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When What You Want Scares You

How to Persevere Past Self-Doubt | True Radiance Healing Arts

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When I was first offered the opportunity to teach a workshop years ago, my heart said, “oh yes!” but my head said, “oh no!” Deep within me it felt absolutely right to be leading a workshop, but my mind was full of fears and doubts…
“Who am I to lead a group, to present myself as an expert?”
“What if I stand up in front of the room and forget everything?”
“What if they hate it? What if they get up and walk out in the middle?”

Like many people in this country, I dreaded public speaking when I was younger (ok, true confession, part of me still gets a bit nervous). Even the thought of standing up in front of the class and delivering a short talk at school made me queasy. It was like all the blood would drain out of my brain, rendering it useless, and into my face, lighting me up like a beet.

Given this, you might think I’d be the last person to sign myself up to lead a group voluntarily. Yet, I couldn’t deny that teaching also felt absolutely right. There was a quiet voice in my core telling me that leading groups and workshops was one of my gifts and part of my purpose. How could I say no to that?

It turns out that I actually LOVE facilitating groups and leading workshops, even if it still sometimes scares me. When I teach a group – even one that goes late into the evening – I feel energized and even a bit wound up afterwards. But I would never have discovered this if I had listened to the voice of fear and declined the opportunity.

Over the years as I have worked with more and more people, I have found a common thread in this experience: many of us want to, or even feel called to, do something that scares us.

In fact, the more we feel drawn to undertaking a particular path, the more fear it can stir in us. This path could be related to our career, getting involved in a relationship or making more friends, having a baby, going back to school, or leaving a relationship. It’s not always this way, of course. There are times when we feel compelled in a direction that feels natural to us. Most often it seems there’s a blend, an irrational mix of comfort, confidence, and terror evoked by our desires.

One reason for this lies in the degree of risk we perceive to be involved. If an activity feels like part of our life purpose, it can be thrilling but also add pressure. When it feels like the stakes are high, fear and doubt are often close by. We can be haunted by questions like, “What if it doesn’t work out? What if I’m wasting my time? What if it turns out I’m no good at this? What then?”

Now that I have more faith, I’ve realized that, as long as I do my part, if I’m on the right path then my success is inevitable. Doing my part means being active, taking steps toward accomplishing my dreams. It means braving up and following the little inner voice to do even the things that scare me.

On my own journey and in my work with hundreds of people, there are strategies that I’ve found helpful in persevering past doubt. Here are a few of them:

  1. Rehearse Ease. Whenever we do something unfamiliar, the brain’s threat watchdog, the amygdala, goes on alert. In fact, the amygdala scans all incoming information from our senses and from the cortex. Since the cortex is spectacular at imagining things, the amygdala reacts to scenarios we are imagining as well as events that are transpiring in real time. That’s why even *thinking about* doing something that scares you can elicit the fight, flight, or freeze response (otherwise known to some of us as the “eat, binge watch TV reruns, or get lost in FaceBook” response). Luckily, we can use this to our advantage by imagining ourselves carrying out the activity with ease. This works best if you imagine it just a few minutes at a time, frequently (daily works well), and in as much sensory detail as possible.
  2. Break it Down. Another way to help avoid triggering the amygdala is to break down a goal into small, manageable steps. Again, the key is to take action a few minutes at a time, repeated over time. This repetition creates and reinforces a new neural pathway, which is the structure of habit in the brain. Make a date with yourself to do just a little bit toward your goal most days. If you find you’re not getting to it, make the step even smaller. Over time, you’ll find yourself feeling encouraged by the progress you’re making, which makes it even more appealing to keep going. (You can read more about this in the blog post, The Neuroscience of Changing Habits.)
  3. Focus on the Supportive Inner Voice. We typically have many aspects of ourselves that contribute to our inner dialogue. Often there will be a part of us that knows we are on the right track and fully capable of achieving our goal. Simultaneously, there will be other parts of us who express doubts, perhaps dredging up past failures and generally raining on our parade. It can help to “talk back” to the fearful voices by saying to yourself, “Thank you for your input, and right now I’m choosing to listen to the Part of Me That Knows.” Over time, this supportive inner voice will get clearer and louder, while the voices of fear and doubt will lose gusto.
  4. Collect Reasons to Keep Going. The voice of fear and doubt will offer us a myriad of reasons to give up. Like a detective building a case, start gathering evidence that you’re on the right track. This might include positive feedback and compliments from friends, family, clients, or others. At times it can be easier to accept someone else’s positive evaluation of us than it is to accept our own. Other people see gifts and talents in us long before we are ready to own them. For me, my case for continuing also included intuitive information and night dreams that encouraged me.
  5. Build Trust. One way we can begin to open doors to new ways of thinking is to ask ourselves the same question over and over. Try playing with the question, “What would it be like to trust that things will work out?” or “What would it be like to trust that I’m capable of doing this?” See if you can feel that trust, even 2% more than you did a moment ago. Our plans don’t always materialize the way we had hoped – sometimes things work out in a way that’s even better. Trusting that things will work out means trusting that, even if it doesn’t transpire the way you imagined it would, in the long run there will be aspects that you can genuinely appreciate and enjoy.
  6. Get Support. Just knowing that someone else is on our team, walking the path of challenge and celebrating with us, can go a long way towards our success. You aren’t the only one who has fear come up around something you really want in your life. It can be a powerful asset to have a supportive person you can reach out to just before taking a step that scares you, someone who understands what it means for you to do it, and who can give you a big “Woo-hoo!!” and reflect the depth of that accomplishment back to you once it’s done.

It’s common to both really want to do something and be frightened by or anxious about the idea of doing it. You don’t have to let fear be the boss of you. You can do it! Start today using one of the strategies above or by approaching it in a way that has worked for you in other situations.

