“First you get a whisper, then a tap on the shoulder, then a blow to the head.” —Buddhist saying

I know someone who calls the third phase above a “cosmic 2×4.” I love the description, but “cosmic” makes it sound like this is coming from somewhere “out there,” while actually, the whisper, tap, and blow are all generated within you.

If this message were coming from outside, it would make sense that “someone”—you may consider it to be God or a spirit guide—just feels like you can’t listen well enough. But it’s really your own sense of self speaking to you each time, telling you that negative intensity within you is rising to higher and higher levels.

This negative intensity is what I call Learned Distress. It’s the feeling stored within you that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am.” From conception until the age of 2 1/2, you absorb this negative feeling from the way people around you feel about being themselves. Learned Distress becomes stored in your sense of self, which is like a rechargeable battery from which your brain generates every moment of your life automatically, without your conscious input. The negative situations your brain generates feel the same as the moments in which you absorbed your Learned Distress.

Learned Distress is stored by intensity, which rises over time as a result of your brain’s natural energy renewal process. During the day, your brain uses the energy stored in the sense of self to generate the moments of your life. Sleep (specifically, REM sleep, when you dream) is the time when your “rechargeable battery” sense of self gets renewed. The energy it is recharged with is the feeling you’ve experienced through the day you just lived. And as I said above, the negative moments in that day felt the same as the moments in which you absorbed your Learned Distress. So, over and over, the feeling that “there is something wrong with me” keeps recharging itself. And, it keeps growing in intensity each night. This is why it either feels harder over time to make good things happen or why things just keep feeling worse.

I always tell my clients that the sense of self is like some kind of pot on a stove. The recharging process keeps adding more liquid and turning the heat up. Some personality patterns are like an open pot with stuff bubbling up over the edges of the pot all the time. These are people who feel their Learned Distress and experience the effects of it outwardly.

Other patterns are more like a pressure cooker. From the outside, everything looks calm, shiny, and under control. But inside, it’s a boiling mess. Every once in a while, the liquid and heat levels get so high that the lid can’t contain them, and they have a mini- (or not so mini-) explosion.

No matter whether you are the open pot or the pressure cooker, you will feel these “boil over” points as a message that the negative intensity has risen to a point within you that can’t be contained—and, depending on the intensity level, you get a whisper, a tap on the shoulder, or a blow to the head. This can happen in any part of life—physically or emotionally, in your relationships or career, even as something like a car accident.

People show up in my office when the intensity has become too much to handle. As they work with me to bring their Learned Distress intensity down—as their brain starts to use their sleep time renewal process to ladle liquid out of the pot and turn the heat down—they start to see the effects in their daily lives. They are surprised by how easy some things become without having to battle Learned Distress in some way, so much so that I often have to point it out to them. Like my client who hiked over a mile just two weeks after knee replacement, to the amazement of her doctors, and despite the fact that she has always hated exercise. Or two clients who recently visited family for the first time in a long time, and who found themselves able to just relax and enjoy being themselves with their family in a completely new way.

Where have you experienced a whisper, tap, or blow? Did it feel like a more intense version of a pattern that you’ve noticed for a long time, or was it a surprise for you? This can give you a clue to whether your personality pattern is more the open pot or the pressure cooker. Please share in the comments how you’ve experienced a “cosmic 2×4” and what the result has been for you.