Read an Excerpt
THE WAY WE LIVE
Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment.
—John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
THINK OF A TIME when you truly felt connected to yourself. You knew what you were aiming for, knew you were on target, knew what you needed, and had a plan to get it. All the while, you were brimming with passion about the whole enterprise. You were fully engaged, working with strong determination and purposefulness. You were infused with a feeling of well-being and power. If you’ve ever experienced this feeling, even for a short time, you have a sense of what it means to live authentically as who you are meant to be. It’s a wonderful feeling—like driving a finely tuned race car on a smooth track with the finish line clearly in your sights. But for most of us, the better-fitting analogy is white knuckling the wheel of a sputtering old jalopy, hanging on for dear life as we bounce over an endless series of potholes toward an uncertain destination.
Too often, we try to figure out what we are meant to be (good mother, loving husband, dutiful son) or what we are meant to do (scientist, teacher, engineer) without really knowing who we are. In other words, we get in the car and drive with only a vague notion of where we are going or why. We seem to define ourselves and live our lives from the outside in, looking outside for answers to questions that can only be answered from within. This approach leads to a lack of self-knowledge and self-awareness and is one of the reasons that so many of us suffer from anxiety, depression, addictions, and other problems. And even if we see our lives as moving along fairly well (maybe not like a high-performance race car, but not like a bucket of bolts either), imagine the benefit we could enjoy if we had an “owner’s manual” that could show us how to prevent some of our most frustrating situations and how to stay tuned up and running more smoothly. Imagine that there was a Roadmap to help you emerge as the person you are meant to be. Well, here it is!
Who Are You Meant to Be? is for everyone who wants to thrive—to step up and face the challenges of living life authentically, feeling the power that comes from living unafraid to be themselves. However, doing so doesn’t mean that we have to drop out of society. The Striving Styles help us understand what it means to live our life authentically and thrive as a result. This book can be of benefit to everyone. It helped a nine-year-old girl learn at school rather than being labeled “unfocused” and “rebellious”; it helped the couple who stopped fighting and blaming each other for their unhappiness and started working together to create a more loving relationship; it helped the employee who stopped complaining about work and asked for a transfer when he realized that his job was not meeting his needs; and it helped the leader who was no longer afraid to hold his employees accountable and stopped hiding out in his office. It has the potential to help every one of us who has ever felt empty, has been afraid to show who we are, has been dissatisfied with a career or relationship, or has been simply living anything less than our potential.
Life on Autopilot
There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way, and not to give others absurd maddening claims upon it.
—Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins
With all the advances that have been made in understanding the human brain, and the hundreds of volumes that have been written on the ins and outs of personality, emotions, and behavior, how can it be that most of us know more about the basic features of our televisions or computers than we do about our own thoughts and feelings? A quick scan of the self-help section of any bookstore confirms it: we have more information at our fingertips on how to create the life we are meant to live than we could ever read in a lifetime. We read the information—some of us obsessively—yet few of us actually use it to make significant changes in our lives. Ironic, isn’t it, that in a culture so attached to the success of the individual, we walk right past the opportunity to get into the race car and instead climb behind the wheel of the jalopy again and again, going down the same dead ends and making the same wrong turns?
Often, we don’t even know there’s a problem. If we don’t love our jobs, if we feel stifled in a relationship, if we get impatient with those we love, or if we just have a restlessness we can’t quite define, we may write it off as “normal.” But the truth is that most of us don’t understand our own needs, feelings, and habits of mind very well, so we sabotage ourselves by living life at less than full throttle. Over time, we may accept this compromised situation as living, when, unknown to us, all we are really doing is surviving.
When we feel insecure or indecisive, we don’t seem to have the skills and capacity to look inward for answers, or we are too afraid or embarrassed to seek help. We often end up with some degree of persistent, unfocused anxiety about ourselves. We keep pushing ourselves to do more and have more or are in pursuit of a perfect state of being that always seems to elude us. We live our lives on autopilot doing what is expected of us because we are too afraid we will disappoint or upset others should we reveal our human qualities or perceived limitations.
Take Suzanne as an example.
Suzanne is a working mother who spends whatever free time she has with her three young children. She has regular evening and bedtime routines with the kids because she read that this was important to their development. She has little time with her husband and even less to spend on herself.
