We hear a lot in personal development circles about how it’s important to “play to our strengths,” instead of wasting time trying to improve our “weak” areas. I want to rethink that notion a bit in this post.
It’s probably true that we all have our natural aptitudes. It’s hard to dispute, for example, that some people are born with body types that make them better athletes.
But sometimes, when we see ourselves as “bad” at some activity, it’s simply because we don’t like the way we feel when we’re doing it — not because of any inborn lack of talent.
The Making Of A “Weak Point”
Early in life, many of us heard — sometimes in a harsh or mean-spirited way — that we weren’t good at something. For example, maybe we tried to paint, and heard that we had no artistic talent. Or perhaps we were the last kids to get picked for the sports teams at school, and we decided we weren’t athletically inclined.
The result is that, today, if we do the activity we got the hurtful feedback about, some of that shame we experienced early on will come up. Because we know this, consciously or otherwise, we avoid doing it — and we excuse our avoidance by telling ourselves we “just aren’t good at it.”
This has been true for me when it comes to building stuff with my hands — doing things like carpentry and metalwork. When I tried these activities as a kid, I made some mistakes, and heard that I couldn’t do these things because I “had no common sense.”
The upshot has been that I’ve largely avoided “working with my hands,” except in the sense of typing on the keyboard. Instead, I’ve gravitated toward “working with” abstractions like law, philosophy and spirituality — which I’m supposedly “better at.”
How I Played To My Weaknesses
So, I’ll bet you can imagine my anxiety when I volunteered to build houses with a local organization. I not only expected to mess something up and get accused of lacking common sense — perhaps a house I worked on might collapse, due to my incompetence, and hurt someone.
Of course, none of this happened. The people I worked with were nothing but understanding and appreciative. And, as far as I know, the houses I took part in building are still standing. But I’ll keep reading the local news just in case.
Anyway, the bigger point is that I was going through life assuming I was “just bad at” building things, when in fact my stumbling block was shame and my unwillingness to feel it — not a lack of skill or talent.
I think it’s great to get a sense of what we’re naturally good at, and cultivate our strong areas. But I also get the sense that, by exploring our so-called “weak points,” we can learn about gifts we have to offer the world that we may not have been aware of before.
One reason many of us are holding back from doing what we really want, in our work and elsewhere, is our desire to be “modest”—to avoid boasting, taking up too much space, and demanding too much attention. Modesty is usually seen as a virtue—no one likes a bragger, and blessed are the meek, right?
But there’s an uncomfortable question we don’t often look at: what really motivates us to be modest? Is it just because we want to be virtuous people? For a lot of us, in my experience, this isn’t the real reason. Many of us, I think, act modestly because we think it will get us approval. We want others to notice how humble and unassuming we are, and praise us for it. “Look how quiet and well-behaved he or she is!” we want them to say.
There’s No “Modesty Medal”
Unfortunately, acting modestly doesn’t usually achieve this goal. Because being modest means shunning the spotlight and downplaying ourselves, it’s actually a surefire way not to get noticed. Nobody will notice the items we’re too modest to put on our resume, the product we’re too modest to advertise, or the article we’re too modest to publish.
The result, for many of us, is that we carry around a lot of resentment toward others for failing to notice us. “Why won’t they use my services?” we wonder. “Why didn’t I get the promotion?” “Why didn’t she talk to me at the party?” Often, we don’t even realize it’s actually our own efforts to stay invisible that keep others from seeing us, and the world starts to look like a bleak, neglectful place.
Muddling Through the Modesty Mire
Although we may understand how our modesty keeps us from achieving our goals, many of us still feel drawn to modest behavior because it just feels like “the right thing to do.” We can start breaking with this conditioning, I think, by seeing that we probably took on our “modest” behaviors in response to much earlier circumstances in our lives.
For instance, some of us grew up in families where children were expected to be “seen but not heard,” and got punished for making noise or expressing an opinion. Or maybe we were put in charge of caring for an ailing parent or relative, and we were expected to put our attention on them instead of ourselves. In these situations, it makes perfect sense to avoid “tooting your own horn” if you want to be appreciated and stay safe.
