The final part in this series on managing emotional triggers is going to be a little different from the rest, and from my posts in general.
I’m going to tell you about myself and what I’ve been up to in the past few months, and how everything ties together.
My Origin Story
I was a gifted and lonely kid. I was unusually introspective and mentally older than most people my age, which meant that I saw things quite differently from my peers. This difference in perceptions combined with my natural introversion gave me a fair bit of social anxiety growing up, since I always felt like an alien dropped off on the wrong planet.
I channeled all my energy into the one thing I knew I was good at: being a high-achieving perfectionist.
But after I achieved my childhood dream of studying at an Ivy-League university, I didn’t feel happy or successful. I felt emptier than ever and was so ill I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed.
And so started my deep interest in psychology and philosophy. I read as much as I could on what makes life meaningful. I started applying that knowledge to myself and shed my previous values and beliefs about myself and life. I cleaned up my diet, started meditating regularly, and overall found a level of peace I hadn’t believed was possible.
Practicing IFS on myself took me to the next level. It allowed me to let go of the past misery that was still clinging to me and opened me up to a new world of compassion for myself and for others.
I was thrilled with the person I’d become. I was calm and confident, able to talk to and connect with most people I met, and no longer judgemental of myself and others for our flaws. I became a writer and coach to share what I knew, and a lot of people found me wise. Life was good.
A Time for Change
And then the Fire Nation attacked.
I’m just kidding.
After a couple of years of being in this state, I felt like I had plateaued in my development – both psychologically and creatively. Instagram had started pushing reels, and I wondered if I should take that as a sign to start doing video content. I wanted a challenge.
Except for one big problem: I hated the camera. The idea of making videos was deeply triggering to some part of me.
The problem isn’t an insecurity about my appearance, as many people assume whenever I’ve confided to them about my dislike of the camera. Even as a kid, I had always hated any activity that would put me in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, this inner conflict, along with other changes in my life like moving to a new country, left me creatively blocked for much of last year, which is a painful experience for any creative person.
You might ask me how come I couldn’t resolve this inner conflict on my own, especially since I like to wander through the nooks and crannies of my mind the way other people go on long walks on the beach.
I did try. The answer wasn’t quite what I expected.
(Note: To anyone who is not familiar with IFS – please read the previous part in this series. If not, you might misinterpret this next section as evidence of psychosis, which would be a shame. ).
A Time for Revelations
“So tell me,” I said after I got into observer mode within my psyche, “who is it in here that’s afraid of being on camera?”
(The result of a lifetime of introspection and inner work means that I’m on excellent terms with my subconscious mind. The different parts of my psyche trust me and reveal themselves to me immediately.)
A pathetic-looking baby materialized in my mind’s eye. It looked shriveled and blistered – like it had been burned to within an inch of its life – and was the most helpless and hideous thing I’d seen.
I was a bit thrown by its appearance, torn between compassion and horror. It didn’t seem familiar.
“Are you me? Are you from my past?” I asked.
“No,” it said. “I’m a lot older than you”.
“Ok.” I nodded as if that made sense. “What are you doing in my head then?”
“I’m here to show you what you might become if you choose to do this.” It gave me the general impression that it had been hunted down and attacked badly. It was close to death.
I didn’t know how to unburden and heal this part, since I have no memory of ever being hunted down and burned to a crisp. This fear seemed to have nothing to do with anything I’d experienced in this lifetime.
I realized, as it had indeed claimed, that this wasn’t a younger part at all. In fact, it didn’t even belong to me alone, which is why it said it was older than me. It was a universal fear, existing as long as humans have existed.
It was the fear of death.
It appeared that for some reason, this part of me believed that:
Camera = Visibility = Loss of Privacy = Persecution = Death
Was this fear rational? Not really. Internet trolls, stalkers and cancel culture can indeed make things unpleasant for anyone who is highly visible online, but to fear that death may result from being on camera is a form of catastrophizing.
And so, this time around, there was no inner healing to be done in managing this trigger. There was only an irrational fear.
Understanding the Fear of Death
I read up on death anxiety.
Much of contemporary psychology is about as useful as a glass hammer when it comes to the topic of death, so I had to turn to older psychoanalytic literature to find anything insightful.
