I shudder a little when I think about some of my old working habits. One of these habits was to do what I now call “pushing the moment.” When I’d be under time pressure, or I just wanted a task off my plate quickly, I’d tighten up my shoulders as I worked — as if I were physically trying to push the project to completion. Not surprisingly, my shoulders used to get sore pretty often.
Today, when I work with someone who’s looking for focus and motivation in what they do, we often discover they’re doing the same thing. Much of the working day, they recognize, they’re unconsciously tensing up some part of their body, as if their project is some big piece of furniture they’re trying to move across the living room floor. No wonder work feels so painful and uninviting to them.
Beliefs That Lead Us To Push
The most obvious way to deal with the “pushing” habit is to notice it and let it go. Every so often, as we’re working, it’s useful to scan our attention over our bodies, and notice anywhere that feels rigid. When we become aware of the tight places, they often relax by themselves, or we can breathe into those places to help our bodies let go of the tension.
But for some people, this offers only temporary relief. They become aware of the tight place and relax, but a few minutes later they’re clenching their jaw or neck again, and working again feels stifling and uncomfortable. Sometimes, I find, people have trouble breaking the “pushing” habit because of deep-seated ideas they have about themselves and the world that could use some examination.
These ideas differ from person to person, but I’ll go through a few common ones. It may be helpful to notice whether any of them resonate with you.
1. Work Takes Suffering. A few people I’ve worked with have noticed that, when they relax the tense parts of their bodies as they work, they start thinking of themselves as lazy. Somewhere along the line, they learned that, to be a responsible, hardworking person, you have to suffer while you work — “no pain, no gain.” When they look closely at this belief and see how irrational and self-hating it is, it often unravels.
2. Pushing Makes Us Work Faster. Some people tense their bodies based on the false, unconscious idea that clenching their muscles will speed up their progress — as if they’ll get more efficient if they just “put some muscle into it.” In fact, tightening up inside just wears us out, and turns work into a more dismal chore than it needs to be.
3. I’ve Got To Get “There.” In our culture, we usually don’t even consider the possibility that we can enjoy the moment-to-moment process of writing an e-mail or plugging values into a spreadsheet. The only thing we think we’re capable of enjoying, and let ourselves enjoy, is the product of our work — the money we make, the prestige of our career, and so on. This mindset can leave us literally aching for the reward, and not realizing how much we can make out of this moment.
In my experience, becoming aware of these destructive beliefs is a lot like noticing the places in our bodies where we’re holding tight. Often, when we become aware of it, the belief — like the tension we’re holding onto — dissolves on its own. And as it turns out, we get a lot more done when working is no longer such a physically painful process.
I’m pleased to welcome back entrepreneurship coach John Van Dinther of 2Hats Consulting (who hosted my earlier teleseminar) to talk about the direction, productivity and marketing issues entrepreneurs commonly face, and some exercises he uses to help his clients deal with those concerns.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
* How John’s unique “online vision board” approach can help you solidify your direction in your business and other areas of your life
* How using pictures of the process of your work, not just the end product, in your online vision board can help with your motivation
* How keeping in mind “the big picture” of why you’re doing what you’re doing can empower you through tasks you normally see as mundane or boring
* How to “anchor” your vision for your business deep in your body, so you can access your inspiration at any time
* How treating yourself with compassion can benefit your productivity
* Why getting comfortable with being alone in silence is so important for the solo entrepreneur
* How to make peace with those negative inner voices telling you that you won’t succeed
* Why it’s key to focus on the benefit you’re providing clients, not the services you provide, in your marketing approach
I wrote an article a little while back about how the sensations we experience in our bodies are so central to how we perceive the world. I’m going to expand on that piece further here by talking about how deeply our breathing influences the way we experience living, and how much simply staying conscious of our breathing can improve the quality of our lives.
If I had to choose one phrase to define the culture of much of the world today, I would pick “short attention span.” We’re constantly seeking more things to define and complete us in the outside world, whether it’s a new relationship, career, stereo system, or something else. But even when we get those things, we quickly lose interest in them and start craving other kinds of stimulation. No matter what we acquire in our restless search, it never seems to hold our attention or keep us satisfied for long.
