Uncertainty is where the creative space lives. That is where the creative spark is found.
~ Erin Moon
The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. ~ Sylvia Plath
I recently adopted all things “inner critic” as a special area of interest to sink my teeth into. So far, it feels more like having adopted a child and being gifted a new toy, which may explain my odd behavior when I hit a notorious road block that many writers, artists, and innovative problem-solvers regularly run into along the creative journey.
Rather than ram this much despised road block and valiantly unhalt my book editing in the name of creative flow, I rolled out a comfy blanket, put on my magical inner critic night-vision glasses, and carefully began to pare this doubt into distinct parts. I juggled and examined the nature and origins of these parts closely, as if seeing them for the first time.
When we play and explore our subjective reality like this, the Universe has difficulty passing up on the fun. Sure enough, an e-newsletter with an attached podcast from Tara Mohr, advocate for brilliant women and author of Playing Big, arrived in my inbox this morning. I listened to the podcast, and it was like hearing my own inner dialogue and insights being played back to me, with sharper focus and enhanced by a few additional teasers that really got my creative juices flowing.
What was the podcast on? You guessed it. Great leaders and self-doubt, the Western quest for Eastern spirituality, and the potential harm of mindfulness, facilitated and hosted by Jonathan Fields of the Good Life Project. The program was attended and enriched by another “world-shaking” trailblazer, Erin Moon, who is teaching yoga as a healing modality for spine care at clinics in Botswana, Tanzania, and the Dominican Republic. So exciting.
Is it good enough or am I good enough?
Interestingly, these three consciousness pioneers made the same initial distinction that my mind first landed on in regard to doubt, noting the important distinction between the questions, “Is it good enough?” or “Am I good enough?” Tara speaks for many, if not all of us, when she says that in her own explorations, “Am I good enough?” is a “complete ego question.” It stems from thinking about ourself as a defined package, a fixed state, and it fuels our propensity to fish for feedback (aka reassurance) when in doubt. It’s everything that dynamic wholeness is not.
Many people don’t realize that this boxed self is a false concept of the self that sets us up for failure. Jonathan used the word “conflated”. When we (our art, writing, services, and so on) are “our product,” our sense of self and worth can easily get conflated or fused with the reactions or opinions that others have about our product. Our products’ success or failure is a clear reflection of our success or failure as human beings, right? Wrong.
Tara revealed that “seeing feedback as information about the people who give it” offered her huge relief and permission to get off the rollercoaster that she was on every semester and year in college. It was liberating to understand why her English professors were sometimes critical, sometimes enthusiastic, and sometimes indifferent about her writing. She realized that it was a reflection of their preferences, their lens, and perception of what they considered to be “good writing,” not a true and consistent reflection of the quality and potential of her writing.
As the 2015 winner of the Best Book of the Year (Playing Big) by Apple IBooks, she was right in deciding that her professors’ disparate opinions had little to do with her writing potential, what mattered to her, and what she believed other brilliant women in current or future leadership roles needed and wanted to hear. She hit a very popular nerve when giving voice to her call. But even if you only hear the call of the canary in the coal mine, that doesn’t make the call or you less worthy.
Many great minds and works are often celebrated after their death. Passionate artists and writers have relayed eccentric messages (Henry David Thoreau) through styles of communication and creative lenses (rap music or cubism) that are at first only meaningful to a small community. A commitment to our call will lead to fulfillment and feeling “good enough,” but it may require skill training, support, mentorship, and professional strategizing (www.trackingwonder.com) how to best pitch our offerings, especially when our interests are a bit more obscure and off-beat.
In regard to my particular slice of doubt, I felt blocked and uncertain how to add spice and suspense to a slow portion of my memoir. This seems harder to do when writing non-fiction than fiction, because I can’t change what already happened. The “not good-enough” had to do with my own desire to improve my craft and keep my future readers engaged and awake, not about my life or me as a person lacking dramatic tension. I’m fortunately able to trust that I got my fair share. Some writers may actually doubt whether they as people are “too little” or “too much,” hence whether the drama in their writing is “too little” or “too much,” which sneakily disguises the true question, “Am I good enough,” at the root of their doubt.
Doubt can help us to detect that something novel is needed to creatively move our work, ourselves, or a body of art forward. For instance, I just needed some fresh ideas how to skillfully skim over mundane details without losing the story thread to infuse new life into stagnant places. When we start to understand ourself as a dynamic entity, always growing and recalibrating, yet perfectly imperfect exactly as we are, we may doubt or feel uncertain how to best reach a target audience of our own choosing, but realize that these questions and doubts only energize the creative process. They inspire us to wiggle into and expand small openings and opportunities for greater connection and co-creation.
As an actor, Erin approaches auditions with a similar mindset. When putting her soul on the line and up for rejection after rejection, she now thinks, “My art is meeting your art and we are going to decide together if your art and my art are going to make baby art.”
