Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #119 Braver Than You Believe
About this episode

Our comfort zones are always shrinking or expanding. In this Gathering Room, we discuss how to make sure they keep expanding. You really are braver than you believe!

Braver Than You Believe

Martha Beck:
We might as well get into our topic of the day, which I called Braver than You Believe because of that beautiful quote from Winnie the Pooh, which says, “You are braver than you believe. You are stronger than you seem, and you’re smarter than you think.” And I found myself very comforted by that this week because I just bet that if we all collectively, on the Gathering Room here, took one of those online Are You a Highly Sensitive Person tests, all our computers would explode because I think a lot… I’m definitely a highly sensitive person, all my friends are and I think probably most of us here in the Gathering Room are, and as a result, I have one of those comfort zones. It’s not that I have a small comfort zone, though I do.

Well, it’s hard to say because it starts out small, but I’m constantly expanding it, but it’s constantly shrinking and then it expands. I was doing my other podcast with my partner Roe, our Bewildered podcast, and we were talking about the pandemic. And I realized that the pandemic, the lockdown, did in actuality or externally what a lot of people do internally when they have really high levels of anxiety. If people are very nervous, they might have a panic attack in a public place, then they don’t want to go into a public place, so they shrink their comfort zone, then even their neighborhood gets too scary and then it’s the house, but then the house is too scary, and then it’s just a few rooms. And then even those rooms get to be scary because anxiety follows us everywhere we go. It just follows us. And the tighter we shrink our space, the more it expands to fill that space.

So I know this is how fear works in the brain, and we’ve talked about this often, you know that is just how I think. But I was reading online about people who are wanting to feel safe and thinking about how I wish I ever felt safe. There are a lot of times when I feel safe, but there are also a lot of times when I’m scared and nervous. I am afraid to, for example, start anything, but I’m also afraid to finish things. Right in the middle there’s a sweet spot that I love. I’m scared of interacting with people, but I’m also scared to not interact with people because then I get crazy and lonely and weird. I’m scared to try new things because I would rather not, but I’m scared not to try new things because then I’m a dinosaur and my life shrivels.

So here’s what I know. The way the brain works is that any circumstance and any thought that triggers those primitive fear centers in the brain is going to be associated with not feeling safe. And then once you don’t feel safe in a situation, nothing can get the fear to go away without your having to feel it. So no one else can come and create, change the situation so that you will feel permanently safer. They can shift things around, but it’s just like with the agoraphobia thing. As your life shrinks or as the world changes, the anxiety attaches to different things. What I was saying about that pandemic is that a lot of people probably had slight anxiety, but being forced to stay inside or quarantine and being away from people and everything changing around us and all the messages of fear from the media and seeing people sick and dying and everything, it had a mass effect as though we all had high anxiety, the whole population of the world, because we all retreated to safe spaces and we had to stay there for a long time.

If you’re retreating into a smaller space and you stay there for a long time, your level of fear goes up in that space, then you’re afraid to leave it. So even if you aren’t a highly sensitive person, the pandemic may have given you the same kind of experience that makes people’s comfort zone shrink and shrink and shrink. So there we are. And people can come and try to make us feel safer, but if we suddenly have an anxiety attack, they can’t control that, so they can’t force. Nobody can force you to feel safe and you cannot force yourself to feel safe, and trying and force yourself to feel safe makes you more anxious.

Oh, it’s so fun, isn’t it? Yeah, I was writing in my book about anxiety that I hear all the time people saying, “I’ve got to beat my anxiety. I wish it were gone. I want to obliterate it.” And your anxiety, the part of your brain that’s anxious is hearing, “I hate you. I want to obliterate you.” So it gets more scared. Even telling ourselves, “I’ve got to stop being scared,” scares the part of us that is scared. So no one else can make you feel safe, and you can’t make you feel safe.

So what do you have left to do? Unfortunately, your only option is being brave. I hate that. But to make your comfort zone grow, you have to go into a space or an activity that creates some level of fear, though not paralyzing fear. You don’t want to push it that far. And then you sit in that fear zone and wait until nothing much happens. I did another Gathering Room where I talked about this really specifically, and you have to do that over and over and over. So you’re always either expanding your comfort zone or it’s shrinking and you will never, inside that, feel completely safe because actually we’re not completely safe.

