Posts

Make Language Your Servant…and Other Wisdom From Martha Beck

mb_0407When you look in the mirror, you don’t see what the rest of us recognize as your face. You see all your small asymmetries—the freckle on your left cheek, your crooked smile, the part of your hair—reversed. When you think about yourself, this quirk of perception is much more dramatic, because as Byron Katie says, “Like a mir­ror, the mind has a way of getting things right but backwards.”

Katie fans (including all MBI coaches) spend a lot of time noticing this reversal of the real, and flipping our thoughts to discover the truth. This is what I’m calling the Fifth Task of Bewilderment. It’s a way of making language our servant, not our master, as we wend our way toward the truths that set us free.

If you’ve never heard of this Task, but you’re sick of misery, I urge you to learn it and use it, soon and often. Try this: call up an unhappy thought you believe about yourself—“I’m a loser/ idiot/ failure/ hot mess/ etc.,” or “I’m too old/ fat/ stupid/ loud/ etc.” Write it down.

Now, you may recall that the Second Task was simply noticing what nourishes you, and what poisons you. Read your unhappy thought, and just notice how poisonous it is. It will corrode your happiness like acid destroying silk. The Second Task asks you to push it aside, but the Fifth Task makes it useful. Your pain is the indicator that this thought is useful and important, but only because its mirror image, its polar opposite, is trying to make itself known to you.

The full Byron Katie work will help you see this at a deep level, but right now, try a shortened version. See if you can think of real, factual evidence indicating that the opposite of your unhappy thought is the truth you most need to learn right now.

The word “opposite” is key, here. If you think you’re too old, the truth isn’t just that 60 is the new 40—that’s just a lame way of comforting yourself, while still believing that there’s such a thing as “too old.” The Fifth Task asks us to radically shift our whole perception of reality. It asks you to think of a way in which you’re actually too young.

For example, maybe only immature humans, who haven’t yet noticed the ageless Being powering all of our meat-selves, fuss about aging. Maybe you’re too young to have stumbled across Einstein’s discovery that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TIME. Maybe you’re still so little you still believe it’s better to begin a journey than to come home.

Can you see how the Fifth Task forces open the tight fist of the mind, allowing you to touch and feel and play with reality in new ways? It’s the very definition of out-of-the-box thinking, and as you do it, you’ll find that your suffering begins to dissolve. What’s left is not a new box of thoughts, but a free mind. What you’ll see in the mirror after that is a wild, beautiful, undefined creature, with a wild thing’s pure delight in the experience of life.

*You may read the first four Tasks described in my newsletters here:

How to Deal with Your Darkest Secrets

4102469836_c4d2cc34f7_bAs a registered nurse, Jamie often finds herself keeping other people’s secrets. Most of the time, this doesn’t bother her; she empathizes with patients who conceal a scary diagnosis. But recently, Jamie found herself holding a couple of secrets that didn’t rest so easily. 

Both came from her coworkers. When a nurse named Esther bungled some paperwork, she confessed to Jamie that she was dyslexic. The other secret was much more upsetting: Susan, a hospital secretary, told Jamie that a popular surgeon (I’ll call him Dr. McCreepy) had been pursuing her sexually. He’d done outrageous things, like asking Susan to let him examine her breasts. Jamie suggested that she report him to their superiors, but Susan worried that she’d lose her job if the news came out. 

This double dose of secrecy upset Jamie so much that she called me, hoping I’d help her. I was glad she did. For those of us who aren’t lawyers, priests, or psychiatrists, there are no clear-cut rules to guide us through the gray shadows secrecy may cast. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has a nice ring to it, but if someone else’s secret has you tied in knots, I’d advise that you both ask and tell. First ask yourself—and possibly an impartial adviser—whether the secret is harmless or destructive, then, if it is damaging, confide the information to whoever is most able to use openness as a positive force. 

Jamie told me that the secrets she’d learned at work were “burning” inside her. Secrets are like stars: They’re hot, volatile concentrations of energy, and they have two ways of dying. Over time, small stars simply burn out and cool off, becoming what astronomers call white dwarfs. Massive stars collapse in on themselves, growing so dense that they create an immense gravitational vortex from which even light can’t escape. They become black holes. 

