How I Overcame the Fear of Voicing My Opinion

The challenge of expressing your own opinionI went to a rally the other night for a political candidate who I support, and I was struck by how comforting it felt to be in a room full of people who probably agree with me on most things. Contrast that with some recent trips to the dog park, where one regular tends to be very outspoken with his views that are opposite mine. When the conversation really gets going around politics at the dog park, especially if this person is there, I tend to just slip out quietly, while others (whom I admire) stay around and debate with him.

Given the choice between being surrounded by people who agree or disagree with us, most of us will choose the former. But why do some of us feel so uncomfortable with standing up for our own opinions and views or even being around others who oppose them?

First, in general terms, it comes back to the way we feel that we have to be in order to survive. Early in life, we absorb the feeling that “there’s something wrong with me” from our parents and surroundings. This negative feeling, which I call Learned Distress, creates the need for a survival mechanism that we use to navigate throughout our lives. We feel that as long as we can be this certain way, things will be OK.

Specifically, being in situations where not everyone agrees with me ignites a crazy combination of three pieces of Learned Distress. The first is feeling that in order to survive, I need to conform to and go along with the views of those around me. Paradoxically, the second is that in order to survive, I have to know and do things my own way, and I have to do them perfectly, to boot. You can imagine that these two demanding pieces of Learned Distress make me feel like I’m in a big tug of war most of the time. The third is feeling that in order to survive, I must never win or even compete openly.

Given all of that, you can see now why I would feel way more comfortable at the political rally than at the dog park political debate. I have to conform and it’s not safe to win, but I feel pretty strongly about my own opinions and they long to be voiced. However, if I were to voice them, I would have to do it perfectly, with every single fact and figure lined up and ready to fire. It gets even a little more intense when you bring it back to my need to conform. I have found that if I can bring everyone around to my way of thinking, then I can feel comfortable again—in essence, I get them to conform to my views (by having my perfectly crafted arguments, of course). The dog park guy is never going to see things my way, so I find myself just slipping out the gate in retreat.

Believe it or not, my experience of this crazy combination is much less intense than it used to be, thanks to unlearning a great deal of Learned Distress through Quanta Change. At worst, I find myself cutting a perfectly good dog park evening short. Now, in contrast to the way it used to be, once I get in the car and drive away, the discomfort fades quickly. I used to lose sleep over situations like this. In the past, I might even have found a new dog park to go to just to avoid this situation entirely.

The more I’ve unlearned, the more my deepest core voice has been free to speak the things that no one could have taught me or convinced me of when my Learned Distress was still completely in the driver’s seat. What I think matters, regardless of anyone else agreeing with me, or not. I have my own unique way of voicing my thoughts, and there is no comparison involved when it comes to uniqueness, so “perfect” isn’t even in the equation. The world is a richer and better place when I voice my uniqueness, which means that everyone wins. That goes for you voicing your opinion, too, so if you struggle with this same Learned Distress, I hope you’ll find the way to share your unique view 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.

Why I Keep Beating the Proverbial Rug

Quanta Change is like beating the dust out of a rug to uncover its beauty“When someone beats a rug,
the blows are not against the rug,
but against the dust in it.”
~ Rumi

I just sent this quote to a client who reminded me today how little he likes talking about Learned Distress, the feeling we absorb early in life that “something is wrong with me,” which is at the core of our negative moments. Talking about the negative stuff feels like a big downer to him, and he would rather talk about strategies to move forward in life. That would be OK, except that identifying Learned Distress and unlearning it are the most effective way to really move forward freely and joyfully. However, I know it can seem like a convoluted, indirect, and sometimes painful route.

There was a time when I was actually concerned about how much I tend to focus on people’s negative stuff. But then, I realized that I’m the rug beater who Rumi is talking about. My whole purpose is to bring out the beauty and vibrancy of the rug, but to do that, I end up focusing nearly all of my attention on the dust. The rug, itself, doesn’t need my help. It’s gorgeous and complete all on its own. It just needs to be freed of dust.

In human terms, the rug is the uniqueness of someone’s natural well-being. Well-being is the energy at our core that is the source of our creativity and joy of being. When Learned Distress covers it up, we have to work hard at creating what matters to us and feeling good. We have to push through all the dust just to express our unique voice in the world and make good things happen.

