What keeps you up at night? All of us have something in our life we’d like to see come to fruition. Sometimes we want this thing badly. It can weigh heavily upon us, especially when we feel it’s just outside of our reach. Anxiety, sadness or resentment can set in when other people manage to pull it off, seemingly without a hitch. A startup idea that takes off, a well-timed promotion, a romance that seems like the perfect match. ‘Why not me?’ you wonder. ‘What am I missing?’ In the 10+ years I’ve spent assessing and treating people as a mental health professional, one common habit stands out among the people who struggle to make lasting progress towards their life goals.
They avoid feeling things.
‘Feeling things’ seems kind of like a simple and obvious part of life (doesn’t it?) But it isn’t.
I know you resist feeling things, we all do. It’s an unavoidable habit of modern culture. Any emotion that causes us the slightest displeasure can easily be evaded by numbing our emotions with media, caffeine, booze, retail therapy, recreational drugs like marijuana, Chipotle, to name just a few. If you spend your life constantly avoiding uncomfortable feelings you will remain exactly where you are, but older and likely more bitter (choke back sob) as you see others achieve the things you want all around you.
Opening yourself up to feeling things you most hope to avoid (a.k.a. vulnerability) will afford you the opportunity to make gains in the direction you want most. When Dr. Brené Brown spoke atTEDx about the power of vulnerability in 2010, her viral talk garnered more than 7 million views on TED.com. Dr. Brown says that losing our vulnerability isn’t something to take lightly; vulnerability is power. “Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment. It’s the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for: joy, creativity, faith, love, spirituality,” she says. “And the whole thing is, there is no innovation and creativity without failure.” The bottom line?
You must be willing to tolerate some emotional discomfort to win big(ger) in life.
Allow yourself to face the prospects of rejection if you want love, mental/physical exhaustion if you want to achieve, disappointment if you want to ‘win’ positive growth and change in your life. Emotional discomfort will not kill you. In fact, without it you’re likely not challenging yourself to reach your full potential. I promise, you will survive feeling emotionally vulnerable. Some tactics for tolerating this discomfort on the path to becoming more awesome:
- Create incentives for yourself to take emotional risks. Rewards work just as effectively for adults as they do for kids, only you have to enlist yourself with the responsibility of doling them out in an effective manner. Choose wisely, and even if you cheat a little, it feels much better to ‘earn’ something indulgent while making progress towards your goals.
- You may need to exchange some of your old habits for a healthier list of coping strategies that allow you to feel safe/calm/supported without damaging consequences.
- Selectively participate in activities that shore up your confidence- put a plan in place to do these things routinely as a coping strategy for surviving disappointments along the way.
- Enlist others for support! A client of mine shares “weekly wins” with a good friend- they text each other micro successes that occur while making strides towards their goals. This tactic is a win-win because it not only drawing your attention towards the positive, it connects you with someone who’s in your corner, strengthening your courage to keep going.
If we’re going to find the way to our own personal version of success, vulnerability is going to be on that path. As much as we want to remain impervious to failure, growth and positive change don’t happen that way. Even if it were possible to be ‘perfect’ that’s not what draws people to respect and love you. People are most often pulled in to care and invest in you when they can see your courage and willingness to take risks; share that process, and connect with them through common disappointments.
Dr. Christina Villarreal is a mental health expert, coach, consultant, educator and entrepreneur in the San Francisco Bay Area.