Bypass massive pain by asking yourself the right question

I’m excited about today’s newsletter because it has the potential to really save you from a lot of unnecessary pain from harsh self-judgments and self-criticism.

If you’re reading this website, you most likely agree that “working on yourself” is important. You probably rely on doing “personal work” to heal old wounds, to get through tough times, and to move toward your goals.

I’m writing this today because I’ve seen a consistent problem in the way most people “work on themselves” that causes a lot of unnecessary pain.

This problem knocks the healing process off the straight path and will lead you ’round and ’round in circles instead.

Let me explain with a story

Recently I was leading a workshop, and my co-leader came up to me, obviously upset. He had just run a group experience that he felt failed to help one of the participants that he had really hoped it would help.

The moment he opened his mouth about it, he started beating up on himself. “It really makes me feel like I’m a worthless leader,” he told me. “I just feel like I’m not good enough and that I never will be. I feel ashamed and worthless, like I’m a fraud. I suck.”

Upon hearing himself say this stuff, he was actually a little taken aback. “Wow,” he said. “I seem to have some self-esteem problems in my leadership. I can see I need to work on my lack of confidence about how I lead!”

And that’s the mistake

My co-leader was going down the “rabbit hole” that I see people go down all the time. In the face of having the workshop not go the way he wanted, he had fallen into the trap of unconsciously asking himself “What does this experience mean ABOUT me?”

It’s like he asked his brain “What kind of a person would have this problem happen?” And his brain happily answered: “A worthless, not-good-enough fraud.”

Does that sound familiar? It’s so natural to go to these self-judgments when we have problems, you’ve probably experienced it yourself. Something doesn’t go the way you hoped, and your brain starts telling you what flaws in you caused it to go the way it went.

It’s natural. And it’s very painful. And it’s usually completely unnecessary.

You have to ask yourself the right question

I interrupted him by saying, “Let’s step away from the judgments about you, for a second. What I want to know is this: The experience you led for the group didn’t impact one of the participants the way you hoped it would. Rather than telling me what you think that means ABOUT you, I want to know what you think that means FOR you.

“Put another way,” I continued, “when the participant didn’t get what you’d hoped he’d get, you started believing something pretty negative about what is in store for you because of that. It’s like you’ve bought into a dark fate. What does it seem like your fate is going to be, in this situation, because of how things went?”

He thought about it for a moment before he answered. “Well, I start thinking he’s going to tell everyone about the bad experience he had, and it’s really going to impact my reputation. People who weren’t here and don’t understand will confront me, and I’ll end up having to deal with this and explain myself for months to come.”

“Right,” I said. “You’re upset because you’ve started to believe that what this experience means FOR you is that it’s is going to be a big, painful ordeal that wrecks your reputation and drags on for months and months. That’s what’s actually upsetting you. That belief in you is what you need to face.

“But as long as you focus on what this experience means ABOUT you — that you’re not good enough, a fraud, and so on — you’ll be running down the rabbit hole of trying to fix ‘your leadership self-esteem.’ Yes, it’s upsetting to think that you are not good enough, but that’s not the core of what’s upsetting you, and it’s not where you need to look.”

He thought about it. “Wow,” he finally said, “That’s true. I am telling myself that it’s gonna be a big painful ordeal, and that IS what’s upsetting me.”

He paused, letting it sink in. “And now that I think about it, I see that I’m overreacting a bit. Even if this is difficult, I’m not alone in the world. It’s not like armies of people are assembling against me or talking about me behind my back. The truth is, this is probably not going to be much of anything.” He was starting to calm down. “And even if it is, it helps to remember I’m not alone.” His breathing got easier. “I’m actually starting to feel much better. I can see that it’s going to be okay, no matter what happens.”

My co-leader was feeling the benefit of directly facing what was actually bothering him about the situation, rather than getting caught up in his judgments about what kind of person would be in that situation in the first place. And it was immediately helping him to relax and get perspective.

“But here’s what I don’t understand,” he said. “Why was I thinking all that stuff about not being good enough, worthless, and a fraud, if this is what’s really bothering me?”

“Those things were your brain’s made-up reasons WHY you were going to be stuck with that dark fate,” I answered.

“Think of it this way: You asked your brain why your reputation will be wrecked, and why this will drag on and on, and your brain came up with answers: You’re a fraud, you’re worthless, and so on. But if you had been a different person, your brain might have come up with totally different answers: People are against you, that participant is a jerk, this kind of thing always happens when the moon is in this phase, whatever. Your brain is a machine that’s great at making up answers. But in this case, those answers are just not useful.