Although she had never been much of a crafter, she felt pressured to accept a request by her youngest child’s teacher to plan and set up a large bulletin board display for Halloween. Despite not having the time or inclination to do this, she didn’t feel that she could say no. Suzanne felt increasingly panicked and resentful as Halloween drew closer. During the entire week before she delivered the bulletin board, she lost her patience with the kids and toiled away on the project as her husband made dinner and carried out the pre-bedtime rituals without her. In spite of being an early-to-bed sort of person, she stayed up well past midnight on the final night to finish. When she saw the final product, all she could think of was how someone else could have done it better.
Like Suzanne, we can get so caught up trying to do what others expect of us that we become a “human doing,” stretching ourselves so thin that we end up running on empty. We make decisions that are inconsistent with our own values, and we forget that we have a self to take care of. We don’t always think of the consequences of this, and if we do, those thoughts probably come in the form of negative self-talk. For example, “Why did I say that I would help Ted move? I am so stupid. My wife is going to be so angry with me. I keep doing the same thing over and over again. When am I ever going to learn? I am hopeless.” This type of self-talk only serves to make us feel defeated as we go from activity to activity, without awareness of the price we pay when we are just surviving our day-to-day lives.
Why do we stretch ourselves beyond all reasonable limitations or repeatedly fail to say what we really want? Simply put, we do it out of fear for the way it will make us or someone else feel. We let our fear define and decide what experiences we will have and what we will say, because we are afraid of stirring up emotions in others or ourselves. We don’t want to risk causing those whose love and approval we desire to feel disappointment, frustration, or anger when we fail to meet their expectations. We are also afraid of the feelings we might have—such as anxiety, embarrassment, or shame—when we don’t measure up to our own expectations. We adapt excessively, looking outside of ourselves to let us know who we should be and how we should act.
Looking Outside of Ourselves for the Answers
You can succeed if nobody else believes it, but you will never succeed if you don’t believe in yourself.
—William J. H. Boetcker
Looking outside of ourselves to get to know who we are or who we should be doesn’t make sense. It’s like looking through an open window when what we really need is a mirror. When we depend on others’ approval to determine what we will do with our lives, we live in a narrow, distorted version of ourselves. The same thing happens when we compare ourselves to others. We don’t realize how much we weaken our self-esteem by making these comparisons, as they tend to make our own perceived shortcomings appear even worse. Whenever we look outside for acceptance and approval, we move further away from our true nature and become more and more dependent on others to validate us. Asking others who they think we are meant to be is like calling out through the open window, saying, “I’m searching for myself. Have you seen me anywhere?”
Too often, the way we come to realize that we aren’t traveling on our own path or we are failing to meet our potential is that we finally get tired of listening to ourselves complain and we start doing something about our situation. We might also wake up to the fact that we’ve been waiting for something or someone else to change, believing that this will allow us to have the life we really want. Some of us hit a life crisis, such as a divorce, children leaving home, or losing a job we hated anyway, before we take stock of ourselves and how much we have denied ourselves in order to feel safe and accepted by others. “I should have gone back to school,” “I don’t know why it took me so long to leave that man,” or in Suzanne’s case, “Why can’t I ever just say no?” These are common statements from people who are stuck on the bumpy back roads of life, unable to find the route to the true home within themselves. Regrets abound when these people reach their later years and recognize that they have been too afraid to do anything other than what was expected of them. Even when they do get in touch with what they want to do to fulfill their potential, they may still sabotage themselves by believing that they are too old or that it’s too late!
Bonnie Ware has written a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. This book is significant, as it shows how people feel when they don’t live their lives as the person they were meant to be. People are not born to regret not having really lived their lives authentically, yet many do just that. Unfortunately, it’s often not until later in life that they realize they have lived the life others expected them to because they didn’t have the courage to live a life true to themselves. They look at their wasted potential, all of the things that they failed to do, and the dreams they didn’t make come true because of their choices. People also regret working so hard to avoid conflict with others and wish they’d had the courage to express their emotions. They regret not letting themselves be happier because they wouldn’t believe, or they never learned that happiness is a choice. Instead, they got stuck using automatic negative patterns of thinking and habits of mind. Living in fear, they survived by pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were okay. They lived their life on automatic pilot, adapting instead of thriving.
