A while back, I worked with a client who was interested in leaving her corporate marketing job and opening a health food store. Although she knew a lot about the products she wanted to sell and had a passion for her business, she had no experience dealing with the logistical issues—like finances and inventory—that come with running a store. Thus, she was interested in finding a business partner knowledgeable in those areas. However, she was having trouble making the leap from thinking about finding a partner to actually seeking one out.
She told me the reason she was blocked was that she found it hard to trust people. When she’d start taking steps to find someone to work with, her mind began conjuring up nightmare scenarios where her business partner bankrupted the store, stole her money and ran off to parts unknown. After watching those mental horror movies, she’d resolve to learn how to run the store herself. However, this thought prompted fears that she’d fail to handle the business properly and ruin it.
It seemed that in my client’s mind, whether or not she found a partner, she wouldn’t handle the situation well—either her partner would rob her blind, or she’d run the store into the ground. Thus it struck me that, at a deeper level, my client’s issue might be that she simply didn’t trust herself to manage her business, or more generally to take care of herself. To explore this possibility, I had her visualize the scenario where her partner took advantage of her, and I asked her “where are you in this picture? What are you doing?”
She thought about it for a moment, and then gave a despairing sigh—clearly she didn’t like the image that came up. “I’m helpless,” she said. “I’m just sitting in the corner of the room, and I can’t do anything to stop my partner.”
“It sounds like you don’t feel strong enough to protect yourself from being exploited.”
“Yeah, I don’t,” she finally replied, after another deep sigh.
To see if it would help calm her fears, I asked her to keep the image in her mind, but this time to visualize herself standing up tall. Before I got around to having her imagine protecting herself, she chuckled and observed how much just making that small adjustment in her posture changed her experience. She suddenly felt more empowered in her business life, and an ability to handle whatever setbacks might arise that she hadn’t often felt before.
Since we had this conversation, whenever she feels plagued by imaginary failure scenarios, my client has made a habit of turning her attention toward what she’s doing in the “mental movie” she’s creating. Almost invariably, an image of herself cowering in the corner comes up. When she imagines herself standing up, her fears immediately seem less intense and she feels a sense of composure.
As it turned out, my client’s problem wasn’t that she didn’t trust others—it was that she didn’t trust herself. When she formed an image of herself as strong and resourceful, her worry that she’d be taken advantage of and that she couldn’t protect herself faded away.
Today, I regularly recommend this kind of exercise to people with difficulty trusting others to help or support them. Often, when their anxieties around trusting others come up, they form mental pictures of all the terrible things that might happen if they relied on someone and were let down.
Once they’ve described the image that usually comes up, I have them turn their attention to where they are and what they’re doing in the picture. Like my client, they tend to see themselves spacing out, ignoring the problem, or putting up no resistance against their exploiters. When they instead imagine themselves taking action to prevent others from harming them, their fears of being betrayed tend to subside. Developing trust in themselves, in other words, helps them rekindle their trust in others and the universe.
Psychologist Stephanie Dowrick aptly describes the connection between our self-trust and our ability to trust others in Choosing Happiness: Life And Soul Essentials. We tend to assume, she writes, that our sense that we’re unsafe in dealing with someone stems from the fact that “the other person is so unreliable and you can’t trust them.”
Often, however, “the person you can’t trust is yourself. Your feelings are not ‘about’ the other person, even if you do feel them only in this relationship. They are ‘about’ you. When you feel highly possessive or desperate in relation to another person, it is almost always because you have not yet developed your own inner feelings of safety.”
When we develop trust and confidence in our own abilities to overcome the obstacles we face in life, trust in others follows naturally. Of course, others may break their promises and try to take advantage of us. But if we have a sense of certainty that we can set appropriate boundaries and handle the situation, our relating with others no longer seems so dangerous, and takes on a new ease and even joyfulness.
Many people, including people who come to me for coaching, tell me they “don’t know what they want” in life. Much of the time, however, this isn’t really true. They’ve just fallen into the habit of saying they don’t know because they don’t feel safe telling people in their lives what they want. They worry that others will judge them as irresponsible, selfish or unrealistic if they admit what they actually want to do with their lives, and the prospect of being harshly judged feels scary.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day that illustrated this point nicely. She joked that she would be a terrible client for me because she’s never been able to figure out what she wants in life.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, as if she hadn’t said that last part about not knowing.
She nervously chuckled a little. “Like I said, I don’t know.”
“What would you say if you did know?”
She laughed and hesitated a bit more, but eventually came around. “Well, when I was a kid, I really loved to paint.”
As the conversation went on, I witnessed my friend’s quick, miraculous transformation from a woman who supposedly “never” knew what she wanted into someone who’d harbored an aching desire to be a painter all her life. She told me about the paintings she did when she was younger, and the regret she’d felt for a long time because her other responsibilities had taken her away from her art. As she talked about it, her nervous laughter and apologetic attitude faded away, and she became more willing to tell me how exciting painting was for her.
I didn’t do anything complicated or magical to induce this change in my friend. All I did was express genuine interest in what she truly desired, and refrain from shaming or mocking her when she revealed her wants. It doesn’t take much beyond compassionate listening, I’ve found, to create an environment where people feel safe expressing their wishes.
As easy as it sounds to listen to someone’s wishes without judging or criticizing, many of us don’t have—or don’t think we have—access to a person who will listen to us like this. Many of us grew up in situations where telling others what we needed and wanted, for whatever reason, didn’t feel safe. Many of us fear that our loved ones today would ridicule or scold us if we told them what we really desired. However it happened, at some point we lost our trust in people’s ability to hear what we want and need without attacking or abandoning us.
If we fear that no one will be receptive to our wants, it may look like the easiest thing to do is keep our wants to ourselves. If we never tell anyone what we want, we believe, no one will ever insult or get mad at us, and our lives will run smoothly. Unfortunately, our wants don’t disappear just because we don’t admit they exist. Part of us resents it when we don’t express our desires, and this resentment accumulates in our bodies and renders us prone to rage and depression. Duke Robinson aptly describes this problem in Too Nice For Your Own Good: How To Stop Making Nine Self-Sabotaging Mistakes:
In order to keep quiet, we expend a great deal of emotional power we could be using to tell others what we need. We also burden ourselves with a lot of regret as we wonder “why didn’t I ask?” In the end, we both resent those from whom we don’t get what we want and are angry at ourselves for not speaking up. This anger, suppressed and turned inward, puts us in danger of depression and serious illness.
If we have unfulfilled desires, it’s better to at least acknowledge them to someone instead of holding them in. Even if we don’t end up pursuing some of the things we wish for, simply admitting them, without explanation or apology, helps release the anger and sadness that build up around a neglected want. As we reveal our wants more and more often like this, we regain our trust that the world will accept and support us in pursuing our goals.
I’ll make a suggestion to anyone reading this who doesn’t think they know what they want in life. Find someone—whether it’s a loved one, a close friend, or a coach or therapist—whom you trust to listen to you without judgment or criticism. Have them agree to keep what you tell them in confidence. Once you’re in a safe environment, I think you’ll surprise yourself with how much you actually know about what you want, and how relieving it is to be in a place where you can finally reveal it. And who knows—maybe this will even have you feel inspired and trusting enough to go for it.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/seventh-edition-carnival-improving-life.)