How Can I Make Better Decisions?

How Can I Make Better Decisions?


Joe and Brett discuss how to find deeper clarity in decision-making, whether at the office or standing on the edge of a cliff. From the premise that decisions are emotionally-driven, they explore how we arrive at decisions based on how we think we’ll feel when an outcome arrives. When you’re happy to feel any emotion, good or bad, your decision-making becomes very clear.

Tune in to find how becoming more aware of our emotions and finding guiding principles can help us quickly find the next obvious step in any decision-making process.


But... Is It Safe?

But... Is It Safe?


In our previous episode, Joe and Brett talked about how seeing through limiting beliefs can be scary because we're not sure we'll be safe. This is an especially relevant concern in the realm of high-risk activities like skydiving and BASE Jumping. In today's episode, Joe interviews Brett about how his relationship to the idea of safety has changed over the course of his decades-long career in adventure sports.

They discuss:

1:54 - What is safety?
5:32 - Safety as an idea can bring us comfort or distress
9:20 - The concept of safety as detachment or contact with reality
11:17 - Business and safety
13:23 - Grounded and ungrounded excitement
14:26 - Applying lessons from safety in airsports to business life
16:48 - Internal stability and flow
19:55 - Learning to be secure is learning to fall - a story
24:26 - Finding our inherent innate stability

Tweet us your comments @artofaccomp


Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson. 

Joe: Hey, Brett. I want to do something different today. I want to ask you questions. I want to interview you. The reason I want to interview you is because your understanding and fear is I think so unique given both being a CEO of a company and doing air sports, losing friends, a lot of friends in air sports, that I wanted to go into your story of how you have processed safety and fear. I just think there is a lot to learn there for everybody. Also, I think it would be nice for everybody to know more about you and your story, so I was hoping I could interview you on safety and fear. 

Brett: Let’s do it. We were just recording the second limiting beliefs episode just before this, and one of the things we were talking about was this thing on safety. We are afraid to try on different beliefs or see through our beliefs or explore different ways of being because we haven’t proven it is safe. This is something that has been really big in my life for a very long time, specifically in the world of base jumping, paragliding and air sports where the attachment to safety really shows up. I would love to get into that a little bit more. 

Joe: Just out of curiosity, what does safety mean to you? That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and I am wondering what it means to you. 

Brett: First of all, safety is an illusion. Nothing is safe. We will call something safe if we feel comfortable, we feel like can be in flow, we feel like we are capable of navigating the environment, the jump we are about to do, building a company, or a relationship, and we feel like we are going to survive it or what we care about is going to survive. 

Joe: When did you come to that conclusion? How did you get there? That’s a pretty sophisticated thought process. Safety just means I’m convinced I’m comfortable, basically. How did you get there? I am sure that wasn’t the way you were born. How did that happen?

Brett: Let’s go back to when I started base jumping. When I started jumping, reading all of the limited literature there was at the time and talking to people, they thought this is a very dangerous sport and there is nothing you can do to make it safe. You can make it less dangerous, but ultimately there is a very real risk that you will die and that you will have major injuries you will spend years recovering from and maybe never fully. That happens all of the time, and it is going to happen to some of your friends if you are in the sport for long enough. It might be you, and you are the friend people are talking about. 

Getting into that, I still felt very drawn into the sport. I spent a lot of time meditating on that. I’d find myself sitting and imagining what it would be like if I broke my legs and injured my spine. I did the seeing through that negative outcome and that consequence and thinking if that happens, what would be left. Would I be someone in a wheelchair and then dedicate my life to studying neuroscience and solving spinal cord injuries? Would I be somebody who just gets up? I feel like I would be the person who continues doing something. I feel like I could continue to find meaning. Seeing through those things was enough for me to feel safe, going into that activity, which was to say that I felt comfortable that even if something were to happen to me, I would be okay with that outcome because the exploration was worth it. 

Joe: Did you ever think you were crazy or there was something wrong with you? Why would I do something like this? Did those thoughts ever happen?

Brett: Yeah, all of the time. Sometimes I got off on it a little bit. Oh yeah, I am crazy. I am one of those crazy ones. You think I am crazy. Watch this! 

Joe: Hold my beer. That’s interesting. To some degree, what you are saying here is you got comfortable with it and therefore it felt safe, but the comfort in it is on some level very individualistic. What you could find comfortable and what somebody else finds comfortable could be very different things, but also comfort to some degree is based on what’s happened in your past. The way you gained comfort here was looking towards your future, which is interesting. It is an interesting thing to note. 

Brett: It is looking at the possible futures and asking myself if this is something I could be comfortable with, and like we talked about in limiting beliefs, it wasn’t so I would get myself injured and be in a wheelchair. It was so I could explore life feeling unconstructed and unconstrained, and one thing I learned about safety is it can become an idea that we use to stop seeing reality so that we feel comfortable. That can be helpful for us. The first time you are making a base jump, there are certain things you need to pay attention to, and there are also certain things that might be overwhelming if you consider them. You focus on the task. You focus on the training and on what you are about to do, and you try not to think too much about your mother crying when you die because that might be something that takes you out of the flow. 

There was one jump I did in Europe where I jumped my wingsuit, and I was flying down a mountain. There was a section that if you were flying at a good enough glide ratio, you could then fly over another mountain and then have another several thousand feet of flight. I was going to make it. I thought I was going to make it. I was pretty sure I was going to make it. It flashed through my head. I had this imagining of my girlfriend at the time getting a phone call and that all of a sudden took me out of it. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I panicked and pulled my parachute, and I ended up landing in somebody’s background in the middle of France. I bailed and I survived, and I also did not do it very gracefully. I let in information that dysregulated me, and constriction occurred. Then I had to bail. 

That brings it back to this point where I have learned safety is an idea that we use to feel safe, but it can bring us into contact with reality and it can take us out of contact with reality. If I am standing at an exit point and I want to feel safe so that I jump, let’s say I really want to feel safe and make this jump because I am with a group of people and I don’t want them to have to climb down this mountain with me that we just climbed up and I don’t want them to have to wait by the car while I climb down, so I am more afraid of disappointing people and not being seen than I am of the jump. I might just disassociate myself from some of the risks of the jump, so I reach this point where I am safe. 

Joe: On that for a second, I would assume it is really important when you are on that, the base you are jumping off, so to speak, that you know which one you are doing. How do you know when you are using the idea of safety to detach from reality and to be more in contact with your reality? It seems like with base jumping being more in contact with reality in this moment is good. How do you distinguish?

Brett: That’s a good question. Something we have said a lot in the sport, and this comes from other places is the other side of the coin of fear is excitement. If I am feeling a grounded level of excitement and anticipation, and I feel like my body is amped in such a way that is metabolically prepared for what I am about to do and I feel that I am flow and that flow is accessible to me, and I am not just reaching that state because I am putting on the blinders. I am reaching that state because I am welcoming any red flags there might be and they are not to be found. Everything feels right. There is a certain kind of grounded excitement that occurs there. 

Joe: Grounded excitement also sounds like if you notice any defensiveness in your system that that is a red flag. 

Brett: Defensiveness in the system, or what makes me not want to talk about the wind conditions over that ridge over there? What is making me focus on it being a nice, bright sunny day and not on me being tired because we were out late partying last night and I’m not feeling on it right now? 

Joe: The amazing thing is this is such a metaphor for business. The things that we don’t talk about usually get us in trouble. They are on the side of our minds. Something is not happening right right there, but let’s not pay attention to it. 

Brett: Imagine in a boardroom. If there is a risk and you are assessing the risk and nobody in the room is willing to actually feel through the consequence of taking a wrong action in that risk or the consequence of the action you may have to take may be more difficult. You may not want to lay people off. You may not want to lay off somebody you have a personal attachment or relationship with, and since you are not willing to look at that, you are far more likely to give a story about how it is safe. We are actually going to be fine because of X, Y and Z rather than really seeing the deeper reality. 

It has been a conversation around the base jumping community for a long time. People will start to identify as a safe jumper and that person is not a safe jumper. This is a safe kind of jump and that’s not a safe kind of jump. Is this jump safe for a beginner jumper like me? That answer is no to all of those things. What are the risks? How do you as an organism interact with your environment given those conditions? Do you have the experience? Does your body have the experience? When you are standing on the edge of this cliff and you are about to jump, does your body have enough history of similar situations that it feels like it has this, and it knows what to do? It is like jumping into a swimming pool. If not, that shows up in the somatic experience. 

You asked what it feels like, and I spoke about grounded excitement. Another one is ungrounded excitement. If you are excited but that excitement is covering up some anxiety and you are not letting that anxiety move through and integrate into your excitement, then you are going to find yourself a little bit bouncy. Another way that can look is just straight anxiety. Another way that can look is anxiety funneling through to anger. Sometimes people get angry at an exit point if they are scared, or they will triple gear check someone else and be super sure that the least experienced jumper on the load is safe. There are all kinds of ways it comes out, but they are all a form of not being grounded in yourself. 

Joe: Fascinating. How much of this is applied to your business? You are in a room with the people running your business with you, how much does that feel like sitting at an entry point? How much are you monitoring your body the same way?

Brett: Interestingly, my business is fully remote. Sitting in a room is an experience I rarely get with my team. A lot of my time with my business is actually spent with myself and deciding what to do next, which might be calling a meeting or doing some strategy or just getting some work done. If I am with a team and we are talking, it is the same thing. I find that for myself one way that I will leave the present moment, leave myself, will be to find something to get excited about. The numbers are scary, and the economy just tanked. Everything is a mess and look at all of this opportunity out there. Looking at the opportunity is a wonderful thing to do, and clinging to and grasping for the opportunity, there is a different feeling in that. 

Joe: Not ground excitement is what it sounds like. That gives you the same signal. That informs whether I am going to jump or not. 

Brett: It relates back to something we have talked about before. It is about the inner security. The more dependent you are on external security, then the more internally secure you are going to feel. Let’s say I am standing on a cliff, and I am about to jump. There is something that needs to happen performance wise, something I need to execute. I imagine jumping. I am visualizing this. I might visualize myself throwing the wrong access of rotation. I might visualize myself failing to get my wingsuit flying. I might visualize myself failing to outfly a certain ledge. Allowing myself to feel those possible outcomes as I am preparing to do something, allowing myself to feel what it would be like to have that occur and recover from it and have that occur and not recover from it, have that occur and that last oh shit moment before impact and just having all of that possibility moving through my body and integrating is something that allows me, when I actually make the jump, to know what to do if something goes awry. 

An example is walking on a slackline. If anyone listening to this has anyone walk a slackline, it is this one-inch piece of webbing that can be tied between two trees or it can be set up between two cliffs, a thousand feet in the air. One of the things I love to say about learning to slack line is it is actually the art of learning to fall off. When you first stand on the thing, you feel so insecure. Your legs wiggle and shudder, and you fall right off. You ask yourself how you will ever be able to walk this thing. The line is not insecure at all. The line is perfectly stable. The only insecurity that’s being brought into the system is what you are bringing to it. It is your muscles over correcting. It is your top down trying to think your way through it. Initially, you are going to fall, but the more you do it, the more internal stability you develop and then the less overcorrecting your legs need to do. Then you find there is a natural point of balance on the line. The line wants to balance, and your body wants to balance. It will just do it. That’s when you start getting to the point where you can walk across mile long lines. I haven’t done that. Several of my friends have. People see it and ask how you do it. 

That’s a really good metaphor for internal security. The more internal security you develop, and this can occur in physical reality, your social reality or in business. The more secure in yourself you are, the less you need any specific external conditions to be any certain way and the more you will be able to remain in flow through whatever conditions that end up occurring. 

Joe: What’s interesting to me is somebody listening to this might think I have to learn to be balanced so I can be secure, which is in itself an overcorrection and a lack of security. They might have missed the point of what you are saying here, which is learning to be secure is learning to fall. What is a real story? In slack line, you have fallen a million times, but what is a real story in business or in relationships or even in base jumping where a fall has really taught you how to be secure?

Brett: Let me think about that one for a moment. In 2009, I was in South Africa, and this was a long journey. I had broken my arm skiing in Utah, and then I continued to go on an Africa trip anyway even though I had a broken arm. I was in Zambia with a friend. Then I rebroke the arm doing some refugee smuggling on motorcycles and having a crash. Then I got the news that my dad had lost his job and his health insurance. I had a couple hundred bucks. I was doing some freelance work online, web work, that wasn’t particularly consistent. I had a couple hundred bucks, a broken arm, and no health insurance. What am I going to do? 

I went to South Africa. I took a bus down to Cape Town. They have got good medical care there. I was just going to figure things out from South Africa and get some medical care. I did that for a while, and I sank into the city. I really loved it. I was there for a month or so. Then I went to check my bank account and pull out some money from the ATM. It was empty. I looked and the exchange rate had halved almost in the month or two I had been there, and I hadn’t checked it. I was suddenly out of money. I didn’t know where my next money was coming from, and I was in a foreign country. Luckily I had already paid my rent for that week, so I had a place to stay. 

I thought I’ve got nothing and I’ve no idea what I am going to do. I started walking around to different bars and businesses on Long Street, which is the main thoroughfare in Cape Town. I started writing down my name and phone number on napkins and I walked into businesses and said I was a web developer. Your website looks like it could use some work. I could help you out. I ended up getting one phone call from that. It didn’t turn out to be the best client, but that was the process where I was out of money. I still refer to that moment now when I think if I actually lost everything, it would suck and there is a lot I love and am attached to about material possessions and access to financial resources I have had in my life and I also know I can go back and write my name and phone number on napkins and do something from scratch in a brand new place and environment all over again. 

That’s why I say walking the slack line you end up learning some internal stability and you build this experience over the course of your life. It is true that a newborn baby’s body has a biological stability and instincts, and it is also not going to successfully take care of itself, and then over time we do get our feet under us. This is one of the things where the process of letting go of limiting beliefs. Our identity lags behind our actual growth, and the more that we see that, the more that we see there has always been an internal security and an internal stability. That’s the kind of internal stability that might make us walk something new, like walking a slack line or starting a business. Often something happens that we forget that we have that innate security and stability and that we have the capacity to assess reality wherever we are and take steps. 

Joe: Awesome. Thanks for sharing a bit of your life with us. I really appreciate it, and I love your perspective on safety. It is really wonderful. Thanks for sharing everything. 

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at 


How to See Through Limiting Beliefs

How to See Through Limiting Beliefs


Revisiting the topic of limiting beliefs, Joe and Brett explore what prevents us from seeing them, what keeps them stuck, and how to see through and integrate these beliefs in a way that enables a more free and easeful existence.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The logical fallacies, ignorance, and avoided consequences that make us not see many of our hidden beliefs
  • How we can see a belief and still be limited by it
  • Exploring the “latticework” of beliefs that hold structures of identity in place.
  • Three core beliefs that commonly underlie others, and how to find evidence that loosens them.
  • What we can do once we see our beliefs and how we can use awareness and inquiry to easily integrate them.


Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I’m Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson. 

Brett: How are you today?

Joe: It has been a lot, man. It’s been good. I’m in Denver, Colorado, and I just did a session with 350 people at this company. It was really fun. 

Brett: Very cool. 

Joe: You can see the hotel room. Everybody listening to the podcast can’t, but look at this thing. I mean it is like a Sumo wrestler with bunny ears on is the art on the walls of this hotel room. 

Brett: That is pretty bizarre, and you have got some antlers in the back. 

Joe: It is a huge hotel, 15 stories, and every room is decorated differently. Every floor of the hotel has a theme, so one is a video arcade theme, one is a comedy theme, and one is a horror theme. It is crazy. 

Brett: Are there any rooms with a limiting beliefs theme?

Joe: I don’t know. I think that with Sumo wrestlers with bunny ears there is nothing limiting us. 

Brett: At least we can make a podcast on a limiting beliefs theme. 

Joe: Let’s do that. 

Brett: A little while back we did one on limiting beliefs, defining what they are and how it is that they run our lives when they are unexplored, and how we can start to explore them. We have gotten a lot of questions and requests from folks wanting us to go a little bit deeper into limiting beliefs and really more how to see through them and dismantle them, and do all of the jiu jitsu we can do to find deeper freedom. How do you feel about going into that today?

Joe: We have been creating new curriculum around limiting beliefs. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and it feels really good to talk about it. I think the thing I want to start off with is that in the last podcast we talked about the fact that your beliefs don’t disappear; they are integrated, meaning when you see through a limiting belief. Let’s say the limiting belief life is hard. That might be a compulsive belief. It doesn’t mean that that belief goes away. It means it gets integrated. It means sometimes you might think life is hard or somethings you might have the thought is hard, but it doesn’t create constriction in your system. It might mean that before you thought about it every time you had a certain emotional experience and now you don’t think about it that way or it doesn’t have the same trigger or hold. Seeing through the limiting belief doesn’t make it so you can’t have the belief. It makes it so that the belief integrates into a more peaceful existence. Before we get started, I want to reemphasize that. 

Brett: Seeing through isn’t making it absolutely transparent and you don’t see it anymore or that you can’t see it or that you are in opposition to that belief in any way. 

Joe: That’s the best way to say it. You are not in opposition to that belief. That’s a great way to say it. I would say it does remain transparent. You will start to see the belief is optional, but it doesn’t mean that you will never have it. 

Brett: As opposed to just being gone. 

Joe: Transparent in the way that you can see through it. 

Brett: Then how do we do that? How do we see through? 

Joe: Two step process, let’s go. 

Brett: I believe these things. I believe these beliefs. 

Joe: Go to somebody who will pump you up and convince you. That might last a little while. There are two kinds. The thing that I am seeing really clearly now is there is the kind of limiting belief that gets stuck, and that’s one that you are aware of. I am aware this is a limiting belief, but I still believe it and I can’t get out of it. When I say believe it, I don’t mean intellectually believe it. It means the rest of your body believes it and maybe even intellectually you believe it. 

Brett: What does it mean for the rest of your body to believe it?

Joe: Everybody here listening to the podcast knows it is better for them to be healthy, physically healthy, and so you can know that. That’s an intellectual knowing, but until your whole system gets it, you are not going to take action to be healthy. The other word they use for this is grok. It is understood not just intellectually. You fully get it. When I say that the whole system hasn’t gotten it, it means the actions aren’t coming from that understanding. They are coming from a different understanding. 

Brett: I am sitting on a coach, and I have this belief it is better to be healthy. I see all the ways I could do something to be healthier, and my body doesn’t actually produce and follow through on an impulse to become healthier for some reason. 

Joe: Correct. Instead you beat yourself up for not doing the work or you just ignore it, or you do avoidance or whatever it is. 

Brett: How do you see through limiting beliefs? 

Joe: The first thing is there are two ways of looking at limiting beliefs. There are the ones that you just haven’t seen. You don’t know they are a limiting belief, and then you find out they are a limiting belief. Then there are the ones you know are a limiting belief and you haven’t fully integrated, and therefore, you are still acting by those limiting beliefs even though you might intellectually see through them. 

The first one, for instance, might be something I have a boss, and you never think about the idea that you have a boss being a limiting belief. You notice one day that you say it to yourself, and you are like oh my gosh, I have a boss, and it causes constriction, which is how you know it is a limiting belief. You might really be able to see actually I don’t have a boss. What I have is a client. I am in business, and I only have one client. I have an undiversified revenue stream. I don’t actually have anybody who is in control over me or who is in authority over me. I just have a client. That might create a lot of freedom for you. You just see it. The epiphany happens, and it is over. The limiting belief is gone. 

Compared to the second kind, which would be something like I should be healthy, and intellectually you know it is good to be healthy, but the rest of your system hasn’t gotten on board with that. There is no action that shows that being healthy is an important thing to you. Instead, there is maybe self-abuse or avoidance or something like that. Those limiting beliefs are usually something that have two components. The first component is there is an emotional hook sticking them in place, and the other one is that there is some basic belief that is in play that is holding it in place. How to unstick the emotional stuff is not something we can do on this podcast. Maybe on a future podcast we can talk about. There just isn’t time, but I would love to talk about seeing through limiting beliefs and how awareness can just do that and some of the basic limiting beliefs that make a whole bunch of other ones stick in place. 

Brett: What makes us not see limiting beliefs?

Joe: The first one is there is a logical fallacy. We have an errand or a thought. We haven’t really looked at deeply enough to see through the belief system. The other one is just ignorance. Maybe nobody has ever conceived of the fact that their boss is just one client. The most common one is there are some consequences involved where we don’t want to have to face those consequences, so we keep ourselves in the dark around the limiting belief. For instance, the consequence of the boss one might be something like if I don’t have a boss, I don’t actually have safety here. I don’t want to look at that. I like to work under the illusion that because I have an employer, it is safer than being an entrepreneur. I don’t want to see those consequences. Maybe a limiting belief is something like I can’t do it, but if you believe you can do it, it also means you might fail. You don’t want to have to suffer the consequences of feeling like a failure, so it is easier to believe like I can’t do it. That’s the other thing that keeps the unseen ones in place. 

The quickest hack to seeing if you have one of those things is you look for a comparable in the space. Are there entrepreneurs that feel safe? Are there entrepreneurs that are more financially secure than me in a job? Therefore, there must be something I am not seeing. Are there people who can enjoy failure? Are there people who have failed several times and then succeeded, i.e. Abe Lincoln or Sam Walton? That can allow you to see how your limiting belief is untrue or can be untrue from a certain point of view. 

Brett: You are pointing towards that there is the possibility that people can have different beliefs and it can be easy for them to experience failure or whatever emotions that come from the consequences we might be avoiding behind our own limiting beliefs. How do we make it easier to see them? 

Joe: The first thing is to see the belief is not about true or untrue. Usually that’s where somebody gets stuck. Is that a true belief or a not true belief? That is not the way to see through limiting beliefs. The way to see through limiting beliefs is just to see that there is constriction when you have the thought. You have the thought and then you have constriction. That is a limiting belief. It is not whether the belief is true or untrue. An example of this would be you have two people you are going to hire for a job. They have identical resumes. They have the same experience. There is nothing differentiating them except for one thing. The one thing that is differentiating them is one of them thinks I can do this job well and the other thinks I can’t do this job well. Who are you going to hire? It doesn’t matter if that idea is right or not right, true or not true, what matters is they have the more useful belief system. They have less constriction in their system around taking this job. That’s what you are looking for. It is never about a good or bad idea. 

The same thing with the metaphor we have been using of I have a boss. For some people, having a boss is not a constrictive thought at all. It is not a limiting belief for them. They think yeah, they have a boss. It is great. My boss is great. I love having a boss. This is wonderful. For some people, every time they think about having a boss, they get constricted. That is something for them to see through. In one way, it is absolutely true for both people they have a boss. In another way, it is absolutely true they don’t have a boss. They have one client and an undiversified revenue stream. It is never about right or wrong. It is about what is the thought that serves you best. The way we know it serves us best is if it is creating constriction in our system. As soon as you get that, it totally helps you see through limiting beliefs. 

Brett: It is more about the limiting aspect of it than there is a belief you have that is true or not true. It is not even that you are trying to prove these beliefs as false except as an exercise to believe them a little bit less or to see what you need to see through to let go of the constriction and find freedom. It is about the limitation, and as the limitation lifts, you can have the belief and other beliefs. 

Joe: That’s exactly right. The whole thing about working with limiting beliefs, the underlying principle, is you are constantly creating spaciousness. You are taking something that creates constriction, and you are finding spaciousness with it. One way to do that is to see the untruth in it, and one way to do that is to see that it is not your thought, and it was given to you. One way is to visualize yourself in a world where that isn’t your thought anymore. One way is to see there are people who have been very successful with a different thought around the same subject. All of those things can create more spaciousness in the system, and so you are not looking for your brain to tell you I don’t believe this anymore. You are looking for your body to tell you that thought doesn’t create constriction in my system. I have other thoughts I believe that are more useful to me, and I know that because they don’t create constriction in my system. 

Brett: What are some of the basic beliefs that keep these stuck ones stuck?

Joe: There are three main categories of these beliefs. The first one is that I am bad. The second one is that it is hard. The third one is that I will be unsafe. Those are the three categories of beliefs. It even works with letting go of limiting beliefs. I can’t let go of limiting beliefs because I am bad. I can’t let go of limiting beliefs because it is hard. I can’t let go of limiting beliefs because I won’t be safe. Those are the three main categories that help a belief get stuck and halfway understood. Our mind might get it, but our body doesn’t get it. 

Brett: What do you mean by bad? What would make that be a stuck belief? 

Joe: Bad would be you should be ashamed, you are responsible, you tried, and you can’t. I’m broken. There is something essentially wrong with me. It is any way in which you tell yourself something can’t change because you are flawed by nature. 

Brett: What would make us think we are bad by nature?

Joe: Oftentimes we are told that. Most of us were raised with shame as a tool of control. We have been shamed or guilted. You are naughty. I’ve seen parents tell their kids they are naughty five times in an afternoon. You get told that for your whole life, and so it is hard to come out of it and think I am not naughty. I am good. I am inherently good. That’s one example. The other thing is you start looking for evidence you are bad because other people attack you. When somebody attacks you, instead of thinking they are having a bad day, they haven’t had enough coffee, they are projecting, they are having an issue, you think I’ve done something wrong, and I am bad. You start using that as evidence that you are bad. Anything that goes wrong, it shows that I am bad. 

The other way is to look back on actions you have had, and you think if I was good, I wouldn’t have cheated on my husband or I wouldn’t have eaten the food. My brain tells me I shouldn’t, but I am still doing it. That’s because there is something wrong with me. I am broken and bad. You see it that way instead of seeing it as ignorance, not ignorance in a bad way but not knowing the right tools for the job. We get told it, and then we find evidence. 

Brett: That ignorant piece is interesting. You might see the belief and you might know it is a limiting belief at the time. I know that if I work out, I will feel healthier and better, and I am still not doing that right now. Even proving it with present actions that are ignorant seems like a thing. 

Joe: Exactly. Well put. 

Brett: What’s the ignorant piece? If you see the belief and don’t take the action, it is ignorance in the body and on some deeper level. 

Joe: You are not ignorant that being healthy is a good choice. You are ignorant of how to dislodge the thought that you are bad in your head, which causes you to take actions to prove you are bad. You are ignorant of how to motivate yourself to be healthy. You are ignorant of the fact that being healthy can be really fun, and it doesn’t have to be a chore that oppresses you. Clearly if you fully understood it, you would do it, but in the mind, it is I understand it, but I am not doing it, so I am bad, instead of I don’t fully understand it. How do I find out?

Brett: Maybe I was ignorant of the belief underneath it. I might believe it is great to be healthy, but I might be seeing the belief underneath that it I am broken and bad. 

Joe: The belief that it is hard to be healthy, or the belief that if I get healthy, I will be unsafe. I know a lot of overweight people who stay overweight because they got molested at some point in their lives. As soon as they see through the molestation and they realize they can be attractive and safe, they start losing weight. There are a ton of things that could be in there, but instead, we say we know it, but we are not doing it. Therefore, we are bad. 

Brett: How do you know you are not bad?

Joe: If you have been trying to do something, let’s use the be healthy example. You have been thinking about being healthy and trying to be healthy for 20 years. That shows me that you are strong. That shows me that you have persistence. That shows me that you care about yourself. That shows me that you are not giving up. It shows me some self-awareness. It shows me an urge for leaving ignorance. All of those things are really good. Those are some of the components that make up what we would call a good person. We are not looking at any of that stuff. Every single place where you think you are bad, I am sure there are 20 or 30 pieces of evidence, just like I said, that would actually show that you are good. 

The other thing when people think they are bad or broken, and you start digging down with them and asking what exactly it is that makes them bad. I am overweight. There are a lot of overweight people. Are they all bad? No, they are not all bad. What exactly is it that makes you bad? If you keep on doing that, they can never get to an answer. There is no answer for that. There is no essence thing. I haven’t worked with murderers, so maybe the murderer can actually say that. I would suspect even a murderer would be able to see other murderers as not bad people. 

Brett: I mean we spoke with Emile. 

Joe: Perfect example. When we had that conversation with Emile, his journey was to stop calling himself bad and to stop having that judgment because it was holding him in a pattern. He had to be able to see through that belief system to actually get the freedom and be the kind of person he and society wanted him to be. A great example of it. There is a podcast on Emile that you can listen to. He is an amazing human if you haven’t heard it. 

Brett: Emile Deweaver in our catalog. 

Joe: That’s another way you can see you are not bad. The other thing is if you really want to prove it to yourself, for the next three months, consistently say that you are inherently good. Instead of saying I am bad or thinking to yourself you are bad, think I am inherently good and see what happens because a lot of the times we are the things that we tell ourselves that we are. If you tell a kid he is naughty all the time, they are going to act naughty. That’s how it works. If you tell yourself you are good all the time, there is a good chance you will see your actions in a way that is good or see your actions as good because sometimes our idea of good is a morality that’s not actually the feeling of goodness. I would say test the belief to see if you are bad or if it is just that you have been telling yourself you are bad for so long that you are acting like it. Those would be the three things I would suggest people do if they truly think they are bad so they can discover otherwise. 

Brett: The next one you mentioned is we believe it is hard. What do you mean by that? It is hard to see through and find freedom. 