You’ve probably felt the difference between a “little white lie” and what I think of as a black hole secret, the kind that absorbs and darkens everything around it. In her book Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie, Gail Saltz, MD, describes how even a relatively minor lie, such as cheating on a tax form, exerts a powerful gravitational force on the liar, whose attention is focused on not talking about what they’ve done. Secret keepers may become uncommunicative, withdraw from others, exhibit strange moods, even isolate themselves completely.

The problem is even worse for people who don’t have black hole secrets but are holding such confidences for others. Secret keeping is immensely stressful; it has well-documented effects on things like immune function and even longevity. I’ve found that these three questions can help determine whether a secret is a white dwarf or a black hole.

1. Does knowing this information make my inner life feel brighter or darker? 

If you’re holding a malignant secret, you may feel as though other aspects of your life are being pulled down into darkness. This is the case for many people who’ve been abused or the victim of serious trauma. After decades of silence, the secret will still dominate the center of their consciousness, dimming their capacity for openness and intimacy. 

2. Am I afraid that keeping this secret may allow someone to be harmed?

If your gut says yes to this question, you must break your promise. Protecting someone by hiding a secret that causes another person to be harmed is never constructive—for anyone. 

3. Do I find myself in situations where I often want to tell? 

The gravitational pull of secrets works both ways. Opportunities to reveal dark secrets seem to come up repeatedly, in part because these secrets so dominate our psychological landscape. Ignoring opportunities to tell won’t feel honorable—it usually feels like lying. It divides you from others and makes you avoid certain subjects or even people. (The only honorable silence involves keeping harmless gossip to yourself.)

When Jamie herself asked questions, she found that Esther’s secret was a white dwarf. She now understood why Esther, one of the most intelligent and caring nurses at the hospital, avoided paperwork, and she had seen that Esther was extremely careful not to let her dyslexia affect patients. For example, she always chose tasks like feeding, cleaning, and comforting patients over those that required reading, and when she did do something involving written work (such as administering medication) she double-checked with other nurses to validate the vital facts. As time passed, Jamie found she had less and less desire to expose Esther’s secret. 

Susan’s story about Dr. McCreepy, on the other hand, was a black hole. It nagged at Jamie, especially because it evoked dozens of other incidents when female staffers had seemed upset or afraid around him. Jamie’s instincts told her that McCreepy was damaging many careers and lives, but she couldn’t ask other nurses about their experiences without risk of revealing Susan’s secret. Instead, Jamie found herself becoming tongue-tied, anxious, and distant with her staff. This secret needed telling—but when? And to whom? 

The Right Way to Tell

I was the first person to whom Jamie revealed the secrets she’d been holding for her coworkers. This was a good strategy: I didn’t know anyone involved, so I had no conflict of interest, and Jamie knew I’d keep her story confidential (of course, I’ve changed the names and identifying details here). If you’re troubled by a secret, talking about it with an unbiased counselor such as a mental health professional, trusted religious adviser, or attorney is an excellent idea. 

For one thing, taking a safe person into your confidence dulls the isolating edge of a secret—and defuses the desire to gossip. Moreover, a person who has some training and experience can give you an unbiased opinion about whether the secret is merely a white dwarf or a black hole. (If you want to share a confidence for the sheer salacious pleasure of it, you’re obviously out of line. But if you simply must gossip, consulting a professional is better than blurting it to a friend, especially one who knows the people involved.) 

Small secrets, like small stars, cool with time. If you and your counselor believe a secret is harmless, simply wait a while. The information will soon fade to the back of your mind. Virtually all my clients’ secrets affect me this way; I feel no desire to talk about them with anyone but the person involved. But I often advise clients who, like Esther, are hiding something they think is dark and awful to confess it, and not just because of the relief they’d feel.

For instance, several months after I spoke with Jamie, Esther got an unsatisfactory job evaluation for being slow with paperwork. At that point, Jamie persuaded Esther to admit to her supervisor that she had dyslexia. She did, and everyone benefited. Esther’s evaluation was upgraded, and she was allowed to focus on patient care rather than alphabetizing files. That’s the effect the truth has when secrets are essentially innocent—but it’s best to encourage people to come clean on their own. 

When you realize a secret is a black hole, tell a higher power. I don’t just mean God. If the information you have is explosive, or if you’re afraid that exposing the confidence might harm you or someone else, it’s essential you reveal your information to a person who is powerful enough to contain any possible damage. 