Hiding out like this can become so habitual that we start mistaking it for our identity, as opposed to just a strategy for getting by when we were young. When this happens, being “humble” no longer feels like a choice, because it seems like just part of who we are. But the more we get conscious of why we decided to be modest, and recognize that the situations we were reacting to don’t exist anymore, the easier it becomes to let our light shine—to tell others about the projects we’re up to, meet new people, and otherwise go for what we want.
Many of us who are accustomed to acting modestly assume that, if we stopped holding back, the only other option would be to belittle or try to outshine others. I worried about this myself as I worked on letting go of some of my own “modest” behaviors.
But in fact, stepping into the spotlight more often in my life has helped me let go of a lot of anger. I stopped feeling so slighted by people who “ignored me” when I recognized I was actually in charge of how much recognition I got. In other words, I live in a world that will see me if I’m willing to be seen.
How does this resonate with you? I’m looking forward to hearing.
Link Love: I thought about Tom Volkar when I was writing this—he often writes about making sure not to sell yourself short in your business life—so it feels natural to link to him here. Tom coaches entrepreneurs in transitioning into self-employment, and his blog posts will definitely help kick you into gear, no matter where you’re at in your career journey.
This is the exciting conclusion to the “inner productivity” series of posts—unless there’s massive demand for more, of course, as I always seem to have more to say about it. Feel free to let me know if there’s a topic in this area you’d like to see covered.
In my last post, I talked about getting in touch with our “inner experience”—learning to pay attention to, instead of running from, the thoughts and feelings that come up in our work. Almost inevitably, when we start listening to our inner experience more closely, we start feeling some fear and shame that we may have been shutting out before. In other words, we start to notice some painful beliefs we have about ourselves that we’re normally pushing out of our awareness.
Some Common Examples
I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean by this fear and shame, so you can both understand what I’m talking about and start to get familiar with the sensations that tend to disrupt your own work. Of course, this isn’t a list of all possible forms of fear that can interfere with our work—the shape it takes is deeply personal to each of us.
1. I’ll be a “fraud.” Many of us, particularly when we’re working on something that uses our creative energies or will be seen by many people, experience the nagging doubt that we don’t “have the right” to do what we’re doing. We need more education, experience, powerful friends or something else to be “worthy” of completing our project. If we “put ourselves out there” before becoming worthy, we’d be “frauds” or “fakes.”
2. I’ll be alone. I’ve worked with people who have trouble focusing when doing a project that requires them to work by themselves. When they’re alone, they find anxieties arising that don’t normally bother them in everyday life. Because something about being alone feels unsafe, they find themselves constantly interrupting their work to call or e-mail others. Or perhaps they feel strangely lost or confused when no one’s around, and unable to access their creativity and attention.
3. I’ll get smothered. Others have trouble staying focused because they fear that working will somehow cause others to get uncomfortably close to them. Perhaps they worry that, if they produce good work, others will take credit for what they’ve done, or otherwise take advantage of them. Or maybe others will shower them with attention and appreciation—and they feel unworthy of the spotlight, or concerned that others will take up all their time and they won’t have a moment’s peace.
Diving Into Our Inner Experience
Okay, three of those examples was probably depressing enough—I’ll stop the list. Just by reading those few paragraphs, I imagine you got some idea of how shame and fear keep you from meeting your goals in your work and elsewhere—and why you may be making so much effort to avoid experiencing it.
Given how troubling many of our ideas about ourselves are, it makes perfect sense that we’ve developed so many ingenious ways to keep them out of our awareness—from switching on the iPod to abusing drugs. As Neil Fiore sagely writes in The Now Habit, “people don’t procrastinate just to be ornery or because they’re irrational. They procrastinate because it makes sense, given how vulnerable they feel to criticism, failure, and their own perfectionism.”
And now for some good news: what I’ve found, in working with clients and in my own inner work, is that it’s possible to get more comfortable with these thoughts and sensations, so they don’t seem as frightening and threatening. Instead of fleeing from them, we can try simply holding our attention on them, breathing deeply, and waiting until they pass away.
