found it hard to trust people. When she’d start taking steps to find someone to work with, her mind began conjuring up nightmare scenarios where her business partner bankrupted the store, stole her money and ran off to parts unknown. After watching those mental horror movies, she’d resolve to learn how to run the store herself. However, this thought prompted fears that she’d fail to handle the business properly and ruin it.
It seemed that in my client’s mind, whether or not she found a partner, she wouldn’t handle the situation well—either her partner would rob her blind, or she’d run the store into the ground. Thus it struck me that, at a deeper level, my client’s issue might be that she simply didn’t trust herself to manage her business, or more generally to take care of herself. To explore this possibility, I had her visualize the scenario where her partner took advantage of her, and I asked her “where are you in this picture? What are you doing?”
She thought about it for a moment, and then gave a despairing sigh—clearly she didn’t like the image that came up. “I’m helpless,” she said. “I’m just sitting in the corner of the room, and I can’t do anything to stop my partner.”
“It sounds like you don’t feel strong enough to protect yourself from being exploited.”
“Yeah, I don’t,” she finally replied, after another deep sigh.
To see if it would help calm her fears, I asked her to keep the image in her mind, but this time to visualize herself standing up tall. Before I got around to having her imagine protecting herself, she chuckled and observed how much just making that small adjustment in her posture changed her experience. She suddenly felt more empowered in her business life, and an ability to handle whatever setbacks might arise that she hadn’t often felt before.
Since we had this conversation, whenever she feels plagued by imaginary failure scenarios, my client has made a habit of turning her attention toward what she’s doing in the “mental movie” she’s creating. Almost invariably, an image of herself cowering in the corner comes up. When she imagines herself standing up, her fears immediately seem less intense and she feels a sense of composure.
As it turned out, my client’s problem wasn’t that she didn’t trust others—it was that she didn’t trust herself. When she formed an image of herself as strong and resourceful, her worry that she’d be taken advantage of and that she couldn’t protect herself faded away.
Today, I regularly recommend this kind of exercise to people with difficulty trusting others to help or support them. Often, when their anxieties around trusting others come up, they form mental pictures of all the terrible things that might happen if they relied on someone and were let down.
Once they’ve described the image that usually comes up, I have them turn their attention to where they are and what they’re doing in the picture. Like my client, they tend to see themselves spacing out, ignoring the problem, or putting up no resistance against their exploiters. When they instead imagine themselves taking action to prevent others from harming them, their fears of being betrayed tend to subside. Developing trust in themselves, in other words, helps them rekindle their trust in others and the universe.
Psychologist Stephanie Dowrick aptly describes the connection between our self-trust and our ability to trust others in Choosing Happiness: Life And Soul Essentials. We tend to assume, she writes, that our sense that we’re unsafe in dealing with someone stems from the fact that “the other person is so unreliable and you can’t trust them.”
Often, however, “the person you can’t trust is yourself. Your feelings are not ‘about’ the other person, even if you do feel them only in this relationship. They are ‘about’ you. When you feel highly possessive or desperate in relation to another person, it is almost always because you have not yet developed your own inner feelings of safety.”
When we develop trust and confidence in our own abilities to overcome the obstacles we face in life, trust in others follows naturally. Of course, others may break their promises and try to take advantage of us. But if we have a sense of certainty that we can set appropriate boundaries and handle the situation, our relating with others no longer seems so dangerous, and takes on a new ease and even joyfulness.
A while back, I wrote an article on the oft-revisited issue of how to deal with a negative “self-image.” I suggested we’re actually at our most joyful and empowered in moments when we’re not conscious of any self-image, or mental picture of ourselves, at all. In my experience, self-images, whether negative or positive, are a source of frustration and distraction. I’ll expand on this issue here by discussing ways to transcend our self-images, and allow our full awareness to enrich what we’re doing in each moment.
When your attention is on your self-image, it’s as if, while you’re doing whatever activity you’re doing, someone is videotaping you and you’re watching the video on a screen. In other words, it’s like you’re watching yourself doing what you’re doing in real time, as you’re doing it. If you’re having a conversation with someone, and your attention is fixated on your self-image, it’s as if you’re simultaneously having the conversation and observing it from a third-person view. Not surprisingly, this diverts your attention from what you’re doing and makes you less effective at accomplishing your goals.
