Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Fear of Failure (or is it success)?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.   Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.    It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.   We ask ourselves Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?    Actually, who are you not to be?    You are a child of God.   Your playing small does not serve the world.   There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.   We are all meant to shine, as children do.   We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.    It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.    And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.   As we’re liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others”            (1)   

Commonly mistaken to be the words of Nelson Mandela, although they easily could be, I remember that the first time I saw this quote it scared me.     Do we really do this I thought?     Do we dim down our potential because we’re afraid of it?     Yes, I think sometimes we really do.    Success, achievements and happiness have their own problems and in some ways can be harder to live with than their polar opposites because they immediately provide us with something to lose.   This is of course the trade off, the price we must pay to love and form attachments in this world, something we just can’t help but do.   When we become bearers of things precious to us we become bodyguards of them as well, always watching and waiting for the slightest sign of trouble.    And what could be more fruitful than realising our potential and in turn more costly to fall short of it.         

So if our success (whatever that may be for each of us) has its disadvantages, do our failures have advantages?      Is our fear of failure another way of presenting our fear of success and if so what could we possibly gain from not wanting to succeed?     Quite a lot actually.      Failing at something is painful but it does however offer a degree of certainty because then we know one way or the other where we stand in relation to it.     It provides us with a sense of security, albeit a false one, because we no longer have to tolerate the ambivalence of possibility and uncertainty, both of which are imbued with that dangerous ingredient called hope.     

Hope” says the Architect the creator of the Matrix in the film ‘The Matrix Reloaded’, “It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness”.    (2)  

He may have a small point here although I think it’s the wrong way round; we would be more delusional if we didn’t hope.      For the cynic however, hope is the scariest thing of all since it dares to offer an alternative to an already established world view.    It threatens to rock the boat and make some new waves in the process.    If given free rein hope can make anything seem possible and that is what makes success so terrifying.     Success changes our narrative about ourselves and it changes us.     A man who has spent his whole adult life living with the compulsion of having to check whether or not he has locked the patio door ten times a night even though he’s never unlocked it will experience himself very differently if one morning he wakes up and realises the compulsion is gone.   Who would he be then?     How would he assimilate his new found freedom (and identity) into a lifetime of believing he was made up a certain way and that’s just how it was?      The terror of not being the person we have always been (a sort of death in itself) is what hinders us the most from choosing to live a different way of life as that would mean leaving behind everything we’ve grown to know even if unhelpful it is none the less very very familiar.     

The fear of failure and the fear of success are one and the same; each is inherent in the other.     It is the fear element that seems to be the common felon, the fear of being too good or not good enough.     I wonder sometimes what would happen if like the patio checking man we all wake up one morning and discover that we’re unafraid to live out what we couldn’t dream of doing before, how would it be if we could just do anything without fear or anxiety....     If this were really possible then I think a life without any fear would be the most frightening thing of all.      Maybe it’s not about eradicating our fears, maybe it’s about finding ways of living in the face of them and as that famous self help book goes maybe we should just,      

“Feel the fear and do it anyway”.      (3) 


(1) Marianne Williamson (1992) A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles".    Harper Collins.     Chapter 7, section 3.

(2) The Matrix Reloaded (2003).   Directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski.    

(3) Susan Jeffers (1988) Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.     Ballantine Books.    

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Ballet of Relating

The 54th BFI London Film Festival is well under way and I have my eye set firmly on ‘Black Swan’, a psychological thriller set in the world of professional ballet.    I’m not sure what to expect but am hoping to be as mesmerised as I am watching the real thing on stage.   To me ballet has always felt unreal and untouchable, the height of elegance and supreme beauty.      It is the dance of love demonstrated through the body’s form.    At times you can be sure you are witnessing something truly impossible.  