Black and White Thinking: Good or Bad?

Black and White Thinking | True Radiance Healing ArtsI was talking to a client a few years back. She was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. She said to me, “Everyone I know is in chaos right now.” Knowing how our thoughts can impact our emotional state, I asked her, “Is that really true? Everyone?”

She paused, running through her family and friends in her mind. “No, not everyone. Actually, just 5 people.” She let out a breath and started to relax.

Dichotomous thinking, sometimes called black and white thinking, is seeing things as all good or all bad. It lumps the whole world or an entire spectrum together in one big generalization, increasing our chances of feeling overwhelmed.

We miss the complexity and subtlety in situations because we can’t see multiple perspectives or allow that there might be more than one acceptable way of doing things. This can add pressure to our relationships.

It’s fairly common for all of us to do this once in a while, especially if we’re already feeling stressed, but for some people this thinking style is more pervasive. Unfortunately, dichotomous thinking can make us feel even more stressed out. A habit of dichotomous thinking has also been associated with depression and other mental illnesses.

These kinds of all-or-nothing thoughts are also associated with perfectionism, telling us that if we didn’t do it perfectly, it was a complete failure. It robs us from a sense of satisfaction with our life because it’s not possible to meet the expectations we set for ourselves and others. It can also keep us from even starting a project, because we’ve been told, “if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”

There’s an old story about the farmer and his son. The farmer had a horse. One day when the son was trying to break the horse, he threw off the young man and he broke his arm. All the people in the town said to the farmer “this is terrible!” but the farmer shrugged his shoulders and replied “is it good or is it bad?”

Soon after this, some men from the army appeared in the town. They drafted all the young men who were able to fight. They didn’t take the farmer’s son because he had a broken arm. The people of the town exclaimed “you are so lucky that they didn’t take your son—it’s a good thing his arm was broken.” And the farmer replied “is it good or is it bad?”

Then the farmer’s horse got out of the field and ran away. The people said “this is awful news” but the farmer replied “is it good or is it bad?”

The next day the farmer’s horse returned—and brought several other wild horses with him. The townspeople remarked “you are so lucky! This is great!” And the farmer simply said “is it good or is it bad?”

Black and White Thinking | True Radiance Healing ArtsThere are very, very few events in our lives that are inherently good or bad. When we look back at even the most challenging of times in our life – events we would never have chosen – this is often when significant growth happens. Gifts can ultimately come from dire circumstances. Judging things as good or bad oversimplifies our experiences.

Given that black and white thinking skews our perception of reality and can take a toll on our health, relationships, and productivity, what can we do to catch it and change it?

We can think of dichotomous thinking as a habit of the mind. Like any habit, it can be changed over time when we put a conscious focus on it.

The first step is to notice what you’re saying to yourself – particularly when you’re feeling stressed. Be on the lookout for anything you might be saying to yourself or to other people with words like “everything,” “everyone,” “always,” “never,” or “nobody.” Even the words “good” or “bad” can signal that we’ve fallen into black and white thinking.

When you notice you’re making this kind of generalization or judgment, ask yourself, “Is that really true?” There isn’t much in our lives that is absolutely true all of the time or with all people.

Now ask yourself, “What might be more accurate?” See if you can be more specific. Challenge yourself to see from someone else’s perspective or come up with other ways of looking at a situation (even though you may not believe they’re “right”).

In some cases, this exercise can immediately help to lower your stress level. If dichotomous thinking is common for you, it will likely take some practice before you reap the full benefit. It’s within your power to choose to think differently – and feel better because of it.

On Wanting to Protect Others from Suffering

shutterstock_280399631 drowing rubber duck

I caught myself the other day, composing a birthday post to a friend on Facebook, about to write “I wish you all good things.” I stopped in my tracks, thinking “is that really what I would wish for them?”

While part of me certainly doesn’t want my friends and family to encounter hardships or to be unhappy, another part of me wouldn’t want to take that way from them, either.

Grappling with challenges is fundamental to our growth and evolution as people. To protect those close to us from those struggles or to wish it away would be to confine them to a life of mediocrity and inertia.

When we undertake a new skill or project, we are bound to make mistakes and have disappointments as we learn, little by little, a new territory. To avoid the experience of falling down, we must never venture to walk. Mastery will always be out of reach unless we risk failure.

Through wrestling with difficult experiences we learn what we are capable of handling — and in some cases we expand our capacity for resilience. Author and mythologist Michael Meade says that when we come through a crisis in our lives, we have the choice to grow bigger or shrink smaller as people. Without these tests of fortitude we have no opportunity to become bigger people.

I recently stumbled on this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, who ventured to take this idea a step further — not just releasing the desire to protect others from challenges, but actively wishing it for them:

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”

Alain be Botton writes about Nietzsche’s stance in his book, Consolations of Philosophy:

“Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.”

I confess I still find it hard to watch friends make choices in their lives that I predict will lead to misery. And harder still to watch it in the children who are dear to me. Yet, I also would not want for them a watered-down existence of perpetual comfort with no growth.

I find some consolation in this idea, given that we can’t actually protect ourselves or anyone else from hard times. The friend who would choose the path I see as leading to certain disaster would not likely be talked out of it, even if I tried, just as I would not have been talked out of my own foolish undertakings.

History has also shown me that the decisions I judged to be perilous in others’ lives have at times worked out for them. In fact, my prophetic skills in this area have not always been accurate, so who am I to try to persuade them this way or that?

So if I wish you happy birthday on Facebook, I won’t be wishing you “all good things,” because I want much more for you than that. I wish you all the depth and richness that life has to offer, including those experiences that help us to develop into our fullest capacity.

I leave you with this poem from Rilke…

 

The Man Watching 
By Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.