Now, doing all that work is better than the alternative of giving up and letting ourselves be buried in the dust. But, Learned Distress makes hard work the only alternative. And, some patterns of Learned Distress make us feel that it’s unsafe to even acknowledge the presence of the dust, much less really look at it and address it. Hence, my client’s discomfort with talking about Learned Distress and his desire to stick with the safe pattern of coming up with strategies to move forward (i.e. more hard work). Unfortunately, the dust keeps building up and at some point, overwhelms our ability to work past it.

The reward for continuing to beat the rug and remove the dust is uncovering the incredible, unique work of art that each of us is at our core. And, the result is always different and surprising, even to those who have been most effective at working past their dust. Well-being always brings about some unexpected good that we never imagined before. As a bonus, it happens effortlessly, unlike the toil or even struggle that has been our default way of moving through life.

A great example this week was from a client who is an editor and has been looking for new projects. She was hired to edit poetry, which she doesn’t even like or feel like she understands. But she made her comments and suggestions, and the poet loved them and found them so helpful that he’s recommending her to all of his colleagues. Without even trying, she’s tapped into a whole new market that she never expected nor would she ever have pursued through the “work hard” method.

Are you feeling how hard it is to work past all your own dust? I’m never a fan of just beating the rug to examine the dust and then let it settle back in. But, when you can actually remove the dust, you allow your own uniqueness to shine and work for you in ways that make your life more and more a series of unexpectedly joyful moments.

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

The Perils of Living in Denial

Do you live in the fairy tale world of denial?

One of my clients laughed nervously the other day when I said that he lives at Disneyland. You know, “It’s beautiful and fun, and there’s a parade every day!” This is how I often describe what I call the Idealist personality pattern, in which someone relies on creating and maintaining a “pretty picture” in order to survive.

Metaphorically, when someone calls the Idealist and says, “Hey, you’d better get back home. The water heater just broke and the basement is flooded,” the Idealist feels that their pretty picture is threatened, and they insist even more strongly that they live at Disneyland where it’s beautiful and there’s a parade every day. Another way to say this, of course, is that the Idealist lives in denial. Survival depends on staying disconnected from what is really going on, because it isn’t safe to feel any negative stuff. When a negative feeling starts to surface, the Idealist goes into overdrive to make sure that their ideal is maintained.

You might notice this in people when you see a situation they’re in that is clearly going wrong in some way, and yet, they insist to you that everything is great there. They usually get angry if you point out what you see is going wrong. They feel that you’re trying to destroy their “pretty picture,” and instead of letting themselves experience what’s going wrong for them (say, in an abusive relationship), they blame you for “making them feel bad.” And then, they typically work even harder to keep that situation together, maybe even by pushing you away.

You could argue that there is a good side to the Idealist pattern. People with it are usually pretty successful at making good things happen in their lives. In fact, they’re the people who everyone else thinks just have great lives, easily and automatically. But, the Idealist’s secret is that they have to work really hard at it, and over time it gets harder and harder. They usually show up at my door when that hard work isn’t even paying off, anymore. No matter how hard they work, they can’t keep the pretty picture going, anymore.

Why is that? It’s because their Disneyland is built on top of what I call Learned Distress, the feeling absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with them being just who they are naturally. For Idealists, it’s not safe to feel Learned Distress, so they just cut off their connection to the pipe that their feelings come through by staying focused on their ideal, instead. The big problem with that is that their well-being, their core energy that can generate good things for them naturally and easily, comes through that same feeling pipe as their Learned Distress does. They’ve cut themselves off from well-being at the same time they disconnected from their Learned Distress.

As a result, they have to work hard in two ways. The first is that staying disconnected takes energy. Learned Distress is intense and it keeps wanting to pop up, so it takes energy to keep it buried. Idealists often keep themselves very busy in order to not feel their Learned Distress. Second, because they are cut off from well-being, the energy that could help things go well for them easily, they have to manufacture the “pretty picture” out of thin air. To top it off, Learned Distress intensifies as we get older, so maintaining Disneyland takes more and more work over time.

When Idealists come to me for help unlearning their Learned Distress, I usually tell them that the shift they’ll experience isn’t necessarily that their lives will look very different from the outside. They’ll continue to be successful people. What changes for them is how they feel about being themselves and in the ease of accomplishing what matters to them. For the first time, they just get to relax and be who they really are, without the constant need to stuff down their negative feelings. And, as they relax and let themselves feel, their well-being is free to be the generating force behind more and more of their moments. This means that good things happen easily, instead of through the Herculean effort that most Idealists are accustomed to.