The most value I got was from the renowned psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom, who has written poignantly about his own lifelong struggle dealing with death anxiety. “Despite the staunchest, most venerable defenses, we can never completely subdue death anxiety: it is always there, lurking in some hidden ravine of the mind.” Occasionally, it leaks through in the form of our nightmares.
So agreed Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-Prize winning “The Denial of Death” – probably the bible regarding the subject of death. The book is about how our fear of death is at the core of all our psychological disturbances as well as our motivation for life. “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
Becker’s work inspired Terror Management Theory (TMT) in academic psychology. TMT proposes that the conflict between our self-preservation instinct and the realization that death is inevitable produces terror in the subconscious mind. We manage this terror through various forms of escapism (defense mechanisms) and cultural beliefs (such as religions that promise an afterlife).
My own experiences pointed me towards agreeing with the experts. Now that I had cleared the other fears and distorted perceptions from my past, I could see how my fear of being an outcast and need to be perfect were also in their own way linked to this one central fear of death. It is one wellspring which separates into different tributaries of fear in each of us, depending on our individual experiences in life.
And so, I must offer additional nuance to this series on emotional triggers. Right up till the previous post, I’ve echoed the mainstream view that triggers are about our past. This is a basic “level 1” understanding without which we can’t proceed further. But as we go deeper, the story gets more complicated – there can be many fears which are not linked to our past or have any obvious reason for existing. For those patient and brave enough to get to the source, as well as the source of all their more “rational” fears – that source will most likely be the fear of death.
Dealing with Dying
Yalom and Becker were both clear on how to live with the fear of dying.
One of Yalom’s most famous ideas is that “though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us”. This is because the idea of dying can put our life in perspective, by helping us realize that so much of what occupies our time and energy is trivial. In this way, death helps us live more meaningful and full lives.
Indeed, he warns against the dangers of living a half-life, or of living in our heads where we are safe rather than engaging in real life “…the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.”
Becker is united in this view, albeit harsher:
“To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn’t want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the “self-willed over-valuation of self” whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature… Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.”
Alright then. I got the hint. I needed to let go of my need for safety and embrace the camera.
How could I make sure I did just that, especially since I was well aware of my own worst tendencies to procrastinate indefinitely when things get stressful?
It was time to hire myself a coach.
Coaching – with me as the client.
Within the coaching world, it’s emphasized to us from day one that hiring our own coach is an important part of our own personal and professional development as coaches. Some of the most successful coaches have up to 3 of their own coaches at a time. (Coaching, by the way, is different from therapy; I’ll write a post about these differences one day.)
I held off for a long time–partly because of my own tendency towards being a maverick, and partly because I sensed very few other coaches had ventured as deeply into their psyches as I had mine, and so wouldn’t be of much use to me.
And so, I reached out to an old friend and fellow coach Raj Gorsia. He told me how once, during an episode of deep meditation, he came across a fear of death so intense it left his entire body drenched with sweat. “I think it’s the only real fear I’ve experienced in my life – the rest of it is just mind stuff.” He had also experienced an irrational fear of his own – of being in the water, even though he had never come close to drowning. He dealt with this fear by hiring a diving coach.
He listened intently as I told him about all the things I’d realized and what I wanted to do. “You’re a fascinating person to coach,” he said. I didn’t doubt it. Few people would be telling him about the shriveled baby in their head. He had his own sage advice for how to deal with this part of my psyche,” You’ve got to take that baby and prove to it over and over that it has nothing to fear.”
And so we launched Project “Time To Die”. It involves me doing different things that make me uncomfortable, starting with being more self-disclosing than usual in my writing, to making YouTube videos (the first one is due a week after I publish this post), and to just generally embracing activities that put me in the spotlight.
The End (For Now)
If there is one thing I want people to take away from this entire series of posts, it’s that the best way to deal with a fear or trigger is ultimately simple: Face it. Be curious about it. Don’t let the fear of death cheat you out of living life. Ask for help if you need it.
I am ending this series on managing triggers here. Maybe when I am older and wiser (and possibly a master of death 🙂 ) I will have more to add. As of now, this is it.
It’s been fun!
Time to turn back to you. What’s your relationship with fear? How do you manage it?
Also in this series: