Author: Ludmila

Helping a friend in a dark place: Empathy and Sympathy

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One day, not too long ago I had a challenging but helpful conversation with a good friend of mine about empathy. It started from my phone call. I had been feeling a bit sad that evening, listening to the rain and to an old wound that came throbbing again, and so I rang her. We had a little chat, made sure that both of us were cozy with a nice cup of tea and had space to catch up properly. She told me about some highlights of her week and asked how I was. Encouraged by her invitation I reached out from my sad place and attempted to tell her about what was on my mind. Before I’d even finished my first sentence she interrupted me with a big sigh:

– Ok, we’ve been there before… I thought you’ve moved on.
– I thought you wanted to know how I felt…
– Sure, I am here, do talk…
– I am trying to talk but then it sounds like you are judging me and you don’t really want to listen.
– I am not judging you. I love you and I want you to be happy.

Have you ever had a similar dialogue with a friend? I am sure we all have at some point, and have experienced both sides of it. We are probably also in agreement that one of the most valuable things one can offer a friend is what we call ‘moral support’ in a time of emotional turbulence. Yet being there for a friend in need, in the way that is actually helpful, often proves rather tricky. When a friend starts talking to us about something painful for him or her, our immediate responses are usually of two kinds:

  • They contain evaluation/judgment (i.e. a statement that suggests that we know exactly where our friend is and – moreover – where they should be);
  • They contain advice (i.e. a ‘roadmap’ or rather a ‘shortcut’ for getting out of the place where he or she is and to the place where we think they should be).

These responses are not in the least helpful – we all know it from our own experience. Yet we keep offering them and, if challenged, say that they come from a place of love.

Now… are we being hypocritical? Do we only pretend that we care for our friends? And if not, then where indeed are our responses coming from?

More often than not they originate from our own discomfort. We don’t want to be dragged into and re-experience a dark place of helplessness, confusion, pain or uncertainty. So our system sends us a warning: ‘Don’t go there!’ And, responding to this warning, we try to pull or push our friends out of that place so that we wouldn’t need to stay there. The result is that our friends feel judged, misunderstood and left alone in their struggle.

What then can we do to help a friend in a dark place? Below I share a few pointers, which I hope you may find useful.

Trust

Our mind/psyche as well as our body has natural ability to heal. However, in order to heal they require environment conducive to healing. Thus if you are down with a flu you need to stay in bed for some time. If a bone is broken it is put in a cast that holds it, while still allowing the broken parts to re-grow. The same is with emotional malaise: a safe holding space creates an environment where the fragmented pieces of meaning can gradually begin to come together and rearrange themselves in a way that makes sense.

Understanding these processes helps to relieve our urgent panicky impulse to find a ‘solution’ here and now. It is a matter of trust. We need to trust a person’s ability to heal, which is their natural capacity. We also need to understand that healing process may take a while and that what makes sense to another person may be different from our own meanings.

Broken record

We often get frustrated hearing a friend going over the same thing again and again, which seems like a broken record. But more often than not it only seems so. What is really happening is that through repetition our mind is trying to come to grips with something that is difficult to grasp. It tries and slips and tries again. Eventually it will succeed, but this may take multiple attempts over a long period of time. When we understand that we can be more patient with our friends. We can relax and, by relaxing and letting go of our own anxiety, provide a firm hold for them in the midst of their raging storm.

A dark place is not a bad place

To a great extent, our difficulty with helping ourselves or helping a friend in a dark place stems from us associating difficult emotions with ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ emotions. And so we try to get away from them as quickly as possible by pushing them down, rationalizing them or finding a distraction. This is the most common and most gross misconception. A dark place is not necessarily a bad place. In fact, it may be well a ‘good’ place, if we think in terms of our personal growth. Yes, it may be difficult and uncomfortable, painful and scary. But there are hidden treasures to be found there, however improbable it may sometimes sound. And if a person seems to linger in that dark place it means they have a sense that there is something to find there. And we need to trust them. What they need from us is our reliable presence and our reassurance that they are not alone. Then they can feel safer and bolder in their exploration and find what they need more quickly.

