Naming the Un-nameable: How Fear of the Unfamiliar Keeps Us Stuck

One of the things I love most about my clients is their commitment to getting under the surface of whatever is troubling them about their lives.

Whatever it is that they’re coming to me with, it’s not unusual that – by the time they find their way to my door – the relationship, job, problem, worry, crisis, trauma, or heartache has become so unbearably heavy…that it far outweighs any fear of what might happen if they take the risk to look under the hood (so to speak).

But sometimes…sometimes it’s not so specific. Sometimes, my clients come in with a general unhappiness, depression, or anxiety about their lives – but they don’t know why they’re feeling this way. When there is something bothering you that can’t name, this can be incredibly frustrating – or even terrifying.

You look at your life and think, “I should be happy. I should be grateful. Am I crazy? What’s the matter with me?”

I would like to propose that we have organized our lives in ways that can make it incredibly difficult to name the cause of the very real unhappiness that sometimes lives inside us.

Yet…the very un-nameability of the source of this discontent is a clue that tells us we have to look in some unfamiliar places for insight.

The dilemma, however, is this: when our unhappiness is rooted somewhere in our lives, somewhere in our everyday, how do we step out of our everyday thinking to find solutions?

In other words, if we’re doing the stuff that we’re supposed to do, and still find ourselves unhappy in our lives…where then do we look for answers?

We don’t.

Uh-huh. You heard me right.

I’m saying that maybe we should stop searching for answers, and start asking different questions.

Let’s face it: searching for answers can be like chasing our tails around and around. And we all know where that gets us: frustrated and dizzy!

Oftentimes, searching for the answer is far less important than reconsidering the kinds of questions we’re asking ourselves. At first, this can be more challenging than it sounds – because the questions we ask have to come from somewhere. They come from inside our life situation.

In other words, the questions we ask ourselves are structured in particular ways by our perspectives – which, in turn, are absorbed from the people we spend time with, the media we consume, our professional and educational socialization, etc.

It’s all fine and good to say, “think outside the box!”. But how do we do that?

One of my favorite philosophers, Michel Foucault, points out that asking new questions requires creating new ‘conditions of possibility’ for inquiry.

I would add that this requires expansion – it requires exposing ourselves to different things, different ideas, different people, different art, different media, different…differences. And I’m not talking about being a tourist, here.

We can’t all eat, pray, and love our way to figuring out what’s troubling us.

No. I’m suggesting something altogether different.

In my work as a sociologist, I have often been struck by the sheer volume of labor that most people perform in order to avoid people, ideas, and things that are outside their everyday experience. Most of us don’t even realize how many choices we make every day to shut down any possibility of encountering circumstances that are unfamiliar.

In other words, people typically dislike – and therefore work hard to avoid – discomfort. This is because not knowing what to say, what to do, or how to react means we have to actually think – hard – moment to moment. It means we have to be present and available to observe, consider, and respond to the situation in front of us.

How much easier is it to avoid the unfamiliar, and continue to just follow the social scripts that have been spoon-fed to us our whole lives?

No decision making necessary. No creative thinking demanded. No thoughtfulness, no spontaneity,  and no vulnerability required.

For many people, this works just fine – until it doesn’t. And it is then that we find there is an un-nameable something troubling us. Keeping us awake. Distracting us at work. Making us unaccountably stressed, anxious, or irritated when there seems to be no reason for it.

Think about it: When was last time you departed from your daily routine…and bought your coffee in a different coffee shop? Or got off the bus in a different neighborhood than the one you live in, just to explore? Heck, many of us will even resist the notion of trying a new restaurant – unless we can buffer the newness of the experience by taking people with us that we already know.

When was the last time you deliberately struck up an original conversation…with a stranger?

Would you even know how to begin?

If the thought of this makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay. I want to encourage you to stay with that discomfort. Sit with it. Look at it. Without judging, without analyzing, just observe it.

Now I’m going let you in on a secret. Are you ready?

Discomfort can be powerfully transformative.

This is because, when we embrace discomfort, we have to switch off our auto-pilot and become attentive to whatever a particular moment, person, or circumstance is offering us.

This is scary.

Stepping outside the box requires that we become friendly with the unfamiliar.

But here’s the pay-off: it can also make us feel more intensely alive than we have felt in a very long time. And that sense of aliveness…is gold!

And then?