In Jamie’s case, this meant speaking with her hospital’s chief of surgery about Dr. McCreepy. Simply questioning other nurses might have confirmed her suspicions that McCreepy was a prolific perv, but it would certainly have caused gossip. Jamie believed the chief surgeon would treat the McCreepy issue seriously but sensitively, and he proved worthy of that trust. He instigated a sexual harassment training program, which prompted several female staffers to come forward and make Dr. McCreepy’s prurient activities public knowledge. Susan was able to tell her story, Jamie no longer felt burdened, and McCreepy became one very humble, cautious, and shut-down sexual harasser.

In cases when there is no trustworthy authority figure, the public is the only “higher power” available. It’s through public exposure of dark secrets that human groups, even whole societies, become more just. This applies to small situations and large ones. Think about college students who exposed dangerous hazing in certain fraternities, or whistle-blowing employees at Enron, or the soldiers who brought attention to the plight of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. If you decide to reveal this kind of secret, brace yourself: The truth-teller often catches some flak. The fact that activists do this anyway shows how destructive black hole secrets really are—the angry reaction of an exposed wrongdoer, however unpleasant it may be, is preferable to a life dominated by the darkness of someone else’s secret. 

If someone confides a secret to you, ask yourself those three questions, then wait to see if the burning desire to tell dies out, or pulls you further into its gravitational force. Think of this process as steering by the stars—be they white dwarfs or the bright wisdom of an unbiased adviser. When you feel darkness drawing you in, connect with a person or group powerful enough to anchor you with a different source of “gravity.” Let the company of trusted others help you break free from the cloud of secrecy, so that your personal universe remains open, sparkling, and clear. 

Seeing Your Emotional Blind Spots

Most of us have such psychological “blind spots,” aspects of our personalities that are obvious to everyone but ourselves. There’s the mother who complains, “I don’t know why little Horace is so violent—I’ve smacked him for it a thousand times.” Or your gorgeous friend who believes she has all the seductive allure of a dung beetle. Or the coworker who complains that, mysteriously, every single person he’s ever worked for develops the identical delusion that he’s shiftless and incompetent. As we roll our eyes at such obliviousness, some of us might think, What about me? Do I have blind spots, and if so, what are they?

You can find the answers if you care to—or more accurately, if you dare to. This is the roughest mission you can undertake: a direct seek-and-destroy attack on your own pockets of denial. Denial is far trickier than simple ignorance. It isn’t the inability to perceive information but the astonishing ability to perceive information while automatically refusing to allow it into consciousness. Our minds don’t perform this magical trick without reason. We only “go blind” to information that is so troubling, so frightening, or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves and the world. On the other hand, becoming fully conscious of our perceptions—simply feeling what we feel and knowing what we know—is the very definition of awakening. It creates a virtually indestructible foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavors, and inner peace. Hunting down your blind spots is a bumpy adventure, but it can lead to sublime destinations.

Identifying your own blind spots is an exercise in paradox, because if you’re aware of a problem, it doesn’t count. It’s like tracking the wind: You can’t observe the thing itself, only its effects. The tracks that a blind spot leaves are repetitive experiences that seem inexplicable, the things that make you exclaim, Why does this always happen to me? For example:

1. You keep having the same relationship with different people.
All of Macy’s friends are “takers,” emotional parasites who drain her and give nothing back. Steve’s three ex-wives all had extramarital affairs. No one in Corrine’s life—her children, her coworkers, her mother—ever responds to her feelings.

These people don’t know that they carefully choose friends and lovers who match certain psychological profiles or that their behavior elicits similar reactions from almost everyone they encounter. It would take you about five minutes with Macy to see that she’s so self-effacing she actually resists normal friendships, gravitating only toward takers. Steve’s friends will tell you he falls for women who remind him of his mother, an enthusiastic practitioner of promiscuous sex. Corrine is so reserved that even the most intuitive people can’t read her moods. All three have gone through life blaming their relationship patterns on other people’s shortcomings.

2. Your luck never changes.
Over years of life-coaching, I’ve become more and more convinced that we create our own “luck.” I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as blind fate, but I am saying that choice is far more powerful than chance in determining the pattern of our failures and successes over time.

Many of my clients have lost jobs in the recent economic downturn, but those who were previously doing well in their careers are finding ways to learn from their experience and bounce back. Those who complained of relentless bad luck before being laid off have slid further downhill. A client I’ll call Shirley recently complained, “When my sister was fired, I thought we’d bond because we both had the same bad luck. But then she started her own business, so it turns out that for her getting fired was good luck. Just like always, she gets all the breaks.” As I punted Shirley to a psychotherapist, I wondered if they train Seeing Eye dogs for people with her kind of blindness. If so, Shirley will almost certainly develop a dog allergy.