If you look at life from a totally materialist standpoint, you’re not safe from heartbreak, you’re not safe from loss, you’re not safe from disease, you’re not safe from illness, you’re definitely not safe from death, you’re not safe from people being mean. This is not a safe place. Aren’t you glad you joined me here? Have a great week. No, I’m not going to leave you there. That’s from a materialist standpoint. And when I actually only believe that, I was anxious and agoraphobic and scared and depressed to the point of just wanting to check out. I just wanted to get off the bus.

But then I ran into quotes like, “You are braver than you believe and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think,” and something in me went, “Wait, what? Braver? Why does that ring true?” That sentence rang true to me when I heard it, but I thought that makes no sense. How can you be braver than you believe? You know yourself from the inside. You know how brave you are. You know because you’re scared and you know when you’re not scared, but only from a materialist standpoint. The way we can be braver than we believe is looking at ourselves from the perspective of more than just a material object, from the play of consciousness in the world that can’t be created or destroyed, looking at ourselves as part of the great spirit or having a higher self that has some kind of metaphysical dimension. Well, then if that’s the truth of our existence, then you are never ever in danger. And there is a part of you that knows that, and that’s the part of you that’s braver than you believe.

Now, I have known many people in my life who did things that I thought were incredibly brave, and I bet you’ve done things that were incredibly brave. And I talked to them about it afterward. There was one woman who was widowed at age 42 with five children. She never finished college. She put herself through college, put herself through graduate school, put herself through being qualified as a therapist, and became my therapist at one point. And I said to her, “Damn, that was a brave thing to do.” And she just looked at me like I was crazy and she goes, “No, I was scared to death. I didn’t have a choice.” She did have choices. I don’t know, she could’ve run screaming for the hills. She could’ve done something that wasn’t that brave. Probably you’ve done things that were really brave, but at the time, you just felt like your back was against the wall. You just felt, “All right, yeah.”

Reminds me of, there’s this horrible, wonderful, horrible little video online that I keep seeing go by. And half of the time, I’m just shocked that anyone would put it online. And the other half of the time, it makes me laugh hysterically in an uneasy way because it’s this woman who goes bungee jumping, but somehow she gets confused and she thinks it’s a zip line. And a zip line, you hang onto a thing and you zip along a rope, and it’s really scary. But it’s not as scary as bungee jumping, where you just jump off a thing and fall like a rock for several hundred feet until an elastic band pulls you up again by your feet. Well, she thinks she’s on a zip line, and so she jumps and it turns out to be a bungee jump, and you see someone actually fully believing that things have broken and she’s falling to her death.

And as I said, most of the time, I have so much empathy and I’m horrified that I’m even looking at this, and then there’s the fact that she not only lived through it, but then said, “Oh my God, the funniest thing happened. You can’t believe how scared I was,” and it all turned out okay. Talk about expanding your comfort zone in a hurry. You may have just been placed by life into a situation where you had to be incredibly brave.

On a previous Gathering Room, we’ve talked to people who’ve been through horrible things, through cancer, through the loss of loved ones, through all kinds of stuff, and you’ve survived and you’ve been braver than you believed you could be, and certainly stronger than you seem in the moments when everything’s pushing down on you, and a lot smarter than you think because you have the intelligence of nature, the intelligence of the universe, the intelligence of all creation flowing through you.

So those are the moments when we jump off the zip line and realize that we’re going straight to our death, that we have no option except to hang in there and tolerate the experience. So the way to grow your comfort zone is to look for an experience you would like to have if you were brave enough. I’m doing several of those right now, all projects that I don’t need to do and the odds of success are very slim and I don’t even understand why I’m putting so much work into them, except that I really want to in my heart.

Find a thing that you would do if you dared and then do it anyway. Jump off the platform. And if you’re too scared to jump off the platform, that’s okay. Scale it down a little. Bring a friend. I’ve had people do incredibly brave things just because they were able to bring a friend with them. And so band together, but let’s do things that prove to us, prove to our little fear centers in our little physical brains, that we are braver than we believe and stronger than we seem and smarter than we think.

And here are some questions coming in, so I’m going to start answering those. Anne says, “Can intuition guide a person out of anxiety to being brave?”

I don’t know, but I will say this, my intuition guides me not out of anxiety but into things that make me anxious. I’m going to change this. Yeah, it makes me say, “I need to do this thing even though I’m afraid to do it.” It doesn’t take the dang anxiety away. Intuition does not take away my anxiety. It just says, “Go do the thing you greatly fear.” Who was it? Was it Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do?” And there’s a quote in the Bible somewhere where it says, “That which I greatly feared has come upon me.” I say that almost every day. “Oh my gosh, I have to take the dogs to a dog sitter. Oh, that which I greatly feared has come upon me.”