Joe: It generally means there has to be a lot of effort and it is going to suck. They are going to have to endure it. There is going to need to be a lot of trying. It can’t be simple. They can’t enjoy the process. People think changing my limiting beliefs is hard, and that assumes it is a chore or a level of oppression instead of I can work for 10 minutes and change a limiting belief. I immediately some freedom, which feels better, and then I can do it again. This is again. Therapy, it is going to be really hard to go to therapy. It is going to be really hard to start a business. You can go to the comps. There are some people that have really enjoyed starting their business. There is a way to do it to enjoy it. The idea is it is going to be hard, and that immediately makes it harder to see through limiting beliefs. 

Brett: Then on the other side, how hard is it to continue to oppress ourselves? 

Joe: Totally. To endure shit is hard, exactly, and to tell yourself you have to endure stuff is hard. 

Brett: Why does that persist? What does the belief that something is hard persist when in reality it is actually harder to continue? 

Joe: One, sometimes we don’t know how to do it, so we just say it is hard because we haven’t done it before. There is this lattice work of ideas in giving up limiting beliefs, and if we don’t know that, it seems hard rather than this is the path to get there. We can talk about lattice work later if you want. The other reason is because emotions hold them in place, and since people don’t know that, they think letting go of a limiting belief is hard or letting go of a behavior is hard until they realize it is really about an emotion they are not fully feeling, loving or accepting. When they do that, the behavior can immediately change. There are all sorts of reasons people think it is hard. It is just like drywall. If I am going to put up drywall, I am going to think it is hard, and if someone who has put up drywall for the last 10 years, they don’t think it is hard. If I go to the person who knows how to hang drywall and he says it is easy, do it like this, it is immediately going to be easier for me. If anything, the hardness is about ignorance. 

We have been trying the same thing in the same way over and over again. I am going to be healthy by losing weight. I am going to lose weight by reducing calories. Twenty years later it is hard because it is not working, but there might be 10 other ways to lose weight we haven’t tried. 

Brett: Seeing through a limiting belief intellectually and not having it fully grok in our system continues to prove the idea that this belief must be true because I keep falling back into it. If you are trying to hang drywall with a screw that doesn’t work, it is going to keep falling. Drywall is hard until you see what’s holding the limiting belief in place. 

Joe: But it is not hard. As it turns out, you and everybody have changed thousands of limiting beliefs in their lives and they have done it without even noticing it. Our neurology is set up not to notice all of the limiting beliefs we have seen through. We like to think we have a coherent sense of self, and that coherent sense of self needs a set of beliefs you have pretty much been believing for a long time. We don’t look back and think our beliefs have completely changed. Let me give you some examples. Your belief of God between the time you were born and now, there have been multiple versions of God in your mind, most likely. They have shifted and have become less and less limiting. Your belief of God has become less and less limiting, the same with money, with drugs, the same with education, work, effort. Every single thing you can think of you thought about differently than when you were 8, than when you were 23, and than you do now. Your idea of faith, love, sex, all of them have changed. Thousands of your limiting beliefs have changed without any effort at all. You don’t even know who the hell did it. You didn’t even notice it was done. It is super easy. When you fully let that happen, then you can see that it’s not that hard. 

Brett: You are also implying there is the progression of limiting beliefs as we become freer of them. To what extent is that true? How much can you adopt a new limiting belief and then become more and more stuck in it and not realize it? I didn’t realize over the 10 years my relationship with money has become even more fraught and limiting. 

Joe: I think I was projecting there. You are right. I have definitely seen people, particularly men who haven’t been doing a lot of work, when they hit their 50s, they become more and more constricted, more and more angry, and with more and more limiting beliefs. It can definitely happen that way as well. Again, they didn’t try to do it. They are just switching one limiting belief with another without any effort. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to change your beliefs. If you can bring consciousness to it, it gets even easier. You can make sure they are positive. 

Brett: I guess that’s the kind of thing that can lead to the difference between becoming old, cranky, limited and living in a very small world and the people who age gracefully, loving, open, laugh a lot, and still excited to learn new things. 

Joe: My first therapist was older. Her husband and she were adorable and lovely. I loved being around them. I asked them how this happened because I was watching my parents do something very different. She said she had looked at all of their friends, and the people who really decided to have a life of self-discovery have all become more open and more loving and the ones who chose not to have gone in the opposite direction. You really have to make that choice. I haven’t really looked at it completely. I would like to find some counterexamples, but I can’t think of any counter examples of that now that I am in my 50s. I see the same thing. People who have spent some time at it, their world gets bigger, more expansive, more freeing, more joy and laughter. The ones who chased after something else to make them happy, it shut down on them. 

Brett We have gone through the underlying belief that we are bad or that it is hard to see through beliefs or hard to change. Then there is the third one you mentioned, we feel like we will be unsafe if we stop believing this or if we stop being limited by a particular belief. What do you mean by that?

Joe: Unsafe means that I am going to be abandoned, I am not going to be loved, something bad will happen, the other foot is going to fall, anything like that. Anything that says you are not going to be okay. It is a more nervous system kind of way of looking at it. That is a belief that gets in the way of people. One of the things I will say about this is that there is actually a marker. When you start doing some of the deeper, self-discovery work, there are these moments you have that are like I am not going to be able to relate to anybody anymore or I am going to lose some friends or asking if you are going to be able to operate in society or if you will be able to keep my job. Those used to scare me. Now they excite me. Anytime I have that thought now, I think oh cool, I am on the precipice of a big change. That fear is a road sign of that. It is awesome, but for many people, until it is seen through, it becomes a reason to stop looking through the limiting belief. 

Brett: How did that shift occur for you, moving from that ah to oh, I am on the precipice? It looks like my entire life is going to fall apart right now. Great! That doesn’t mean it is going to be worse objectively in the future than now. 

Joe: It sounds crazy. It just happened so many times. There are so many times that that happened. I am not speaking about my business is about to be destroyed though now that I think about it, the times I have thought that have led to huge growth, too. But I am speaking particularly to that belief system of I am not going to be able to relate to people anymore. That happened so many times, and at the end of it, I was so much happier and at peace that I realized this is a good sign to it. I can say those times not scared for my physical life but scared for business or marriage have also led to some sort of personal breakthrough or some sort of deeper way of looking at the world or a deeper understanding that allowed me to live the life I wanted to live with more ease. Even that, apparently. 

Brett: What makes us adopt these beliefs that we will be unsafe?

Joe: Getting punished as a kid, being abandoned or unloved as a kid. The other thing is there is this weird human brain logic thing that happens is bad stuff occurs, like pain or people hurting you sometimes and economies collapse, things you don’t have any control over. There is this weird way of thinking. I was happy and then this bad thing happened, so I can’t be happy. Then the next foot is always going to fall. I can’t trust it will be good because the nature of things that are good, peaceful, and smooth is that they don’t last forever. The only way they last forever is if they are an internal mindset, but the reality of the world around us is that it is in constant flux. In that constant flux, what we call bad things happens. We learn the lesson that they are always going to happen. 

Very rarely do you ever hear somebody say things are horrible right now, so something good must happen right now. It always happens that way. There is always something good that happens after the bad, but we never think that way because our brains are neurologically set up to look for cause and effect to avoid negative effects. That’s also part of the reason we think we are going to be unsafe. 

Brett: Only uphill from here. This is as bad as it gets. 

Joe: Exactly, it is very rare for somebody to think that. They did a study on war, and it is true in climate change. When somebody has experienced devastation very close to them but didn’t affect them, like a bomb going off in the apartment next door or their city getting ruined by a bad flood, they are less likely to think it will affect them in the future. They think they survived it so they will probably survive the next one, which is interesting. Some people think that’s what is happening is basically they have to think it can’t happen to them or they would have to leave the situation. It could be a self-selecting bias. It is a phenomenon study. 

Brett: On one hand, there is a confirmation bias. I am speaking from being a base jumper and having had a lot of people die around me. I could think if I am still alive, that must mean I am one of the people who does things in a way that keeps me alive, so I am safe. Another one could just be the pain of this danger is increasing, and I need to disassociate from it more and more so I can continue to feel safe. I can imagine both of those happening at the same time can lead to this phenomenon. 

Joe: In general, what we do is think oh shit, I am not safe, and then our nervous system is on alert all the time, which makes seeing limiting beliefs very challenging. 

Brett: Let’s say we have everything going on around us. The universe is stochastic. How do we prove we are safe? How do you prove the other side of this belief?

Joe: You are not safe. This one is a tricky one because you are going to die. We are all going to die. Ultimately, in that way, there is no safety. The only safety that you can have, the only security you can have is the security of knowing yourself. That’s the only security you can have in this life. I remember when I was 20 years old, in Santa Cruz and I think I was smoking pop and playing music, and there was this guy hitchhiking. He was a short, skinny man in robes. He was just in robes. He wasn’t a monk or anything. I picked him up hitchhiking. For some reason, I asked him what he thought the biggest problem in America was. He said everything feels insecure. Those are, I think, his exact words. I remember wondering if he meant if they weren’t confident and secure or if they were unsecure like they don’t feel safe and secure. I asked him and he said the same thing. There is no difference between those two in his world. It always struck me. You could see he clearly felt very safe and very secure. It is a very internal thing. 

On a practical level, we feel a lot more insecure and unsafe than we actually are. I am going to start a company. That’s unsafe. But a ton of entrepreneurs have done it successfully and have become far more secure. Wherever you think you are insecure or unsafe, you can probably find somebody who has done it and has been successful. As far as being abandoned, everybody can find a community. You can be a sociopath who wants to kill people and find a community of other sociopaths who want to kill people like ISIS. The other thing is you can look and say you have thrived. Look at your life up until now. For most people listening, your career has gone maybe not in the trajectory you wanted but it has gone up and to the right. You have fed yourself the whole time. You have had friends the whole time. You have been waiting for this impending doom that hasn’t occurred. There are pieces of evidence in that. 

What our brain likes to do, just like thinking I am bad, is say this one thing went right instead of looking at all of the things that went right. Inherently, we aren’t safe. 

Brett: What if it seems like that trend has been in the opposite direction, like for somebody who had it made and then the pandemic hit. They socially distanced for a long time. Now they are really, really socially anxious. Their job fell apart because their industry fell apart. They don’t feel like they have a sense of community. They could look for evidence to the opposite somewhere, but it feels like there is a trend for them to have moved further from that. Looking for somebody out there who is successful, that might just make them feel more comparison and worse. 

Joe: What you are describing is probably someone who is depressed or suffers from a lot of anxiety. Is it the fact they aren’t safe or is it the fact they don’t think they are safe? Is it the fact they are bad or the fact that they think they are bad that is causing that reality to unfold? Obviously, that’s not true for everybody, but what’s the more useful thought? What’s the thought that’s less limiting? Is that I am safe? It is not about truth or not truth. It is about creating spaciousness. Is that thought about being unsafe and bad helping them get out of that situation? Is it creating constriction in their system? Is it useful? The other thing is you can move to the comparables, which is plenty of people have been in that situation. Job has gone away. Community has gone away. Wife and kids have gone away. They went to jail. There are people like this who have created a great life for themselves, have contributed to society and have love in their lives. How did that happen if they are inherently unsafe or bad? 

There is always a way to look at it. That is exactly where the trap happens. It is like no, but this is a correct thought. Correctness doesn’t matter. What matters if it creates constriction or not in your system? Great call out. 

Brett: Ultimately it is seeing we are still here despite everything we believe about ourselves and have believed about how we might not make it. Here we are. Ultimately the evidence of the fact we are presently here and thinking these thoughts, doing this exploration through this podcast is evidence. 

Joe: It is useful and less constrictive. 

Brett: What else makes it that breaking limiting beliefs seems to be hard?

Joe: We mentioned the lattice work piece and I want to go into that for a second. You have one belief. You can see through it, but the behavior doesn’t change. There could be a latticework of belief systems that are holding that behavior in place. For instance, let’s say something happens in your life, such as your company is going to do cutbacks. This is probably something a lot of people are feeling right now. The first thought you find as a limiting beliefs is that what is happening is wrong. I feel a constriction. That’s a limiting belief. You work on it. 

Then you might find out that you don’t like what is happening here. That might be another belief that is part of the limiting belief lattice work. Then you might find out change is hard. This is going to be change, and change is hard. Then maybe change is unsafe. That might be another belief system. Then you might think you might be punished because every time change happened in your house, you got hit or mom or dad yelled or everybody was anxious. Oh my god, we are going to the airport. Everybody is freaking out. Where is the passport? Did you get the thing? So you don’t like change. 

Then it isn’t safe and I will be punished. You will notice the belief system is when change is happening, I will be punished, and maybe there is a belief in there that I am bad. There is a lattice work of beliefs that can happen. We work on one instead of looking at the whole lattice work of beliefs that can be seen through.  Nothing has changed. 

Brett: That can explain, I think, some of the emotional undertone. If you are looking at the surface level belief, such as losing your job and believing this bad and wrong, then the actual emotional component of that might be all the way down at the bottom of that structure of I am bad or I will never be able to find another job or I was just faking it through this one anyway and now I am screwed. 

Joe: It could be multiple ones. There might be anger in one of the belief systems and fear in another belief system. That’s where the emotional component becomes a really important thing to really understand the emotions that hold these things in place. 

Brett: What do we when we see that? This lattice work looks like a vast fractal that can go on forever, and all of it might just land in the same place of I am loveable, I will be alone and I am going to die. 

Joe: It could all go back to the fact that you exist in the first place, so there is some you that needs to be rejected or I am bad or unsafe. There are some core ones, but each time you feel constriction there is an opportunity for more freedom in a belief system. The first thing is to trust the awareness. We will go into how to unhinge the emotional part of it, and maybe we will have one on ways to flush it that is more intricate than the last limiting beliefs episode, but really trust your awareness. If you can see it clearly and feel it clearly, you can create the spaciousness that the rest can take care of itself. To some degree, putting a whole bunch of effort into changing it after you see it is telling yourself you don’t see it. If I get two plus two is four, I don’t tell myself I’ve got to remember two plus two is four. How do I make sure I know two plus two equals four from this point on? You don’t do that because you got it. You don’t need to do that. If you are asking yourself what you have to do to unstick a limiting belief, it means you haven’t seen through it all the way. Trusting the awareness is an incredibly important thing. 

We will do some tools that will really help with the emotional stuff, and inquiry as we talked about before in the last podcast is really good. Anything that creates that spaciousness, inquiry is part of it, but anything that creates spaciousness between you and thought or spaciousness within you. When you are creating beliefs in that pattern, it is about how you create spaciousness. 

Brett: In that place of creating spaciousness while going through this process, I can imagine a common self help trap of these things in my life are happening and I don’t want them to be happening. I am feeling constricted around them. I have got to find the limiting beliefs. I think I see them, but I don’t see through them because I don’t believe it. My body is still constricted. Now I have got to dig harder and that becomes another constriction. How do we stay out of that?

Joe: Order of operations. Everything you just described, your voice even constricted describing it. Those are all, again, limiting beliefs. I think the way I answered this at the end of the last podcast was you work on that limiting belief. The other answer I could have is to be gentle. You do this naturally a thousand times. You have done it in your life. Be gentle in the process, and allow yourself to unfold.  It requires a lot of effort not to evolve, not to shift, not to mature. It requires a lot of effort to do that. Let go of the effort. Allow for gentleness to do its work. 

Brett: Beautiful. Thank you, Joe. 

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at 


What Can I Do About Overwhelm? — Emotion Series #10

What Can I Do About Overwhelm? — Emotion Series #10


In this episode, coach Mina Lee joins Joe to explore the nature and emotional dynamics of overwhelm. They inspect how it shows up in our lives and the emotional blocks, beliefs, and nervous system responses that keep it in place.

Tune in for a fresh perspective on how to embrace the intensity of overwhelm and tap into an internal sense of safety that facilitates the real-time processing of big emotions and life challenges. Learn how overwhelm flows through a company and inhabits its culture, and how focusing less on reducing overwhelm and more on driving flow can lead to a more relaxed, productive, and fulfilled team.

Mina Lee


Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. 

Hey everybody, welcome back. Today we have another special guest for you, Mina Lee. Mina is a coach and facilitator in our community, and she is joining Joe today to explore the topic of overwhelm. I hope you enjoy it. 

Mina: Hi, Joe. 

Joe: Hi, Mina. 

Mina: I’m really excited to talk to you about overwhelm today. It feels like a topic that’s so rampant in society. I just see so many clients create it for different reasons. I am a bit bewildered by it. Some people create it because they think if they are overwhelmed and I make a mistake, then it won’t be so bad. If I am overwhelmed, I won’t have to deal with all of the shit in my private life. If I am overwhelmed, that means I am working hard and trying my best. Even for myself, if I am overwhelmed, I don’t have to feel the meaninglessness of everything. I am super curious to talk to you today about what it is, what makes us create it, and how we move through it individually and as a group in the collective, so let’s dive in. 

Joe: I want to, but nobody knows who you are. I guess some people know who you are. I want people to know who you are because I love you. Who are you? What’s going on here? Can I introduce you? 

Mina: Yeah, how about you introduce me. 

Joe: Mina was the first person to sign up for the first course I ever did. Mina has been working with me longer than any other person consistently, which has been really fun. She has moved into her own coaching practice and she is doing amazing work. Also, she is just a really close family friend. My daughters absolutely adore you. One of our daughters just the other day said she had a couple extra days and she wanted to know if she could go up and see Mina. I was thinking to myself she must have something she wants to talk about with Mina. Then she tells me about a new boyfriend. I knew what she wanted to talk about. It was awesome. 

Mina: Those are the teachings I bring to all of my client sessions. A nine year old told me this. At fifteen she said this. I just feel so proud to call them goddaughters. 

Joe: I am also super grateful for the role you play in their lives. On a personal note, thank you because you are a confidante and trusted. They look up to you. It is so beautiful. Another thing about Mina is we got to travel through China together. You introduced me around, and we got to have all these cool adventures where we got to learn and do all of these crazy things together. I will say it. I got to mentor you in a lot of ways and then to see you mentoring my girls has just been awesome. 

Mina: It has been a huge journey of weaving spirituality and business and loving it. 

Joe: Which brings us to this podcast on overwhelm. 

Mina: Weaving, doing, and being in love and business, all of it. The first question is what is overwhelm at its essence, intellectually, emotionally. Break it down. 

Joe: An easy way to talk about it is it is a form of fear. It is anxiety, but I would say that it is the moment where you think you have to get out of flow to take care of yourself. It is the moment where you think that or at least it starts there. Maybe it isn’t that exactly, but it starts there. There is this moment where you are in flow and then something happens, and you think you have to manage it. You think you have to manage your reality. 

Mina: What does it mean to be in flow, in trust, in safety?

Joe: You are focused and going towards your goal. Let’s say you are focused, you are relaxed and you are going towards your goal. You are in flow. You are not wandering. You have a purpose and you are going towards it, but you are not stressed about it. You are relaxed and you are moving. You are going with the river, so to speak. Then all of a sudden, you want something or something happens or somebody says something to you that’s scary, and all of a sudden you have to manage reality. You have to row upriver. That’s the beginning of the overwhelm. That’s the beginning of the fear in the system. That’s the first moment. 

Mina: You have to manage this thing but you can’t, so you have already lost. There was this one time when you said overwhelm is when you don’t feel any one emotion fully. 

Joe: That’s the other piece of it, too, which is we think we are overwhelmed because of X, Y and Z. I have a call and then I also have to get to this place, but I have a big jog thing. What’s actually happening on an emotional level is there are all these big emotions and you are not feeling them. You are not allowing them to pass all the way through you, so your system is overwhelmed with the amount of emotions you have. Typically, what I see when people move through those emotional states, the overwhelm immediately goes away. Fear is a part of those emotional states that aren’t being felt all the way through. 

Mina: When we are in overwhelm, is our nervous system always in that flight, fight, freeze, triggered, helpless?

Joe: Yeah. Our nervous system is activated and it is in that fight, flight or freeze. That’s right. 

Mina: What do you think makes us create overwhelm? 

Joe: I heard you talk about that. I want to hesitate on that phrase that we create overwhelm. I think there is some place in the journey that realizing that you are creating the overwhelm is healing because it is empowering, you get to see you have a choice, and you get to choose to move beyond that choice. But there is another place in the journey where if you think I am responsible for my own overwhelm, it just makes you more overwhelmed. It is one more thing you then have to deal with that’s on your plate, that you are scared of and that you have to manage. 

It depends on where somebody is in the journey in terms of how useful that feeling of I’m creating the overwhelm and I am responsible for it. I don’t think you can see it. You are not responsible for it until you can see that you are responsible for it if that makes any sense. Once you can see it, then you have a choice but before then, you don’t. There is kind of an odd thing to that. 

Mina: How do we get to see it? How do we get to see that I am creating this to avoid this or that? I just had multiple people in my life die. I am feeling overwhelmed. This is systemic. How do we see through when to create self compassion or when we want to inquire more into how it is not serving us?

Joe: It doesn’t matter to me if you are in a war zone or if multiple people in your life just died, that overwhelm always has an external component to it. It always has the internal component of not being able to process those feelings at a time that the system needs it so that it is not overwhelmed. 

I will give you an example. As you know, both of our daughters went into the hospital when they were young with pretty serious issues. In both cases, I was not processing the emotional experience. I was handling doctors. Tara was, in that particular case, really able to emotionally process those things. I think it was day 7 or 10 of the first one where I was completely overwhelmed. I have to go and be emotional and do that thing, whereas Tara could continue to process the emotions more in real time, not entirely real time but more in real time. She had a more steady state that was going through that. 

There is always this external piece to it. There is always a chance to look inside and say what needs to be processed. What is it that I am dealing with? In the case of those deaths, there are some big emotions. There is grief. Have that experience. It is going to heal you. It is going to help move your identity. It doesn’t matter how big it is outside or whether it is a war. Walt Whitman, as an example, and E. Cummings both had awakenings in war I would argue by reading their poetry. It doesn’t really matter. If you are feeling overwhelmed, there is an opportunity to allow yourself to feel something and process it. Anything you can’t process in real time, typically means there is more resistance to it that still can be let go, so it doesn’t really matter. 

Mina: Let’s say somebody is at that first moment of recognizing they are feeling overwhelmed. How would you walk them through that process of unraveling it?

Joe: It depends on the context. That’s a great question. One context is not having space in this moment, and I do mean moment. This week doesn’t register, but in this moment. Then the best thing to do is learn really great breath exercises. There are ways of breathing, like slowing down your breath, making it equal. It doesn't matter whether it is yoga or the Navy SEALs teaching people about breath and how it calms the nervous system. The quote I heard recently, which I loved, is that we can't control our nervous system but we can control our breath and our breath controls our nervous system. If you can’t deal with it in the moment, you can breathe. 

The issue with that is a lot of people use that breath to then oppress, repress the emotions. I am just going to keep on breathing and then I am never going to feel that. That can be a world of hurt. In some cases, you are in a business meeting. You are in a hospital. The breath can immediately regulate the system out of overwhelm, but once you have the space and you are feeling these emotions, the best thing to do is look at what is the thing you don’t want to have happen and then feel that. 

Usually when there is overwhelm, there is a false end, just like in fear. You are scared of the emotional result of that false end. If I don’t get this job done, my boss is going to be mad at me. That’s the moment. Feel through, grieve, allow yourself to have the full emotional process of having your boss mad at you. I’m not suggesting don’t finish your work and have your boss mad at you though that may be fine. I am suggesting that you live in that reality, feel all that experience, and allow it to move through you so you know you can survive it and you are not scared of it anymore. In the case of my boss being mad at me, it is going to go beyond your boss being mad at you. It is your mom or dad mad at you. It was the critical parent who taught you you had to be productive to be loved. 

Mina: When we coach someone, a lot of our role is to hold that really stable nervous system so they can explore these topics safely. What if they are in that state of overwhelm and they are by themselves? They do that breathing. What’s the next question or thing when they are already overwhelmed and they don’t have something else or somebody else to stabilize? Even when we find out in sessions that you are creating overwhelm and you are creating problems that feel really urgent so you feel needed, they get to that process after a process of discovery, but how can somebody who just notices they are overwhelmed when there is nothing to ground them?

Joe: There are so many things you said in that. The first one is that it is the job of ours to hold that really stable nervous system, yes, sometimes that is our job. I don’t want any coaches listening to this to think that’s a requirement or something that should be done all the time. The second part is if you are looking for the intellectual discovery, the emotions will bring it rather than trying to have the intellectual discovery and then that allowing for the emotions. If you feel the thing you don’t want to have happen and live through that in a very slow way that you can have all of those emotional experiences, it will become really clear to you what’s creating the overwhelm. I create the overwhelm so I don’t have to feel the absence of my parents’ love for who I was because it was only for what I did. You will get to that naturally if you allow the emotional experience. 

What I notice is intellectually people can come to that experience of getting it explained to them or finding out someway that I am overwhelmed right now because I want to feel alive or I am overwhelmed right now because I want my dad’s love and I never got it, they can have those things but that can sometimes just cause weight. Oh shit, this is just about my dad’s love. I am still chasing it. I can’t get rid of it. It has been 10 years and I am still chasing my dad’s love by trying to please my boss. That’s a bit of a slippery slope whereas if they actually have the emotional experience and invite it and welcome it the same way as in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying or the Samurai, visualizing your own death slowly through all those moments, visualizing your dad or your boss getting angry at you slowly, getting fired. All of that will really allow you to have that emotional experience, and then it becomes really clear on the other side, the intellectual reasons for it. 

Mina: I’m overwhelmed. I am scared. What am I scared of feeling? Let’s feel that together. 

Joe: What am I scared of feeling? For some people, what I am scared of feeling is hard, so it is: What am I scared of happening? What would I have to feel if that happened? That’s easier. It is really easy for someone to identify being scared of getting fired or of getting left or of somebody getting mad at me. Those are easier to identify than the emotions. 

That’s the main thing, and I think the other thing that happens is that people think the overwhelm is productive. Most people in our society think when they are overwhelmed, they are productive. I’ve seen bosses say they are going to put some fear into people because they will work harder, they will act better and they will make better decisions. There is no psychological evidence of that at all. Obviously, a little bit of urgency can be helpful but not any kind of prolonged fear. It reduces our capacity to think. It reduces how quickly things get done. It reduces our accuracy. It reduces our capacity to learn. Anxiety is really detrimental to productivity. The weird thing is it is a bit of a mental illusion that we often think we are getting more done when we are overwhelmed. 

I saw footage of a tiger or a lion who hadn’t eaten in a long time. They couldn’t sleep and they were up constantly looking for food. You could see their nervous system was all tweaked. They are probably thinking they are being more productive, but they are clearly not as good of a hunter as the one that’s relaxed, licking themselves and hanging out in the sun. It is the same thing. Our minds often trick us into thinking we are more productive when we are overwhelmed. 

Mina: For the people listening, what are some somatic markers to tell when they are just in the healthy level of tension and normal level of stress versus when they are in a state of overwhelm that isn’t necessarily helping? What are some somatic markers?

Joe: For some people, intellectual markers are better, and for some people, somatically it is better. Any of the fear markers, intellectually, like black and white thinking, binary thinking, false ends, thinking you have to make a decision, having some sense of urgency over a decision that’s false urgency, those are all markers intellectually. Somatically, there is often a feeling of pushing. I have to. I got to. There is this pushing that happens. That’s really a big somatic marker. The other one is you intellectually and somatically are more likely to forget stuff. When you are leaving the house and you are calm and relaxed, you are less likely to leave the keys. If you are overwhelmed, you are more likely to have to go back into the house several times. 

The Marines have this great saying, slow is steady and steady is fast. That feeling of rush is often very much an overwhelm, but it is interesting. You will see people do this. When they start to get interested in this, they think they are rushing and they think they must be overwhelmed. But then they think they have got a good reason to rush because of this, this, and this. That’s a gold mine for self-recognition, all of those this, this and this.  Then, to also say what made it that I didn’t set up my world so that I didn’t have to rush. 

I will give you an example. I have to rush because if I don’t rush, then I am going to be late for this job interview. The first question is if that’s true. Is it better to call the job interview place and say you have hit traffic and you are going to be 5 minutes late or is it better to come in all overwhelmed? We don’t question that. If you can look at that and ask yourself what made you think it was better to rush and get there frazzled, what’s going on there, there’s going to be a lot of juice there. Also, what made it that I set up a situation where I didn’t give myself an extra 15 minutes to this big job interview? What made me create that level of anxiety? Those are all fertile ground. 

Mina: I notice in myself a sense of panic, quickening of tempo, and then also the eyeballs, literally, are going left to right so much faster. They can’t hold a steady gaze. 

Joe: That’s exactly what was happening with the lion. Most cats when they are hunting are super slow, and this one was buzzing. 

Mina: Let’s move into organizational, too, because one thing I am fascinated by is when an individual change ripples into larger systems. A CEO or a leader who is doing the work, trying to regulate their nervous system and trying not to create so much overwhelm in their life is interfacing with an organization where overwhelm has been empirical and rampant in the culture itself. They are in a larger culture, social culture, that also does this. How does one interact with that resistance to shifting? Because everybody also has their own thing with overwhelm, how does that one person start to shift an entire organization?

Joe: The first thing is they have to be clear in themselves. If somebody has become a CEO of a successful company, when they are clear on it themselves, the company will be clear on it. I will give you an example of this and there are so many examples of this. Apparently Bill Gates used to take one week to be by himself in a cabin every quarter as a way of getting back to whatever. You could call it his center. I’m sure he had a different word for it, but to get out of the overwhelm, to get to the greater vision, to think about things. Greenspan spent the first 30 minutes of every day in contemplation. If you talk to Jeff Bezos right before he quit being the CEO, he talked about wandering until 10 o’clock and then he works out whatever he is wandering on and he only makes decisions from 10 to 5 because his whole job is to make good decisions. That’s all his job is. He doesn’t do anything after 5. 