Whether we realize it or not, fear is the greatest barrier to achieving our potential. Fear is aroused when we feel threatened, whether the threat is real or imagined, and it is a nervous system response to some stimulus. It doesn’t matter whether we care to admit our fear, fear is a response designed to let us know when something will take us out of our physical or emotional safety zone. We are hardwired to survive, and fear is the early warning system that our survival (physical or psychological) is being threatened. For example, how often has something like this happened to you?
Mike’s boss asked him to come to her office. He immediately felt his stomach clench, as his mind wildly raced over everything he might have done wrong or failed to deliver on time. By the time he got to her office, his breath was shallow and his palms were sweating. He stood nervously waiting to be told the inevitable bad news. The boss invited Mike to sit down, and said she wanted to ask him whether he was interested in working on a special project with her that required his particular skill set. Without asking—or even thinking—about project specifics or his own interests and needs, Mike said yes simply because he was enormously relieved that he wasn’t in trouble.
When we live life in survival mode, depending on others to like and approve of us in order to feel okay about ourselves, we are poised to react from fear, catastrophizing about worst-case scenarios, rather than from the confident core of who we really are—our authentic self. But most of the time, we don’t know that we are just surviving. We live life on automatic pilot, never questioning events such as the one in Mike’s example. We think these situations are normal because everyone else seems to experience them; however, this is not the case. We can lift ourselves above the fear and actually thrive in our life.
Growing up in a society that encourages us to not need anyone, we try really hard to pretend that we don’t, despite that need being an authentic human quality. In fact, we learn that not needing anybody is an admirable quality. We take pride in being insensitive toward ourselves and others, working hard to not let on that we feel anything. Should we be upset or need sympathy or reassurance, we call ourselves “needy” and scold ourselves. Here’s an example of how this shows up in daily life.
Selma was communicating sympathy to her son-in-law, Percy, following the loss of his father. Percy had always been close to his dad, and Selma knew how difficult the loss of his father must be for Percy. Much to Selma’s surprise, he replied, “It’s fine. He had a good run.” Selma was appalled at Percy’s insensitivity and lack of emotion. During the following months, he gained thirty-five pounds and sunk into a depression, which he worked hard to cover up with false joviality and a lot of good wine.
Percy was not connected to himself; instead, he was behaving the way he thought others expected him to behave. In his mind, he was being rational and strong, cutting himself off from expressing his emotions. It took him several months of therapy to start to glimpse the need to express himself authentically, and to release the pain he had buried for most of his life.
Learning to Survive
You are not responsible for the programming you picked up in childhood. However, as an adult, you are one hundred percent responsible for fixing it.
—Ken Keyes Jr.
It has taken thousands of years for us to evolve to our present industrialized cultures, in which we typically don’t have to devote all of our energy to the basic life-or-death tasks of finding food and shelter. Our brain and nervous system, however, still have these built-in survival instincts to ensure our physical and psychological survival. This means that we emerge from the womb prewired to battle for our physical survival. Infants and young children are driven by internal cues that trigger emotional responses designed to get their needs met. A baby’s experience is something like this: “I am hungry, so I cry. If you don’t come fast enough, my crying will be infused with fear and rage. If I am content, I will wriggle with pleasure.” The internal world of the infant and small child is where the action is. They are all about their experiences and emotions. Caretakers are just objects to satisfy their needs.
Our psychological appetites and needs demand satisfaction as well, and as infants and young children, we go through this same process of seeking to ensure these needs get met. Babies and young children cry when they are afraid or when they need connection, touch, or comfort for any other reason. If their needs are consistently met during childhood and their early bonding experiences are loving, nurturing, and without disruption, they form a secure attachment to their primary caregiver. With this solid bond established, it is much easier for them to learn that they don’t have to constantly worry about getting their needs met. The same is true for us as adults: if we are secure and confident that our basic needs are being met in a consistent way, we don’t feel pressure to adapt our personalities to fit into a prescribed societal role so that people will like us, accept us, and make us feel good about ourselves. Instead, we set out to become who we are meant to be.