This would be a great metaphor to use when going on a first date, by the way, whether or not biological babies are part of our future plans. Disempowering doubt and vulnerability arise when we leave all the “choosing” and evaluative assessments completely up to the other person, voice of authority, book critics, art critics, and experts in our field without questioning the cultural conditioning, status quo, and variety of other mindless reasons that cause us to disconnect from our truth.
Westerners reaching East for Answers
The podcast conversation shifted to topic number 2: the growing Buddhist curiosity and popularity of Eastern practices, such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, among Westerners.
Even though this connection wasn’t explicitly made, the inspiring conversation that followed in regard to Western society’s yearning for greater self-awareness and feeling disenfranchised by institutionalized, organized religion and dogmatic rules around certainty, control, salvation, and righteousness, seemed directly related to the previous topic. Eastern philosophy appeals to Westerners because it retrains the individualistic ego-mind from perceiving itself as a finite package and challenges our limited notions of the self.
In the “Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialogue,” a comprehensive meta-analysis of mindfulness and meditation-based research studies, leading experts, Shauna Shapiro and Roger Walsh, claim that both disciplines have a lot to offer the other. They can each complement the incomplete perceptions of the self that are unchallenged by the other.
For instance, Western psychology tends to inhabit the domain of the lower case “s” self (the ego self) while Eastern disciplines are intrigued by the upper case “S” Self (the expanded self). Both can err on the side of bypassing the reality of the other. In regard to Western modern culture and mental health, Maslow’s provocative claim at the end of this article, “what we call ‘normal’ in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it ordinarily,” still rings true in 2016, a good decade later.
The Dark Side of Mindfulness
While I am not a fan of the terms “psychopathology of the average,” our complacent acceptance of many problematic social norms does concern me. The third topic of the podcast: Can mindfulness be harmful? offered me the clarity that I needed to put these concerns into words.
Topic 3 was inspired by a recent article in the Guardian, Is mindfulness making us ill? that a trusted friend alerted Jonathan to.
The author of the article, Dawn Foster, who used to thrive on stress just fine, described her very negative experience with mindfulness meditation when first introduced to it at work, “I can’t breathe. No matter how fast, slow, deep or shallow my breaths are, it feels as though my lungs are sealed. My instincts tell me to run, but I can’t move my arms or legs. I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then we’re told to open our eyes and the feeling dissipates. I look around. No one else appears to have felt they were facing imminent death. What just happened?”
What just happened is precisely what Jonathan pointed out. Mindfulness is not to blame. Mindfulness is showing what’s at the bottom on the sand. First-timers may not like what they see and know what to do with it. As the article claims, they may not have been properly informed of the risks, may not have given the choice to opt-out, and worse, may have felt pressured to participate to enhance their company’s productivity rather than their spiritual well-being.
Dawn’s reactions don’t come as a huge surprise to healers familiar with Dr. Bradley Nelson’s claims in the documentary, E-motion: “90% of all the pain that we experience is due to trapped emotion from our emotional baggage. Those energies stay with us and disrupt our lives and cause our diseases and much of our self-sabotage.”
But because this is the accepted norm, it’s easy to neglect the fact that many people go through life like ticking emotional bombs. And if we were blessed with abundant opportunities and resources for healing and self-reflection, and enjoyed a pretty stable family environment the first decade of life, we may not realize how crucial it is to inform participants, especially first-timers, that meditation, personal growth, and related programs can activate panic, anxiety, depression, and a whole sleuth of buried symptoms just by encouraging them to look inward.
Claire, a driven 37 year old in a highly competitive industry who had her past trauma under wraps, experienced severe adverse effects after a three-day mindfulness course. She said, “A lot of the people who are trained in mindfulness are not trained in the dangers as well as the potential benefits. My experience of people who teach it is that they don’t know how to help people if it goes too far.”
Jonathan reflected on an aspect of his yoga training that recognized the potential dangers of teaching powerful esoteric modalities that are often pulled out of context, and reintroduced into disconnected spaces, bodies, and minds as isolated, quick-fix techniques to produce certain results. This can lead to all sorts of upheaval that are often left to hang out in the cold without the ongoing support of a teacher, therapist, community, and dharma that can offer ongoing guidance for full integration. He suggested carrying a list of nearby psychotherapists and resources when practicing these modalities, and knowing when to refer out.
In addition to taking these precautions, I think that even more careful discernment of the presenting doubt would be ideal. My take on doubt or any feeling is that they are always healthy and in support of the whole. There is always a positive intention and core message in any imbalance or symptom, no matter how distorted or skewed its expression. Hearing clearly what they are trying to say is a whole other ballgame.