Well, now. Then we make a space for newness to enter our human experience – new feelings, new thoughts, new sensations, and yes, new questions arise within us in response to what is in front of us.

In other words, what can be called forth from us changes…depending on the experiences we create for ourselves. If we are locked into routine, the familiar, and the rigorous avoidance of discomfort, then we are closing off the possibility of expansion.


We can move out of our comfort zones – thoughtfully, not vicariously (this should not literally require a parachute!)

As new experiences inspire us to feel, think, and sense differently, something miraculous occurs:  by experiencing contrast, by observing our reactions to new experiences, we can we gradually learn to trace the contours of what was previously invisible to our conscious minds.

This includes the source of the discontent that may have inspired us to face down our fear of the unfamiliar. But it is not limited to that. Oh, no. Not by a long shot.

What we can create by stepping out of our comfort zones can be as limitless as the human soul; can reach further still than our childish imaginations once reached; can explore every meaning of the word ‘possibility‘.




Leveraging the Human Impulse to Change

Every now and then, a new client comes to me and says, “Okay, I’ve read all the self-help books. I’ve watched The Secret. I know every affirmation under the sky. My life still sucks. What can you do for me?”.

I absolutely love it when this happens.

When I hear this from a client, I’m internally saying, “All right! You want to do more than become an expert in the content of books and movies. You want to do more than consume information like it’s fast food. You want real change. You want what I call, epic self-transformation!“.

Then I say out loud, “Are you ready to rock?”.

Well, okay, I only rarely say that last part out loud.

To begin with, though, I want to emphasize that what I undertake with my clients is self-transformation, not “self-improvement”. This distinction is important, but I don’t want to go on about it just now. Suffice is to say, when you’re done here, check out the fabulous Danielle Laporte’s blog, “Why Self-Improvement Makes You Neurotic“, if you’re interested in why the notion of self-improvement is a sneaky, sneaky trap of the ego.

So how is epic self-transformation different from stuff like ‘positive thinking’?


Sustainability. Sustainability means something that can be maintained at a certain pace or level; it’s not temporary. It is not movement which stops and starts, but more like turning lead into gold – and more gold, and more gold, and more gold.

Encouraging sustainable transformation is the best way I know of help someone begin the process of recovering the promise of their life – the promise of who they are.

But this isn’t because I have magical powers (although I just might – you never know!).

Rather, what makes this process work – what makes it replicable, if you want to get all evidence-based about it – is this: we all have within us the answers, the questions, the road-map, the guidance system, the wisdom, and the LOVE to create a life that is as beautiful, delicious, and fulfilling as we can possibly imagine (and then some). Here’s why:

There is something within all of us that yearns towards expansion and change.

We can resist it if we want to (and boy, does this ever come back to bite us!).

Nevertheless, this is one of the most powerful, natural impulses of the human experience – and evolutionary biologists can tell you all about why if you really want to know! But no matter how you slice it – no matter how uncomfortable change makes us – we have built-in mechanisms for adaptation, expansion, evolution, and, yes, transformation.

So how do we leverage this natural inclination towards transformation – particularly when many of us are scared-to-piddling-in-our-pajamas at the slightest hint of change?

How many times have you read a book, listened to a wonderful teacher of meditation, yoga, mindfulness, present-moment thinking, etc.? How many times did you resolve to put into practice what you saw or heard, only to fizzle out after a week or three?

Visualizations, mantras, affirmations and positive “I” statements can be useful tools, when put to use in sustainable ways. However, simply rehearsing these over and over again when we really want something often produces limited results. We then get frustrated or discouraged, and soon drop these from our daily routine.

Rinse and repeat this process often enough, and you have a recipe for some deep cynicism about life.

Contrast this with cultivating sustainable changes in your approach to living. For example, I often encourage folks to examine their perspectives (not just their thoughts!). Thoughts spring from perspectives. Or, if you prefer:

Perspectives are the filters – the lenses – we apply to the incoming data of human experience.

Consider, too, that our perspectives are deeply rooted in the past, and you can see how leaving our perspectives unexamined causes us to get in our own way. How can we meet the present honestly…if we’re interpreting everything through the lens of the past?

Imagine that your thoughts are the software running on your computer, and your perspectives are like the operating system.

