I raised the tennis racket high above my head once again, the gloves on my hands failing to prevent the blisters already forming.
My eyes were wide with fear as I struck the pillow before me with all my strength. I felt at the edge of control, at the edge of what I knew.
The people around me cheered me on, looks of approval and even admiration on their faces.
And then suddenly the act became real, the anger inside me rushing toward the surface through ancient channels.
I felt my brow furrow, my wide eyes changing insantly to a predators’s scowl.
The man directly in front of me, my guide, smiling in recognition, said “That’s it. That’s what we’re looking for.”
For the first time since I can remember, I felt rage coursing through me. Like liquid fire through my veins.
Seeking peace of mind, I had found anger. Seeking control, I had found vulnerability. Seeking answers, I had found only questions.
Let me tell you what I discovered.
This is the story of my experience at Groundbreakers, a week-long course designed to “change your relationship with the voice in your head to one of self-love.”
The course was created and led by Joe Hudson, a former venture capitalist, philanthropist, consultant, and today, a teacher and executive coach. Hudson spent more than 20 years studying dozens of spiritual traditions and psychological frameworks and incorporated them into his own approach to personal transformation.
I had attended the introductory Tide Turners course the previous year. I decided I wanted to go deeper into healing practices such as the ones described in the book The Body Keeps the Score, which was a source of inspiration for this course.
Once my application was accepted, I made the decision to fly to Northern California from my home in Mexico City to spend six days exploring what this experience had to offer me.
The weeks leading up to the course were filled with realizations. We were given journaling exercises to begin to reflect on the areas of our life and work we wanted to address.
I realized I wanted to be more direct with people. To tell them what I thought or what wasn’t working without feeling like I had to tiptoe around the truth. For example, a neighbor recently got angry with me for slamming the front door to our apartment, and for weeks afterward, I avoided him and felt my heart beating faster whenever I saw him. Even casual comments by customers or collaborators would leave me in turmoil far out of proportion to what was said.
And in the back of my mind, not as desire but as foreboding, I felt a call to leadership. I had created a business and lifestyle completely centered on working alone on my individual creative pursuits. And yet, I had reached a point where I could no longer push forward on all the frontiers at once. There were too many opportunities, too many demands, too many ideas from too many people.
But I also knew that there was something deep inside that was holding me back from leadership. An intense, instinctual fear of being scrutinized, of being revealed somehow. This fear made me step back when I needed to step forward. It caused me to leave enormous opportunities on the table. It kept me small and timid as the challenges before me demanded action and courage.
I wanted to explore the source of my hypervigilance – an unexplainable feeling that I had to be watchful and on guard all the time. It had served me well in growing a business, but I increasingly felt it kept me from connecting with others. I wanted to know why I felt numb and bored any time I wasn’t immersed in the adrenaline of working – while on vacation, or having dinner with friends, or exercising.
With all these questions on my mind, I boarded the plane with only the vaguest idea of what I was getting myself into.
There is a parallel story that needs to be told as well. It is the story of a different voice – the normal one produced by my vocal cords.
At work on an otherwise normal day in 2007, I began to feel a tickle on the right side of my throat. I ignored it, thinking I might be coming down with a cold. An ear-nose-throat doctor I saw the following week couldn’t find anything wrong. He prescribed me some acid reflux medication and sent me on my way.
I had no idea at that moment the impact that this small tickle would have on my life.
But in the meantime, I had bags to pack. I was set to study abroad in Brazil for two semesters and wasn’t about to let a mere sore throat keep me from it.
After landing in San Francisco, I met up with two fellow course participants for the drive up to the course location — in the mountains near Nevada City.
We nervously chatted as the car ascended the mountain. I had never met these two women before and had no idea what to expect about the course or the people I would take it with. I was afraid, honestly, to see what would be revealed during a week of such deep self-reflection.
We arrived at the retreat center and unpacked our bags. It was a house standing alone at the top of a hill on a large piece of land dedicated to meditation retreats. The landscape was idillyc, with deer roaming freely and horses grazing in their pens amidst towering pine trees and lightly tilled fields of vegetables.
As we started to get to know each other, I sensed the same nervousness and fear in the others. But there was also a great feeling of hope, camaraderie, and determination. It was a rare group, to dedicate so much time and effort to inner work. I had the feeling we were all on the brink of a great discovery.
On the first day, we shared our intentions for the week by opening up about what we wanted out of the experience.