For instance, during topic 1 of the podcast, the question “Am I ready?” was interchanged with the question, “Am I good enough?” Not feeling ready was just another form of self-doubt. The suggested answer to the question was, Yes, proceed, even if you don't feel ready. We can never know what will happen when we take that step and tend to underestimate our best intentions, expertise, honest effort, and a life-time of experiences and know-how.
True. We may not know what exactly will happen when we take this leap of faith, but it is possible to make some educated guesses based on past experience and by learning to trust our own intuition. This is what doubt ultimately is begging for us to do. To trust ourselves.
My insights into a wide range of trauma nudge me to place the “Am I ready?” question in a different category than the “Am I good enough?” question. Yes, they can get conflated, but to me, an assessment of readiness tends to be more about intuitively sensing one’s ability to regulate emotion and handle the extra challenges of growth. On the surface, it may look like garden variety self-doubt and neurosis, fueled by an innocent desire to shine and excel, but deep inside, the person may be aware that a whole can of psychological worms is about to spill out if cracked open in any way, shape, or form.
We often shy away from discerning and acknowledging the severity of trauma that exist in the world and that others experience for the same reason we may claim to be color-blind: it looks like the opposite of prejudice, it feels like love, and it allows us to show our inclusive Oneness ideals and alliance. But we may also be avoiding painful feelings of powerlessness, despair, hopelessness, frustration, rage, shame, guilt, and so on, that overwhelm us or may remind us of our own wounds. Or we may unwittingly conflate all trauma and healing with our own versions of it. Whatever our intentions, painful feelings and marginalized experiences may end up getting more deeply driven underground by someone, who may be desperate and grateful to connect with you, even if that means self-denial and a greater risk of physical dis-ease and mental dis-orders down the line.
There is another harmful trend that I’ve noticed in regard to trauma. We especially dismiss and miss unresolved trauma in “highly-functioning” and successful people, because they look so “normal” and seem to be doing so well. We often think that we are doing them a favor by focusing on their strengths and positive qualities.
Maybe. But also consider this possibility. If 90% of pain is related to emotional baggage, normal in today’s society means erasing this information, mild as well as severe trauma, from everyday consciousness and conversation. Even brilliant, highly creative, and effective people could be hiding or privately working through extreme trauma related to incest, rape, domestic violence, poverty, substance abuse, suicidality, psychosis, hospitalizations, alcoholic, mentally ill, abusive and/or neglectful family-of-origin/partners, war, and a pervasive lack of love.
Because of their creative brilliance, which often includes the ability to leave their pain-bodies and work around significant developmental deficits, they may be particularly apt at appearing “fine.” Not surprisingly, they are more prone to get intensely triggered when first looking inward. They run into parts that are still stuck in a trauma bubble of terror and can’t move forward until this is dealt with. Sometimes, they may get a full-blown PTSD reaction due to a seemingly minor trigger, as was the case with Claire in the Guardian article, and end up seeing me.
What’s the take-away here? I’m not suggesting to pigeon-hole people based on their past, or pry everyone about their trauma history. I do think that it is important to fully empower our clients along their healing journey, to evaluate their ability to remain at least 1 degree more present in wholeness than in wounding (most of the time), and to help them to listen closely to all of their feelings, including doubt, with a respectful and discerning ear. If our services are ultimately about helping them to reclaim all the forbidden feelings that they’ve pushed down, they need to be informed that their feelings can re-emerge quite unpredictability and powerfully with a mind and agenda of their own.
As artists, writers, leaders, and change-makers, we can understand our clients best by understanding ourselves in all of our pain and glory, and being receptive to hearing their unique experiences. When we acknowledge our own unresolved feelings related to past trauma and pain, we learn that it ironically releases the charge and empowers us to mindfully attend to our needs with a greater sense of acceptance, confidence, and clarity. Listening to the messages behind doubt and lack of readiness, and dealing with unfinished business, regardless how this looks, allows us and our clients to step-by-step cultivate trust in ourselves, which is what doubt is ultimately asking of us. It’s as integral to our health as eating or sleeping, and no one can do it for us.
Recommended resources for quality mindfulness and meditation courses:
Be Sacred. Be (a) Well.
I am Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT, holistic psychologist, spiritual teacher, depth hypnosis practitioner, and shamanic healer from the Sacred Healing Well, and am devoted to helping wisdom keepers, seekers, healers, and teachers dive deep into their self-healing potential and carve out their sacred dream paths in service of their dynamic whole self and the greater good. I am also the coordinator of the Sacred Stream's Space Clearing Society, a group of talented shamanic and energy practitioners who offer monthly space clearings to healers, community leaders, and public servants in the broader San Francisco Bay Area to help them maintain an optimal space for transformation.
My memoir, Amazon Wisdom Keeper: a modern psychologist's bold journey in reclaiming her intuitive mind and divine nature will be out in 2016. Click here for the Amazon Wisdom Keeper Book trailer.
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