“And to make matters worse, your brain didn’t just tell you what was wrong with you,  it also told you what you needed to do to fix it: work on your confidence as a leader.

“So you end up being a guy who’s already bought the idea that he’s in for a reputation-destroying ordeal, who’s trying to work on his confidence as a leader. How much progress do you think that guy is going to make, working on his confidence while he knows he’s already doomed?”

“None at all!” he answered with a laugh. “I can see now that looking at what this situation meant FOR me, rather than ABOUT me, really was the missing piece. Now that I have that in perspective, I’m not feeling like like a not-good-enough fraud anymore, either!”

Bonus examples

People have been telling me examples really help them understand my teachings, so here are three more “bonus” examples of this dynamic from people I’ve worked with. You can skip to the next section if you don’t need more examples and are ready to read about what’s in it for you to try this.

– One of my clients was a teacher who was upset because some of her students didn’t participate in her classes. What it meant ABOUT her (to her) was that she was a bad teacher. Therefore, she concluded, she needed to prepare more, and plan out everything she was going to say perfectly.

But when we looked into it more deeply, what it meant FOR her was that she wasn’t going to be able to make a difference. That belief was the core of her upset. So she had become a woman who subconsciously believed that she wasn’t going to be able to make a difference, trying to plan perfect, impactful classes for her students. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t working.

– A man I worked with was upset because he didn’t know if his girlfriend was the woman for him. What it meant ABOUT him (to him) was that he was a man who couldn’t commit. Therefore, in his view, he needed to really push himself and make himself commit fully to his girlfriend.

But when we looked deeper, we found that what it meant FOR him was that he was doomed to a life that only went “partway.” So he had become a man whose life was only going to go partway, desperately trying to commit fully. Naturally, he couldn’t do it.

– Another man I worked with came to me complaining that it seemed like circumstances kept stopping him from doing the things he wanted to do. What it meant ABOUT him (to him) was that he was weak and unfocused. Therefore, he concluded, he needed to find a way to make himself get his act together.

But when we looked into it more deeply, what it meant FOR him was that what he had to give wasn’t going to be expressed. So he had become a man who subconsciously already “knew” he wasn’t going to be able to give what he had to give, trying to get his act together so he could express himself in his life. Clearly, that simply wasn’t going to work.

The first step for all these people was to step away from their self-judgments about what their circumstances meant ABOUT them, and to start looking honestly about what they were unconsciously believing their circumstances meant FOR them.

When they were able to see that, they stopped being “at odds” with themselves, and were able to start creating real change on their issues.

What’s in it for you to try this?

Now you might be saying, “This is cool, but how is it really helpful? I’m just replacing one question with another. I’m going from feeling bad about my self to feeling bad about my future. So what’s so special about asking what a situation means FOR me versus what it means ABOUT me?”

Two things make this special —

First, the upset of what it means FOR you usually hurts a lot less than your made-up reasons about what a bad person you are for having your problem in the first place.

When my co-leader was believing he was a fraud and not good enough, it whipped up such a level of drama and all-encompassing fear that he felt instantly better just seeing what was actually upsetting him.

Second, when you ask “What does this mean FOR me,” you stop “barking up the wrong tree,” and that helps a lot.

When my co-leader started believing that he needed to work on his “lack of confidence as a leader,” he was barking up the wrong tree. Working on his “confidence” was a way of fixing feeling like he was a fraud… But since “being a fraud” wasn’t the core of what was upsetting him, working on his “confidence” would be frustrating and not really helpful.

He still had healing to do once he saw was was actually upsetting him, but it was much easier for him to start experiencing that healing because he was looking in the right place, rather than “barking up the wrong tree.”

So….

Think of all the pain you’ve experienced from calling yourself names and beating up on yourself.

And think of all the time you might have spent working on issues like “low self-esteem,” or “lack of confidence.”

Much of that unpleasantness came from unconsciously asking, “What does this mean ABOUT me?”

And much of that gets bypassed when you ask “What does this mean FOR me?”

How to do it

The way to do it is simple: When you find yourself getting upset, ask “What unpleasant fate am I starting to believe that this situation means for me? What heart-breaking future am I starting to buy into?” When you do that, you are facing what is actually bothering you, and are positioned to start getting some perspective and healing on it.

I invite you to try it out, and to post your results as comments on this post or to send me an email telling me what you got out of it.

I’m here to help if you need it

If you’d like my help in discovering what’s really bothering you and experiencing the new strength and inner resources you get when you “come out the other side,” you may be interested in my individual phone coaching.