Building up your resilience

You may agree intellectually with all that I have said above, but this knowledge is not enough if it is not substantiated by our own experience of navigating through the dark caverns and tunnels of our psyche. Indeed, how can we help a drowning person if we don’t know how to swim? And so, learning to be comfortable with our own discomfort, learning to stay with our difficult feelings and having an experience of receiving a right kind of support makes us more prepared for helping a friend.

If you feel that you cannot be there for your friend in the right way you may gently suggest that they seek help from a professional therapist. Not because something is wrong with them and they need to be fixed, but because a therapist may be better equipped to provide them with the safe holding space that they need.

Sympathy and Empathy

These two notions may seem very close and indeed they overlap to the extent that both presuppose an ability to feel for another person. Yet sympathy often entails over-identification, when we get swamped by the other person’s emotion and begin to feel as helpless and as desperate to get out as they are. Even as a therapist, it sometimes happens to me. I then find myself slipping into a ‘fix-it’ mode, trying to ‘rescue’ a person from what I perceive as a place of danger. Such a response from my side is usually felt as unhelpful.

Empathy has two main ingredients to it: an ability to imagine what it may be like for another person and an ability to keep a certain distance from what is going on for them. This detachment doesn’t mean coldness or indifference. What it means is that we can hold a wider perspective and can trust in our friend’s ability to find their own way. Empathy allows us to step into our friend’s dark place without being overwhelmed by it.

I started this blog post by telling you about an interaction I had with a friend of mine. Following our conversation she sent me a link to this video. It is a very good illustration to the things I spoke about. Hope you enjoy it and find it helpful!

Dealing with anxiety

DSCF1098aOne of the most common complaints that bring people to therapy is anxiety. Anxiety is something familiar to all of us. Part and parcel of our human condition it peppers our existence and we develop strategies and learn how cope with anxiety on the daily basis. However, sometimes anxiety can become so intense or so frequent that it severely undermines one’s life.

In order to learn how to deal with anxiety it is important to understand its nature and the role it plays in our life. In this blog article I am going to look at the various facets of anxiety and discuss its underlying neurological and emotional mechanisms, root causes as well as possible treatments.

Anxiety symptoms

What are the signs that you may be suffering from anxiety? There are a number of symptoms, emotional as well as physical, that can help you gain a better understanding of what is happening.

Emotional symptoms include feeling fearful or panicky in certain situations. You may be constantly worrying that something may go wrong. You may be nervous and uneasy about social situations. Sometimes people have difficulty in concentrating or struggle to express themselves in an articulate way. Mood changes, sudden irritability, feeling overwhelmed or feeling that you are out of control are also common.

Physical symptoms may include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, stomach ache, nausea and sickness, headaches and migraines, dizziness, cold sweat, sleep disturbances with difficulty in falling or staying asleep as well as blushing, stammering or nervous coughing.

Anxiety… is your friend!

Anxiety is an uncomfortable psycho-physical state and our instinctual desire is to get rid of it. However, surprising as this may sound, anxiety is not your enemy. Quite on the contrary, the ‘function’ of anxiety is to protect us, to help us keep safe. The feelings of anxiety arise as a result of neurological processes in our brain that responds to perceived danger and issues warning signals. These signals, which we experience as anxiety, make us alert to the possible risks and indicate that we need to be prepared to meet them.

How then does it happen that the same situation may trigger only mild or no anxiety in some people and be absolutely overwhelming for others?

The answer to this question once again belongs to the field of neurology. It turns out that our brain, sophisticated as it is, cannot distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’ danger. Neither can it always estimate correctly the scope of the perceived danger. It bases its evaluation on our previous experiences.

Notice what situations trigger anxiety in you and ask yourself what you are afraid of. Are you afraid of being laughed at or criticized? Are you afraid of being physically hurt? Or perhaps you are afraid of failure and the ensuing feelings of shame and worthlessness? Whatever feelings come up, the chances are that you have already experienced them sometime in the past in a situation that bears certain resemblance to the current one. In that case, anxiety draws your attention to some emotional wounds that you may be carrying within you and that need healing.