I just want to say there are multiple people who have been very successful who have figured out that this is true. Their overwhelm doesn’t serve their company and them. Then some of those even see it inside of the company. It doesn’t serve the entire company. I think some of them don’t. Some of them know they are the decision maker so they can’t be overwhelmed, but the line worker putting the widgets on the bigger widgets should be overwhelmed because that will improve. Some people realize that actually doesn’t improve. You make more errors. You have more recalls. There are a bunch of other issues. There is a pace of getting things done that is optimal for every project. 

Mina: I am going to play the devil’s advocate for a second. Those stable companies, that’s easy. They already have so much money. We are trying to survive. We have to get beyond this first customer. Everything is urgent literally. What would you say to that?

Joe: I would say I don’t want to buy from that attitude, and I sure as hell don’t want to invest money in that attitude. That’s what I would say. Your people are probably burning out or they will shortly. With something like a startup, it is easier to say that because you are making decisions and you have to get things done. They are thoughtful things. You are really trying to maximize your decision making. It becomes a harder thing to say for a company that I have 20 people who are out mowing lawns. If they moved just a little bit quicker, then I am going to make an extra $500 dollars a day, so move quicker. 

I think that’s the harder place to see how slowness can be more profitable. Then it can depend on the kind of business. I think the Reinventing Organizations book had a great thing about this with nurses. At this nursing establishment in the Netherlands, there are community nurses supposed to take care of X number of blocks of city. They were told you have 20 minutes to drive and 10 minutes to give him the shot. It was all becoming nickel and dime and tighter and tighter. It was all about driving efficiency. 

Some guy came in and said BS. That’s not how we are going to do it. We are going to stop and have coffee with these folks. We are going to find out what they need to be independent. That’s going to be our priority. It is not going to be how quickly we serve them. It is going to be how we get it so that we don’t have to serve them. He took over the market. He took over the market partially because nurses wanted to work for him and they didn’t work for anybody else. The second reason they took over the market is they become 20 to 30% more efficient. If you are constantly worried about that half a cent margin, you are going to miss the major opportunity. That’s another thing. 

There are a lot of reasons, but it is more about don’t trust me. If you are a CEO, measure and find out what the right pace and right incentives are. Do the experiments and find out. If I am writing a novel, most great novelists work about three hours a day. They can’t write 10 hours a day, every day and be successful. They either burn out or their writing becomes crap. Programming, probably you can do for more than three hours a day. Sales, there is a certain level of sales you can do and still be productive. The job is to find out what that level is and what the mindset is instead of assuming overwhelm is it. That’s the crazy thing. It is all based on assumption. 

If you are listening to this and you believe in your overwhelm, it is an assumption. You haven’t tested it. I guarantee you haven’t tested it. 

Mina: I guess that goes back to the first and third. The CEO realizes it. They have decided and gotten clear on it. They want to do this in their organization. They have hundreds to thousands of people used to years of working in overwhelm. How do you concretely believe? You can’t change what’s going on in their private lives, which is their own pattern around overwhelm. How do you begin to shift that momentum in the system?

Joe: So many ways. Depending on the company, I would have a lot of answers. I will give you the generic baseline I would start with. The first thing I would do is I would try to measure how overwhelmed people actually are. This could be everything from the attrition rate of good people and bad people to asking them open ended questions about it or a good survey can tell you. Are you looking forward to coming to work on Monday? That’s probably a good indication of overwhelm. I would define the problem and find out what it is. 

Then I would try to find out what it is that’s overwhelming them. I think most of the time people in companies are overwhelmed if it is not their innate pattern because they feel like they have the responsibility, but they don’t have the authority to make it work. It starts with overwhelm and ends with despondency. I would be looking really carefully at where the decision making is happening and how people feel. 

If there is some place where I know that productivity is X, I would change the speed. There was a company I was reading about. I don’t remember the name, but it was a standup paddleboard company. The CEO very brilliantly said we are an online marketing company that happens to market paddleboards. He took his company to 30 hours a week. You couldn’t really work over 30 hours a week. It was looked down upon. His productivity and his sales went up consistently, more than his competition. He was out there advocating for the 30-hour work week. 

For me, the bigger thing is he was driving flow in his company. I would think about it less as how I reduce overwhelm and I would think of it more as how I drive flow. How do I have people calm, relaxed, focused, on their game? That amount of tension rather than the kind of tension that takes them out of their game, that makes them run back for the keys, that makes them second guess themselves, that makes them think they have got to talk to my boss because if my boss is unhappy instead of just making the call, going up six levels of asking people for approval. Those are the things. 

Then there is going to be attrition. There are going to be some people in your company that are overwhelmed by their nature and aren’t willing to do the work to become less overwhelmed. You are going to have to find those folks and get rid of them, and hopefully help them find a place where it is a better fit. Those are some of the things I would do. Mostly I would talk to people and ask them what the overwhelm is and how we reduce it. 

Reduction of overwhelm is a team sport, so it’s not going to come down through a policy. It is going to come with a discussion. I would open a channel in Slack that says reduction of overwhelm, an example, and say I am seeing that overwhelm is doing this, this and this. Everybody, give me ideas on how we can reduce overwhelm in the company. Overwhelm is defined as spinning, being unproductive in our spin, and being not relaxed. Overwhelm is not defined as slacking off or wandering. I would be clear about the definition and on what it isn’t. Then I would add everybody for ways we could do it and examples of how people have beaten overwhelm. It would be part of the cultural experience. 

Mina: Sometimes I see teams that are so overwhelmed that the helplessness is really loud and they are in a freeze around the overwhelm itself. When you go into the conversation, the prefrontal cortex literally can’t come up. They don’t know what to do. There is a sense of collective freeze in and of itself. When they are in that place where they are not even here to ideate, what would you suggest?

Joe: Give them a break. Get them out of the office. What you are basically saying is they are so overwhelmed that they can’t think. Maybe you don’t need them to think if they are cutting lawns or picking apples, but you need them to think for most modern jobs. Why even have them there unless they can think? 

This is a great example. I go into companies, and oftentimes I will go in because the CEO has invited me in. Their EA will be the one communicating. I have found this space. We are going to do it here. Some of the EAs do that in three emails, less than five sentences each, and some EAs do it with 20 emails and each one of them are small novels. I can tell you who is overwhelmed just by that because they are trying to make sure everything is right and catching every piece. You are overwhelmed. The other ones see the least that’s required to do an excellent job. 

Mina: Is there overwhelm without fear?

Joe: That’s a great question. No. At the very least, you are scared of feeling the feelings that are coming up. The last part of that, though, is just because that’s there, that doesn’t mean if you feel your fear doesn’t mean the overwhelm goes away, meaning there sometimes need to be a lot of other things that are moved. Sometimes moving the other things takes the fear away. I just don’t want people to think I am overwhelmed; therefore, I will feel fear. The question is I am overwhelmed, so how do I feel safe? That’s the more accurate question. 

Overwhelm is a sign you don’t feel safe inside of yourself or outside of yourself, and knowing yourself is the only safety. There is no amount of money that can make you feel safe. There is no lover that can make you feel safe. There is no car or vaccination that can make you feel safe. The only thing that can make you feel safe is knowing yourself, feeling safe inside of yourself, knowing you have a home to go to at any time. That’s what can make you feel safe because then all of the bad things that can happen are not relevant. They are there, and they could happen. And?

Mina: When I go through the emotional movement, I realize it gives me clarity about what needs to be done. Oftentimes, there is some boundary or something I need to stop doing. Some way in which I am not taking responsibility for it, and then typically when the action comes, I think oh, okay. This is the third part that I want to talk about, transforming the overwhelm, the gift on the other side of the overwhelm. 

If we see Ukraine and then I want to talk really personal, but with Ukraine, the entire country you could say is overwhelmed, and everything I read, long form articles and journalism, some many people are coming out and actively doing something. There is a huge sense of community and tying together. What differentiates when we feel overwhelmed and it turns into this empowered sense of community? That’s one example for them. With your daughter, her story. 

Joe: Let’s put it right against Russia.  I am sure those Russian soldiers feel very overwhelmed, and it’s not building anything. It is just disintegrating. 

Mina: What determines when we as humans move through one versus the other? In the Ukraine situation, there is a common enemy so I can see how that has always united people. But in business and people, when there is that lack of common enemy, it is almost like we make each other the enemy. 

Joe: It is the meaning you make of it. That’s why at the very beginning I was so precise. You know me and the fact that I am not very conscientious about the way I look or the way the website looks. I don’t say that’s the wrong font, but I am really precise about this kind of thing because it makes such a huge difference. If somebody makes the meaning of it being bad or I am bad in the overwhelm, then it’s going to be destructive. If somebody makes the meaning of it being an opportunity or here is a great way for me to change or this is something for me to learn and understand myself better, they look forward to their overwhelm. If you make that meaning of it, it is far more likely to be productive. 

It is really about the meaning you make of it. That’s why for some people it is really important that the meaning is I am empowered and this is something I created, but if they are blaming themselves, then this is something I created just becomes more overwhelming. It is how you make the meaning of it. In the Ukraine, Russia thing, the meaning in Ukraine is we want to survive, we can survive and we are going to beat this enemy. In Russia, the meaning is this is a stupid war. Why are we here? We are just fodder. We are getting treated like shit, so we are going to treat everything around us like shit. It is the meaning you make of the overwhelm, and that’s where the choice is. 

Mina: That’s where I want to end us on, a few stories where you have really seen breakthroughs where people have made meaning that really served. I would love to hear one story where you have done it in business. I would love to share as my story and I know she is open to the overwhelm with the math test and how that led to so much. Do you want me to start with that one? 

Joe: Yeah. 

Mina: I want to hear one from you and me, too, so we can really end on a personal transformation around the overwhelm. One of Joe’s daughters told me doing the math finals was always challenging and difficult for her. It would always take her a really long time, and she would get a grade she didn’t necessarily like. I remember this past year when she was about to go into the math final, she lost the family dog the night before. You and Tara, her parents, were on a retreat with us. There was no parent home, her with her little sister about to take a math final. The dog was lost. Her younger sister was freaking out and feeling partially responsible for the dog. It was overwhelming and challenging. 

She told me she went in and was feeling so overwhelmed to the point where she thought she just had to let go of everything I can’t control because it is too much. I am trying to control everything. All that’s left is trusting myself, showing up as I am, knowing I am enough, and that’s it. It gave her incredible focus. She left the math exam an hour and a half early with the best grade she had ever gotten. Surrendering to that overwhelm actually gave her focus, trust in herself, not trying to control what she couldn’t. I was like wow. 

Joe: That’s a great story. I think I could create a business one and one between me and you in the same situation. It is going to be almost an opposite one. We were in China visiting that group of people who had figured out how to build a 50 story building in three days or something because they had this special LEGO set on an industrial scale. We were sitting in their side office talking about a media conversation. There was a way in which you weren’t being respected or honored. You weren’t speaking up. It was like this is a conversation between the people who know something. I said that that was unacceptable. We were having coffee afterwards, and you asked why that was unacceptable. I said I am here for you; I am not here for this business meeting. I am here for your growth. You got overwhelmed in that moment because you were scared to let that much love in. 

Mina: That was huge. You were just looking out. I remember that. You said it is not the most important thing. You are the most important thing. You were about to say your next sentence and I just burst out crying. It was loud. You looked at me so surprised. You asked what was happening. I said I had just never been loved like that. I was more important than the content, the PowerPoint, the slides or the business that was happening. 

Joe: That’s a moment that overwhelm occurred and you actually allowed the emotions to move through really quite rapidly. There was that fear of being loved on that level and then you moved right through it. We entered a flow state the rest of our China travels together where everything just went beautifully, smoothly and wonderfully. I give that as an example of how to handle the overwhelm in such a way that can immediately change. From that point on, every conversation with anybody turned into somebody crying, somebody having a realization, somebody saying holy crap and asking what just happened. 

Mina: When you got on the floor of that five star restaurant in Beijing because they kept apologizing. You said if you apologize to me one more time, I am going to beg you. You did. You got on the floor of that fancy duck restaurant. She almost cried just to get you off the floor and she never said I am sorry again after that. 

Joe: I forgot about that one. All of those contacts that we met then paid off for you in future endeavors. That’s how it works. If you can move through the overwhelm instead of tightening down, feel the feelings and then all of a sudden that flow state comes in again. That’s the example, I would say. 

Mina: Is there any last story you want to share, maybe from your own experience around overwhelm and how it is transformative?

Joe: Recently, there has been this thing happening inside of my system where I have been noticing how much the pushing creates the subtle overwhelm. I see something that needs to be done in the business, and if I turn towards it and do it or I am very sure that this needs to get done, then it just flows. Everything happens. It seems like it happens slower, but it ends up happening a lot quicker. As soon as I push and say we have to get this done and I manage it, I notice that I lose myself in the process. That’s one thing. I notice I start moving at a quicker pace. It’s another thing. I notice my enjoyment goes down, and I notice that at the end of that day I need a break, whereas if I immediately catch that moment of push and ask what’s actually needed here and how I can get back into myself and not go into the management of a situation, everything seems slower. My impatience walks in. 

The other day there was a decision that needed to be made in the business. What are we going to do next year? Because we have to rent facilities and all of the facilities get rented early, you have got to make these decisions to do any event. I say we have to do this event. I noticed I was pushing and saying we have got to get this thing done. I thought about asking the slowness what it wants to do. 

This is a little confusing, but part of the decision I was making was trying to figure out how not to be overwhelmed next year. It is easy to do that for me if I think I don’t want to do that right now, but if you have $50,000 dollars on a rental place for something and then you have 20 or 50 people coming, you can’t say I don’t want to do that. I feel overwhelmed. You need to show up and be there for people. You are making this decision a year in advance. You have no idea how you are going to feel. 

I thought I am asking my intellect. What if I ask my slowness? What if I go to the part of me that knows that stability and calmness and ask that? What do I want to do? I did. The answer was more will be revealed. What did I expect? This is the answer and go do that right now. No. Slowness said just relax. It will come to you. More will be revealed. You are fine. 

Mina: What was the decision then?

Joe: That decision hasn’t been made yet. 

Mina: Literally wait to make the decision. More will be revealed. 

Joe: It wasn’t wait to make a decision. The answer that came was more will be revealed. I am pushing to make this decision and the wisdom is don’t push to make it. Stay focused, be on point but don’t force yourself to make the decision. If I look back at my world, the more I have forced a situation to make a decision, usually the worse the decision. That’s an example. A silly example, but a good one. It just happened. You guys can’t see but she is laughing hopefully at me a little bit. That was right. 

Mina: At, with, as, all of the above. 

Joe: Mina, what a total pleasure? I am so glad we finally got to do this. I had wanted it for a while. 

Mina: Me, too. 

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at 

Triggered! — Relationships Series #2

Triggered! — Relationships Series #2


In this follow-up on the recent episode “How Relationships Reveal Us”, Alexa joins Joe and Brett to dive deeper into the premise that we’re all attracted to the partners who trigger us the best. What does this mean, and how do we follow these triggers toward our mutual growth and freedom?

We discuss how trigger and attraction are related and how avoiding the feelings underneath our triggers can produce relationship dynamics that last for years if left unexamined. Learn to recognize and welcome your own triggers as well as those of a partner, finding the empowerment to draw boundaries and share desires from a place of kindness.

Also, hear Brett sing.


Coaching with Alexa:
Coaching with Brett:


Brett: The wonderful thing about triggers is triggers are wonderful things. Their tops are made out of anger. Their bottoms are made out of shame. Topsy, topsy, topsy, fun, fun, fun. The most wonderful thing about triggers is you are the triggered one. 

Joe: That’s a great start to this podcast. I am imagining someone out there triggered by your song. That would be the best. It is not wonderful that I am triggered. What are you talking about? 

Brett: Now that we have got you all triggered, we have your attention. 

Alexa: Welcome to today’s episode. 

Joe: What are the questions? Where are we going?

Alexa: I guess we could start with how we talk about what a trigger is and what it means to be triggered. 

Joe: I thought we were going to start with you trying to trigger each other. That would be hilarious in my world. You never do the dishes. 

Alexa: You tell me where to start. This isn’t my job. 

Brett: Hey, Alexa, will you take care of starting the podcast thing for us?

Alexa: It actually does. 

Joe: If we didn’t trigger them with the song, we are triggering them with no starting this podcast quick enough. This is wonderful. What is a trigger? That word is used pretty fluidly these days. I think it has even become politicized. If someone says I am triggered, there is a way that some people feel like oh God, shut up, don’t tell me that you are triggered, and other people feel like it is them trying to protect themselves. I want to let go of all of those definitions of being triggered. I would say triggered is when you are in trauma rather than in yourself. 

One of the things about trauma and how it works, whether it is the kind of trauma that’s an acute car accident or war episode or if it is something long term over time, such as always being rejected by your parents when you were scared or angry, the thing about trauma is that you are not in the moment anymore. You are living in the past. You are living in the moment the trauma happened. With acute PTSD, somebody is in Ohio and a car backfires, and they think they are in Kabul. In relationships, you are transported back into some of your primary relationships where you weren’t seen or connected in the same way over and over and over again. 

That’s one way to define trigger. I think the other way to define it that’s really important is it is when in your body, you have a really big emotional reaction that’s not particularly warranted given the situation. I very much hesitate to use the word because then people say you shouldn’t have that, that doesn’t make sense or that isn’t warranted as a way to excuse and dismiss the other person. It just means that on some level your mind knows your reaction doesn’t meet the experience that you just had. This big, emotional reaction is being recreated because of the past, not because of what’s actually happening in real time. I think those are the two things. 

It is so important to define the second in that way because it is how we know when it is happening. We have this big, physical reaction that on some level, some part of us knows it isn’t what’s called for in the moment. It is not how we want to be. On some level, it is not about the current situation. 

Brett: I am curious to get a little bit more into there then what makes that attractive and what makes it that the person who hits our triggers so that our body has a visceral reaction that’s completely unrelated or very unrelated to the present moment and very much related to our past and our history. What makes that the recipe for amor?

Joe: It is because it is what we know love to be. We are born and we are like ducklings. We are trained to follow mom duck. We are born with an inherent connection to our parents or whoever is taking care of us, and it doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, we want connection with them. We are going to think about them on some level for our entire lives. We are going to have that level of connection. We want their attention no matter what. We want their approval no matter what. We are hardwired to want that connection. 

That’s our primary experience of love. We have this connection, and then whatever they do becomes wired with love. Things that fire together, wire together. If they shamed us, then we are going to go find a partner who likely either shames us or completely reacts the other way or we will shame them. Somehow that shame is going to be in that relationship. It is just what we know love to be. It is what we know connection to be. It is our nature to go towards that, towards the things that we know. 

Alexa: Gosh, that makes it sound like we are just doomed to repeat ourselves. 

Joe: Yeah, I think that most people are. Most people do repeat patterns for generations and generations, or they slowly change those patterns. I think that is the natural course unless you bring a lot of conscious awareness to it and really think about it, feel through it and do the work. I see some healing that happens. I saw my grandparents and my parents. I saw my wife’s grandparents and parents. You can definitely see that cycle happen. 

In fact, you see this with alcoholism. Probably one of the clearest places is where you will see somebody with an alcoholic parent, and they become very rigid and controlling. They have a clear Al Anon thing, and they give rise to the next generation of alcoholics and then they give rise to the next generation of Al Anon. I look back at family histories and I see that all the time, that kind of repeating pattern. Unless we are really saying we are going to work on this and try to change it, the healing process can take generations. 

I mean I know people who were raised by Vietnam vets. If the Vietnam vets didn’t do the work, granted there wasn’t a tremendous number of options for them when they came back, but if they weren’t lucky enough to find the work and do it, their kids still have responses of the rage that the Vietnam vet had if that was the particular predilection or the disconnection they had because the Vietnam vet needed to disconnect from themselves to deal with the PTSD. Their grandkids are going to have it. That’s how it works unless we do something. 

Alexa: It strikes me these are really good examples, but they are also capital T trauma examples. I wonder if there are a few examples of things that are more common and that come up in romantic relationships that aren’t necessarily because of the experience of the parent. 

Joe: Not being seen, not getting the attention that we want, having love linked to criticism or to shame, having to prove our lovability, walking on eggshells around certain emotional responses, avoiding anger, getting angry, passive aggression. 

Brett: Being punished or reinforced for different behaviors the parents did or didn’t want. 

Joe: Being valuable because of your productivity, because of the amount of money you make, the amount of money you can give, feeling cared for with money instead of affection, shame around sex. Endless. 

Brett: I imagine a lot of people listening to this might be thinking I am in a relationship, and we are never triggered. It is just great. 

Alexa: Like you and me, Brett, we are never triggered. 

Brett: Never, ever. 

Joe: It is funny. I was sitting at a restaurant. Tara and I had just finished a weeklong event. We were recovering at a restaurant at a beach in Southern California. There was this couple sitting there. They had a friend with them. It was two women and this man. I don’t know how to explain it. The woman was so domineering. She was dominating her friend and her partner. Her partner was this big Marine guy. We were in a military town. She would ask what they wanted to eat, and then she would say you should eat this and this. He would say I think I am going to have this. She should say no, no, no, you should eat this, this and this. It was like that. 

He never had an emotional response. He could easily have said I was never triggered by this, but you could see he was almost violently shut down. He hardly spoke. The facial expression was repressed rage. Literally most of his responses were the most minute nods. Yes was half an inch up. It was all that contained and repressed. Triggered doesn’t mean that you get angry. Triggered might be that you are repressing that thing, or it could be passive aggression. It could be extreme sadness or a lot of fear and anxiety. Triggered can be any emotional response. 

Brett: It could be a subtle freeze. 

Joe: Exactly. That was so cool to watch. It was amazing. 

Alexa: What was cool about it? 

Joe: What fascinated me was she had been probably acting this way for 35, 36, 37 years, and she was just absolutely unaware of it. She was not at all aware of what was happening, that she was being that dominant and the reaction she was getting from folks. She was just being herself and she had no idea, which to me was totally fascinating and awesome that you can exist in that way. 

Alexa: To me, it sounds like she was also in trigger. 

Joe: For sure, she was. Everybody was acting out of conditioning and not out of their present, where they wanted to be. 

Brett: I think it is really interesting how we can end up in these stable dynamics because we have learned to cover or avoid each other’s triggers in just the right way. We do a lot of dancing around it. A pattern for me, just to bring this back into the personal for one of us on this episode, that I have had for a lot of relationships in my life is I would get into a relationship and things would be perfect for a couple of years. We would remark at how little we fought. It was just amazing. Eventually there would be fighting. We would move through that in whatever way. 

Looking back into myself, something in this work that has always been for me is to welcome my anger and allow myself to feel it and also the same for my partner. Alexa and I have had times where neither of us would be expressing anger. If one of us expressed anger, maybe the other one would go into a little bit of shame or some type of freeze type trigger. We just learned how to bring those triggers up, and that was very much to each of our detriment because then each of us might feel a little bit resentful of the other one not being fully in their power or a little bit like we weren’t getting the most out of life. Everything was great from a number of objective perspectives, but something wasn’t quite there until the trigger was actually allowed to rise and then brought into awareness. Then we saw this is a thing. We have had this all along. Now let’s go into it. 

Alexa: I agree with that completely, and it has been really amazing to be in this relationship with you where we are so committed to our own freedom that we are really excited to see each other really delve into the depths and brings things out, but the thing I see most often when I am talking to other people is people whose actions kind of stop at the point where they are trying to prevent the other one from getting triggered. That’s the thing I think is most common, people who feel like it is important for them to act a certain way or repress a certain thing about themselves because if that were to come out, it would totally trigger their partner. That would be unacceptable, and so everything stops that. 

Joe: I call that walking on eggshells, and the interesting thing about it is the result of that is you don’t feel loved in your relationship. You are basically saying this part of myself can’t be accepted here. This part of myself has consequences. On some level, you know that you are not being seen and you are not being loved. Eventually, that builds resentment and that creates tension in the relationship. Whether it is just all of a sudden going from being in a happy marriage and now it is over or whether it devolves into disdain or something like that, that’s how I see that end up. 

Alexa: I see that, too. The thing that is sort of tragic is usually people don’t consciously realize they are feeling unloved, and so it just can go on for a really long time. Often they think they are doing something so they can maintain the loving feelings in the relationship. 

Joe: That’s right. I was working with a couple recently where they have been married for 16 years, have kids and everything, and they thought their job was to make sure the other person wasn’t triggered. Now they are just pissed all the time at each other. I don’t even know if they are aware of it, but that never got the expression in the relationship. You just look at their faces and you know they are both pissed all the time. Who in the hell wants to stay in a relationship with someone who is pissed at you all the time or who you are pissed at all the time? The marriage is having some issues obviously. 

It took a couple of months for them just to see that the work is to say what you want and be yourself. Don’t worry about the consequences. Don’t get angry at each other. I want to make sure people hearing this know that. I am not ever suggesting starting to yell at your partner as a way to get your anger out. Go get your anger out somewhere else and then be kind to each other. If you want to do an experiment where you get permission to get at somebody and they say yes, then that’s fine. Unless you have permission, I don’t suggest just yelling at each other to get the anger out. You have got to get the anger out. You have got to move the anger and that energy, or it just goes to disdain. 

Brett: The answer is yes if you have permission and if someone is willing to receive the anger and be there to love you while you process it, and not necessarily buy the story and get into the story with you, just letting you move the anger and being there with it. That’s actually wonderful if someone is there for that. 

Joe: It is actually incredibly healing to be loved in that anger because to some degree that part was unaccepted which is why it is this massive state in our system, so to actually have someone love and accept it is great. It is just fine to get in your car and yell or go to the woods and yell or wait until everybody is out of the house and get your anger out or write out your anger. Do whatever the hell you have to do to move it. If you have someone who can particularly not buy into the story and feel your anger, that’s fantastic. 

Brett: I am curious to bring up a couple of tools or tricks that people could use. If someone is in a relationship and they want to know where the triggers are, there might be some obvious triggers and some less obvious triggers. Maybe I notice I get a little bit annoyed every time my partner makes a certain kind of joke, and I wonder what’s underneath it. If someone is trying to get under the corner of the rug here and really start doing the digging, what are some ways to do it?

Joe: I think digging is so necessary for some people. If you have obvious triggers, work on those. You will work on those triggers and as those start to go away, you will become more sensitive to the more subtle triggers and then those are the next ones to work on. Your system has this really beautiful way of telling you what the most important thing to work on and then the next most important thing and the next most important thing. As that creates more peace in your system, you become more aware of the wrinkles in the system and the triggers. 

Usually a strong sense of obligation comes with this, but where that’s not true is if you are one of those folks who says it has been three years and I´ve never been triggered by my relationship, then you might actually need help finding triggers if you are in that category. The best way to do that is notice any time you hesitate to say anything because your partner is going to have an emotional reaction or your partner too weak to handle it or because you are trying to protect your partner, anyway that you have a thought to say something and you don´t say it, those are great places to find the triggers. You can do that using the same mechanism. Just look for all those places you are not saying anything and say them, and then see if you are not triggered. 

Alexa: That’s your advice. Just start by saying them. 

Joe: Yeah, say the stuff. 

Alexa: That’s pretty edgy. 

Joe: Take it slow. Maybe one thing a day. Also, learn how to say the things really kindly, but I don’t want to say that because then people will hedge what they say instead of learning how to do it in a kind way. Let’s say a husband drops off their wife at the airport and does almost a rolling stop. He doesn’t get out of the car and doesn’t hug her. She is triggered by that. Let’s use that as an example. One to address that is to say what the fuck, what are you doing, I am your wife, get out of the fucking car. One way to address that is say hey, sweetheart, I would love you to get out of the car and say goodbye to me. That would make me feel great if you could do that. One way is to guilt them into it. If you loved me, you would. One way is to do it defensively. If you cared, you would get out of the car. 

There are so many ways to ask for it, but the most important is to ask for it and then get good at asking for it, then be kind. Whatever is required to actually ask for it and cleanly, go there. 

Alexa: I would love to come at this from the other direction as well because the thing that has been coming up recently is people who are for whatever reason having a hard time being with their partner’s emotional states. I think that another way you could approach this is to in whatever way figure out what is or feel into what is hard for you to be with and just somehow determine that you are going to try. If it is really hard for you to be with your partner’s pain, just try showing up for it. Then, from that place, it can be a little bit easier to say something you think might bring up pain for them, but then you are going to stay and be with that pain. 

Joe: I would say that is a beautiful way to work it, and the actual thing you are being with is your own pain. 

Alexa: Absolutely. 

Joe: Their pain is evoking something in you. Maybe their pain is evoking your helplessness or maybe their pain is evoking your pain but being with them is evoking something in you. If it isn’t, it would be easy to be with them in their pain. It is learning to be with yourself in that. 

Brett: This brings up a common feature of triggers is that we often make the trigger about the other person, and part of the path to owning that trigger and to being with it is to own it and to recognize that it is our own experience that is uncomfortable for us in that moment. It may be the experience of being afraid to draw a boundary with someone else’s actions but ultimately the more we can have that trigger come up and have it be about us. Honey, I would love you to get out of the car and give me as I get out and go to the airport. It is not yelling what are you doing. That’s part of the path, too. 

