Shifting emotional perspective: doing the inner work

While I’m writing this within the context of racism in America, this model can be used for getting unstuck emotionally in any context.

The world is burning. Within the tinderbox of hundreds of thousands dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed (both disproportionally affecting black communities,) the recent unjust murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have sparked a revolution.

As a white woman who writes and advocates for freedom, I’ve been trying to navigate my own way through this complex and charged topic. I can no longer justify sitting on the sidelines saying that it’s not my fight. This is not a black issue: it’s a human issue, and it’s essential that we all try to understand each other’s realities so that we can co-create a better future for us all.

With that in mind, I’d like to share my inner-world journey over the past week. I created this “emotional perspective shift” model to understand my own stages of transcending inner resistance; I’m now seeing it as a useful model for explaining and navigating the combativeness on social media. It can be used for any inner work, including creating more human-centered organizations. I’d love your thoughts and reactions.

Aversion

It’s human nature to hang out on the left side of this curve; we may or may not be aware of our inner resistance. I’m seeing a lot of business as usual, as if we can just blank-out what’s happening with a wish. I sat comfortably in aversion for years. Not in defensiveness, but rather in the blank-out that feels like indifference. “What’s happening doesn’t affect my life.” I wondered why I didn’t care more; the guilt came from the feeling that I should feel something — anything — and I didn’t. The easiest option is to do nothing; to stay in my head, unfeeling.

To the topic at hand, I’m seeing a lot of irrelevant comments like “It’s not my fault.” “I shouldn’t be guilty because I’m white.” “It’s not my issue.” “I’m not to blame.” “Not all white people are bad.” These comments are defensive barriers against the Discomfort stage of the curve. They’re flags that signal an aversion or indifference to our own inner worlds.

Moving directly from Aversion to Action is the cause of the distrust and conflict today.

When we’re defensive or angry and then act from that place, it triggers the same feeling on the receiving end, setting up the us-versus-them dynamic. We throw rocks at each other across the chasm, allowing ourselves to feel righteous or defensive or angry… and NOT allowing ourselves to hold and heal our underlying fear, hurt, shame or pain. Until we can drop into the discomfort of the primary emotion — the stuff we’ve learned to avoid — we’ll keep circling around in the same unhealthy patterns and creating divisions in our outer worlds.

But the magic happens when we choose to drop down into the curve… or we’re forced down when it becomes personal. Your white daughter marries a black man or woman; a close friend comes out as gay; you run a business that employs or serves a group of humans affected by injustice. Or maybe, like me, you start questioning your values and wonder why you’re not fully living them.

Discomfort

Our Western society is built for comfort: we love our TVs, cell phones, fast-fashion, comfy homes, routines, alcohol and food that numb us into a predictable existence. It’s safe here; safe and stagnant. There’s no growth without emotional discomfort.

So many of us have retreated into the relative comfort of our brains to avoid feeling fear, anxiety, “not good enough,” and a host of other emotional pains in our bodies. The only way to make it to the other side of the curve, where we’re free to shape our outer world in full alignment with our values, is by taking this step into discomfort.

Freedom is found on the other side of discomfort.

I knew that to truly understand this issue of Black Lives Matter, I needed to have conversations with people of color. Yet it wasn’t until I sat down at the keyboard to message five acquaintances that I was flooded with discomfort: the fear of “I’m not going to do this right.” The guilt of “I’m too late to be reaching out.” The sense of inadequacy when I tried to find the right words to say. You can read more about my experience here.

In the face of discomfort we either retreat to the perceived safety of Aversion or drop down into Acceptance.

Acceptance

It’s important to note that our aversion is never about the outer-world situation, but rather our own inner-world responses. By accepting discomfort, we are accepting ourselves and our own lived experience, acknowledging it instead of hiding or numbing.