Fear of not being able to cope

Anxiety is usually defined as the ‘fear of the unknown.’ This is true insofar as the ‘unknown’ triggers the feelings of anxiety, suggesting that there might be potential risks if we go in that direction. Very often though what we are really afraid of are not the challenges as such, but that we won’t be able to cope with them or the possible ‘negative’ outcome.

For example, if you are afraid of failing an exam or a job interview, your anxiety is not about the actual failure, but about emotions that this failure may evoke in you. Similarly, if you worry about losing your job, a great deal of your worry is about not being able to deal with the possible situation of financial hardship and the stress of finding another job.

Feelings of anxiety about doing routine things or things that are slightly out of your comfort zone may indicate that you are simply too tired and need to take a break to re-charge your batteries.

As I wrote above, it is very often the case that anxiety is rooted deep in our past experiences, which underlie our current experiences and intensify our emotional response to them. How can you tell whether this is so? If your anxiety appears to be disproportionate in relation to a particular situation chances are that there is something more to it, and in order to alleviate it you need to look at the root cause.

Helping your inner child

Psychological resilience, and trust in your ability to deal with whatever challenges life may throw at you, is the basis for coping effectively with anxiety. We develop this resilience throughout our life, but a foundation for it is created during our childhood. If your needs as a child haven’t been adequately met, if you didn’t feel safe or had to carry too heavy emotional burdens it is likely that you may be more affected by anxiety as an adult.

One of my clients used to suffer from acute anxiety when going more than 10 minutes away from home. When we explored the sensations she was having in her body they led us back to her early childhood. When she was growing up her parents were very busy at work and often left her as young as the age of 6 alone at home to take care of her younger siblings, including a baby. She remembered sitting petrified near telephone anxious whether she would be able to reach her parents and get help quick enough if something happened. A part of her, overburdened early on with too much responsibility, never properly matured, and faced with the challenges of adult life would fly into panic.

It is important to be compassionate and patient with these child-like parts deep within us and help them grow and gain confidence. For this task we need to engage our adult parts that are equipped with knowledge and life experiences. When we perceive our inner children panicking we can gently talk to them, reassuring him or her that they are not alone and will be given the right support and care.

How to deal with anxiety

The first step in dealing with anxiety is becoming more aware of what is going on for you in your mind and in your body, learning to recognize the triggers and pre-conditions (e.g. tiredness). If anxiety is persistent and intense, and stops you from enjoying your life and doing things that you want to do, I would encourage you to seek professional help.

Counselling and psychotherapy in combination with some form of body-mind therapy will help you to understand the root causes of your anxiety and release it from your system. In my practice I work a lot with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT tapping) and find it very effective for healing past traumas and ‘rewiring’ your brain. EFT is also a great self-help tool for coping with anxiety as you can apply it ‘on the go’ to bring the anxiety levels down immediately.

I see people face to face at my practice in Cambridge and also work online via Skype. You are very welcome to book a session if you would like to try my approach and see whether it can help you become free from your anxieties.

 

 

Discover Emotional Freedom Technique – Free EFT tapping workshops in Cambridge

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EFT tapping is getting more and more known among people interested in holistic approaches to health which recognize the inherent and inseparable connection between mind and body.

EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is an extremely versatile tool that can be used both in therapy and for self-help. Here are just a few examples of the wide range of things where EFT can help:

  • Releasing stress;
  • Overcoming cravings and addictions;
  • Enhancing your meditation practice;
  • Enhancing concentration and creativity;
  • Alleviating depression;
  • Dealing with anxiety;
  • Relieving physical pain;
  • Healing emotional trauma;
  • Building up self-confidence.

The technical aspect of EFT is very simple. It involves lightly tapping with your fingers on certain acupressure/acupuncture points on your head and the upper part of your body. This is why it is nicknamed ‘tapping’ and is sometimes also called ‘acupuncture without needles.’ Yet its apparent simplicity is misleading and it’s not surprising that many people who have learned the basics of EFT from youtube videos or books come away disappointed and say that it doesn’t work for them.