After awhile – with all the changes in technology, the volume of data streaming in, etc. – the software starts to malfunction. You can observe your software getting slower and more bogged down for as long as you like. But if you want to transform how the system fundamentally works, just attending to the software won’t get you where you want to go.

In other words, if we only observe our thoughts, it can take a lot longer to notice (if we ever do) that our perspectives – our operating system – desperately need to be updated!

Whenever I explore with a client their perspectives about life, work, relationships, etc., we discover that they’ve inherited some their most influential ideas about who they are, what’s important, what they believe, and what they have come to expect from life.

This is key: we don’t create our perspectives, we absorb them – from our families, from media, from social institutions like schools, churches, etc.

Very often, we discover that we’ve been carrying around incredibly influential perspectives in our noodles our whole lives – ones that we don’t even necessarily agree with!

Given that our perspectives are how we orient ourselves to what we experience, you can imagine how powerful it is to shift the amazing capacity of your conscious awareness to observing – gently and patiently – what perspectives are driving your thoughts, feelings, reactions, etc.

In other words, I encourage my clients to shift how they look at the world, rather than just tacking on a positive affirmation to the things that they are looking at. And this impacts on the whole life of a person – not just the things they want more of or less of in their lives.

Changing our perspectives in ways that are sustainable means raising our perspective, moment to moment.

What’s the pay-off for engaging in this kind of self-transformation?

For starters, in raising our perspective, we recover vital energy, insight, and capacity that we have previously squandered on worry, stress, drama, a personal victim-story, unhealthy relationships and co-worker dynamics, etc.

These unwanted, energy-sapping patterns of thinking can be powerfully made-over when we explore the perspectives that support them.

In addition, there is always, always something generous, something beautiful, something worthy of our notice and our gratitude in each moment. We simply have to re-train ourselves to look for it – because, yes, All Experience is Generous.

When we shift our perspectives, we notice that there are abundant resources, beautiful people, and accommodating circumstances all over the place – and this transforms problems and challenges, difficulties and dramas…into opportunities.

Suddenly, we notice that change has become less terrifying – because we can see all of the things and people around us that are present to support our transformation. These are things we simply can’t see if we stay stuck in the perspectives we absorbed way-back-when.

But…by consciously aligning our perspectives with who we want to be in the world, we build a solid foundation for epic self-transformation that can utilize the resources that have shown up to support us now.

This is when we can really begin to leverage our human impulse to change.

Being(s) of Service & the Right to be Wrong

In the interests of transparency, I want to utter a word or three about being of service. This expression, “being of service” has gotten fairly popular in the circles I move in, so it seems worthwhile to throw my hat into the discussion.

For starters, I do not think that being of service to another person means helping, rescuing, or fixing – as such.

These 3 words all imply some kind of agenda, expectation, or attachment to outcome; and they also imply that I can do something for someone that they can’t do for themselves. In turn, agendas, expectations, and attachments to outcomes have a knack for closing doors that I want to have the option of stepping through with a client. Too, sometimes being of service means knowing something, and just holding the awareness of that knowing – without offering advice, telling my story, etc.

Being of service can also mean holding the space and being a witness for someone as they get clear about where they are – and why they think they’ve arrived there. My approach to being of service certainly involves listening to what’s not being said: listening energetically to what our spirits are saying through our emotions; and looking through the mask of the ego to help illuminate, with my attention, the higher awareness behind the ego.

Perhaps most importantly, though, I think that being of service involves moving out of limited concepts of “right” and “wrong”, and coming into the present moment to see what it’s offering us. Because sometimes, there can be immense perfection in ‘being wrong’. If we tune into the feeling of unquiet inside us that ‘being wrong’ always stirs up, we will realize we possess a tool for helping us do it differently in the future – because that feeling of unquiet is a powerful resource for determining what will and will not serve us as we move forward.

Yup. I’m suggesting that we embrace ‘getting it wrong’.

Perhaps even more radically, I want to propose that – if we take something forward with us after examining how ‘being wrong’ has the potential to offer us insight, confidence, and wisdom – maybe we didn’t really get it wrong at all. Maybe we created exactly the circumstances we needed in order to expand our awareness, refine our choices, and move into closer alignment with who we say we want to be in the world.

So why do we fear ‘being wrong’?

In his near-legendary Ted talks, Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools condition children to fear getting the wrong answer – and how this is completely contrary to a child’s natural inclination to problem-solve, persist, and find novel approaches, interpretations, and meaning in their experience of the world.