As we took turns around the circle, I planned and prepared several different responses in my head. I had clever answers, intellectual answers, logical answers. But the one that came out surprised even me: I wanted to be able to let the tremendous amount of love that I felt inside me out into the world.
I shared with the group how I wanted to be more vulnerable with the people in my life. To share what was really going on with me and to ask for support more readily. I felt a longing to be able to fully express my love to the people I love the most, which has never come easy to me.
For about a year while studying at two universities in Brazil, my throat continued to plague me.
I increasingly had difficulty speaking and swallowing, as if the right side of my throat didn’t work properly. The tickle had grown to a scratch and then a dull ache, like a knot of flesh that was permanently tensed. Strands of burning pain were starting to spread down my neck, up to my ear, and into my head where they caused splitting headaches.
I contacted a speech therapist at a local university and began working with him every week. The voice exercises he assigned me helped a little, but I knew they weren’t getting to the source of my symptoms.
I started getting worried about what it could be. A tumor? The beginnings of muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis? Part of me didn’t really want to know. Part of me wanted to stay in denial as long as possible.
And I had an easy way to do so. After returning from South America, completing my last class at San Diego State University, and graduating, I was setting off once again to fulfill a lifelong dream: to serve in the U.S. Peace Corps abroad.
I said goodbye to my family and departed for Ukraine in the summer of 2009, hopeful that the drastic change in climate, diet, and routine would somehow alleviate my symptoms.
On the second day of the course, it was time to get in touch with our anger.
The three facilitators had us lie down on our backs on mats around the room, and we began deep, uncontrolled breathing to open up the anger that had been stuck within our bodies.
During the instructions before we began, I raised my hand and asked, “But what if we don’t feel any anger?” I couldn’t feel any trace of it. With a slight smile, the facilitator asked me to give it a try anyway and see what happened. When my turn came, I laid down and began the breathing exercise, curious to see if anything would come up.
And boy, did it come up.
Within just a few minutes of deep breathing, with the facilitator coaching us on how to position our legs and torso, how to exhale without control, and prompting us to access memories of our past, I began to feel a squirming feeling deep inside my belly.
Suddenly, a white-hot rage came rising out of me like molten lava. I began to see flashes of scenes from my past – getting spanked as a child for something I didn’t do, being mocked in class for a wrong answer, being bullied on the bus to school. I felt small stabs of fire upward into my chest, which were instantly suppressed, the anger converted into fear, guilt, embarrassment, and deep sadness. I could feel my body react, deflect, and do absolutely anything it could to avoid feeling the full force of that anger.
I sat up from the mat and turned to one of the facilitators in bewilderment. He told me, “It’s time to let it out,” and I responded, “I can’t.” I felt like there was a caged animal inside me that, if it got out, would destroy me. When the facilitator asked me why I couldn’t get angry, I instantly responded, “Because I’ll die.” That’s what it felt like, but hearing myself say those words in such a safe and supportive environment jolted me out of my trance. I could suddenly see the world I had been living in for so long – a world where so much of what I felt wasn’t allowed.
I got up from the mat and started the anger work. Two folding chairs faced toward each other with a futon folded on top of them. I put on gloves, picked up one of the tennis rackets they supplied, and began to strike downward at the futon as hard as I could. It was a safe space to let the anger out, and I was absolutely shocked at just how much of it there was boiling inside me.
Anger at my parents for not giving me what I needed. Anger at teachers for not understanding what I had to say. Anger at long-ago classmates that slighted me, ignored me, or disrespected me. I felt the anger of old heartbreaks never expressed. I felt anger at myself for not being the person I knew I could be. I felt anger at my body for betraying me. With each new memory, I yelled and screamed and struck that futon with every ounce of energy in my body. Like an inexhaustible volcano, I discovered new reservoirs of anger again and again waiting years to be released.
My fellow participants served as my support team. A couple of them held the chairs and the futon stable. Another – usually the one who reminded me the most of the person I was expressing anger toward – would stand in front of me and provoke me with words from my past. The facilitators coached from the side, encouraging us to focus on the physical actions and not get lost in the story.
After about 15 minutes, I was completely spent. My shoulders and back burned and I could no longer raise the racket above my head. They had me raise my arms in victory, internalizing the embodied sense of power I was experiencing. I basked for a while in an indescribable feeling of joy, the unblocked emotions flowing through me like pure electricity. The others looked at me with such pleasure and approval, so completely opposite from any reaction I had ever experienced toward my anger, that I felt something in me permanently shift.