Some say this is because human beings are fickle creatures by nature. More and more, however, I’m starting to wonder if the short attention span of our culture stems, at least in some part, from the way we tend to breathe. Many of us have gotten into the habit of breathing shallowly, taking small, rapid gasps of air into our chests, and reducing the amount of oxygen circulating through our bodies. As Drs. James E. Loehr and Jeffrey Migdow explain in Take A Deep Breath, restricting our breathing like this puts us at greater risk of anxiety, high blood pressure, fatigue and other health problems.
When we aren’t getting enough oxygen and we’re tiring and stressing ourselves as a result, it’s no wonder we suffer from a nagging sense of incompleteness, a constant feeling that we need something more to make us whole. As movement therapist Donna Farhi writes in The Breathing Book, shallow breathing may give you “the feeling that your life has become like that of a hamster—endlessly running on a little wheel, with no way to stop and get off.”
We tend to assume this sense of lack results from something missing in our outer circumstances—maybe our job doesn’t pay well enough, our relationship has lost its spark, or something else. But in fact, what we may really be craving is simply more air in our lungs. This could explain why we seem locked in a frantic dash for new forms of stimulation, only to find that nothing gives us lasting fulfillment. It may also explain why life occurs to so many of us as a desperate, unforgiving struggle for survival, and nothing we achieve seems to quell that fear.
Returning To Our “Natural Breath” Can Change Our World
This sharply contrasts with how we feel when we let go of the restrictions we put on our breathing—when we stop tightening our stomach, let the breath flow into our abdomen, and drop the other ways we prevent ourselves from breathing fully. When we completely allow our natural breathing process to operate, we find that our entire body, and not just our chests, seems to expand and contract with each breath. As psychiatrist Alexander Lowen wrote, “natural breathing—that is, the way a child or animal breathes—involves the whole body.” A feeling of peace and wholeness comes over us, and the nagging sense that something is missing disappears.
I’ve certainly experienced dramatic shifts in my worldview simply by changing the way I’m breathing. Occasionally, for example, I’ll have moments where my life starts to feel cramped. I start to feel like the space I live in is too small, people are imposing on me and wasting my time, my relationship has become smothering, and so on. In other words, the outer circumstances of my life seem like the source of the constricted feeling I’m having.
But if I take a moment and check in with how my breathing feels, I often make a remarkable discovery. My lungs, just like the world around me, are feeling constricted—perhaps I’m holding my stomach tight, breathing into my chest, hunching over slightly, or something else. And when I relax my body and allow my abdomen to expand with each breath, the world around me begins to feel more expansive as well. Suddenly, I feel more space and freedom to make my own decisions and do the activities I want, and I no longer feel so crowded.
If you find yourself often feeling trapped, desperate or constricted in your life, I invite you to try this exercise. When you find those sensations coming up, just take a moment to observe how you’re breathing. Don’t judge or criticize yourself for how your breath is flowing through your body—simply watch it for a few minutes. Are you cramping your breathing by tensing any muscles—say, in your diaphragm or abdomen? Are you breathing in rapid gasps? Are you breathing solely into your chest?
If you notice yourself constricting your breathing in these or other ways, notice how simply being aware of that constriction can help you let go. As your breathing becomes more conscious, you may find yourself relaxing into your natural, intuitive mode of breathing—and find your view of the world growing more peaceful and optimistic as well.
Some of us restrict our breathing more heavily in certain situations that have us feel particularly anxious or defensive—maybe when someone accuses us of a mistake, we’re meeting new people, we’re making a presentation at work, or something else. If you find yourself feeling more fear or tension in specific situations, it may be useful to notice whether your breathing becomes shallower or tighter when you get into those environments. Just understanding which situations tend to have you restrict your breathing can do much to help you relax and restore your composure.
An Approach I’ve Found Useful
One common approach to removing the restrictions we place on our breath involves “breathing into” the places where we’re tensing up and preventing the breath from entering. That is, as you breathe, see if you can imagine your breath filling the place where you’re holding tight, and bringing healing and compassion to the tense area.
You may also find it useful to place your hand on the area you want to open up or relax. This helps you direct your attention into that part of your body. If you do this, I suspect you’ll find the tension that used to prevent you from taking a full, nourishing breath fading away.
