Make Your Mind Part of the Peace…And Other Wisdom from Martha

dec photoRecently I’ve been pondering a process I call “bewilderment”—or, as I like to pronounce it, be-wilder-ment. It’s like enlightenment, but way less ambitious. I figure if we all become a little wilder, a little more present, a little more connected to whatever it is that makes dogs so damn happy, we’ll feel better and do better things. The first step in the bewilderment process, upon which everything else depends, is simple: CALM DOWN.

I had a chance to practice this step when Cloyd, the rattlesnake pictured here, visited my house. My first reaction to Cloyd was a jolt of fear. I sometimes call our reptile brain the “inner lizard,” whose job it is to ensure our survival by making us afraid. But the reptile self might also be snake, like the spiny critters pictured in kundalini yoga. As I regarded Cloyd, it occurred to me that if I could calm the snake inside me, I could probably calm the one on my front porch.

As my fear faded, it became obvious that Cloyd had no intention of attacking me, and would be at a massive disadvantage if he tried. I mean, what if someone took away your arms and legs, then told you to fight a massive creature equipped with limbs, digits, and high technology? Once I moved into this more accurate perspective, it was a simple thing to gently herd Cloyd into the woods, which was what we both wanted.

The whole world functions this way. Real threats do exist, but when we approach life with fear, we see threats in everything, including unconditional love. We puff up in self-defense, which others perceive as aggression. We use violent, extreme words and actions when peaceful attentiveness would work far better.

If you’d like to be-wilder yourself, try this: Whenever you notice that the monologue in your head is fear-based (worrying about the future, belittling yourself, fussing over what others may think) stop, breathe deeply, and switch to a silent loving-kindness meditation, repeating phrases like: “May I be happy. May I be calm. May I feel safe and protected.”

It sounds so simple, because it is. Wild things don’t make speeches, they just notice what’s really in front of them. What’s in front of us is a world where far more goes right than wrong. Think how many things had to go right for you to be reading these words (the survival of our ancestors; the families, food producers, and doctors who kept you and me alive; everyone who invented anything from the alphabet to the smart phone; everything that kept them alive, etc.). Make your mind part of the world’s peace, instead of its fear, and I promise, life will get better and better. And once you’ve calmed down, check back here next month to learn the second step in the bewilderment process!

How to Tame Your Fears

854678_30532713Fear is a terrible sensation, one we never, ever want to feel. How lucky we are to live in a time and place where it’s so often possible to avoid the things that scare us most: violence, disease, natural disasters, dangerous animals, and, at least until the very end, death. Instead, we get to sit around on our widening behinds watching television shows…about violence, disease, natural disasters, dangerous animals, and death.


I noticed a long time ago that fear often comes packaged with enthrallment. We don’t look away from accidents or guns; we give them our rapt attention. This tendency has obvious evolutionary advantages—it’s safer to keep deadly objects front-of-mind than to ignore them—and as a result, our brains seem to be hardwired so that scary experiences contain hidden fascination, and fascinating experiences are often scary.

In fact, I’d argue that there’s a direct correlation between the intensity of our fear and the degree of our fascination: Murder yanks our attention harder than heart disease; an earthquake is more interesting than a bad sunburn. This applies even at the much lower fear levels that characterize most of our lives. Think TV dramas: Arguments are more attention grabbing than agreement; the path of true love more interesting when it’s forbidden and dangerous than when it runs smoothly.

One way to put more zest into your life, then, is to seek activities or situations where fear and fascination overlap. The problem is, when facing such situations, we often dither, advancing toward and then retreating from whatever has captured our attention. But with a little clarity and a few instructions, you can break through this kind of ambivalence, embracing experiences that alarm you even as they deeply appeal. Like salting bland food, this can turn your life from dull to delicious.

A Fascinating Fright

Go ahead and think of something that both intrigues and scares you. It might be profound, like falling in love, or relatively trivial, like Roller Derby. (No offense, ladies. I’m fascinated by the idea of women who could stomp me to paste.) If you’re having trouble coming up with something, look for the word but in your statements of desire: “I’d love to make more friends, but I have social anxiety.” “I’d give anything to travel, but I’m afraid to fly.” “I’m dying to express my real feelings—but then I’d actually have to speak to my sister-in-law.”

Now plop your but down in the space below. Write the scary thing you want to do, and the fear that’s keeping you from doing it:

I want _____________________________, but I’m afraid_________________________.

Identifying this fascinating fear is a first step to a more fulfilling life. Next, you need to get familiar with a couple of crucial rules.

