Risk the Dreaded Experience

Practice of the Week
Risk the Dreaded Experience

See also: "Succeed at Rejection", which was also about taking the risk to face a dreaded experience. 

When things happened to you as a child -- or you saw them happening to others -- you naturally formed expectations about what you'd likely feel in similar situations in the future. Based on these expectations, you developed responses: do this to get pleasure, do that to avoid pain. Then experiences in adulthood added additional, related expectations and responses.

Consequently, the following sequence routinely happens inside you, me, and everyone else many times a day -- usually within a few seconds and often unconsciously:
  1. A feeling or desire emerges in the mind, seeking expression.
  2. This activates an associated expectation of emotional pain (from subtle unease to extreme trauma) if the feeling or desire is expressed; this pain is the "dreaded experience."
  3. This expectation triggers an inhibition of the original feeling or desire in order to avoid risking the dreaded experience.
For example, (1) you'd like more caring from someone, but (2) but your childhood has led you to be cautious about revealing those vulnerable longings, so (3) you play it safe and don't ask for anything.

Take a moment to find one or more ways that this sequence -- (1) an emerging self-expression leads to (2) an associated expectation, which leads to (3) an inhibiting response -- unfolds in your mind. Here are some examples:
  • (1) You want to get closer (e.g., emotionally, physically) to someone, but (2) moving closer exposes you to the risk of rejection, so (3) you do something that is distancing.
  • (1) A feeling comes up (e.g., sadness, anger) but (2) expressing this feeling (or feelings in general) was discouraged in your childhood, so (3) you change the subject, make a joke, or otherwise move away from the emotion.
  • (1) A desire arises to make something happen (e.g., aim for a new goal at work, write a song, plant a garden), but (2) you fear being unsuccessful, unsupported, scorned, or thwarted if you stick your neck out, so (3) you set aside your dream one more day.
Sometimes this is reasonable. For instance, (1) the urge to tell your boss to stuff it (2) prompts an expectation of big trouble if you do, (3) so you keep quiet.

But if you're like me and most people, your expectations of pain are often unreasonable. The negativity bias of the brain makes you overestimate both the likelihood of a bad outcome from self-expression and the amount of pain you'll feel if something bad actually happens. Further, the deep-down expectations that most shape self-expression developed when you were a child, so it is normal for them to be:
  • Concrete, simplistic, and rigid -- even though now you can think in more abstract, complex, and flexible ways
  • Based on a time when you (a) were stuck with certain people (e.g., family members, peers), (b) had few resources, and (c) felt pain keenly -- even though now you have much more (a) choice in your relationships, (b) assertiveness, money, and other resources, and (c) capacity to cope with pain.
These unreasonable expectations lead to responses that are needlessly pinched and cramped: we numb out internally, muzzle ourselves, stay safe and distant in relationships, and shrink our dreams. The experiences we dread hem us in, like taboo lands surrounding a shrinking little pasture, controlling us, telling us: "Don't chance that, live smaller." And most of the time, we suffer these costs without even realizing it.

What's the alternative?

It's to risk the dreaded experience -- and reap the rewards that result. For example:
  • (1) Wishing for something from an intimate partner, (2) you feel nervous about saying it, yet you know it's likely to be well-received and that you'll be fundamentally all right if it's not, so (3) you decide to speak up and risk feeling let down -- and with some zigs and zags, it works out pretty well.
  • (1) You don't feel your boss fully appreciates your abilities, but (2) he reminds you of your critical father and you dread those old feelings of hurt and low worth if you ask for more challenging (and interesting) assignments. So you plan carefully and identify a project he'll probably support, and you bring to mind, again and again, positive experiences of feeling seen and valued by others to help you cope if he is dismissive of you. (3) Having done your homework, you approach your boss with strength and clarity, which increases your odds of success.
  • (1) You want to start a business. (2) Even though you worry about looking like a fool if it fails, you remind yourself that most people respect those who stick their necks out and have an entrepreneurial spirit. (3) So you start that business and do your best, at peace with whatever may happen.

Start by observing how this sequence proceeds in your mind:
(1) self-expression --> (2) expectation of pain --> (3) inhibition.
This is the most important step (which is why the explanation above is longer than usual). You'll frequently see it in retrospect, when you replay a response you had in a situation -- a (3) -- and realize that its function was to shut down your self-expression. At bottom, many of our reactions are strategies (often unconscious ones) for avoiding a dreaded experience.

Next, challenge your expectations. Are they really true? Help yourself appreciate the fact that expressing your emotions and wants -- in reasonably skillful ways -- will usually lead to good results. Speak to yourself like a wise, firm, and encouraging swim coach talking you through the first time you dove into a pool, with lines like Other people have done this; it turned out okay for them and it can be the same for you. You have the abilities to make this work. Yes, it won't be perfect and might be uncomfortable, but you will be all right. I believe in you. Believe in yourself.

Then, move out of your comfort zone by taking calculated risks. Start with easy situations in which the odds of self-expression causing a bad result are small -- and even if the bad result were to occur, it would be only mildly uncomfortable for you. Then work your way up the ladder of increasingly vulnerable and high-stakes self-expression. A wonderful freedom grows in the heart as you do this; you're less cowed by dreaded experiences and not clipping your wings to avoid them. If a particular self-expression does lead to a painful result for you, notice that you can cope with this pain and that it soon comes to an end, and absorb the reasonable lessons (e.g., it's not wise to confide in a certain friend). Overall, you could well decide that it's worth occasionally feeling some pain in order to gain the much greater pleasures of fuller self-expression.

Last, take it in when you risk self-expression and it turns out fine (as it usually does). Really highlight it in your mind when pessimistic expectations don't come true, or when feared events do occur but they're not all that upset¬ting. Open to the satisfaction of expressing yourself, and let it sink in. Feel the healthy pride and self-respect earned by being brave enough to dive in.

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