If you are starting to explore this and more triggers are coming up, part of the path out of is they are your triggers. It is your experience, and the more you can be with your experience, the more you will be able to be with your partner’s. 

Joe: I statements are really important in this work. The thing that struck me about what Alexa just said is that we are talking about two different ways. One way is to say the thing that’s important for you to say that you are not saying, and the other thing is to be with the emotion you are having a hard time being with instead of avoiding it. I would say the one of those two things that you are mostly like to do, the most productive path is the other one. If it is a feeling for you to say you are just going to be with their emotional state, then probably the better work for you is to say the thing. If you are more likely to say I will just say that thing but being with them emotionally is the hard part, then being with them emotionally is the better work for you. Just do both. You don’t have to choose, but I think that’s a good point. 

Brett: I love that because another pitfall that comes up commonly I think is once people develop some sort of internal should of I should be there for my partner’s trigger, then it can often mean they are going to accept whatever behavior and roll over and not fully show up with their own needs and have that mean that what they are doing is loving their partner. 

Joe: The good news about that is they will be triggered all the time. It won’t take long for them to be triggered all the time. Sorry, Alexa, what were you going to say?

Alexa: I would go as far as to say anytime you are shoulding yourself, that’s also a trigger and you are probably avoiding something. 

Joe: That’s true. 

Brett: That’s like saying I am a bad partner, and I would be a better partner if I were different in this way. 

Joe: You are creating a shame cycle either way. If it is a should, it is a shame cycle. I think there is a healthy way to say this isn’t the partner I want to be, and I want to do this, but if you are in the should, you are in a shame spiral with it. 

Brett: We have covered a bunch of ground here. We have talked about triggers. We have talked about how they can create unseen dynamics in relationships and how we can bring that into awareness, and then once these triggers are more in our awareness, how we can be with our partners in those triggers without leaving ourselves and how we can own and be with ourselves, our own triggers and avoided feelings, and how to choose the path of most resistance for us and most growth among those options. 

I would like to talk a little bit about what some examples are just from any of our lives or from client relationships of just really well-handled triggers. 

Joe: The most obvious thing is that exercise we do in the Connection course, which is we have this one exercise where we are handling triggers and where we are learning to respond to triggers in a way that is productive. The first step of that is to feel into your trigger and accept that state, get into your body, allow yourself to feel that way and not try to tell yourself that you should be in a different way, but to be present with what actually is going on in your physical body. The second piece is to ask questions that are open ended and non-judgmental. 

We have seen people do that. I used to do that course live. I saw people, without a conversation, say we just resolved multiple issues just by asking questions, without even responding to the questions. I have a great example of this. I was working in a company, and we were doing this exercise. One of the people working at the company was ex-CIA, ex-Navy Seal, big dude, strong, powerful, willful human being. I really, really dug this guy. Then there was an AI programmer who was like five foot three and very conflict avoidant, total sweetheart. His job was to try to trigger the Navy Seal so the Navy Seal could practice the response. He couldn’t think of anything, or he didn’t want to have the conflict. 

They called me over because as you both know, I am good at triggering people. I said to the Navy Seal that his hard exterior makes it so that he is not ever going to get the love that he wants. He stopped and felt his body, which was interesting because I found out later that he had a whole system for being present and being in your body under stress that they use for being in combat. He literally used that through breath for a second or two. He looked over at me and said that he really wants to have deeper connections in my life. How do you propose that I can get there? It was this immediate thing, and I got chills. I looked over at the programmer who started weeping, and he started weeping. 

It was this amazing moment of just that one question changed the trigger. It changed everything because the person who is getting asked the question feels heard. They don’t feel like they are being attacked. The person who is asking the question has moved from a fear and anger response into wonder. It is really neurologically impossible as far as I can find to hold anger or wonder and fear at the same time. By putting that out there, it totally changed everything. That’s one technique. There are literally dozens, but that one is incredibly useful in the fact that now you can immediately start moving into solving the situation as far as finding ways you want to be together that actually feel better for both of you. 

Brett: I think some important signposts for that also are that you delivered this trigger in the context of an exercise, and it wasn’t meant for him to take on that story of I’ve got my walls up and I’m never going to get love and then for him to believe it even more, but for it to bring up the trigger. One thing we have talked about in the courses is when you feel triggered, there is actually a part of you that feels seen. There is a part of you that already believes and buys it, hence, there being any defense. In that story, I am noticing that he then asks questions from the place of seeing that part of himself and wanting freedom, not buying the story and then spiraling into shame. 

Joe: It is interesting because there is a subtle difference. If we get defensive, if there is somebody who says something to us and we get defensive, then we are telling ourselves the same story. On some level, you are buying into it, but you are not buying into the shame. You are saying I also hold that story, or it wouldn’t have made me triggered. I also hold the story that I am not doing the dishes enough if that gets triggered. I also hold the story that I am supposed to do more around the house. I also hold the story that I am supposed to do what my wife tells me to do and doing the dishes is one of those things. 

If I get defensive in any way, then I am also holding the story, which is why dealing with triggers is so productive. It is because you get to see through your own ego, limiting beliefs and identity through the thoughts that trigger you and that somebody else saying something triggers you. You get to see through those, which is amazing. 

Alexa: I don’t assume this will make it into the podcast, but I was just mapping that explanation to how I was thinking about it internally and it was so different but it eventually came back around to the same place, which is to say I was thinking about this guy from the pair activity exercise and how the response that we would normally think of as the triggered response would be the defend the thing that feels under threat. 

In his case, the thing that feels under threat is he is going to miss out on connection. If he is so constricted around that unwanted outcome that he defends it, then it stays in this stance that often creates trigger in the other person because there is this feeling of now being in a fighting stance. Just the somatic thing of letting it all the way in, then what? What could I do to change that? That’s in itself so different and so unexpected that the other person’s nervous system just opens in response. That’s the crying that you saw. Wow, we are both just here. I really love that. It is this intention to just go there, just let it be that seems so powerful. That’s what I love about this work. 

Joe: There is something else I want to say about this, which is in the crazy wisdom of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are three steps to it where the teacher in order helps a student. The first one is they become friends. They create a deep sense of connection. Then the second one is they trigger the fuck out of the person as much as possible until the person can’t be triggered. They literally just say things to needle them. That’s their job, to needle the student until the student can’t be needled anymore. The second step is just to say you are doing that wrong, you are not sitting up right, you are not meditating correctly, you cook like an idiot, whatever to try to trigger the ego so they can see where their ego still exists. The third one is to turn every idea about spiritually upside down for them. 

This is just to say you could do that or you could just get married. 

Brett: That second one is really interesting to me. I am curious how listeners might tell the difference between this particular Zen practice of befriending somebody and holding them in love while needling them until all of their triggers are surfaced and evaporated and that somebody just criticizing somebody and saying it is because I love you. 

Joe: Because it is actually in love, I think that’s the difference. I think that’s the reason some marriages are counterproductive is because it is a lot easier to learn that lesson if there is an agreement, like I am here to learn this lesson, which is why I think it is so important to have that agreement in a marriage but also if it is done in love. In this particular case, the teacher isn’t triggered back, but in marriage our husband or wife is actually triggered back often. It is not like you are a horrible mediator. It is you are a horrible meditator, and if you meditated better, we would have more friends at the country club. If we had more friends at the country club, I would be happier and then I could get a better job. Why don’t you just meditate better? There is all of that craziness. 

There is also the separation that the student doesn’t particularly buy into the belief that if the teacher is happy, then they could be happier. They buy into the belief that the teacher is probably happier than they are. There is a different thing to overcome there. In a marriage, you think if my wife was just happy, I could be happy. That’s a common misperception. 

Brett: An interesting flip. I can also imagine there are a lot of relationships where one person takes on the role of the teacher and the other one takes on the role of the student in that way, and that’s great for a student teacher relationship. That’s not great for romantic partners, business partners. 

Joe: That’s great if you want to stop having sex and get into a lot of fights. I guess it all depends on what your goal is. I love what you said, Alexa, about the dropping of defense. I think that’s really at the core of all of this work. How do I love myself as I am? How do I love other people unconditionally?

Alexa: Even the thing you were just saying about loving your partner more, to me, I was expecting you to say it is about loving yourself more because to me that’s where it all comes back to. That defense of that guy, he was shoring up something, defending the part of himself that he felt like was not loveable, but if you just let everything be, including all of you, everything that you are worried isn’t loveable about yourself, then you are making room for all of this to be loved and for you to express love to your partner better and so on. 

I think people are stuck trying to love their partner better by doing various things that can be really self-denying or in your language abandoning themselves. Coming back to yourself with full acceptance is actually a way to love your partner better. 

Joe: Your capacity to love your partner is completely based on your capacity to love yourself. The idea of sacrifice, compromise, I don’t find that that actually helps people love better. Until you see that the capacity to love is your freedom and that’s what you want, but if you think you are sacrificing yourself for another person, then you are creating a victim or savior relationship. It always gets muddled, defended, obligated and resentful. 

On triggering people, one thing we talked about were I statements, which I think is really important. It can’t just be I statements, but it is where you are owning your wants and your own experience instead of telling somebody else what their experience is. The other one is asking questions. Another really great way to do this is to just make the person feel heard. If somebody says you are always asking me to feel the car up with gas or you are treating me like your mom again, I am not your mom. What I am hearing you say is that I am treating you like my mom again, and I just want you to know that I hear that’s your experience of the situation. Just that can be calming for people, to just feel heard in their experience. 

Usually when we are in a fully triggered state, people are talking over each other, and they are not listening to one another anymore. They assume they know what’s going to be said. They assume what’s coming next and they are always thinking about their response. Nobody is actually focused on how we make sure my partner feels seen because that’s a huge part of the triggering and the fights we get into is people not feeling seen in their situation. That’s another, I think, really important part, just to allow that. The other thing that Alexa said, which is how you can relax into being with somebody in an uncomfortable emotional state and draw boundaries. Sometimes emotional states are at you, so maybe there is no reason to be with that, too. 

One of the ways Tara and I have dealt with triggers is to draw boundaries with each, which I think is great. I am not going to be here with you crying at me or being angry at me. I am happy to come back to the conversation when that’s over. 

Brett: I think that points to one of the pitfalls we brought up earlier, which is people can get into the belief of I should be able to be there for my partner’s trigger. I am going to suppress my own trigger so their trigger can be held rather than drawing a boundary and taking care of myself. 

Joe: Self-care is absolutely the priority in all of this work, to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to treat yourself with love and respect. You can’t treat others without that. 

Brett: Coming back to the premise of the beginning of this relationship series, to be in a relationship where we both agree we are in it for our own freedom, I think that comes off to a lot of people as very individualistic and not seeing the ecosystem of the couple. I think a lot of what we have been talking about now really points to that it creates more space for both partners to exist in the relationship. It creates more space in the ecosystem for more of what each partner brings and is, including gifts, triggers and fears. 

Joe: I think probably the same thing can be said when I talked about compromise. I don’t believe in compromise in a relationship like this or probably any relationship. That can come off as very hard for people. I just want to explain it the same way you just explained making more space. If there is something that Tara really strongly believes that doesn’t work for me, the way we work that out is it is not that I am going to compromise. What I mean to say is I am not going to deny a part of myself to make sure she is happy. Her happiness is incredibly important to me, but it is not my job. 

What we do instead is we are very clear when we say no. We clearly say this won’t work for me. She says this won’t work for me. We assume we can find a solution that can work for both of us. Some people might call that compromise, but I am not calling it compromise because I don’t feel compromised at the end of it and neither does Tara. We both feel like we found something that works for both of us, and we have faith we can do that. 

When people feel compromised over and over again, on one level the idea is I am benefiting them by compromising myself. That’s why we do it. That’s the thought process, but what you are actually doing is creating a relationship that has more resentment in it. That’s not going to benefit them. You are also not teaching them how you need to thrive, so that’s not benefiting them. What you are going to get is a relationship where one person is resentful, and the other person is married or dating somebody who is not thriving. That’s not sexy. That’s not hot. That’s not healthy. It is far more important to do the work that’s required to figure out both people can get their needs met in a way that feels great for everybody and everybody can be excited about. 

Brett: A feature of a compromise seems to be that there is a false end. We have compromised and this is where we are at. That’s just the decision we have made. Something I am picking up from what you are saying is if we are both committed to finding the thing that works for both of our needs, it is a really tall order because we have infinite needs. They are just going to continue to grow and to have some kind of apparent conflict, but sitting in the question, sitting in the wonder of how it is if we assume that there is a way to get both of our needs met and we sit in that question, what new solutions come to the surface? None of them are perfect. All of them are an iteration. We don’t stop the process and say that’s our compromise, and that’s that. 

Joe: Which speaks to something else, which is I don’t really believe in commitments in the relationship outside of the commitment to be committed to the relationship. 

Brett: Trippy. 

Joe: We change. What Tara needed when she was 26 is not what Tara needs now. What I needed when I was 26, when we got married, is not what I need now. I think the agreement we have is how we support each other’s growth and be there for each other in that way. That’s our priority. That’s the commitment we have to the relationship. We both get to experience a lot of freedom. We both get to experience support, tenderness and care, but we don’t feel like we have to be a certain way for the other person or maintain some way of being for the other person. 

This idea of commitment, even sexual commitment or commitment to agreements or roles or ways of being or dishes, all of that needs to be renegotiated as our needs change. 

Alexa: It makes me really wonder what your vows were like. 

Joe: Yeah, me too. I can’t remember that at all. 

Alexa: It also strikes me as really funny and great because I get a lot of questions about what kind of commitments or rules are going to make my relationship work for me, especially in a poly or monogamy or some opening up, some sort of relationship transition question. I never have any idea how to respond. That’s not how I make my relationships work for me. 

Brett: Fewer rules, more attainment. That’s the path we take. 

Joe: When I have worked with clients that have open relationships, those agreements are always changing. They have to. They might have an agreement, but it is always temporary. The couples I know who have been doing that, having that lifestyle for now 25 years of marriage, their agreements have totally changed through that timeframe, from completely open to slightly open to open only together. They have had massive transitions, and it depends on if you have kids, if someone is taking care of a baby, if someone is going through menopause. All of those things have an effect, and they are all biological changes that affect the agreement in the relationship if we are actually being attuned, which is beautifully said. 

Brett: This seems like a pretty good place to stop. 

Joe: Polyamory and scene. 

Alexa: I actually did have one more topic. It seems like maybe kind of a left turn, but it is another thing that I feel like keeps coming up a lot, people asking how to get out of a dynamic they are in that’s more or less something like an anxious avoidant dynamic. For instance, somebody wants to know how they can stop feeling hurt because I am chasing after somebody who is emotionally unavailable, and they disconnect. They are always doing that, and they want to do that. 

Joe: We have already covered the how, but I want to put it into that context. Just to translate what you asked, let’s say there is somebody who is constantly chasing lovers. They are constantly fighting for their attention. They are the ones that are rejected or abandoned. Their lovers are always the ones that are aloof or distant and they want to know how to get out of that dynamic. The way through is to fully fall in love with, accept and look forward to the emotional statement when you are rejected and when you are chasing the person. Falling in love with that part of yourself is the quickest way to do it. 

The other thing that can be helpful in that particular dynamic is seeing all the ways in which you want the attention are also ways in which you are pushing the person away. Jealousy is like that. Jealousy is I really want that person, but my jealousy in and of itself is pushing them away. My neediness is pushing them away. To be able to see that, which means on some level you also don’t want it and you are not taking responsibility. 

That’s the empowering move that most people are going to reject at first until they see it, which is I am actually pushing them away. Therefore, I am choosing to push them away. There’s something in me that doesn’t want that level of intimacy. There’s something to me that equates love with chasing, not love with receiving. I am scared of a love where I receive. I am scared of the other guy across the room who wants to adore me and wants to be needy of me. Fuck that, I don’t find you attractive. I am making a choice here. If they can see their choice to move to the empowered stance and feel all the stuff they are scared to feel, including receiving love, feeling empowered or feeling like I am hot shit, they can earn me, and I am not going to chase them. All of those emotional experiences they aren’t allowing themselves to feel because it is so fucking scary, and it is either scary because it feels like an abyss I am going to fall into or I will be arrogant, like you have got to earn me. All of those experiences, until they are all felt and loved, you are going to be in that dynamic. 

Also, as we talked about, you and I, on grief, when that relationship ends, if you can grieve that thing entirely, fully grieve the fact you have been spending 20 years of your life chasing pretty much your mom or dad’s love through the face of a boyfriend or girlfriend and that’s how you chose to spend your life, you can fully grieve that experience and that can also be a huge part of that healing journey. And you thought playing video games was a huge waste of time. 

Brett: That does now feel like a great ending point. 

Joe: Again, I am hoping Alexa says no, it is not, God damn it, don’t tell me what to do. 

Alexa: Brett, you are always speaking over me. Why do you do this to me? 

Brett: You just made this podcast go over one hour. We have never done that before. You always do this. 

Alexa: I also have a story that I always do this. Thank you for seeing me in my slowness. 

Brett: Even though we were joking, that still made me melt. 

Alexa: Thank you. This was really fun. 

Brett: Thank you both. 

Seeing Identity for What It Is

Seeing Identity for What It Is


Our sense of identity is composed of the ideas and emotional states — even the gut reactions — that we identify as who we are. Identity is how we recognize ourselves. It guides the structure of our thoughts, emotions, and visceral responses.

Most people don’t spend their lives learning how to make their identities more transparent. We often think it’s hard to change aspects of ourselves. The reality is that transforming our identity isn't inherently difficult — it's just that a large part of it is allowing the unfelt emotional experience that our beliefs about ourselves hold in place. It’s hard to change identity from our head, and it's hard to change aspects of identity that we aren't even aware of.

If you're running a business or team, it's absolutely being influenced by your identity. Identity limits the emotions we're willing to feel, the information we're willing to receive, and the actions we'll consider taking. These patterns propagate from leadership into a company.

In this episode, Joe and Brett share perspectives and tools to see and feel through the limits of identity on the intellectual, emotional, and physical levels. They explore how bringing awareness and transparency to our unconscious structures of identity can reduce rigidity and cultivate a healthy, adaptive sense of self.

"Having a fight with your identity is only more identity — it makes it stick harder. The object isn’t to get away from identity, kick it, or beat it into submission: it’s to love it and see what it is."

- Which aspects of your identity have recently been brought to your awareness?
- What emotional or visceral experience came along with these insights?

Tweet your comments or questions to us at @artofaccomp, or use the feedback form on our website.


Episode intro:

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson. 

Brett: How is it going, Joe?

Joe: I am a little tired as you might imagine. I feel incredibly refreshed on one level, but we just did Burning Man, my first Burning Man after 21 years. I am definitely the wear and tear on my body, but I am mostly recovered, still a bit tired. 

Brett: Same, first Burning Man since the pandemic. A great pandemic return, Burning Man, including getting COVID right in the middle of it, dropping into a 102-degree fever in a 118 degree desert breathing dust. What is COVID? What is just being out here in the dust and the heat? It is hard to tell. I slept for about 48 hours when I got back, and I am a human again now. 

Joe: It is Burning Man actually that made me think about this topic for today, especially the older Burning Man more than this, but it is a chance for people to try on different identities, not be who they normally think of themselves as at home. That and also following up on the grief episode and how we spoke about identity, I thought that we really haven’t gone into the identity so much. 

Brett: We have had a lot of people reach out and say they loved the grief episode, and they were amazed how much of it was really about identity, People connected to that on various levels. It seems like a really good thing to go into now, especially after both of us having whatever kind of identity experiences Burning Man brings about. 

Joe: It is funny because that’s actually what I said when I was with people. For those of you who know me as a teacher, please can you not treat me like that for the next five days while we are Burning Man? I think I violated it more than anybody else, but there are probably about only 10 violations or something like that, which is pretty good. It was nice. It was a different level of intimacy. It was quite sweet. 

Brett: Let’s get into it. What is this thread of identity that has followed through so many of our episodes? Let’s just define it. Let’s pull it out into the open. 

Joe: That’s a hard one to define. I would say it is the ideas and emotional states, even maybe the gut reactions, that we identify as who we are. It is the way in which we recognize ourselves. On the coarsest level, that’s what it is. I think about it like for instance, let’s just say there is one person who plays the violin, and it is a huge identity piece for them. The more personally you take it, the more of an identity it is. There are some people who pick up a violin once, play it and they don’t identify as a violin player. Somebody says they shouldn’t play violin, and they are okay. It is less of a personal thing, whereas somebody else loves the violin. It is their thing. It is their passion. Someone says they shouldn’t play the violin. It is going to be far more personal. It is going to be a part of their identity. It is really how we recognize ourselves. 

That’s the way I would think about it, but not just intellectually but also the emotional states that we run or the gut reactions and nervous system responses that we have. 

Brett: The way I experience is identity is a structure, some kind of inner exoskeleton of what we think we are. There are ways that that sometimes is helpful for our growth. Trying on an identity, trying on the public speaker, trying on the violin player, trying on the CEO. It can also become something limiting if we believe we are something, or we must be something, or we believe we are not something in relation to ourselves or the world. 

One of the things I have found about this path is it is a process of continually stepping out of identities into the unknown and leaving identities behind, like a snakeskin. 

Joe: My experience is that you can’t leave your identity completely. Without any identity, I don’t know if you are psychologically capable of speaking. There is this kind of refinement, not kind of. There is a refinement of every time you see through an identity that’s limiting you, there is a chance to discover the way that this new identity also limits you. Every epiphany of identity becomes the next rut of the identity as well. It is a process, and it doesn’t ever go away, but there is a way in which it becomes more transparent. 

Brett: Which brings up a question, how do we recognize the difference between an identity that we are taking on and genuine self-recognition of seeing some aspect of ourselves that we haven’t seen through a previous identity? 

Joe: I don’t understand the distinction. 

Brett: Just to compare, aspects of ourselves that are not identity and then aspects of ourselves that we have an identity formed around. 

Joe: I think it is how personally you take it. How personal it is to you is the way in which to see how much of an identity it is. The difficulty there is some of the parts of identity you might not even see. 

Brett: What’s an example of that? 

Joe: I’ll give you two examples, one in the intellectual space and one in the emotional space though they are both kind of both. There is this great study they did with kids, and they told one group of kids that they were really smart. They told another group of kids that they were hardworking. Then they gave them an impossible math test, and then they showed them they had failed the math test. They said they were going to take the test again. It is going to be slightly different, but it is the same basic test. The kids who were told they were smart were far less likely to try the second time because if they tried and failed, they would be proving they weren’t smart. They were holding on to that identity. The kids who were told they were hardworking were far more likely to try hard and improve on the second test. 

Now maybe those kids could say I have an identity of being smart. Maybe those kids just think they are smart. Maybe those kids aren’t even conscious of that subconscious identity that’s occurring. I think it is the same for humans. I will give an example of that on the emotional level. I was in El Salvador, and I was sitting in a hammock and I got the news that WhatsApp had just sold for billions of dollars to Facebook. The venture capitalist who put his own money into it turned $400,000 dollars into billions or some such thing. I just got this kick in my stomach. It was a gut punch. I immediately said what is that feeling. What was the first time I felt it? I closed my eyes, followed my body, not my mind, to the very first time I felt that experience, and it was around trying to get my dad’s love. I recognized in that moment I had an identity of having emotional experiences of chasing something I wasn’t allowed to get or couldn’t ever get and then feeling deprived and resentful. 

That chain of emotional experiences had become a part of my identity, but it was subconscious. I had no idea until that moment that that was part of the identity and that it had played out with money, with bosses, with my dad, with women’s love. That emotional rollercoaster was part of my identity. It was how I knew myself to be, but it wasn’t particularly conscious. It is hard to say you are taking it personally and at the same time say you might not be conscious of it, but that’s how it works. 

Brett: There is a distinction between the beliefs we are aware that we have of ourselves, and then there is just the deeper conditioning. For example, the kids that are told they are hardworking, they think great, they are hardworking. You are going to give them another test, and they are going to work hard at it. That’s the thing I’ve been conditioned with reinforcement or punishment to be, and that’s not necessarily the way that I would be entirely without conditioning or with different conditioning. That person might show up later on in life and be the worker who overworks themselves and doesn’t take breaks to give themselves rest when they need it because they think they are the one who is hardworking. They show up and get the things done, and that’s just how they always are. 

Joe: That’s the idea. Every way that we define ourselves has its own limitations. It is not like the person who sees through their identity of hardworking stops working forever and never works again. They have the flexibility to know they are beyond hardworking or not hardworking, smart or not smart. It is exactly that, and whether it is conditioning and therefore an unconscious sense of identity, it is really about how strongly placed it is in our sense of self whether it is conscious or unconscious. All of them have limits. 

Brett: A way to recognize that is how defensive we are of it or even just what physical response arises. 

Joe: Correct. What kind of constriction, what kind of defense? What would I be without creates fear. There are lots of physical responses that tell people. They are typically the parts of ourselves that we ask ourselves how we can change that. Once we have recognized it and our mind thinks this is a limiting part of my identity and I don’t want to be identified in this way anymore, when it is part of what we call our identity, then it is very challenging for people. It is actually not that hard once you know the tricks and hacks, but for most folks, these are the hardest things about ourselves to change. 

Brett: That points to an interesting phenomenon. In self work, a lot of people will recognize they have an identity and they want to live past that identity. Sometimes they will change their lives. They will change their names. They will move into a different social group to take on a different identity, but without exploring the subconscious components of that identity, they just end up recreating that new identity with a different name, a different group of friends, a different spirituality…

Joe: A different boyfriend, a different husband. Absolutely. You asked a question, which was: How do I identify what is part of our identity and what is not? The other way is the opposite, which is if you are in VIEW around a topic about yourself, there is less of a chance you are in identity, meaning if it is easy for you to be vulnerable around it, if you are impartial about it, if you have empathy for others around it, if you are in wonder about it, it is far less likely to be a strong part of your identity. 

Brett: This reminds me of the projections episode we had where one of the kind of projections we have is the projections we have on ourselves, and then being in VIEW with that and thinking if I consciously or subconsciously identify as the person who gets rejected or as the person who puts in more work than everybody else and doesn’t get appreciated for it. With that, you can be in the wonder of what it is that I am actually feeling underneath this. 

Joe: Absolutely. At once, the practice of you is not just a communication tool. In the long term, it tenderizes our identity. It allows our identity to be more transparent. 

Brett: I like that term, tenderizes. Generally there is sort of an attitude of deconstruction of identity in the personal development, self exploration and meditation, esoteric spaces. I feel like that can almost become sort of an opposition. For example, kill your ego. People who walk around with the identity of being the egoless one. 

Joe: They are a bit of a pain in the ass, aren’t they? Having been one myself. 

Brett: I was about to say yeah, we are. 

Joe: Exactly. 

Brett: It seems like there is a constant tension here that can occur, and it can be a process that goes back and forth between being in an identity that we are not aware of and then identifying that identity or identifying next to it as a surrogate for it and then wanting to break it down, seeing it as a bad thing. What would you say makes that something that we have tension with rather than just being a natural process?

Joe: The clear response is identity, meaning once we identify. I will put it to you this way. There is no good or bad around identity. You can be limited by your identity in some ways, and your identity can offer you a lot of possibilities in other ways. The trick is more about flexibility, to see yourself beyond the identity, to see through it so the identity becomes more transparent if you will. Some people go around saying the right identity is to be the happy one or the altruistic one or the one who cares, but even those identities create some limitations. 

Caretakers are often identified as the person who cares or altruistic, and so every identity has some component of it that limits us. Sometimes that’s great, like identifying as a person who loves your husband or your wife or father. There is a lot of beauty and awesomeness in that. It is not an idea of I am going to have no identity because there is no possibility of that. It is far more about finding the flexibility in the identity. That’s what it is like. 

Brett: If I take on the identity of being a vulnerable person, of being loving, of being in VIEW to the extent that that becomes an identity, then I start filtering my reality to see that it is true and to see less of the evidence to the contrary, to not notice where I am not being fully loving, to not notice where I have dropped out of VIEW and I am holding in defense. 

Joe: Or you can have the identity of not being vulnerable enough and then you don’t see the evidence you are vulnerable or you are moving towards vulnerability. I mean this is something you get to see at Burning Man a lot. How many years have you been coming? Some people have a lot of identity in that. They say 15 years. It is a really big thing. They want people to know. You should be impressed. I’ve been coming for a long time. Some people say 15 years, but it is not part of their identity at all. 

If you can’t see through your identity, you are blinded to something. There is some part of yourself that you can’t see. 

Brett: That brings up an interesting piece about how we can attach our identity to an identity we create of some external concept, like Burning Man. Those who have been going to Burning Man for a long time often have an identity of what they believe Burning Man is and represents, and then they themselves feel associated with it or defensive in ways they might not see. The same is true for a company. As a CEO, as a founder, as an early employee, we develop these identities of what we are in relation to this organization, what the organization is in relation to the world. Then without inspecting and seeing through those identities, we might not see how we are limiting our range of motion and emotion in our roles. 

Joe: Limiting our business. Here is something I can say. If I have a CEO that’s a hoarder, who has a tendency to save everything, I guarantee you there are going to be a bunch of projects that should be killed in their company that they haven’t killed. If I have a CEO with the identity of not being vulnerable because people will hurt them, then I guarantee you there is a lack of team camaraderie in their particular executive team because they don’t feel the intimacy with the CEO. Our identity absolutely influences the businesses we are running, the teams we are running or who we are leading. 