Rule One: Don’t Play with Poison

One fine day a woman known to science as “S.M.” suffered a stroke that left her unable to experience fear. She became irresistibly curious about things she’d once hated; for example, in pet stores she’d beeline past the puppies and go right for the snakes. She liked to play with their tongues. If you share this passion, okeydoke. Just make sure the snakes you play with are nonvenomous.

I mean this both literally and metaphorically. Because fear and fascination are so intermingled, many people who follow their thrill-seeking instincts end up unconsciously flirting with disaster. They snort drugs made of toilet cleanser, they break laws, they date people who have that “dangerous vibe.” But toxicity isn’t the way to feel more alive; it’s a gamble that you’ll become more dead.

Considering the fascinating fear you wrote down above, ask yourself: Is this desire destructive? Will it ruin life, health, or property? If so, scribble it out. And after reading the next rule, come up with something else.

Rule Two: Be Useful

A good way to find a fear that’s both fascinating and nontoxic is to choose something that will make a positive impact on the world. Constructive and creative activities—whether taking medicine to war zones or fostering a child—can be downright terrifying.

So, would your fascinating fear have any positive effect? Would it enlighten you, or improve your life, or someone else’s? Whether the answer is yes or no, see if you can amend your goal to make it a bit more heroic. Don’t just bungee jump; bungee jump to raise money for AIDS research. Don’t just do stand-up comedy; do stand-up comedy that teaches people something deep and true. Don’t just invite that hottie to go out with you; invite that hottie to go out with you and help campaign for your favorite cause. Write your new-and-improved statement here:

I want _____________________________, but I’m afraid_________________________.

When people frame a scary fascination this way, their motivation usually increases and their fear feels comparatively smaller. Increase the positive effect of your scary action until you’re aiming to do something really wonderful, and you’ll feel your inclinations tip from avoidance to attraction. You’re still scared to take the action, but you know it isn’t toxic, and your moral compass says “Go!”

It’s time to act.

Steering Through the Fear

Maybe your scary/interesting goal involves something you have to do. Maybe it involves a cause, or maybe it’s pure thrill. The best activities answer to all three masters—for example, a career can pay the bills, serve the world, and frighten you just enough to keep life interesting. But even in such ideal cases, scary is still scary. Fear often stops us from acting even when fascination won’t let us walk away.

Being prone to anxiety myself, I fall into the approach-avoidance trap approximately three times a week (a huge improvement from my youthful average of always). I was 14 when I realized that since everything scared me, I could either do scary things or kill myself; fortunately, I was too scared to kill myself. Every day since then, I’ve done at least one thing I was afraid to do. So I can promise you, the process below has been battle-tested up the wazoo. Holding your fascinating, frightening, heroic goal in mind, simply follow these steps:

1. Curl up.

You may not actually need this step, but I certainly do. After writing down a fascinating, frightening goal, I like to find a comfortable spot and scrunch up like a troubled armadillo for five minutes (or days). Depending on my fear level, I can change this up by rocking, pressing my palms against my eyelids, and/or keening. Experiment to see what works best for you!

2. Plan your progress.

After your armadillo time has marginally calmed you, take a deep breath and begin outlining a step-by-step plan to achieve your scary objective. Your fear will want to drag you into obsessing about possible problems in the future. But be here now: Your job at this moment isn’t facing what you fear, but planning to face it. While you’re planning, don’t execute or fret. Just plan.

3. Take one step toward your goal.

A good planner breaks down every challenge into manageable chunks. Once you’ve done that, forget about the long term and take the step that’s directly in front of you. Don’t even think about the next one. You only have to take that one step. Ever.

4. Keep taking one more step.

Heroes aren’t free from fear; they’re just so focused on a worthy goal that they feel they can’t turn back. Most of humankind’s great achievements—the sorts of things that make us say, “Oh, wow!”—were accomplished by people who were muttering or shouting, “Oh, shit!” Heroes don’t feel special, just dogged. They walk their scary paths with shaky knees and trembling hands. One shaky, trembling step at a time.

5. Watch the path, not the obstacles.

“When you shoot,” my friend Jim, a hockey player, once told me, “you never want to look at the goalie. Look at the space around him. Where your eyes go, the puck goes.” A white-water kayaker warned me, “Look at the water, not at the rocks. Where your eyes go, the boat goes.” My riding instructor shouted, “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t. Where your eyes go, the horse goes.”

Got it? Where our attention goes, our lives go. As you take each step, be peripherally aware of dangers, but glue your attention to the path between them.