As we decompressed at the end of the day, I experienced a sense of peace and safety I couldn’t remember feeling. It was the pleasure of knowing I could defend myself, of knowing I could stand up for myself. I had shared with the group about my voice condition, and a facilitator asked me, “What does that thing in your throat want to say?”
I had never considered asking this question. And was shocked at what it responded: “I’ve been here for you the whole time. I’m not a mistake. I have a purpose for you. I have a purpose.”
For all these years, I had felt that my voice symptoms were simply a mistake. It was something that shouldn’t have happened to me. But it had also become a major part of my identity and my life. Which meant that I felt like a mistake.
But if the pain I had experienced wasn’t a mistake, if it had a purpose, then I too had a purpose. And now I could discover what that purpose was.
After arriving in Ukraine and receiving a few months of language training, I was sent to my assigned posting in the eastern part of the country. I would spend the next two years living and working in Kupyansk, a mid-sized industrial town near the Russian border.
I took advantage of my free government-sponsored healthcare during my service and began pursuing a diagnosis for the symptoms that continued to worsen. I badly wanted a label so I would at least know what I was dealing with. We did MRIs, blood tests, tissue samples, and every other kind of test the doctors could think of, but none of them showed a possible cause.
I pushed harder, and eventually, my doctor gave me the diagnosis I wanted so badly: glossopharyngeal neuralgia. It is a catchall term for pain emanating from the pharynx, the region at the very back of the throat, above the vocal cords. He prescribed carbamazepine, a powerful anticonvulsant usually used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It produced a numbing sensation throughout my entire body, like being mildly drunk.
I hated the medication and how it made me feel. But it felt like my only choice. I would take it before starting class each day so my voice would be functional for the students I cared so much for. But I felt numb and disconnected, floating far from my body, and, worst of all, I experienced the old throat pain symptoms as soon as the medication wore off.
Later I would realize that the medication also had an impact on my long-term memory. A two-week trip to Russia with a friend vanished from my memory as if it never happened. It was terrifying to realize that precious memories with people I cared about were slipping from my mental grasp.
We started the day “practicing” our listening. Listening would be a major part of the following days, and we needed to become aware of how we were doing it.
We got into pairs, and one partner would tell the other about the most meaningful and exciting thing in their lives. In the first round, the listener was supposed to listen “skeptically,” without using overt facial expressions or body language. In round two, they did the same thing, this time listening with an attitude of approval and acceptance.
The difference between the two conversations was striking. As the speaker, I experienced the other person’s emotions deep in my own belly, as if I was reading their mind. Their doubt was heart-wrenching; their approval was like sunshine in the winter.
I was surprised and saddened to realize that “skeptical listening” felt totally familiar. That’s how I listened to everyone in my life, even my customers and my students. I’d been burned in the past when I got excited about someone else’s ambitions only to see them fizzle out, and I think I had adopted a doubtful, skeptical attitude to protect myself from disappointment. I realized that skepticism is also how I listen to myself — to my own dreams and aspirations.
With this enhanced awareness of how powerful our listening could be, we learned four “moves” (or conversational techniques) that we would spend the rest of the week practicing. Each one was a tool for questioning a story that was causing someone to suffer. They could be used in the workplace, in coaching relationships, with our friends and loved ones, or with the voice in our own heads:
- Rabbit hole: starting with a fear or a resistance, question the chain of beliefs that support it, following it down step by step by asking “What’s wrong with [insert previous statement]?”
- Deconstruction: taking apart the belief system that lies behind a disempowering thought pattern by examining its logic while maintaining an open heart
- Externalization: projecting a thought, emotion, or statement we tell ourselves onto someone else we love, to experience the heartbreak of treating our selves this way
- Polarity: exploring a series of statements that contradict an existing belief to uncover where the resistance to it lies in the body
These moves formed the framework, but the essential ingredient of the process was always love. Love for ourselves, and for the person sitting in front of us. Love communicated in facial expressions, in body language, and in an unmistakable “presence” in the air. I noticed that if there was no tangible love present in the space between us, the conversation quickly turned adversarial. If there was love present, I hardly needed to say anything.
Our role was to create the safety that was needed for our partner’s healing to come to the surface naturally. The more safety was present, the easier it was for the wounds to open, and then to heal.
I returned home to California after serving two years in the Peace Corps.
Despite all my health problems and the challenges of living through Ukrainian winters, I had the time of my life. The openness and warmth of the Ukrainian people, the hope and excitement of the kids I got to watch grow up over two years, and the chance to independently work on my own projects had a tremendous impact on me. I came out of the experience knowing that I could survive anything. I knew I could use whatever resources I had at my disposal and make something useful out of them.