Yeah, I’m easy to scare, but my intuition is strong, and that means I just keep going into things that scare me, and then that counts as bravery. And you’re, “I could take the dogs to a dog sitter anytime. I did it once and I’m okay.” But you have to have the experience while you’re still scared. I hate it, but that’s the way it’s all happening.

So Constellations in her Bones, whose name I love, says, “As a highly sensitive, is it possible to feel consciousness rising? Do practices like yoga and creativity help us find equilibrium and catharsis? How is diving into the unknown a way to grow?”

Wow, such great questions. I think we absolutely feel consciousness rising, and that is something that is, I think, one of the gifts of this problematic condition of being highly sensitive. So on one hand, you have a tendency toward anxiety that’s more triggery perhaps than a person who’s less sensitive. On the other hand, that high sensitivity, I believe, makes us very attuned to metaphysical truths.

I was talking to a dear family member who is visiting us right now and she was telling me about waking up in the night and hearing something say, “Men, you need to stop being violent against women, against children, against yourself, against yourselves.” And I said, “Do you think it was you or what?” And she said, “No, I think it was something else.” And there’s something so powerful about a consciousness that will wake up in the night and be sensitive enough to feel that, and it makes us probably in the Gathering Room more likely to pursue the arts than other people. It makes us more tenderhearted. It makes the fate of the earth seem more dire. It’s very painful and very magical. So yes, I think we do feel consciousness rising, and I think that’s what my friend was feeling or hearing when she was waking up in the night and hearing this message.

“Do practices like yoga and creativity help us find equilibrium?” Yes. Not yoga if you do it competitively, which is one way you can do yoga, but if you do it really for your own stillness. And if you push your edges. It’s all about pushing edges, so it can help you realize that you can do things that are a little bit uncomfortable, and that helps with expanding that comfort zone. And diving into the unknown is always a way to grow because it’s the only way to grow. Growth by definition means going where you haven’t gone before, and diving in is just a really brave way to do it. And some of us just fall in. I just fall in, things push me in, but you can dive in. If you can dive in, you do it. I’m going to be waiting until something pushes me, but I’ll be with you soon.

Rose Brita says, “Do you think some people are born braver than others? Because some people make brave choices and others do not.”

Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that either because I can’t get inside anyone else’s psyche. I know that some people are born with less of a tendency to anxiety than others. When I was back at Harvard, I helped with a study by Jerome Kagan, who was a developmental psychologist, and he was just researching how some little babies are more timid than others and they continue to be more timid. Throughout their lives, he was doing this longitudinal study, but they also have really high sensitivity and empathy and other things that can be used not for evil but for good. And maybe if you’re born without as much sensitivity, you don’t have to be as brave. And maybe a lot of people who don’t look brave are being incredibly brave because they’re so sensitive. It’s a subjective question and all I know is that if you can get to the edge of where you’re scared and not retreat, you get braver. And I would count that as courage.

So Jessica says, “Where I get stuck is when to have courage and do the thing or be gentle to myself and rest.” Good point. “How do we find the sweet spot between expanding our comfort zone and giving ourselves a break?”

What a great question. What I do every single day is, I got this from a book on training exotic animals, so killer whales and tigers and things that aren’t tameable really, and you can’t physically manipulate them the way you would a poodle or something, so you have to entice them into doing something unusual and then immediately reward them. And the reward can take two forms. It can be something positive like throwing someone a fish, throw yourself a fish, or it can be something that is the absence of pressure.

One of the ways I was taught to ride a horse is to gently cause a little bit of discomfort by rubbing my heel against the horse’s side until it does what I’m trying to train it to do, which when I did this, it was trying to get the horse to move sideways. And the moment the horse, it’s feeling around trying to figure out what you want, the moment it does the thing you want, you stop that slight agitation. So you’re not hurting an animal. You’re just causing a little disruption, and when it goes in the direction you want, you stop the pushing, you stop the agitation.

So what I like to do is give myself, I make a list of things to do, which always scares me every single damn day. There are three days when my list of things to do doesn’t scare me. And then I put in things that are sweet rewards for me, and that is the creativity and the company of beloved people and resting, and all the things that you’re talking about.