If a caregiver doesn’t attend to a child’s needs consistently, the child doesn’t build a strong bond of trust with the caregiver, and the child’s sense of security does not develop normally. The child forms an insecure attachment to his caregiver and doesn’t feel safe in the environment. The child is stuck in its instinctual survival mode. Such children become adults who are ever cautious of the perceived and imagined threats to their psychological well-being. They become hypervigilant, looking outside of themselves for cues about whether they are okay. They get locked into a system where they survive by adapting to what is expected of them or using their emotions to keep them safe—like the time when you were three and your overzealous Aunt Betty’s attempt to give you a hug sent you running from the room screaming. Some of us have discovered the hard way that the tactics we used to feel safe at the age of three just don’t work as well once we are old enough to tie our own shoes and pay income taxes.
When we live in survival mode instead of looking inside of ourselves for cues and clues about who we are meant to be and what we desire, we look outward to see what we should have, how we should behave; in other words, we try to be like others so that we feel safe. Or we look for things that might explain why we feel anxious and dissatisfied with our lives, our work, or our relationships, blaming ourselves and being obsessed with finding out what’s wrong with us. We compare ourselves to others instead of accepting and getting to know who we are and what gives us pleasure. We may abandon bold and courageous aspirations we once held (“I want to quit my job and work for the Peace Corps”) and start obsessing about desires that are born of fear (“I want to get a nose job so people won’t stare at me anymore”). We can never accept and live from our authentic self when we are constantly looking out the window, a vantage point that never lets us see what’s in the mirror. Unknown to us, we are using emotional reasoning rather than logic. Is it really logical to get a nose job because you don’t have the courage to quit your job? Of course not. But there’s no limit to how creative we can be when we are rationalizing our emotional decisions.
Development—From Emotion to Reason
Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored. They are the authentic expression of who you are at your deepest place.
We don’t have to think too much about how any of the organs of our body develop, because for the most part, we are born with them ready to function In the same way, many people believe that our brains will grow on a preset course as we age and that it really doesn’t matter what we do, think, or experience. We think that our brain and emotions are sort of like fruit: with age, they naturally mature. Most people also believe that, with a few exceptions, everyone’s brain is the same, humming along on its track like a well-oiled locomotive, passing predictable milestones along the way—I call the process the Brain Train to Adulthood. It goes something like this:
Observe the stop called Three Years Old, where you are too old to wet your bed or want to sleep with your mother. Then move along to stop Six Years Old, where you should master reading and writing. All aboard! At Eight, enter Big-Girl-and-Boy-Ville—no more temper tantrums or crying over hurt feelings! At Thirteen, drop off all childish baggage such as playing with dolls or hugging your parents in public. At Eighteen, please select the college major that will determine what you do with the rest of your life, then proceed at full speed to Twenty-One, where you debark from Childhood and are handed your transfer ticket to Full-Fledged Adulthood. Now get off the train and, whether you are ready or not, pick a life partner, get in your jalopy, and fasten your seat belt. It’s definitely going to be a bumpy ride!
If you don’t follow this route as you grow up, your parents and other adults might call you “immature,” “lazy,” or even “stupid.” They may say things like, “Why can’t you be more like Janie? She doesn’t go crying to her mother every time she hurts herself!” Parents can shame or guilt children for not staying on track with school or career choices. In a family therapy session I had a number of years ago, a mother said to her seventeen-year-old son, “You’ve always been such a good student. I don’t know what’s wrong with you that you want to take a year off to decide what you want to do in college. You are going to end up a lazy bum like your Uncle Ted.” The son didn’t know what he wanted to do and didn’t want to waste his and his parents’ money. He was being rational but his parents were on autopilot, afraid that if he didn’t stay on track he wouldn’t survive. In their minds, you don’t get off the train before you finish high school and go to college. If you do, there is something seriously wrong with you—end of story.
Our brains actually develop through experience, stimulation, and engagement. When we are allowed to explore, interact with, and master activities in an environment of consistency, predictability, and loving parenting, we arrive in adulthood ready to work at becoming who we are meant to be. However, our development can just as easily take a detour in its trajectory and become temporarily (or permanently) stunted, so that instead we arrive in adulthood in search of ourselves or trying to be what others want us to be. We go to a certain college because our friends are going there or our parents want us to. Or we don’t go to college because we don’t know what we want to do or don’t really want to work that hard. Having limited life experiences because of overprotective parents causes some young adults to take whatever job or relationship keeps them close to home, so that they don’t have to leave their comfort zone. Before they know it, they’re stuck in Rutsville, just getting by day to day, unfulfilled but safe.