Do you live at Disneyland? What are the ways you deny what is really happening or how you really feel? Did you realize that your denial results from the fear of feeling that there is something wrong with you, but that what you end up denying instead is your well-being? No matter how pretty your picture is, your well-being is so much better and easier to live with. I hope you’ll take the brave step of leaving Disneyland one of these days to find that out.

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

Responding to 2012 – or Any Big Change – from Well-Being

Responding to uncertainty from our well-beingA colleague asked me to write about how people can handle the intensity and uncertainty they are feeling that are being attributed to 2012. I groaned a little, because although I’ve heard a lot about it, and I see the world dealing with increasing intensity on many levels and fronts, I can’t say that I really know anything concrete about the “2012 shift.”Continue reading

The Solid Ground under Your Leap of Faith

Your inner well-being makes a leap of faith exciting rather than scarySometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith. —Margaret Shepard

A few years ago, an image from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade flashed through my head as I was explaining how the mechanism that I call natural well-being works. In the movie, Indy stands at the edge of a huge chasm. He sees the cave he needs to get to on the other side, but no bridge or other way to get there. The next line in his treasure map suggests that it’s time for a leap of faith. He groans.

But, Indy’s father’s life depends on him getting to that cave, so he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, puts his foot out over the abyss, and then leans forward. To his great surprise, his foot lands on something solid. An invisible bridge was there all along.

That invisible bridge is such a great picture of what I call natural well-being, which is the energy at our core that is meant to allow things to go well for us naturally and support us. It’s what we are meant to depend on, rather than all the things we rely on instead, like getting what we need from others, or working way beyond our natural capacity, or keeping everything under control, among others.

Why is it that we default to these mechanisms, instead of relying on this natural, internal well-being? It’s because early in life, we absorb the feeling that there’s something wrong being ourselves, which I call Learned Distress. We feel that instead of being exactly as we are, which allows us to rely on well-being, we have to be a different way in order to survive. Some people feel that they have to be dependent on others. Others depend on working overtime to keep some kind of “pretty picture” in place, such as being the ideal businesswoman or the ideal family man. Yet others rely on setting up boundaries to make sure that everything around them is the “right” way (whatever that means for them. And others rely on dictating to everyone how they should be.

Our Learned Distress and reliance on these survival mechanisms cuts us off from natural well-being, our invisible bridge of support. People work with me to unlearn layers of Learned Distress, so their well-being can rise to the surface and they can begin to rely on it more and more. When they find the need to move into some new territory—to take a leap of faith and walk across their invisible bridge—what they find in the cave across the chasm is the feeling at their core which has been there all along—the feeling that they matter just as they are, that they have everything they need within them to achieve what matters to them, that their uniqueness is just what the world needs.

That invisible bridge starts to become much more tangible over time. My clients report feeling an underlying sense of calm or peace, even through big changes. They say that they know, in a way they never have before, that things are really going to be OK. My own experience with the “leap of faith” moments is that they seem much less risky. I may not know what practical-level support is coming, but as someone who always felt dependent on others, I now live with the very different feeling that something within me is solidly and surely going to meet every need I have as I move into some uncharted territory. I might even say that the leaping is more exciting than it is scary. More like opening a present than jumping off a cliff.

How do you feel when you reach one of those seemingly impossible situations that require a leap of faith? Do you find yourself reaching for a familiar survival mechanism, hoping it will save you, or do you put your foot out over nothing and lean forward, excited to find what your invisible bridge will lead you to this time?

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

Are You a Chameleon?

Do you change who you are to get others' approval?I remember one evening during high school like it was yesterday. I had invited friends over and once they arrived, I found myself unable to talk. I just stayed in the kitchen cooking chili while they socialized.

I wasn’t sure which person to be—the person I was with my parents or the person I was with my friends. These “two people” were far enough apart (or so I thought) that I was scared to wreck my image with either group.

Over time, I started to call myself a chameleon. I could stand outside a metaphorical room with 20 people in it, figure out what each of them wanted me to be, and make myself into the perfect conglomeration of that.

