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You do not have to be a fire
every mountain blocking you.
you could be a water
soft river your way to freedom

– options

– Nayyirah Waheed

Back in 2011, I was lured by the buzz around the startup scene and set out to leave my role at a schlumpy web development and online marketing company to join the excitement and thrill and fun work that was waiting for me in the Boulder startup community. “I want to work with the cool kids,” I said to myself. And, sure enough, I did. The day before my birthday that year, I handed in my resignation and signed up for my new role running Ops for the hippest little dev shop in Boulder.

Do you ever think you really, really want one thing, and then you get it, and then you wonder frantically to yourself “WTF was I thinking?” For some reason, this sweet-turned-sour gig didn’t quite feel like a pair of shoes that didn’t fit right that I could return to the store.

After one month I found myself right in the middle of startup life, that at first charming chaos which sometimes feels like being in a relationship with someone with borderline personality disorder. I was so stressed that I would go home at night, lay on my floor and cry, and wonder what was wrong with me – as if I was doing something wrong. I mean, we had the coolest office downtown, a fridge stocked with organics, a team of rad people, great clients, an indoor garden! Wasn’t this supposed to be work-heaven? Why did I feel so awful?

In my case, I powered on, determined to get through each day. In the midst of trying to make sense of my feelings and figuring out how to keep my soul intact even though it felt like it was being sucked out of me, my body started saying ‘No’ in various and obvious ways. I’ll spare you the details, but in short that experience opened the door to a tough bout with chronic illness which had upended many of my body’s systems from working properly.

Stress wreaks havoc on the body in more ways than many of us Type-A worker-bees care to admit. The body will let you know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways when it says ‘No,’ in hope that you’ll listen. Yet so often we don’t catch our body’s memo – or blow past it – until we can’t ignore it anymore. Add to that the internalized stressors of a dysfunctional and toxic work environment, and you’ve got the perfect storm for stress to erode health and for illness to take hold.

What keeps us going headlong, hunkering down towards what we think we want, come hell or high water, even though our experience is taxing us greatly? What keeps us driven to adrenal fatigue? What keeps us moving at mach-five-with-our-hair-on-fire, compulsively driven towards an ideal, a vision, cloaked in a delusional sense of purpose while our body revolts against that whole notion – we’re devoted to a worthy goal, right? What other signs and knowings are we blowing past, or brushing aside? What is whispering to us to stop? Why might we be afraid to listen?

As Gabor Mate writes in the preface to his book When the Body Says No, “…people do not become ill despite their lives, but rather because of their lives.And life includes not only physical factors like diet, physical activity, and the environment, but also the internal milieu of thoughts and unconscious emotions that govern so much of our physiology,through the mechanisms of stress and the unity of the systems that modulate nerves, hormones, immunity, digestion, and cardiovascular function.”

Hans Selye, renowned Canadian researcher on stress, notes that, “Mental tensions, frustrations, insecurity, aimlessness are among the most damaging stressors, and psychosomatic studies have shown how often they cause migraine headache, peptic ulcers, heart attacks, hypertension, mental disease, suicide, or just hopeless unhappiness.”

It’s not just the stress of the do more faster mentality, the pressures of VC funding or lack thereof, or the turbulent iterations and pivoting of startup life that can slay us slowly. Our mental game and our shadow qualities set our resilience capacity to handle all that’s moving towards us and all that we’re moving through. How we feel about work, the thoughts we keep running, and what triggers us compound our experience of stress more than environmental factors and drain years from our lives just as much.

Our bodies are wired to respond to stress with our flight or fight response; if we are chased by a tiger we can run fast and avoid becoming dinner. Then, the surge of blood and chemicals stop, and the body returns to normal, relieved to have survived. What happens for us humans in the face of the unrelenting stressors of, say, life and work is that our bodies never have a break in the action of the mental and emotional stressors that bear down on us. Genuine emotional stress, such as when a loved one dies or an awful breakup, can shake up the nervous system in a similar way. The body holds onto that as if the tiger is at your heels, and it’s fighting to survive – continuously.

As Selye wrote, “It may be said without hesitation that for man the most important stressors are emotional.” Anything that threatens our safety, belonging and being loved causes turmoil for our nervous systems. In his chapter on Stress and Emotional Competence, Mate writes: “What do all stressors have in common? Ultimately they all represent the absence of something that the organism perceives as necessary for survival–or its threatened loss. The threatened loss of food supply is a major stressor. So is–for human beings–the threatened loss of love.”

