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©Copyright 2019 Brad Lemley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. www.bradlemley.com
This is the story of the most important thing that ever happened to me.
I will tell you how I cured my debilitating panic attacks in one hour, way back in 1993.
It is not my intention to present my experience as a universal. Nothing is more complex or varied than human psychological makeup. What worked for me may not work for you.
But I firmly believe that each of us has a right to tell our story, as long as we do so as truthfully as possible. That’s what I will do here. I am encouraged by the readers who have reached out to tell me they recognized themselves in my story, and that what I discovered was valuable to them.
Afraid All the Time
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, the son of a social worker and a high school teacher. I had one sister, three years older than me. From the outside, it looked like a normal suburban childhood.
But from the moment of my earliest memory, I was beset by fear. In a real sense, I was afraid of nearly everything. Whenever I was called upon to do anything that would direct the world’s gaze at me – speak in public, talk to a girl, play an instrument, any activity but hiding in my room – I was seized by deep, profound fear that I could overcome only through a vast expenditure of will.
Along with generalized fear, I had a particular fear of brain damage. A kid who lived in our neighborhood when I was 12 had taken an excess of some drug and wound up barely able to speak. I saw him shambling about all day, every day, and it absolutely terrified me.
In retrospect, however, my biggest fear was revealing my fearfulness to the world. I did anything and everything to appear brave to others, a theme that worked in my life right up until it did not…as you will see.
Beset by fear, my one and only strength, I decided, was an able intellect. With this as my standard, my only source of a positive identity and sense of worth, I became obsessed with intellectual achievement. I took endless I.Q. tests, intent upon remaining in the top five percent of scorers. I got perfect grades. I memorized long passages of Shakespearean verse to keep my mind sharp. I did anything and everything I could to ensure that my sense of being gifted with intelligence remained intact.
But, always, the fear would manifest, and I would be terrified of showing it. My typical response was to berate myself for feeling that fear, then withdraw to my room, or even to the woods – as a young adult, I was a great fan of camping, alone, for days at a time.
Despite this vast emotional handicap, I held myself together through sheer force of will – fighting, endlessly fighting those feelings of fear. Revealingly, as a kid I had a reputation in my family as being almost free of emotion. My mother used to call me “Mr. Spock,” a reference to the emotionless alien of the original Star Trek television series. I took it as something of a compliment, but in retrospect, it was emblematic of my tendency to fight, repress, hide all feeling.
There was some brightness in the gloom. I had the good fortune to be a fast and facile writer, so once out of college I got a job as a television reporter. I think I was intentionally thrusting myself in situations that would require me to conquer my fears, and appearing on TV every night seemed appropriate.
The first time I anchored a newscast at age 23, I was so terrified I actually came close to passing out on camera. It was only pure will that kept me on course.
I occasionally looked at ease. I was far from it.
But during my TV career, my lifelong tension was beginning to manifest as physically debilitating conditions, especially brutal headaches. After a day in the newsroom, I spent nearly every evening with an ice bag on my neck (no drugs – might damage the brain!) to attempt to quench what felt like a hot wire running under my scalp.
When I turned 25, tired of the exhausting fear of being on TV, I moved to Washington D.C., just to get away – I think I was running from all the fears that that had beset me in Oregon.
But as a radio reporter in DC, the situation just got worse. I was barely functioning, convinced I was losing my mind, and constantly fearful.
When I was 29 in 1984, I married an extraordinary young woman from Maine named Laurie, and we had a child, Alex, in 1986. I really don’t believe Laurie was fully aware of my chronically fearful condition – by that point, I’d gotten pretty good at hiding it.
I transitioned from working at the local National Public Radio station as a reporter to writing on a freelance basis for the Washington Post, something of dream come true. But I was uncomfortable and frightened in many of the high-pressure situations this job forced me into.