This unconscious strategy did its job pretty well. Most of the time, I could get everyone’s approval. Even this uncomfortable high school evening didn’t deter me. This remained a major part of my social mechanics until I was about 30.

As you can imagine, being everything to everyone left little time or energy to figure out who I really was. Around the age of 30, I really started to question, for instance, why I had become a professional violinist. I do like classical music a lot, and there are things I enjoyed about that career, but they were far outweighed by things I didn’t like. I didn’t enjoy most of the 3-7 hours a day I spent alone in a practice room for a couple of decades, for instance.

It finally dawned on me that music had been the perfect approval-getting engine for me. If I played well, approval came pouring in from my parents, my teachers, symphony conductors, and audiences. When I really weighed it, I found that most of why I put myself through the rigors of becoming a professional musician (very similar to becoming an Olympic gymnast or figure skater) was for approval, not because it fed my own soul.

This “I’ll be anything you want me to be” thing didn’t really fit with what I thought I believed on a rational level, even. I remember once calling someone a “blank slate.” I imagined that she lived her life saying, “Please just write on me, tell me what I believe!” I cringe to think about that, because to a large degree, I was that same blank slate (with a good dash of meanness and lack of self-awareness thrown in!).

So, if being a chameleon didn’t fit with the way I thought life should be, why was I doing it all the time?

I learned that it went way back to early childhood. Long before we can even think, we develop our survival mechanisms from the way we fit best within our families. By the young age of 2 1/2, we’ve put into place our sense of self, which is the way we feel that we need to be in order to survive well. Since our thinking brain isn’t operating yet, we can’t evaluate whether those survival mechanisms make sense, or not. This is just how it is to be human.

After age 2 1/2, the sense of self becomes the generating force behind all of our moments, so we just keep ending up in situations that feel the same as we felt early on. For some of us, getting approval by being whatever those around us wanted us to be became a major part of the sense of self, and ouila! A chameleon is born!

There is a group of questions that I contemplated to start moving out of chameleon-hood, and I have my clients work with these same questions:

  • What really matters to me?
  • Who am I really?
  • Can I have and express what matters to me, or does it feel that something bad will occur if I do that?

These are usually perplexing questions for chameleons. I remember feeling like I almost couldn’t comprehend the question, “What really matters to me?” As if it were a foreign language. I hear similar responses from my clients all the time.

Since our survival mechanisms are just that—how we feel we have to be to survive—it can feel unsafe to even know or express what matters to us, which may seem ridiculous on a rational level. The part of our brain that stores the sense of self stays that 2-year-old that is incapable of rational thought, so it just clings to whatever survival mechanism it absorbed, and we keep feeling like we have to stay chameleons to stay alive.

Moving out of this survival mechanism brought about an ability to first know what mattered to me and then begin to express it. Often, (because this is how energy works) as I or clients have started to feel comfortable with who we are, others just automatically begin to invite us to express ourselves in a new ways.

Recovering chameleons commonly find themselves expressing their deepest desires and thoughts for the first time openly. It can be a bit shocking, honestly, but in a good way.

Does this ring a bell for you? The questions above are usually a good test. If you find yourself answering, “I don’t know,” to the first two and perhaps feeling a bit queasy at the idea of openly expressing what really matters to you, you might also be a chameleon.

You’re here to express your uniqueness, so I hope you’ll join those of us who are throwing off our chameleon suits and share who you 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.

Fit IN or Fit Naturally?

Your uniqueness allows you to climb out of the box.I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the feeling that I need to fit in. On one hand, I always felt a great deal of pressure to conform to my surroundings. On the other, I felt strongly like I needed to do things “my way.” Quite often, this tug-of-war with “fitting” created the need to make it look like I was conforming, while secretly doing things my own way. (But shhhhhh…don’t tell my former teachers or principals!)

In working with clients, I find that people have one of four basic relationships with the need to fit in:

  1. I’ll do anything to fit in. My survival depends on it.
  2. I feel like I’m not capable of fitting in, so I deny the pressure to do it.
  3. I have to actively rebel against others’ rules. Surviving depends on doing things “my own way” (which is often just the opposite of those around me).
  4. Life is a ping-pong match between needing to fit in and needing to do things my own way.