I learned this technique from the book Ultraprevention, by Drs. Mark Hyman and Mark Liponis, and it’s also been employed by coaches and bodyworkers I’ve worked with. When I use it, it affects me pretty quickly—all I have to do is breathe while putting my hand on my diaphragm, which is the place I usually tighten up, and I find the tension immediately begin to dissipate. Not only does my breathing feel more open and relaxed, but the world seems to transform into a more peaceful and livable place.
I know, this piece has an unusual title, but it came to me in a half-asleep trance, and when something like that happens I’ve learned I should run with it. The title is one way of expressing the idea that our perceptions of the world and the events and people in it greatly depend on the sensations we’re experiencing in our bodies. The quality of what we’re feeling—whether it’s pain, tightness, relaxation, or something else—shapes the way we see the world.
I don’t just mean that the sensations we experience influence our moods—I’m not simply pointing out that, say, discomfort in our bodies makes us feel irritable. I mean that what we’re feeling affects aspects of our thinking like our opinions of others, our beliefs about what we can achieve in the world, what we want to do with our lives, and so on. What we think is often just a reflection of the physical sensations inside us, even if those feelings are outside our conscious awareness.
The Massage That Changed My World
This point hit home for me a while ago when I decided to do something adventurous and got what’s called a Maya abdominal massage. Right before I came in for the massage, I was fretting over how much trouble I seemed to have calling people about possible speaking engagements. I’d get all geared up to call a bookstore or university to see if I could give a talk there, and I’d feel blocked by anxiety. What if the people I called thought the idea of booking me as a speaker was ridiculous? I’d start to wonder. I’d probably just be bothering them.
As soon as the masseuse’s hands touched my stomach, I noticed it felt very tight and sensitive, and I started chuckling as if I were being tickled. The intensity of the sensations quickly grew, and after a few minutes tears were streaming from my eyes and I was alternately laughing and coughing. Afterward, my stomach muscles felt deeply relaxed and still. I noticed the most remarkable effect of the massage, however, a few hours later.
When I got back to work, my mind returned to the problem of looking for speaking engagements. I was surprised to notice that the tension that used to arise in my body when I thought about making the calls was gone. Seeking out opportunities to give a talk seemed completely natural, as if I’d been doing it all my life. I calmly went to the phone and started dialing.
Until this event, I thought massages did nothing more than relax you for a little while. I was amazed to find that the massage had actually changed my beliefs about the world. Somehow, the tightness I used to have in my abdomen had been creating anxiety when I’d try to book myself as a speaker, and the belief that it “just wouldn’t work.” Now, it was as if releasing that tension had actually changed the world around me, and opened up possibilities that hadn’t existed before.
Using Our Bodies To Change Our Thoughts
I’ve noticed similar results in working with clients. One man I worked with, for instance, wanted to ask his boss if he could work in a different group within his company, but felt too scared to make the request. As we talked, I noticed he was breathing shallowly into his upper chest, and I asked him to experiment with taking deeper breaths into his stomach. Remarkably, when he started breathing more deeply, he reported that he felt more confident, and he no longer saw asking for the change he wanted as so frightening.
Psychologists, particularly in the field of “somatic” or “body” psychotherapy, have long understood the relationship between the sensations in our bodies and the way we perceive the world, and based their techniques on that relationship. For example, in The Body In Psychotherapy, psychologist Edward W. L. Smith describes how he helps patients see that the way they hold their bodies—their posture, their breathing, the muscles they tighten, and so on—influences their emotional lives:
If I notice that a patient is holding a body part in a peculiar way, I sometimes rearrange the holding pattern and ask her or him what it is like to be in the new position. To facilitate this awareness I may have the person go back and forth between the two postures several times for comparison. . . . So, by inviting the patient to move out of a particular posture, . . . one can facilitate the patient’s awareness, experience and flow of emotion.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that changing negative beliefs is basically an intellectual exercise. If we have a belief about the world that’s holding us back, it’s often said, we need to logically convince ourselves that it’s false. For example, from this perspective, my client who was having trouble asking to switch groups within his company needed to convince himself that nothing terrible would happen to him if he made the request. By changing his usual pattern of thinking, he could rid himself of his anxiety.
This seems to be a product of our society’s overwhelming focus on using the mind and logical reasoning. As psychologist James I. Kepner writes in Body Process: Working With The Body In Psychotherapy, “our theories and methods have traditionally attached little importance to body phenomena in the context of psychotherapy,” and “at its root this is a reflection of the extreme emphasis on intellect and reason in our culture at large.” However, although changing the way we think can help us get unstuck, I’ve found it isn’t always what’s needed.