Indeed, our schools are increasingly pressured by various levels of government to offer standardized, pre-determined, freeze-dried curricula – all so students’ rightness or wrongness can be assessed via exams. This is just one example of how, as a culture, we’ve institutionalized the aversion to ‘being wrong’.

Kathryn Schultz also takes up this notion in her fabulous TED lecture, “On Being Wrong”. I particularly love her assertion that,

“The miracle of your mind isn’t that  you can see the world as it is – but that you can see the world as it isn’t”.

In other words, our capacity to get it wrong, to see it differently than others, isn’t something we should try to downplay. She argues that the capacity to make mistakes is a source of continual astonishment, creativity, innovation, and, yes, even delight – because “it’s how we rediscover wonder“.

In spite of this, however, because most of us have been conditioned to avoid being ‘wrong’, we tend to become incredibly uncomfortable when we make a mistake. This feeling of intense discomfort signals that the ego is interpreting the situation as a threat to its existence.

Oh, the ego and its need to be right!

The ego loves to make others wrong to affirm its petty superiority complex. Which means that, when we entertain the notion that we have made an error (or that someone has committed an error at our expense), the ego’s self-defense mechanisms come online with a vengeance!

It seems to me that this is one of the most corrosive and destructive barriers to authentic, human connection: the often debilitating shame, remorse, guilt, or defensiveness that arises in us in response to human mistakes can stop us from moving forward – and presents an obstacle to meaningful accountability, if this is required.

But…what would happen if we embraced our mistakes?

How different would we feel in our lives if we tenderly regarded ourselves – and our mistakes – with a view to excavating valuable knowledge of where we stepped away from who we want to be in the world?

How much easier would it be to make heartfelt amends if we weren’t choking on our discomfort about having been ‘wrong’ in the first place?

What would happen if I asserted that I have a right to be wrong, sometimes?

If we gave ourselves just a bit of permission to sometimes step on toes, misunderstand, act out, or just plain get it all ass-backwards…how much time, bad feeling, conflict, guilt, and defensiveness could we spare ourselves and others? Well, for starters, we could redirect all that energy to figuring out what our mistakes can teach us!

Now, I’m not proposing that we deliberately bulldoze our way through conversations or use other people as guinea pigs while we figure ourselves out.


But I am suggesting we extend ourselves some pre-emptive forgiveness for the mistakes we will inevitably make in life. Then maybe we’ll have room to ask better questions of ourselves when we reflect on our errors in judgement, missteps, and faux-pas.

Here’s some examples of questions I ask myself and my clients when walking through the process of reflecting on mistakes:

  • Did I tune into my feelings just before I made that choice?
  • Was my spidey-sense tingling – but I ignored it when I opened my mouth to speak?
  • How did my body feel just before, during, and after I acted or spoke? Was there tension in my body?
  • Was I speaking from my heart, or was my ego in the driver’s seat?
  • Was I somehow performing a role (e.g. the guru, the enlightened one, the healer, the teacher, the parent, the helpful friend, etc.) – instead of authentically responding to what the moment was calling forth from me?
  • Was I paying attention to all the circumstances – not just the ones my ego was highlighting in its never-ending quest to be right and make others wrong?

By focusing on what our mistakes can teach us, I help clients who are grappling with a heavy burden of guilt or remorse about who they’ve been, what they’ve done, etc. And by helping them to step away from suffocating concepts of ‘right vs wrong’, I can redirect their attention to what their higher awareness has to say about it all.

Here’s why this is important:

Awareness does not judge. It rests, patient and accepting, in the warmth of our grace.

In other words, awareness affirms our always-already, connected humanity – our fundamentally entangled, co-existence with All That Is. From this perspective, ultimately, my brother’s mistakes belong to me, and mine to him.

But here’s what’s really cool about avoiding the quicksand of right vs. wrong: if we can be more generous and forgiving of ourselves…are we then also be able to be more forgiving of others’ mistakes?

You betcha!

And guess what? By bringing this radically, pro-active forgiveness (of ourselves and others) with us, we’re being of service, just by bringing this awareness along with us wherever we go.

And then? Then we are doing more than ‘being of service’ in reaction to certain people and situations. By interacting from a place of already-forgiving awareness, we create an immense space for everyone to get it right.

This is when we become beings of service!