EFT and mindfulness

The secret power of EFT lies not in mechanically applying the tapping. The key to its success is the ability to tune in – as fully as you can – to what is going on within you, on emotional, mental and physical level. And you need to stay tuned in for the whole duration of tapping. This is easier said than done because in our everyday life we are so overloaded with different tasks and activities that we are often hardly aware how we really feel.

When doing tapping work with clients, I often begin by inviting them to ‘locate’ their emotions in their body. We experience emotions viscerally, whether we are aware of it or not. Unlike thoughts, emotions never exist just in our mind, separately from our body. Old metaphors that speak of ‘broken heart’ or ‘carrying the burden on our shoulders,’ or getting ‘butterflies in your stomach’ are not just fancy phrases, but an accurate expression of complex neurological and physiological processes.

Emotions – like a shock wave – reverberate in our system. I like to compare them to a ‘Genie in a bottle,’ a genie that pounds on the narrow walls of its glass prison demanding to be released. If we don’t pay attention to our emotions, they become stuck and turn into deposits of pain in our bodies. How does this happen? Neuroscientists are still unable to give us an answer. But it happens nonetheless.

Scientific research on EFT

EFT helps to clear emotions trapped and stored in our bodies. Once the emotional ‘genies’ are convinced that we are no longer in need of their service they are only too happy to fly away. Our body can then recover and resume its natural functions.

Over recent years, quite a number of clinical studies have been conducted exploring the efficacy of EFT in treating different physical and mental health conditions, see for example:

www.theeftcentre.com/research

www.eftuniverse.com/research-and-studies/eft-research

An attempt has also been made to understand how exactly EFT works, from the point of view of neurology and physiology: www.thetappingsolution.com/science-and-research. It has been suggested that tapping appears to calm the amygdala – the area of our brain responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. The amygdala, in turn, operates in close conjunction with the hippocampus – another part of the brain, which is thought to be the centre of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system. Thus, calming the amygdala helps to ease the intensity of the emotions and disconnect them from memories.

However, as in general with the human brain, much still remains a mystery. And maybe this is not so bad, as it leaves room for excitement, experimentation and discovery…

The use of EFT in counselling

EFT has evolved out of TFT (Thought Field Therapy) developed in the beginning of the 1980s by American clinical psychologist Roger Callahan. Callahan, who had an amateur interest in Chinese medicine, was becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow progress and limited efficacy of traditional talking therapies, and one day – through either inspiration or desperation – he applied tapping on an acupuncture point for treating a patient with water phobia. This produced miraculous results and so started the ball rolling.

My experience concurs with that of Roger Callahan: though talking is essential and provides solid foundation for therapy, very often talking alone is not enough to bridge the gap between the body and the mind. Thus people sometimes come to me after years of counselling and still suffer from the same symptoms.

Tapping serves as a “knock-knock” to your body. It distracts the ‘rational mind’ and allows deep-seated emotions to surface so that they can dissipate. It also allows for communicating the knowledge stored in the ‘rational mind’ down to your body and vice versa. Once this interchange is established, things get moving and flowing, and the shift occurs.

Free EFT tapping workshops at CB2 café in Cambridge

Every first Sunday of the month I run free tapping workshops at CB2 café on Norfolk Street in Cambridge.

If you are interested and happen to be nearby you are very welcome to drop in. We start at 11am in the library upstairs. The first hour is a practical part, followed by questions and discussion over coffee.

Whether you are a complete newcomer to EFT or have already been tapping on your own, you would have something to discover at these workshops. They are fun, heart-warming and uplifting. Also group tapping very often creates a powerful resonance which helps you connect deeper with your self and with others.

There is no need to book your place in advance, but I would be grateful if you could drop me an email if you intend to come so that I know, approximately, how many participants to expect.

Look forward to meeting you! And feel free to drop me an email if you want to ask questions about EFT or to share your story.

With warmest wishes,

Ludmila

PS. Please connect with me on Facebook (Soultap Therapy) to stay in touch and receive updates, offers and other relevant information.