Hong Kong Ballet

They say ballet takes many many years to perfect, to get right.    Relationships, also a sort of dance, can take a lifetime to master and make dancers out of all of us in the process.     The beginning however, the opening act of a new relationship is the most thrilling and un-choreographed part of this emotional ballet.    Just as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake glides closer to Odette the beautiful Swan Queen she in turn floats away from him hesitant and withholding yet hoping he will still pursue her, is this not the story of when two people new to each other meet and begin a to and fro routine of their own?    With their movements’ tentative, hopeful but unsure, they dance the dance of anticipation always fearing that it can collapse at any moment.     The fear of making the wrong move, a step here too soon, a step there too late.      
In a ballet even the tiniest movement from a dancer is reacted to by another showing that nothing is taken for granted.     Every nuance every gesture and every look is fully received and open to infinite interpretations.    The dancers of a new relationship also over respond to each other, they are so finely attuned to the emotional mood of the other that it becomes their own and where one of them feels subdued so too does the other.     Ballet and relationships are both reciprocal, no movement in either is ever made in isolation but always forms part of a dynamic.     If you are feeling happy in the company of someone they too are feeling happy being with you.     Our feelings tell us not only how we are but how others are.     And again like ballet it can take years to become fluent in its language but I think that is how it’s meant to be, it is after all the process of learning to dance that is the most captivating, infuriating and exhilarating act of all.     Are the beginnings of falling in love so very different....?    
Sometimes the dancers are in perfect harmony with each other and every step taken between them has already been foreseen, but other times the dance is erratic and out of sync.     One dancer longs to get closer to the other but the other is no longer in the same scene and has already moved to a different rhythm.      This is very common in new relationships where each person unwittingly takes it in turn to risk revealing a little more of themselves and then suddenly in the same breath can all too quickly take it away again and put the lid firmly back on so that the unspoken dance continues as before.     It is as though the joy of real connectedness, of two people at the same time showing each other how they really feel is almost too much to bear and must be followed up by a colder more withdrawn way of being.      Ironically the more suitable the dance partner the more afraid of the dance we become.      Perhaps because the stakes are much higher and because we know in our heart that this dance could be the one we practice for the rest of our lives.     

It must also be said that dancing like any other exploration of form and emotion is abundant with potential pain and injury, it’s no wonder the moves at the start are kept to a minimum, small and measured.      The dancers need to feel safe with each other knowing that they will be held and supported not only when the music is happy and easy but when it is also sad and deliberate.      
The dance of relationships has more intricacies than the most sophisticated ballet, it is the unrehearsed version the one where the dancers fall down, hurt themselves and each other, forget the steps, focus too hard or too little and wear clothes that are thin in parts and thick in others.      Maybe it is for all these reasons that we love going to the ballet so much because for two and half hours we are watching the perfect relationship dance being played out in front of our very eyes and there is not a single action that shouldn't be there.      But the true beauty of a ballet only really hits us when the final act has been danced, a ballet must always end and real life to fill the room again.    

For M.V.

Long Beach Ballet 2003

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I’m sad to say that panic attacks have become as common in modern society as a common cold.      By now we’re all well aware of the symptoms; shortness of breath, increase in heart rate, inability to carry out daily tasks etc.    But maybe it's time to look at what a panic attack in itself is a symptom of?     

When the early morning alarm goes off it tells us that it’s time to get up, it’s our wake up call.     A panic attack works in a similar way.    It too is telling us that we need to wake up and pay attention to something that has been sleeping within us but can snooze no longer.     In fact it is probably more useful to think of a panic attack as a panic alarm and like all alarms they don’t stop ringing until we’re fully awake and have switched them off.      

So what causes a panic attack?    The specific cause is different for each person and directly related to their life and what may be going on within it.     It is something that each person must work out for themselves and often is the very thing that we don’t want to really think about, the thing that we put off thinking about but actually is always there.     And therefore the common cause of a panic attack is the way we relate to whatever this thing is that is going on for us or to put it more frankly the way we’re not relating to it and putting it aside.     

When emotional pain is ignored for long enough it makes itself visible in other ways and as human beings our primary form of communication is always with our bodies.     If we don’t talk about it, our bodies soon will.     I am of course not suggesting that every time we put things off we are in danger of bringing on a panic attack, no absolutely not.     Putting things to one side or procrastinating implies in itself that we have a pretty good idea of what it is we’re not doing, there is still awareness, whereas the panic attack gets its power from withholding information and instead transforms our bodies into loud speakers shouting out that something is very very wrong.      

So how do we know what it is we don’t yet know?!     How do we decipher a panic attack and understand what it’s really about?    To help the investigation along a bit it may be useful to ask ourselves some reflective questions;

How do I feel in my life?

What makes me happy?   

What is making me unhappy?

How do I feel towards myself?    How do I feel towards others and the world?

What’s on my mind a lot of the time?    What keeps me awake at night?  

If I could describe how I am right now what would I say?   