3. People consistently describe you in a way that doesn’t fit your self-image.
If tracking patterns in love and luck isn’t enough to reveal your blind spots, there’s another way to go after them. You just have to notice what people tell you about yourself—the things you have always cleverly ignored or routinely discounted. Complete the following sentences as accurately as you can, and you might be closing in on a truth you haven’t fully acknowledged.

  • “People are always telling me that I’m…”
  • “I get a lot of compliments about…”
  • “When my friends or family members are angry with me, they say that…”
  • “People often thank me for…”

If you heartily agree with all the information that pops up in response to these phrases, you’ve simply reinforced an accurate self-concept by recalling times when others have validated your perceptions. But if any of the descriptions seem strange, incongruous, or flat-out false, consider the possibility that your image of yourself may not be accurate—and almost certainly doesn’t correspond to what other people perceive. By the way, you may well discover that you’re blind to your positive characteristics as well as negative ones. Some people (especially women) may be so biased against being arrogant that they overlook or dismiss their own best qualities.

Getting Rid of Your Blind Spots

If the evidence suggests that you have blind spots, you can try to eliminate them with a simple mindfulness exercise. You already know what’s in your blind spot; it’s just that looking at it makes you extremely uncomfortable. Only by being very gentle with yourself will you become able to tolerate more awareness. So as kindly as you can, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What am I afraid to know?
  2. What’s the one thing I least want to accept?
  3. What do I sense without knowing?

Whatever comes into your mind, do nothing about it. Not yet. If you feel even a hint of some new realization, you’ve taken a huge step. More insights will arrive soon, and the kinder you are to yourself over time, the more likely you are to experience major breakthroughs.

Hunting for your own blind spots, like trying to examine the back of your own head, is much less efficient than soliciting feedback from others. This process combines the attractions of strip-dancing and skydiving, making you feel completely exposed yet energized by the sense that you could be catastrophically injured. I known how valuable honest feedback can be, how much precious time it can save in my struggle to awaken. I still have to force myself to go looking for it, but when I do I almost always benefit.

Try this: For a week, ask for blind-spot feedback from one person a day, never asking the same person twice. Just say it: “Is there anything about me that I don’t seem to see but is obvious to you?” You’ll probably want to start with your nearest and dearest, but don’t stop there. Surprisingly, a group of relative strangers is often the best mirror you can find. I’ve worked with many groups of people who, just minutes after meeting, could offer one another powerful insights. Like the emperor in his new clothes, we often believe that our illusions are confirmed by the silence of people who are simply too polite to mention the obvious. Breaking the courtesy barrier by asking for the truth can change your life faster than anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Handling Feedback

Any feedback is scary. The kind that addresses topics so uncomfortable you’ve stuffed them into a blind spot can be almost intolerable. That’s why, before you even ask for an honest appraisal, you have to have a strategy in place for processing it.

1. Just say thanks.
When others discuss your blind spots, you may have a violent emotional reaction. Remember: All of the upheaval is a product of your own mind. You do not have to dissuade or contradict the other person in order to feel calm. Instead of launching into an argument, just say thanks. Then imagine yourself tucking away the other person’s comments in a box. You can take them out later, examine them, decide whether or not they’re useful.

2. Dismiss useless feedback.
There’s real feedback, and then there’s the slop that’s merely a reflection of the speaker’s dysfunction. Fortunately, you can tell these things apart because they feel very different. Useless feedback is nonspecific and vague, and has no action implication. It demotivates, locking us in confusion and shame. Useful feedback is specific and focused. It can sting like the dickens, but it leads to a clear course of action; when you hear it you feel a tiny lightbulb going on upstairs.

“No one could ever love you” is useless feedback. “You project a lot of hostility, and it scares people” gives you information that you need to make healthy changes. It’s safe to assume that useless feedback is coming from people who are themselves shame-bound and blind. The best thing to do with it is dismiss it and focus on the information your gut tells you is valuable.

3. Absorb the truth.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a man who, virtually blind from early childhood, had an operation that restored his sight when he was middle-aged. Though the man’s eyes now took in visual information, his brain wasn’t used to making sense of it. He couldn’t differentiate between a man and a gorilla until he touched a nearby statue of a gorilla; then the difference became immediately clear.

