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Overshare Beware: How to Create Healthy Emotional Intimacy

Boris came to me at the behest of his new girlfriend, Cecily, whom I’d known for years. Since most people dislike being pushed to see any sort of adviser, I expected Boris to be reticent, if not downright hostile. How wrong I was! After a few minutes of chitchat, Boris himself raised a very personal issue. 

“I know why Cecily’s confused,” he said sheepishly. “We’ve been dating for months, and we still haven’t slept together.”

“Okay,” I said cautiously, not wanting to disrupt a delicate moment.

“You see,” Boris said, looking at the floor. “Ten years ago I had a cancer scare. My, um, prostate. It turned out to be benign, but mentally, it affected…you know.” Eyes still averted, Boris described his sexual difficulties and the vicious mockery he’d endured from his former wife. I felt terrible for Boris but also secretly pleased that he’d felt safe enough to divulge such personal information.

The next day, Cecily called to thank me. “Boris seems happier,” she said. Then her voice dropped. “You know, ten years ago…” She repeated Boris’s prostate story, including all the gory details. “I know we have a really special connection,” Cecily said, “because Boris shared that with me on our very first date.”

“Ah,” I said, developing suspicions.

Weeks later those suspicions were confirmed when Cecily called me in tears. “Boris hit on my best friend,” she sobbed. “After I introduced them, he called her and they talked for hours. He told her about his cancer scare and everything.”

I felt myself blush. How many other girlfriends, counselors, taxi drivers, and random airplane passengers had Boris seduced into intimacy with the mournful ballad of his achy-breaky reproductive apparatus? It called to mind Broadway megastar Dame Edna’s comment about her (fictional) late husband Norm: “Oh, the years I spent with that man’s prostate hanging over my head.” Boris, it seemed, whipped out his, uh, issues every chance he got. He wasn’t just a sharing person. He was an emotional slut. 

Of course, I was less upset about this than Cecily, partly because Boris wasn’t my significant other, and partly because previous experience had taught me to recognize and cope with people like him. To help you avoid falling for an emotional tramp—or, worse, acting like Boris yourself—I’ll give you the same advice I gave Cecily. 

But first, maybe I should explain what I mean by emotional sluts: They aren’t sexually promiscuous folks who also tend to be moody, like, for instance, every single character on Sex and the City. True emotional sluts are psychological wolves in sheep’s clothing. They consciously or unconsciously manipulate others with displays of openness and vulnerability. 

We all have an innate tendency to mirror the level of intimacy presented by others, so when someone confides personal information, we feel social pressure to reciprocate. This can put us in deep social water with people who might simply be enthusiastic swimmers but could also be sea monsters. Experts who study predatory criminals advise wariness when anyone shares too much information too soon. Such people may be using a tactic called forced teaming, pulling others into ill-advised intimacy and gaining information they can use to embarrass, exploit, invade, or control. For example:

  • During an ordinary water-cooler conversation, Kip’s coworker Theresa confided tragic details about her sequence of abusive boyfriends. Kip felt obligated to keep listening and offer comfort. As she confided more, he volunteered stories of his own romantic traumas to help her feel at ease. With all this talk of love, Kip soon realized that Theresa considered their relationship a romance, something he’d never intended. When he told her, as gently as possible, that he wasn’t on the market, Theresa did not react well. Kip later learned from a third party that Theresa had been regaling friends with the story of her all-time worst abuser—him.
  • Amy was 16 when her 40-year-old soccer coach told her about his depression and anxiety. Amy fell for Coach Greene like Juliet on estrogen, telling him all about her own life, including details about her friends. Their intimacy, while never physical, was so emotionally fraught that Amy’s interest in boys her own age evaporated (to this day, she dates much older men). Then a teammate informed her that Coach had not only confided in several other soccer players, the entire cheerleading squad, and a comely female bus driver but had also shared Amy’s personal disclosures with others—comments she had never meant for any ears but his. Coach Greene’s emotional sluttiness left her feeling both exposed and jilted, an adolescent heartbreak that still stings many years later.

If an emotional slut manages to hook you, consider yourself lucky if you merely devote time and attention to someone who hasn’t earned it, or reveal a few embarrassing secrets. There can be more serious fallout: You offer your heart, making the relationship far more important to you than to the emotional slut. There’s also a slim but real chance you could fall victim to a predator who’s deliberately luring you into a vulnerable position, gathering information that can be used to control or victimize you. Realizing that someone you trusted intimately sees you as someone to be manipulated is like walking full speed into a glass door: shocking, probably humiliating, and possibly quite painful. 