Can therapy really help to change your life? For anyone out there who is suffering and feeling hopeless

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In my previous blog I spoke about our deep-seated fear of change. Change, in many ways, is akin to dying since it entails ‘dying’ to our old beliefs, our old ideas and ways of being. But change is also about rebirth. Just as in fairy-tales and myths, where frightening monsters are faced and conquered, the descent into our own underworld equips us with the special powers, skills and knowledge needed to make changes in our everyday life.

Most people who decide to try counselling and psychotherapy (or EFT and other forms of therapy) express their doubts as to whether this would work for them. These doubts and scepticism are very natural, normal and healthy. Indeed, how would you know if therapy can really help to change your life? If you have been struggling with depression, anxiety, lack of confidence and relationship issues for a long time it may be difficult to imagine (even if this is what you want) how they can metamorphose into joy, contentment and fulfilment.

Embarking on a therapy journey does require a leap of faith and commitment. It is similar to growing a flower: it takes time, nurturing care, and patience for the seeds that you’ve planted in the earth to bring forth their shoots and eventually blossom. This growing process is subtle and changes can be almost imperceptible until they become visible.

Therapy is not an exact science. Its effectiveness is evidence-based, and from there you can take your faith: if it worked for other people it may work for you. Below I share a ‘real-life’ story told by a client of mine, a young professional woman, with whom I have worked for over two years. It just shows how much things can change, how one’s life can heal and unfold in wonderful ways. I hope you find it as encouraging and inspirational as I do.

For anyone else out there who is suffering and feels hopeless…

My journey in self discovery and healing started almost four years ago when I felt I had reached rock bottom and had almost become unable to do the most simplest of tasks let alone run a business or deal with the family and relationship issues that I was faced with.

I had trapped myself in such negative situations, thought processes and beliefs after suffering great losses, hurt and betrayal, that it felt like I was in a prison I’d never be able to escape from. I was no longer able to trust in the world and people, and had lost considerable hope and belief in myself. I couldn’t see a solution, yet was continually trying so many things to ‘improve myself’. My physical and mental health had become so weak and fragile I felt it would be next to impossible to feel ‘normal’ again and have ‘normal’ friendships and be able to cope with the challenges of life and a demanding career.

This is where I turned to therapy as my last resort. After an incredibly challenging year of conventional counselling I sought out Ludmila because I have heard that EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) was very efficient in helping people recover from trauma.  I will admit it took a tremendous amount of effort, dedication and perseverance on both my and Ludmila’s part but, as with most things in life, the hard work eventually started to pay off and I slowly began to heal from my mental anguish, fear and trauma. And little by little, small, almost imperceptible changes have lead to several major breakthroughs in my life, which I can only fully appreciate now, looking back to where I started…

The biggest breakthrough but also challenge was accepting and forgiving my mother. It was very painful to acknowledge through therapy that my mother was actually a very damaged person. She loved her children very much but was, unfortunately, unable to give us nurturing care because of her own traumatic childhood experiences.

I was always so conflicted about my mother… On the one hand, I knew she loved me and my brother, and she tried her best encouraging our education and cultural development, acquainting us with film, art and performance, ensuring that we got to a good school and later supporting financially my university studies… After the divorce from my father she has been on her own and also juggling a full time job. I appreciate all that very much and I don’t want to wrong her and do her injustice by focusing on the negative things, and yet sometimes it was more than often unbearable growing up with her.

I was living in constant fear that she would blow any second at the smallest thing and scream and shout at me. I became an emotional punch-bag for her unresolved pain which had effectively formed into a severe mental illness. This manifested in constant criticism and resentment towards me, as well as extreme negativity and distrust of life and most of the people she knew or met. Constant mental instability, switching from a seemingly rational and wonderful person to a completely irrational, made her very frightening.