Consciously or otherwise, we tend to act as though, if we fully let ourselves experience the fear and shame that arise in our work, we’d keep feeling those sensations for the rest of our lives. It’s as if we’d be plunged into an eternal abyss of fear. But as it happens, the heat and tension these feelings create in our bodies fade away, maybe within a few seconds or minutes. When we let the sensations move through our bodies and we emerge safe and unharmed, we dispel the myth that they’ll last forever.
What I think you’ll find is that, the more you get accustomed to experiencing the thoughts and feelings that come up in your work, the more you’ll be able to hold your attention on your task. As you keep practicing just sitting there and breathing through what you’re feeling, the urge to run away from your work feels less and less compelling.
To illustrate, suppose that, when you sit at your desk to work, you start getting this nagging sense that you’re alone, and that being alone is dangerous to you. Most of us would respond to this feeling by immediately calling our friends or doing something else to remind ourselves others are around. But just once, if this example resonates with you, I invite you to try just staying where you are and focusing on your breathing, until the feeling fades away and you can gently return your attention to your task.
Beyond just letting ourselves experience our fear, we can learn to get curious about what it has to teach us—treating it like a message from the “inner guru” I talked about earlier, rather than as a problem to be fixed.
For example, if you notice yourself running away from your work for fear of being alone, perhaps you are carefully avoiding solitude in other areas of your life as well. Becoming aware of this may prompt you to try spending a little time alone with yourself, and see if getting closer to yourself this way actually helps you grow as a person.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the others in this series:
Inner Productivity, Part I: 3 Keys To Developing “Inner Productivity”
Inner Productivity, Part II: Reuniting “Work” And “Life”
Inner Productivity, Part III: Listening To Ourselves
Inner Productivity, Part IV: Some Exercises For Self-Listening
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.
Many people believe finding career satisfaction is simply about having a clear idea of what you want and the drive to go for it. I think these are important qualities, but they aren’t enough by themselves. To find a career you’ll feel joyful about and fulfilled by, you have to believe that what you want actually matters—that you genuinely deserve to pursue your goals and dreams, rather than someone else’s agenda for what you’re supposed to do. The story I’ll tell you here nicely illustrates this point.
A man came to see me recently because he was dissatisfied with his current job and wanted to explore other possibilities. However, he said, he hadn’t quite nailed down what he was looking for yet. To get an idea of what career path would best serve him, I asked him some questions about what he enjoyed and what frustrated him about his current job. We also discussed what he was passionate about in life.
As we talked, he began fidgeting and playing with his pen, and I sensed that he was getting uncomfortable. Eventually, I asked him if he was nervous or upset about something. My instinct turned out to be right—he was getting angry, and he let me know why. “Why do you keep talking about how I feel? I’m here about my career, not my feelings.”
“Does it matter whether you feel good about your career?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he insisted incredulously. “My job is about supporting me and my family—not about making me ‘feel good.’”
Ah, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. “When did you decide it didn’t matter how you felt?”
His body tensed up, and it seemed for a moment he was going to blow up at me again, but suddenly he slumped in his chair and fell silent. “A while ago,” he finally answered.
As he went on to reveal, he’d believed that what he felt and wanted didn’t matter since his early childhood. His father, a military officer, demanded the same obedience from his children that he required from his subordinates. My client remembered a few times when, as little kids often do, he told his Dad he didn’t want to do some task. His father had angrily responded “it doesn’t matter what you ‘want.’ Now do what I told you.” And my client would ashamedly slink off and obey.
Since then, my client said, he’d had trouble telling people about his emotions and desires, as he couldn’t shake the conviction that people didn’t really care about them. When someone asked him, as I did, what he wanted, his first instinct was that he was being mocked or deceived. No wonder he got angry, I recognized—since he thought there was no way I could actually care what he wanted, he figured I was patronizing or taking advantage of him.
This belief also explained why he wasn’t satisfied in his present career. Because he was convinced that his goals and dreams “didn’t matter,” he—like many people—had chosen his career based on what he saw as other people’s expectations. He’d taken a job that was relatively lucrative and prestigious, because he believed it would satisfy his father, his wife and kids, his friends, and others in his life. But since he’d given no thought to his own happiness, it’s no surprise he settled into a career he was unhappy with.
