“Being cut off from our own natural self-compassion is one of the greatest impairments we can suffer.” ~Gabor Mate
Most of us avoid experiences not necessarily because we don’t like them or want them, but because we don’t want to feel how we will feel when we go through that experience.
Our lives become altered by the emotions we don’t want to feel because we don’t want to move toward the thing that could bring strong emotions like fear, shame, sadness, or disappointment.
We don’t want to go to that party because we’ll probably feel awkward and embarrassed.
We don’t want to chase that work opportunity in case we feel disappointed if it doesn’t work out.
We don’t want to take that trip because it might feel scary.
We don’t want to slow down our busy lives because it feels too terrifying to contemplate emptiness and quiet.
And then we get this idea about ourselves that this is just who we are. We are just:
- People who don’t like parties
- People who don’t travel
- People who are fearful
- People who are procrastinators
- People who are just busy, but intensely stressed
We have this idea that this is just who we are, and therefore, this is how we should live. Perhaps we feel an anger or an anguish at being “this type of person.” Or maybe it just feels so unconscious, so embedded in our personality that we don’t do certain things, that we accept it as just the way we are.
For most of my life I thought I was a nervous, cautious, fearful person. That was just how I was born. I thought I couldn’t change it, just like I couldn’t change my hair color or my deep love for mashed potatoes. It felt biological. Some people were brave and courageous, I was fearful and afraid of almost everything.
I carried this with me, this idea about who I was, until I learned that emotions like fear and terror, anger and rage, despair or sadness are just emotions that we need to learn how to be with. And if we don’t learn how to be with them, they can create an outsized influence on our lives—creating this idea about who we are and what kind of personality we have and causing us to avoid things that trigger these feelings.
But what we are actually avoiding is not the experience, people, or things but the feelings we feel when we think about that thing or try to do it. The feelings around meeting new people, starting a new work project, being in the thick of the uncertainty of traveling, etc.
It’s the feelings that are so difficult for us, not the experiences. So we start to make choices on what we are prepared to do and what we are not. We mold our lives around the things that generate emotions we don’t know how to be with. And we don’t head toward things we don’t like because of how we will feel and what we think will happen when we walk toward that feeling.
Because our body isn’t used to really being with the emotion we are avoiding, or it has proved problematic in the past.
This is because a lot of our emotions activate our survival network. And when our survival network has been activated, things feel urgent, maybe dangerous even, unsafe.
Maybe we have sweaty palms, a feeling of doom in our bodies, a racing heart, a desire to escape quickly, panic, or even an abundance of uncontrollable rage.
So our brain starts to associate this emotion with survival being activated. It’s like it labels “new work opportunity” or “traveling” as an undesirable or unsafe experience because of the emotions that generate around that experience.
We just don’t know what to do with these emotions.
Our brains say, “Don’t go near that! It’s dangerous!”
So we become like a player in a video game, running around avoiding falling boulders, jumping over pits of snakes, maneuvering out of the way of giant fireballs.
But what our brain perceives as threats are not actually threats but emotions it doesn’t know what to do with.
The pits of snakes aren’t snakes but fear around traveling. Or the boulders are the fear of disappointment or despair. Avoiding the fireballs is trying to avoid shame.
The harsh thing, though, is that even though we are trying to sensibly avoid these emotions, these survival reactions, we don’t get to avoid them completely.
The shame, the fear, the rage, the terror—they are there in our body and popping up in other places. We can’t avoid them completely, and by trying to avoid them we simply make our lives smaller and smaller and smaller.
Are we doomed to spend our lives in avoidance mode?
Do we just have to accept that some things are just “too hard,” “too stressful,” “not for people like us”?
That is the really exciting thing about our brains. We have learned to be this way because of how we learned to deal with emotions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a new way. That we can’t ‘rewire’ the responses we have learnt.
By working with my own fear, by learning how to be with it I stopped feeling so scared about everything in my life. I totally changed how I saw myself. I no longer believe myself to be a fearful, overly cautious person
I gave myself time to learn to be with the energy of the fear in a way that was so gentle and slow that it helped me to feel safe around the emotion in a way I never had before.
I realized that the problem is not that we are avoiding our emotions on purpose, it’s that we don’t understand them.
This is what is so hard about how so many of us learn to live our lives.
We aren’t given the tools to work with our emotions (most of us aren’t anyway), and then we are cast out into the world to just ‘make a life.’
Have good relationships!
Be successful! Get a good job!
Cope with work colleagues / clients / stressed-out bosses.
Deal with grief, aging, health problems, loved ones dying!
Be a good parent, even if your parents were a little shoddy, absent, authoritarian, unloving.
How are we supposed to navigate the world when it generates so much emotion for us and we never learned how to deal with emotion? When we feel constantly pushed hither and thither either by our emotional reactions or other people’s?
Awakening the act of self-compassion and empathy for the emotions we struggle with is one of the most powerful steps we can take when we start this journey.
Deciding: Wow, I wasn’t given the tools to navigate the whole myriad of emotions that I encounter every day! And that is tough!
Giving ourselves a little grace, a little tenderness, a little understanding around this is such a powerful step away from how we normally respond to emotional activation.
Can we offer ourselves some kindness and understanding instead of blame and judgment? It makes sense I feel like this—I haven’t learned how to deal with emotions like shame, fear, grief, etc.
Offering compassion in the face of strong emotional reactions is a powerful step because normally we are in the habit of trying to dismiss/justify/vent our feelings: I shouldn’t feel like this! It’s all their fault! I am such a terrible person! Everything is so terrifying! They made me angry!
Instead, can we decide to start walking toward being on our own side? Can we accept the challenges we have faced with emotions? And instead of blaming and shaming ourselves, can we decide instead to move toward kindness, understanding, empathy, and compassion?
When we allow our emotions to exist and meet them with empathy, creating a sense of internal safety around them, it’s much easier to support ourselves through experiences that might activate them.