“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 or want them, but because we don’t want to feel how we’re going to feel when we have that experience.
Our lives are changed by the emotions we don’t want to feel because we don’t want to move toward something that might evoke strong emotions like fear, shame, sadness, or disappointment.
We don’t want to go to this party because we’ll probably feel awkward and embarrassed.
We don’t want to chase this job opportunity if we’re disappointed if it doesn’t work out.
We don’t want to do this journey because it might feel scary.
We don’t want to slow down our busy lives because it feels too scary to contemplate emptiness and stillness.
And then we get this idea of ourselves that that’s just who we are. We are only:
People who don’t like parties People who don’t travel People who are anxious People who procrastinate People who are just busy but highly stressed
We have this idea that that’s who we are, and that’s how we should live. We may feel anger or fear for being “that kind of person.” Or maybe it just feels so subconscious, so embedded in our personality, that we don’t do certain things, that we just accept it for who we are.
For most of my life I thought I was a nervous, cautious, anxious person. That’s 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 organic. Some people were brave and courageous, I was fearful and scared of almost everything.
I carried that with me, that idea of who I am, until I learned that emotions like fear and terror, anger and rage, despair or sadness are just emotions that we need to learn to deal with. And if we don’t learn to deal with them, they can have an outsized impact on our lives – creating that idea of who we are and what kind of personality we have, and causing us to avoid things that make those feelings trigger.
But what we actually avoid is not the experiences, people, or things, but the feelings we feel when we think about or try to do that thing. The feelings of meeting new people, starting a new work project, being in the midst of the uncertainty of travel, etc.
It’s the feelings that are so difficult for us, not the experiences. So we start making decisions about what we are willing and not willing to do. We shape our lives around the things that evoke emotions we don’t know how to deal with. And we don’t go toward things we don’t like because of how we feel and what we think will happen if we go toward that feeling.
Because our body isn’t used to really living with the emotion we’re avoiding, or it has proven problematic in the past.
This is because many of our emotions activate our survival network. And when our survival network has been activated, things feel urgent, maybe even dangerous, uncertain.
We might have sweaty palms, a sense of doom in our bodies, a racing heart, a desire to get away quickly, panic, or even an abundance of uncontrollable anger.
So, our brain begins to associate this emotion with activating survival. It’s as if “new job opportunities” or “travel” are labeled as unwanted or unsafe experiences because of the emotions that arise around that experience.
We just don’t know what to do with these emotions.
Our brain says, “Don’t go near! It is dangerous!”
So we’ll become like a player in a video game, running around dodging falling boulders, jumping over snake pits and maneuvering out of the way of giant fireballs.
But what our brain perceives as threats aren’t actually threats, but emotions that it doesn’t know what to do with.
The pits of the serpents are not serpents, but fear for travel. Or the boulders are the fear of disappointment or despair. Avoiding the fireballs means avoiding shame.
The bad thing is that even though we try to sensibly avoid these emotions, these survival responses, we fail to avoid them completely.
The shame, the fear, the anger, the horror – they are there in our body and appear in other places. We cannot avoid them completely, and by trying to avoid them we just make our lives smaller and smaller and smaller.
Are we doomed to live 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’s the really exciting thing about our brain. We learned how to be like this because we learned how to manage emotions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a new way. That we cannot “rewire” the answers we have learned.
By working with my own fear, by learning to manage it, I stopped feeling so anxious about everything in my life. I totally changed my self-image. I no longer consider myself an anxious, overly cautious person
I gave myself time to learn to deal with the energy of fear in a way that was so gentle and slow that it helped me feel safe around the emotion in a way I had never felt before had done.
I realized that the problem isn’t that we intentionally avoid our emotions, it’s that we don’t understand them.
That’s the hard part about how so many of us learn to live our lives.
We’re not given the tools to work with our emotions (most of us aren’t anyway), and then thrown out into the world to just “make a living”.
Have good relationships!
Be successful! Get a good job!
Getting along with work colleagues / customers / stressed bosses.
Deal with grief, aging, health issues and the death of loved ones!
Be a good parent even if your parents were a little sloppy, absent, authoritarian, and unloving.
How are we supposed to navigate the world when it generates so many emotions for us and we have never learned how to deal with emotions? When we are constantly being pushed this way and that, either by our own emotional responses or by those of other people?
Awakening the act of self-compassion and empathy for the emotions we are struggling with is one of the most powerful steps we can take as we begin this journey.
Decide: Wow, I wasn’t given the tools to navigate through the whole myriad of emotions I encounter every day! And that’s tough!
Giving yourself a little grace, a little tenderness, a little understanding is such a powerful step away from the way we normally respond to emotional activation.
Can we show ourselves some kindness and understanding instead of blaming and judging? It makes sense that I feel this way – I haven’t learned to deal with emotions like shame, fear, sadness, etc.
Showing compassion in the face of strong emotional responses is a powerful move because we usually try to dismiss/justify/vent our feelings: I shouldn’t feel this way! It’s all her fault! I’m such a horrible person! Everything is so scary! You made me angry!
Can we choose to go to our own site instead? Can we accept the challenges we faced with emotions? And instead of blaming and embarrassing ourselves, can we instead choose to move toward kindness, understanding, empathy, and compassion?
When we allow our emotions to exist and meet them with empathy, creating a sense of inner security around them, it is much easier to support ourselves with experiences that might activate them.
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About Diana Bird
Diana Bird is a neuroemotional coach and author who helps people release unhealthy emotional patterns and deep feelings of overwhelm. To receive her free workshop on building emotional resilience, sign up for her newsletter here. You’ll also receive invitations to her free webinars on topics like Resolving Shame and Alleviating Overwhelm. Working with clients in her coaching practice and online workshops, Diana lives on the beach in southern Spain with her children and photographer husband.
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