It was getting dark and the trail was obviously leading nowhere. After shimmying over one more felled redwood tree obstructing my way, I found my precious trail had now evaporated into nothing more than a few trampled patches of earth. Three miles in and my shortcut was at a dead end. What a twisted blessing to be on my own this evening. Instead of blaming a partner or defending my right to be wrong, I cut straight to the facts: I was lost. Nothing to do but swear out loud and accept the consequence of my naiveté. No more wishful thinking. Was I even paying attention to which junctures in the path had brought me this far? With less than an hour before nightfall, the choices I made now would need to be good ones.
Not knowing where we are or which direction to take? How alluring. How ominous. The emotion may signal the start of a fantastic, unexpected journey, or that imminent danger is afoot. Depending on our character, we may seek out the experience of uncertainty or run headlong in the opposite direction. Either way, we all know the feeling. The heart beats faster. The face pales. Fingers and toes grow number as one’s life forces contract into the core of one’s body. There comes a perilous instinct for action and, at the same time, a shrinking sense of identity. We feel so, so small.
It is not so easy to get lost these days. Rarely do we spend time in unknown places alone. When we do, we bring some version of Siri with us—a device locating us not only in space, but with detailed info about our location in time.
“Turn left at the next tree, continue hiking at your current pace of 2.5 mph, and you will make your 7:30 appointment with eight minutes free to update your friends on how cool it was getting lost today.”
With or without the assistance of our gadgets, we naturally seek patterns and predictability in our lives. As we age, a sense of complacency seeps in, and before we know it the world no longer seems mysterious enough to put us in doubt about our surroundings. It may take a sudden accident or debacle to shock us out of the presumed security of our lives. In such times of uncertainty, we are left face to face with our own scarce capacities to wrestle with the very natural human feelings of shame, dread, and doubt.
As a therapist, my job is to accompany those brave souls who, like myself on the trail, have the childish, old-fashioned audacity to recognize that they are lost. Together we work with these tender emotions so that they can be felt fully without losing ourselves to them. This article is broken into three parts, each attempting to identify the nature of the intense feelings aroused by uncertain times—and how we begin to work with them.
Part I: Shame (admitting we are wrong)
Divorce. Debt. Joblessness. Deceit. These are but some of the shocking endpoints that shake us loose from self-confidence. They are events that call attention to our own uncertainty; our capacity to have fooled ourselves, or to be preposterously unprepared for and deficient to the task at hand. Looking around, we may see the disappointed faces of those who placed their faith in us. Our private feelings of uncertainty become complicated with feelings of shame and regret over the public disclosure. Finding out that we have failed is hard enough without the added worry that we have somehow let others down in the process.
Admitting we are wrong is thus best taken up in the company of those not relying on us to be right. Part of the magic of the therapeutic setting is that it offers temporary refuge from the expectations of others. Together, therapist and client work to inhabit a space of simple, authentic curiosity. In a neutral environment, the need to justify or rationalize our actions eases. Eventually we are left confronted only by our own negative self-talk.
“How stupid of me to put myself in this situation! Why didn’t I pay attention to the obvious red flags along the way? This blunder points out such serious flaws in my character. What is the matter with me?”
Whether such thoughts come naturally or are the insidious handiwork of our parents’ harsh discipline with us as children, we are left burdened with the automatic thinking of a self-condemned criminal: Shame on me!
Shame is one of the more difficult of our core emotions. Similar to rage or jealousy, it tends to come in overwhelming doses. The intensity of the bodily experience—cringing, blushing, jitteriness, or a sense of suffocation—is hard to endure for long. So our instinctive reactions usually are ones of short-term submission. We withdraw, sink back, throw up our hands, and bow our heads. Then we seek to immediately distance ourselves from the feeling.
No one is an expert at managing such anxiety. It humbles each of us the same. Rather than responding by shutting down completely, distracting ourselves, or spiraling into intellectual states of self-contempt, the trick is to allow the feeling to gradually dissolve in an atmosphere of kindness. It helps immensely to share the experience with someone willing to empathize with the situation. Even so, it takes effort to stay with the discomfort long enough to see it shift as it moves through the body. It takes practice. With attention in the company of a trusted friend or counselor, it’s possible that shame can rise and fall naturally, releasing its hold on us.
Part II: Dread (doing something about it … or not)
As the sky darkens, I am still far from familiar territory. This is when my ears pick out sounds I hadn’t heard before: branches straining above me, leaves rustling behind me, the quickened palpitations of my own breath and heart. Even the quiet of the air carries an ambient tone of menace. Each decision I make is thus embedded in an atmosphere of dread. The world is not necessarily a safe place. I get a sudden urge to just start running.