6. Celebrate each step.

Many of my clients think they don’t deserve to celebrate until they’ve conquered huge fears to reach epic milestones. Not me. To stay motivated, I celebrate after I make one bed, write one e-mail, fill out one page of a tax form. Even if you’re much more courageous than I am, I suggest you do the same. Celebrating makes fascination all the more joyful—and it builds confidence, which is much more useful than avoiding fear.

If you live this way—seeking out what captivates and cows you, pushing beyond your comfort zone, making sure you’re serving a noble purpose—you’ll live a life full of absorbing adventures. You may even save the world. In which case, the rest of us just might end up watching you on TV, in between doctors diagnosing horrible illnesses and detectives solving grisly murders. And just think how thrilling that would be.

Leaps of Faith


Hello from Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, where I’m happily ensconced with several intrepid companions enjoying the African STAR (Self-Transformation Adventure Retreat).

When I told an acquaintance that I lead seminars in the African bush, she responded, “Oh, my God, how did you get that job?” The long answer is: 1) This isn’t a job, it’s my passion; and 2) My friends and I made it up. The short answer is: I drink my own Kool-Aid.

My coaching is all about following your inner compass; it makes you feel free and exhilarated when you’re headed toward your right life, shut down and joyless when you’re not. Just follow the good feelings, and you’ll have an awesome ride on Spaceship Earth.

That premise has led me to actions I never, ever thought I’d take: Having a son with Down syndrome. Spending twenty years (and counting) with a soulmate who happens to be female. Writing books that many people think are just plain nuts. (These people may be right.) But when I come to a crossroad, I really truly do check my inner compass and take whatever leap of faith takes me toward my own north star. Otherwise, I’d never ask you to do the same.

Living this way is an indescribable feeling, a feeling that makes one wish devoutly for more access to horse tranquilizers. It’s always scary. It never pleases everyone. But it also takes us to beauty, joy, love, and mystery beyond imagining. Today, for me, that happens to be Africa.

What is it for you?

What leap of faith is your compass telling you to do next? If it’s easy, cheap, logical, and socially acceptable, lucky you! If it’s terrifying, expensive, weird, and a little crazy, lucky you! Feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s the real Self-Transformation Adventure Retreat. It will take you to a place just as lovely as Londolozi. When you get there, don’t forget to write.

P.S. For extra credit, take a picture of yourself breaking one of your rules and post it on our Facebook page. (Just remember that “Martha told me to” does not a plea bargain make.)

Freedom From Fear

Polar Bear (Sow), Near Kaktovik, Barter Island, AlaskaLately I’ve become thoroughly exasperated with the part of my tiny brain that insists on continuously creating fear. Fear of dying soon. Fear of living too long. Fear of being alone. Fear of being spread out too thin between loved ones. Fear of drought. Fear of flooding. Fear of change. Fear of things staying the same.


I’ve tried suppressing my fear. It gets stronger. I’ve tried looking for the bright side, which simply focuses my mind on the inevitable dark side. I’ve tried medication, meditation, mediation, and a host of other ations. None of them worked. But recently, I’ve discovered something that does.

Here’s the thing: we can’t save ourselves from fear by seeking safety, because safety always means there’s something to be safe from—in other words, something to fear. The way out of fear isn’t safety. It’s freedom.

For a few weeks, I’ve been replacing every fearful thought in my head with a loving-kindness wish to be free from that specific fear.

  • When I’m scared that all the polar bears will die, I don’t say “Keep the polar bears alive!” until I’ve said, “May I be free from my fear for the polar bears.”
  • When I’m sure I have some dire illness, I don’t think “I must be healthy forever!”  I think, “May I be free from my fear of illness.”
  • When I miss someone, I don’t pester the person with needy phone calls.  I think, “May I be free from my fear of separation.”
  • Etcetera.

This request for freedom has been granted with subtle but remarkable power. I’ve had one of the calmest months on record. Freedom is landing me in peace, a state from which I function far more effectively—and safely—than anxiety. So feel free to try it. Really. Feel free.

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. 

Video: Coach 4 2 Day: Overcoming Peanut Butter

Martha offers some simple tips on how to snap back into mindfulness when it comes to mindlessly eating – in this case- peanut butter.

[Can’t see the video above? Watch it online!]

I Approve: The Value of Equality

Woman gazes in mirror.There are those rare individuals who cannot be distracted by the external markers of success—things like social rank, wealth, education level, and professional status. These individuals behave in ways that quietly but effectively elevate the lowly and humble the arrogant. How do they do it? They ignore two common misconceptions and act instead on bedrock truths about equality and individual value.

Misconception #1

Each person’s value is determined by rank on the pyramid of social success. Your worth as a person increases or decreases as you accumulate (or fail to accumulate) prizes like wealth, power or fame.

