Have you ever found that your ability to think clearly is most confused when strong emotions are at play? This is a common experience. Our ability to understand our own circumstances and choose a course forward is frequently clouded by numerous emotions and rationalizations that easily fly under the radar of our conscious awareness.
As a coach, it is very common that I meet with clients who are stuck in some predicament that they don’t like—an unsatisfying job, a poor relationship, unhealthy habits related to food and exercise, and so on. By the time they come to meet with me, they generally have considered their “problem” for protracted periods. Commonly, it has often been years of consternation about the issue. It is easy to empathize because changing jobs, ending relationships, and breaking old habits is not easy—nor, perhaps, should it be. These clients often are stuck in a narrow component of critical thinking. They are stuck in an investigation or evidence-gathering phase.
Investigating options for life’s big questions can be endless. Any element of our lives that goes to the core of our identity, gives much pause. Our lifestyle, consisting of our work, our relationships, our spiritual practices, and our relationships with our bodies,is of fundamental importance to each of us. Without criticism, it is these characteristics of our identity that make up our essential egos. When we are contemplating change to core concepts of our ego, many of us get stuck investigating options or gathering evidence for the need for change. This stuck-ness grows painful because we want new action or, alternatively, a firm decision to be content with what is. And when stuck-ness is deeply engrained, it leads to anxiety, depression, and plummeting self-esteem. We admit to ourselves, at least at some level of awareness, that we are not in control of our lives. Being out of control for a moment on a carnival ride can be fun. Being out of control over our lifestyle and our identity for any prolonged period is, in fact, deeply discouraging.
What drives stuck-ness?
Fear, its little cousin anxiety, and shame.
Fear is at the root of nearly all protracted investigative(evidence-gathering) stages of critical thinking. Fear is a healthy, biologically well-evolved experience for us to have. Fear of the sabre-tooth tiger served our ancestors well. It is good not to be eaten. Fear of social rejection makes sense. Banishment from ancient tribes would usually result in premature death. Fear of gathering enough food motivates a reasonable response, so our historic cousins looked longer. Fear is okay, even though we don’t like it, and fear should and often does preclude us from taking impulsive actions affecting our lifestyle and identity.
Fear (and shame) should stop me from telling off my boss when I become frustrated. Fear (and shame) serves me well when I refrain from abandoning a love relationship when I get frustrated. Fear in these contexts is very appropriate and a helper. It is the more primitive part of our brain assisting us in basic survival. However, as we all know, chronic fear is debilitating. Fear’s evolutionary purpose was designed to serve us in the moment—as a break or accelerator on action during a specific point in time. But when fear, and its companion emotion of shame, stick around for lengthy periods, then something is stuck in an unhealthy pattern.
My clients who are stuck often come to me as a coach wanting to discuss problem solving solely from a dispassionate, rational point of view. They know they are stuck. They believe (or hope) that some assistance with their decision-making process will provide a rational solution to their problem. Invariably all stuck-ness must first get in touch with the emotional block prior to solving the “mechanical” problem of careers, relationships, and lifestyles. For some clients this is easy. They may even be fully aware of the fear, or shame, that has them stuck. And for many others it takes probing to help them see the source of their stuck-ness. And some, walk away from the coaching process, unable to witness their own vulnerability.
Interestingly, the solution to being stuck in one early part of the critical thinking process—investigating (evidence gathering)—is, in fact, resolved by applying critical thinking processes. If we can recognize that we are stuck, then we only need to examine the underlying emotion through the lens of critical thinking.
Let’s consider emotional awareness as a step in and of itself. If you are stuck in some part of your life and you know this to be true because it has caused you angst for a significant period, can you identify the emotion? Is it fear? Fear is connected to potential for loss. Will something you greatly value be threatened if you take action? Is it anxiety? Anxiety is rooted in uncertainty about the future and a natural desire for security. Is it shame? Shame has its roots in a belief that one’s behavior falls outside of one’s own or society’s ethical boundaries.
Any one of these feelings and sometimes a combination of them are the emotional block that leads to a person being stuck. A deep consideration of the emotion(s) is always warranted. Rather than pushing away fear, or anxiety or shame, try to embrace it. Own it. After all, it is your fear. It exists in you. You produced it and ultimately only you can deal with it. Moreover, it is so perfectly normal. We all have fear. Truthfully, millions of other humans most likely have fear very, very similar to your own. Like you, these are other good people trying to make their way in the world with happiness and kind intentions. Your fear won’t go away by ignoring it. Fear will rule subversively if it isn’t shown the light of day.
I once heard a Buddhist monk* talking about negative emotions in a delightful way. He said, when you see your fear, greet it warmly. With kindness, like meeting an old friend, invite your fear in for a cup of tea. Come to your fear and say to it “hello, old friend. I see you. Will you come and have tea with me? Please sit down. I want to understand you. Please spend some time with me”. I love this old monk’s perspective. Our fear is with us anyway. Why not get to know it? “Where did you come from, old friend? What do you see and know?”
I have seen this approach with clients, and in my own life, work miracles. Our negative emotions are blocks to our own desired behaviors and goals only when we fail to address them. For most people simply coming alongside their emotions, accepting and understanding them, is sufficient to drain all their power. They may not recede completely, but they are put back into perspective. Fear is given its proper weight along with all the other considerations in your life planning. Instead of fear being a hidden trump card, keeping us stuck, fear is just a thing like lower pay at a new job, excitement at the prospect of a commitment to a new relationship, or a concrete plan for exercise.
Embrace your fear to overcome it!
Paul Krismer 2016