Here’s what one man wrote me after his phone session:

“I have much appreciation and gratitude for the dynamic you guided me through. I feel much lighter and more present. I have awareness and my pride back with who I am once again. Infinite goodness is flowing to me and through me all the time. Anything less than that is just a little bump in the road and surely I will bounce over it.”

Contact me and we’ll set up a brief call to say hi and see if my coaching might be right for you.

About Dmitri

Comments

  1. Great article. Reminds me a lot of the work of psychiatrist David Burns who wrote Feeling Good and other books on cognitive therapy. Perhaps you are familiar with it? He notes that most harsh self-judgments are based on distorted and irrational thoughts that can be refuted by identifying the distortions such as 1)jumping to conclusions, 2)fortune-telling, 3)brushfire fallacy etc. For instance, in your example the guy jumped to conclusions about his performance, then predicted a negative fortune, and then committed a brushfire fallacy by assuming that one person would tell so many ppl that his reputation would be ruined. When you list and analyze the thoughts you can start to see how ludicrous they are. You can also see how most people commit these errors a lot of the time! It’s great work and you may find it fascinating. Has helped me tons!

  2. Thanks for the comment Jane!

    It is amazing how, as they say, “the message comes in many envelopes.” I think most all healers are basically pointing at the same thing. I’ll check out David Burns.

  3. Fawn Bilgere says:

    Beautiful! This really encapsulates the key of the liberating healing method that I’ve been privileged to study with you, Dmitri. (And to benefit from your expertise in!)

    I just want to testify that even a single session with you, Dmitri, really brings this to life. I’d encourage others to try it.

    And repeated sessions have been instrumental in helping me practice and really cement the technique–remembering the right questions to ask, being able to spot the red herrings and smokescreens, and turning more deeply to that inner wisdom to open to liberation and transformation.

    I’m a constantly evolving work-in-progress, and practicing this healing method on a regular basis helps to nudge me along in the right direction–sometimes to *discern* the right direction–and sometimes to catapult me ahead! My immense gratitude, Dmitri.

  4. This really speaks to my experience and thank you Dmitri for writing it. I’m trying to start-up a business at the moment. I get feedback on my business in small volumes, anonymously and it’s generally negative. Every time I get feedback I take it personally. I think ‘they’ have seen me for the flawed, weak and hopeless entrepreneur that part of me believes I am. I think “wow, I’ve got to be more robust if I’m going to do this. I need to believe in myself more. I must work on my self-confidence.” What’s more, I start believing that this feedback is representative of my audience, and EVERYBODY thinks that I’m hopeless. I feel pretty ashamed.

    Your piece helped me see that actually my fear is that this feedback is telling me that my business will fail. The fear I harbour is that I don’t have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur; that I won’t make it. If I can accept that the business may fail, but that doesn’t have to say anything about my soul, my character or my heart, the feedback doesn’t hurt any more. As you can probably hear, I’m fighting it so I’m a bit up-and-down!

    What I found most difficult to understand in your piece is the relationship between FOR me and ABOUT me. Negative feedback means FOR me that my business might fail. I’m pleased to have teased that out and made the separation from the unconscious shame I was feeling. However the prospect of the business failing is a great stick for me to beat myself with. It gives me an excuse to tell myself something ABOUT me. It takes me a lot of conscious effort to stay reasonable, stay present and stay logical when hearing the FOR and not slip into the ABOUT.

    Ironically, I’m starting a feedback business!

    [Aside
    May I make a suggestion for a topic for you to consider? I’d love to hear your wisdom on commenting and visibility. In writing this comment I’m bringing all of myself, but I’m clinging to a bit of anonymity (‘Alex’). I’m concerned about the potential impact of my children, future employers, current friends or friends I have yet to make, searching for my name in 20 years and finding these comments. I’m concerned about making myself vulnerable online, really because it’s not like a carpet where I judge this work is respected. I’m concerned about my comments being reported in the future in a newspaper or magazine, out of context. I’m concerned that I might be prohibiting or hurting my future public life by engaging now. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but this is the stuff I think about and one of the reasons I’ve never commented before.

    • Hi Alex,
      The internet IS weird. People are generally FAR harsher to others online than they would be in real life. And that harshness really CAN be a challenge for online entrepreneurs.

      As far as commenting goes, I well remember when people first started realizing that all the stuff they had posted on AOL, or in Usenet groups, was being archived and could be searched. People were pretty shocked.

      Part of the agreement we make in using the internet is that we expose a certain amount of personal/behavioral information. Blogger Horace Dedeau talks about this in the in the October 5th 2011 episode of his podcast, “Critical Path.” If you want to listen, you can download it at http://5by5.tv/criticalpath/9

      – Dmitri

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