In Walden, the great writer / philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In all my years on this planet, Thoreau’s observation stands as the most poignant and revealing naked truth about humanity.
Now, Thoreau had to live in an isolated log cabin by a pond for two years to get to that truth. But surprisingly, we’re only now, more than 150 years later, beginning to understand that his method of self-discovery hints at a fascinating way of understanding and ultimately conquering the fear that grips so many of us.
You see, whether you suffer from an irrational fear of public speaking, are plagued by enormous stress at work, live in mortal terror of screwing up or getting fired, or, more to the point, are a highly competent and accomplished professional who, deep inside, suffers from debilitating doubts and fears, there are three things you all have in common:
1.What goes on in your head is of your own creation and, while it’s not necessarily consistent with reality, it can have real, self-fulfilling consequences.
2.You create these “stories” because, at a level you’re not even consciously aware of, you believe that who you are, what you say, and what you do is far more consequential than it really is.
3.As Thoreau stated quite accurately, you’re not as alone as you think you are and, more importantly, there are techniques and therapy for dealing with this stuff that actually work.
What got me thinking about this - yet again - is an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal called Conquering Fear that discusses three types of cognitive-behavioral therapy, including a relatively new movement among psychologists and psychiatrists called “mindfulness.”
In the article, Steven C. Hayes, professor of psychology at the University of Nevada-Reno, captures the problem succinctly:
Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says “I’ve got it handled.” In reality, however, there’s a big difference between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside.
Left unresolved, this gap between self-image and reality can be self-reinforcing, meaning it can widen over time. Then, crises like death in the family, divorce, or job loss can act like triggers that lead to severe anxiety, panic, or depression.
Mindfulness, with which I actually have personal experience, emphasizes paying attention to the present moment and becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings without judging them. By facing your fears and self-doubt in this manner, you can see how overblown they are with respect to reality and, over time, they lose their emotional power.
Mindfulness requires commitment, time, and most of all, isolation from all the distractions that keep us from getting even a little beneath the surface of our conscious minds. That’s what mindfulness has in common with Thoreau’s method of self-discovery.
This is all well and good. But, unfortunately, most people aren’t even aware of the root causes of the issues they’ve been hopelessly trying to deal with their entire lives. They only know that they manifest as stress, anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, anger, phobias, depression, panic, or self-destructive behavior.
So, like it or not, the best place to start is to seek professional help. Hell, you go to the doctor when you’re sick. What can be more important than your mental health and well-being, right? A professional will help you peel this complex onion and determine the best course of therapy to help resolve your issues.
Bottom line: If you think you’re all alone, there’s no help for your suffering, or you can “handle” it, then I’m here to tell you that …
1.Thoreau was right and you’re wrong - we’re all in the same boat;
2.Denial and thinking you can and should deal with it alone are all symptomatic; and
3.You’re the only person who’s holding you back from conquering your fear, anxiety, and self-doubt because you’re the only person who can do something about it. So do it