Growing up I was unable to fully understand this, I just tried to keep safe within the emotional war-zone my brother and I lived in by forming effective coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms consisted of continually ensuring my mother’s needs were met, however irrational or unfair they were. I placed them before my own in order to keep the peace and try to manage her behaviour as much as possible. I effectively looked after her emotionally in exchange for a home, food and education.  I was unaware at the time that this was abnormal, that I was just surviving and not really coping at all…

It only started to become apparent for me years later when all the trauma of those years and subsequent experiences just became too much to bear. Those learnt coping mechanisms no longer protected me, instead they became undermining. I had been living a life driven by the need to please others and putting others’ needs before my own to severe detrimental effect. I didn’t know how to enforce healthy boundaries and was almost unaware of my own feelings and needs, allowing myself to be exploited and never feeling happy or fulfilled.

Acknowledging and confronting this was painful, but also empowering. It has been essential in re-establishing a new healthier relationship with my mother and other demanding characters in my life. Coming to terms with the fact that I am not the cause of their mental anguish, and that it is not something that I am able to resolve for them, was very healing.

I learned to assert my newly-found boundaries and realized that it could be done in a non-aggressive manner. The wonderful outcome has been that my mother and other similar characters in my life now treat me with more respect and no longer seem to unleash their demons on me as much. Or – more importantly – if they do, I no longer feel responsible for their irrational behaviour.

It was very difficult for my mum initially but over time she has adjusted and it has actually brought us closer together although, sadly, we will never be really close and I will always remain on guard in order to protect myself. Nonetheless are relationship is healthier than it has been since I was a teenager, which has benefited every aspect of my life.

I came to forgive my first love for his betrayal and abandonment. Hard as it was, I came to terms with the devastating illness of my father. I also succeeded in reconnecting and repairing my relationship with my partner and learned to stand up to bullies in my professional life.  Even though it seemed almost impossible to achieve, I managed to overcome my huge fears of exam failure, shame, ridicule, exposure and guilt in order to complete my education and become a fully qualified professional in my field.

But, most importantly, I came to forgive myself for all the criticism I constantly gave myself, for not being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, cool enough… the list goes on… I began to acknowledge that I am not a bad person but am worthy of love and goodness in my life.

Looking back at my life four years ago, I have come such a long way, and it’s sometimes incredible to believe the changes I have made in both my personal and professional life. I don’t believe I would have made it without Ludmila’s help, for which I am so grateful. Her strength, conviction and dedication, her compassion, encouragement and faith in me have been truly transformational.

I haven’t by any means come to the end of my journey, but I am now on the right path and feel able to trust in life again and feel secure acknowledging and accepting my hurt and emotions. For anyone else out there who is suffering and feels hopeless, as painful and difficult as it might be, try not to give up on therapy. It can sometimes feel impossible to ever recover from great trauma and despair, but I truly believe we are all capable of healing and great change with hope, dedication and perseverance – together with a therapist you trust.

Fear of change or dying to oneself

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‘Ella’

On one occasion I was working with a young woman (I will call her ‘Ella’) who was struggling with a lack of assertiveness. She found it very difficult to say ‘no’ to people and to stand up for herself. Consequently, she very often felt pushed around and not treated with respect.

Ella was very distressed about it, to the extent that her whole body felt infused with a damp, murky feeling of impotence and hopelessness. I asked her what would happen if she could let these feelings go. She felt she would feel brighter and lighter, more energized and alive. However, when I suggested that she went ahead and released that dreary fog from her body she was not prepared to do so. She voiced her concern thus: ‘What if I then become a rude person and people don’t like me?’

You may find Ella’s response surprising, yet it is very common. We are paradoxical creatures for while with our conscious mind we may want one thing, at a deeper level we are often not ready to embrace the change. This happens even when we are suffering from physical pain.

‘Jeff’

Another of my clients (‘Jeff’) had been plagued by debilitating headaches that had severely impaired his life for a very long time. The headaches were a symptom of a deep trauma and its ensuing acute inner conflict – on multiple levels. When, after some months of work, the past wounds began to heal and Jeff began to feel the desire to engage more with the world around him, the headaches became less gripping in their quality and ‘almost ready to go.’ However, when we asked his ‘subconscious mind’ whether it was OK to release the headaches completely, his body responded with a strong panicky sensation, bubbling in his chest, stomach and arms, like a stormy sea threatening to sweep him away. “I guess I am scared to let go of headaches completely because then I won’t know what to do with my life.”