So I hatched a plan – to which Laurie agreed – to move to Maine, where I would work as a freelancer. I relished the thought of being alone much of the time, which is what freelancing in rural Maine would entail, so that no one else could see how fearful I was, should I ultimately fail to hide it successfully.
Bad to Worse
Being alone, however, turned out to be a terrible idea.
It was in Maine, working long days by myself at home, that my anxiety began to go off the charts. I was simply terrified much of the time.
I remember looking at myself in a mirror, seeing that the blood had drained from my face. This classic short-term fearful condition – being “as white as a sheet” – was actually a daily, habitual occurrence for me. My gums also began receding, I lost a great deal of weight, and rarely slept.
I was working as a freelance writer, with an office in our small house, when the final crisis hit.
The year was 1993 – the early spring. Our son, Alex, was seven, and in second grade. Laurie was working for our local congressman, and typically left home at 8 a.m., returning at 6 p.m.
One Monday morning in the early summer, she left, and my old companion, fear, decided to at last escape its bounds entirely.
At 9 a.m. that morning, my heart, which habitually beat rapidly due to fear, began to pound. I started to pant, like a frightened dog.
But the real story was not in any outward, visible manifestation – it was an internal experience that I can only describe as the most intense fear any human being can feel and remain alive. The best way I can think to convey it is this: think back over your life to the most frightened you have ever been.
Then, in three seconds, double it. Three more seconds, double it again. Then keep doubling it at that interval, until…
I hope you can’t take your imagination here, that you can’t approximate what it would feel like to be 10, 100, 1,000 times more frightened than you have ever been. It’s impossible to convey fully, the nearest I can come to it is – it’s like your brain is on fire, and your being is one enormous, soul-shaking scream.
It hit me when I was in the hall of our home. I collapsed as if with a seizure, lying on my side in that hallway, screaming and screaming and screaming, a scream that felt like it would never end.
And then…it did end. If there are any mercies to be reported in this story, it is that the human nervous system appears to have something like a circuit breaker in a house’s electrical system, and one that does roughly the same thing – prevents an overload that can burn out the wires.
After roughly 30 seconds of eyes-rolled-back screaming, I remember sitting up in that hallway, my back against the wall, and thinking…what the hell was that? I’d been frightened before, but this was something new.
Then, at noon that day, it happened again.
Then once again at 4 p.m. that night.
Laurie got home at 5 p.m., and I somehow held it together all evening, not mentioning any of the day’s nightmarish experiences.
Next day – it happened again at 8 a.m.
Then again, as if according to a schedule, promptly at noon. Incandescent fear. Screaming. Screaming.
After that fifth screaming bout, I sat once again in the hallway, back against the wall, soaked in sweat – by now, a habitual posture. I looked at my watch. It was 12:15 p.m.
Good, I thought. The next one will happen at 4 p.m. Laurie won’t be home until 5 p.m. So, once again, I’ll be done with it by the time she gets home.
The Most Important Thought I Have Ever Had
And then, I had a different thought.
I don’t know where it came from. Where does any thought come from? But I had it so strongly, so forcefully, that I will never forget it. The first manifestation of the thought was a single word:
And then…here is the thought, word for word:
I will not have another of these panic seizures here at home. I will get into my car, drive to the most crowded place I can find, and have the next one in front of as many people as possible.
As I thought this, I knew immediately how it would go. I would drive to the local supermarket. In this mid-sized town in Maine, it was the most reliably crowded place – at 4 p.m., there would probably be well over 150 people in that store.
I would go to the front-center of the store – between the end of the middle aisle and the checkout area. This was the spot that would put me in view of the most people.
And there, I vowed, I would have my next screaming panic seizure. I would collapse, convulsing in fear, eyes rolled back in my head.
Around me, a crowd would gather in shock and wonder. It was a small town, so almost certainly, some of them would know who I was.
