Coaching Myself through Fear and Discomfort

A constellation of ten acupuncture needles surrounded the knobby bone of my right wrist. After four or five acupuncture sessions, my shoulder pain was subsiding, but my wrist pain refused to budge. So, my practitioner had increased the number of needles he was using on my wrist and tweaked their placement.

This more aggressive configuration of needles was uncomfortable. As I moved my hand in search of a better position, I experienced a tiny lightning bolt inside my wrist.

Before the next session, I mentioned this jolt to the acupuncturist. My wrist had shown progress with the new needle placement, and neither of us wanted to mess with that, so he made only minor adjustments.

Each week, I would lie there face down on the table, with needles in my back, shoulders, and wrist, fearful of moving a fraction of an inch. What if the shock was worse next time?

I started coaching myself not to be so anxious. I noted that pain is our body’s way of alerting us that something may be wrong. In this case, my body didn’t understand that I was not under attack, so I reminded myself that I was voluntarily welcoming a small amount of discomfort to heal an injury.

While undergoing acupuncture treatments, I was also developing a daily meditation practice. One of the suggestions in the 30-day program I was following was to sit completely still during my ten minutes of meditation.

My first instinct was to write off this idea as impossible. I am a fidgety person who moves around a lot, and I’m always touching my hair or pushing up my sleeves or scratching an itch. How could I remain motionless for ten whole minutes?

I decided to take on the challenge anyway. Initially, I had to coach myself like I did with the acupuncture, noting that an itch or a slight sense of unease did not need to be addressed immediately. My body would not suffer great harm if I did not scratch that itch.

When I reported to my brain that I was not in real danger, during both acupuncture and meditation, the pain or itch would often recede into the background or disappear entirely. I might forget about it without realizing I had done so.

Big deal, right?! Well, yes, actually. As the weeks went on, it occurred to me that I was developing a skill that could be applied to all types of circumstances. Dealing with these little annoyances was allowing me to stare down bigger and bigger provocations.

Even my fear of death started to retreat. Since I was a child, this existential dread would grip me as I tried to fall asleep. Out of nowhere I would think, what if I died in my sleep? Then, it would feel like someone was clutching at me from inside my throat. I used to surrender to that fear—the thoughts and sensations feeding off each other. Now I focus on breathing slowly and deeply, usually interrupting the cycle within minutes.

At first, I was afraid to stop being afraid. My decades-long anxiety around discomfort, pain, and my own mortality felt like a part of me. I identified with it. Who would I be if I let it go? Would I still be me?

The answer is yes, I am still me. My fear is a bad habit, a security blanket studded with thorns. Once I recognized that my panic is not intrinsic to who I am, the work of letting it go could begin in earnest.

The Non-Magic of Making and Breaking Habits

Drinking coffee was not a regular thing for me before 2020. Caffeine has an intense effect on my nervous system, so for decades I rarely consumed coffee.

With the pandemic lockdowns, I suddenly had more time each morning, and the soothing ritual of grinding, brewing, and sipping coffee appealed to me. So, I found a local business that roasts flavorful half-caf and decaf blends and started ordering their beans.

This custom became part of my day pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I was already looking forward to my morning cup of joe in the early evening.

My new coffee habit emerged organically, but those that don’t can be challenging to establish.

A couple months ago I decided to initiate a pre-bedtime routine of using the Waterpik, brushing my teeth, and then rinsing with mouthwash. At first, I wondered when this practice would ever become automatic. I resented the extra time and effort it took when all I wanted to do was slide under the covers.

Even now, as the habit is finally taking root, some nights I negotiate with myself: What if I skipped tonight and went to bed with fuzzy teeth? Would just one time hurt?

Once a habit has solidified, it can be tough to quit. Three and a half years ago, I decided to remove alcohol from my life. I hadn’t intended to build a drinking habit, but the ongoing repetition in my late teens and early 20s ensured that it took hold. For decades, I drank several times a week. And then I tried to defy all that training.

At first, there were so many triggers that made me want to drink again. Birthdays and anniversaries, dinners at nice restaurants, Friday evenings after a long week—all of these markers were intimately linked with alcohol. I had to power through each one to break the habit.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I was working on a craft project and out of nowhere came the thought that I should have a drink after I finished.

For most of my adult life, long holiday weekends were for drinking—this pattern included drinking earlier in the day than usual and consuming alcohol for three or four consecutive days (something I didn’t usually do). For me, this merriment typically started off fun but did not end well. Yet here was an echo, surfacing after nearly four sober years, telling me a drink was in order. Talk about power!

For many years, I taught my brain that multiple glasses of wine paired well with talking on the phone with friends, that beer went hand-in-hand with playing darts, that alcohol was part of brunch and eating oysters and dancing at weddings and sitting by the fire.

My mind got the message that numerous activities were not reward enough without a drink before, during, or after. Luckily, this not-so-magical trick is a clue to how we can sever old habits and nurture new ones.

We must look for the associations. They are the support posts that we put down along the way. If we want to disassemble an entrenched habit, we must detach it from these props. We can do this by repeating the action, like eating brunch, without the habit. Remember, this is how we got into said mess, by repeating the activity with the habit.

Our desired new habits will need their own support posts—even something as simple as a time of day, like my bedtime teeth cleaning ritual.

Not all habits will be as immediately pleasant as drinking coffee. But if we tether them to something sturdy, we will persevere.

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!