Do you recognize yourself in one of these? You might see this show up in how you follow society’s rules (or don’t). Maybe you say that the rules you’re asked to conform with are “stupid,” so you refuse to follow them. Maybe you see it in how you interact with social groups. You might go entirely with the crowd, or you might be the free spirit in your family, with your friends, or in your community. It might show up in your career. Maybe your can effortlessly work within others’ ways of doing things, or, you might feel the need to do things your own way, so you find that operating on your own is best.

No matter which of the four you resonate with, your mechanism for dealing with the need to conform was developed early in life. It is both an expression of, and a way of coping with, what I call Learned Distress, the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am.” We all absorb this feeling early in life from how those around us feel about being human, and it becomes embedded in our sense of self, which generates each moment of our lives from that point on. Whatever relationship with “fitting” worked with your initial surroundings will be the same way that you find yourself coping with Learned Distress now, because your sense of self just keeps generating situations and relationships in which you feel the same as you did early on.

The opposite of Learned Distress is uniqueness. So, if you didn’t have any of the feeling that there is something wrong with you, then you would be able to live entirely from your uniqueness. Learned Distress makes you feel like you need to relate in that same old way to the rules. Uniqueness, on the other hand, lets you fit naturally just as you are. You could even think of that as the world fitting with you, rather than the other way around.

When I suggest this to clients, they often respond with disbelief, no matter which one of those four patterns they’ve embodied. Often, people even think that I’m suggesting that they just behave in the opposite way from their pattern, but my work isn’t about turning rebels into conformists or the other way around. What happens with the shift I’m talking about is that you relax and get to be yourself in the way that feels effortlessly natural and watch as the world starts to fit with how you feel best. My clients are usually surprised when those around them seem happier, as a result, or their situations work better. But, this is how uniqueness works—it generates win-win situations.

One of my clients has struggled with this issue of conforming in her career. She has resisted doing things the conventional way, because the rules felt stupid to her. But, that was getting in the way of her being able to make a living. As she has unlearned her denial of the need to follow some basic rules in her profession, she has found it easier to just sit down and get work done. After a long dry spell, she now has as much work as she can handle. And, she has also been able to start working with a partner who wanted her to use a different system than “her way.” Despite still feeling that her system was better, she invested in his system and has started working with it. She’s finding that instead of this partnership being about her familiar pattern of resisting the rules, it’s allowing her to collaborate successfully and express her uniqueness professionally.

Can you imagine what it would be like to just relax and be yourself, and find that your surroundings fit well with you? When you unlearn your need to fit in or not fit in, which is always a reaction to someone else’s rules, your uniqueness gets to shine through, and the whole world benefits.

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

Sharing your uniqueness creates a win-win situation.

What if Everyone Wins?

Sharing your uniqueness creates a win-win situation.“What if everyone wins?” is something my clients hear from me a lot. It’s because I see so many people squelching their own voices, surprisingly, in response to the condition of scarcity. As humans, we are steeped in the feeling that in any situation, big or small, there has to be a winner and a loser. It’s based on the sense and our experience that there isn’t enough—of attention, love, time, money, resources—for everyone.

When I talk about winning here, I’m not just talking about sports, games, or other arenas we normally recognize competition. This can show up in the smallest things, like deciding where to go to lunch with a friend. Some people always need to go to their favorite place, and others say, “I don’t care where we go. I just want you to be happy.”

There are several basic ways people cope with the feeling of scarcity:

  • I have to win everything.
  • It’s not safe for me to win at all.
  • I have to let others win everything.
  • I am in a constant tug of war between needing to win and needing to let others win.

These ways of coping or surviving are set up early in life. In the womb and until the age of 2 1/2, we absorb how it feels to be human from how those around us feel being human. What we absorb allows us to fit well and survive with our early surroundings, and this absorbed feeling becomes our sense of self. Beyond the age of 2 1/2, the sense of self generates every moment of our lives, so we keep experiencing moments in which we feel that to survive, we need to be that same way that allowed us to fit well with our early surroundings.

This whole winner/loser mechanism gets in the way of people expressing themselves in the world, especially for those who don’t feel safe in winning or who always need to let others win. They continually squelch their own voice, opinions, desires, and talents in the name of survival.