How To Avoid Emotional Sluts

Manipulative people often rope others into games of conversational strip poker by relying on implicit courtesy—the equivalent of “I took off my shirt, so the least you can do is peel off your socks.” Two words: Don’t play. 

You need preparation to resist this kind of peer pressure. Resolve right now that the next time someone divulges inappropriate details about her sinus-flushing compulsion or aberrant body hair, you’ll resist the impulse to feign polite interest or share something equally intimate. Instead you’ll say, “Oh.” That’s all. Then maintain silence. If possible, walk away. 

This simple approach is amazingly difficult, partly because our therapy-soaked, tabloid-reading, reality-TV-watching culture encourages emotional intimacy in many contexts. It’s easy to join in the exhibitionism, putting yourself in bad company. 

How to Recognize a Descent Into Slatternliness 

My primary care physician, a woman I’ll call Dr. Pearl, is right out of Grey’s Anatomy. Lovely, humane, and concerned not only for her patients’ physical health but for their overall well-being, she’s almost too good to be true. Sadly, I know she probably braces herself every time I visit her.

You see, before my first get-to-know-you physical with Dr. Pearl, I was instructed not to eat or drink, lest I mess up my blood tests. I also knew I’d be subjected to the most agonizing of all medical tests: the weigh-in. So perhaps I fasted longer than technically necessary, avoiding even water, which is really heavy. 

My memory of that appointment is kind of blurry, but I believe that when Dr. Pearl asked me about my stress levels, I began compulsively describing everything that ever happened to me in my entire life. Dehydration and low blood sugar turned me into a disclosure train with no brakes. Somewhere between discussing my dread of developing gas during yoga and my detailed description of my childhood hometown (which, in my defense, was rumored to boast of the world’s highest per capita consumption of both chocolate doughnuts and antidepressants), Dr. Pearl politely mentioned that therapy was an excellent place to discuss such issues. Well played, Dr. Pearl. 

Hours later, filled with chocolate doughnuts, fluids, and horror at my own behavior, I swore to make something positive come from my shameful exhibitionism. I reviewed the appointment mentally, paying special attention to the moment I knew I’d gone too far (sadly, this was very early in the conversation). In hindsight I realized it was the moment Dr. Pearl had flashed a certain micro-expression, basically the nonverbal equivalent of the word oy. 

How to Read Lips (And Eyes, and Foreheads…) 

If you’ve never heard of micro-expressions, it’s time you did. They’ve been famously studied by Paul Ekman, PhD (the real-life model for Dr. Cal Lightman of the hit show Lie to Me), who found that all humans display the range of emotions with identical facial expressions. Even when we’re trying to be inscrutable, our true feelings involuntarily flash across our faces for about a fifth of a second: a micro-expression. 

Most of us aren’t aware of other people’s micro-expressions, though we see them subconsciously. To evaluate your ability to read these expressions, take the cool Web-based test at Cio.com/article/facial-expressions-test. Not only is it fascinating, it underscores the fact that we can train ourselves to see and read micro-expressions. This, I concluded after my shameful doctor’s appointment, is a skill that can help us all avoid becoming emotional sluts. 

Try this exercise: Imagine that your grandmother is visiting (from Detroit, Bosnia, the afterlife, or wherever). She takes a prescription sleep medication that, according to the manufacturer, “can cause amnesiac sleep housekeeping in rare cases.” During the wee hours, you awaken to find Nana, stark naked, at the foot of your bed, folding your laundry.

Picture this vividly, allowing your face to do whatever it wants. Good—now, freeze. Memorize your expression. Study it in a mirror: the widened eyes, the wrinkled nose, the head pulled back like that of a startled heron. This is the reaction of a person who’s receiving Too Much Information. Remember it!

If you do this, you’ll notice far more accurately when someone flashes a warning that you’re overexposed. Even if the micro-expression is so fleeting you don’t see it, your gut will shout, “Danger! Turn back!” Promise yourself that if this happens, you’ll immediately say, “But enough about me! What about the weather we’re having?” This preparation can save you from behaving like an emotional strumpet—even in situations where you’re disoriented by the threat of, say, a weigh-in. 

Emotional intimacy is one of the greatest joys of human existence. Still, it’s best to let it develop gradually, with each party revealing more as confidence and mutual trust increase. If I sound like your grandma (before she went on that crazy sleep medication), so be it. Old-fashioned caution can preserve your reputation, dignity, and self-respect, so slap on that emotional chastity muzzle by practicing your micro-expression skills and conversational deflections until they’re practically reflexive. Then, when an emotional slut pressures you to go too far, too soon, you can save yourself for someone who deserves you more. 

How to Defend Against Emotional Muggers

1334964_21004106My client Francine’s husband had started behaving oddly. “I’ll do something ordinary, like offer to check his e-mail for him, and he’ll react as if I’ve killed a child,” she said. Another client, Selma, was a sunny optimist—except when her sister Eve called to complain about life; by the time they hung up, Selma was always exhausted and depressed. Meanwhile, my friend Pamela was getting blindsided at a public-speaking workshop. “I gave a speech that went really well,” she told me, “and then this other woman got up and spent her whole speech mocking everything I’d done wrong.”

Let’s call it emotional mugging: You’re going along minding your own business, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you’re faced with a shocking attack on your mood or peace of mind. Being emotionally mugged can be crippling, but because the damage is so often invisible, few of us are ever taught self-defense. Time to change that. You’re probably aware that the Asian martial arts, with their deft approach to handling attack, are popular practices for warding off physical muggers. Well, karate-do (“the way of the empty hand”) and bushi-do(“the way of the warrior”) have a psychological equivalent I call emo-do (pronounced “ee-moh-doh”): the way of the emotional master. 

An Ounce of Prevention… 

Like all opportunistic criminals, emotional muggers target people who wander around bad neighborhoods. The best way to become a victim is to turn your own mind into such a place—a place filled with self-hatred, unfair criticism, and gloomy predictions. This kind of setting not only attracts muggers but can leave you so emotionally tapped out that you turn to psychological crime yourself. 

By contrast, those who follow emo-do create an inner space of clean, clear self-confidence. To cultivate such an environment, you must keep three brave commitments. First, vow never to deliberately create suffering for yourself or others. (If you can’t do this, count on being mugged frequently. There’s no honor among thieves.) Second, always own your mistakes and do your best to correct them. Third, forgive yourself when your best isn’t good enough. Keeping these commitments creates deep strength that scares off most emotional muggers. And should some misguided thug ambush you anyway, emo-do will help you launch a powerful defense.

If You Are Attacked 

My former karate teacher, Jay Cool (yes! really!), used to study muggers’ patterns to help develop counterattack strategies for the Phoenix police. “There are only so many ways to assault someone,” Jay says. “Every mugger uses some version of a few basic approaches.” This is also true of emotional attackers, and knowing their strategy helps you thwart them. Here are six types of emotional mugger—and, for each, the commensurate emo-do response.

1. Puppy Kickers 

The term sounds brutal, but most of us can understand it—because most of us have been perpetrators ourselves. Picture: The cat’s sick, your husband’s away, you didn’t sleep all night, and as you rush to get your 6-year-old ready for school, she tries to tell you something about her imaginary koala using whispered pig Latin, in which she is not remotely fluent. After five minutes of unintelligible babble, you hear yourself shout, “For God’s sake, talk like a normal person!” You’ve just emotionally mugged your own offspring. It feels, as Anne Lamott writes, like bitch-slapping ET. 

I’m not saying puppy kicking is okay because it’s common. But seeing it from the mugger’s perspective helps you mount an effective defense when you’re the kickee. 

Emo-Do Defense: Start by recognizing that the mugging isn’t about you; you just happened to be standing there, wagging your tail, when someone went temporarily insane. Try puppyish responses: Trot off and find another friend, or (if the mugger is a loved one) offer kindness. Say, “You seem really stressed. Can I help?” This can actually turn puppy kicking into gratitude. 

2. Exploding Doormats 

Cora’s assistant, Angie, had been glum all day. Trying to lighten the mood, Cora said, “You should leave early—there’s traffic.” 

“Leave early?” Angie shouted. “That would mean I have to do everything in even less time!” Then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

Angie is an exploding doormat. She doesn’t stand up for herself until her emotions reach a critical limit—at which point she goes postal with virtually no provocation. Exploding doormats are more harmful than puppy kickers because they harbor festering hostility toward their targets. 