But the journey of resolving my throat pain continued.
I visited a celebrity voice doctor in Beverly Hills known for treating Celine Dion and other famous singers. I thought he might have some new experimental treatment. But after paying an arm and a leg, I left with nothing to show for it. I worked with a well-respected speech therapist and professor at UCSF for six weeks as she put me through a rigorous series of hygiene practices and voice exercises. Again, it helped but didn’t get to the root cause.
Meanwhile, my throat continued to deteriorate. I no longer had good days – only bad days and worse days. I experienced throat spasms and spontaneous gagging. I began avoiding speaking whenever possible. I withdrew from relationships and communities. I spent more time online and during this period left my job and plunged into self-employment with no savings and no plan. I started working for myself not primarily out of ambition but because I couldn’t bear to spend all day speaking with others.
I started to experience the psychological effects of not being able to trust my own voice. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, I felt anxiety and uncertainty at whether the person would be able to understand my strained words. That fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I resorted to exaggerated speech or body language to compensate. It felt as if the middle register of my voice was missing, so I could only speak very deeply and softly or very loud and high-pitched. I developed intense social anxiety in even the most casual daily interactions, which was something I had never experienced before.
The last straw came when I saw a neurologist in Orange County. After another round of tests, his only solution was another kind of medication, which would cause the similar effect of numbing sensation throughout my entire body. I realized in that moment I had come to the end of the road. There was nothing else the conventional medical system had to offer me, and it was time to take control of my own health.
The suffering I experienced during these years started to catch up with me and sat at the center of my body like a smoldering fire. It colored absolutely everything about how I saw life: my goals, my dreams, my friendships, and my view of the kind of life I would be able to live. The world looked like a scary, forbidding place. I started to experience depersonalization – the sensation of not feeling real inside. I deeply feared no one would ever understand what it felt like to be me. That I would be alone forever in a hopeless place as the darkness closed in on my ability to communicate.
It was around this time that I discovered meditation. I went on my first Vipassana meditation retreat, and on the last day had a remarkable experience. After spending seven days sharpening my attention to a fine point, I happened to focus it on the point of maximum pain and tension in my throat. To my complete shock, it instantly unraveled, like a knot suddenly coming undone. My whole body flushed with heat from head to toe, I burst into tears and swallowed freely for the first time in years.
I had discovered a new path.
On the fourth day, we practiced externalization, a technique we had learned the previous day.
Over the preceding three days, we had slowly catalogued every negative phrase that we noticed the voice in our head saying to us: “You’ll never make it;” “You aren’t good enough;” “No one will ever love you;” “It’s your fault you were treated that way;” “You had better prove yourself.”
We began to examine these statements as a form of abuse. We would never accept such treatment from another person, but inside the confines of our skulls, we don’t think twice before accepting what that voice tells us. We studied the psychology of bullying and abuse, and how it might apply to our relationship with the voice in our head.
To practice externalization, we worked through these dialogues in pairs where we imagined saying these same things to others. What would it be like telling your child, “I’ll limit you so you don’t fail”? How would it feel to tell your sister, “Don’t love anyone so you never have to feel rejected”? To ask your friend accusingly, “What’s wrong with you?”
It was deeply saddening to realize how long we had treated ourselves that way. It was heart-breaking to see that these voices had driven us to achieve, but that achievement had done nothing to satisfy our fundamental craving for love.
We let this sadness flow into the next exercise: grief work.
We all laid down on mats around the room again. Except this time, we were getting in touch with our grief. We did a different kind of breathing, and the facilitators coached us through body movements and positions designed to stimulate that awareness. For example, we yawned repeatedly to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s unconscious actions.
And like an undersea current rising to the surface, the grief we were looking for arrived. We wept at the memory of parents who hadn’t come to us when we called. We wailed at great loves we had lost out of fear. We sobbed at the thought of all the love that had been available to us that we hadn’t been able to accept. The room shook with the unrestrained crying and wailing of 10 people who had suppressed their grief for so long.
We got in touch with the tenderness we had steeled ourselves against to survive in an unforgiving world. We accessed the child inside us who had been shut away for fear of being hurt. We allowed our hearts to be broken again and again by the sorrow that is part of every life and allowed it to come out in whatever way the body needed. And in the heartbreak, we discovered a purifying force that gave our pain meaning and immense beauty.