It took a little coaxing, but ultimately I was able to convince him I actually cared what he wanted, and I wouldn’t scorn or ridicule him if he told me. When he began to trust that he had a safe place to reveal his desires, his seeming confusion about what he wanted evaporated, and we quickly arrived at a list of career possibilities that he resolved to look into. He knew what he desired, and he had the talent to make it happen—he just needed reassurance that it was okay for him to have desires in the first place.
I’m consistently struck by the number of people I meet who get uncomfortable talking or thinking about what they want in life. For various reasons, they’ve learned that it’s unsafe or shameful for them to consider what they want. These people come to me thinking they need more direction, or to improve their skills, if they want to find a fulfilling career path. But they often discover that, when they become able to seriously put some attention on what they want, deciding their next step becomes easier. In short, their problem isn’t a lack of motivation or experience—it’s a lack of self-respect.
If you’re experiencing career dissatisfaction, the first step to take in addressing this issue is to ask yourself what you want out of your career. Pay close attention to the reactions that come up when you ask this question. Is it okay for you to think about this issue? Or does it feel dangerous, selfish or irresponsible? If you experienced some anxiety when you thought about your desires, you may have hit upon the reason you’re feeling unfulfilled. If you didn’t take your own desires into account when you chose what you do for a living, it’s no wonder your current job isn’t meeting your needs.
How do you overcome this feeling that what you want isn’t important? I’ve found that becoming able to acknowledge and follow your desires is like building a muscle. One way you can strengthen that muscle is to consistently ask yourself, as you go through your day, what you want in each situation you get into. When you wake up in the morning, for instance, ask yourself “what do I want to do today?” When you go to the grocery store, ask yourself “what do I want to buy?” In your intimate relationships, ask “what do I want out of this relationship?” And so on.
Keep repeating this process, and you’ll likely begin feeling more comfortable with recognizing and expressing what you want. As psychologist Vicki Berkus writes in Ten Commitments To Mental Fitness: Accept The Challenge To Change, “[j]ust the exercise of checking in with yourself lets your subconscious mind know that you count, your feelings count, and your thoughts count.” You may find that, as you develop this “wanting muscle,” the doubts and confusion that used to plague you about your career begin to fade away, and peace and clarity take their place.
This might not sound revolutionary to some, but I recently realized I’ve made great strides in my ability to say “no” to others’ requests. A few days ago, a friend called, saying she was having a surprise party for another friend that night and she wanted me to be there. I was planning to go to a talk at a local bookstore, and I’d been looking forward to it for a while. I told my friend I’d already made plans, and stuck to my guns even when she was incredulous that I’d go to a lecture instead of her party.
This was definitely a departure from what I was like three years ago. Back then, I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned to my friend that I had other plans—I would have agreed to go to her party without hesitation. I used to feel shame and guilt at the prospect of telling someone I wouldn’t do what they wanted and possibly upsetting them. It didn’t matter to me whether the other person’s request was reasonable, or whether I wanted to do what they asked—all of my attention was on how they’d be likely to react, and how awful I’d feel, if I inconvenienced or hurt them.
The Key Realization
About a year ago, I had a realization that changed my attitude toward saying “no.” I came to understand the difference between taking responsibility for how other people feel and simply caring how they feel. When you take responsibility for someone’s feelings, you consider yourself entirely at fault when they feel hurt or angry. It’s as if you’re responsible for their childhoods, the state of their intimate relationships, their moods, what they had for breakfast, and all the other factors that influence human beings’ emotional reactions.
As ridiculous as it seems, it is commonly assumed that our partners make us angry. Most people justify their anger by pointing at something someone else does. And, unfortunately, many spouses and children see themselves as responsible for the anger of other family members . . . . Children learn this perverse theory about anger from their parents and teachers; they learn that they are responsible for other people’s anger.
However, as I finally learned, you can actually empathize with someone and be concerned for their well-being—you can care about how they feel—without blaming yourself every time they get upset.