Brett: I think this points also to the avoided emotions that prop up the identity. The first one of the hoarder, I identify with that a lot. There have been a lot of times I don’t want to lay anybody off. I want to keep the team together. I don’t want to cancel anyone’s projects or any ways they might grow. Who am I to say this isn’t going to work? Really in those periods of my life, the things I have been avoiding by holding that identity together have been just to feel the FOMO, to feel the disappointment, to feel the loss, to feel the sunk cost, to just allow feeling, to go back to the last episode, grief. To feel the grief of whatever it is that I thought was worth holding onto, recognizing it is time to let it go. The more willing I am to feel that feeling, the less I need to identify as the one who is able to hold it all together and be able to hold all these pieces and not lose one. 

Joe: That’s right. This is where you get to people who say I see I am not that, but I am still acting like that. I see that I am a good person, but I am still acting like a bad person. 

Brett: By whatever projection of good or bad is. 

Joe: Exactly. Typically that’s because rationally they get it, but the emotional experience is still identified. I am still identified with rejecting grief, or I am still identified with the feeling that the fear that I have to feel if I don’t care take people, or I don’t take care of people. The resistance to that emotion has been part of people’s identity typically since they were five, four, three, eight, ten years old. The idea of letting people down and trying not to so they don’t feel disappointed in you didn’t first happen in your company. That is this core part of the identity, and if you can fully allow those feelings to be felt and go through those experiences, then you can identify emotionally as something else so the patterns can change pretty rapidly. 

That’s what makes people think it is hard to change identity stuff. It is not hard. A big part of it is allowing the emotional experience. 

Brett: It is hard to change your identity within your head and only in your head. 

Joe: Yes, nearly impossible. Not entirely, I’ve seen it done, but it is not consistent, and it takes a long time. 

Brett: What are some other things that would make it hard to change? What are some of the other roadblocks that might come up here?

Joe: One is you have been justifying and validating it for years, so you have got an entrenched neuro system. Let’s say part of the identity is being overweight, and part of that is the thought process that it is hard to lose weight. For 16 years, you have been quitting diets with the justification that it has been hard to lose weight. I’m not saying everybody can lose weight immediately. I am saying that if you validate and you look for evidence over a 20-year period of time, it is very hard to undo that neuropathway. It seems to be hard. 

There is also a question of fear of self without it. It is a form of death. There is a reason that the metaphor of Jesus on the cross. If you are going to give up a part of your identity, it can feel very much like death. It is not just death because you don’t know how you are going to act, how to shop or how to interact with people, but it is also a death that everybody you are interacting with, you are now different. Will they keep on interacting with you? If you have always had the identification of being the person everybody needs to help and you decide you don’t like that identity anymore and you are going to move to the identity of the person who is totally capable, and then all of a sudden your friends say I was just in it so I could help somebody and feel better than you. Then they are all gone. Whether that’s true or not, you are going to fear the fact that if I am different, then maybe I won’t be loved, I won’t be supported and I won’t know who I am. That feels like a death. 

When I say death, it is literally meaning I don’t know what it is going to look like after this event horizon. Every time a big piece of your identity leaves, it is a singularity in the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen after that event horizon. You do it enough times and you can gauge it pretty well. It becomes a little less scary, but most people don’t spend their life figuring out how to overcome the parts of their identity that limit them or how to make their identity more transparent. 

Brett: Something that has been helpful for me in this process has been recognizing that whenever I come face to face with an identity that’s ready to die, there is the recognition that this was never actually me. What was actually happening is the relationships I had were based on people seeing me and the way I was presenting myself. The way I was relating to myself and the way I was organizing my life was being arranged around an image of myself that never was real, and then when that gets let go, there is a feeling of death because I don’t know what I am now. There is also the recognition that this was always some kind of death. There was always a deeper part of me that was being suppressed and being held in place that now gets to live. 

Joe: Absolutely. My experience is any time a big piece of my identity is seen through, there is grief. There is a grieving process, and I’ve seen that with so many clients with a big chunk of how they identify falls away, there is a grief experience that goes along with it. 

Brett: It seems like in general life is a process of identity just recalibrating, reabsorbing new information, reorganizing and dying, and allowing more to come through. It can be more or less jerky or more or less smooth of a process. 

Joe: If you look at the long arc of the process, I would say you start to recognize every part of your identity that’s limited is a part of yourself that shows that there is something you can’t love. Whether it is something you think is negative, like I don’t work hard enough, then you can’t love that aspect, or if it is something you think is positive, like I am a hard worker, then you can’t love the lazy part of yourself. One of the things you recognize and one thing to think about your identity from an emotional space, from a heart space, is that your identity is exactly the parts of yourself that you can’t love. Your limited identity is exactly the parts of yourself that you can’t love. 

As you learn to love these parts, it is not like we walk around with no identity because it is psychologically impossible. There is somebody who is speaking. There is a thought that’s had, and somebody is recognizing that thought. What does happen, from an emotional point of view, is as you learn to love it and love all of the aspects of yourself, the identity becomes far more fluid, far more transparent. It starts to identify with oneness or nothingness or love or peace or inherent goodness. The identification becomes softer, more universal. It becomes more gentle, less rigid, more fluid. If you are looking at the long arc of it, that’s a really important thing to see. 

At some point, you will identify all those identities that also become their own roadblocks. The identity of oneness has its own limitations. At some point, you think you are everything and you are nothing. To be able to see both aspects of that, and then more fluidity and more transparency. To be able to see that I am a great CEO or that I am a horrible CEO, to be able to see all of the aspects of yourself, all of the aspects of the diamond so to speak, it allows for far more light to shine through. It allows for the beauty to be there. It allows for a far more both sustainable and flexible, resilient kind of sense of self. 

Brett: There has been another thing that’s been interesting in the work we have done together. I might identify or recognize myself as a CEO, the good or the bad CEO, and then I can go up a level. Am I the one identifying as the one that recognizes that I care about what kind of CEO I am and feel tension around that? What am I beyond that? What makes it important for me?

Joe: Or am I the awareness that notices all these thoughts? It can go on. The question is what is useful, what serves. The question of what allows you to be your most authentic self, and flexibility is a huge part of that. Flexibility both in context and in the specifics. 

Brett: Beautifully said. I want to bring this also just again back down to the emotions and to the body, too. Something that is just really common in a moment of seeing through an identity or in coaching with pointing when somebody has their identity challenged or surfaced, there is so often, I think maybe always, some kind of an emotional or physical process that occurs. There is a revelation of something emotional or physical that has been holding it in place whether that is avoided grief in the example that I described earlier about wanting to keep everything together and not feel like any opportunity was ever left on the opportunity, but also there is muscular tension underneath these things. To what level am I holding my identity or my character structure in the tension in my body by being the one who is ready for anything, the one who is always watching and scanning for threats or the one who is ready to be there and love anybody who is in distress?

Joe: I don’t know if that’s an answerable question, how much of it is being held. It is being held in place on three levels. One level is the intellectual structure of it that you may or may not recognize or see through. Another is the emotional structure of it that you may or may not see through. Then there is the nervous system part of it, which you may or may not see through, the reactive, the jump, the oh shit, the I have to. It is like that quick startle that comes with a lot of these identities, the immediate defensiveness. If you are looking to see through your identity, it needs to be seen through on all three levels. Sometimes that happens just naturally because you see it intellectually and the emotions just move, and sometimes you can just move the emotions and you can see through it intellectually. It can all happen in one big moment, but all three movements have to happen for you to actually be able to get full flexibility in that level of your identity. 

Brett: Just to close that out, just bringing that back into some of my process of initially identifying as the fearless one and then identifying as the calm one, and then recognizing that that was compensating for anxiety, and then identifying as the anxious one. Then recognizing that every time I actually feel my anxiety, it is not me. It is just conditioning. It orients my attention toward something that may be important or may map onto something that was important in my past and is no longer relevant, and then identifying as the unknown. What is underneath all of that? As my anxiety comes up or as feeling or grief arises and moves through me, am I identifying as that thing? Here is another piece of evidence that I am this way. Or am I identifying as the one who is feeling this feeling right now and discovering what is underneath it and beyond it?

Joe: Or you are identifying that which is beyond it. The interesting thing is on some level you talked about all of the levels there. There is an intellectual piece of I am not scared because I am doing this stuff. I have evidence. That was the intellectual aspect. Then there is the nervous system aspect of I am going to feel into this. Every time I am scared if I am feeling into it, then something different is happening. That’s addressing the nervous system aspect of it. Then the emotional aspect of my body is actually scared all the time no matter what I am trying to tell myself intellectually, so in a weird way not only were you giving us a metaphor for the long term journey but you were always giving us a metaphor for the three aspects of changing your identity around fear. 

Brett: Is there anything else you would like to say on this?

Joe: No, that felt really good. That felt like a great ending. I guess there is one more thing I would like to say, which is the thing you said about ego. Having a fight with your identity is only more identity. It only makes it stick harder. The object isn’t to get away from identity. It is to love it and to see it for what it is. It is not to beat it or kick it into submission. It is the same with the go. 

Brett: More like a Chinese finger trap, less like boxing. 

Joe: Exactly. Well played, sir. 

Brett: Thank you. I really enjoyed this. 

Joe: So did I. Thank you very much. 

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at


How Relationships Reveal Us

How Relationships Reveal Us


What can we learn about ourselves from the way we engage in relationships?

Brett and Joe address curiosities from listeners about how to approach relationships in a healthy way, riffing on the observation that we find ourselves attracted to the people who most perfectly hook into our triggers, traumas, and projections. Seeing this pattern as a feature rather than a bug, relationships become a vessel for deep healing and personal growth.

Examine how an agreement that “we’re together to make each other happy” leads to resentment and kills a relationship. Consider a relationship built on each partner finding their own freedom while being kind and supportive to one another.

Learn how relationships involve a continuous grieving process for our identity and bring us into contact with the helplessness of loving another without trying to change them.

  • How can we welcome one another’s needs without neglecting parts of ourselves to make them happy?
  • What does it look like to be authentic and open-hearted in the face of an attack?
  • When a relationship ends, how do we not close down and repeat the same pattern next time?

We’ll be following this episode up with others in a new series on relationships. Tweet your favorite quotes and burning questions to @artofaccomp and let us know what you’d like to explore more deeply.


One of the main reasons I think we find ourselves attracted to certain people and we find ourselves married to certain people is that we have an instinctual way of finding the person who can trigger us the best. 

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I’m Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson. 

Joe: Hey, Brett. 

Brett: Hey, Joe. 

Joe: Good to see you, man. 

Brett: Good morning. We’ve been getting a lot of questions from people about relationships, and people are asking what they should do now. How do they tell if they are in the right relationship? How do they know when to dive in and when to pull back? How do they know whether or not they are coming from their feelings or from their trauma? We haven’t had an episode yet on relationships in particular. 

Joe: Just to be clear, are we talking about romantic relationships? Are we talking about all relationships?

Brett: Let’s go into romantic relationships, but I think it applies to all relationships. 

Joe: Most of it applies to close relationships, I would say. Maybe not acquaintances, but most of it will apply to the bosses we keep working for or the parents. Let’s keep it focused on the romantic. 

Brett: I think one of the reasons for that is the context of these closest relationships, including the romantic relationships, involves a lot of spiritual growth, a lot of personal development, and a lot of our stuff comes up. It is a container in which we get to experience and recreate a lot of our patterns and work through them. The same isn’t necessarily true in a lot of work relationships. On some levels, it is, but to some extent, there is something special about the romantic relationship that more often comes up. People have very specific questions about it. 

Joe: I would say more agreement is on that. It is true that there is more agreement. We can work on our stuff here today. I don’t need to be a professional. I can actually work on my stuff here. Let’s do it. Relationships, what’s a good starting question here?

Brett: A good place to start would be to lay out the framework of what a romantic relationship actually is, where it comes, what brings us into them, what attracts us to them, what kinds of relationships we are attracted to, and that’s a pretty fractal, multi question right there. 

Joe: It is interesting. You said something earlier about if I am coming into this relationship out of a healthy thing or if I am coming into this relationship from trauma. I would say there that I don’t think that question is relevant, meaning that the people we are attracted to, that we find ourselves in relationships with are people who hook into our particular trauma, our particular projections, and our particular patterns perfectly. If we have a long-term relationship, you can pretty much be sure that those two patterns interlock perfectly. That’s one of the main reasons I think we find ourselves attracted to certain people and that we find ourselves married to certain people is that we have an instinctual way of finding the person who from one perspective can trigger us the best and another perspective I would say has the biggest opportunity for our mutual healing. That seems to be why people become attracted to one another is to solve that thing. 

The other way I would put that is if you take a look at young children. Young children get taught what love is in a particular way. Love is associated with shame or love is associated with authoritarianism. Love is associated with money or love is associated with food. That creates certain patterns, certain ways in which they are trying to get the love, certain ways in which they are scared of getting the rejection. However that pattern gets created, that’s where you are going to find somebody in your romantic relationship that holds the other side of that pattern. That’s why you hear so many people talk about things like oh my gosh, my husband is so much like my father, or my husband is so much like my mother or my wife is so much like my father. Oftentimes we are recreating those patterns so they can be healed. At least, that’s the opportunity. The opportunity is you get to heal patterns if both people are willing to do the work. 

Brett: I notice there is a way of seeing this as a feature or a bug. I just keep getting the same relationship. I just keep dating my mother or my father. There is something wrong with that and that means there is something wrong with me. What I see you also pointing to is there is an opportunity to heal these things and there is an opportunity to feel the feelings that haven’t been felt yet. This is perhaps one of the distinctions with a romantic relationship as far as consensus agreement versus a boss. At least in a romantic relationship, that’s the place where culturally we expect to be most accepted as we actually are. We tend to develop the most interdependence, which is not universally true. 

Joe: Or co-dependence or dependence. I would question it, but this is a very different podcast. I would question the non consensuality of a job, but I think we are all responsible for our own decisions. 

Brett: I mean the consensual reality of what people agree is the purpose of a romantic relationship versus what people tend to culturally agree is the purpose of a work relationship. 

Joe: That’s a great question. I think a lot of people think that the agreement behind a relationship is that we are here to make each other happy. I think that’s terminal. I think that kills a relationship. My experience is that not only kills a relationship, but it also allows us to lose ourselves and others. It creates a tremendous amount of pain if we take responsibility for anybody’s happiness or give our responsibility for our own happiness to anybody and all of the subtle and not so subtle ways that that happens. 

Particularly in societies where romantic love, that crushy feeling in the first three months where you have that feeling and you get that feeling of massive oxytocin, then you are like wait, being with that person makes me feel this way. Obviously, that goes away after about three to five months. Wait, what’s happening? Why aren’t they making me happy anymore? Everybody starts doing things to try to make the other person happy and has expectations. That’s where all the trauma shows up. 

If you are actually in a relationship where both people are saying we are here primarily to use the relationship as a way to create our own freedom, to make ourselves happy, and to be kind and supportive to one another, then that’s going to be a relationship that’s going to be successful. Unfortunately, most relationships I think in our society consciously or subconsciously are more in the vein of I’m here to make them happier and they are here to make me happy. That’s my job in the relationship. They are not making me happy, so they need to change. There’s a lot of that, trying to get each other to change in a relationship, which is just brutal. 

Brett: I wonder what it is like to go into a relationship with the agreement of relationships are meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy for a time so that we build attachment and connection, and then push our buttons. 

Joe: That’s right. 

Brett: When my buttons get pushed, that’s exactly what I am here for. 

Joe: I am here to heal my own buttons, not yours. I am here for my own transformation, not for yours. You can see that metaphor play out completely in the sexual relationship, too, where if you are having a sexual relationship where it is all about pleasing the other person, it is going to be horrible sex. If it is all about pleasing yourself, that’s also going to be horrible sex. But you can’t exclude the fact that you are there for your pleasure; they are there for their pleasure. The only person responsible for your pleasure can be you. There is nobody else who can know what you need or what you want or how to be with you. You are the authority on that. It is the same with healing inside of a relationship. 

Brett: And with growth. I’ve seen and experienced this before in my relationships where each partner feels like they are responsible for the other’s growth or in some manner guiding it or is more equipped to facilitate it. That just stifles things immediately. 

Joe: That’s hell. That’s absolute hell. Tara and I definitely went through that phase. It was brutal and full of arrogance, hubris and distraction from your own shit, among a whole bunch of other things. 

Brett: This comes back to in the process of getting into a relationship there is this possible having this consent or agreement that what relationships are for, this desire for each of us to use the relationship for our own freedom and growth, and part of that might even be not requiring the other person to have that same agreement. That’s just the way that you live individually. That’s the way you show up in relationships. 

Joe: I would like that to be true. I don’t know if it is. I don’t know if I have ever really seen any relationship get through the bottoms unless both people have agreed to the fact that they are there for their personal growth. They might make it as far as they stay, but it is dead inside. They might be married for 50 years, but it is brutal, cold and unfulfilling. I don’t know of any relationship. I am just tracking right now. I can’t speak to any relationship that I have found that is healthy, rewarding and fulfilling and that changes with the multiple marriages we all go through over 20, 30 or 40 years that hasn’t had the agreement that it is not about changing the other person. It is about our own personal growth and how we be with ourselves, be better people. Better people is not right, but learn how to be more and more ourselves. 

Brett: I think that brings up a common sticking point that can happen around this work. When somebody discovers a practice like this or discovers any kind of path that they are finding really helpful for their healing and for their growth, and then they start to feel like their partner is not on board with it, they think now I need you to agree that we are each in this for our own freedom. There can still be a trying to change them to make them the one that wants to use the relationship for their freedom and support each other in that. 

Joe: Also hell. Absolutely. I see that all the time where people start discovering something in themselves, and I would see out of a deep love and care they want their partner to join them but also out of a desire to be happy. If they change, I will be happy. That’s the thing. If you think that your partner is going to do anything that makes you happy, if you have the fantasy if they become this, this and that, they will make me happy, that’s an absolute illusion. That’s now how it works. 

It doesn’t mean that being with certain people would be more conducive to thriving than other people. It doesn’t mean you should be with the partner and just learn how to endure it all. I’m not saying that, but we are responsible for our own happiness. Nobody else can take control of that. Nobody else can provide that for us. The clearer that gets, the more likely you are, or I think it is a foregone conclusions, the more you will be in healthy relationships. 

Brett: Let’s scroll back a little bit to the process of getting into a relationship from this framing, from this perspective of relationships are a path to my growth. I can use relationships to make myself happy at the same time that my partner is making themselves happy. We are both co-creators and co-conspirers of our own individual agency, autonomy and growth and developing a healthy interdependence and not codependence. 

Knowing that we are attracted to relationships that are mirroring our own traumas in some sense or matching them, a lot of people have a question or a wondering about how I know if what I am getting into is healthy. If I can just assume the relationships I am getting to are based on my trauma patterns, how do I tell if that’s going to be healthy or if that’s just going to re-traumatize me or recreate the situation, reprove my belief system?

Joe: Let me back off of that question for a second so I can answer it more precisely. I have had the really lovely experience of several times being with people on their first date, either being in the booth next to them at a restaurant or just showing up and meeting people who might have interest in one another. If you are listening to it the right way, it is like a contract negotiation. They are giving each other pieces of information about each other. They are telling each other how they are going to act. In both cases where I got to experience this, from the outside I got to say I know exactly how that relationship is going to go. You can see the entire thing in the first couple moments, first date or two. There are all these subtle agreements being made, subconsciously or not fully consciously. 

This is just to say whether we are conscious of it or not, we are that wise in it. We might not be knowing how we are handling it, our heart palpitations and our breath. We are not engineering it, but we are taking care of it. I have seen the same thing happen on every occasion I’ve gotten to see it where people are on their first date. There is this beautiful subconscious intelligence at work. That’s the first part of that that I think is really important. 

The second part is if I am attracted to this person because of my trauma or if I am attracted to this person because it will be healing. Both. You are going to retraumatize yourself. Every marriage retraumatizes some of the things we learned in our early childhood, and every relationship has the chance to heal us from our traumas. Both are the case. The easiest thing to say is if you both agree that we are here to do the work, to find our own freedom, then you are going to get a lot more of the healing and a lot less of the retraumatizing. If there is no agreement like that and one person is in full blame mode, full change the other person, full defense mode, then you are going to get a lot more retraumatization. That’s just how it is. 

I think it is a false pretext to ask if this is the right person for me that I am attracted to. The right thought process is I am attracted to this person. Therefore, they do have that kind of click. That have that think in them that attracts a part of me that needs to be healed. Are we going to do that or are we going to be unconscious in this relationship? I think that’s the way to tell the difference. Is the person willing to do the work?

Brett: Then there is the open question of if the lesson for me in this relationship is to let more love in, open up and let down my defenses or if it is to draw boundaries. 

Joe: I don’t see the separation in those two things. Those are the same thing in my world. 

Brett: I see that as a common question. 

Joe: That’s a common question. 

Brett: There is definitely something for me to learn in this relationship. Is the thing for me to learn to dive into it? Is the thing for me to learn to walk away from it? Because I am having feelings and I am trying to interpret them. 

Joe: There is this age-old question in all spiritual growth. The way you are posing it right now is the relational version of that question, but the non-relational version of that question is if I am truly at peace, I should be able to live on top of a disco and be at peace. If I am truly at peace, why on earth would I love on top of a disco? Do I move or do I stay on top of the disco? That’s kind of the question. The thing that I disagreed with in the first phrasing and that I didn’t hear in the second phrasing was if I open my heart and stay open. The answer to that is always yes. The question of boundaries is if I need to draw a boundary so I can maintain that open heart and so I can maintain that unconditional love or if I need to look at my own experience to be able to maintain that unconditional love and that open heart. Even that is somewhat of a false dichotomy in the fact that oftentimes it is both. 

The other part of it that is also a false dichotomy is thinking drawing the boundary is more about the other person. For instance, you have got a boyfriend and six months in the boyfriend lies to you. There are certain people who would be like I am done. We are finished. There is not even a question. There are other people who would put up with because of all of these other cool things, but two years down the line, they are tired of the lying. They ask if they should be good with the lying or if they should draw the boundary with the lying. The truth is drawing the boundary about the lying is really a version of learning that I don’t have to accept lying in my life. It is internal work more than it is external work. The external saying of it is just a way to affirm the internal realization that I don’t have to live with somebody lying to me. It doesn’t help me thrive and it doesn’t help them thrive. 

In a way, it is all internal work. Sometimes it is drawing a boundary, and sometimes it is leaving. There is that false dichotomy between it being my problem or their problem. That’s the false dichotomy. It is always about you being responsible for your own happiness. 

Brett: That speaks to the process of healing in a relationship, which leads to showing up in a different way and then to drawing boundaries and opening your heart. This leads to taking actions and taking on ways of being you have never had before and allowing your partner to do that, allowing your partner to change into something you’ve never seen them be before or seen anybody be before in a relationship with you. That’s a continuous process of feeling helplessness and grieving whatever a relationship was or what our identity was in a relationship. 

I think that that also paradoxically is what keeps the relationship fresh and the spice going. There is the NRE, the new relationship energy, which is often considered to die off after a certain period of time. In my experience, it comes right back every time a relationship goes through a big move and a big healing process and becomes redefined, more accepting and more aware of more parts of both people. 

Joe: Yeah. I think it is a more grounded version than new relationship energy every time is my experience, but it keeps it fresh and alive. That’s a beautiful way to say it. One of the reasons that relationships in particular we take so personally is because we suffer under the illusion that the other person’s actions or reactions are going to affect us more or with an inordinate amount of pressure so to speak, meaning if he quits his job, what does it mean for me? If she becomes a vegan, what does it mean to me? We are constantly monitoring the person’s change on the other side and how it is going to affect our life. More profoundly, we are monitoring what they are doing and how it is going to affect our identity. 

Also, we are monitoring to see if they are going to hold us in place or not. Wow, you are going through something that makes it that you don’t want to care take me anymore, but then who the fuck is going to take care of me? I’ve created my whole system to create care takers. I’ve created a system where I feign helplessness, and I am weak and a victim. I find people who want to take care of me. If you stop taking care of me, then I am going to have to become empowered, but really I feel that care taking is love, so now I feel unloved. It goes like that. We get very scared by the other person’s growth typically, so we will exert a lot of pressure and get very angry over it or sad. We will use every tool in the toolbox to try to keep the person in a place where we feel safe. 

Brett: It is interesting to see the pattern where often in a relationship somebody is afraid of being held back or of holding back, the same person is also doing the disempowering for themselves and the other or bidding for disempowerment. 

Joe: That’s right. Totally. The other thing is all of these fights we get into in our relationships, you can break them down to pretty much the same basic thing. One person feels unseen or both people feel unseen in that moment or feel unheard or unseen, not grokked, not respected, some version of that. Then there is a desire to change the other person. That is quintessential part of all fights, and that somebody or both people have closed down their heart and decided not to be open. Every fight can be resolved with one and/or both people saying I am going to love unconditionally even in this situation. Here let me take the time to see you. Let me make sure I am seeing you correctly. Let me make sure I understand what you need to be respected and I am not going to try to change you anymore. 

If you flip that switch in a fight, the fight goes away. It might take a while to go away. Most people, when they are in that fight, they do this. I am going to open my heart until they open their heart. I am not going to see them until I am seen. I am always the one who is seeing them. 

Brett: I need a partner that does the work. 

Joe: All that friction. It is like saying hey, I am going to be free until they are free. What the hell? That makes sense from this perspective. If I drop my needing to be seen, if I drop my closedness, if I lower the armor, that’s my freedom. I get that no matter if the person is yelling. I get that. My freedom might be to leave or to draw a boundary, but I get my freedom. Why would I care? This is that focus, the focus on self. Then they have to make their choice. They get to make that choice. That’s the fascinating piece. Every one of the fights, I have never seen a fight that isn’t basically about that in a relationship. 

Brett: If you do find your freedom, you are giving your partner to love you in your freedom, which will do things for them as well. 

Joe: Unless you have somebody with a severe psychological disorder, when you show up and you listen to them, you unconditionally love them and you hear them, they won’t continue to react the same way towards you. They will change. I feel seen. I feel safe. They will show up more loving. They will listen better. They will want to meet you there. It might take them 20 minutes, but they will want to. 

Brett: Or even a few weeks or however much time it takes. 

Joe: Exactly. 

Brett: Another thing this points to about being in relationships where there is an agreement that each is in it for their own freedom and supportive of one another, there can then become a level of what that means or what the tools are. I see this be a common thing where somebody gets on to some path of what works for them. I’ve seen this happen with somebody who gets really into psychedelics and then the partner doesn’t. Somebody gets really into this work, into VIEW and Art of Accomplishment type work or somebody gets into whatever is out there, and then the other partner doesn’t necessarily agree that is their path. Then the argument is not about we are here for both of our freedom, but the argument is about what path to freedom actually is. 

Joe: Then you are trying to change them. Tara went a completely separate way for a decade. I know I’ve talked on this thing about her making fun of my path. You don’t get to control that in another person. The best approach in that is to learn what their path is. What does happen sometimes is people say that’s not my path, but they are not doing any path. They are not doing any work. Therapy is not my path. That’s not my path. I’m just reading books and intellectualizing. That will be my path, but you are not seeing the growth. Then address that issue. Then the issue is I don’t see whatever you are doing being effective. I don’t see you living up to your side of the agreement, which is working on your own freedom. 

I think that that’s more of the thing, but there is a subsection of this. Let’s take it out of transformation for a moment. It is like I am clear I want to be non-monogamous, and that’s what I need to do, or I am clear that I need to try to start a billion-dollar company. That’s what I need to do. The other person says I am clear I don’t want to be in a non-monogamous relationship, or I am clear that I don’t want you to have a boyfriend or I am clear that I don’t want to be the wife or husband of a multinational CEO. There is something in that which is really fascinating. I think the basic misnomer there and those are big ones. We can do small ones, too, which is I am clear I don’t want to do the dishes and I am clear I don’t want to live with someone who doesn’t do the dishes. 

Brett: I am clear I want to wake up at 8 in the morning and mediate with my partner. I am clear the kids should have a certain schedule. 

Joe: Exactly. In that one, one person compromises or both people compromise. I am going to use that word really specifically. To compromise means that I am going to neglect some aspect of myself to make you happy, and I highly recommend never doing that because that always builds up resentment. Now you are walking around the house saying I can show these three parts of myself but not these two parts of myself. I can’t say this thing. 

I have got to walk on eggshells and all of this other weight and friction comes into the relationship rather than saying what we are going to do now is we are going to figure out a way you get your needs met and I get my needs met. We are going to be smart enough to do that. We are going to commit to doing that. If for whatever reason that can’t be done, which in my experience never can’t be done, then maybe the relationship is not right for us and let’s admit that. Let’s get there. But neither of us are sacrificing. We are both going to get our needs met, and we will find a way to do it. 

There is always a way. We are going to get someone to come in and do the dishes, or we can do the dishes at 7 o’clock at night together. I would hate to say this, but we are using disposable and recyclable dishes and putting it all in the compost. There are a thousand solutions to every problem, and if you are not in a power struggle with the person, if you are not trying to get them to change, there is always a solution. 

Brett: I think a part of that is seeing the other’s stated needs as not threats but as something that points to a deeper need because then you can climb down the ladder of apparent needs into what’s actually needed, which tends to become sort of the same thing, the need for safety, the need for autonomy, the need for connection. 