The grief was also, I sensed, for an old self that was passing away by the hour. We no longer needed the mechanisms and the shields to protect us. We were learning those shields were not us. And that beneath them, there was still something innocent and pure.
Inner work and the vagus nerve
My experience at the Vipassana retreat opened my eyes to a new world of inner work and alternative medicine.
I took the first of a series of personal growth courses, the Landmark Forum, and for the second time experienced instantaneous, total relief from my symptoms. I went to Burning Man and tried LSD for the first time, experiencing total relief for the third time. Practices such as yoga, acupuncture, bodywork, Reiki, and others produced similar effects. I began to realize that there was something predictable and knowable about my condition. It wasn’t totally random. It just lay outside the scope of Western medicine.
I began to narrow my focus to the vagus nerve — the longest nerve in the body which runs from the diaphragm all the way up the torso, through the neck, and to the head. I had learned from The Body Keeps the Score that this nerve is responsible for communicating fight-or-flight signals through the body. And that one needs to fully engage and soothe this nerve for traumatic memories to be explored without panic.
It was becoming clear that almost anything that affected my vagus nerve immediately improved my throat symptoms. Both major emotional releases and psychedelic experiences, but also simpler things like breath-holding, cool wind in the face, and playing with animals. I could often feel my throat muscles tensing or releasing in real-time based on what I was doing in each moment.
I began to study the vagus nerve. I discovered a paper called “The role of psychogenic and psychosocial factors in the development of functional voice disorders.” It examined a range of studies and concluded that functional voice disorders “may develop in response to negative emotions following stressful life events” and especially “situations where there was a strong challenge to speak out and yet a marked constraint against doing so.”
I had never understood why I would have trauma when my childhood seemed so normal. But the research indicated that “traumatic incidents and serious situations involving death, loss, separation, and threat to personal or family security were reported infrequently” in patients with psychogenic voice disorders. They didn’t seem to be correlated with the “acute” trauma caused by rape, abuse, natural disasters, and extreme neglect.
Instead, these disorders occurred more frequently in people who had “interpersonal problems with close partners or family members (Aronson et al., 1964; Brodnitz, 1969).” This included “difficulties with the expression of negative emotions related to repressed hostility, discomfort over sexual feelings and rebellion towards authority figures (Barton, 1960).” This seemed to fit my situation much more closely. We grew up in a generally healthy household but also one where speaking out and expressing our emotions wasn’t tolerated.
The data also showed that teachers have a heightened risk for functional voice disorders. The study noted “a trend towards education and helping professions, and recent prevalence studies indicate teachers are more at risk for functional voice disorders than any other occupational group (Oates, 2000; Roy et al., 2004; Russell, Oates, & Greenwood, 1998).” I had been a teacher for almost my entire life.
The paper proposes a possible way of understanding the source of these disorders. The body expresses what thoughts and words cannot with physiological symptoms associated with fight-or-flight. Specifically, this flight-or-flight response “is thought to prepare the organism for increased physical work by ﬁxing the upper extremities to the thoracic cage for combat, requiring ﬁrm adduction of the vocal folds and wide abduction to facilitate an increased volume and ﬂow of oxygen in order to meet the body’s increased metabolic demands.” In other words, the body contracts the arms and the torso and opens up the airways for maximum oxygen flow, but both these changes can interfere with the voice.
This was the most precise description of what I experienced inside my body I had yet encountered.
Day 5 and 6
By the fifth day, we had developed a deep level of emotional openness and group cohesion. We knew each other so well that we could work in a more free-form way, utilizing whichever of the tools we had learned seemed most appropriate for a given situation or even improvising.
At this point, we as participants took the lead in each others’ healing. Most of the day was spent in pair work, as we explored each others’ inner worlds with a firm hand and an open heart. I saw again and again that more than intellect or technique, an open heart could create a safe space where the innate healing intelligence of their body and mind was free to arise.
The facilitators were skilled in many different healing practices and alternative medicines, and the conversation flowed easily between academic research, personal experiences, ancient techniques, and the most modern clinical treatments for trauma. The participants also had broad experience with such practices, which allowed us to look at healing in a holistic way.
We looked at how animals cope with stress. When an antelope on the savannah escapes a close call with a lion, it will tremble to “off-gas” the fear and stress. This helps to release the effects of cortisol and adrenaline in the blood. In human society, we repress our reactions to fear and make it taboo to cry and wail and tremble. It’s no wonder our society is riddled with anxiety.