Emo-Do Defense: Cora’s attempt to soothe Angie’s anger by being extra nice was manipulative, so it made things worse. The next day, she switched to open, frank discussion, which is all that’s necessary to keep doormats from detonating. “You seem so angry,” Cora said. “What’s really on your mind?” When Angie admitted she felt overworked, Cora realized she’d been taking the young woman’s quiet diligence for granted. Together they came up with ways for Angie to let Cora know her limits. Conflict solved.

3. Deflators 

When Kimberly told her mother she’d been promoted, the older woman sighed. “Well,” she said, “you’re going to have to work harder to prove you’re worth it.” Kimberly’s mother is a deflator, a person who sees virtue in pessimism. With one well-placed jab, she can let the air out of any good time, and make a bad time feel even worse. 

Emo-Do Defense: Deflators almost always have a history of feeling crushed. As such, they’re simply upholding tradition. Unlike puppy kickers or exploding doormats, they rarely respond well to discussion, so don’t bother. Instead, simply and cheerfully reject their pessimism. To the prediction that she’d have to work harder, Kimberly calmly responded, “No, I won’t.” Her mother had no choice but to slouch off with her dagger.

4. Secret Keepers 

Remember Francine, whose husband blew up over ordinary behavior? She later learned that he was having not one but several online affairs. No wonder he freaked when she tried to check his messages; cheaters, addicts, and liars attack people who threaten to stumble onto their misdeeds. This kind of mugging feels crazy and surreal. If you’re questioning your sanity after a surprise argument, you may be dealing with a secret keeper.

Emo-Do Defense: A secret keeper’s mugging leaves you with an icky sense that something’s wrong. Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t ignore your instincts. (An emo-do master never keeps secrets from herself—for example, by going into denial.) Hold firm to your reality. Ask questions. If more violent attacks ensue, revise your trust levels and watch for more evidence.

5. Cannibals 

To be happy, each of us must create meaning and joy from the raw material of everyday life. This isn’t easy, so some people become cannibals, devouring the positive energy of others. Selma’s sister Eve is an example. She made a habit of calling Selma whenever she was miserable, off-loading her misery and draining Selma’s joy.

Emo-Do Defense: Don’t feed cannibals the patient, sorrowful consolation they expect. Selma eventually redefined her responsibilities as a supportive sister and began answering Eve’s complaints by saying, “You’re so resourceful—I know you can solve that problem!” Eve gagged on this response and went off to hunt tastier snacks.

6. Dementors 

The woman who publicly shamed Pamela after her speech was the most destructive kind of emotional mugger, the equivalent of a rapist: someone who gets off on causing pain. In Harry Potter’s world, such beings are called dementors. They are endlessly unhappy, addicted to the sense of control they get from violating others. They don’t care whom they hurt, as long as they hurt someone.

Emo-Do Defense: If someone attacks with no provocation and seems intent on inflicting maximum harm, you may be dealing with a truly disturbed person. First, eat some chocolate (any Harry Potter fan can tell you that). Then distance yourself in any way you can. This wasn’t a problem for Pamela—she was easily able to avoid her attacker—but may be daunting if you’ve got a dementor in the family or at work. If you can’t remove yourself from the relationship, at least keep your emotional distance. Don’t trust a dementor with your private thoughts. 

Staying away from dementors allows them to socially self-destruct—and they always do. Though onlookers may at first be too horror-stricken to come to your rescue, most people are appalled by dementors’ behavior. This is why cruel conversationalists ultimately end up friendless, and—on a much larger scale—why evils like prejudice and discrimination have slowly but surely become less acceptable in almost every human society. 

After an Assault 

No matter how well prepared you are, an emotional mugger may still catch you before you can defend yourself. In the short run, you’ll feel violated. In the long run, you can use the experience to become a stronger emo-do practitioner.

To start, dispense with any lingering nasty energy by recognizing that it probably belongs to the mugger, not you. If the negativity won’t dissipate, there are two possibilities: Either you really did provoke the attack, or you’re operating under the misconception that you deserved it. Return immediately to basic emo-do code: Stop causing suffering for yourself by thinking you deserved victimization; correct any behaviors that might have triggered the mugging; and, finally, forgive yourself for the whole misadventure. 

The way of emo-do is rigorous—and hugely rewarding. The more you follow it, the more muggers will avoid you. Instead of a target, you’ll become a walking haven, a place where emotional criminals rarely strike—and if they do, are swiftly rendered harmless. Plan to welcome many of us to walk with you, because that’s just the kind of neighborhood where most people want to live. 