And I would writhe and scream, and they would watch this spectacle, then perhaps call an ambulance. I’d be taken away on a stretcher, and forever after would be known to everyone in that town as the guy who had the weird, screaming fit right in the middle of the store.
As I drove to the store, I kept playing this scene in my mind, willing it to happen.
The logical question: why on earth did I want to do this?
The answer is simple. If I had one more of these panic attacks in the privacy of my home, I knew, with absolute certainty, that I would never leave my home again.
Never. At age 38, with a wife and son and the responsibility that entails, I would never have the courage to leave these four walls again. I would become a classic agoraphobic, terrified of having a panic attack in a public place, and therefore never, ever visiting such a place.
So, having a panic attack in public, as I was preparing to do, was obviously not a desirable outcome, but I was fresh out of desirable outcomes. I had just two options, each dreadful – have a panic attack in public and be forever marked in the town as mentally and physically freakish, or never leave my home again.
You may object here that I had a third option: to get psychological counseling, and to engage in behavioral therapy that would slowly expose me to what I feared, and slowly build my confidence to face those fears through sequential exposure. I did not do that, reasoning that my fear seemed so generalized that sequential exposure wouldn’t work – sequential exposure to what? Existence? But a good behaviorist would have found specific triggers, and worked with me to find them and build my confidence to confront them. That may have been a course that would have worked for me. It might for you.
But I did not do that. In my view at the time, I had the two options.
Going publicly “crazy” was terrifying, but having another attack at home was simply unthinkable. If I did, and never left home again, I would die – possibly of a heart attack during one of these attacks possibly by killing myself because of the shame and guilt of letting my family down. My job as a freelance writer required frequent travel. If I never left home, I could not do my job, and our life would spiral to a place so dark I refused to even entertain the possibility.
Having an attack in the public, while deeply humiliating, would at least preserve my ability to leave my house. And as long as I could do that, I reasoned, there was some hope that somehow, I would get better.
In the Store…
I got to the store about 3:30 p.m. These attacks had arrived at predictable times, so I stood in the busiest place near the produce section and waited for 4 p.m., the expected attack time, to arrive.
(In subsequent years, I learned that cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone” peaks in some people in the early morning, around noon, and in the early evening. So it turns out there was a physiological reason for the regularity of my attacks.)
“Let’s go. Let’s make this a big one.”
At 3:45, my heart began to speed up a bit. “There it is,” I thought to myself. “C’mon. Let’s make this worthwhile. Let’s put on a show for everyone.”
But surprisingly, at 3:55, my heart was beating no faster.
“Let’s go,” I said to my fear, which I had come to regard as distinct sub-personality (and this intuition was correct, more on that below). “Let’s make this a big one. I want to be more frightened than I have ever been. I want much more fear than I have ever felt, and I want it right now!” I even began making a little gesture with both hands – the “come on” gesture, flicking my fingers toward myself, the sort a fighter makes when he’s daring his opponent to give it all he has.
At 4 p.m., I felt a little “odd.” Not afraid. This was different.
“COME ON!” I roared internally, now making the gesture frantically. “I want this! I want it now, and I want it huge! I don’t want it to just scare me. I want it to render me unconscious with fear. I want the worst fear the world has ever known to take up residence in my skull, right now, and want to scream so loudly that they’ll hear me at the far side of the parking lot. I will not take no for an answer. NOW! NOW! NOW!”
And it just would not happen. The “odd” feeling in my chest felt something like that old fear personality clawing for a toehold, and failing. Strangely, I felt rather positive about it – as if it were actually a source of strength I’d been pointlessly fighting, when I should have welcomed its energetic force.
It’s been 26 years now. I’ve never had another panic attack.
Not even close.
In fact, I’ve never even been frightened – “mild concern” is probably the best way to describe what little anxiety I’ve felt, and even that is rare and fleeting, because I never resist it.
I’ve traveled the world, spoken before crowds, and interviewed some of the most intimidating and powerful people in science and business.