For example, a while back, when I was rock climbing with some more skilled climbers, I’d occasionally worry about falling on relatively easy courses in front of my friends. In other words, I was paying attention to the image I was projecting to my fellow climbers while I was trying to climb the rock. Of course, watching this mental movie distracted me, and had me fall in exactly the embarrassing ways I wanted to avoid.
Sometimes, we get so accustomed to holding our attention on our self-images—to trying to get a sense of how we look from the outside as we go about our lives—that we forget we’re doing it. Recently, a friend told me a story that nicely illustrated this point. She’s been taking a yoga class for a while, and for a long time she was frustrated with her lack of progress at mastering the poses she’s learning. This changed when, one day, her yoga instructor half-jokingly reminded the students to pay attention only to their own movements, and not to how they looked to others.
When her teacher said this, my friend suddenly realized how self-conscious she’d been about the way her yoga poses appeared to others in the class. She’d become so accustomed to worrying about how others saw her that she’d started doing it constantly and unconsciously. Once she gained this awareness, my friend started practicing holding her full attention on nothing but her movements. Ever since, she’s been surprised at how quickly she’s been learning.
My friend’s experience calls to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s theory in his well-known book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. People enter a state of flow, or peak performance and fulfillment, when their attention becomes so focused on what they are doing that they temporarily forget they’re the ones doing it. They lose all concern, in other words, for others’ opinions of them and what they can get for themselves by doing the activity. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, in a flow state,
One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.
Similarly, because my friend shifted her focus away from how her yoga poses looked to others, and brought it entirely to her body’s movements, she greatly improved her performance.
How do you become aware of those moments where your fixation on your self-image is harming your joy and fulfillment in life? One meditation technique has helped me develop this awareness, and it’s pretty simple. I sit in silence with my eyes closed, and carefully observe the thoughts that arise. At certain moments, my thoughts become absorbed in my relationships with other people, and I find myself wondering what another person thinks or feels about me. In other words, I wonder what image I’ve projected to the other person in my interactions with them, and thus focus my attention on my “self-image.”
I’ve noticed that, when I place my attention on my self-image, I feel a mild, ugly sensation in my upper back, just under the shoulder blades. It’s not just distracting for me to focus on how I’m appearing to others—it’s actually unpleasant, and has a specific uncomfortable feeling associated with it. When I’m going through my daily routine, I’ve got too much on my mind to notice those moments where I slip into “image-consciousness.” But when I’m sitting alone in silence, those moments stand out very clearly.
As I practiced, during meditation, noticing when my concerns about my self-image came up, I started becoming able to observe when my attention would fixate on that issue during my daily life. I began noticing that the same unpleasant sensation I’d felt in my back while meditating arose in specific situations out in the “real world.”
When I went to the gym, for instance, I started noticing that ugly feeling creeping into my back—probably because, like my friend the yogini, I was unconsciously fretting over how my body looked to others. The good news was that, as with my friend, my image-consciousness quickly began to dissolve when I became fully aware of it. By becoming conscious of the situations where I’d start fixating on my self-image, I’ve brought much peace and focus to my life.
To do this exercise, simply find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed and close your eyes. As you sit there, your thoughts may drift to what the people in your life think of you, and how your actions and inactions may have affected their opinions. When this happens, notice any sensations you experience in your body. Perhaps you will feel tingling, tightness, pain or something else. These sensations, you’ll find, are signals that your mind is drifting into self-consciousness—that you are putting your attention on your self-image.
As you reenter your daily life, pay attention to how your body feels in the various situations you find yourself in. On occasion, you’ll likely notice the same sensations you felt during meditation coming up. When you feel one of these sensations, gently remind yourself that you are becoming absorbed in your self-image, your appearance to others. This awareness is often enough to loosen your self-image’s grip on your attention, and return you to a state of composure and concentration. As meditation teacher Rohit Mehta says in The Secret of Self-Transformation, “to see the self-image for oneself in the mirror of life is to see its destruction.”
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.