Sometimes, the best solution is to check in with how we’re feeling in our bodies. If there’s tension or discomfort somewhere, doing something to relieve that feeling may do more to help us think more positively than any amount of thinking and reasoning. It’s surprising how much a change in our posture, movements, or breathing can do to change how we see the world. The way we feel inside can create our thoughts—not just the other way around.
Many of us, in some way, are afraid of displeasing people. Some of us, for instance, constantly worry that our superiors at work see us in a negative light. Some of us fret over the possibility that our loved ones—whether they’re our families, intimate partners or friends—will abandon us. Still others are in people-pleasing mode in every situation, with a permanent smile etched on their faces and a complete inability to say “no” to even the most unreasonable requests.
I have a friend who, for many years, fell into the last category I described. In his job, he had to painfully force himself to call clients and colleagues about business matters, for fear that he might bother them. When asking a woman out on a date, he would fight to keep himself from hyperventilating due to fear of rejection. He couldn’t bring himself to ask his neighbors to turn their loud music down, even when they left it on all night. The depressing examples went on and on.
One day, when we were talking about the anxiety holding him back, I asked him how he felt in those moments when he was paralyzed by the need to please others. He said he felt a tightening in his shoulders, as if his body were trying to hunch forward and make itself small. He’d start trying to please people to avoid having the uncomfortable feeling. As we discussed this sensation, he began to realize he’d been experiencing it in various situations for most of his life.
As it turned out, my friend’s earliest memory of this sensation came from when he was four years old. He recalled a few times when he was sitting in his bedroom and his mother was yelling at him about something. He tried to apologize or explain what happened, but when he started talking she stalked off and slammed the door behind her. Sitting in his room alone, he remembered feeling helpless and trapped, as if the room were his prison. He remembered deciding he’d never talk back to his mother and, as he put it, “get thrown in jail” again.
In that moment, my friend realized his people-pleasing behaviors came from a need to avoid experiencing that trapped feeling. He got into the habit of holding back his needs and wants to avoid “going to jail,” and this habit had become so ingrained that he was still doing it as a grown man. Unfortunately, while this approach may have protected him when he was little and vulnerable, it wasn’t doing him any favors as an adult. His passive behavior was hurting him in his job, relationships and all other areas of his life.
A few weeks later, my friend had another breakthrough. It happened when he took his car to be serviced, and he noticed when he got the car back that the dealership hadn’t fixed his interior light as they had agreed to do. As usual, he decided not to bother them about it, and maybe to deal with the issue in his next regular visit. As he drove away, he felt frustrated and thought “I wish I didn’t have to use this dealership—they’ve forgotten to do what I asked a couple of times.”
Then the realization hit him—he didn’t “have” to use the dealership. Obviously, there were many people out there who’d be willing and able to repair his interior light. He wasn’t at the dealership’s mercy at all—he could walk away. Until that moment, he’d been unconsciously treating the dealership as if it were his mother—as if the servicepeople could “throw him in jail” if he “bothered” them about the car light. But they couldn’t. If he didn’t like the way he was treated there, he was free to get his car serviced elsewhere.
With a rush of excitement, he realized his power to walk away wasn’t limited to minor car repair issues. If he wanted, he could walk away from jobs and intimate relationships that weren’t working for him as well. He was free to make his own decisions in every area of his life, and nobody could imprison him for it.
This realization didn’t massively change his lifestyle—he didn’t walk away from his home and job and become a monk or something. But the knowledge that he couldn’t be “thrown in jail” for expressing his wants and needs drained much of the fear out of his interactions with people. He was able to take his car back to the dealership to get the light fixed. He didn’t have to push himself to “bother” colleagues at work. He could call women without breaking a sweat. Overall, his life began to feel more joyful and empowered.
As this story illustrates, sometimes the best way to feel more in control of your life is to remember your ability to walk away. When we forget we have this ability, we start feeling trapped and resentful about our lives, as if we’re “in jail” or forced to be where we are against our will. We become fearful of taking risks, as we forget that other alternatives are available if our plans don’t work out. Keeping in mind that you are where you are by your own choice, and that you can always make a change, gifts you with a sense of power and freedom.