And all I’ve felt is anticipation: “I’m looking forward to this.”
No real fear. A blip, a hiccup, of a few seconds duration, a bit of that original sense of fear failing to “grab hold,” and a feeling of folding its energy into me as something I could use constructively.
And on I go.
The Day Everything Changed
And as it turns out, fear was not the only negative emotion that no longer held me under its sway.
Every uncomfortable emotion a human being can experience – anger, sadness, grief – became something I treated the same way. I so willingly embraced it that it never again had any control over me.
When sadness stole over me, in much the same fashion as I had handled my fear, I would urge – even beg – my sadness to become overwhelming, to leave me a blubbering mess for hours or days.
When beset by anger, I encouraged it to rage in me, to make me an insane monster.
What happened as a result of opening my emotional conduit wide (rather than desperately trying to pinch it closed, as I had for the first half of my life) was that I would briefly gain an awareness of these emotions, and welcome them, feel an odd infusion of energy, and they would run their course in a matter of seconds.
And I always experienced them with a certain detachment, as if there was a space between “me” and the surging emotion that kept me safe, and that could draw strength from.
The longest I’ve been angry, for example, was roughly 20 seconds, when I discovered a crook had smashed my car’s back window and stolen roughly $10,000 in computer equipment.
I let the rage come, wash over me unimpeded, I lustily shouted a couple of expletives, pounded on the roof of the car, and then felt it leave so abruptly, leaving useful energy behind, that I was actually giddy.
The Good Years Begin…
The ensuing years were – and are – good ones. Free of fear because I welcomed it, I never hesitated to put myself in situations I would have found terrifying before.
My career took off. I wrote or co-wrote 10 books. My science and health articles were published in some of the leading periodicals in the world – notably Discover Magazine, where I became a contributing editor.
I had tea with Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal in Cambridge, England, as he told me about the latest in celestial reckoning. I cruised with Elon Musk in Los Angeles in his Ferrari, as we discussed SpaceX, his rocket program. I dug into the mysteries of the Big Bang with Alan Guth, the M.I.T. physicist who has revamped our understanding of how the universe came into existence.
In my 50s, I got a lucrative writing position and made good investments, allowing Laurie and me to become financially quite comfortable. Some of this was due to swing-for-the-fences investments I would have been terrified to make before, but I didn’t think twice about any of them.
Through it all, if ever my fear fluttered up even slightly, or my heart rate increased in anticipation of some event or meeting, I habitually – but very sincerely, because this does not work if you don’t mean it – encouraged the fear to overwhelm me, and for my heart to beat faster, to pound like a jackhammer.
Paradoxically, this always made it slow, or at least stay the same – NEVER did it, or does it, speed up.
In the ensuing years, I’ve learned a few things about anxiety. I began to understand that the solution I had stumbled upon – or, perhaps, received via a merciful intervention, I will never know for sure – had a long history of solving emotional turmoil of all kinds.
Fear as a Sub-Personality
Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the fathers of modern psychotherapy, believed in the concept of subpersonalities – discrete complexes of motivation within our psyches with the characteristics we typically ascribe to individual human beings.
This makes perfect sense to me. Because my fear was with me for so long, I had no trouble regarding it as a distinct subpersonality, one with which I wrestled often. A typical dialogue between my ego and “fear subpersonality” had been something like:
Fear: Here I come.
Ego: Go away! Stop! I feel no fear! I am calm and collected! You cannot get a toehold within me, I am not afraid!
Fear: You can’t help it. I am you. Feel it. I am growing stronger by the second.
Ego: No, you are not! Stop! Stop! Please, please stop!
And on and on, with the felt sensation of fear growing stronger moment by moment.
