Megan walks into my office after several months of hard work in her individual and group therapy. Her brow is furrowed. She looks confused. No, she actually seems to be in pain. If I have learned nothing else in my years as a psychotherapist, I have learned not to jump to conclusions by “reading” facial expressions and body language. I use that visual information to formulate questions, but I remember to ask the questions.
“You don’t look very comfortable,” I said to Megan. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” she began. “Everything seems to be OK, but I have this anxious feeling sort of lodged in my gut.”
The next few minutes of conversation reveal that Megan is experiencing something that is actually quite common in personal growth work: her hard work has begun to pay off. She is thinking in realistic and healthy ways; she is standing up for herself at work and at home; and she is even beginning to have some fun. So what’s the problem? The problem is that Megan doesn’t have much experience with such things. She has worked her way into a space that is foreign to her. Her success is not initially perceived as success; it just feels strange. Too often, this is where many of us react by turning back, so uncomfortable with the unfamiliar feelings that we actually choose to return to old dysfunctional thinking and behaving because it is familiar. For some reason, familiar can feel safe, even when it is painful.
When we roll up our sleeves to do the hard work of letting go of old, ineffective ways of thinking and behaving, it is sort of like redecorating a room. First we clear out what has been there: take the pictures off the walls, take the furniture out, and take the rug up. And then we find ourselves in an empty room.
I mention this metaphor to Megan, and ask her to close her eyes and visualize herself standing in the middle of the empty room she has created. She does so, and I notice her brow furrowing again.
“What is that like?” I ask.
“That’s it,” she says immediately. “This is the anxiety in my gut I told you about. The emptiness scares me.”
The challenge at this point in our personal growth work is to slow down and be willing to simply experience the feelings and thoughts associated with our success --- even if it does not feel like success. The challenge is to avoid the temptation to put everything back in the room that you have just worked so hard to remove. And the challenge is to resist the impulse to run out to the first furniture store we find so that we can quickly fill the room back up with something.
I say to Megan and I say to you: Leave the space open for a time. Call this space “Divine Emptiness.” When we can respect this space enough to endure the strangeness, the anxiety and the fear that we will experience, the emptiness itself will begin to attract what we need to fill the space.
Close your eyes and imagine an empty room around you. What do you feel? A friend of mine says, “You know that it is Divine Emptiness if it scares the Hell out of you.”
SAFETY AND FEAR: Being safe and feeling fear are not opposites. One of the great challenges of personal growth work is finding our way to feel safe enough to finally experience our deepest fear.
Safe ... Scared ... then Free!
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