Joe: Yeah, beautifully seen. That is why the job is to constantly keep an open heart. It is to not armor up and think you are under attack. It is to see that you can only really be attacked on something you are thinking is bad about yourself. I want you to get your needs met. Of course I do. I want my needs to get met and how we can do both. That is the open-hearted approach as compared to I will not do that. The crazy thing is I see this. No, I will not have a non-monogamous relationship. If you have that boundary, that’s fantastic. I love that boundary, but it is so much different than saying I really hear you are sexually unsatisfied in the marriage, and I want you to be sexually satisfied in the marriage. I am not okay with us having relationships outside or I am not okay with us not having relationships outside of the marriage as long as we are not connected, or whatever the boundary is. It is so much different than I won’t do that. I won’t do that is this armored and defensive thing than saying I can really acknowledge and see your needs, and I really want you to get your needs met, and by the way, this scares the fuck out of me because I think we are about to get a divorce because you have a need I am not going to be able to fulfill. 

Brett: I hear a vulnerability of these are my needs and these are your needs. There is this openness that this might not actually be a match and we can’t both get them met at the same time, and there is an openheartedness to really looking for where that correspondence might be. Ultimately, once again, going back to that original principle of each of us is in it for our own freedom and in support of each other’s freedom, which means if I have a need, my need doesn’t need to become a control pattern upon you. 

Joe: That’s it. 

Brett: My need becomes something that I inquire into myself and vulnerably share my process. It is my responsibility to get that need met. 

Joe: I think about relationships. If you think about it, standing upright and having your arms out in a cross, most poetry, most art is written about the arms of the relationship, the beginning and the end. We are talking right now about the body of the relationship, where most of the self-help books hang out. The thing about that body of the relationship, I will tell you a story. I was working with a client, and the client was saying she felt she was being attacked all of the time by her husband. I said who gives a shit. I remember her looking at me like what. I said yeah, so he is attacking you. If you are different than your authentic self because of an attack, they have won. He has won. The only thing you have to focus on is being authentic in the face of that attack because otherwise you are already out of yourself. You have already lost, so to speak. How do you want to be in the fact of this attack if it is true even, which is it most likely not true?

The way it works in relationships is someone thinks they have something to defend, and the other person sees that defense as an attack. They think they have something to defend. The first person sees that defense as an attack, and both people think they are defending themselves and both people feel attacked. That’s typically how it works. 

Brett: Then they create an attack by doing something like not being their authentic self in the face of an attack, which then makes the other partner feel more disconnected and more abandoned. 

Joe: That’s right. It is like great, they have attacked you. How do you want to be? I’ve never seen somebody deeply get in contact with that and think what I want to do is shut down. They might say they want to draw a boundary. They might say what I want is to say I don’t want to be treated like this. Please stop yelling at me. If you have to keep on yelling at me, then I am going to leave. I’m happy to come back when you are not yelling at me. There are lots of ways to handle it, but I’ve never heard anybody say authentically what I want to do is I want to shut down and attack. That will feel great. Being defensive feels freaking great. I want to be more defensive with my husband. I’ve never seen someone say the marriage I want is 55% more defensive. It is not what’s true for us. That’s the thing. 

It reminds me of this other story I love. Tara and I saw a therapist years back, and he had this story, which I loved. He was working with a client, and the client went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, started to pee and missed the toilet. He noticed the first thought he had was god damn it, she moved the toilet. In that moment, he had this recognition that he was holding her responsible for everything. None of it is her job. He saw through this whole thing of him blaming his whole life on his wife. Do you want a life where you are blaming somebody else for your own happiness? No, nobody wants that, and yet here we are finding ourselves in this in the middle of a relationship. Just that acknowledgement that this isn’t the way we want to be with each other and this is the way we want to be with each other, that’s huge. 

Brett: We have talked now about the beginning of the relationship and the kinds of agreements and consensual reality in a relationship for growth and freedom. We’ve talked a lot about the body, and now what if you do this work and you find this relationship has played its course? What we are actually looking for is something different or what I am looking for is something different. My partner left me and they are shutting down. I feel powerless. How do I stay connected to them while they are shutting down to me?

Joe: Before I get there, one of the things I will say about the middle of the relationship is one of the things to look for in a relationship is there are a lot of situations in which somebody thinks they want something and have so much craving for it that they are pushing it away. That can be jealousy. If you find yourself in a relationship where you have this strong desire for something and you keep on trying to get it and you can’t get it, then it is really great to acknowledge that you are actually pushing it away, which means subconsciously you are not ready for it, don’t want it, haven’t admitted what it is going to do to your identity, some version of that. I think that’s a really good, helpful hint for people who find themselves thinking I want this so badly and I can’t get it. To know that that energy is actually pushing that away from you, which means there is some way in which you haven’t fully accepted your desire for it and willingness to receive it. 

Brett: That seems to apply across the board to cravings. 

Joe: Yes, the deep cravings. The ending of the relationship is often the most productive time in a relationship if you are approaching it like this is a spiritual growth thing. The great story I have on this is the first time I experienced it. I had a friend who had the love of his life and had been in the longest relationship, which at the time was 11 months. He was a perennial bachelor until he was 40. He was in this situation, and at the time, he was overweight, drinking too much. His business was failing. He had this break up. He had lost himself quite a bit in the relationship and had this breakup. 

We had this conversation about this being a great time if you can mourn it. He had this long drive he was doing. He was doing restoration work. He had this long drive across Arizona every week. He would cry and mourn the whole time there and back. Two months later it was cry and mourn for a couple of hours there and back. Six months later he wasn’t drinking too much. He was in shape. He was running a successful business. He got new contracts. His entire world had changed. 

When I asked about him how that had worked. A couple of things he said that were exceptional. He said oh my god, I had no idea I could make sounds like that when I was mourning. I had no idea. The other thing was he said he started by mourning the relationship, but then I mourned everything that got me into the relationship, all the trauma, all of the patterns that got me into that relationship. I could mourn and move through them. That’s the opportunity at the end of a relationship. If you fully mourn it, you are not going to replicate the relationship. If you fully allow yourself to feel the sadness, the heartbreak and the heart, it will increase your capacity to love in the future. It will mandate a deeper, more connected form of love from the next relationship. You will be attracted to different people. 

There is this huge opportunity in a breakup to allow that mourning to occur and to move through all of those difficult emotions, embrace them and love them. It is a gigantic opportunity rather than dismiss it. That includes the person breaking up and the person being broken up with or whatever. 

Brett: Even the people around them, mourning the identity of the couple and the way they related to them. One of the things that seems to be a really common factor when I see people in my life after a breakup remain friends or be really close friends or even decide that they actually want to stay together but just in a completely different form of relationship, the factor there is they have actually grieved it fully. Those who have not done that are the ones who are continuing to hold the bitterness and get into another relationship just like it. 

Joe: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly the pattern I see in the world. I think in the front end of breaking up with somebody is this moment of asking if you should break up with them or if you should stay with them. It’s that crazy moment that people have. My response to that is almost always the same, which is why don’t you just be fully who you are and if it ends, it ends. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It is the same thing I tell people who are thinking about quitting a job. 

There are all these ways you have stopped being yourself in the relationship. Why don’t you just be yourself in the relationship? If it becomes a dumpster fire, it is a dumpster fire. You are done anyways. Seventy or 80% of the time the relationship heals just from that, just from people showing up and saying this is how I want to be. Love it or leave it, but I am not going to defend myself. I am just going to be me, and I hope you stay or you don’t. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. My job is just being me here and not being defensive about it. It is incredible how much that changes. 

Brett: The inauthenticity is the source of a lot of the pain, all of the pain really. 

Joe: That’s correct. Usually the person on the other side is more attracted, more excited, more eager to be involved after one to six months of pushing up against this isn’t what we agreed to, that kind of stuff. It is amazing how often that works. 

If it doesn’t work then as far as keeping a relationship alive, it definitely works as far as teaching people how to be themselves in the next relationship. It works as far as creating a more amicable split-up. 

Brett: The final piece I just need to mention here is it can be a journey to be fully authentic in a relationship and to hold somebody to being fully authentic in a relationship isn’t loving them as they are in their journey, and the same is true for yourself. 

Joe: That’s right. I don’t think that journey ever ends. I hope it doesn’t. I hope I continue to find ways to be more authentic and more supportive of myself and others. That’s the other piece that I think is really critical. Anything that you can’t love about your partner, anything you want to change about your partner, the most useful thing to know about that stuff is that is something you can’t love about yourself. It is something that you have no flexibility in yourself. It is something you judge yourself for or would judge yourself for. My ability to be patient, loving and caring towards every aspect of Tara is a direct reflection of my capacity to be loving and patient with the aspects of myself. I think that’s a really important way to look at it. There is nothing that the other person has in them that you don’t have in you. There is no way to think I really love this but I can’t love it in myself or vice versa. That’s not how it works. 

Brett: It is the people who love themselves who tend to also be the most attractive. 

Joe: They create the healthiest relationships. I’ve never seen two people who just deeply love themselves and can accept themselves who are in a diabolically horrible, dysfunctional relationship. You can’t imagine it. The other thing to say about that is I think for some people that’s a little scary. I am going to love myself. There is some fear that doing that, then I will be non-ambitious or evil. There is a slew of things. Look around. See if you can find anybody who truly loves themselves and is evil or truly love themselves and is not ambitious. Self-care and all that stuff doesn’t go away with self-love. 

Brett: I think this a great place to wrap it up. 

Joe: That was good. I could see us having another podcast on relationships. I feel like we could delve in deeper. Do you know what would be cool? Maybe we do it with you and Alexa. 

Brett: Yeah, I would love that. 

Joe: That would be cool to have a three-way conversation. That would be fun. 

Brett: Let’s do that next time. 

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter, or check out our courses at 


The Beauty of Grief — Emotion Series #9

The Beauty of Grief — Emotion Series #9

Anthropologist and coach Alexa Anderson joins the podcast again for a deep dive with Joe into the emotional and practical value of grieving fully.

They examine several forms in which grief can arise, the relationship between grief and identity, various mysteries of the way grief moves, and how unfelt grief underlies interpersonal and societal conflict.

Alexa and Joe discuss the tools they’ve used to help them move their grief in the wake of painful losses and to pre-grieve losses that haven’t yet occurred. They share examples of deep transformation that followed the processing of grief all the way through.

Tune in to deepen your relationship with grief as an intimate experience of love and care, and a doorway to the freedom available on the other side.

“Without the grief, we recreate the cycle.
Without the grief, we relive the trauma.
Without the grief, we don’t find the freedom on the other side of the limited identity.”



Episode intro:
When my partner died, a good friend said to me something that I was not ready to hear at that time. He said death is the end of a life, not the end of a relationship.

Yeah, woof. That gives me chills.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.

Anyone who has been alive for a while has experienced grief in some form or another. When it hits you, it is not always easy to see any practical value in the experience let alone beauty. Welcome back, everyone. You may remember my partner, Alexa. She is an anthropologist and coach who is active in our community. You may remember her from our episode on boundaries. Today, she and Joe are going to explore the beauty of grief. I hope you enjoy it.

Alexa: Hi, Joe.

Joe: Hi, good to be with you again.

Alexa: Good to be with you. The topic I had suggested for today is grief.

Joe: It is good timing for me. My dad just passed recently, so I am really appreciative.

Alexa: It is very relevant in my life right now as well, but happily not due to death. Actually I am currently on hormones related to possibly creating life. It turns out that there is a lot to let go of in that process as well.

Joe: That’s true. I think the most important thing to start with is what the hell we mean when we say grief because that can mean so many different things to different people. As I was thinking about this interview, I was asking different people what you see as grief. My daughter, when I asked her, who is 13, goes do you mean giving somebody grief or do you mean like grief. I was like wow. That first definition, that first way of using the word, I’ve already thought about it in years.
I think before I can answer any of the questions, I think it would be good to set the level of what the hell we are talking about when we say grief. It was interesting. When I was asking people, I asked my daughter and a couple of other folks. My daughter’s response to grief is it is the feeling you have when you lose something that you don’t want to lose. That was her experience of it.
Then I was speaking to a friend that we had a lot of exploration together. He was actually the first person I ever coached. We used to take walks on these paths, and every time I said something that really got him, he would punch me in the arm. We have this very fond relationship. I asked him what his thought process of grief was, and this was his exact quote. He said, “It is like if your foot falls asleep, the experience of it waking up again is grief.” It is this thing that is like a cleansing. The more aware you become, there is this necessary cleansing that happens. That experience is grief.
It was interesting to listen to everybody because what I was doing in asking the question was testing my own description of it. My description of it is that grief happens when there is a part of your identity that goes away, that is challenged. What’s interesting is both of their definitions correspond to that, in my world anyways.

One experience I have with grief is that when I have this moment of recognition of something that’s like oh my gosh, I’ve been trying not to be abandoned for 20 years, and I’ve done all these things of not being in myself, all of these things of hurting myself to not be abandoned. I never had to do that. There’s a grief process I go through. There’s this experience. It is an identity. He who is abandoned, or he who can be abandoned, that identity is dying. Even though I see the freedom in it, there is this process of that’s an identity and it is leaving. There is a part of me that feels secure and safe in that, and I don’t want it to go. There is a grief process that happens in that. Often for me, when it hurts, I know it is a time of big change for me when those kinds of big grief processes hit.
Then there is the grief process of your father dying or your husband at 32 years old dying or your child dying. It is interesting because we are defined in large part by who we interact with and what roles we hold each other in. I see people who have had really complicated relationships with their father, let’s say, and when they pass, they are free of this emotional or this way of being they were held into or there was an agreement to hold into. That grief process looks one way, and then people who I see who had a close and intimate relationship with their father, part of their identity is that closeness. Then there’s that grief process which unfolds in a very different way because it is different parts of their identity that are being removed.

I see people, especially like young lovers. An example would be people who have been married and they have a really happy relationship, and one of them dies. I see that grief process and there is no getting over it. You move forward with it, but you don’t get over it because they are always a part of your identity. It is something that you want. There is this part you are holding, whereas other times there is a grief process where there is a feeling of getting over it because that part of your personality has moved. There is a freedom to it. You are grateful for what has happened, but part of yourself isn’t identified in that way nor do you want it to be.
That’s the way I reconcile what grief is. It is an emotional feeling, but it is not like sadness. Sadness is a part of it. It is almost like sadness is the wrapper of it, but there is anger, fear, and helplessness. There is a whole bunch of denial and a whole bunch of emotional experiences that come along with grief.

Alexa: Absolutely.

Joe: It’s not just sadness.

Alexa: I really want to go into that, but I think this definition of grief when you lose a part of your identity could be pretty hard for some people to swallow. Joe, what part of my identity is it when my father died? Everyone has a father. It’s not about my identity. I miss him. The way I would say that is if you had a non-relationship with your father and you had healed all the dad issues or a tremendous amount of the dad issues you might have had. It isn’t an intricate part of your life, and you have gotten to a point where you can love them unconditionally for who they are even though they are maybe not what you want them to be. Then you aren’t going to have this gigantic grief process, whereas if you called them every day, asked for advice, and loved them, you are going to have a much bigger grief process because there is a part of you that knows yourself in relationship to them.

I am not saying by any stretch there is not a missing or that is not about them being important and your love for them. It is, but that love for them is part of the identity. I would say it like that. I would say maybe we are disagreeing on the idea that it is a bad thing or that it is personal. It is just the way we relate to ourselves and others. That’s being challenged because all of a sudden there is a way we can’t relate that we are used to relating to ourselves and others because it has either been stripped from us or because we are letting go of it, either because we broke up or because they died or because we realize this doesn’t work for us anymore or because I can now see it clearly for the first time.
Alexa: I’m really interested in giving some attention to those times when there is grief that is not about death because it really seems to me that death is the one time when we really allow each other to grieve, but there are so many other things that have a big impact on our identities and the way that we relate to ourselves and others, like you are talking about. I see a lot of social pressure not to grieve those things or at least not to show it. For instance, one of the things that is going on for me right now that’s really bringing up feelings is. There is something going on politically right now as we are recording, and I am seeing a lot of people, especially uterus-havers, grieving. I am hearing women privately say they don’t feel seen or supported in their feelings, but then I am seeing a lot of posts on social media saying have your feelings and then fight.

Joe: As if fighting isn’t part of a feeling. I think there are a lot of topics in that one. Just to start the answer to the original question that you asked, I think there is a helplessness in death that people don’t know how to contend with as much. It is really easy. You had a breakup, Roe v. Wade, or whatever experience that’s happening. Here’s an action you can take. Here’s something you can do. But with death, you don’t get to do that. I think that’s why people behave differently around it. The more helplessness in grief, the more we feel incapable and the more we say I’m so sorry, instead of now we are going to fight or whatever it is. That’s the first part. That’s my experience of it as to why we handle the grief of death differently.
I think the other thing you are tapping into now, which is I think there is a way to say that most of societal or maybe most of humans’ pain and suffering comes from unprocessed grief.

Alexa: That’s a big statement.

Joe: Think about it this way. When I talk about grief as the identity, people fight over their identities. I mean they even call it identity politics. We are Christian. You are Muslim. We are black. You are white. That’s all identity. My way of thinking is right. Your way of thinking is wrong. Most of our conflict, boyfriend girlfriend conflict, is wrapped up in an identity of I am going to be abandoned or I need to fight for myself. When I am saying unprocessed grief, I am saying most of our fighting comes because our identity hasn’t been dismantled in a way that creates peace in our system and therefore, we project it out into the world.

When you have societies, and there are examples of these in Eastern Africa and other places. I don’t have a huge amount of experience, but I have read or heard about these cultures where they have grief rituals, and they are grieving individually and as groups. There is a lot less conflict. That’s part of how they resolve conflict. If you look at South Africa when Apartheid shifted, they did this thing, truth and reconciliation. It was a national grieving process. It allowed that transition to be very different than say it did in the other countries nearby that switched, a lot less volatile.
Those are some examples of how grief has a huge impact, and families that can grieve together, there are less compartmentalized emotions and less passive aggression or aggression.

Alexa: Again, typing these two threads together, the importance of dismantling our identities in this way and this thing where people are often uncomfortable around others’ grief, what do you think is being lost when people say things like come on, look on the bright side.

Joe: I don’t want to experience your emotion. I don’t want to be with you in this emotion. It is uncomfortable for me, so let me help fix you out of your emotional state. There’s a lot being lost. That’s the formation of future conflict. It’s funny. You were talking about the Roe v. Wade decision that happened recently. There is real grief on both sides of that. I am sure there are people who cried for unborn children and grieved for unborn children and that probably on a regular basis thought about all those unborn children, fetuses that were dying and had grief experiences. I am sure there are people right now having grief experiences over the fact that their rights are being taken away and that this one that helped save their lives as young women is not available to others, that whole experience. There is real grief on both sides.

I think that our ability to see that, feel that and be with each other in that is the solution to the problem, not one way of handling it or another way of handling it. It is not in a law. I don’t think there is a law that’s going to make this issue go away, either way. For everybody, I think there is grief on both sides of it.

Alexa: I see the truth in that. This definitely goes so deep in our society, but I just know people are out there thinking Joe, that’s too hard. My identity doesn’t want to be challenged by really being with somebody on the other side of this, or even it’s easier to stay in the fight.

Joe: I can almost guarantee that was said on both sides. Have your feelings, yes, and now we are fighting for this. Maybe not, maybe just have your feelings and see what action comes out when that has fully moved through you. It is an interesting thing, and there is a tremendous amount of identity tied up in all of it. I think there is another idea that comes into play when you start talking about this where people think to themselves if I have the grief all the way, then I won’t fight. Maybe you won’t fight, but it doesn’t mean you are not going to take action that helps move the ball forward or that you are not going to be part of the process of finding something that works for everybody or that you are not going to be part of a situation where you are finding a way of being that can be good for everybody.

Alexa: I find that really compelling.

Joe: I definitely have noticed in my own world. I won’t make a big example out of this with some historical figure, but I have noticed in my own world that when I fully grieve something, my actions become far more effective and far less power dynamic, far less I’m controlling you or you are controlling me. I mean the example of this that I use a lot is in my marriage where we have been through many marriages together, my wife and I. There are times where we have been in it, and I have to grieve the marriage. I have to assume my marriage is lost. I don’t have to. I choose to have that full experience of visualizing the marriage being done and losing somebody who is incredibly important to me.
In that process, I lose the identity that’s getting in the way of us being together. In that process, I can be true to myself because I am not scared of the emotional experience of losing her anymore because I’ve already gone through it. I can be true, and I can be myself. I can be undefended, and I can be loving without having to prove anything. That allows the relationship to heal.

Alexa: That’s really compelling, again. It strikes me as just being really advanced techniques. Sure, but how? How do I do this? For me, really actually me, you know Joe that I lost a partner several years ago, and now my partner today has a very high-risk tolerance. I spend a lot of time afraid that he will die. I want that thing that you are describing. I want not to be afraid all the time of losing him, and sometimes I try to pre-grieve it, but it just seems so big. I don’t know how to get there, how to grieve someone I have not in fact lost.

Joe: It is a great question. I don’t know how to describe how to have emotions very well. I can say that one of the things that I would ask myself if I were in your shoes is what I would have to feel if I couldn’t feel the fear. If the fear is constantly coming up and not moving, I would say there is an emotion underneath that is looking to be felt whether it is anger at him for continuing to take the risks or anger at yourself for finding another man that could die or whether it is some unresolved sadness or helplessness, all of those experiences. To me, the fear emotion is caught is preventing some fluidity in the system.

You know some of the breathing techniques that can really help bring some of the emotions forward. They are all there. Worst case scenario, you can just fake it and it can open up a channel. You can say maybe it’s these three emotions. I am going to go and experiment with them. I am going to play the part of an actor. This is a very specific nuanced way, and it works really well so I just want to say how specific it is. The idea is I am going to play the role of myself being angry. I’m not going to lose the idea that I am an actor and that this is just a performance, but I am also going to try to make it the most convincing performance. That experience can often open up the flood gates and allow for the stuff that’s really in there out.

A lot of the times having the emotional experience is not resisted in the head. It is resisted in the body, and so if you act as if and then the body, it starts blurring whether to be scared of this emotion anymore. It allows for a certain level of safety that the body can then go let’s do this.
Alexa: That’s certainly been true for me. Something Brett and I and our roommate in early lockdown did almost on instinct was Brett led us through something that he learned from you, I believe, the six positions where you embody each of these six different emotional states. I just had this idea to take it on into the seven positions of grief, the seven stages of grief, but embodying each one of those. I just looked those up on my phone, and for about one minute each, per stage of grief, we embodied one of these. All three of us had these really big emotional movements.

Joe: That’s awesome. That exercise is one of many exercises that are about helping us with emotional fluidity, which I think if you are thinking of the work of the heart instead of the head or the gut, there are two main components of it. One is to learn how to be undefended in your love, unconditional in your love, and the other part is emotional fluidity, allowing all of the emotions and letting them move through you. The six positions is one of the ways it is all about I am going to embody certain emotional things just like I would a stretch and that allows more fluidity because I am stretching my capacity to have emotional experiences.

I had never had the concept of doing this in the stages of grief. The stages of grief themselves don’t entirely resonate with me. They do and they don’t, meaning I do think you do experience all of those or there is a good chance to experience all of those. I have noticed people don’t always experience them in that order.

Alexa: Definitely not in that order.

Joe: Also, sometimes some of them don’t happen for some people’s grief process and other ones do. I think it is a really nice map of a territory that is a little bit like an Escher map. You need to turn it to the right way to see the perspective that’s helpful to you, but that’s a really, really cool idea. I am immediately thinking about how you could use that same principle. What are the emotional arcs that people take under different circumstances? Then how do you put them in some sort of order so that it allows for the full movement? That’s a great idea.

I think the thing for people listening, the general idea behind the six positions is there are six emotional experiences. You find a place that your body wants to go there when you are in that emotional place, or you evoke that experience through that body position. An easy one of these to think about is as a kid and you are yearning, you always have your hands up in the sky. You are looking up. It is like hey, lift me up mom. That physical experience creates an emotional reaction in you, and then the idea is to amplify and allow all of those emotions to move through you.

Alexa: The way that I have done this grief ritual is the seven stages of grief according to me. By the way, I don’t think the original author of the seven stages of grief had any intention they were going to be linear, or you were going to go through them in any particular order. For me, it is sadness, fear, anger, maybe shock, maybe denial, acceptance and to gratitude.

Joe: That’s nice.

Alexa: I also think it relates in some ways to something you had said earlier that I wanted to double click on also, which was grief just tends to be really complex.

Joe: That’s the thing I was thinking about. That ritual is such a beautiful idea of how to prime the pump. We can do this and have these experiences. When grief moves fluidly, it can go from anger to sadness to anger to sadness to anger to sadness to fear to anger to sadness. There is an interesting way that it moves. Different waves come through at different times. It is not as linear or logical as we would like it to be or some of us would like it to be.

Alexa: I know that after my partner died, it took me at least six months just to move on from the acute stage of grieving.

Joe: It is never perfect. I am sure that if I had just grieved my wife and our marriage and we actually did get a divorce, there would be more stuff there. But it does allow for the movement. It does allow for more clarity. Every part of the process allows for more clarity. When you get to the point where you can listen to the body, and for me, there is this process of my brain will say things for each emotional state. There is no reason to be angry. Why would you be angry at someone who just died? Hasn’t this gone on long enough? Shouldn’t you have grieved more by now? There are so many things that the brain says.

My relationship with that is I’ve heard from you a lot. I’ve lived with that. I’m going to listen to my body. I’m going to listen to the grief right now. I’m just going to follow the grief. That’s what I am going to surrender into for a while. The mind doesn’t know. The mind’s relationship with emotion is usually pretty wonky for most people unless they have had a lot of work with the emotions. The mind just doesn’t really know.

I love when someone says there is no justification for that emotion. It is not logical to be sad about that. The emotions are definitely not. It is not logical to be happy or joyful. Yes, correct. To me, it is about listening to the body and allowing the emotions without commenting on them and not having some sort of head trip around it. I love the mind, but it is not equipped to handle emotions very well. It just thinks its job is to manage them, which doesn’t work.

Alexa: No, but it is hard if you grew up in our society to let that management go in part because people just expect each to be in the managing. This is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about this topic. Because of the circumstances for me around my partner’s death, I processed my grief a lot by writing. A lot of people saw what I wrote, on Facebook, and as a result of that, people reached out to me for many years when something would happen in their lives or their friends’ lives. That was really great in a lot of ways.

I really got to be there for a lot of people, and a lot of people my age didn’t really know very much about acute grief. I did have a couple of experiences that were leaving something to be desired. I had one experience with somebody who I didn’t know that well who reached out to me when his wife died. We talked about some of these topics and how you can really let yourself have all of the emotions that come as part of grieving, including anger. We had this conversation, and he was like no, it is inappropriate for me to have anger. I said come on, man, your wife died really young of cancer. At least you can be angry at cancer. Start somewhere. Pretty soon after that he called me again and said thanks so much for talking to me, and based on your sage advice, uh oh, I really let somebody have it on the airline today. I said that’s not what I meant.

Joe: That happens a lot. What’s interesting is there is nobody who goes through the grief process or very few people who go through the grief process without shame, and they will shame themselves with the exact opposite. I am not crying enough. I am crying too much. That happened too quickly. It shouldn’t have taken so long. I can’t be angry, but I can be sad. I can be angry, but I can’t be sad. Everybody seems on some level to question their grief process.

I recently was with a woman who had lost her husband after 53 years, and a woman whose sadness doesn’t move easily, and it has been pretty compartmentalized. She was just saying I don’t want to admit it, but I feel relief. It is okay to feel relief. Immediately, she started to tear up and then immediately she shut it down. What’s interesting is we tell ourselves one of the emotional states we feel is not okay in the process, but what that does is shuts down all of the other ones, too. It makes them spin. I am still scared. I am still scared, or I am still sad. I am still sad. This is when we tell ourselves we can’t have one of the emotions because it is not logical, or it is not appropriate. But if you are not doing them at anybody, they are all appropriate and they are all great. They all offer relief.
I do not recommend nor do I suggest putting your anger on somebody or your sadness on somebody or at them. Somebody still hears it as I have permission to yell at people. You are just creating a cycle of anger and shame. You are not alone in that.

Alexa: Thanks, I appreciate that. Actually it strikes that when you are looking out at this big, scary cloud of grief ahead of you, maybe it is actually easier to create a cycle of anger and shame because that’s something you are used to as opposed to moving on into the rest of your grief.

Joe: One of my mentors passed, and it was unexpected in a weird way. He had cancer, but he was healing from the cancer and died of a heart attack. It was really interesting. His death taught me a tremendous amount. Maybe even as much as his life did. The first thing I learned from his death was I asked for a circle of his friends. His very close friend got very angry at me for asking for that, but I asked for it. It happened. There were like 25 people, and I was like halfway through. It was sadness, sadness, sadness, sadness, and that was the appropriate thing. I got so angry. I was so pissed. There was no reason for it, of course.

You could see the whole room went to another level. It was sitting there in the whole room, and nobody would express it. The expression of that anger allowed for so much more depth and movement to happen in the room and a variety of emotional experiences. That was one of the things I learned in that process. One of the other things I learned in that process was the more story there is and we have that episode about stories. The more story there is, the more conflated the grief process becomes. I think this one is really critical for people understanding the grief process.

I noticed if someone had the story he died too young or even if he had the story he died perfectly or the story of I never got to know him as much as I wanted to, the more that that story was there. It is almost like saying the more the identity was there, the slower that grief process for them and the more they were caught up in it. Not that it is wrong that a grief process is slow or quick, but it was just more convoluted. That was an interesting thing to just watch.

