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‘.