This confused state is similar to what you’ll feel when you’ve accepted feedback about what lies in your blind spots. You’re not used to this new set of eyes, this novel image of self. After my first revelation of how I can be very dominant, I felt incredibly clumsy. I felt a little as if I were talking while listening to headphones: I couldn’t correctly gauge how I was coming across to others. Slowly, asking repeatedly for feedback, I began to see my own behavior more clearly. My false image of self gave way to a more accurate model, and I learned to avoid accidentally stomping on people with my conversational style.

Deliberately, methodically eliminating your blind spots simply intensifies the natural process we all endure as life teaches us its rough-and-tumble lessons. If you undertake this accelerated journey, you will learn much more in much less time (albeit with a few more scrapes and bruises) and achieve a deeper level of self-knowledge than you otherwise would have.

Just observing the truth about yourself without judgment or spin will begin to change you. It’s well-nigh impossible to see yourself more and more clearly while continuing to act without integrity, or in contradiction to your life’s real purpose. Eventually you may come to see what Marianne Williamson meant when she said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” To see your truest nature is to recognize that you have a capacity for goodness far greater than you ever dreamed, with all the awesome responsibility that entails. It’s a difficult proposition, but in the end the view makes it all worthwhile.

Martha on Oprah: The Truth Will Set You Free

Recently Martha joined Oprah for a live webcast after the episode “The Truth Will Set You Free” from Oprah’s new Lifeclass series on OWN.  With her signature blend of humor, science, and spirituality, Martha helps us understand how lies and secrets affect relationships, self-esteem, and even our health. Both Martha and Oprah then offer their keen insight and clarity on how to to speak your truth so that you can live the life you are meant to live.

Clicking on the video above will redirect you to oprah.com. 

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.

Set it Free

birds in the shape of a heartSonya was stuck. Every time she came in for a session, she seemed more inextricably wedged into a life she hated. It wasn’t that she lacked means: Born to wealth and privilege, Sonya had beauty, education, and the talent to become what she’d longed to be—a songwriter. But she couldn’t take the steps that would make her dreams a reality.”It’s just too hard,” Sonya sighed during one session. “I’m stuck in the life my parents want for me. I’ll marry a rich man, have 1.7 kids, do what I’m told. I’m trapped. Completely trapped.”

I couldn’t help comparing Sonya’s comments with another conversation I’d had when I was in Cambodia, doing interviews for a World Bank project. A vibrant man I’ll call Khet told me about his experiences during the war-torn 1970s, when he’d been imprisoned, starved and sentenced to death.

“One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise,” Khet said. “So, you see, I was completely free.” I stopped him. How did he figure that one? Khet smiled. “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.”

And an opportunity did come. As he and some other prisoners were being led to the execution ground, Khet bolted, running for a weak spot in the wire fences. He fully expected to be shot, but the other prisoners distracted the guards enough to spoil their aim. Khet escaped into the jungle.

“You see? My fellow prisoners were free, too,” he said. “No matter what happens to your body, madame, if your heart is free, you are free.”

Most people think more like Sonya than like Khet. My clients routinely tell me they’re deadlocked, hemmed in, blocked, controlled by circumstance. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you don’t have the option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Trust me, the options are there. You’re at an impasse because you’ve been trained not to seize—or even recognize—the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of your dreams. Your body is free but your heart is in prison.

Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.

As a result, few of us speak the truth out loud. All our lives we’ve been hearing things like: What you are thinking/feeling/saying/becoming, etc., is stupid/rude/scandalous/sinful/depressing/ridiculous/unoriginal, etc. All the infinite variations on this theme convey just one message: Silence your heart or you will be rejected. Rejection hurts our little social-mammal hearts so much that just the threat of it convinces most of us to cooperate with our enemies. This is a two-step process: First we go dumb, learning never to speak our deepest truths. Then we go deaf, refusing to hear our own souls.

Sonya was a fully heart-bound when she came to see me. For thirty-some years, her life’s journey had been steered by social expectation, slowed by fear, stymied by conflicting demands. Bad news: If you’re a normal human, you probably act like Sonya at least some of the time. Good news: As your own jailer, you—and only you—can free your heart whenever you want.