For a long time, I didn’t understand this distinction. I thought I had two choices in relating to others’ emotions—either bear full responsibility for them, or have no concern for them at all. Because lacking interest in them seemed callous to me, I chose to blame myself whenever someone else suffered. This approach had me avoid saying “no” in almost every situation, because refusing someone else’s request would likely upset them and I’d blame and punish myself for it. It was a huge relief when I recognized that caring about people didn’t require me to slavishly agree with or obey them.
Simply understanding this distinction, however, wasn’t always enough to keep me from caving in to others’ requests for fear of hurting them. I’d been avoiding conflict to spare others’ feelings for so long that it had turned into an unconscious habit, and I had to carefully monitor my behavior to make sure I didn’t lapse into my old pattern.
Monitoring Yourself In Real Time
I found that the best way to do this was to observe myself carefully when I interacted with people and watch for moments when my mind became fully absorbed in how they were feeling. In those moments, all of my attention is on preventing others from being upset, and none of it is on how I feel or what I want. I can tell when I’m slipping into this mindset when I ask myself a simple question: “how am I feeling right now?”
If I can’t answer this question—if I have no awareness of how I feel—it means I’ve lapsed into taking responsibility for others’ emotions. As long as I make sure to ask myself this question when someone makes a request of me, I don’t find myself giving in with no regard to my own needs and desires.
Another method I’ve developed to avoid blaming myself for others’ upset is to watch out for tactics people use to get me feeling responsible for their emotional states. For instance, some people will accuse you of not caring about them when you don’t do something they want—when, in fact, you are absolutely concerned for their well-being but you have other plans or priorities in that moment. Or, they’ll demand to know how you could “hurt them” like this—implying that you, not anyone or anything else in their lives, are solely responsible for any hurt they’re experiencing.
Often, people aren’t consciously trying to manipulate you when they employ these tactics—they’re just using the style of communication they’ve grown accustomed to. However, consciously or otherwise, these people are trying to induce you to do what they ask by convincing you to feel responsible for their emotions. “If I’m upset or dissatisfied, you’re to blame,” they’re basically telling you, “so if you don’t want to be at fault and feel ashamed, you must give me what I want.” If you keep an eye out for techniques like these, and notice how they can shake your composure, you’ll get better at catching yourself when you’re about to give in to someone’s demands.
At first, weaning yourself off the habit of taking responsibility for others’ emotions can be a painful process. Initially, I felt very uncomfortable saying “no” to someone’s request in the face of their irritation or distress. I worried that people wouldn’t want to be around me if I didn’t always go along with their wishes. In fact, however, my newfound ability to stand up for my needs and wants hasn’t ruined any of my relationships. If anything, telling others what I need and want has helped them learn more about me as a person, and thus had them feel more deeply connected with me.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/eighth-edition-carnival-improving-life.)
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.
I watched with great interest Eckhart Tolle‘s webcast with Oprah Winfrey on Monday this week. I’ve been inspired by his spiritual teachings for a long time, and I was pleased to see that he now has such a powerful vehicle to convey his message to the world. Interestingly, I learned the most not from the words he said, but from the attitude with which he said them. When he spoke, I got the sense that he was completely free of shame about, and concern for how others would see him based on, what he was saying.
Two examples of Tolle’s freedom from anxiety and shame stuck out for me. The first came up when he was telling Oprah about the moment of his spiritual awakening. In that moment, he said, he felt what he calls his ego—the fearful, defensive part of his psyche—dissolve, and he saw for the first time the true beauty and aliveness of the world around him. When Oprah commented “that sounds like a drug trip,” Tolle cheerfully admitted he’d tried LSD, and that he understood why people saw the drug as capable of heightening spiritual awareness, but that acid didn’t give him an experience as peaceful or permanent as his own awakening.
Many people, I imagine, would have been too fearful or self-conscious to admit this if they’d been in Tolle’s shoes. Hundreds of thousands across the world were watching the show, almost certainly including journalists looking for opportunities to unfavorably portray Tolle. Potential buyers of Tolle’s books were also undoubtedly watching, and the more puritanical among them may have been turned off by his drug reference. But Tolle, with seemingly no concern for his public image, described his LSD experience with a warm chuckle.