It’s also helpful to remember that, in moments when you feel like you’re helpless and trapped in a bad situation—that you can’t “walk away”—you’re likely reverting to thinking and behavior you adopted when you were much younger. In reality, as an intelligent, resourceful adult, there are few situations where you actually are completely powerless. Staying aware of this helps you break free of outmoded behaviors designed to deal with childhood circumstances. As psychotherapist Nancy Napier writes in Getting Through The Day: Strategies For Adults Hurt As Children:
[T]o some part of you—usually a child part—your adult life doesn’t exist. The only timeframe in which this part lives is back then, when things were dangerous, when you were being hurt. Within this pocket of time, your adult self isn’t real yet. The part of you that has been triggered doesn’t know about adult options: that you can walk away, stand up for yourself without being hurt, or talk it through and work it out.
When we become obsessed with pleasing others, we’ve lost sight of the choice and power we have as adults, and we’re reacting to the world as if we were still frightened and vulnerable children. Simply keeping in mind, in every situation, that we’re free to walk away infuses everything we do with confidence and focus, and empowers us to assert our needs and desires.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/ninth-edition-carnival-improving-life.)
I recently discovered an amazing new technique for overcoming writers’ block and other temporary lapses in creativity: screaming and crying.
I was sitting at home trying to write an article, but staring at a blank computer screen instead. As I stared down the screen, my frustration at my lack of productivity mounted. After about half an hour, my irritation had grown to a point where I was sure I would scream if I didn’t take a break. Normally, in these situations, I turn my attention to something else, like making a call, checking e-mail or listening to music, in the hope that when I get back to my writing my irritation will have died down and my creative juices resumed flowing.
This time, however, I decided to try an experiment. I found a comfortable position on the floor, and fully vented my frustration with my writers’ block. I grunted, howled, groaned and even cried a few tears. I rolled around a bit. I pounded my fists on the carpet.
When I picked myself up off the ground and returned to my chair, I noticed that the muscles on the left side of my solar plexus felt a little looser. By expressing my irritation at my creative lapse, I’d released tension in my abdomen that I hadn’t even known was there before. With this relaxation came a sense of inner spaciousness, calm and focus. Not only did I feel more comfortable after venting—I suddenly felt brimming with ideas, and quickly cranked out another piece.
This experience, and similar experiments I did afterward, revolutionized my understanding of writers’ block. Before, I’d seen that depressing mental blankness as beyond my control. I thought it was just a phase I had to go through at various times of day—and sometimes for days on end—and that nothing I did, thought or felt could remedy it.
Now, however, I’ve come to believe that at least some cases of writers’ block result from accumulated tension in the body. This is because contracting your muscles—holding on to that tension—diverts your energy and attention from creative activities. In other words, by tensing up, you use up energy you’d otherwise be devoting to the task you’re trying to do.
I’ve since found that expressing emotions to release tension in my body helps me in a variety of different situations. For instance, if I’m about to go to a social occasion and I feel some nervous tension in my body as I think about it, I take that as my cue to get down on the floor and growl and thrash around for a few minutes. Most of the time, this releases the tension in my body and helps me to focus and enjoy myself.
Of course, I’m not the first to observe that releasing emotions, and thus dissipating tension in the body, stimulates creativity. As somatic psychologist Susan Aposhyan writes in Body-Mind Psychotherapy, “unconscious or habitualized emotional repression limits vitality, creativity, communication, and growth.” Similarly, psychologist Robert J. McBrien, who studied the positive impact of emotional release through laughter on patients’ brain functioning, writes that “[t]he release of tension from laughter can free cognitive blocks,” and that “this promotes creativity, shared problem solving and enhanced cooperation.”
The next time you find yourself in a creative rut, you might try this exercise. Instead of turning away from your task to do something else, or beating yourself up for being unproductive, find a place where you can be comfortable and undisturbed for a few minutes. Then, do whatever you need to do—short of hurting yourself—to express how you’re feeling about your creative block. This may involve making a noise, or breathing into or stretching part of your body where tension has accumulated. Continue until you feel a sense of relaxation or spaciousness in your body that you weren’t experiencing before.
I suspect you’ll find this a helpful, enjoyable and often amusing way to regain your focus and creative inspiration.