Taking the time to really think about how we feel in our lives starts the awareness ball rolling.     Awareness is the key, it is a bit like making toast, you can’t undo it once it’s happened.   When you know something, you know it, and that knowledge changes things.   I’m inclined to go a step further and say that a panic attack harbours a knowledge we’ve chosen to ignore for whatever reason and therefore the alarm will keep ringing until we are able to face the music.    A panic attack is full of knowledge not yet brought to light but the way it manifests itself makes it the perfect red herring.     ‘If I feel a panic attack coming on whenever I have to give a presentation at work that must mean that presentations give me panic attacks...’   There may obviously be a connection but it’s more than likely that it’s not the whole story.    A panic attack comes from within, it is not about the external world even though of course that’s what tends to trigger it but essentially it is an anxiety we hold internally and then how we relate to it in the world.    

Overcoming panic attacks involve being inquisitive about our life, becoming our own research and presenting the findings to ourselves on a regular basis.     Lieutenant Columbo is the epitome of inquisitiveness but even he had to ask question after question until he found out what he already knew from the start.     The more we learn about ourselves the more unity our mind and body will have with each other.    The panic attack alerts us to the fact that a separation between the two has taken place and that it’s our job to bridge the gap and bring our body and mind in line with each other again once more.      Believe it or not the panic attack is a sign for potential change, it is offering us an opportunity to do things differently and though not a subtle sign it is none the less a sign to re-evaluate our lives and listen to what the alarm is telling us.     But this time don't hit snooze, turn the light on and make toast instead.    


Sunday, October 03, 2010


In November 1966 a Japanese artist exhibiting her work at a London gallery gave one member of her audience a card, written on it was one word – “Breathe”.    

I am of course talking about how Yoko Ono first met John Lennon at a preview showing of her art work, and the rest as they say is truly history.    Yoko’s little instruction/reminder to John couldn’t be more relevant for all of us in today’s hectic modern living.    Breathing is the lifeblood of our existence and the most natural thing to do in the world.     It is innate and universal.     So far so obvious!      And yet it is precisely the obviousness of it that has led to its neglect in our emotional lives.  Breathing is abundantly powerful if we learn to properly utilise it.     It can become a tool to be used anywhere anytime and can change our physical sensations in moments.      This is because breathing is connected to our thoughts and our feelings and automatically aligns itself with even the tiniest nuances of our mood.      In this respect it’s not entirely dissimilar to a seismograph machine which also is an instrument so finely attuned to detect and measure (e)motion.     

The pattern of our breathing or indeed lack of pattern, in the case of erratic breath, is telling us how we are and what’s going on for us.      Whether we take in short shallow breaths or long deeper ones we are relating to the world in such a way that our body thinks it needs to in that moment.     But in actual fact it’s also at that moment where we can help our bodies the most by remembering to make good use of our breath when we really need it.      For instance when we’re doing something strenuous or being confronted with a painful situation it’s quite likely that we will hold our breath whether we’re aware of it or not and yet what we should be doing is just the opposite.    This takes some practice as I don’t believe it’s a very instinctive thing to do but if we can train ourselves to do it we will feel the benefits and so will those around us.    

By remembering to breathe in a certain way at the right time we will be able to manage difficult experiences more effectively.    Those times where we feel we can’t take on any more information (cognitive or emotional) our breath will probably be quite brief and shallow as though even the air is a heavy burden but again that’s when we need to activate the deep breathing more so.      For example when we have too many thoughts spinning around in our head jumping from one thread to another (very common when feeling anxious) if we stop what we are currently doing, remain as still as possible, close our eyes and take in a long slow deep breath, in through the nose out through the mouth, and repeat the breathing five times it will slow down if not dissolve the busyness in our mind and help us focus.      Focusing on our breath takes the attention away from elsewhere and gives us that breathing space (even the pun is obvious) to come back into our body again - something that gets out of sync very quickly during times of intense anxiety; the out of body experience of groundlessness for instance.    Focussed breathing where we are aware of our breath immediately connects us back to the ground and to the natural world serving as a reminder that every living thing around us is also breathing.       It is useful to be reminded of this unity now and then.       

The right sort of breathing can also help minimise and speed up the recovery from a panic attack.      I will be blogging about panic attacks as a separate post but just to say here that thinking our way out of a panic attack rarely works, as it is usually excessive thinking that has brought it on in the first place, instead we can help ourselves breathe out of it by again stopping everything, being still and in this case going outside and taking the long slow deep breaths in fresh air.      To take it a small step further try lying down in the park looking up at the open sky as you breathe in and out.      Breathing out by the way is just as important as breathing in yet a little more overlooked I think.      It is on the out breath where we hold our greatest strength and as anyone who goes to Pilates classes will know that the movements which require the most muscle are always synchronised with breathing out.     Breathing out in the case of those big sighs tells us that we’ve already used our strength and it was okay, that we’re alright now and got through it whatever that may be.      What a relief to breathe.....