I love this from Winnie the Pooh. Do you know that whole braver than you believe quote? It’s not even Winnie the Pooh. A.A. Milne didn’t even say it. Google, I hate you for telling me that because I wanted it to be a Winnie the Pooh quote. It’s not. Nobody knows where it came from, but I did chance on a different quote while I was doing this and I think it pertains to this question of Jessica’s. It’s where Winnie the Pooh gets stuck trying to come out of Rabbit’s house. He gets stuck in the entrance to his burrow and he can’t get out.

And then it says, “Bear began to sigh,” and then he found out he couldn’t because he was so tightly stuck. And a tear rolled down his eye and he said, “Then would you read a sustaining book such as would help and comfort a wedged bear in great tightness?” And I thought, I love A.A. Milne. He is one of us because he knows that sometimes a sustaining book… We are just wedged bears in great tightness. Please read us a sustaining book. And so Christopher Robin reads him that book every day for a week, and eventually they managed to wiggle him out of the hole.

But back to my thing about sweet spots, reading a sustaining book is a nice treat. Whatever you do that’s creative or sociable in an easy way, being in nature, being with animals, just lying down, do something scary and then immediately give yourself, as soon as possible, give yourself a sweet treat. Doesn’t have to be food. Could be. But it can be anything that makes your spirit feel like, “Oh, okay. All right, that’s better.” And if you can just keep alternating those, you get a slow but steady growth that starts to feel really positive after a while.

Okay, back to some more questions. Valerie says, “I dissociate or get triggered a lot with intimacy, for example. Do you have a suggestion? Sit and wait until nothing happens?”

What I would say is something… Because you mentioned intimacy, I assume it’s with humans. With animals, you could just be close to them until they get used to you and you get used to them. But with people, it can really help to say to somebody that you want to trust, “I really feel like I’m getting closer to you, but I get really triggered around intimacy, and here’s what I’m scared of. What do you think of that?” And then you stay. And if their reaction isn’t something that scares you more, you build trust. So if it’s about relationships between people, actually talking about the fact that certain things trigger you, and then seeing how other people respond.

One of my kids was telling me that you just use the ouch/oops method. You tell people what triggers you. And if they do it by accident, you say, “Ouch,” and they say, “Oops,” and you have that agreement, and then they’ll go back to behaving themselves in a way that’s makes it more easier for you to feel safe. And that’s the kind of thing you can put in place that is going to push the edge of your comfort zone right there out. “Ouch, okay. Oops.” All right, now you’ve built a little more trust. So maybe, Valerie, you can try that with people that you want to connect with. It’s so important that you do what you want to. Don’t just go do something that scares you for no reason.

All right, Samita says, “Are we born with the part of us that knows safety, security, and support from the god of our understanding?” As Liz puts it in culture and society and family, religion erodes it.

Yeah, I think everybody is. In every culture in all of history, there have always been people… There’s always been a dominant belief that there’s a spiritual aspect to the human condition. In fact, our culture is one of the modern-westernized culture that came after enlightenment science out of Western Europe, all that stuff, is one of the very few philosophical traditions that does not allow for any kind of metaphysical part of our psyche. We see a lot of suffering, I think, as a result. And I’ve had so many experiences that checked out, according to scientific criteria, that I had metaphysical experiences, but then I was able to test being able to psychically see something that someone I loved was seeing, and then I could ask them and, sure enough, that’s what they were seeing. And I’ve been able to do that so many times. I’ve had so many experiences of a metaphysical reality that I just think it’s inborn. But if that’s not cool with you, I respectfully don’t mind at all. I’m going to stick with what works for me.

Okay, City Lotus says, “I fear if I do bigger things, I won’t have support, but maybe I should do the bigger things and trust I’ll find the support from other people.”

Well, I would treat these as two separate things. There’s the bigger thing you want to do, and then there’s getting support from other people. They’re separate fears. So if you want to learn to sing opera and you want support from other people for singing opera, you might want to sign up for voice lessons. On one hand, that’s a scary thing that you can do. On the other hand, you might confide in a friend or loved ones, “I really have this dream of singing opera and I’m afraid no one will support me. Are you willing to support me?” If they won’t, you can find someone who will. Even if you have to go online, I’m sure there’s a group of people who are getting together to support each other in becoming opera singers or, I don’t know, anything else in the world. So you can always find the support, but that’s a separate thing, and going at it separately will break it down so you don’t have to do too much at once. This is all about gradual improvement. You don’t want to push it too hard.