While we all need to adapt to the society we live in, the brain develops best when we aren’t forced to conform excessively, as this leads to a perpetual state of discontent with ourselves. We end up never feeling that we are fully measuring up to all the “shoulds,” “musts,” and “ought-tos” that we have learned to believe will make us a “good” or “nice” person. Playing it safe rather than living our lives to the fullest, we use our precious energy to obsess about what is wrong with us, to seek help for our perceived shortcomings, or to pretend that we don’t feel as empty as we do. This leaves us perpetually searching outside of ourselves to fill the emptiness we feel inside.
Instead of mining the vast treasures that are waiting in our more evolved brain centers, we continue with primitive behaviors such as “hunting and gathering,” because this is what we know how to do. We go to shopping malls to hunt and gather the biggest, the best, and the latest goods available. We want to know what our neighbors have, so we gather information from TV, the Internet, newspapers, and those mobile devices that we can’t seem to do without. We gather friends on Facebook; we gather DVDs for our home library; we gather experiences and credentials for our résumés (the more the better); we hunt for bargains, for love, for the perfect body and the perfect mate. These instinctual and emotional impulses find their outlets in overeating, overworking, overconsumption of alcohol, and compulsive gambling, among other problems. Of course, none of these behaviors brings us closer to understanding our true selves and our deep needs. In fact, studies show that the more affluent a society becomes, the unhappier its people.
Living life on autopilot takes us off our own path and moves us to one that someone else predetermined for us. However, it is possible for us to get back on track, beginning by taking stock of our needs and emotions. Without experiencing and using our emotions effectively, we have no fuel to engage in our lives and to stay on our own path when life becomes difficult. Getting to know our emotions, the role they play in our lives, and how we can best use them can prevent us from getting hijacked while on the road to who we are meant to be.
Emotions Drive Behavior
Emotions operate on many levels. They have a physical aspect as well as a psychological aspect. Emotions bridge thought, feeling, and action—they operate in every part of a person, they affect many aspects of a person, and the person affects many aspects of the emotions.
—John D. (Jack) Mayer
Our emotions alert us to how we experience what is happening and how we feel about how things are going in our lives. Emotions influence what happens in our brain and motivate us to behave and act in certain ways. Additionally, they affect our physical body as much as they do our thinking and feeling. When we repress, ignore, deny, vent, or act out our emotions, it has a negative impact on both our mind and our body. We don’t always understand why we feel the way we do because we haven’t taken the time to process our emotions. Like food we can’t digest, unprocessed emotions get stored, compartmentalized, or simply rejected, rather than being life-enhancing sources of information and understanding about ourselves and the world around us. Either their energy stays with us or we release it indirectly through our behavior and our life choices. Unknowingly, we set off a chain of chemical reactions in the body that lead to chronic states of depression, anxiety, and discontent.
Biologically, our emotions arise because of our interactions with the world. Unless you live alone in a remote cave, someone, at some time, is going to upset you. (And even a cave-dwelling hermit can be vexed occasionally—for example, by a hungry tiger!) Your partner, child, coworker, or boss is going to do something that provokes anger, fear, sadness, or any of the full range of other so-called negative emotions. When we pay attention to our emotions, especially the more difficult ones such as anger, anxiety, and helplessness, we have a great opportunity to look at ourselves and realize what is causing us to feel the way we do. Then, with increased self-awareness, we can respond to the situation authentically, working through the challenges that may have led to the negative emotional state in the first place.
However, in the quick-fix culture we live in, we look for the fastest way to stop the feelings; we act out our emotions; or we lose ourselves in emotionally engaging characters in books, on TV, and at the theater. We often choose to repress or displace our feelings rather than really investigate them, because we see emotions as problems rather than authentic expressions of our experiences.
For example, imagine that your household finances are tight and your partner decides to splurge on an expensive luxury item, which makes you feel angry. You can respond to this emotion in several ways. You could express it: “I feel angry because you spent that money on a luxury we can’t afford.” You could act out the emotion by shouting, locking your partner out of the house, or buying something even more outrageously extravagant, such as a Tilt-A-Whirl amusement ride for your front lawn. Or you could deny the emotion, telling yourself that mature people don’t allow themselves to get angry, or that because anger is a harmful emotion, you’d rather not feel it. If you choose any of these methods of dealing with your anger and you still feel upset, you might go on to compound your bad feelings by scolding yourself for having them. But emotions exist no matter how much we deny them or their effect on us.
