How to Free Yourself from Your Internal Oppressor

Free yourself from your limitations.As I was watching the latest Middle Eastern uprising unfold this week—this time in Turkey—I thought a lot about freedom. Often, when we hear about freedom, we think of the kind of freedom that Turkish citizens are demonstrating for—freedom from an external oppressor, their government. But, there’s an internal kind of freedom that many people also lack. It’s what I talk about with my clients all the time.

Their internal oppressor is set up very early in life in the process that forms their sense of self. You can think of the sense of self as a battery that is generating every moment of our lives. From conception until the age of 2 1/2, we all absorb how people around us feel about being human, and what we absorb from them turns into this sense of self—the way we feel we have to be to survive and fit well in the world. Part of what we absorb is what I call Learned Distress, the feeling that there’s something wrong with us being just the way we are. This Learned Distress becomes the automatic, generating force behind our negative moments and situations.
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What if It’s Completely Safe to Feel…Everything?

It's safe to feel all of your feelings.“It’s just a feeling, Sara. That’s all.” I replied, “Yeah, easy for you to say! I think this ‘feeling’ might just kill me.” This exchange from more than a decade ago is so clear in my mind, and now, I am often on the other side of it with my own clients. “It’s just a feeling,” was something that I had to hear many times as I was starting into my own change process. As pockets of deeply buried feelings came up for me to unlearn, it felt like the sky was going to fall. But, I always survived, and I always emerged from that cycle of change feeling better than I ever had before.

Some people’s survival mechanisms let them feel every bit of their emotions from the time they are tiny. But, most of us have at least one area and often several in which we feel that to survive, we have to bury how we feel. It sort of makes sense when it comes to the negative feeling that I call Learned Distress. Keeping the feeling that “there’s something wrong with me being just the way that I am” under wraps seems like a logical part of a strategy to keep moving forward in life.

But, believe it or not, some people’s survival mechanisms require them to also keep their good feelings under control. Early in life, their brain gets that in order to fit well with their parents and surroundings, they need to bury everything they feel, good or bad. What’s safe is to really keep everything they feel under control.

People have various ways of coping with this need to keep their feelings buried. Many people stay very busy to avoid feeling. Others create strong boundaries in order to keep whatever triggers their feelings away from them. Some constantly find themselves sabotaging situations or relationships in order to avoid feeling whatever would be triggered by a success in that arena. These behaviors are all automatically generated out of their survival mechanisms that say, “Just don’t feel anything. It’s not safe.”

The more buried people’s feelings are, the more I caution them that things might feel out of control at times as we begin our work together. Sometimes, they will feel like they are walking a tightrope as their buried feelings start to bubble up. If they could zoom up out of themselves for a moment, they might see that they are walking on a wide plain, but to them, it feels like they might fall off their thin wire into the abyss at any moment. That’s just because their sense of what’s safe is to not feel at all, so when they do start to experience their feelings, it seems extreme. Another way to understand this is to imagine that you have worn 10 layers of clothes all of your life, and suddenly, you take off all but a tank top and shorts—even the slightest breeze would feel pretty shocking to your bare skin.

There’s a huge payoff for those who dare to walk that seeming tightrope or do away with their thick layers of protection. Our most profound level of feeling is our pipeline to the core of who we are. This core, which I call natural well-being, is what allows us to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is the source of our creativity and uniqueness. And, it is what allows us to discover and fulfill our life’s purpose. When uncovered and allowed to flow freely, our natural well-being works for us (not the other way around), allowing our lives to work more easily and joyfully.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.

Why Expressing Anger Is Good for You

Why expressing anger is good for youPretty often, I have clients who are surprised when I tell them it’s not only OK but actually even good and necessary for them to express their anger. Some of them feel that it isn’t safe to express anger. Many think it’s not even OK to feel it internally, much less have any outlet for it. Many have been told that it isn’t “spiritual” or “evolved” to express anger.

No matter whether you feel it isn’t safe or it isn’t right to express it, anger is energy trapped inside you, and it needs an outlet. Specifically, anger is a form of what I call Learned Distress, the feeling we all absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with us being just the way that we are. Learned Distress can take many pathways out, including sadness, depression, obsession, physical ailments, and many more. You may experience these other pathways more than anger, or you might be like me, and have a fairly high percentage of your Learned Distress expel itself as anger.
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You Want the Best for Others…but Why?

Why you want your child to succeed matters.Clients often share with me intense concern for their loved ones or friends who are struggling in some way. There’s a very natural and positive side to wanting those around us to be well and succeed, and I celebrate that. But, there’s often an element of Learned Distress at play, also.

Learned Distress is the feeling we all absorbed early in life that there’s something wrong with us being just the way we are. This negative feeling becomes the source of our negative moments and situations, and it is largely the basis for the survival mechanism we use to move through life. Learned Distress can be very demanding; it can make us feel like things have to be a certain way for us to survive. Sometimes, that “things have to be a certain way” can extend to those close to us.
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The Soul Grows by Subtraction

Soul growth can take place when Learned Distress is removed.The soul grows by subtraction. ~ Meister Eckhart

Every day, I’m fortunate enough to witness the wonder that 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart was talking about. It seems so paradoxical, doesn’t it? But, it gets clearer when you understand what needs to be subtracted to allow the soul’s growth.

It’s what I call Learned Distress. It’s the feeling we all absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with us being just the way that we are. Learned Distress comes to overwhelm our natural well-being, which is our soul’s energy embodied within us. Well-being is not only what allows us to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally, but it is the source of our creativity and uniqueness. And, it is what allows us to discover and fulfill our life purpose.
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Does EVERYTHING Have to Be Hard?

Does everything have to be hard?I laughed out loud yesterday when I found a piece of music I had worked on in the course of my professional violin career. At the top, I had written, “This is not hard.” Even though it was in my handwriting, I can hear my teacher saying it. He was always having to remind me that I already knew how to play the violin, and that meant that some things just were already easy. One of his favorite ways to say it was, “You’ve already played all of these notes before, just not in this order.”

It happens all over the place for me. I notice it in the smallest, everyday things. I look out at the weeds in the back yard and feel like it’s an insurmountable task. Yet, it only ends up taking 15 minutes to pull them all. Some administrative task goes undone for weeks or even months, just because it feels like it’s going to be so much work. And then, when I get it finished just before the deadline, I find that it takes all of five minutes and was a breeze. Now, playing the violin isn’t as easy as pulling weeds or filling out some form, but when someone reaches a professional skill level with it, there are still plenty of things that are indeed just easy to play.
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Why Ignoring Your Past Doesn’t Work

“Get bored with your past, it’s over!” —Caroline Myss
“When the past calls, let it go to voicemail. It has nothing new to say.” —Unknown

Your past is calling.These two quotes have been making the rounds on social media recently. They’re clever, and they sound like good advice. They even work pretty well for some people to a certain point. But, these sayings ignore the fact that your past is actually the automatic, generating force behind every moment in your life. You can no more ignore your past than you can wake up in a completely different body.

Specifically, the part of your past that is generating your present moments is the feeling you absorbed about being human from conception until the age of 2 1/2. During this time, you couldn’t think yet. Your brain was merely a sponge, soaking up how people around you felt about being human. You took this on as how it feels to be you as a human. Your brain turned all this absorbed feeling into your unique sense of self. After the age of 2 1/2, your sense of self became the automatic, generating engine for the moments of your life. In other words, your brain keeps generating moments in which you feel the same way you did in your most intense moments, positive or negative, before the age of 2 1/2.

Usually, when people talk about ignoring the past, they mean the negative stuff, which I call Learned Distress. Since you couldn’t think yet, when someone around your young self was having a bad day, you couldn’t process it and throw it out, nor did you even understand it was “negative.” Just like a sponge has no choice in what it absorbs, your little sponge-brain just absorbed that feeling as, “This is how it feels to be me.” Later in life, as your brain generates moments that feel the same way those early negative moments felt, you have the rational capacity to judge them and decide that you don’t feel good in these moments.

Along with the negative feeling you absorbed early in life, your brain developed a survival mechanism that allowed you to fit well with those around you. When your brain generates negative moments for you, this survival mechanism kicks in and allows you to cope with or control things in the same way that worked well for you in relation to your family and other early caregivers.

Those people for whom the quotes at the top work well developed a survival mechanism that usually allows them to keep negative feelings buried and somehow overcome that to make good things happen, or at least keep things under control and going in the right direction for themselves. There are also people who tend to feel the negative stuff, but still have a survival mechanism that allows them to keep overcoming the negative. These folks usually live in a lot of crisis, but they find ways to overcome it. Then, there are people who are completely overwhelmed by their Learned Distress in various ways. Their survival mechanisms allow them to keep going, but their past is usually hard to bury, ignore, or deny, and they often feel defeated in some way by their negative moments.

