You might think that I, as a life coach, spent the first days of 2017 in a state of happy contemplation about the life I've created for myself and my successes over the year.
But I didn't.
Instead, I woke up on January 1st with fear in my belly. I woke with self-doubt. By midday, I had a long list of worries running through my mind that kept me on the verge of tears: What if I go broke. How will I send my kids to college. This is all a delusion. I'm not smart enough. My brain is softening. I'm never going to write my next book. I don't call my parents enough. Sex after menopause is going to suck. I'm too undisciplined. I have too many ideas. I'm just running from one career to the next. And on and on.
By evening time, I was in full-blown rabbit-hole mode: puffy-faced from crying, exhausted, feeling needy and small.
I'm sure you've been there, and I've been there lots of other times too.
Humans are hardwired to focus on the hard stuff at the expense of the positive. The scientific name for this phenomenon is negativity bias: back when prey lurked in the bushes, it behooved one to assume the worst about a rustle or a foreign sound. Consequently, our brains evolved to notice and easily recall that which we perceive as a threat above and before that which doesn’t.
Today, the negativity bias, and its amped-up cousin, anxiety, rarely serve us in ways they once did; there’s a gap, for the majority of humans alive today, between this characteristic of our neurology and our lived reality. Indeed, what once saved us is now killing us (check out, for example, the latest cover article in Time, about the epidemic of anxiety among adolescents in the U.S.).
This gap, its liabilities and potentialities, is the focus of some of the most fascinating brain science and psychology today. Hugely impactful discoveries regarding, for instance, neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life—are born of a reckoning with this schism. While we are, as social psychologist Timothy Wilson puts it, “strangers to ourselves” (we have little conscious knowledge of the vast array of non-conscious decisions that help to determine our experience at any given time), we also have far more agency than previously thought when it comes to creating our lives on purpose.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis, illustrates the latter via current research that confirms our capacity to rewire the negativity bias in service of a more positive mind state that, in turn, generates a happier existence. For example, we can, over time, retrain our brains to automatically focus on (as well as remember and forecast) the positive instead of the negative by deliberately thinking three life-affirming thoughts for every one thought that brings us down. As Haidt asserts, examples like this demonstrate that we have a great deal of personal agency—far more than heretofore believed by social scientists—when it comes to creating our own feelings, and therefore the actions and consequent results that comprise the landscape of our lives, by intentionally managing our thoughts.
So what’s the upshot here? Well, the relevance of life coaching, for starters, and what it’s taught me about resilience.
Swollen-eyed and weary on the night of the new year, I did something different than what I’d have done years ago: I decided to sit with my feelings.
At the same time, I chose not to judge them (pathologize myself) or indulge them (identify with them).
Instead, I felt them.
I breathed. I tuned into my body: my chest, my throat, my jaw. My palms, my stomach. I observed the sensation of warmth radiating from my skin, the concentration of energy in my gut and solar plexus. In doing so, the wild noise in my head abated, and I could hear clearly the thoughts that were causing me to suffer.
Loudest among them was an old, old story: There's something wrong with you. As soon as I heard this voice murmuring like a disgruntled troll from the depths of my chest, I woke up. I snapped out of what Tara Brach calls the trance of unworthiness. I suddenly recognized my morass of despairing as the opportunity it was: an invitation to locate my fear, feel it, and observe it with curiosity and compassion instead of criticism and judgment. Only in this way could I overcome it.
Within the self-help world we often hear our “natural state” described as one of “abundance”; that the universe, from which we’re born, wants to flow to and through us with plenty and ease. That our suffering is a symptom of damming this natural state with fears and false beliefs.
And I say yes, for sure—and no.
To claim abundance as our “natural state” is to render its opposite, scarcity (fear, doubt, worry) artificial at best, and invasive, a threatening other at worst. I understand the motive here: it’s important to believe we’re inherently joyous and life-seeking, because what we believe is what drives the results in our lives. If we believe ourselves to be, at the core, essentially enough (abundant), we are far more likely to cultivate characteristics such as compassion, kindness, and confidence in ourselves and thus their rewards (healthful love, affection, and connection).
But when we stake our claim to abundance (which also means worthiness, lovability, etc.) in rhetoric that others and demonizes our dark patches, we risk reinforcing the very stories that perpetuate our pain and hold us hostage to it: that uncomfortable emotion means something’s wrong—not regarding a specific issue or way of thinking, but with us. That unpleasant emotion is something to be avoided. That pain is the source of suffering.
As an alternative, I offer the great poet Walt Whitman’s capacious vision of being: “I am the poet of the Body and the I am the poet of the Soul,” he writes in Song of Myself: “The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.”
Whitman’s speaker literally grows, expands, by inhabiting in equal measure that which pleases and that which pains. Encounters with “pains of hell” don’t shut him down; on the contrary, they become an opportunity for transformation (expansion) through translation, an occasion for creating a “new tongue,” a new language—a means of amplifying, not starving, his experience of curiosity and therefore wonder—which, for Whitman, are always the conditions of joy.
As such, the poet of Body and the poet of Soul is also the prophet of resilience.
Whitman’s “translation” of the “pains of hell” into a “new tongue”—into that which intensifies his experience of connection with the world and thus his sense of belonging and joy—forecasts what today’s brain science and social science together affirm: that we can rewire our neural pathways in service of happier lives by rewriting—“translating”—our old stories and the limiting beliefs they uphold (about ourselves, about others, about the nature of existence).
A few years ago, the old voice droning on about my inherent brokenness would have overwhelmed my encounter with “the pains of hell” on New Year’s Day. It would have sent me spinning into self-doubt, convinced me that my feelings were an indication of something gone terribly wrong, or worse, something never having been right.
But this time I knew how to recognize my feelings as fear. This is key. Most of the time we don't know how to call our fear out because when we're in its grip it feels like fact.
I also knew how to lean into those feelings, to feel them without reacting to them or shutting down. This, too, is key: it's what steers us away from distractions, addictions, and all kinds of well-intended efforts to avoid pain that only make the pain worse in the end.
Finally, I knew that getting off my butt and doing my work, even though I felt like sleeping away the rest of the night, is what I needed to do. And I knew how to do it. I knew what action to take because I have a plan. And I have a plan, complete with do-goals and deadlines and all the reasons they matter, thanks in large part to my experience with coaching and having learned to coach myself.
And today, on the other side of that cavernous rabbit hole?
Peace. A shedding. More clarity. More confidence. More conviction.
We have to go low to grow. But if we don't have the tools to mine our lows for what they offer us, or the support to help us over the hump of our own wily resistance, we can tread that murky water, our inner trolls tugging at our ankles, for a long, long time. Sometimes forever.
As we step into this bright new year, I invite you to reflect on your own capacity for resilience—that skill so crucial to evolving, to engaging your full potential.
Are you able to translate your own “pains of hell” into transformation?
Do you experience your negative emotion as an occasion for self-compassion instead of self-blame or critique?
Do you find yourself spiraling into stories about your (or others’) insufficiency when melancholy falls? When failure knocks? When things don’t go as you’d like them to?
If you’d like to learn how to cultivate your own resilience I invite you to attend my next event, Your Path to Full Potential Retreat, on January 28th in Bloomington, IL.
I’ll teach you how tap and graft the “pleasures of heaven” and translate the “pains of hell” into a more fully realized and rewarding life.
And I’ll read you some poetry, too :).
Interested? My retreats are strictly limited to 12 in order to preserve a sense of community and the opportunity for individualized attention. I usually have a waiting list about two weeks before the event date.
Click here for more information and to register:
In the meantime, I wish you a brave and beautiful start to your year.