We looked at muscle tension and its relationship to emotional repression. Tension in the throat is a common symptom in people who don’t feel that they can speak out. It is the last point where sounds arising from within the body can be held and stopped. During another exercise on fear, the facilitators would press on a participant’s muscle (in the jaw, chest, hips, or other places) that had tightened to “hold” the associated emotion. Once that emotion was expressed through shaking and crying and yelling, the muscles around that point would visibly relax.
We looked at neuroscience and physiology. At how the vagus nerve is the gateway to the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates our agitation and arousal. By tapping into it, we can encourage the body to release acetylcholine, which slows the heart down, relaxes muscles, and returns breathing to normal.
Often we work on the level of the “human brain” (or prefrontal cortex) through talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or exposure therapy. That approach provides insights but doesn’t get at the underlying physiology.
To treat trauma at its source and produce lasting change, we also need to work with the “mammal brain” and “lizard brain.” As described in The Body Keeps the Score, we need to retrain how the nervous system responds to everyday events by acting out scenes from our past while changing how they play out. When the logical, emotional, and physiological parts of ourselves work together, we can understand what has happened to us on an intellectual level while also feeling it as a truth in our body.
After an experience like this one, coming back to “normal life” felt like reentry from outer space.
I was definitely very raw. My heart was gaping wide open, and I felt everything with an incredible intensity. The sights and sounds of downtown Oakland were almost overwhelming, like the volume and saturation were turned up to 11. I met with a friend at a local restaurant and burst into tears when he told me about his frustrations with his boyfriend. I felt his pain directly.
There was no shield and no filter. I felt like a newborn child – fragile and a bit scared but also tremendously hopeful and happy. To help us handle this reentry, the course staff offered a range of “integration” tools: a group text thread, a list of events in major cities for program graduates, an accountability buddy, and follow-up calls with facilitators in the coming months. They recommended spending as much time in nature as possible and practices like acupuncture and bodywork to help us integrate what we had experienced.
I’ve noticed a range of effects in the months since completing Groundbreakers.
The first is enhanced sensitivity toward basically everything: my emotions, the emotions of others, and external and internal physical sensations. I wouldn’t have said this was something I wanted since I’ve spent so much of my life trying to be less sensitive. But I now have the awareness and confidence that I can handle those sensations skillfully and understand what they’re telling me.
With this newfound sensitivity, my compassion for others is much more front and center – even for those who criticize me, disagree with me, or oppose me. My defense mechanisms are less active than before. It doesn’t feel as much like there’s a fragile ego inside that I have to protect.
This newfound compassion is also directed at me. I feel I really love myself. I feel an affection and a curiosity toward all aspects of myself that I didn’t feel before. I don’t shift as readily into self-criticism and self-judgment, instead asking my self what I need or want that I am not getting. Whereas before I would have felt self-loathing at not being as productive as I wanted or not achieving what I set out to achieve, I now feel a softness and generosity toward myself.
Others have noticed as well. My wife Lauren says she’s seen a dramatic difference in me in the months since I completed the course. She says I’m lighter, happier, and quicker to laugh even with people I don’t know well. She says, oddly, that I am more myself.
I find it easier to be direct with people. Since I’m not triggered as much by my anger or theirs, I’m free to get angry if I want and then let it pass as soon as I’ve said what I need to say. Slights and offenses don’t feel as personal, as charged. I’ve discovered that anger is a form of vulnerability, because you are not in control of it. No longer fearing this loss of control, I find that other forms of vulnerability are more accessible as well. I feel freer to expose my weaknesses, my doubts, my fears to the people around me.
About two weeks after completing Groundbreakers, I was back home in Mexico City and settled into my usual routine.
One evening, I was working in our home office and Lauren said something that set me off. I noticed the cascade of internal changes – my heart started beating faster, my eyes widened, and my breathing got shallower. I felt a desire to escape, to run away. I also felt the temptation to shut the feeling down, to ignore it as I always used to.
But instead, I stood up and announced that I was going into the bedroom to do anger work. For 10 minutes I hit pillows and yelled, offloading the energy of my anger in a controlled way. Having released the energy, my mind was clear and my body was calm. We sat down and talked through the disagreement – communicating instead of reacting with passive aggressive bickering. That conversation lasted throughout the evening and led to many realizations about how our trauma interacted and the many ways we have learned to avoid it and shut it off.