How was Tolle able to have this discussion without shame or fear about the possible consequences? The answer, I believe, is that all of Tolle’s awareness was centered in—as he calls it—the Now, or the present moment. His mind was not occupied with memories of hurtful events from the past, or nightmare visions of how people might scorn or humiliate him in the future. His attention was entirely on his conversation with Oprah about the moment of his enlightenment. He was, in short, living the state of being he describes in his spiritual teachings.
Why do I think Tolle’s focus on the present moment frees him from shame? Because shame can only exist if our minds are preoccupied with the past and future. Shame is, in essence, the fear that a painful or embarrassing event from our pasts—often, our early childhoods, is going to happen again.
Shame arises, in other words, when we recall a difficult memory from the past and assume something like it is going to occur in the future. This fear of an old event repeating itself restricts us in what we feel we can say and do, and makes our behaviors inauthentic and defensive. As therapist John Bradshaw puts it in Healing The Shame That Binds You, “as shaming experiences accrue and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank,” and events occurring in the present “trigger these collages of shame memories.”
When our attention shifts away from our painful memories and frightening future scenarios, and rests in the present moment, we’re no longer paralyzed by the fear of repeating the past. We feel liberated to express ourselves, and to do what best serves ourselves and others in the moment, when our awareness is fully in the Now.
The second example that struck me occurred later in the show, when Oprah and Tolle heard from a caller. The caller asked Tolle about a passage in his book, A New Earth, in which he says that “a significant portion of the Earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die.” In other words, if humans don’t learn to live in the present moment and let go of the old ego-consciousness soon, they will likely destroy themselves.
Plainly on the verge of tears, she asked “do you mean that literally, which you might, or do you mean that metaphorically, which I hope?” Calmly and unapologetically, Tolle answered “when I say evolve or die, I’m only speaking of humanity as a species.” That is, he meant it literally—humanity must embrace the present moment or become extinct. He went on to explain that consciousness or spirit, the energy that comprises everything in the universe, cannot die and will continue to exist even if humanity does not.
I can imagine many of us feeling the need to tread carefully when confronted by a tearful woman frightened of her own death and the death of the human species. We might avoid the question, shade the truth by calling our statement a metaphor, or do something else reflecting a fear of further upsetting the caller. Many of us are accustomed to backpedaling, pacifying and dodging when we have conversations like this with sad or angry loved ones. But Tolle, without hesitation, simply spoke what he sees as the truth.
This example illustrates how expressing our feelings, asking for what we want, and setting boundaries with others happen automatically in a state of present-moment awareness. With our attention fully in the Now, our fears of upsetting others, and of not looking intelligent, attractive, or “cool” enough, dissipate. We can speak our truth unhampered by shame and fear.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are insensitive to others’ feelings and needs when our awareness is focused in the present moment. It simply means that, when we live in the Now, our fear of reliving painful memories no longer controls our thoughts and actions. We respond to the circumstances right in front of us, rather than reacting as if long-gone events were repeating themselves—as if, for instance, we were vulnerable young children again and our parents were about to punish us.
Tolle’s response to the caller illustrates this point. Tolle’s mission is to bring present-moment awareness, and the end of suffering, to the world. He clearly harbors a deep love and concern for people, and this is why he sees it as so important to alert humanity to its stark choice between higher consciousness and death. If he’d reacted to the caller from a place of shame or fear, and softpedaled his words to make sure she didn’t get upset, he would have lessened the impact of his message—and his ability to manifest his love in the world.
Bringing our attention fully into the Now—to our surroundings, our bodies’ sensations, and the actions that best serve us and others, in the present—does more than simply give us inner peace. It also gifts us with a freedom to feel, think and act unrestricted by shame, fear, guilt and other forms of suffering arising from our obsession with the past and future. It liberates us to experience life’s fullness and beauty free of judgment and hatred. I’m excited to see teachers like Tolle helping to make this state of being available to more and more people.
At least once, I’ll bet you’ve had a school-related anxiety dream. By this, I mean a dream where you were back in school, at whatever educational level, and you weren’t performing adequately.