The other thing I learned through that process of grieving him was when he passed, he was a person who was in a similar position to me in the world as far as being a coach to people. When he passed, one of two things happened. Either the people that he was serving collapsed because they were dependent on him, and their life went back to where it was before him. Some of them were freed because he didn’t need to be needed in their lives anymore. This huge freedom happened for them, and there was this explosion of creativity and capacity that happened in their lives. It was really interesting to see that process at play of how his identity held their identities in place in different ways, the same identity from him which was needing to be needed. It was important to him to help people. For some of those people, it kept them unempowered and for some, it prevented them from having the full expression of themselves. It was really interesting to watch.

I think that grief process was the identity shedding in different ways, and the identity holding pattern between people. Hopefully, if you are in a really good relationship, that is constantly a question, and you are constantly changing the way you interact with each other, and your identities are constantly shifting towards each other. We do have that tendency to hold each other’s identities in place. It is why we don’t do couples in Groundbreakers typically because it is harder for someone to transform when someone who has a lot at stake with their transformation is in the room.

Alexa: Which again points back at your suggestion to grieve a relationship you are in on a regular basis. The thing that’s coming up for me now is it seems like we have talked about all of these different components of the grief process, but I am not sure we have really talked about what is beautiful about grief.

Joe: My friend said it really well. It is the feeling you have when you realize that your leg has been asleep, and you are waking it back up. There is a freedom on the other side of the identity. There’s an implied love and care. We don’t grieve for things we don’t have love and care for. It is a far more direct and intimate conversation or experience of love and care. When I talked about emotional fluidity or about the heart, the work of the heart and the emotional fluidity and undefended love, the grief allows us to be far more undefended in our love. The grief allows us to have what I would call empowered love where we aren’t running away from ourselves or leaving ourselves to be loving and we are not defending ourselves from the idea that the other person’s lack of love can hurt us. We are accepting that.

I talk about that in another phrase where I say every time we allow our hearts to break, it increases our capacity to love. The more we grief, the more loving, the more peace, the less identity is holding us away from who we are.

Alexa: I love that. I’m amused how much of this interview has been about identity. That was really unexpected for me on this topic. There is this something else moving in me. Let’s see. It’s this. When my partner died, a good friend said to me something I was not ready to hear at that time. He said death is the end of a life, not the end of a relationship.

Joe: Yeah, woof. That gives me chills.

Alexa: At that moment, I was pretty much like how dare you say that. Our relationship is clearly over.

Joe: As we are talking about him now, years later.

Alexa: Eventually I moved into a lot more of the grieving process, out of that initial place. Now I see very clearly that the rest of that process, allowing all of those different parts in, into my awareness, into what I was doing in life at that moment, and sometimes it was like I was putting my face on the floor. This thing that’s happening now with my face on the floor and whatever kinds of sobs and weird sounds that are coming out of me is a development in my relationship with him.

Joe: That’s so incredibly beautifully said. It is interesting because I would say because of that grief process you went through with him, you show up different for Brett. Without that, you would have shown up differently. His relationship with you, that continued relationship, even now it affects the relationships you have, and your grief is changing your relationship with him as well. My assumption would be that your relationship with him is far more clean now. To pivot that to non-death, I don’t know if I have told this story. Maybe I haven’t.

I had a close friend who was drinking too much, business was going to shit. He had a girlfriend, and his lifestyle and habits were bad. Girlfriend broke up with him. She was the love of his life. He mourned. He wasn’t going to. I said this is what you have got to do, bro. I was young and I gave advice. This is what you have got to do. You have got to mourn the fuck out of this. He would drive to and back from Yuma, Arizona once a week, and he said I cannot tell you the sounds that are coming out of me. I wouldn’t have thought those sounds were possible. It was this wailing, anger, fear, and shaking that happened in this car ride in this big open desert.

Six months later he is not drinking. He is in shape, and his business is going well. When I was talking to him about it, he said first I was mourning the loss of the girlfriend and then I was mourning everything that allowed me to be in that relationship, everything that had it so that I was seeking the love and running after the love instead of receiving the love. He mourned far beyond the loss of this one thing and to everything that allowed for that in his love. It totally transformed his life.
There are countless stories I know of people grieving like that, and that’s what I mean by how much pain and suffering for him and that he had caused other people in his drinking and in his bad habits or in the failed business, how much of that was just unfelt grief? It’s an amazing thing.

Alexa: That’s so beautiful. That’s exactly what I was trying to point out.

Joe: I see. Oddly not dissimilar to your experience. One is a death, and one is a loss. They are both losses. The experience is really the same. There are differences but there is something very similar.

Alexa: There is, and there are differences, but I actually feel much more clearly now since his death that break ups are absolutely worth grieving and grieving deeply. There is really something being lost when people say I’m fine and I’m moving on.

Joe: It’s even more practical than that. If someone says I broke up with somebody and I didn’t grieve it, I would say 90 percent chance, if not more, that you will date someone almost identical to the person you dated last time. If you grieve it and really go into it, there is a zero percent chance you are going to date the same person with a different name next time. There are also some really practical implications of grief.
Alexa: Want to tell us more about those practical implications?

Joe: It’s the same thing in the idea of people not grieving the Roe v. Wade thing on either side. They are recreating the cycle instead of moving to the next cycle with the grief. With the grief, we create the cycle. Without the grief, we relive the trauma. Without the grief, we don’t find the freedom on the other side of the limited identity, meaning ego, whether it is ego of I am so great or I am so bad. It is still ego. It is still identity. It is still limitation. We recreate those patterns without the grief.

Alexa: That’s really beautiful. This conversation has had a really nice arc. Is there anything else you wanted to discuss today?

Joe: No. I was just thinking wow, that’s the end, isn’t it?

Alexa: Thank you very much.

Joe: Thank you. What a pleasure.

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at

Aaron Taylor — Feel Your Way to Freedom: Growing Up Fatherless, Becoming a Father, and Winning a Super Bowl Along the Way


Aaron Taylor — Feel Your Way to Freedom: Growing Up Fatherless, Becoming a Father, and Winning a Super Bowl Along the Way

“Never rob a man of his pain or his gold because both will serve him equally well.”

Super Bowl champion Aaron Taylor reflects on a journey to emotional freedom that continues far beyond his accomplished career in the NFL. For every feeling he'd been pushing away, Aaron came to find that “on the other side is infinite possibility.”

Join Aaron, Brett, and Joe as they talk about performance anxiety, feelings in the locker room, and how faith affects decision-making. They touch on the nature of accomplishment, how to raise children who hear their own voices of approval, and the value of having our identity shattered to pieces. Aaron shares a tearful moment with his absent father that produced an unexpected gem of gratitude. The episode closes with the story of a critical choice Aaron made at age 15 that changed his life.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s about who and what we become in that process.”

Links and references from the episode:

  2. Check back in 16 years for a follow-up interview with feedback from Aaron on the referenced conversation with his son.

About Aaron:

CBS Sports Analyst and College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Aaron Taylor, has a "larger than life" personality, but its roots may surprise you: the former Super Bowl Champion credits his success to the principles of Gratitude, Service, and Teamwork.

Instilled from an early age, these principles became the inspiring foundation for the creation of college football’s only non-individual award, the Joe Moore Award, annually recognizing the Most Outstanding Offensive Line Unit in College Football. Through the Joe Moore Award, Aaron set out to not only preserve the legacy of his coach but also to shift the focus from a “Hey, look at me!” mentality to a culture of teamwork, of putting the greater good above ourselves in society at large.

Aaron was a decorated offensive lineman at the University of Notre Dame from 1990-1993, earning unanimous All-American honors both his junior and senior years. In his final season in South Bend, he won the prestigious Lombardi Award, annually given to the best interior lineman in the country.

In an incredible culmination of his childhood dream, Aaron was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the 1994 NFL Draft and was a member of the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI championship team. After a two-year stint with the San Diego Chargers, Aaron was forced to retire due to injuries after the 1999 season.

Off the field, Aaron is a moving and inspirational speaker. His candid approach and sense of humor make him an effective storyteller who is able to weave a powerful message of resilience, perseverance, and the importance of having a championship mindset.

Behind the winning smile and accolades, Aaron finds meaning and feels “most alive” when being of service or bringing value to others. Shortly after retiring from the NFL, Aaron established the Aaron Taylor Impact Fund and recently co-founded The Foundation for Teamwork, dedicated to fostering the most essential aspect of all societal endeavors: Teamwork.

Aaron currently resides in Southern California and New York with his wife and three children.


Episode intro:
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. It’s about who and what we become in that process.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I’m Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.

Welcome to the show, everybody. Today I am really excited about our guest. Today’s guest is Aaron Taylor. Aaron played professional football as an offensive guard for the Green Bay Packers and the San Diego Chargers, playing in two Superbowls and one of them they won. He is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and is now a speaker on teamwork and performance, and there are a bunch of other things I saw on Wikipedia about you. There is a teamwork award you founded. I am also familiar with that you work with the Mankind Project, and you do a lot of other work in self development and personal development. Anything you would like to add?

Aaron: I won the spelling bee in 4th grade. That’s often overlooked but one of the crown jewels of my achievement catalog.

Brett: Wonderful. We’ve been talking a little bit over the past couple of years, just every now and again we have a catch up after having met. Last time we talked, about a week ago, when we were planning this podcast, you said a phrase about your journey that I really loved, which was feel your way to freedom. I couldn’t even think of a better way to describe even the work that it is that we do with this podcast and with our courses. I would love to just hear more about your story and how you learned this practice, whatever it is that you refer to when you say feel your way to freedom.

Aaron: I appreciate that, Brett. Just for the record, that is trademarked. In all seriousness, when I look back on my own life, everything that has gotten in the way that has been an inefficient way to create the outcomes I want has been my desire to not feel. Whether I use emotion, whether I use alcohol, whether I use money, power or control, all of those things were utilized by me to try to elicit something that I wanted, which often involved not feeling.

That was a phrase that came up organically with a buddy of mine who is a pretty esteemed coach in his own right and is teaching me how to ask the right questions and be a more in tuned listener. I think at the core of all of our journeys is this process of liberating ourselves from ourselves. Feeling my way to freedom to me is always the access, the portal to a brighter future if you will.
Brett: I can imagine that being very important on the field. If you are overthinking what you are doing, you are just not going to be there where the ball is going or where the players are moving. How did you learn this? Was this something you were just born with and you were like I got this, check it out people? I’m feeling my way to freedom.

Aaron: It was basically the only thing left. I tried all the other shit, and it just didn’t work. I very reluctantly started that journey, Brett. You bring up football, and that’s one of the interesting things. The locker room is a sacred place, but it’s not a safe place. Feelings weren’t welcome. You didn’t want to walk into the locker room and say hey guys, my self esteem is down today. My girlfriend broke up with me. At the core of my being, I don’t feel like I am matter or I am enough. Anybody want to talk about that? Those things didn’t tend to come up, so instead, I put on my helmet and my shoulder pads and put my mouthpiece in and tried to knock the clock off somebody. That’s the way I got to release a lot of my emotion.

I think for me and a lot of us, you work, and you play hard. Alcohol was my -ism of choice, and I took heart in those libations liberally. As it turns out, I was allergic. Every time I drank, I broke out in rashes of very bad judgment. I had to hang those cleats up about 20 years ago.
Again, this whole notion of doing this thing that I felt like I was born to do but feeling like a fraud the entire time. Somebody recently asked me when I felt most self-confident, and I am in the College Football Hall of Fame, I’ve won a Superbowl, I won the Lombardi in college as the most outstanding offensive lineman, but football, I never felt confident, ever. In my marriage, no, not really. How about as a father? No. Employee at CBS? Ah. You know what? I feel confident in circle. I feel confident in circle, meaning when I am in spaces where I feel permission to be my authentic self.

One of the things I’ve learned about me is for me to feel safe, there has to be this kind of emotional game of you show me yours and I will show you mine, but I go first. What I am finding is when I can share and express who I am fully, there is nothing to hide. When there is nothing to hide, there’s nothing to hide. That’s why I feel confident and whole in that space, and that’s really what’s drawing me to this work that brought us here together on this podcast.

Joe: I coached a guy who was the CEO of this startup, and he played basketball for Princeton, I think it was, in college. He played college ball. I have another guy that I coach who was a track star. What I notice in that work is that there is this moment where it clicks where they have a body and an emotional intelligence they can access the same way they would access it on the court or on the field, and when they can access it that way, in business it is a superpower that gets unlocked for them. I’m wondering if that journey resonates with you at all in your experience. Was there that moment of understanding that there is a way you can access your body in the circle or on CBS in the same way you could in the field, and it allowed you to increase your capacity in that experience?

Aaron: That’s a great question, Joe. I’d love to answer that and say yes. Part of my truth is that I never was able to access my full emotional self while I played, and really in my career, which is going into year 15. In case my bosses are listening, I really love working at CBS sports because we are in the middle of a contract negotiation right now. I had this incredible moment last year that may underscore what it is you are talking about. I got a call from my boss indicating that somebody on our team had gotten COVID. The question was if I would be interested in calling my first ever NFL game, and I was like heck yeah. Are you kidding me?

I was so excited about the opportunity. I ran downstairs and told my wife. She screamed and gave me this big hug. This is the opportunity everybody in our business wants, and here it was in my lap. I was getting my shot. After being a little misty eyed, she said this is so great, baby. I looked, kissed my fingers, gave her the peace sign and said I will see you next Sunday, meaning I am about to go into the bunker, to study, to watch film, to call everybody I ever knew and to do the history of both of these teams going back to 1911. It was all of this research, and that's part of my makeup. I am over over-prepared guy, which creates anxiety.

This went on for a couple of days, and my wife in all of her infinite wisdom looks at me, raises her hand, and says are you open to some feedback. I thought oh damn. Every time she asks me that, I know. A fast ball of truth is about to be thrown over the plate. Then she hits me with the follow up of permission to speak freely. I thought damn, this is a biggy. I said yes.

She said I’m a little worried that you are so excited about this that you are going to squeeze it so tightly that you are going to fumble this opportunity. She said I would offer you this. Every time that you are nervous or want to do something or are thinking about how you are going to do X, Y, or Z, instead of thinking about what it is you want to do, think about how it is you want to feel after the event is over. I want you to close your eyes when the anxiety comes up and imagine putting your computer and your game board, which is what every announcer uses to call games. When you look over, what’s the look on your partner’s face when you guys high five? What’s the last thing the producer says as you take your headset off and go down underneath the stadium to the TV trucks? Who is texting you? What are they saying? As you go to bed and put your head on the pillow, what’s the predominant feeling? Is it pride? Is it relief? Is it gratitude? Play it all the way out.

Fellows, you want to talk about a superpower. That was the best game I’ve ever called on the biggest stage in my biggest moment. I’m in the College Football Hall of Fame. I’ve been on TV for 14 years, but that was the only time I never had performance anxiety and wasn’t worried about what I was going to do because I shifted my focus from what I feared to what I wanted to feel. When we talk about feeling your way to freedom, that’s another way it can look. It led not only to the best game I’ve ever called, it is the best season I’ve ever had in television.

Joe: The amazing thing is even in your wife’s description of it, she said don’t squeeze it too lightly. She described it to you in physical terms. She said you might fumble. When you were describing your wife’s words to me, I thought I could feel that in my body. She was talking to your body. That’s pretty cool.

Aaron: She is a pretty accomplished athlete in her own right, a two-time Olympian in beach volleyball. I am that smart that I can choose well. That’s the best spectator sport ever. I just want to throw that in there. She understands what being a good teammate is like. She understands what pressure feels like, being on the Olympic stage and growing up in Communist Bulgaria and having that being the only avenue, the only way out is through sports, and all the pressure she felt. I really appreciated that, and I talk about it a lot because it really was a defining moment in my life. I wish I had known that at 18.
One of the phrases somebody shared with me recently that just blew me away because it hit me right between the eyes was fear is a misuse of the imagination. The flipside of that is what I did. I focused on how I wanted to feel and the positive outcome, and to the brain, it didn’t know the difference. All of a sudden, it starts dropping dopamine, oxytocin and all of these feel-good chemicals.
My experience was different. How that translated on game day when it mattered was I wasn’t worried about the words I was going to say during the opening or how I was going to telestrate or who I wanted to put in my telestrator tool that I thought were going to be there that has this cool effect that I like. I didn’t get caught up in all that. I was present. To me, presence is the portal to a better outcome and reality. That’s what focusing on my feelings afterwards allowed me to do in the moment because there was no downside as far as I was aware.

Brett: It sounds like what was happening there was your fear was transmuting into excitement. You weren’t focusing on the things you were afraid of in a way that was stuck. The fears might be there, but you continued to intend towards what you wanted. I think there is a lot of freedom that happens when you reach this impartiality of being able to be in acceptance of all outcomes and continuing to intend in the direction that you want. With that maximum freedom in both of those directions, then you have full freedom to be authentically yourself and call the shots exactly as they are coming to mind, as you did.
Aaron: One of my best friends from my NFL days, this guy Roman Fort was my center here in San Diego with the Chargers. He was a Christian, a born again Christian, but he was a very approachable Christian. It wasn’t thrown in your face. It was a faith of attraction rather than promotion. He had little baby curses that he would throw in there, but he was a super funny storyteller. We were room dogs, which meant on the road we would room together the night before the game. Everybody would pair up, and since we played next to each other, we could talk strategy, but as you would expect, it often got a little deeper at times.

Let’s just say I wasn’t very Christian-like at 25, 26, 27 years old, but I was Christian curious. I was faith-curious because Roman had something that resonated with me. There was an underlying confidence and joy I think I saw in him that I didn’t necessarily feel myself. I asked him about it and how he could have such faith, and he said man, AT, imagine playing a football game that you know you are going to win no matter what, but the score at the end of the first half is 58 to nothing and you are losing. He said but you know for a fact that at the end of the game you somehow win. He said what’s your demeanor going to be like at halftime. Are you throwing your helmet? Are you super sullen? Are you excited, thinking holy shit, how are we going to pull this off? We win this deal. Oh my God, I can’t wait to see how this thing plays itself out. He said that’s what my faith is. He said for me I know I win the game at the end of the day, so I don’t ever care what the score is.

Brett: It reminds me of a thing I’ve heard Joe say before, which is when someone is stuck in a question or in a binary, what do I do, this or that, a question I’ve heard Joe ask is what you would do if you knew you would be happy either way. From that place, how do you actually approach your problems if you don’t make them responsible for your happiness, if you don’t make the outcome responsible for your joy.
Aaron: It’s challenging.

Joe: I have a question for you. I don’t know where you are, still Christian curious or that whole thing, but how does faith register with you now? The deeper part of that question for me is there are a lot of folks out there who believe that faith is something for the religious. My experience is that you can have a deep faith without being religious, and so I am wondering how faith interacts with your system now. What does that mean to you today? How has it grown since that time hearing that story in the hotel room?

Aaron: I’ll answer that question with another story that I heard in the rooms of recovery about a guy going to the circus. He looks up and sees the guy on the high wire. He sees them up there, and he is walking across. He has got the big stick and he makes it across. He believes he is going to be able to make it because this is a traveling circus, and if it was really that dangerous, they probably wouldn’t let him do it because they would have to keep going through these guys.
But then the guy comes out with a wheelbarrow. He has got sacks of sand and he is pushing this thing across. It is a little bit more hairy, but the guy still believes, in the audience, that this high wire walker is going to be able to make it from one end to the other. He said faith, though, is getting out of the stands, climbing up the ladder and getting inside the wheelbarrow, and that’s a whole lot easier to talk about than it is to do.

I want to think my faith is strong, but when push comes to serve, I want to sit in the stands, and I want a big ass net. I try to create certainty. That’s literally at the core of what my dance is through life is to figure out, to take those leaps of faith. When I look back on everything that’s been good in my life, it is when I was willing to go where I was afraid or unwilling prior to. That’s where the goal in our lives lies. That’s one of my anchor statements is the goal in our lives lies just beyond where we are afraid or unwilling to go. It’s those leaps of faith, and when I have done that, poof, they disappear.

Your question of what I would do if I was happy, and it worked out either way removes that element of fear. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? I would probably do this. Then, go do that. Wait! We talk ourselves out of the richness of life’s possibilities when we let fear into the picture, but that’s the game. It’s the game I believe for all of us in our own ways, with our own actors, our own sets, our own time periods, our own wardrobes. It all looks different, but it is all the same deal.

Joe: That leads me to a second question. There are moments where I’ve done that, gotten in the wheelbarrow and fallen, only to find out that the destruction that happens is a destruction of a part of myself that can be destroyed, leaving with me with the part of myself that can’t be destroyed, meaning maybe it hurts, maybe it sucks for a good long while, but at the end of the day I’m refined. Purified is not the right word but refined. There is a part of me that wasn’t real that’s lost.

I’m wondering if you have a story like that where you have faith. The idea was going to go one way. It went disastrously wrong, but at the end of the day, you are better for it. The faith still was a good bet even though there was a bump or two on the way.

Aaron: Yeah, man. That false self, I’ve been going through this phase where the idea of myself. What’s that phrase? Narcissists don’t fall in love with themselves. They fall in love with the idea of themselves.

Joe: I love that one. That’s good.

Aaron: The idea of myself has been meeting my actual self on a profound level over the last couple weeks, and it is not going so well. It is like a blind date from hell in certain respects. I think part of my origin story is parents divorced at two and I got sent back to Indiana to live with my father and his family. While there, an older, adult male family member molested me. There was some physical abuse that took place. I came back to California. My dad was supposed to show up one day and didn’t. That’s the wounding that happened to me early on. Then we moved every two years, so I was always the new kid in school. Just for shits and giggles, I am biracial so I never felt white enough, never felt black enough, always felt too black, too white and never really knew where I fit in.

But dad was the critical piece for me. I used to fantasize about whether or not if he was around, he could teach me to fight, to make bird houses, to use power tools and do all of the dad stuff, like fish. I had this picture of him working on a door that got sent at some point when I was seven or eight. I think that’s where a lot of that stuff comes from.

After that day at eight when I sat on the couch from 8 am to midnight waiting for him to come, my mom knew right away he wasn’t coming but I refused to move. That’s part of when my light went out. Through the rational mind of an 8-year-old, I must not be good enough to love. I must not matter. I must not be good enough to show up on time for, boom, and go to sleep. That’s a story I’ve been trying to unwind.
Fast forward many, many years and probably a story that could be a podcast in and of itself, I got reconnected with my father. The moment I will never forget is him sitting with his new wife on his couch in tears in my living room, me sitting on the other couch, across from him, next to my wife with me in tears. Both of us crying about the fact of how hard it was to grow up without a healthy father, that’s how we connected. We resonated with our shared experience in that moment, and what I learned very shortly thereafter is how freaking lucky I was that he wasn’t around.

He was admittedly in his own words a disaster at that time. When I wanted him to be there, my life would be so different if just my dad would there, and it felt like I fell out of the wheelbarrow and part of my died, but what I learned in that moment, Joe, was that thank God God didn’t give me what I wanted because I would have been selling myself short. God doesn’t do things to us. He does them for us. He was actually protecting me. It is like the old footprints over people’s toilets in their bathrooms, that old poem about when the adversity hits, there is only one set of footprints. How could you abandon me? Obviously, Jesus or God says that’s when I carried you. Those were my footprints.

That’s what my relationship with faith is. When I get what I want, I am selling myself short. It has been the adversity. It has been the strife. It has been the challenge. It has been the loss where I have grown the most, and on the other side of that is this almost infinite amount of possibility. That’s why I am drawn to the things I am afraid to do because I kind of know that behind there, there are some riches that are just waiting to be unearthed. Then my kids don’t brush their teeth, and then I get all pissed off and throw that shit out the window.

Brett: Back in my day, I didn’t have a father to tell me to brush my teeth.

Aaron: Check this out. Let’s bring this full circle because that’s a really good point. I know you are saying it in jest. They are really accomplished water polo players. They are 13 and 12, each individually good. They are yin and yang. One is really good offensively, and one is really good defensively. They are balancing out their skill sets. They have gotten an incredible coach. The parents are great. It is like a case study in youth sports, and it crushes me that they don’t listen to all of the Ted Talks on success, resilience, teamwork, and the win one for the Gipper speeches I try to firehose them with. I didn’t have a dad, and you guys don’t listen. I get paid to talk, and you guys don’t want to listen to me.

The reality is you don’t know what is going to work and what’s going to be there, and I have to laugh at myself in those moments because it is like what are you doing, dude. They are perfect. My mom didn’t even play hopscotch, let alone play sports, and I got exactly what I needed at the right time in the right way. How about just listening, accepting, admiring and cheering your kids on and stop trying to be what you wished you had when you were freaking 13?

Brett: Bravo.

Aaron: I’ll let you know how that goes. To be continued.

Brett: We are going to do an update podcast in six months, six to ten years maybe.

Aaron: A work in progress.

Brett: How did you end up going from the life you started with, not having your father, having the abuse? Having had this moment where you learned, you believe, you took on this belief that you just weren’t worthy, and then found yourself winning Super Bowls and feeling your way to freedom, what was that path between then and now that opened you up to this?

Aaron: I’d say equal parts serendipity, divine intervention and hard work. I got kicked out of the house at 14 because I was a D and F student. My mom who was a pediatric ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

Joe: Hold on second. What years was your mom a nurse?

Aaron: From ’72 to probably ’83 or ’84.

Joe: My mom worked at Children’s Hospital in Oakland from ’82 to ’86 or ’87.

Aaron: We will have to do a little research and put it in the show notes about whether there was crossover or not. I spent a lot of afternoons there.

Joe: It was a horrible neighborhood back then. I remember that. My mom did the dietetics part of the hospital. Sorry, Oakland.

Aaron: Small world getting smaller. That’s a heck of a coincidence there. She was out of answers and kicked me out. I spent a week sleeping on my buddy’s floor, using his socks and underwear as a pillow. I thought this probably isn’t a good long-term strategy, so unbeknownst to me, my mom was talking to his mom every day and getting updates. Do you want to come back home and have a chat? Of course, I said yes. She basically walked me back from what it is I wanted to do. I said I want to play pro football. She asked how I could do that. I said you just play in college and get drafted. Oh, you just get drafted. Does everybody get drafted? No, just the better guys. When I was in college, you had to have good grades. Do you have to have good grades to play football? I said yes, you have to have a 2.0 at least.

I got college. How do you get there? You have got to play high school football and they just give you a scholarship. Oh, they just give you a scholarship. She was walking me all the way back. The punch line was every time you smoke weed or cut school or fail a class, what you are really saying is you don’t want to be a pro football player. I don’t even really know I wanted to be a pro football player. I just kind of blurted out, but what I did get in that moment was the connection between my choices, actions and consequences. Who and what I wanted to become was being directly impacted by my actions in the moment. I had never really pieced that together.

Once I named that out loud, that’s when the invisible doors started opening. The divinity and serendipity came in. There was a show on that night that talked about the School de la Salle in the East Bay that had this 44-game win streak, and the coach was talking about how his players aren’t it. They are part of it. There is this higher standard. I said to my mom that that was the sort of place I would like to go. Within the course of two weeks, somebody comes into work, and they have got a house to rent right down the street from the school. She gets a job offer that pays her almost twice as much money, so she is able to leave Children’s Hospital in that moment and move to Concord. The rest was history.
There are some really good moments in there where I came up against that fear and came to the Y in the road, but it was that over and over and over. The harder I worked, the better I got. Everybody worked hard, but they got an inch better and I got a foot better. That was the God given genetics I had, which is really odd because neither of my parents had any sort of athleticism whatsoever. That was the story, and that led to a full scholarship at Notre Dame and getting drafted in the first round in Green Bay.
I think for me growing up without a dad what my driver was was good job, good play, good read, good recovery, good boy. These older adult male role models as my coaches started to serve unbeknownst to them and to me the role of my father. They gave me the wisdom, the pats on the butt, the kicks in the ass, sometimes both at the same time. I was drawn to that, but I was also a people pleaser and a coach pleaser, so that drove me to work hard and to grind. I think the combination of serendipity, divinity and hard work led to a pretty good football career.

Joe: It’s interesting. Something that just clicked for me was you were saying earlier on about having that full sense of confidence in football, at CBS or with your marriage, and it seems like what you just said really illuminates that in the fact that probably in circles the only time it is not about somebody’s else patting you on the butt. It is not about somebody else telling you that you did a good job, which also to me relates to what you were saying about your kids. For me, the whole thing about being a parent of teenagers is to have them learn to hear their own voice of good job and to allow them to listen to themselves in their truth and have that move them instead of my good job or my bad job, whatever it is that I want to criticize or not criticize. That’s the thing that you have in the circle is that it is just your truth that you are dealing with, and you are not looking for anybody’s approval in those rooms.

Aaron: I appreciate that, Joe. Just last night, my kids are 13 and 12 and still want me to come in and read and just sit and talk. We do that. They will be 33 and I will do it if they keep asking me. I don’t give a dang. But I started another Ted Talk last night, and it was about details being the difference. I am trying to teach you the skills to be disciplined about the things that don’t matter to you so that when it comes to the things that do, it becomes automatic. I know you don’t care about making your bed and brushing your teeth, but you do care about water polo and your friends. I try to make those connections.