Okay, Joanne says, “How do you tune into your intuition when you’re anxious?”

You folks are doing the best questions. I don’t think you can tune into your intuition when you’re anxious. Gavin de Becker, who wrote The Gift of Fear, talks about the instincts that keep us safe, and he says, “True fear turns those on, but pointless worry and anxiety turn off our sensitivity to our real instincts.” So when you’re anxious and you don’t feel that connection with intuition, create a really safe space. Hide under the bed if you have to, but find a safe space where you can start to breathe regularly, bring your physiology down, and then start to get calmer.

And you can use a method that I’ve talked about before, I call it kissed or kind internal self-talk. And today I was just telling myself, “You’re braver than you believe and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” And I thought, “Oh, this is just a form of kind internal self-talk.” And it was working, and I decided to share it with y’all. So yeah, get to a safe place, tune back into your intuition, and then bring yourself out into the world again once you’ve got that lined up. That’s what I would do.

Anne says, it’s a different Anne, I think, “I’ve gone through many changes over the past year. Sometimes the primal need for security makes the ground feel too shaky for me to move at all. What is the best way to handle moments like these?”

Oh, wow. This is what most of Asian philosophy is about, that everything is unstable, everything is changing, and we have a primal need for things not to change or die or fall apart, but they’re always changing, dying, and falling apart. So the job of courage is not to contract until everything’s stable, because that will never work, it is to let go of the need for things to always stay the same.

So one of my favorite meditation mantras is just, “Let go.” Let on the in-breath and go on the out-breath. No system, I just do it. But the reason I tell myself to let go is that hanging on is the way to panic. Letting go, and almost it’s a sense of going limp in the current of events, current events ha-ha, like you’re being swept away in a river. If you can relax into that, the whole point of Daoism is that if you let go of trying to control things and you allow the way, the force, to flow around you and with you and through you, you find out that it’s really benevolent and that everything’s happening for you, not to you. We have a primal need that cannot be satisfied by the conditions of material reality, so you just have to let go of that primal need and say, “Ooh, look. I’m falling, but there’s an elastic band on my feet, and for some reason, I’m not dying and I’m actually quite excited by this whole adventure.”

All right, Quite Lightly Coaching says, “What is the role of humility and courage? Sometimes I wonder whether the push to be brave is actually just an ego trip.”

Well, it is if people are talking about it. But a dear friend of mine, Susan Casey, wrote a book called The Wave, which you may have read. It’s a wonderful book about huge waves and big wave surfers. And she talks about how these guys who surf a hundred-foot waves or 80-foot waves, they’re surfing a wave as tall as a 10-story building and… Sorry, I’m home alone. The dogs are upset. And she says they talk about surfing all the time, but they’re the humblest people she’s ever met because those waves, you do not get to go out there and boast and brag to the ocean, not when it’s in that mood. And so she said they say, “If you’re not humble, you’ll get killed. And if you don’t get killed, it’s because you’ve learned that you are very small in the scheme of things, and that’s okay.”

Another thing my oldest child said to me once, gave me a little embroidery thing, a little needle pointing that says, “Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars.” And that is literally true. We’re made of the substance of the earth, but the substance of the earth came from the stars. Humble is the same root as humus, which means soil. So courage and humility are actually the same thing. This process I’m talking about makes us humble.

Okay, Esther [inaudible 00:29:52] says, “Rarely, but it happens, sometimes there’s something that shifts and suddenly I feel brave and can do these things that appeared unachievable in the first place. And the funny thing, the feeling stays for days like it’s infectious. Will this feeling stay? Is this the growth of consciousness?”

Esther, thank you for this beautiful testament to the power of courage, because when you decide to take the bet that you are braver than you believe and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think, and you follow your heart into the situations that frighten you, there are those moments when a chunk of your old belief system falls away and there’s a new reality that says, “I am not just this body. We are not just this thing. We are more than that.” And when you reach those points, I have to say, I have reached several points in my life where part of the fear broke away forever and was gone. That’s what I hope is going to continue happening if I just keep moving it out, and in the meantime reading sustaining books such as would help and comfort a wedged bear in great tightness, because that’s what we all are.

Thank you for your beautiful comments and questions and presence and just being here. I love you so much. I hope you have the most amazing week ever. And remember, you’re braver than you believe. And I’ll see you soon back in the Gathering Room.

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