The Willingness Factor: Learn to Avoid Avoidance

Airplane PropellerMelanie’s life was shrinking like a cheap blouse in an overheated dryer. At 30 she’d developed a fear of flying that ended her dream of world travel. Within a year, her phobia had grown to include—or rather, exclude—driving. After the World Trade Center attacks, Melanie became terrified to enter the downtown area of any city. She quit her job as an office manager (the potential for mail-based terrorism was too big) and called me hoping I could help her devise a way of earning money from home. “Everybody tells me my fears aren’t realistic,” she said. “But I think I’m the most realistic person I know. It’s a dangerous world—I just want to be safe.”

There was only one thing for which Melanie would leave her apartment. Once a month, she walked to a rundown neighborhood to meet her drug dealer, who sold her Xanax and OxyContin of questionable purity. I insisted that Melanie see a psychiatrist before I’d work with her, and the worried shrink called me before the impression of Melanie’s posterior had faded from his visitor chair. “She’s taking enough medication to kill a moose,” he told me. “If she slipped in the shower and knocked herself out, withdrawal could kill her before she regained consciousness.”

Ironic, n’est-ce pas? Safety-obsessed Melanie was positively devil-may-care when it came to better living through chemistry. This made no sense to me—until I realized that Melanie’s objective wasn’t really to avoid danger but to prevent the feeling of fear. Melanie was using a strategy psychologist Steven Hayes, PhD, calls experiential avoidance, dodging external experiences in an effort to ward off distressing emotions. It wasn’t working. It never does. In fact, to keep her tactics from destroying her, she would have to learn the antidote for experiential avoidance—and so must the rest of us, if we want our lives to grow larger and more interesting, rather than smaller and more disappointing.

Why Experiential Avoidance Seems Like a Good Idea

Most of us do this kind of emotional side step, at least occasionally. Maybe, like Melanie, you feel skittish on airplanes, so you take the train instead. In the realm of physical objects, dodging situations associated with pain is a wonderfully effective strategy; it keeps us from pawing hot stovetops, swallowing tacks, and so on. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to psychological suffering? According to Hayes, it doesn’t. Experiential avoidance usually increases the hurt it is meant to eliminate.

Consider Melanie, who, quite understandably, wanted to steer clear of the awful sensation of being afraid. Every time she withdrew from a scary activity, she got a short-term hit of relief. But the calm didn’t last. Soon fear would invade the place to which Melanie had retreated—for example, she felt much better driving than flying for a little while, but it wasn’t long before she was as petrified in cars as airplanes. Drugs calmed her at first, but soon she became terrified of losing her supply. By the time we met, her determination to bypass anything scary had trapped her in a life completely shaped by fear.

The reason this happens, according to Hayes and other devotees of relational frame theory, is that Melanie’s brain works through forming connections and associations. So does yours. Your verbal mind is one big connection generator. Try this: Pick two unrelated objects that happen to be near you. Next answer this question: How are they alike? For instance, if the objects are a book and a shoe, you might say they’re alike because they both helped you get a job (by being educated and dressing well). Ta-da! Your book, your shoe, and your job are linked by a new neural connection in your brain. Now you’re more likely to think of all these things when you think of any given one.

This means that every time you avoid an event or activity because it’s painful, you automatically connect the discomfort with whatever you do instead. Suppose I’m having a terrible hair day, and to not feel that shame, I cancel a meeting with a client. Just thinking about that client brings on a pang of shame. If I watch a movie to distract myself, I may be hit with an unpleasant twinge just hearing the name of that movie. This happens with every form of psychological suffering we try to outrun. When we run from our feelings, they follow us. Everywhere. 

The Willingness Factor

In Hayes’s book Get Out of Your Mind & into Your Life, he suggests that we picture our minds as electronic gadgets with dials, like old-fashioned radios. One dial is labeled Emotional Suffering (Hayes actually calls it Discomfort). Naturally, we do everything we can to turn that dial to zero. Some people do this all their lives, without ever noticing that it never works. The hard truth is that we have no ultimate control over our own heartaches.

There’s another dial on the unit, but it doesn’t look very enticing. This one Hayes calls Willingness, though I think of it as Willingness to Suffer. It’s safe to assume that we start life with that dial set at zero, and we rarely see any reason to change it. Increasing our availability to pain, we think, is just a recipe for anguish soufflé.