People come to me when, no matter their survival mechanism, their Learned Distress has become to intense to continue living with in the same way they always have. Learned Distress actually is recharged at night when we sleep, and it keeps growing in intensity over time as this recharging process takes place. So, the moments generated from Learned Distress keep getting more intense and difficult to handle over time. When people reach their breaking point, whether it is in their health, relationships, career, or self-expression, they also reach the point I love where their brain will really allow them to start unlearning layers of Learned Distress permanently. Since their control mechanisms have been what has allowed them to survive, the brain holds on tightly, but will finally start to let go when the pain and frustration of Learned Distress reaches this boiling point.

What’s great is that unlearning Learned Distress gradually reveals more and more of someone’s natural well-being. This well-being, which people sometimes call “higher self” or the part of us connected with God or Source, is the very center of our being. Well-being not only allows us to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally, but it is the source of our creativity and uniqueness. And, it is what allows us to discover and fulfill our unique purpose on the planet. Learned Distress has overwhelmed our natural well-being, but as layers of it peel away, our natural well-being expands to take its rightful place as the automatic, generating force in our lives. Just as we’ve never had to work for bad days to happen, the good moments and situations begin to happen effortlessly.

One of my clients has experienced a lot of this effortless good in his preparation to move his family to Hawaii from the mainland US. In the past, much smaller moves have been difficult and traumatic for the family. But, as he has unlearned the Learned Distress that generated those painful situations, he has found that this move has gone more smoothly than he even could have wished for or expected. Every step of the way, from finding land and resources to build the house and farm they dream of, to selling their current house, to arranging to ship their belongings, they have found things to work out better than they even hoped could happen.

In what way does your past keep speaking up in your life? Even if it’s an event that happened long after childhood, it has its roots in how you felt very early in your life. Do you feel like you can still keep hanging up on that voice, or is it getting so loud that you can’t ignore it any longer? The good news is that your natural well-being and uniqueness is lurking just under all of that negative feeling, just waiting for you to discover it. Here’s to your well-being emerging!

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.

Is It Interdependence, or Really Just Co-Dependence?

Interdependence is not the same thing as co-dependence.The idea of interdependence is an important and necessary one for us to embrace in modern life. We’ve moved beyond the days of subsistence, where we produce and make nearly everything we need. This gives us the ability to express our individuality and uniqueness in ways that we never could if our survival depended upon raising our own food, creating our own shelter, and managing everything that goes along with doing that ourselves. And, people working together, each sharing their gifts, is what allows us to accomplish new and bigger things that allow us to move forward as a society.

One way I’ve heard interdependence described is that it is the way our bodies work. Everything in our bodies works in complete sympathy with everything else, and yet each cell and component is self-sufficient on its own. When it comes to human self-sufficiency, I believe that means that healthy adults are meant to be able to rely on themselves for their own basic emotional and physical needs. The basis for self-sufficiency is that we have everything within us that we need to provide what we need and want in life. When we come from that place, we have a stable platform from which to share our gifts with the world and work with others to create something bigger than we could do on our own.

Contrast that with co-dependency, which is sometimes mistaken for interdependency. Co-dependency has more of a crutch feeling to it. It is based on the feeling that one doesn’t have everything they need within themselves to be stable and gather the resources they need, so they lean on someone else for those things. People express co-dependence in different ways, so that one person may be very dependent on others financially, while another is very dependent emotionally. There’s often a subtle (or not so subtle) manipulative factor to co-dependency, also. The co-dependent person is often good at determining and becoming what someone else wants them to be, so that this other person will provide what the co-dependent person feels they need.

You can see how interdependence comes from a place of inner strength, while co-dependence comes from a place of inner lack. I hesitate to say weakness, because the potential for inner strength is within us all, and it’s just that this potential is blocked for those who behave in co-dependent ways.

This internal block is caused by what I call Learned Distress, the feeling we all absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with us being exactly the way that we are. This negative feeling becomes embedded in our sense of self, and it becomes the automatic, generating force behind our negative situations. Everyone absorbs a different flavor of Learned Distress. Those who develop co-dependent behavior absorbed the feeling that they can’t depend on themselves in one arena or another; they have to depend on others in some way in order to survive.