And the next morning, my throat was relaxed again. It is as if my vagus nerve is a real-time barometer of how connected I am to my body and heart. When I go out of connection – by overworking, drinking too much coffee, distracting myself with social media, or not expressing myself – I feel it in my throat within a matter of hours. My vagus nerve seems to actually turn off, wreaking havoc on my ability to speak, swallow, sing, or laugh. And when I go back into connection, it turns on again, and I have my voice back. It is almost unbelievable that it could work so predictably.
In the following weeks, I continued to experience smaller “aftershocks” as I adjusted to normal life.
One evening I sat down to do my evening meditation as usual. Out of nowhere, I saw a vivid image of myself as a child. I was looking at my eight-year-old self in the eyes from a few inches away. I noticed every detail of his face and expressions. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with the recognition of how good this boy was. I could see how totally pure and innocent he was. He wanted nothing more than to give, to be valued, to have a place.
The love that I felt for this boy turned to grief. I could remember what it felt like inside, that pure desire to be good. I could also remember the bewilderment and confusion at not knowing how to be good. I had no idea what to do to get the recognition I craved.
I saw how over time, that confusion had turned into a desperate hunger for approval, an endless seeking of recognition. I could see the things I had done to survive this feeling: closing off my heart, channeling myself into ceaseless striving, and trying to earn love through sheer effort. I could see the terrible price I’d paid, not knowing that I was paying it, not knowing there was another way.
Then I saw that I could give myself that recognition. I could give myself the love I needed, then and now. As each of these realizations sparked the next, I was sobbing. Not like an adult, controlled and in charge. I was sobbing uncontrollably, like a child, great heaves and sounds that I didn’t recognize at all. The words that I was saying to myself were very childlike too: “I am good” and “I didn’t know” came out of my mouth again and again as I rocked back and forth on the living room couch.
Eventually, I felt a tremendous wave of compassion wash over me, and the distinct sensation my inner adult was stepping back into the foreground, saying things like “You didn’t know” and “No one taught you how to love yourself.” I felt myself forgiving myself, or rather, realizing there was nothing to forgive.
And then there was a reversal, and I could suddenly see that I still am that boy. I still am good and innocent and worthy of love. And I cried a lot, because I could feel myself finally receiving what I needed. I could feel myself merging with that child, who I had in a sense left behind in an attempt to distance myself from his feelings of unworthiness and shame.
I felt grief turn to joy and then a beautiful sense of victory. I told this boy in my imagination that “we did it” and “we made it.” I felt an incredible sense of peace and quiet, like a stereo I had forgotten was turned to pure static was suddenly turned off.
I have always prided myself on not getting angry. I’ve always been calm, cool, and collected. I remember running to my room as a kid when my parents had punished me or I felt I had been wronged. I would play loud music, stuff my face into the pillow, and work my hardest to swallow the anger. I didn’t want anyone to see me out of control. I remember in my teens when I finally managed to swallow the anger wholesale, turning it instead into an icy determination to prove others wrong. I can remember feeling proud I had managed this feat of self-control.
I’ve come to understand that very early in my childhood I defined anger and love as mutually exclusive: If there is anger, there can be no love; if there is love, there can be no anger. I had withheld my anger most from the people I loved the most, thinking I would somehow damage the relationship if I let it out. But repressed anger eventually turns into resentment, and I found myself stuck in a pattern of distancing myself from people I cared about rather than telling them how I truly feel.
Growing up, it had never been safe to express anger toward my father, because getting his anger in return was too terrifying. Over the years, that cycle of repression became ingrained to the point that I had trouble expressing anger as an adult even when it was completely appropriate, or even necessary.
Someone I cared about would be in danger, and I couldn’t muster the anger to intervene. I would see an injustice taking place before my eyes and be unable to say anything to make it right. The one way it could get out was through tears, because that was the one thing my father always responded to. So I found myself bursting into tears anytime I started to feel anger – taking feedback from my boss or arguing with my partner – which was so embarrassing and emasculating that I learned to avoid those situations altogether.
There was a turning point in the week at Groundbreakers when this narrative broke down. I was doing pair work, and when my partner asked me a question, a feeling of numbness and emptiness descended upon me. We realized that that was what I felt in place of anger – nothing. The facilitator asked me, “What keeps you from seeing your anger as love?” and then more forcefully, “Your anger IS your love – it’s time to let that love out.”
My definition of anger and love as mutually opposed forces was obliterated at that moment. My resistance to feeling anger, seeing it as the antithesis of the love that I tried to live my life by, evaporated. Using the volcano metaphor, it was like the two chambers of anger and love, which I had spent so much energy trying to keep separated, collapsed together and merged. I felt them connect deep inside – anger tempered and directed by love and love energized and purified by anger.