Well, yes…except life, as Melanie so astutely commented, is dangerous. It’ll upset you every few minutes or so, sometimes mildly, sometimes apocalyptically. Since desperately twisting down the Emotional Suffering dial only makes things worse, Hayes suggests that we try something radical: Leave that dial alone—abandon all attempts to skirt unpleasant emotions—and focus completely on turning up our Willingness to Suffer.

What this means, in real-world terms, is that we stop avoiding experiences because we’re afraid of the unpleasant feelings that might come with them. We don’t seek suffering or take pride in it; we just stop letting it dictate any of our choices. People who’ve been through hell are often forced to learn this, which is why activist, cancer patient, and poet Audre Lorde wrote, “When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Once we’re willing to confront our emotional suffering, we begin making choices based on attraction instead of aversion, love instead of fear. Where we used to think about what was “safe,” we now become interested in doing what seems right or fun or meaningful or ripe with possibilities. Ask yourself this: What would I do if I stopped trying to avoid emotional pain? Think of at least three answers (though 30 would be great and 300 even better).

Stick with this exercise until you get a glimmer of what life without avoidance would be like. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Oh, the places you’d go! Oh, the people you’d meet, the food you’d eat, the jokes you’d tell, the clothes you’d wear, the changes you’d spark in the world!

The Consequences of Willingness

What happens when we’re willing to feel bad is that, sure enough, we often feel bad—but without the stress of futile avoidance. Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests, and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes parts of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined. No one would call it easy, but the rhythm of emotional pain that we learn to tolerate is natural, constructive, and expansive. It’s different from unwilling suffering the way the sting of disinfectant is different from the sting of decay; the pain leaves you healthier than it found you.

It took Melanie a huge leap of faith to accept this. She finally decided to turn up her Willingness to Suffer dial, simply because her Emotional Suffering levels were manifestly out of her control. She started by joining a yoga class, though the thought of it scared her witless. She found that her anxiety spiked, fluctuated, and gradually declined. Over the ensuing months, she entered therapy, traded her street-drug habit for prescribed medication, and found a new job. Melanie’s worry isn’t completely gone; it probably never will be. But that doesn’t matter much. She is willing to accept discomfort in the pursuit of happiness, and that means she’ll never be a slave to fear again.

To the extent that we reject anything we love solely because of what we fear, we’re all like Melanie. Find a place in your life where you’re practicing experiential avoidance, an absence where you wish there were something wonderful. Then commit to the process of getting it, including any inherent anxiety or sadness. Get on an airplane not because you’re convinced it won’t crash, but because meeting your baby niece is worth a few hours of terror. Sit on the beach with your mocha latte, humming the song you shared with your ex, and let grief wash through you until your memories are more sweet than bitter. Pursue your dreams not because you’re immune to heartbreak but because your real life, your whole life, is worth getting your heart broken a few thousand times.

When fear makes your choices for you, no security measures on earth will keep the things you dread from finding you. But if you can avoid avoidance—if you can choose to embrace experiences out of passion, enthusiasm, and a readiness to feel whatever arises—then nothing, nothing in all this dangerous world, can keep you from being safe. 

Your Position From the Starting Blocks

We all know that change is occurring more rapidly and dramatically today than it ever has in history.  This may be either thrilling or terrifying, depending on the day and how ready we are at any moment to go along with dramatic transformations.  For many months, I’ve had the feeling that many of us humans have been milling around like athletes waiting for a marathon to begin.  Recently, it feels to me as though we’re all being told to take our position in the starting blocks.

I’m not sure exactly what this means, only that it feels tremendously exciting and somewhat alarming at the same time.  I’ve noticed two categories of reaction in myself and the people I know:  Some highly evolved individuals are positioning themselves happily and easily for some exciting unknown transformation; others are kicking, screaming and resisting like race horses who have decided at the last minute that the whole event is just too strange and frightening to tolerate. 

This translates into divided extremes of emotion.  There seems to be no middle ground; either life feels incredibly joyful and exciting or absolutely horrid.  I, myself, alternate between these two extremes.  When I am completely in line with my purpose and following my inner compass, I feel almost intoxicated with joy.  When I am resisting in some way, I feel like week old road kill.  It seems that the biggest difference lies in my ability to relax.  There was once a time when hard work and intense willpower moved me effectively toward my goals and filled me with enthusiasm.  Nowadays, hard work and willpower feel horrible, even when I can muster them, and prove entirely ineffective.  On the other hand, when I give up struggling and acknowledge that I have zero control and no more energy, things suddenly begin to work in my favor, as if by magic. 