 

Familiar is safe

I have pondered a lot over the phenomenon of our deeply rooted fear of change. It seems to have neurological, psychological/cognitive as well as spiritual dimensions.

To begin with, our brain, just like the animal’s brain, is wired for safety. In order to feel safe we need to know the territory in which we operate, to know what to expect from it, to be familiar with the possible traps and emergency exits. We associate safety with the familiar, and therefore any encounter with the new and the unknown naturally brings about a certain amount of anxiety.

The instinct of self-preservation does not concern just our physical survival. As can be seen from the examples above, psychological changes may present just as big a challenge, if not an even bigger one.

Even though Ella suffered from being pushed around and ‘trampled upon’ by other people, her situation felt safe because it was familiar. She knew what to anticipate and was used to her pain. Although uncomfortable, it didn’t scare her as much as the unpredictable reactions from the part of others (friends, colleagues, managers) had she dared to assert herself.

Similarly, Jeff was used to his headaches. While they stopped him from doing things he might have enjoyed, they also shielded him from facing life’s challenges and assuming greater responsibility for his way of being. For both Ella and Jeff, the anxiety associated with stepping into the unknown was overriding their desire to heal, and it took a long time to shift that.

Self-identity

All of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, have in our minds a certain picture of ourselves. What we believe about ourselves becomes an integral part of our self-identity, which gives us a sense of presence in the world and helps to define our boundaries and our position vis-à-vis other people and events. When our self-perception is challenged we can be plunged into a state of uncertainty. We feel lost, unsure of who we are and how to relate to others. It is a very uncomfortable state to endure, and we instinctively avoid entering it, even if the change would be beneficial for our growth.

Ella feared that becoming more assertive might come at the expense of losing her gentleness and sensitivity. She was concerned that people would perceive her as ‘rude’ and would not like her anymore. It is certainly true that when we leave behind our old ‘skin’ and develop new qualities, some who were used to our old ways will not welcome the change. This is a risk to consider. But the question really to ask is whether these people truly cared for us in the first place? Did they genuinely want the best for us or did they find our meekness and inability to say ‘no’ convenient for them?

These fears are real and facing them requires a lot of courage. The first step is to admit that we have these fears. Then we can explore them, weigh the risks, assess our strength and find the support that we need to help us make changes.

Dying to one’s self

At the bottom of it, our fear of change is very much akin to the fear of dying. Indeed if we think about it, dying signifies the most final and permanent form of change. Even if we believe in reincarnation or some other form of the afterlife, our existence as we know it is going to change forever once we cross the threshold we call ‘death.’

And sometimes it can be easier to accept physical death than to give up our beliefs, e.g. when people say they are ready to die for the sake of an idea. This also explains why people who were fearless in battle can mentally crumble when the ‘gods’ who led them into that battle are revealed as hypocrites and tyrants. That happened to many a bona fide communist when the atrocities of Stalin’s regime were brought to light.

As I wrote above, we derive our sense of who we are from our self-identification with our beliefs (about ourselves and about the world and life in general). Thus we may resist acknowledging the betrayal of our partner, or the abusive behavior of our parents towards us as children. We may also avoid being exposed to new ideas through reading or listening to the members of a different faith community, or social group.

Letting go of our beliefs is the same as dying to our selves: our former ‘selves’, the ‘selves’ as we know them. The ‘selfies’. The challenge of this act cannot be overemphasized. Yet in dying there is a rebirth. As it is written in the Gospel of Matthew: he that loseth his life … shall find it.” I am not a Christian believer, but I find that this saying contains profound truth about our psychological and spiritual predicament. If we resist this change we will never evolve. We will just stagnate and continue to exist while not being truly alive.

For me, personal growth is about learning to see more clearly what I am grasping at and why, and learning to embrace change by letting go of the old props. I must admit to being a rather heavy-going student and appreciate that this is a life-long class. But I draw much inspiration from the people I work with and their admirable courage. I challenge them, they challenge me, and together we walk the path.