We don’t realize that most of the time we are motivated by our feelings, not our thoughts. I know we like to think that as grown-ups we are completely rational beings, but how does that account for our flipping off the driver who makes us angry? How does it square with being rude to the cashier when we’re in a hurry and she has to change the tape in her register? Or when we know we need to do the laundry but instead lie down on the couch and enjoy a few movies with that tub of rocky road ice cream? We like to do what gives us pleasurable feelings. We also do things to avoid pain. This doesn’t mean that we are going to be happy with ourselves—quite the opposite, in fact. We find ourselves perplexed when, rather than doing what we said we would (e.g., going to the gym, balancing the checkbook), we choose more self-indulgent or self-destructive behaviors.
Suzanne, from our earlier example, knows that she’s not artistic, that she needs to be with her children, and that her time is very limited. Yet she agrees to a project that requires artistic ability, takes her away from her children, and uses time she can’t spare. In an attempt to protect herself from the disapproval of others, Suzanne acts from her feelings. She opts to protect herself, reacting to her primitive instincts and impulses that say there is danger in failing to please everyone. Suzanne (and many of us) will end up having the same frustrating experiences again and again, feeling helpless to do anything about it. We live so much of our lives trying to protect ourselves from the emotional discomfort that we feel when we don’t live up to our own or others’ expectations. We try to avoid feeling embarrassed or guilty when we can’t do it all, and we try to be what others want so they never get upset, angry, or disappointed with us. We end up trying to bypass emotional land mines on the landscape of our lives for fear of something blowing up.
When was the last time you let feelings stop you from doing or saying something? Think about it, because it happens all the time whether you are aware of it. It’s possible that you don’t register feeling afraid or you don’t want to admit when you feel this way. Instead, you probably tell yourself you don’t feel like doing an activity, or that people who do such things are crazy, stupid, or irresponsible. Many of us don’t want to admit how often we let fear define our lives. It can be something as simple as “I didn’t go to the movies with my friend last night because I was afraid I’d be tired today,” or something more significant, like “I didn’t apply for the position at work, even though I desperately want the job, because I was afraid I wouldn’t get it.” We rationalize and talk ourselves out of doing what we want to do or trying something different because it will make us feel uncomfortable. We let our fear govern our choices and how we live our lives. This means that we know what we want and know our potential but are afraid to take a risk. Some people fear that others will judge or envy them, and so they don’t try. Others are afraid of “living large,” so instead they just overeat and become physically large, underachieving and devaluing themselves, going along for the ride in life, and using fear to keep them in their “safe place.”
Although fear and anxiety are emotions that can impede living life to the fullest, the thing we seem most afraid of is thinking that we are “crazy,” that we have problems with the functioning of our emotions. This fear causes some of us to press the mute button on our feelings with a few glasses of wine a day, a shopping spree that gives us something “real” to feel anxious about because of how much money we spent, or a fight with a loved one so that we can “dump our emotional bucket.” Temporary relief? Yes. But the problem in our heads is still there the next day!
Our Problems Are All in Our Heads!
Feelings are not supposed to be logical.
Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions.
People dread hearing that their problems are “all in their head.” After all, this is just another way of saying that problems are a result of the brain not functioning optimally. Emotional and relationship problems, lack of motivation, depression and anxiety disorders, inability to focus, poor impulse control, addictions—they all originate in the brain and are usually the result of obstructed development. When we don’t take the time to know and understand how our brain, mind, and emotions work, we remain vulnerable to the emotional distress that arises from living on autopilot.
When clients come to me for the first time, many say, “So, Doc. Am I crazy? I think my problem is all in my head and I shouldn’t even be here. It’s stupid.” They are often anxious and ashamed because they believe they are doing something wrong or that they should be able to control or stop how they feel. I always tell them, “Yes, it’s all in your head. Emotional problems stem from the brain.” Clearly, if it were their liver, they wouldn’t come to see me. We want to believe we can “cure” our emotional problems without letting anyone know about them, yet if it were the pancreas we were having trouble with, no one would suggest that we just put on a happy face, get over it, and move on with our life. Many receive this advice (sometimes even from health professionals) regarding difficulties that originate in our most complex organ: the brain.