(This article appeared in the Energies of Creation Carnival, located at http://www.energiesofcreation.com/carnival-of-creative-growth/carnival27/.)
Have you ever wanted to be composed and confident in a certain situation, but felt like your body just wouldn’t cooperate? I had experiences like this for a long time. I wanted to feel comfortable interacting with people in any setting. However, I’d sometimes become aware that parts of my body were shaking, fidgeting or shifting in ways that made me—and, seemingly, whoever I was around—uncomfortable.
I would notice this happening even in seemingly low-pressure situations, like when I was walking down the street. When someone would walk by close to me, I would feel the muscles in my lower back subtly shifting away from that person. It was as if my body was trying to make sure I stayed out of that person’s way and didn’t anger them. In fact, it was almost like my body was apologizing for the mere fact that I existed and took up space.
For me, the most unnerving part of noticing these “apologetic” movements was recognizing that my body was probably doing them all the time without my knowledge. Most of the time, my attention wasn’t on the way my body was moving, and in those moments it probably wasn’t behaving the way I wanted.
For a long time, I figured that these unwanted movements were just part of who I was. Maybe they were in my genes, or perhaps when I was younger I’d been conditioned so thoroughly to apologize for myself that I’d need years of therapy to break that behavior pattern. Because I wasn’t even aware that most of them were happening, I had little hope of changing them, unless I paid someone to follow me around all day and point out my various apologetic twitches.
One day, however, I had an important realization. It happened, like many of the other critical realizations I’ve had in my life, when I became completely fed up with my own behavior. I was walking down the street, and I felt my body involuntarily jerk away from a man coming toward me. I’d had this kind of experience so many times, and had become so frustrated, that I growled out loud “no!” (As you can imagine, the man then found himself trying to avoid me.)
When I snarled my refusal to let my body apologize for itself, I felt an empowering warmth flooding my chest and stomach. It was as if I had stoked an inner fire. And for the rest of that day, I never felt my body apologetically twitching again. Instead, my movements felt strong, purposeful, and graceful. From then on, whenever I felt part of my body straining to get out of someone’s way or take up less space, I growled—or made a similarly animalistic noise—to reconnect with that unapologetic state.
I spent a while pondering why voicing my frustration with my body’s apologetic movements tended to stop those movements from happening. Eventually, the answer came to me one day as I watched a dog playing in a park. I noticed how free and uninhibited the dog’s movements and expression seemed. The dog joyfully ran and leaped about with no shame or embarrassment.
It occurred to me that, when my snarl stopped my body from apologizing, it was because I was getting in touch with the animal part of my nature—the part that, like the dog, moved around unburdened by shame and fear. I was connecting with the part of me that was content to simply be, with no anxiety about how it was perceived or how much space it took up. I was experiencing the “direct and immediate sense of both the joy and wonder of creation” that psychologist Mary Lou Randour observes in animals and notes that they can teach us.
If you find your body becoming uncomfortable, or involuntarily tensing or shrinking away, in certain situations, I invite you to try this exercise. When you feel your body’s apologetic movements occurring, make a sound or motion to connect with your uninhibited inner animal. I enjoy doing this by growling like a wolf or bear, but if you want to do something a little less conspicuous you can make a subtler movement such as clenching your fists or inhaling sharply. Experiment with different possibilities until you find a method that’s both empowering and comfortable for you.
As I mentioned, some of our bodies’ unwanted movements occur outside of our awareness. If you want to bring your attention to these unconscious movements, you may find it useful to work with a coach or therapist who focuses on the body’s connection to emotional well-being. You can learn a lot about your fears, desires and motivations by noticing—and having others around to point out—the way your body reacts in different situations. (Two great transformational workshops that focus on this issue in the context of man/woman dynamics are the Authentic Man Program and the Authentic Woman Experience, based in San Francisco, California.)
In our society, our focus tends to be on striving to acquire more—whether it be more material things, relationships, degrees, or something else. I see nothing wrong with working to improve our circumstances, but in our rush to get more than we have we tend to lose touch with the part of us that feels whole and complete as it is—what I’ve called the “animal part.” Staying connected with the aspect of our natures that is content simply to be helps reduce our anxiety and discomfort, and creates a sense of peace and fulfillment in our lives.
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.