When I’m working with a client with one of these very common patterns, I might ask them, “What if everyone wins when you openly express what really matters to you?” I know that I’ve hit a nerve if someone either starts laughing and says, “Yeah, right, Sara, like that could be true!,” or if they start feeling a bit nervous when they consider this question. This tells me that survival has required them to essentially keep themselves hidden from the world. But, each of us is here to express something unique in the world, so when we hide what really matters to us, we deprive the world of something vital.

What’s usually hardest for my clients to believe is that they could share something negative and have a win-win result. A good example is a client who is getting ready for a big move with her husband in eight months. They need to downsize more than ever before, so she wants to get started now. In previous moves, my client’s husband has left a lot of detail to the last minute and that has been incredibly frustrating to her. She has felt that she wasn’t heard when she asked him to start preparing sooner and that what she wanted didn’t matter. Several weeks ago, she spoke up and told him just how angry, upset, and demoralized she felt through and after these past moves. He was very surprised and sad to hear this, and he has made a big effort to start preparing now and stick to the schedule that she thinks will allow things to go smoothly. He told her that he’s really glad that she brought this up, and is looking forward to having a move that they’ll both feel good about.

How do you deal with this realm of winners and losers in your relationships, your job, your community, or even in little everyday things like driving or shopping? Do you see ways in which your coping mechanism gets in the way of expressing yourself? When we all express our uniqueness, the world we live in will be made of all our diverse views, talents, and desires. When we do that, everyone truly wins!

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

Are You Robbing the World?

Comparing yourself to others kills your creativity and uniqueness“Comparison is an act of violence against the self.”
—Iyanla Vanzant

I would say that this “act of violence” extends to those around us and to society as a whole, also. When we depend on comparing ourselves to something or someone else, we deprive ourselves and the world of our creativity and uniqueness, and also the creation that would come from many unique souls collaborating.

During my career as a professional violinist and the training that led to it, I was immersed in comparison. Some was necessary to becoming a good violinist. Perfect intonation and rhythm are important things to strive for, not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of one’s audience! But, when it comes to a real, live performance, there’s really no such thing as perfect.

And yet, as a young musician, I was constantly beating myself up, comparing myself to recordings of performances that seemed to be perfect. And then, I learned that most of the recordings I listened to were spliced together to eliminate imperfections. I once even heard of a recording with multiple splices within one measure of music (a couple seconds, at most)! If some of the best players in the world couldn’t play perfectly, why should I be expected to? And yet, when I went to professional symphony orchestra auditions, perfection was the expectation.

Then, there was the audition tour stop I heard about at a major conservatory. All of the violinists played the same two pieces. I was told that they all sounded so identical that you could have chopped a measure out of one player’s concerto and dropped it into another player’s performance without detection. This is where you start to see how comparison kills creativity and uniqueness. Comparison often breeds conformity of the worst kind.

I’m sure you can think of other examples. We do this all over the place. With how our bodies look and work. With how we perform in school or at work. With our accomplishments or possessions. We may be comparing ourselves to others, to the way it “should” be, to what we think is perfection, to something we see in the media, or something that we have carried forth from early in life.

No matter what or whom we compare ourselves against, the need to compare has a common source. It’s the feeling that there is something wrong with us being just the way we are. We absorb this feeling early in life from moments when those around us don’t feel good, and this negative feeling called Learned Distress becomes embedded in our sense of self. This stored feeling becomes the basis for all of our negative moments throughout life.

Comparison is one of the ways we experience our Learned Distress. “I’m not as good as _______.” And, we can also use comparison as a way to survive with this awful feeling: “If only I can be ‘that’ way, I will be OK.” Or, “Well, at least I’m better than ______, so I am OK.”

But, in addition to Learned Distress, our sense of self stores our unique well-being. At some point in life, that uniqueness really demands to be expressed, and the survival mechanism of comparing ourselves to others or some ideal starts to fall apart. Expressing our uniqueness is why we’re on the planet, and it is ultimately the focus of the transformational work I do on myself and with others.

It’s really fun to watch uniqueness emerge. As I’ve said in other articles, it is often the thing that we’ve felt is really weird about us or even wrong with us. One of my clients recently experienced this. She’s a musician and had worked on a piece that seemed like a frivolous use of her time, because it doesn’t fit the genre she performs in. Several weeks later, she was invited to perform in a concert with several others. At the last minute, the organizer was looking for a big finale piece for the concert, and it turned out that this piece fit perfectly. Instead of being quirky and a waste of time, this piece my client worked on “just for fun” turned out to be the perfect professional move for her.