In the months since, I have made an astounding discovery: there is a river of emotion flowing through me at all times. I can reach down into that river and access an overwhelming, infinite source of energy. When I am speaking in front of a group, I don’t have to try to be inspiring. I can just decide to be moving, simply by allowing myself to be moved by the torrent of love flowing through me.
When I write, I can take a deep breath and tap into that river of pure intuition to know where to go next. When I meditate, I can sit down and let things come up, like bubbles rising to the surface. I don’t have to do anything. My body knows how to heal itself. All I have to do is let it happen.
In order to unblock your creative flow, I’ve realized, you have to unblock your emotional flow, because you need access to every possible emotional state like colors on a pallet. Your creative output is simply the stream of things you naturally do when you are in touch with the emotions in your body. They allow you to do everything we know as leadership: to make decisive choices, to take risks, to insist on pursuing what makes you come alive, to empathize with those in need, and to work toward a vision with unstoppable determination.
In my work, I use words like “performance,” “resilience,” and “effectiveness.” But what if the path to these qualities is not by making ourselves harder and more stoic? What if they have nothing to do with pushing ourselves or setting more ambitious goals? Maybe strength and power are a side effect of opening up our emotional range, of cultivating a healthy relationship with each and every part of ourselves. And just maybe, the process of connecting with ourselves and with each other is what we’re really longing for in the first place.
We all hunger for a feeling of connection – to each other, to a community, and to a cause that is greater than ourselves. But that feeling – and it really is a feeling in the body – starts with being connected to ourselves. To every part of ourselves, not just the parts we approve of. Once we have that feeling like a treasure deep in our gut, it can grow and spread to every other part of our lives.
I have always wondered what distinguishes the people who go after their dreams with everything they have, and those who don’t. In a way, this is the key question driving my work. Some people just seem to have a fire inside them that refuses to be put out – in fact, that gets more fierce the more life tries to drown it out.
I’ve come to believe it is these capabilities – of being grounded in the body, of being able to access a wide range of emotions, of being curious about the sensations in their heart rather than afraid of them – that distinguishes such people. Sometimes they become great leaders with famous accomplishments. Sometimes they live humble, fulfilling lives enjoying the simple things. But either way, they live life with a profound sense of happiness and gratitude and finish it with no regrets.
I told this story for one main reason: to bring the ideas and practices that I have benefited so much from to more people.
There is a staggering need for trauma treatment in society. People are suffering and dying every day because they are tormented by the pain of their past. Many of them have no idea that anything can be done about it. They don’t know that it’s not their fault and that help is available.
We are living in the midst of not only a scientific revolution in our understanding of trauma and a clinical revolution in our ability to treat it but also a cultural revolution in our awareness and acceptance of trauma as a normal part of the human experience.
Our brains are infinitely adaptable and don’t come pre-wired for how to live satisfying lives. Our childhood environment “trains” our nervous system in how to survive. But modern life is complex and ever-changing, and what served us then doesn’t necessarily serve us now. We can retrain our nervous system to be more flexible, trusting, and open. We now know many, many effective ways of doing so.
As described in The Body Keeps the Score, there are three main pathways for treating trauma. The first is “top down,” using talk therapy to engage the mind. The second is medicinal, using pharmaceuticals and psychedelics to change how the brain responds. But there is a third pathway, using “bottom up” somatic practices such as the anger work I described.
This third path has gone largely unexplored, and I believe it holds immense potential for changing how we interact with trauma. It has the advantage of working very quickly, doesn’t require ingesting anything, isn’t illegal, and can be done anywhere very affordably.
It is merely taboo, and we can change taboos.
Working together with the other methods, this new three-fold path offers the possibility of a holistic, integrated, safe, customized, scalable, and research-backed approach to addressing one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Imagine what life would be like if the voice in your head was encouraging you instead of criticizing you. Imagine what would be possible if the messages coming from your body constantly told you ”You are safe” and “You can do it.” What kind of a world could we live in if there was a practical path toward learning to love ourselves?
I am working with Joe Hudson to develop a few recommendations for anyone who wants to explore this kind of somatic healing work. They will include lightweight ones you can do at home, as well as more experiential, immersive ones like the course described here.
Please subscribe to my weekly newsletter at the bottom of this page if you’d like to receive these recommendations once they’re ready.
Subscribe to Praxis, our members-only blog exploring the future of productivity, for just $10/month. Or follow us for free content via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or YouTube.