Some people have school anxiety dreams involving absurd situations. I, for instance, regularly have one where, thirteen years after the fact, someone decides I didn’t earn enough credits to graduate from high school, and I have to go back. Others have dreams involving real situations they experienced, such as actual tests they wish they’d done better on. Whatever the imaginary circumstances, school anxiety dreams seem to be a common feature of our dreamscapes.
At first glance, school anxiety dreams seem tiresome. We often wake up from such dreams wondering why we can’t dream about something more pleasant or interesting, and why these dreams have to recur so often. At best, we see school anxiety dreams as mildly amusing, because it’s such a relief to wake up and realize we’re not actually back in school. However, I’ve come to believe these dreams actually contain very meaningful lessons for us.
I had this realization shortly after waking up from a particularly noxious school anxiety dream. As I’ve dreamed many times before, I had to go back to high school because somehow I hadn’t completed my degree. But this time, the situation in the dream was worse. Final exams rolled around, and I’d forgotten to attend or do any homework for one of my classes. Thus, I was going to take an exam whose subject I knew nothing about. I awoke with an ugly tension in my neck and shoulders, and it took me a few minutes to shake it off and return to the real world.
Normally, I do my best to quickly take my mind off my high school dreams after waking up from them. But this time, I was determined to figure out what my mind was trying to teach me by repeatedly sending me this dream. If I did that, I figured, maybe it wouldn’t come back. Thus, I tried focusing my attention on the anxieties I felt in the dream. I asked myself: What was I really afraid would happen if I failed the class? Would I feel ashamed? Would my friends and loved ones disdain me? Would I die?
Surprisingly, asking these questions put me in touch with a reserve of inner strength I didn’t know I had. I realized that, if my nightmare came true—if I actually had to go back to high school, and failed a class by forgetting it even existed—I would survive. I would find a way to earn my degree, or maybe I wouldn’t, but either way I would still manage to create an enjoyable and fulfilling life for myself. Somehow, everything would turn out okay. And, even more importantly, I’d still be able to love and respect myself.
It was then that I finally understood the lessons of this dream. I didn’t have the dream simply because I had leftover anxiety from high school, or because my unconscious mind wanted to torment me for some reason. In fact, my unconscious mind created the dream to illustrate that I have more strength and ingenuity than I often give myself credit for. Even in circumstances as unpleasant as those in the dream, my mind was showing me, I would still pull through. And my mind, I saw with sudden clarity, specifically chose to impart this knowledge in a school-related dream to show me I had something to learn about myself.
My recognition that I’d keep loving myself no matter how badly I “screwed up,” and no matter how difficult the situation I found myself in, was perhaps even more important. That certainly wasn’t always how I’d felt. If an experience like the one in the dream had actually happened to me back in high school, I don’t think I would have been very loving toward myself. At that age, I probably would have gone through a period of seriously doubting whether I had any reason to keep living. My dream actually illustrated how much progress I’ve made in developing unconditional love for myself since I was a teenager.
If you’re plagued by school anxiety dreams, consider the possibility that they aren’t just attempts by your mind to torture or amuse you. Instead, suppose your mind is trying to help you understand what a resourceful person you are, and how important it is for you to unconditionally love and appreciate yourself. Your mind is showing you that, no matter how stressful or “bad” your circumstances get, you’ll most likely be able to survive, and you’ll always be worthy of love. The best way to see school anxiety dreams from this perspective is, as I described, to imagine what the consequences would be if the “nightmare scenario” you fear came to pass.
As valuable and educational as my school anxiety dreams have been, I hope I don’t need to have any more of them. But if I ever do, I hope I have the presence of mind next time I have this dream to get up, walk out of my imaginary classroom and go enjoy the world—secure in the knowledge that, no matter what happens, I’ll be able to get through it and love myself to boot.
A little while back, I wrote an article on the function guilt performs in our lives and the limiting ways we tend to perceive it. Today, I want to expand on a particular point I made in that piece, which is that the amount of guilt we feel seems to depend on the time of day. For instance, I’ve observed that, right after I wake up in the morning, my conscience seems to be spotlessly clean. However, at around 10:00 a.m., I start shaming myself about things I did or failed to do in the past. The volume of my self-blaming reaches a crescendo at around 1:00 p.m., after which it tapers off again.