“Accepting what is” without clinging or pushing away is a core tenet of Buddhist practice that I have found to be enormously helpful in my own personal growth. I’ve discovered that the moment I accept what is, the tension disperses. Another way of stating this is, “If you can name it you can tame it.” Naming what we’re feeling is powerful stuff.

If you can name it, you can tame it.

Dr. Dan siegel

So as I readied myself to initiate these conversations with people of color who I didn’t know very well, I started naming my uncomfortable feelings. Ah… hello, Shame. Hello Fear. Hello, Icky-Feeling-In-My-Stomach. Welcome to the party! You can do whatever you want, come and go as you please, but I’m not going to entertain you; I have better things to do.

Acceptance allows us to develop mastery with our emotions without judgment. We can’t honor someone else’s pain until we’ve honored our own. We can’t truly hear someone else until pay attention with kindness to what wants to be heard and acknowledged within ourselves.

Forgiveness

Acceptance and Forgiveness are found in the darkest bottom of the curve. Our brains and sight are useless here; this is the messy alchemy of heart and soul. It’s not enough to accept; the next step is to forgive myself and others. The opposite of Freedom is Judgment: your inner self-talk will reveal if you have work to do at this stage.

The opposite of Freedom is Judgment: your inner self-talk will reveal if you have work to do at this stage.

If I don’t forgive myself for my past lack of action, I’ll retreat back up into Aversion. If I don’t forgive my parents for not teaching me emotional mastery because their parents didn’t teach them (and on and on through the generations), I’ll retreat back up into Aversion. If I don’t forgive my lack of education on this issue, I’ll retreat back up into Aversion.

Acceptance and Forgiveness are how we release the inner constraints that prevent our own sense of freedom. How can I honor the freedom of another human being when I’m trapped in a box of my own making?

How can I forgive us all for failing to live up to expectations that were set by the toxic yet popular ideas that “we can be anything we want” and “weaknesses are opportunities?” These ideas negate individuality and differences, encouraging us to all conform to some imaginary ideal of perfection and demand others to do the same. I need to recognize the ways that I’ve hidden my differences in shame and forgive myself, so that I can forgive the differences of others… even (and especially) if they’re only skin deep.

As I sat at my keyboard, I wasn’t conscious of going through this stage. But I can see now that I forgave myself: not fully in that moment, but enough to move to…

Optimism

Action is not possible without optimism. At some level, we have to believe that our action will make a difference. It’s easy to believe that my small action, my vote, my $5 or my message won’t be enough; what can one person do in the face of such embedded, institutionalized injustice? But it does matter. You matter. We’re all connected and interdependent.

As I sat at my keyboard, I decided that even if I reach out unskillfully, I could make a difference if I did so honestly: honest with myself and with the other person about my intentions. That doing anything was better than retreating back into Aversion and complacency. And so I moved into…

Action

I fumbled through my message and hit send. I repeated this five times, each time allowing my discomfort to trip me up and change the message slightly. I stopped writing from the heart; my words stopped being truly honest. I started explaining myself, instead of simply inquiring how they were. Because explaining from the head in a state of aversion felt safer than my vulnerable and raw honesty with myself about my own uncomfortable emotions.

This idea of self-honesty in words and actions is so crucial. My first and most honest message was well received. The next message, coming from my head instead of my heart, was not.

The brain divides; the heart unites. As I move through this curve over and over, getting better with practice, I’m learning that I am paradoxically safer in vulnerability. All the battles and debates in social media are between head-centered humans living in Aversion, communicating blindly without the honest awareness of their own hopes and fears and pain.

At the level of the heart — in the darkness at the bottom of the curve, which is also where love and joy can be found — is our shared humanity. When we’re real with ourselves and with each other, this is when bridges are built… when we can come together and create something beautiful.

“And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”

Khalil Gibran, the prophet

What do you think and feel about this emotional perspective shift, dear reader? How can you use this model within yourself, or within your organization, to get comfortable with discomfort and take the action so needed today?

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