I have known for years that humans are programmed for survival. We all have a mechanism that files what we perceive as unsafe experiences away to remind us not to do anything that would put us in harm’s way again.
What I realized recently is that it’s probably not the event or the potential outcome we are afraid of. What we are most afraid of is to experience a feeling that we don’t want to feel. We spend much of our lives doing everything we can to avoid that feeling. We create stories in our heads, we put up walls, and we hide. We do everything possible to distract from activities or experiences that may bring up those feelings. Sometimes we may even use anger to keep us from feeling that painful feeling.
There’s not necessarily a universal feeling that everyone is trying to avoid. The common denominator is that it feels painful and intolerable. It’s something we are afraid to let in because we don’t think we will ever be able to get out and we don’t think we can endure it.
For some, it may be the pain of seeing other people suffering and feeling helpless to do anything about it, it may be the pain of feeling that we caused someone else’s pain, it may be the pain of losing a loved one or the pain of feeling that we lost an opportunity forever. It may be the pain of humiliation, feeling like you’re a loser, or that you are less than.
Avoiding that pain becomes a full-time job. We spend so much time avoiding that pain and making up stories to avoid it that we block the clarity that we could access if we weren’t so busy trying to avoid that intolerable feeling.
Let’s look at an example. Mariel (name changed) came to me because she saw everything through a lens of “I did something .” Every day, something came up in her work that threw her into a state of panic. She would reach out to me and the first words out of her mouth were “I did something wrong and I’m going to get in trouble.” The next statement was a variation on a theme — I didn’t see this email from 3 days ago, I forgot to put something on my to-do list, or someone asked me whether I took care of something. As I tried to understand what the panic was about, it was challenging to follow her thought process.
Usually, the reason for the irrational thought process was because she was trying to justify the reasoning for what she thought she did wrong rather than try to use problem-solving skills to accomplish what was needed in that situation. Her irrational thought process usually involved some confusion over (1) what two different people told her, (2) a procedure, process or rule and what someone told her, (3) a procedure, process or rule and how it was implemented, (4) something that didn’t make sense logically to her or (5) just having too much on her plate and not having a mechanism to track non-priority tasks.
Because her fear of getting in trouble for doing something wrong was so great, she wasn’t able to gain any kind of clarity over what she could do to resolve the problem. She showed me two different emails that seemed to contradict each other and moved into the he-said, she-said space even in circumstances when they weren’t contradictory. She shared a procedure and how it was being implemented and went into a tizzy because there wasn’t consistency.
The bottom line was that she didn’t use her intelligence and her intuition to figure it out. She felt that other people had thought through the circumstances and knew better than her and that everyone was implementing the requirements perfectly.
It was interesting for me to observe this because Mariel has a high IQ, has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree from prestigious universities, has exhibited exceptional problem-solving skills when she isn’t afraid she is going to get in trouble, and is extraordinarily intuitive. Yet, more frequently than not, she was not able to show up that way in her day-to-day life.
As Mariel and I explored this more, it became so clear that when she thought she was going to get in trouble, the feeling in her body took over. We looked at the worst case scenario if she did something wrong — she would be fired, she would never be able to get a job again, she would be a failure. Intellectually, she knew that none of that was true. So we kept exploring.
We focused on the feeling. She felt it in her gut. She stayed in the feeling and identified it as sadness. “Why sad?” I asked. She got very solemn. “Because I don’t know if I will be able to help these kids,” she said. Mariel is a special education teacher and she is really committed to helping her students succeed. We talked about how important that is to her and why she chose this meaningful work. I asked her whether she thought she could endure this feeling in order to achieve the fulfillment of doing what she is called to do and being in the space of possibly being able to make a difference for her students. She wanted to do that but wasn’t sure how.
So we came up with a plan that used both energy work and practical steps to create that opening for Mariel.
With energy work, we addressed the trauma from when she was a little girl and felt helpless to stop her parents from fighting, keep her dad from being angry, make her mom happy, or heal her sick sister. We also addressed similar feelings of helplessness passed on from her ancestor’s past with energy work.
She agreed to keep a list of every time she actually helped a student so that she could see the truth of how she actually helped her students.
We reframed what it meant to help her students. She wanted to help them get from A to Z immediately and was able to realize that the hardest step was to help them get from A to B and if she could do that, she would be helping to change the course of their lives.
She also was able to realize that the improvements would take time and to recognize that the journey was equally as important as the destination, if not more important. Getting the students to grade level is a goal that many of her students’ parents have and is the gold standard for success in the traditional education paradigm. Having that focus on the destination does not allow for the intangible benefits that she can help her students with, like the ability to problem solve, pride in their work, a strong work ethic, seeing what’s possible with hard work, feeling seen, heard and understood, and the value of having someone care about them and be invested in helping them.
Never in a million years did I think that Mariel’s underlying fear when she panicked because she thought she made a mistake and would get in trouble really had to do with the intense sadness that came up when she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to help her students. We had addressed the panic “six ways from Sunday,” but this time we were able to get to the root of her panic by having her focus on the fear of the feelings and not the fear of an outcome.
I checked in with her a few weeks later because I hadn’t received a panic call in a while and we addressed how things were going. She happily reported that her lens of “I did something wrong and I’m going to get in trouble” was no longer looming in the background. She was able to problem-solve much easier, her intuition was much stronger, and she was able to get her work done more quickly. The bonus though — her students were all making progress and feeling better about school and themselves.
The reason I am sharing is to plant a seed. Perhaps your fear of feeling something painful is keeping you from having the clarity you desire, tapping into your own intuition, blocking you from accessing a higher truth, or preventing what’s possible. Food for thought.