My clients who have unlearned the source of their co-dependency usually experience shifts in several ways. First, they feel more capable and confident in their own abilities. As a result, they feel less dependent on others for their basic needs. They also are able to uncover their unique gifts and find ways of sharing them with the world. And, they often find themselves either seeking or being sought by others to collaborate in making bigger things happen in the world in ways that fit perfectly with their uniqueness. A great example is a couple who are both clients of mine, and are both artists. They’ve always collaborated with each other on projects, but as they’ve both unlearned in this arena, they have found themselves branching out and working with others on their projects. They’re finding strengths they didn’t know they had, uncovering new ways of expressing themselves, finding others who fill in skill gaps they had experienced when trying to work on their own, and reaching out in whole new ways with their artistry, as a result.

The world needs all of us, sharing our uniqueness and working together with others to help the world shift in good ways that would be impossible if each of us worked alone. We’re meant to work together, but co-dependency often gets in the way of us really being able to do that effectively. I hope that this has helped you understand the difference between co-dependence and interdependence, so that you can move toward more fully making your vital contribution to our world.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.

Why It’s So Hard (or Easy) to Admit You’re Wrong

Admitting I'm wrongWhy is it that some people never seem to admit they’re wrong about something, even when they clearly are? And, why do others seem to apologize just as a basic part of their existence? There are several survival mechanism elements at play here.

First, there’s the person for whom survival depends on always knowing everything. That person panics at the thought that someone could see that they aren’t perfect or don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. Often, this kind of person also feels like they must win in order to survive. So, competition also kicks in, and they will argue endlessly to try and prove they are right. Sometimes, they’ll even go as far as to make things up, just to keep up the illusion that they are right.

The next kind of person is the one who has to do things the “right” way. Their survival mechanism has a strong sense of right and wrong built into it, and it feels unsafe for them to step out of their “right” way or to admit that they might have done something the “wrong” way. They rely on keeping things tightly under control, so admitting to having stepped outside their tight boundaries feels very unsafe to them.

The flip side of this equation is populated with those who apologize for everything, even if they are within their rights to have said or done something. This person needs other people’s approval in order to survive, and unlike the first kind of person I described above, this person feels unsafe in competing. In fact, they need to let others win, so that they gain approval. This person panics if they don’t have the approval of everyone around them, so even if they are right, they may still apologize. In extreme cases, they may even apologize for being right!

Some people are even combinations of all of the above. If you fall into this category, you may feel like you’re in a constant tug of war between needing to be right/perfect/the winner and getting other people’s approval.

When I talk about “survival,” I really mean it. Early in life, we all absorb the feeling that there is something wrong with us being exactly the way that we are. At the same time, our brains develop mechanisms that allow us to fit well with our surroundings and survive with the presence of the feeling that there is something wrong with us. All of this negative feeling and survival mechanism become embedded in our sense of self, which is the automatic, generating force behind every moment of our lives. So, however we felt and survived early on will continue to be the way the moments and situations feel throughout our lives. So, whether survival depended on getting others’ approval, having things be one’s own way, or things being the “right way,” life will continue to require that of us.

When clients work with me to unlearn these negative patterns, these survival mechanisms gradually relax their death grip. The first two kinds of people I described find themselves more easily relating to others when it comes to conflicts. They don’t feel as panicked when someone sees they’ve done something that wasn’t “perfect” or the “right way.” One client with the second pattern recently called her ex-husband, an estranged sister, and a co-worker from long ago to take responsibility for her side of things not working perfectly between them. She said it wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but she never would have even considered it before. She didn’t feel like it threatened her survival to admit that she hadn’t done everything the “right” way.

When the third kind of person begins to unlearn, they start to actually feel that they matter enough to acknowledge their own feelings in a situation, instead of just do whatever they need to for others’ approval. One of my clients with this pattern recently shifted how she relates to her husband, as a result of this change in herself. Rather than just go along with however he wants to shape conversations, she has actually started speaking up for herself and saying what she wants. At work, people are seeking her input on projects more than ever before. This shift often has this effect, also—when someone feels that they matter as much as those around them, others feel that and begin to seek their opinion on important matters.

Do you recognize yourself here? Do you feel panicked at the thought that people might see that you’ve done something imperfectly or “wrong”? Or, are you the chronic apologizer? Unlearning these patterns leads to more honest relationships based on the feeling that everyone wins when we share who we really are with the world.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.

What Makes Grieving Even More Painful

How to move gently through grieving.When it comes to grieving a loss, whether is the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or another major loss, there is a lot of good information out there about what is natural to feel and experience. Most people know about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ model on grieving, and it’s very helpful to be aware of those natural stages of grief and allow oneself to fully experience them. As you may be aware, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and they can occur in any order and may repeat.Continue reading