In my earlier article, I suggested that, if guilt were actually your conscience condemning you for your past wrongs, you wouldn’t expect the degree of your suffering to depend on the time of day. After all, the amount of scolding you deserve from your conscience shouldn’t vary based on what time it is. Instead, you’d think your conscience would keep up a steady level of punishment throughout the day, until you’d suffered enough and “served your sentence” for the wrongs you’d done.
I want to take the inquiry I began with these comments a bit deeper. Perhaps the fact the severity of our guilt depends on the time of day suggests that guilt is not simply what we experience when our consciences reprimand us. But what does that fact say about what guilt really is? To my mind, it suggests that guilt, like hunger and fatigue, is a natural, regularly occurring biological process.
In other words, just as you get hungry at around your regular mealtimes, and you get tired at around your regular bedtime, your body has regular times of day when it naturally feels most guilty. One way to put this is that, just as we have mealtimes and bedtimes, we also have “guilt-times.” The main difference between guilt and other regularly occurring physical sensations like hunger and fatigue lies in the way we perceive guilt. We take our feelings of guilt as a sign that there’s something wrong with us, but we don’t interpret hunger and fatigue that way.
Put differently, when our stomachs growl, we interpret it to mean we need more food in our stomachs. But we don’t view our need for food as proof that there’s something wrong with us. We don’t perceive ourselves as bad people because we happen not to have enough in our stomachs. By contrast, when we start ruminating on painful past events from our lives, we do tend to interpret it to mean there’s something wrong with us—that we are bad people. Or, perhaps, we spend time and energy defending ourselves against our guilt, devising reasons why we aren’t so bad after all to try to make the unpleasant sensations go away. Either way, our interpretation of guilt causes us to suffer, while our interpretation of hunger does not.
I’ve come to believe we can transform our experience of guilt by treating it more like hunger and fatigue. The next time you feel guilt, try saying to yourself “oh, it’s guilt-time again”—just as you might think “oh, I guess it’s time for lunch” when your stomach growls or “it’s time for bed” when your eyelids start feeling heavy. Try perceiving guilt as a routine bodily function that, regardless of what you do or think, will recur again and again. Recognize also that, in a sense, guilt is easier to deal with than hunger and fatigue, because you don’t have to do any activity—such as eating or sleeping—to cause your guilt to pass away. Instead, guilt simply arises at certain times of day, and subsides during others.
This practice has changed the way guilt occurs to me. Before, when my mind would dwell on the ways I felt I’d screwed up in the past, I would feel ugly sensations in my body. My upper back would tense up, and a prickly feeling would creep across my skin. My perspective on guilt—my view that my guilty feelings proved I was a bad person—was actually causing those physical sensations. When I changed my perspective, and started to view guilt as a natural biological process, those painful feelings began fading away.
I haven’t addressed one question that may be on your mind, which is: what is the function of guilt? It may be a natural process of the body that occurs at certain times of day, but why does it need to occur?
I don’t know for sure. I certainly have theories, but they’re not important for the purposes of this article. The important point is that the fact that we don’t know what guilt is for doesn’t set it apart from other body functions like sleep. Scientists still don’t fully understand why we need sleep, but the fact remains that we do, and no one questions that our need for sleep is part of our bodies’ recurring daily cycle. We don’t need to know exactly what function guilt performs to understand that it’s a routine aspect of the human experience.
The perspective I’m suggesting here has implications that aren’t limited to guilt. When you experience a “negative emotion,” or an emotion you’d rather not be feeling, take a look at the way you’re interpreting that feeling. If you’re taking the feeling as a sign that something is wrong with you, I invite you to experiment with a different view. Try saying to yourself “oh, it’s time for this emotion,” just as you’d think to yourself it was time for lunch in response to a noisy stomach. You might say, for instance, “oh, it’s anger-time again,” or “oh, it’s sadness-time.”
With this way of thinking comes an acceptance of the emotion that’s arising in you as a natural part of human life. When you simply accept the emotion and allow it to move through you, without shaming or judging yourself, you eliminate the suffering the emotion used to create. This acceptance is key to changing your emotional life for the better.