Almost all of us believe Misconception #1 at some point in our lives, and it’s no wonder: We are approval-seeking machines. From our infancy, everything we do — crying, playing, using the potty – brings either praise or reprimand from the grown-ups around us. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way to socialize children. But is also conveys the pervasive idea that our value depends on behaving in ways that others see as praiseworthy. Success-driven behaviors can undermine the very thing we think they will provide: the certainty that we are important, lovable, good enough. If you’re waiting for the one achievement that will give you this certainty, prepare to wait forever. The only way to create such inner peace is to replace Misconception #1 with the following truth.

Truth #1

Each person, including you, is infinitely precious. No success or failure can ever alter that fact.

We may give lip service to the idea that every human consciousness is equal and invaluable. But in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours. And deep down, most of us conclude that we’re a bit (or a lot) less equal than everybody else.

It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both. Ironically, this mind-set is precisely what keeps us from acting in ways that would elicit natural validation of our true value from the world around us.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel worthless, think about the most powerful hero you can imagine, and how they would react in your place. Now consider this: your hero isn’t the one coming up with this new, self-confident behavior—you are.  Whatever you see your hero do in the fantasy you’ve created is precisely what you can do in reality, once you choose to believe in your own value.

Misconception #2

People will value me to the extent that I affirm the superiority of people who rank above me in the social pyramid, and my own superiority over people who rank below me.

Success is a currency that is not accepted by the heart: You can’t buy love. Only people who are caught in the same misconception will bond with your accomplishments. Success-based relationships are parasitic, and they vanish when the fame, money and power do. To forge caring connections, you don’t need a stronger résumé; you need Truth #2.

Truth #2

People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.

Virtually all arrogant, domineering people spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak. This tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call “tossing the fish”.

If you’ve ever been to Sea World, you’ve probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who’s carrying a bucket of what they love most. They’re a lot like people that way – and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval.

Often people treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, the more approval we’ll receive from them. (By the way, it’s crucial to fully internalize Truth #1 before  you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and new-found interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)

In order to keep Truth No. 1 at the forefront of your thoughts, there are two techniques you may find helpful. First, rather than picturing intimidating people in their underwear, try to imagine them as their “bare selves” – as all those things that worry or motivate them. That way you can offer encouragement or support, just as you would with your peers, colleagues, or subordinates.

You may also try a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across on television. Barbara tells her clients, “treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home.” This is exactly opposite  of most people’s first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the “gracious host or hostess,” you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person’s power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at these particular moments,  the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The “host/hostess” trick can help you make the transition.

It may take you several months of practicing these techniques before they come to feel natural. However we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and we cling to the twin myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.

The Body Compass: How Your Essential Self Communicates

We Martha Beck coaches are obsessed with helping clients communicate consciously with what we call their “essential selves.” As opposed to the “social self,” the essential self is always focused on our best lives and will actively resist anything that is not in our genuine best interest. Unfortunately, the essential self is not verbal, while the social self thinks almost exclusively in language. To access our essential selves, we pay close attention to the physical body, which responds with tangible tension and resistance when we try to take the wrong path, and leaps forward joyfully when we take the right ones.

Lately, several coaches and clients have asked me what to do when the body gives contradictory instructions – for example, when we feel powerfully attracted to a romantic partner who has damaging character flaws, or we want to quit a terrible work environment but have heart palpitations at the thought of losing the income.

The way to address these situations is to realize that they have many components. Test your body’s reaction to each component of a situation, and you will find that you may have strongly negative reactions to one element while being drawn toward another. For example, your attraction to a dysfunctional person might be urging you to spend just enough time to recognize your own dysfunctional patterns; it is the learning, not a long term relationship, that is calling you. In the case of the terrible job, you may find that your fears are based entirely on your own negative thoughts – thoughts like “I have to keep this salary,” or “Jobs are scarce. I’ll never get another one.”

A key to recognizing when it’s time to tease out different components of a complex situation is staying alert for a sense of “revulsion,” rather than simple fear. Following our hearts is often scary, but the fear feels clean, and does not spoil the desire or yearning to experience our heart’s desire. Revulsion feels like eating something poisonous. It sickens and disgusts. When you feel fear, simply examine your frightening thoughts until you can see where they may be exaggerated or unfounded. Revulsion is telling you to give certain components of your experience a very wide berth.

Distinguishing between a generalized “negative body compass reading” and a cluster of little yellow flags is key to negotiating our complicated world and resolving our psychological blind spots. Rather than running from everything that gives you a twinge of discomfort, take the time to read your compass thoroughly. It will be well worth the investment as you become more discerning and less likely to make unconscious decisions.