You live in a box you’ve carefully constructed to protect yourself.
So have I.
We all have.
Literally, you have designed every detail of your life to protect yourself from the fears and internal conflicts you aren’t willing to face.
In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer gives the analogy of a person with a thorn in their arm. This thorn happens to be pierced right on a nerve. Consequently, with the slightest brush of the thorn, an electrifying pain shoots throughout his entire body.
In order for this person to live without pain, he has to make sure nothing touches the thorn in his arm. He can’t sleep on his bed — if he rolls over he’ll touch the thorn. So he creates a device to sleep in to protect the thorn.
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He can’t play sports or have much physical contact with other people. So he designs a pad that protects his arm from contact. It’s not very comfortable to wear, but it protects the thorn.
He’s learned how to manage every area of his life so nothing touches that thorn. From his work to his recreation to his relationships. He’s controlled his external environment so much so that he’s freed from the troubles of his thorn.
Or is he?
In reality, all this person has done is cover-up the problem. By so doing, he has built his entire life around his problem.
His other option — the far less painful and complicated one — is to simply remove the thorn.
In a similar way, you have internal “thorns” you’ve built your entire life around.
You bury your childhood traumas, your fears, and your emotional insecurities. Whenever something “touches” these internal thorns — rather than letting them rise to the surface, experiencing them, and letting them go — you bury them deeper by distracting yourself from the pain as quickly as possible.
Said Tony Robbins, “You always get out of life exactly what you tolerate.” You’ve learned to tolerate living with your fears and internal conflicts. As a result, you’ve settled for a life far beneath your potential.
We all have.
The evolution of fear
Human beings have an embedded fight-or-flight reaction to a threat. For most of human history, we were exposed to physical threats constantly. However, now that our physical environment is quite safe, our threats have shifted from external to internal.
Now, rather than worrying about being killed by a tiger, you’re worried about your self-esteem. You’re worried about what people think about you. You’re worried about not being good enough. You’re worried about offending other people. You’re worried about failing.
When your body is healthy, you don’t think about it much. It just is, functioning properly. But you spend a large portion of your waking hours concerned about your emotional well-being, always trying to ensure you feel good. What does that say about your emotional health?
Healthy emotions reflect a healthy body — you shouldn’t have to think much about them. When a problem arises, rather than burying it deeper, you mend it. You get over it. You let it go so that it doesn’t have to plague your future.
But that’s not how most people deal with emotional problems. Rather than fixing them, they construct the most bizarre relationships and life to protect themselves from facing their fears or traumas.
You are not your fears
The first step in living a life of freedom is to realize that you are not your fears. You experience your fears. Similarly, you are not your thoughts. You are aware of your thoughts. You are not even your body. Rather, you are the being inside experiencing and operating your body.
You are the subject — your thoughts, feelings, and physical experiences are objects.
Herein lies why most people build their lives around their fears. They have over-attached themselves to a particular self-concept. They’ve created a box around themselves — “personality” — to define who they are and how they act.
The truth is much more simple: you are the one who experiences your thoughts, feelings, and physical senses.
You are the observer of the inner and outer world around you. You determine where you place your awareness, what psychologists call selective attention. You pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and things that matter to you. What you focus on, expands. Your awareness of things makes them real to you.
When you experience something associated with a fear or emotional disturbance — an internal thorn — your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were doing. Rather than watching a movie, you’ve become lost in thoughts and memories.
This is where you take a conscious step back.
You are not the thoughts or feelings you’re experiencing. The very fact that these emotions are rising up is a signal you have an unresolved internal conflict.
Rather than burying these emotions deeper, see them for what they are: feelings. These feelings are not you. They are something you’ve experienced. Feel them out. Don’t hide from them. Don’t distract yourself from them. Observe and experience them fully. Forgive yourself or the event. Learn from them. This will likely be uncomfortable. You bury these feelings because they are unpleasant and painful.
Experience these feelings and free yourself from them.
Pull that thorn out.
The only other option is to perpetuate and compound the problem.
Living a life without fear
Most people live in The Matrix — a state of being completely absorbed in your thoughts and feelings. The Matrix is the box you’ve built around yourself to avoid reality. Get out of your head — paralysis by analysis. Said Tim Grover in his book, Relentless, “Don’t think. You already know what you have to do, and you know how to do it. What’s stopping you?”
The only way out of the Matrix is to confront reality. You can only do this by exposing yourself directly to your fears and emotional problems. Until you do this, you are living an illusion. Until you do this, you’ll construct a pseudo-life to protect yourself from yourself.
Spirituality begins outside your comfort zone. The essence of living — of being truly alive — is to directly expose yourself to what you fear. Said Jack Canfield, “Everything you want is on the opposite side of fear.”
What are you afraid of?
What have you been hiding from?
What experiences have you been avoiding?
What conversations have you been avoiding?
What people have you been protecting yourself against?
What would your life be like if you confronted your fears, and grew past them? What would your relationships be like? What would your work be like?
When you face your fears, they disappear.
So, you have only two choices:
Build your entire life around your fears like most people.
Build the life you want by exposing yourself immediately to all that you fear.
Said Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Get over yourself
Most people live a life of fear because their main concern is their own feelings. Most people pursue relationships and careers they believe will make them happy.
But you cannot directly pursue happiness.
Happiness can only come as the unintended side-effect of pursuing a cause greater than yourself. Purpose trumps passion always.
When your why is strong enough, you’ll be willing to do whatever it takes. You need a cause you truly believe in. You’ll be willing to figuratively throw yourself — or your feelings — under the bus.
It’s not about you. It’s about the cause. It’s about your purpose, which is far greater than you.
When you love someone, you’re willing to take a bullet for that person. You’re willing to die for that which you love. Similarly, you’re willing to truly live for that which you love. Every single day, no matter how difficult it may seem. For you, it won’t be difficult, because you’ll simply feel grateful for the opportunity.
You don’t have to have “a box.” Let go of your imagined self-concept. Who you really are cannot be defined. Forgot what you think you are. Instead, follow your fears wherever they take you. They point the direction. Expose yourself.
Be who you want to be, not who your fears define you as. Live for a purpose bigger than yourself, something you believe in your bones.
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This article originally appeared on Medium.
Benjamin Hardy is an author and Ph.D. Student at Clemson in South Carolina. Check out his checklist to take control of your success, time, and finances.