I watched this process very intently as my friend Jayne passed away, which as you probably know, was simply a change of address as far as I’m concerned.  People talk about how courageously people fight their illnesses, and Jayne fought ferociously, but the effect of her struggle was horrific.  A few days before her death, when she completely stopped struggling, it opened a door to peaceful and joyful transformation that uplifted Jayne and everyone around her.  Watching the grieving process of her son Joey, who has Down syndrome, was another astonishing example of the power inherent in refusing to struggle.  Joey flows in and out of sadness with absolutely no resistance, and as a result, the pain of this time has been intermittent, alternating with periods of true and enormous happiness.

For anything new to be born, the existing arrangement of particles and situations must die.  Struggling to survive is laudable and natural.  I believe the “deaths” we experience as we take our positions for a new phase of history are benevolent and necessary, and are, therefore, best greeted with relaxed acceptance.  This is a wild time to be alive.  If you feel yourself being moved into position, you might justifiably feel terrified.  My advice to you this month:  Stop struggling.  Relax.  The signal to run is coming.

How are you feeling, really?

by Pamela Slim

If I were to attach a giant magic probe to foreheads across the U.S. right now, what emotion do you think would be off the charts?

Fear, anyone?

Market meltdowns, government bailouts, war, natural disasters and election uncertainty make this point in history a pretty unsettling one, at least for those of us in the United States.

However, I would guess that under the general feeling of panic, there are some other emotions which are causing people to feel paralyzed.

As my friend Colleen Wainwright said recently, “What is really harshing your mellow?”

Chapter Eight of Martha’s book Finding Your Own North Star offers an extremely simple but highly effective way to decipher your emotional state, asking the question: “Are you more sad, mad, glad or scared?

This works like magic with my clients that feel foggy, conflicted and totally stuck.  When I ask “how do you feel?” they often do not have an answer.  But with the question, “are you more sad, mad, glad or scared,” most will immediately choose one of the words, like “mad” or “scared.”

Once the primary emotion is identified, we dig down and find out what is causing it. With the cause identified, we define what course of action is necessary to get them to feel better.  Once they see a path forward, the original emotion almost always dissipates, or at least does not feel so overwhelming.

So if you are feeling stuck and uncomfortable in some part of your life but don’t know what to do about it, try this 4-part exercise from Finding Your Own North Star:

Magic Question #1:  What are you feeling?

Exercise

1.  Right now, are you feeling more sad, mad, glad or scared? Even if your feelings are very mild, try putting them in one of these categories.

2.  Now write down at least six different words, besides those listed above, that describe your feelings at this moment.

a.
b.
c.
c.
d.
e.
f.

3.  Think of three works of art (songs, movies, images, poems, plays, books, etc.) that resonate with your current emotional state.

a.
b.
c.

4.  What do these works have in common?

5.  Complete the following sentences. Don’t think about grammar or spelling; just shoot for emotional accuracy.  No one has to see this but you.

a.  I wish …
b.  I hope …
c.  I’m angry that …
d. I’m afraid that …
e. I’m sad about …
f.  I’m happy about …
g.  If it weren’t embarrassing, I’d feel …
h.  Even though it’s stupid, I feel …

Magic Question #2:  Why am I feeling this way?

Those of you who have young children will immediately recognize this exercise.  It is attributed to the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota who used it in their rigorous quality program to drive production efficiency, but we all know that they just stole it from a bright toddler (Mom, do I have to eat this ohitashi? Why?  Why?  Why? Why?  Why?).

Exercise:

1.  What was the strongest emotion that emerged as you did the exercises from Magic Question #1?

2.  Why do you feel this way?

3.  Why?

4.  Why?

5.  Why?

6.  Why?

When you get to the real reason you are not feeling good, you may find the answer is not one you want to hear.  Martha says:

“One way you can always tell when people have lost touch with their emotions, or are unwilling to admit to them, is that when you ask them about their motivations, they’ll say, “It’s complicated.”

The Question:  Why didn’t you call me last night?
The Answer:  “Um…it’s complicated.”
The Truth:  “I didn’t want to.”

The Question:  “You seem so distant; what’s wrong?
The Answer:  “Well, it’s complicated.”
The Truth:  “I don’t like you.”

The Question:  “Don’t you want to date me anymore?”
The Answer:  “It’s just complicated.”
The Truth:  “No.”