This is why early imprinting in childhood can have such a stronghold on not only our sense of self but also our wellness and resilience by setting up the structures by which we become wired to respond to the world. Because when love, safety or belonging are threatened for a newborn human, the primal part of their brains wants to survive. It will do whatever it takes not to die – the most important self preservation programming. Incidentally, most tradeoffs we make to avoid death at an early age is to trade what we have which is almost nothing, so we give away our own wellbeing, such as our right to need (ask for things) or our right to exist (be seen or stand up for what we believe). Those early rote neurological patterns, which run over and over again to ensure our continued survival, can form beliefs which can lead to ways of being in the world that run from that early wiring that has been run so many times it is now myelinated and becomes the default path for the brain to take.

As humans, we all have early patterning that is affecting us now, unconsciously. Those old programs may not be serving us in our work environments if they are affecting our reactions to our work situations. Selye notes, “It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”

While the most significant stressors in our lives in the industrialized world are emotional stressors, Mate goes on to say that there are three factors that universally lead to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information and the loss of control. (Raise your hand if you feel these three gems in Startuplandia.) Moreover, all three of these are present in the lives of individuals with chronic illness. He adds: “Many people have the illusion that they are in control, only to find later that forces unknown to them were driving their decisions and behaviors for many, many years. I have found that in my life. For some people, it is disease that finally shatters the illusion of control.”

When it comes to peeking under the hood to see what’s driving you, it helps to look at your shadow qualities for clues. Inquiry into shadow–the unconscious parts of you–is a powerful tool. As venture capitalist Rob Go reflected on shadow last week in his blog post Reboot: “The idea is that one’s ‘shadow’ is a deep rooted thing (not necessarily good, not necessarily bad) that exists in one’s psyche that drives your choices, behaviors, or emotions. The shadow is often linked to early, memorable childhood experiences, and is reflected in multiple arenas of life over and over again. The challenge occurs when one is unaware of these influences, and as a result, it drives him/her to make decisions or react to circumstances in a less than ideal way. Often, we can go years not really understanding how major decisions have been guided by hidden motivations, and that can get in the way of being the best leader, friend, or team member one can be.” These influences require radical self-inquiry, including exploration of emotional spaces that scare us, like things that we’ve shoved in the “dark, deep-down place.”

Stress eats away at our bodies because we are not adept at recognizing its signals. We aren’t emotionally literate. Our emotional competence is hindered by a pervasive lack of emotional acceptance in our society where, as Mate writes, “cool”–the absence of emotion–is the prevailing ethic, where “don’t be so emotional” and “don’t be so sensitive” are what children often hear, and where rationality is generally considered to be the preferred antithesis of emotionality. The idealized cultural symbol of rationality is Mr. Spock, the emotionally crippled Vulcan character on Star Trek.”

According to Mate, emotional competence requires …

  • the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress;
  • the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries;
  • the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past. What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists; and
  • the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others.

Lacking a well-versed awareness of all of these parts of yourself can leads to lack of wellness when stress–real and perceived–is present in your life. Competency in the ways Mate articulates requires a deep sense of radical self-inquiry to start to see what you’re really up to so you can begin to untangle the neural pathways myelinated from so early on in the history of you. Without inquiring deeper and double-clicking to explore parts of yourself, you may find that you’re spinning your wheels, unaware and unable to change–or falling into chronic illness–and failing to see that there are other choices than the ones that may have become rote.

“Stress is an alarm clock that lets you know you’re attached to something that’s not true for you,” says Byron Katie. What is your stress telling you? Look closer at what you’re experiencing, lest it eat away at your immune system. Where do you feel stuck in your life? What is hard to change? Where is your aliveness stifled? …What would you like?

What’s bottled up inside of you? “What is inside of us must out,” wrote Selye, “otherwise we may explode at the wrong places or become hopelessly hemmed in by frustrations. The great art is to express our vitality through the particular channels and the particular speed Nature foresaw for us.” Or, as Jesus says in the Gnostic Gospels, “If you bring forth what is in you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Getting acquainted with your emotional competence ensures that what you think you want and what you really want are without dissonance. You are less likely to be driven by a delusion, and more likely to be lovingly devoted to what you want, by your own conscious choosing.


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