But once again, when we look to the founders of modern psychology, we see that at least some of them say that to gain mastery over negative emotions, we must embrace, rather than resist these sub-personalities. As psychologist William Johnson put it:
One must be willing to say, “Who are you? What do you have to say? I will listen to you. You may have the floor this entire hour if you want; you may use any language you want I am here to listen.” This requires a formidable realignment of attitude for most of us. If there is something in yourself you see as weakness a defect, a terrible obstruction to a productive life, you nevertheless have to stop approaching that part of yourself as “the bad guy.” … you must try to listen to that inferior as if he or she were the voice of wisdom.
Exactly. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to fully embrace, even love, that sub-personality, as a part of you every bit the equal of your best qualities.
This is not a “trick” to persuade it to go away, but rather a full-on acknowledgement that all parts of us deserve respect. Each has its own energy and wisdom to impart, and will not be denied.
Jung on Resistance
The famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate. It oppresses. What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
This, I realized, was a perfect summation of my relationship with fear for the first three decades of my life. I was fearful. I hated being fearful, and resisted that fear with all the strength I could muster. As I did so, it grew to be a larger and larger presence in my life, until it literally took over my body.
Jung, importantly, pioneered the concept of the “shadow.” This is his collective term for the disowned parts of ourselves, the ones we refused to acknowledge but that nonetheless have their own validity and power.
“The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself,” Jung wrote. “A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps … living below his own level.”
And the shadow can possess the conscious personality, Jung asserted. But true healing and power comes from the conscious personality assuming control and taking the shadow on board. “It must be… the conscious personality, who integrates the shadow … and not vice versa. Otherwise the conscious becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow.”
When you acknowledge that fear is a vital part of who you are… and so is anger, and guilt, and sadness… you bring the power of these real, energetic sub-personalities into your psyche. You become integrated rather than fragmented, and a force to be reckoned with rather than cringing and weak.
“Assimilation of the shadow gives a man body, so to speak.” Jung wrote.
Enter the Behaviorists…
Those who practice behavioral psychology would have us acquire this power gradually (in other words, I’m tempted to say, over a long, expensive series of sessions).
For example, if you had a morbid fear of elevators, your therapist would set out a series of tasks carried out over days or weeks:
- Go to a building lobby and look at an elevator, from a distance, for 30 seconds.
- Go again and look more closely for one minute.
- Stand directly in front of a closed elevator.
- Stand in front of one as it opens.
- Set foot inside an open elevator for 2 seconds, but exit before the door closes.
- Go inside, let the door close, but then press the button to open it before it moves.
- Ride up one floor.
- Ride up several floors.
And so on. This is standard psychiatric therapy, virtually unquestioned.
But the downside, to me, would have been that having to go through so many steps to stave off incipient agoraphobia would have persuaded me that I was weak, and that some other fear was likely to pop up that would also take many days to conquer.
Other people don’t take a month to lose their fear of elevators. They just walk in.
That was my mindset as I entered that store. At some level, I was showing myself that I was actually normal, and the fears that had beset me were ultimately not worth taking much time to overcome, and I was ready to fully embrace them right now, no matter what the consequences.
So “all at once” can work, too.
Eckhart Tolle and the Unhappy Woman
Eckhart Tolle, the modern mystic and author of “The Power of Now,” tells the story of his encounter with a woman in her 30s who had been sexually abused by her father. She was desperately unhappy, and deeply wished to rid herself of that unhappiness.
Eckhart Tolle, master of the present moment
Tolle picks up the story:
I directed the focus of her attention to what she was feeling inside her body and asked her to sense the emotion directly, instead of through the filter of her unhappy thoughts, her unhappy story. She said she had come expecting me to show her the way out of her unhappiness, not into it.
Reluctantly, however, she did what I asked her to do. Tears were rolling down her face, her whole body was shaking. “At this moment, this is what you feel.” I said. “There is nothing you can do about the fact that at this moment this is what you feel. Now, instead of wanting this moment to be different from the way it is, which adds more pain to the pain that is already there, is it possible for you to completely accept that this is what you feel right now?”
She was quiet for a moment. Suddenly she looked impatient, as if she was about to get up, and said angrily, “No, I don’t want to accept this.” “Who is speaking?” I asked her. “You or the unhappiness in you? Can you see that your unhappiness about being unhappy is just another layer of unhappiness?” She became quiet again. “I am not asking you to do anything. All I’m asking is that you find out whether it is possible for you to allow those feelings to be there. In other words, and this may sound strange, if you don’t mind being unhappy, what happens to the unhappiness? Don’t you want to find out?”
She looked puzzled briefly, and after a minute or so of sitting silently, I suddenly noticed a significant shift in her energy field. She said, “This is weird. I ‘m still unhappy, but now there is space around it. It seems to matter less.”
This was the first time I heard somebody put it like that: There is space around my unhappiness. That space, of course, comes when there is inner acceptance of whatever you are experiencing in the present moment.
When Tolle says “Can you see that your unhappiness about being unhappy is just another layer of unhappiness?” it’s identical to my realization that my fear about being fearful was just another layer of fear.
And when he says, “…if you don’t mind being unhappy, what happens to the unhappiness? Don’t you want to find out?” he describes the situation I went through precisely. I had to “not mind” being fearful. This might have been a lie I told to myself, so I hatched the scheme of going to the store.
The proof of my not minding was being completely willing to show that fear publicly.
The fear of being fearful was the multiplier effect that led to the doubling and redoubling of the fear, a logarithmic escalation. It turned out that when you remove the multiplier from the equation, the sum of fear became zero – because anything multiplied by zero is zero.
Fear of Fear Itself
As I dug even deeper, I discovered a branch of psychology called Dialectical Behavior Theory. The fear of fear that plagued me, according to DBT, is what’s termed a secondary emotion. As Jay Winner M.D., an authority on anxiety and panic puts it, “When an event happens, we may have a primary emotion. For example, if you break up with a significant other, you may have the primary emotion of being sad. If you think that you shouldn’t be so sad, you may get sad about being sad. Being sad about being sad, angry about being angry, or fearful of being fearful are all examples of secondary emotions.
“These secondary emotions may prolong feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger,” Winner wrote. “To avoid being stuck in any of these emotions, let go of thoughts of how your primary emotion should be different. Welcome how you feel, and the primary emotion relatively quickly comes and goes.”
Distress and Eustress
Winner also points out that there are two kinds of stress, distress and eustress. Fear is an embodiment of our ancient fight-or-flight response. The adrenaline is released from our adrenal glands and heightens one’s ability to physically react. This adrenaline response can be experienced in a number of ways including fear and worry. This fear and worry can be thought of as “distress” or bad stress. The adrenaline response can also be experienced as excitement or enthusiasm which can be thought of as “eustress” or good stress.
“Interestingly, if you say the word “eustress’ out loud, it sounds a lot like “use stress,” writes Winner. “Even if you don’t use the additional adrenaline to dance or run, you can enjoy the feeling of it flowing it through your veins!”
Learning to experience your primary emotions without resistance – as a subtle, welcome energetic boost of alertness similar to what I felt in the supermarket, and have often felt since – will help you weather all sorts of emotional storms.
The Fate Thrust Upon You vs. the Fate You Choose.
Another way to get at this comes from Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. This is adapted from his lecture “The Call to Abraham.”
I’ve dealt with lots of people who have anxiety disorders. They are not mysterious to me. It’s no problem to understand why people have anxiety disorders. Because everybody has a reason to be anxious. In fact, we have the ultimate reason to be anxious because we know that we are vulnerable and we know that we are going to die. How you can not be anxious under those circumstances is a great mystery. Abraham is self-conscious, but he moves forward despite that. That is the appropriate response in the face of non-naïve understanding of what constitutes life. There is no courage in naivete, but if you are alert existentially, fully self-conscious, so you are perfectly aware of your limitations and how you might be hurt, and then make the decision to move forward into the land of the unknown anyway, that’s one of the secrets to a good life.
The clinical literature on this is very clear. What you do with people who are afraid is you lay out what they are anxious about in detail, what might happen, then you decompose it into small, hypothetically manageable problems, then you have the person expose themselves to the thing that they are afraid of. What happens is not that they get less afraid. What happens, instead, is they get braver. That is not the same thing. Because if you get less afraid, it’s like, well the world isn’t as dangerous as a I thought it was, silly me. If you get braver, what happens is, yeah, the damn world is just as dangerous as I thought, or maybe it’s even more dangerous than I thought, but it turns out that there is something in me that responds to taking that on as a voluntary challenge, and grows and thrives as a consequence.
There is no doubt about this. Even the psychophysiological findings are quite clear. If you impose a stressor on two groups of people, and on one group the stressor is imposed involuntarily, and on the other group the stressor is picked up voluntarily, they people who pick up the stressor voluntarily use a whole different psychophysiological system to deal with it. They use the system that is associated with approach and challenge, and not the system that is associated with defensive aggression and withdrawal. And the system that is associated with challenge is much more associated with positive emotion and much less associated with negative emotion.
It’s also much less hard on you, because the defensive posturing system, the prey animal system, man, when that thing kicks in, all systems are go for you. The pedal is pushed down to the metal and the brakes are on. You are using future resources that you could be storing for a future time right now, in the present, to ready yourself for emergency.
There is nothing simple or trivial at all about being called to move forthrightly forward into the strange and the unknown. And there is real adventure that is associated with that. That’s an exciting thing, which is part of the reason why people travel. To see yourself as the sort of creature that can do that, is willing to do that, on a habitual basis, is also the right kind of tonic for, I hate this word, your self-esteem.
Self-esteem has nothing to do with feeling good about yourself. There is not any reason why, a priori, you should just feel good about yourself, but if you can view yourself acting in a courageous and forthright manner and encountering the world and trying to improve your lot and taking risks in a non-naïve way, then you have something you can comfort yourself with at night when you are wondering what is the whole damn point of your futile and miserable life. That is necessary. You have to have something real to set against that. Observing courage in yourself is definitely one of the things that can help you.
Stepping back, Peterson summarizes it this way:
The proper path of life is to take the tradition and spirit that is associated with consciousness as such, and to act it out in your own personal life in a way that is analogous with the way Christ acted it out in his life. What that means, in part, is the acceptance of the tragic preconditions of existence. That’s partly betrayal by friends and by family and by the state, it’s partly punishment for sins that you did not commit (the arbitrary nature of justice), and the fact of finitude. Your duty, and the way to set things right in the cosmos, is to accept all those details as necessary preconditions for being and to act virtuously despite all that. That’s a very, very powerful idea.
My “tragic precondition” was a (genetic, I think) tendency toward crippling anxiety, and I fought it with every ounce of my psychological being for the entire first half of my life.
In retrospect, this was the perfect strategy to make myself into an ineffectual mass of warring fragments who are first figuratively, then literally, wound up screaming at each other.
When, instead, I accepted it – in fact, embraced it – as a “necessary precondition for being” its terrible aspect immediately deflated, like the air escaping from a balloon.
I had a new self-conception. I was the brave person who took the risk of asking his fear to fully manifest, and found I was much larger – infinitely larger – than it is.
Emotions Don’t Last if You Embrace Them
The liberating fact is that emotions are by nature fleeting – we need only understand that this is so. As clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer put it:
…unless you interfere with them, emotions come and go. The illusion of their permanence is mostly something fabricated by your mind. Still, if from deep within you’re driven to focus vigilantly on them, you’ll thereby intensify them and (however inadvertently) be ‘inviting’ them to hang around indefinitely. We may all be subject to adverse circumstances, but finally it’s in our understandable but wrong-headed resistance to them that causes our disquietude….