Where do you find yourself comparing yourself to others or to some ideal or standard? Does it serve you and the world to do that? If you could express something different, would you?

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

I Have the Most Wrong. I Win!

Does being sick or having a crisis allow you to win in some way?There’s this survival mechanism that I call “winning at having the most wrong.” Until the past decade, or so, it was practically a way of life for me. I still see it pop up sometimes, although it’s a lot less intense than it used to be. A typical response from my clients who have this pattern is to cringe a bit when I mention it, but then admit that they, too, find themselves living this way.

Maybe you recognize this pattern in yourself or someone you know. If it’s you, someone says to you, “I’m so tired and I still have to work two more 10-hour days this week!” And your reply might go something like, “Oh, yeah? Well, I have to work all the way through the weekend. I don’t have a day off for another 2 weeks!” Or you play the “worst trip I ever took” game and find yourself really disappointed when someone tops that time you had to go to three airports before you could get a flight home for Christmas. (Oh, wait, that was my worst trip ever…and if you can top it, please tell me about it in the comments. I’ll be happy to let you “win”!)

This seems pretty harmless when it’s just a way to spar with friends over some bad experiences. But, for people like me for whom this pattern is embedded within our sense of self, it happens all over the place, without our conscious choice or without even realizing what’s going on. This pattern actually generates negative situations for us. It’s part of our survival mechanism, so in a way, you could say that our brains think they are doing us a favor by competing in this way.

It doesn’t make any sense as a survival mechanism, right? Wouldn’t it work better to win at having the most right? But, our sense of self that stores this bizarre mechanism was put into place by the age of 2 1/2, which is before we’re able to decide whether it makes sense, or not. Our little brains are just absorbing the best way for us to survive with our surroundings, and in some cases, having the most wrong provides some kind of benefit.

For instance, some people with this pattern had an abusive parent. The only time the parent would let up on their child was when the child already had something very wrong—such as being sick. Others may have had very busy parents who only paid attention to their children when something was wrong. Yet other parents may have thrived on always having something to “fix,” so a child who had the most wrong allowed this kind of parent to stay in their “fix-it” comfort zone.

The reason this crazy pattern sticks around is that the sense of self never grows into having a rational, thinking capability. It stays that little 2-year-old that is just trying to survive, and this “win at having the most wrong” pattern becomes the generating force behind a lot of negative moments beyond the age of 2 1/2. So, not only is this person continually trying to win at having the most wrong, but their brain is actually generating situations that will “hopefully” allow them to do just that.

One example of this ongoing pattern is people who are continually sick and who often get sicker over time. Another is people who continually have a crisis going on. In both cases, this isn’t a conscious decision—these people aren’t “choosing” to be sick or in crisis. (I can’t stress this point strongly enough.) It’s just the automatic work of their brains generating the situations that allow them to “win.” One thing I remember doing a lot was finding some kind of sad story to tell, even if it wasn’t my own! When I would consciously ask myself why I was always finding those stories to tell, I couldn’t come up with a good reason. It was just my knee-jerk reaction, especially in situations that I felt uncomfortable, because survival mechanisms tend to become stronger in uncomfortable situations. I once knew someone who played this pattern out by always being the announcer of death—if someone famous died, she could be counted on to announce it first.

When I recognized this pattern in myself and started working on it, I started to ask myself what it would be like to share what’s right with me, instead of what’s wrong. If you don’t have this pattern, yourself, you might be surprised to know just how strong my resistance to that idea was. It felt scary—like I would either be in danger or that I would just disappear entirely if I only had good things to share. I kept working on it, though, and as I have unlearned the need to have the most wrong, my comfort zone with sharing good things in my life has grown immensely. When the old familiar feeling that I need to share something bad pops up now (out of a need to be seen or win), it’s much less intense.

And, over time, as I unlearned the need to survive that old way, my brain started actually generating the good things to share more often, too. This is really fun to watch happen for my clients. Especially the ones who have been really sick or in continual crisis. The solutions to their health problems start to appear or their crises just stop happening. Life gets smoother, easier, more joyful.

Is this a pattern you recognize within yourself or in someone near you? I hope this gives you a bit of compassion and understanding for why this crazy thing keeps happening.

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