To release your heart, you simply reverse the two-step process by which you locked it up. First you begin to listen for messages from your heart—messages you may have been ignoring since childhood. Next you must take the daring, risky step of expressing your heart in the outside world. It’s lucky this process is so simple, because it’s also terrifying.

Step 1: Tune In

People with captive hearts often spend years thinking very hard about things like reawakening their passion or discovering their destiny. This never works, because such information is stored in the heart, not the brain, and is expressed by feelings, not thoughts.Sonya was so numb to her emotions that she couldn’t tell a surge of love or pathos from, say, gas. Not to worry. Paying attention to any feeling unlocks your heart, and if subtle emotional nuance eludes you, physical sensations will do nicely. Try the exercise I assigned Sonya: Write a detailed description of everything you’re feeling in your body. If you do this for more than ten minutes, you’ll find that you’ve also started describing your emotions.

As Sonya began to write about her chronic exhaustion and headaches, a torrent of truth burst from her heart into her conscious mind. “I hate the socialite scene,” she found herself writing. “I want solitude. I need music.” For years her heart had been trying to send these messages through physical symptoms. As she began to listen, those symptoms faded. Sonya’s prison walls were coming down.

Step 2: Think of This As “Shock” Therapy

Once you begin listening to your heart, I guarantee it’s going to say some things that shock you—otherwise, you wouldn’t have locked it away in the first place. You may discover that your heart wants to spend your paycheck on flowers or wear purple spandex to a board meeting. You don’t have to act on these impulses, but you must not judge or repress them.

Treat your heart like a tired, hurt child: Accept its tantrums, revenge fantasies, and pity parties, but don’t get stuck in them. Say kind things to yourself: “It’s okay that you love your goldfish more than your in-laws” or “Of course you want to stab Billy’s third-grade teacher with a meat fork—all the moms do.” When you acknowledge your forbidden feelings calmly, you’ll find that you actually have more control over your actions. It’s when feelings are repressed that they burst out in dangerous, unhealthy ways.

The more you tune in, the deeper the truths your heart will tell and the more intense your emotions will become. You may feel great pain about times others have hurt you—and, worse, times you have hurt others. But as this pain flows through you and begins to dissipate, you’ll find something beneath it, something astonishingly powerful, something one philosopher called the “all-pervading radiant beauty” of your heart of hearts.

Step 3: Defy your inner jailer

At this point you’ll begin to realize that your heart is telling you where to steer your life. You’ll know the next step because you will begin to long for anything that connects you to it.

When desire really comes from your heart, deciding to act on it will bring another strong sensation. You’ll feel an extraordinary clarity, the sense that something inside you has clicked into place. Of course, your Inner Jailer might not agree. You may be flooded with reminders that your heart’s instructions are stupid or boring or rude. Don’t listen. Run.

Step 4: Run for the jungle

I’ll never forget the moment Sonya stopped daydreaming about sending her songs to a music producer and decided to Just Do It. It doesn’t sound like much—until you try it yourself. Acting on your heart’s instructions means abandoning all those careful strategies for avoiding rejection and bolting toward the fertile, gorgeous jungle of human imagination and possibility.

I’ve watched in awe and admiration as many clients took the enormous risk of freeing and following their hearts. I’ve seen high-income executives joyfully switch to low-paying careers as artists or forest rangers, and people who grew up in poverty dare to believe they deserve decent money. I’ve seen folks adopt children with AIDS or lose 50 pounds. As a 13th-century Zen master said, “The place is here: The way leads everywhere.” Once you are present in your own heart, you’ll find your life going places your mind has never even dreamed of.

Step 5: Spread the word

Toni Morrison said that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal.

When Sonya started sending out her demo tapes, she became what she called an overnight failure. For months no one so much as acknowledged her creations. Sonya’s heart broke, but she refused to send it back to prison. Instead she began to think like Khet facing execution: Since things could not be worse, she decided to drop her inhibitions. Her music became less derivative. She began writing raw, gut-deep songs that horrified her family—and impressed some producers. Sonya began to find her “tribe,” the people who understood her true self. She’s still far from famous, but her heart is free, “and that,” she told me, “is what it’s really about.”

As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, calling your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes all-too-human people and societies capable of true humanity. It will chart you a life’s journey as unique and authentic as your fingerprint; send you out, full of hope and breathtaking exhilaration, onto paths you never thought you could travel. It is the way you were meant to exist. If you stop to listen, you’ll realize that your heart has been telling you so all along.