When people come to therapy or for coaching, it usually isn’t because they want to get to know themselves; they come to try to fix what is wrong with them or simply to rid themselves of unpleasant feelings. Turning away from the mirror, they want to stay at the window, applying some cosmetics and disguises to give those outside a nicer view. Many believe that looking deeply at our own emotions is self-indulgent and a waste of time at best and a terrifying prospect at worst. Psychological theories of emotions and personality are often seen as “pseudoscience,” and our fear that there is something “wrong” with us inhibits us from exploring this unknown territory. It’s all too easy to see our emotions as a Pandora’s box that is better left closed. The truth is that we could be diverting this fearful energy to the constructive act of getting to know more about ourselves.
It’s time to change the way we think about our emotions, to make sure we develop our brains as nature intended, and to become who we are meant to be. Emotions are a part of our experience as humans. They are biochemical events that occur in the brain in response to a stimulus, causing a series of reactions throughout our body. We feel our way through life, either through our senses or through our emotions. Yet in our society, we remain squeamish and uncomfortable about discussing our emotions. We then pass this discomfort on to our children. And with the types of things we say to children about their emotions, is it any wonder they grow up confused about what they are feeling? For example, “What do you mean you’re afraid of going upstairs alone? Don’t be stupid. There is nothing to be afraid of.” “What are you crying for? For heaven’s sake, stop being so sensitive about everything.” “You should be able to control your temper, young lady. How many times do I have to tell you that it’s not nice to get angry at people?” Or “Don’t say you hate your sister because she kicked you. You bad boy! Apologize to her right now and tell her you love her.” These are all examples of how parents influence children’s experience of their emotions.
Ignoring or manipulating emotions leads only to greater mental distress and dysfunction. Ironically, today there is more information available about how to deal with problems related to emotions than ever before. In order to take care of our emotional health, we have to meet the problems head on, taking responsibility for the smooth and efficient functioning of our miraculous brains!
Our Brain (Mental Health) Is Our Responsibility
Whatever any man does he first must do in his mind, whose machinery is the brain. The mind can do only what the brain is equipped to do, and so man must find out what kind of brain he has before he can understand his own behavior.
—Gay Gaer Luce and Julius Segal (from Sleep, 1966)
Many of us don’t consider our mental health to be our responsibility, or even as something we can influence. Even when we do, the stigma of mental health problems can be a powerful disincentive for people seeking help. According to a 2010 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the majority of Americans who experience some form of mental disorder do not seek professional help. The SAMHSA report states that while one in five American adults (45.9 million) experienced some form of mental illness in 2010, only about 39 percent of these individuals received some form of treatment. Among those who do access treatment, most turn to prescription drugs to try to eliminate the symptoms rather than look for the cause of their mental illness.
Statistics also indicate that there is a dramatic rise in the rate of depression and anxiety among young people in America. Today, high school and college students are five to eight times more likely to meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder than students were a half a century or more ago. Fear continues to stop people from reaching out and getting the help they need. In fact, statistics also show that the number of people who opt to commit suicide rather than get help is on the rise. That’s because most of us grow up without a realistic understanding of mental illness—not knowing how normal and natural it is to experience emotional distress or that seeking professional help is the wise choice in the same way as going to a doctor for an irritable bowel.
Repressing emotions or pretending they don’t exist is like having an eccentric relative living in our basement. We find her outrageous and amusing but embarrassing, and we don’t want to talk about her or let anyone else know she’s there. The more we pretend she’s not there, the more energy we expend hiding her and devising stories about why people can’t come over. Because she’s not allowed in our lives, she’s gets more outrageous and demanding, yet we still pretend she doesn’t exist because we’re afraid of what people will think about us if they meet her or know she’s there. What we really need to do is bring her upstairs, give her a room in the house, and bring her into our life.
As you can see, our conditioned beliefs and the way we relate to our emotions and mental health are a primary impediment to our development because they keep us in survival mode. Until now, there has been no systematic approach to creating mental health that could be used to help people understand the mechanics of their mind, their needs, and their emotions. In the next chapter, we introduce the Striving Styles Personality System and examine how psychological needs have to be satisfied in order for us to develop our brains and escape from survival mode.