Another term for resistance is reinforcement. The act of resisting is the act of reinforcing, of regarding the phenomenon we resist as vital and durable. The act of accepting is the act of releasing, of regarding the phenomenon as one more manifestation of the multiplicity of life – one that, like all of them, comes and goes if allowed to move freely.
Frankl and Paradoxical Intention
All of the information I’ve recounted above concentrates and crystallizes in the work of Victor Frankl, author of the seminal “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Frankl’s experience as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps led him to formulate a concept he called “paradoxical intention.”
The term simply means radically embracing, even encouraging, the disowned parts of ourselves. Here is how Frankl treated a sampling of his patients using paradoxical intention:
- He told a man plagued by heavy perspiration, and by the fearful anticipation of it, to try to sweat as much as possible.
- A surgeon beset by a fear of trembling hands was told to make a show of “how well he could tremble.”
- He told a woman who had heart palpitations, and a fear of heart attack, to tell herself to make her heart beat faster.
- He told a boy who stuttered to stutter on purpose.
- He instructed a man who was anxious in crowds to try to collapse from fear in the midst of the crowd.
That last one hits pretty close to home.
The Mindfulness Connection
Nomenclature in psychology keeps changing, and in recent years, the concepts I’ve been listing above have been swept into a general classification called mindfulness, defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
By this definition, my years of fear were due to neither acknowledging nor accepting my emotional state.
Today there are resources to help one become more mindful, and some are free, such as http://www.freemindfulness.org/download.
It’s good to know what I went through has a name. I went from mindless to mindful. You can, too.
One More Confirmation
Leave your front and back door open.
Allow your thoughts to come and go.
Just don’t serve them tea.
The deepest truth, I have come to learn, is that nothing about being a human being is wrong.
We are not perfect except for our fear. Our sadness. Our greed. Our laziness.
We are perfect with them. And when we no longer fight them – when we sincerely welcome them, love them, even encourage them as necessary and vital, everything changes.
A good friend of mine, Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., put it well:
Contentment is being mentally and emotionally satisfied with the way things are. But how do you find it? How do you experience contentment? I think it starts by recognizing that our existence is marked with joy and sorrow, birth and death, health and sickness, times of abundance and times of scarcity, and then being willing to embrace all of it fully.
I realize that all of this seems terribly paradoxical. To have people welcome and embrace the worst aspects of themselves and of life in general seems like just the opposite of the way toward healing.
But my experience was that, locked in an endless battle with a part of myself I wished to disown, it felt as if I had no choice.
At ease in the world…since 1993.
There is no painless third path.
The two paths open to us are:
- remaining locked for a lifetime in a hellish battle with our worst selves – ironically allowing them to become stronger and stronger
- accepting, either slowly or all at once, those parts of us we despise, giving them freedom to express themselves fully, and owning the power, wisdom and enlarged perspective they offer. Thus acknowledged, they will pass, but you must embrace them fully, and love them as you love the best thing you have ever felt, seen or done. As Fredrich Nietzsche put it, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love.”
Seen in this light, for me, there really was only one choice: amor fati, love of one’s fate.
The question now, of course, is am I done? The answer: of course not. The experience I’ve laid out here took me from dysfunctional to efficient and effective, but the process of mindfulness is indeed endless.
Lately, I’ve learned that one of the most important things to understand about it is that once we become adept at accepting our worst selves, we may still not accept our best selves.
So openness need not be only to the once-shunned aspects of the shadow – but rather to the totality of our feelings, including joyous ones.
Even now, as good as my life is, I tend to be someone who revels in struggle – which is why “beating” fear with mindfulness is a triumphant story I like to tell. But these days, mindfulness reminds me that my mental life can and should be joyous as well.
Can’t seem to make that one happen all at once. But I am getting there.
Most days are very good days.
I have made this book available for free during the coronavirus pandemic. It is also available for a modest cost here.