Usually, people who use the “complicated” line actually believe it themselves.  They think of emotion as a tangled web of contradictory forces.  This is because their emotional compasses are pointing in directions that offend their Everybodies or their social selves.  The only way out of a “complicated” emotional situation is to figure out which feelings are coming directly from your core and which are imposed on you by social fears and obligations.”

This exercise can be very helpful for going from big, global problems like “the state of the economy” or “greedy corporations” to something specific that is within your control to change.  Here is a common scenario which you may relate to:

What are you feeling? “I am angry at my company for laying people off.”

Why? “Because it should care more about employee loyalty.”

Why? “Because I work my heart out and expect to get something in return.”

Why? (I usually amplify this question by asking “Have they given you any recent evidence they  will reward your loyalty with lifetime employment?”) “Because I am ignoring the fact that companies have not rewarded employee loyalty with lifetime employment for a long time, if ever.”

Why? “Because then I have to take responsibility for my own career, and that is scary.”

Why?  Because I have limited networks outside my job and don’t know what else I could do to make money.”

Bingo.  In this scenario, there are two prevalent emotions:  anger and fear.  In order to get to a pragmatic course of action like working on alternate career paths, you may need to release some anger.  Releasing anger can also lead to grief:  longing for the way companies used to be, when you did not have to be so fearful of layoffs and where long-term employment with one company was encouraged and desired.  Once these emotions are expressed, you can get to work on the one thing in your control:  your own career path.

Magic Question #3:  What will it take to make me happy?

Part of what keeps people paralyzed is that they believe that the only way they will feel better is by expecting others to change.  Using my recent example, you can see examples of useless and useful yearnings:

Useless Yearning:  “I want corporations to stop laying people off.”
Useful Yearning:  “I want to develop a career path that will not be dependent on the rise or fall of any one corporation.”

Useless Yearning:  “I want Wall Street Traders to stop being so greedy.”
Useful Yearning:  “I want to have my money in stable, smart investment vehicles.”

Useless Yearning:  “I want things to go back to the way they were, before all this doom and gloom.”
Useful Yearning:  “I want to learn how to feel grounded and positive, regardless of what chaos is going on around me.”

Exercise

1.  Think about a situation that makes you feel angry, sad or scared.  What is it about this situation that you wish were different?

2.  Think about a situation that makes you happy.  Which elements of this situation do you want to keep?

3.  What do you want most right now?

4. What do you really want most right now?

Try to get to a description of something you want that is within your span of control, even if it involves the help of others to make it happen.

Magic Question #4:  “What’s the Most Effective Way to Get What I Want?”

Exercise

1.  Think of a very inexpensive item you’d like to own, such as a Popsicle or a shiny new pencil with your name stamped on it in gold-colored letters.  Make sure it’s something you don’t own a the moment. Note what the object is in this space:

1.  Now think of six ways you can get the item you just named without leaving your house.  You can use any communications devices or other technologies at your disposal, and you definitely don’t have to go it alone.  (Magic question No. 4 is all about working with others to reach your objectives.)  Even if the methods you come up with aren’t things you’re really comfortable doing (like borrowing or calling third parties to ask for help), list them.  You may build up some courage, and even if you don’t, you’ll find that refusing to censor your inventiveness will lead to more solutions.

a.
b.
c.
d.
e.
f.

3.  Read over the solutions you have listed, and see if any of them are a) possible, b) legal, and c) morally acceptable to you.  If an action plan fulfills all these criteria, go ahead and use it.

4.  Double-check to make sure your social self isn’t ruling out workable solutions.  Here are some signs that your social self is acting as your master, rather than your servant:

a.  When you think about putting the solution into action, you find yourself laughing in embarrassment.

b. You react to the proposed solution with thoughts like “I could never do that” or “I can’t just…” or “But I have to…” These statements tend to reflect social inhibitions, not actual limitations.

c.  You immediately think of some person who’d be upset if you took this course of action, or you stop yourself with the question “What would people think?”

5.  If you have had any of the reactions above, consider whether you might want to break the rules of the social game.  Be sure you stay within the confines of your own moral system; violating your integrity will lead you directly away from your own North Star.

Once you complete this trial exercise, guess what:  time to try it with something you really want from Magic Question #3.

And if you are still feeling a bit scared at this point, I am hoping that it is no longer the “we are doomed, the sky is falling” variety, but rather specific, healthy anxiety that comes up when you start working on getting what you want.