Having recognized that we have been wrong brings with it a quickened desire to set things right. The search for safety is on, and the mind becomes hypersensitive to hidden dangers. This is where uncertainty can lead directly into panic, where one’s worst fears appear inescapable. People newly divorced will plunge heedlessly into new partnerships. People overwhelmed with debt will look at high-risk gambles as their best bet—the defeated rush back to repeat their defeats. The deceived seek revenge through continued deceptions. We learn the hard way: Actions inspired by dread rarely offer escape.
What, then, to do when the sense of dread begins to take over?
When confronting longstanding patterns of fear-based behaviors, people seek help from outside sources for good reason. Many parts of our lymbic (emotion-oriented) brain require a sense of connection with others in order to function well. Choosing to reflect on the things we dread in the company of a caring other (who is less attached to the problem than we are) can provide a borrowed sense of spaciousness and confidence to the situation. Different therapists will provide different interventions to help quiet the anxious mind. But clients often share that the seeds of healing occur primarily through the sense of connectedness they feel while sharing.
In nature, it is said that the antidote often grows near the poison. Whether it’s true or not, the saying is helpful in that it inspires us to take a second look at what we find dangerous before escaping. What is the specific danger I am seeking to avoid? What is it I really want instead? What resources are available to me right here, right now? These points of inquiry, shared in the company of a caring other in a nonthreatening environment, address the subject matter of our dread without giving in to the associated instinct to run. We can give ourselves permission to pause and make no decision until a clear direction reveals itself. Knowing what it is that we do want allows our brains and behaviors to function a little more directly on our own behalf.
Part III: Doubt (making friends with not knowing)
Admitting that I am lost and deciding to do something about it has left me with a third challenge: pursuing my way in a murky world. Thus, my story will end here not with a cozy image of my arrival back at the trailhead (though, of course, I did get home eventually). The more important moment for me occurs as I am walking carefully back toward the last trail marker. I am whistling out loud—partly to ward off monsters, partly to attract any wise rangers that might be passing by, but mostly to practice the light-hearted state of mind I am aspiring to rouse within myself. I’ve decided that since I don’t know the way back (or forward), I will use the last bit of evening light to gather more information. It’s a short-term plan, and that’s what I am working with for now.
We don’t always have the option of certainty or a return to normal. Getting lost or facing our own, personal defeats reminds us that life has a persistent knack for coming together and falling apart. Doubt about future outcomes is actually quite healthy. It means we have been paying attention. However, similar to our reactions to shame and dread, we can fall into patterns of avoidance and overwhelm with doubt.
We avoid doubt by embedding our current choices with unmerited confidence. (“My last marriage failed, so this next relationship must certainly be successful.”) This attitude may seem to strengthen, yet remains tinged with desperation. It serves as a quick substitute for courage while leaving us blind to oncoming cues.
Conversely, we can become overwhelmed by doubt. (“There are just no jobs to be had for me anymore. I am cursed.”) Though it may seem enormously emotional at the time, overwhelm is actually the way we tune out the feeling of doubt. Being paralyzed allows us temporary respite—which we may need—from the courage that is called upon by an insecure environment.
It is perfectly fair that we avoid or wallow for a time in the false hopes and discouragement that accompany doubt. No need to beat ourselves up for our reactions to feeling small and afraid. It helps to be kind and to find ways to engender patience with ourselves. With time, however, incubated in a neutral environment, the gift of doubt dawns as we begin to doubt our own discouragement. (“If I was wrong about being so secure, maybe I could be equally wrong about being so insecure.”)
The body is not only a storehouse of doubts but a useful instrument in arousing courage. The very act of accepting doubt as part of our experience means we are choosing a courageous path. It helps to support courage in small ways. A simple practice to awaken courage called “Rousing Windhorse” was shared with me during a retreat led by Pema Chödrön, teacher and author of the soon-to-be-released book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change. I have abridged her teaching into the following brief morning routine:
Start by bowing your head with eyes closed and paying heed to whatever messages of doubt come your way. Let your head fall all the way for a moment, letting go the need for false bravado and structure. Breathe in. Allow a sense of tenderness and sensitivity to whatever feeling meets you there. Follow this by breathing out as you slowly lift your head to an upright position. Open your eyes and gaze softly at your surroundings. Repeat this two or three times: breathing into the thoughts and feelings, breathing out into the openness of life around you.
This small act completes the full circle that is the dance of doubt and courage. There cannot be one without the other. It mirrors the experiences we each face daily as we invent new ways to repair the damage of past mistakes. What more can we offer our fears of an uncertain world but to let them have their say without letting them dictate the future?
I hear my fears and I do not know the way forward.
My eyes are open and I am willing to pay attention.
Chödrön, Pema, and Carolyn Rose Gimian. Smile at Fear: A Retreat with Pema Chödrön on Discovering Your Radiant Self-Confidence. Nov. 1, 2011. Shambhala Audio.
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