I just stopped because he gave me the huh huh, yeah, okay, and that’s his all right, dad, time out, I’ve had enough. I just stopped and I said being a dad is hard, buddy. I really struggle with knowing how much to give you and to try to motivate you, and to just love on you for the amazing kid that you are no matter what you do. I’ve written my sport’s story. I could give a shit if you do anything successful in sports, and I mean that wholeheartedly, but I know it is important to you, so I want to give you all these things. That’s a very gray area for me, and I don’t think I walk it really well sometimes. I wanted to acknowledge that out loud and say you can tell me what it is you need because what’s more important to me is that you have what you need and I support you in the way that serves you, not me. He said okay. Even when we lose as fathers, we win, I guess. It’s a really good point.

Joe: That story is not over. I guarantee you that story is not over. There will be a moment when that comes back, and you will find out he was listening and that it hit him and all he could say was okay. If we ever have another podcast, I will have to follow up. What happened there?

Aaron: You will have him on, and he will give you the real skinny about his dad.

Brett: My moment of transformation…

Aaron: Transformation, let me tell you about who my dad really is.

Brett: A lot of what tends to drive us to excellence is often like you described, people pleasing and wanting to be something because that’s what is going to get us love or affirmation from the outside. Then on our journey, we find we never needed the outside affirmation. It was actually just our own that we needed. Then you have kids and you think what worked for me, and then you have got to go back and correct. What worked for me, while it drove me, it also became a trap that I put myself in that I needed to find freedom from. What do I actually do now for my kids because what worked for me isn't necessarily the thing I want to bring them through as well?

Aaron: Yeah, and these poor dudes are growing up in a world we didn’t grow up in. The amount of pressure and the freaking meat grinder of the last three years, it is ongoing. Social media. We live in a broadcast world. Everything is coming at us, very little in between us. The interpersonal communication, learning to talk with our tongues and our mouths instead of our thumbs, that’s something this generation doesn’t have much experience with.

I got a brutal look into that with one of my sons who had gotten into a little bit of trouble at school. He was going to miss practice, and I made him pick the phone up to call his coach to tell him he wasn’t going to be at practice, why and what the expected consequence was going to be. He started to text, and I said no, you pick the phone, call him and tell him what it is you did. What do I say? You tell him what you just told me. But what words? I said what do you mean, what words? Do you need a script? He slowly nodded his head yeah.

I see you nodding your head. That was the moment where I thought he does not know how to use the phone and call to talk to somebody and certainly about hard things. I don’t know if I would have known how to do that at 12 or 13, but I had to call up Abdul’s parents to see if Abdul was there so he could spend the night. We had to do that, but these kids aren’t growing up with that. I’m worried about the wrong stuff. I’ve got to work on his communication skills and all of these basic things that you sometimes overlook.

With my national team water polo playing son that’s all As and Bs and I am worried about this stuff over here and there are these basic necessities these children need that is our job and responsibility to provide because the world they are growing up in is not easy. It is very different from the one we were in, and I don’t know how we are doing. I don’t know how you ever know what you are doing, but you do the best you can. I do honor their walk and the difficulty of the environment they are coming up in because stuff is coming at them fast. Damn, silence. I love it.
Brett: I’m here trying to relate. I don’t have any kids. I’m still trying to raise myself. The world just keeps changing every minute. I can’t even imagine trying to unfilter this world for a child right now, but I see people do it.

Joe: My eldest found herself naturally gravitating towards meditation when she was younger, and she asked if she could do a silent retreat with me. I said yes but then nobody would take a nine-year-old for a silent meditation in this country, but we found a place and did this three-day thing. She was so happy at the end of it, and it was so her scene. About three months later, I asked her what she thought about meditation. She said I really like it, but I can’t do that again for a while. I asked her why not. She said it made her too different than my peers. I can’t relate to them, and I need to be able to relate to them to manage. She didn’t say it like that, but that was the deal.
Recently she has been interested in going back into that world again, but it was this interesting thing of teenagers and all of us on some level are negotiating our own development and the environment we are given. It is more important to your son to learn how to text and be able to get that skill than make the phone at this part of his life. It is a fascinating thing, parenting.
Aaron: It has been the toughest and most rewarding job I’ve ever done. Playing football was a layup compared to this. Good lord.

Joe: I’ve got to tell you this story. At the end of the silent retreat, I looked at my daughter and asked what her favorite thing about it was. She said it was the fact that you couldn’t tell me what to do for three and a half days.

Brett: Wait! You didn’t install a voice in her head.

Joe: I thought yeah, fair. Fair enough.

Aaron: I will say this, Joe. That, to me, is a little peek into the job that you are doing as a parent because she felt empowered and had the capacity to share her truth about what she felt with this big meaningful person in her life. If she could do that with you, she will be able to do that with boyfriends, bosses and her community. Again, sometimes when we lose, we win as fathers.
Joe: We laughed. Absolutely. Thank you for seeing that.

Aaron: I want to flip this a little bit. The Art of Accomplishment. Somebody asked me recently about my definition of success, and I didn’t really know if I had one. My question to both of you is what’s the relationship and the context from which this podcast arose between accomplishment and success.

Brett: A thing that comes up for me is if you live your life as art and not as something to get right or wrong and high pressure, then what do you end up accomplishing? Then, accomplishing being what is actually authentic for you, what is most enjoyable for you, what is most truly what you do in this world and how you express yourself. I see that being somewhat different from a lot of framings of success or accomplishment. I like having that twist on it.

Joe: For me, success is a criterion of accomplishment, meaning that if we are going to accomplish something that at the end of the day, at the end of our life we think that feels good and are proud of that thing. It is not going to be dollars in the bank account or number of cars or anything like that though that might be part of it. It could be. What it is going to be is something that is something that was deeply aligned with you. It was how you did it as much as what you did. Success isn’t the end. I think a lot of people think success is the end goal. To me success is just something that has to be met to get to a place of accomplishment. The how is more important than the what.

Aaron: Yeah. It is interesting. Starting first with you, Brett, and bringing art into it, there is a quote somebody shared once that I loved that I am wondering if it applies here. I feel like it does. There is no good or bad art. There is art you like and art you don’t like. Art is in the eye of the beholder, that whole vein of thinking.

With respect to what you shared, Joe, I created a website called Mental Health Best Practices. It is an agnostic aggregation of all these things I’ve used that have helped me on my own journey around my special sort of special. There is a quote on there that I am going to butcher my own quote. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. It is about who and what we become in that process. As I am in the College Football Hall of Fame and have a Superbowl ring, I am a father, an employer and have all these accolades on Wikipedia…

Joe: Don’t forget the spelling bee.

Aaron: Minus the fourth-grade spelling bee.

Brett: I’ll make that edit on Wikipedia for you.

Aaron: None of that stuff matters. We have a story about what that moment was like when you got that. I am 49, so I am probably on the back nine or at least around second base. The first part of my life was about being, doing, having, becoming, getting, and amassing, and around second base or approaching the T box, if you will, on the back nine, my life is really becoming about what it is I can allow. That assumption is everything I need for these last nine holes is already there. The key is for me to get out of the way. I don’t have to make it. I just have to allow it, to get out of the way and allow what’s already there to come up. That’s a very different but very important distinction on how I am approaching life now at this age that was very different from an era that was contrary but also led to a lot of accomplishment. That’s why I am interested in this framing and how we think about it.

Joe: I am curious about something. My guess is if I was to meet your sons, they are already far more towards the way you are looking at life on the back nine than you were even six or seven years ago. Do you know what I am saying? To some degree, your kids are already allowing it to come to them. They are doing the work, but their attitude and perspective isn’t I have to prove myself as much as it is I’m letting this come to me. This is me being me and this is what happens when I am me. My question is: How much of that lesson because you learnt it your kids inherit?

Aaron: Some. I guess we could probably measure by the amount of flicker when their eyes roll into the back of their heads when I talk to them about this stuff. They have certainly heard it. I’ve certainly modeled how to make amends perfectly. They have got that down. They are pretty driven right now, which is interesting.

Joe: Is that not true for you though? I don’t see an unambitious, undriven man.

Aaron: No.

Joe: When I heard your approach on the back nine, I didn’t hear that you had lost your ambition.

Aaron: You have got to let go to take control. You have got to hit your knees to finally stand up. It is this oxymoronical that we are talking about.
Joe: That’s my question. I am going to push here just a little bit. Isn’t that what your kids already kind of get?

Aaron: I’m sure hoping so, buddy. That’s the goal. I think that’s why I am pushing so hard and trying to insert my viewpoint so they don’t, in air quotes, make the same mistakes I made and can advance the story from a much earlier age. I’ve got to value their walk. Never rob a man of his pain or his gold because both serve him equally well. At 14 years old, my mom wasn’t saying that’s my boy. He is on his way. D and F student, look at him. But I was on my way, and that was a critical and necessary part. Again, maybe with my 13- and 12-year-old who are really accomplished in what it is they do and both very good students I don’t have to worry about them quite as much as my mom worried about me and just do the best I can, trust the process and let them find their own way down the mountain.

I love to snowboard, and I love to bomb it. My wife goes really slowly. I used to get really frustrated with her. We figured let’s ride up together. I’m going to bomb it, and I am going to bomb it again. I’m going to meet you and then we are going to ride up together. Let her take her own way, pick her own line down the mountain and don’t try to make her do what I want to do because that’s the way I do it. Respect her journey.

I’ll share this story with you guys. One of the defining moments of my life was at 15, moved to Concord, entered de la Salle, mom switched jobs, she quit her job of 20 years. We found a new house. There was a ton of change, and she was really, really supportive in this process that started to unfold that involved me playing football at de la Salle high school that had that long win streak.
Joe: Did you play at the Oakland Coliseum for the finals?

Aaron: NCS, yeap, against Granada.

Joe: Granada was my high school.

Aaron: No way. Thanks guys. I appreciate you.

Joe: The amazing thing is they all went there oh yeah, and we are going to lose. You guys were the best back then.

Aaron: Oh man, we certainly were. I called it right. All of that was really close to never becoming because I had worked out in the summer, and we had gotten ready. It was day one of full pads and practice. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast. My mom drops me off. I get dropped off by somebody else’s parents at the end of the day. My mom walked into the house. Hey honey, how did it go? I don’t say a word and I slam the door, into my room. She waited probably 10 minutes. I am sobbing, sobbing, sobbing. She walks in and asks what happened. I said everything happened. Nothing happened. I couldn’t do anything right. The play was going left, and I was going right. The player was going right, and I went left. They just kept yelling at me and telling me I couldn’t do it. I need to break bad habits, and we don’t do things like this here. Mom, I am so sorry we moved here. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. She just let me go on and on. I was so broken, so defeated and so scared.

After I got down, I looked up at her. She said you have got to figure out if what you want is worth the price you may have to pay to get it. She said it doesn’t matter to me whether or not you play football, but tomorrow morning I’ll have breakfast ready for you. If you get up, I will know the decision you made. If you sleep in, I will also know the decision you made, but either way, I won’t say a word to you. She shut the door. There I was sitting on the edge of the bed sobbing, in tears with this internal angst of what I was going to do, how I could go back. There is no way I could endure what I had just endured the previous day again.

But somehow, somehow I got up and I went back to practice. I got my ass chewed again, but I made a block or two. I went back the next day, got my ass chewed again, but I made a couple more blocks and then I made a couple more blocks and a couple more. As it turned out, I was pretty damned good at football. I just didn’t know it yet. I think about that moment, and every time I tell this story, I get emotional because everything that came after that was so close to never becoming.

I don’t know what it was in me that got me up that next morning, but that resilience, that gift that my higher power has given me, somehow, some way, that no matter what, just find a way to show up, to get back up, to go to the huddle, to get the play, to break it, to walk to the line of scrimmage, to put your hand in the hurt, and to give it your all. That’s been something that’s been given to me. It is one of my superpowers, and that was a time it was tested. I think about Notre Dame and the friendships there, the surrogate mom that I met there. Green Bay, the Superbowl, the financial freedom that’s allowed me to do what I do for a living now to enjoy more freedom, talking about sports on television, meeting my wife, my children, all of that, poof, disappears. That’s why I firmly believe that the goal in our life lies just behind where we are afraid and unwilling to go, and that was the most impactful and meaningful way that I ever experienced that. Everything that has happened since has been an incredible, incredible gift.

Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at

The Anatomy of Shame - Emotion Series #8

The Anatomy of Shame - Emotion Series #8

Shame is nature’s way of training us to fit into our culture and society. Like an electric fence, it outlines the contours of the identity we’ve grown into and discourages us from straying outside the lines.

This boundary around our comfort zone is often a poor match for ourselves and the world we live in. When we feel shame, our emotional experience stagnates, dampening our evolution and our enjoyment. People often find themselves stuck in the same shame cycles for years.

In this episode, Joe and Brett examine the structure of shame and how to melt it on an intellectual, emotional, and somatic level.

Transformed through awareness and love, our shame becomes a natural set of guide rails that help us live our life in alignment with our deepest values.

"All we're doing here is freeing the blocking of emotions by feeling into our body and creating love where there was abandonment."

The following is the “wall of shame” referenced at the end of the episode, compiled from Brett’s journal and submissions from our listeners:

  • Shame of being amateur/inexperienced
  • ...of missing opportunities
  • ...of being incompetent
  • ...of backing down or giving up
  • ...of not creating value
  • ...of being wrong, and then being hard-headed about it
  • ...of being an outsider who doesn't speak the lingo
  • ...of asking for help
  • ...of being 'transactional'
  • ...of not being present enough
  • ...of hovering anxiously
  • ...of having shame and hiding it
  • ...of being a 'hypocrite'
  • ...of being a know-it-all
  • ...of being helpless or clueless
  • ...of not 'deserving it'
  • ...of failing as a result of either over- or under-control
  • ...of upsetting people or scaring them with the truth
  • ...of showing hurt or disappointment
  • ...of not following my intuition
  • ...of not being clever, determined, or forthright
  • ...of not being ambitious, or of being too ambitious
  •  ...of disagreeing
  • ...of telling people they are wrong
  • ...of being withdrawn
  • ...of needing people to change their behavior
  • ...of needing time
  • ...of thinking slowly
  • ...of not knowing how
  • ...of not feeling good when others are socializing
  • …of not being enough (strong, present, resourceful, smart)
  • …of freezing when action is required
  • …of hurting the people I love

Send yours with the feedback form on our website to add to this list. Submissions will, of course, be anonymized.


Episode intro: All we are doing here is we are actually freeing the blocking of emotions by feeling our body and creating love where there was abandonment.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson.

Brett: Oh boy, what a week! I don’t even want to get into it. I am just going to say what a week.

Joe: It has been strange. When people are listening, it might not be this way but most of the people I talk to it feels like there is a certain amount of overwhelm. I don’t know if it is because we are all getting fully back into life after COVID or what it is, but there seems to be a lot of people in overwhelm right now.

Brett: Definitely lots of things changing after COVID. Also, sometimes there is just stuff in the air, whatever it is. Things happen, and you find yourself in these little pressure cookers the universe creates for us to learn from, which is great because today we are talking about shame, which is one of the things we find ourselves in the midst of when we find ourselves in a pressure cooker situation in life. Last time we talked about shameless apologies, and I think it would be really good to get into really what exactly the shame part of that is. What actually is shame? How does it show up? How is it that it seeps its way into so many parts of our lives, including the ways we make apologies but many other things as well?

Joe: I think there are so many ways of looking at shame. The way I like to look at it is that it is nature’s way of training us to be good citizens. It is not a perfect methodology or good tribe members or good family members or something like that. The way it works, for the most part, is that when you are ostracized from the group, you feel shame. An example of this would be you are sitting with your aunts, and you are flatulent. You fart. All of the aunts laugh. There is not going to be any shame. You are a little kid. You are five years old. But if you are five years old and you fart and all of your aunties have that you shouldn’t have done that attitude, then you are going to have shame.

Shame is this mechanism that we have that teaches us on an emotional level how we should and shouldn’t be. I haven’t seen any research on this, but my experience is that there is actually natural shame as well. I think that all human beings are equipped with a certain way of acting and their system is going to feel shame if they don’t act in that way, generally. It seems like that’s a natural thing that happens for folks that can be overridden or destroyed in somebody, but it seems to be there.

I remember when I was five years old. I had this experience at this school fair. There was a raffle. I was at the raffle table, and my parents were doing something else. There was this GI Joe figure, and he had an amphibious unit. I really wanted to play with it, so I took it off the table and started playing. This guy got really angry at me. Where’s your mother? My mom came over, and my mom said he is five. He is just playing with whatever he wants to play with. I didn’t get in trouble. This guy was yelling at me, but I remember when my mom said that, I got this kick in my stomach of shame. It was this kick. Even though she wasn’t upset at me and he was upset at me, the shame didn’t come when he was upset at me. The shame came at that moment when I knew I shouldn’t have taken the thing off the table, and my mom was defending me. I remember that feeling. I remember for a year after that every time I would think of that feeling, I would get that kick in the stomach again.

I have this very specific memory of it and not wanting to feel that. Looking back at it now, I realize that was the second thing I was doing, which shame just seems to stop all of the emotions and stagnates emotion. You don’t get emotional fluidity. That’s the other interesting thing that shame does is it just kind of stagnates the emotion, which means shame is often something that people get in for years, years, years, and years because it is a slowing effect or a stopping effect of the emotional fluidity.
Brett: You have mentioned before that you once wrote a list of all of the things that hadn’t changed in your life over 10 years, and every single one of them had shame around it. Last night as I was preparing for this episode, I wrote a list of all of the different kinds of shame I felt over the past year, shame that I avoided and I didn’t take any action based on. I looked at all of the things that would have occurred in my life if I had actually just taken the actions I had the shame around. Some examples were shame of missed opportunity, shame of feeling transactional, shame of being salesy, shame of not being able to care of people, shame of drawing a messy boundary, and all these different things that it was just a little bit easier not to do that. I looked back on it and thought I would have had a really different year. It is really exciting to think about what might have happened if I had done all those things I was ashamed of, and also, from where I am sitting right now, it doesn’t feel like there was actually any real danger in that shame other than just stepping out of my comfort zone.

Joe: That’s the interesting thing. Let’s say the shame of being salesy or transactional or something like that, that’s something a lot of people have learned. I work with some people in business, and they say of course, I am looking out for my interests. I respect other people who are doing that. Of course, that person is selling because that’s their job. They have a business. Of course they should be selling. I would like them to see me as human and not be too forceful about it, but that’s their job. Then I have other people who as soon as they think about marketing or sales, they think ooh, gross, I don’t want to do that. There is shame around it.

A lot of that is just what you’ve been taught by your specific society, your specific tribe, and that’s the amazing thing about it. All of these people in today’s society, it is not like we all grow up in the same tribe generally with the norms of that microcivilization. Your neighbor could have a completely different set of shame than you have, which is just fascinating. The opportunity is you get to really say what the social norms are that I want to live by and that I want the people around me to live by. You get to think about that as you are addressing your own shame, which is cool.
Brett: I feel like a good metaphor for this is an electric dog fence. You have a road that has cars on it, and dogs get hit by cars. That’s not good. You put a fence around it. You want your dog to feel relatively free and you want to build a physical fence around your yard. You put an electric fence in. You train the dog by having it approach the fence, and it gets the shock collar. Every time it gets the shock collar, it is unexpected and it recognizes that something is wrong. It goes into this nervous system shutdown. It just doesn’t do that thing anymore.

Then after it has been trained, you can actually turn the fence off. It is just not going to go where that fence had been. Maybe it is not feeling shame about going there but it is the same kind of nervous system response where we develop these habits of I am not going to go there, I am not going to do that. That’s going to get me rejected. Then we often don’t question it, and we live in that electric fence that we built for ourselves or our society or our parents trained us on. It is interesting that everybody has a different electric fence, and we have all of these microsocieties interacting. There is so much tension around why people have so much shame or you should feel shame. Then we have this thing where people use shame as a tool for social justice or to try to change behavior in society, which doesn’t work.

Joe: No, it makes people rebel against it, especially if they don’t agree. The other thing that’s really cool about your metaphor is I don’t know if you know this, but there are dogs that learn that if they just go through that fence really quickly, it is worth it. They just run really quickly, and it shocks them but it only shocks them for a little bit of time because they are out of the zone. It only shocks you within the zone. That happens with people, too, as far as shame.
Let’s say you have a natural habit, like sex, meaning it is in your nature to have sex. It is more than in your nature. You can almost say your nature is to have sex. If we didn’t have sex, we wouldn’t be here.

Brett: As much as it is to eat.

Joe: As much as it is to eat. If you throw shame onto that urge, which most of society has done.

Brett: Or onto eating for that matter.

Joe: Or onto eating for that matter. Then you start associating shame. Things that wire together fire together. Every time sex happens, shame happens. There is actually something that happens where people get addicted to shame, I would say. The shame is the addiction. Sex isn’t as thrilling unless there is a little bit of shame with it, or shopping isn’t as thrilling if there isn’t a little bit of shame with it. There is actually this weird thing that happens, which is a lot like the dog running through the fence. I want that thing. I want to be roaming, and I will take that shock. It will just add to the thrill of getting through and making it happen, which is totally fascinating to me.

I think that’s the other thing that happens as far as keeping bad habits in place. There is this great quote that says, “Shame is the locks that hold the chains of bad habits in place.” I think this is one of the big mechanisms for it. It is because we actually become addicted to the shame because we want the stuff that comes with it, like sex or food or things or a bunch of stuff in our nature.

Brett: We just keep going back to that shame place, but then not actually getting the thing that we want because we are locked up in shame and it blocks our emotions. Emotions are a part of our experiencing the actual thing. If we are not feeling the emotions, then we are not actually…

Joe: It is an empty ghost syndrome. I got the thing that I wanted, but I didn’t get to enjoy it completely because there is shame. It doesn’t actually fully fulfill me, so I need to do it again, again, again, and again.

Brett: This seems like it would be a maladaptive evolutionary thing, to go into something where we feel shame and then all of our processing shuts down. That doesn’t seem optimal. What’s going on with this?

Joe: It keeps us inside the fence. That’s the thing. It keeps us inside of that line, which is what we need evolutionarily to exist as a tribe, as a small group, as a village, as a nation to some degree. We need to stay within that fence, or we are just not going to work out as well. It is not perfectly adapted, but it had a reason. The reason to some degree is useful. People without shame are psychopaths. That’s the name for them is psychopath, people without shame. They will hurt people and then society will completely fall apart. If we had a society of psychopaths, I don’t think the society would operate very well.

Brett: It sounds like one of the variables here is that society is now changing so much more rapidly than it used to. With everything that relates to our nervous system, everything is changing faster than it ever used to change. Every part of our nervous system needs to be able to update faster in order to maintain contact with what reality is now and not what it was 100,000 years ago.

Joe: It is possible as well that some of the ways it is adapting aren’t good for the long run either. I have no idea what’s going to happen societally speaking, but what I can say is that what’s happening with the shame in people that I work with is that when they feel shame around something, they usually are stuck in that habit. They are usually stuck in that mode for an extended period of time. To be able to address and lift the shame is fantastic.

The crazy thing about addressing and lifting that shame is there is an intellectual basis to it, and there is also an emotional basis to it. You don’t really get the lift without the emotional basis, meaning a lot of people realize that the church told them sex was bad and their grandmother told them sex was bad, but they know sex isn’t bad, yet they still feel shame wanting sex. They still recreate sex in a way that they get to feel shame instead of having sex in a way that would make them no feel shame.

They continually choose to have sex in a way that gives them shame. That whole thing that happens has to be addressed with the emotions behind it. You can’t just address it intellectually. It doesn’t change anything for people.

Brett: In fact, that can just increase the level of tension you feel internally. If you intellectually know that you shouldn’t feel this shame and your body does feel the shame, and you don’t know what to do about it, then you can actually just stress yourself out even more and just vibrate in place with this. I’ve found myself in that a lot.

Joe: I can describe everything that’s wrong with me, but nothing has changed. That’s a little slice of pain and discomfort. Exactly.

Brett: One thing I’ve noticed is when we are talking about being the dog that runs through the electric fence, I am going to get my freedom. Sometimes it will run straight through the electric fence and get hit by a car. Is that the one of the things you just have to accept? If I am going to move through the thing my entire system thinks is going to hurt me or get me ostracized, to find out if that is true, sometimes I am going to get ostracized and find out it is true. Sometimes maybe I won’t.

Joe: I don’t think it is necessary. I think running through the fence just starts wiring stuff together. I don’t think it is necessary. I just think it is far better to turn off the fence so to speak, meaning really address the shame underneath it and really investigate both emotionally and intellectually and watch it fall apart. Then you can take your action.

One of the ways to do that is to really feel the want in the shame itself, meaning really feel the desire. What is the sexual experience you do want? What is the eating experience you do want? Usually the one that’s wired with shame is not the one you actually want. It is also to really intellectually take apart the thing that people think they should be ashamed of so that it can exist.

Brett: I think this can lead to another interesting place, especially in self development or self-exploration where it is easy for us to identify the shame that we are ready to let go of and not identify the ones that are deeper. We might go on a mission where I think I have a lot of shame about sex, so what I am going to do is deconstruct all of my sex shame and go have all the sex that I want.
You might not notice there is actually shame in there you are also recreating, shame of abandonment or shame of recklessness, all kinds of different things you are still recreating in the way you are going about exploring your newfound freedom in the one shame area you are exploring. That might take a couple of years of a process before you realize you actually were using this exploration of shame to run further from other shame you weren’t looking at.

Joe: If you have a group of people around you, the best way to address the shame is to see that you are loved within the action. You can’t do this by yourself, but it is a cool thing to do. If you are having shame around the way you eat, for instance, how do you create a situation where you are loved for the way you eat? How do you create a situation where you can be appreciated, where there is nothing that you have to hide? You aren’t sneaking into the corner and hiding.
When we do a lot of our courses, one of the things we do is create that container of love because a lot of what people are ashamed of nobody else has a problem with. It is amazing. You will hear somebody in one of our workshops, and they will say they want to feel pleasure. They won’t even say what kind of pleasure that is, and they will say they feel ashamed to even want. They feel selfish. They feel ashamed for even wanting to feel pleasure. I will ask if anybody there has a problem with them feeling pleasure. Who here wants this person to have a life that’s full of pleasure? It is like that perpetually. If I asked a room full of people if they had a problem with Brett wanting to make his business really successful and going out there and really selling his business so it can be successful, as long as it is in alignment with who he is, nobody would say they were opposed to that. To really see and feel that love is an amazing thing.

That changes shame because shame is often put in place because of a society telling us that we were bad or wrong or being ostracized.

Brett: One of the things you said is maybe it is not about running straight through the electric fence and finding out what happens because that might be more likely to recreate it. It is more about inspecting it. You can create a group for yourself of people where you can test it out. There is that saying that we are traumatized in relationship and we are healed in relationship, especially for something like shame, which is a social type of programming. Not just for our intellect but for our whole body, our whole nervous system to experience the unexpected, which is to be loved for the thing we are ashamed of, is really what is required to get down to that.

Joe: If you are doing it with other people, that is the quickest way, but there are lots of ways to address it within yourself. You mentioned this a while ago. One of the ways to address it in yourself is to not recreate the behaviors. One of the things we go through in some of the courses is people getting in touch with their anger and being able to move their anger, but not at anybody, not in a way that hurts anybody, but just let that energy move and to learn how to love it. In that process, they might get angry at somebody or they might break something. Then they can go see anger isn’t safe. They create the shame to reinforce the worldview or the identity. That’s one of the coolest things about shame is that it is the outline of our identity often or part of the outline of our identity, the things that we are ashamed of.

Brett: It can be subtle. When you have a couple of layers of shame over a possible action you might take, it doesn’t occur to you that that action is even possible or that this version of you might even exist. I’m just not that way. I’ve always been this way and not that way. I’m not a salesy kind of person, somebody might say. I’m just not into sex.

Joe: Exactly. What I notice is that we have this natural desire to unfold, to flourish, to become more and more free. As one part unfolds, we will start running up against those things we can’t see. We start running up against the shame that is so deep in us that we are not aware of today.
Brett: Let’s say somebody doesn’t have a group around them. They want to do some personal self-exploration on shame. I just described what I did yesterday and that was really helpful, which was writing down as many subtle types of shame that I found just were something I didn’t want to feel so I didn’t take an action that would have led me in that direction. I went in some other direction. I find myself deeper, deeper into my comfort zone. Then, some form of stagnation occurs.

I am curious what some practices are that somebody could take individually to explore their shame and use some of the tools we have talked about on this podcast to explore it.

Joe: The best way is the body. The body tells you when you are ashamed quicker than the mind ever will. There is a certain feeling you get when you are ashamed in your body, and to be able to be aware of that and see that happening is great. Your mind will often spin in shame. If you notice your mind is spinning, going over the same story over, over and over again, then you can see there is shame in that. You can start finding the beliefs in that as well. That’s another to do it, using your intellect to find it.

The other way to deal with it is just start dealing with the shame you can see, and then the other shame will present itself. You solve one, and then the next one comes. What you will start noticing is a lot of the shame contradicts itself. If you say to somebody that you don’t want to always be talking, cool, so the question is: Are you good with always being quiet? No. What’s going on there? What is it that you actually want? What you will notice is that want isn’t solidified in their system. They are very clear on all of the things they are not allowed to want. They are very clear on all of the things they can’t do, but they haven’t actually found the solution to say I can do this.

Let’s say smoking. Do you want to smoke? No. Are you ashamed of smoking? Yes. Do you want to never have a cigarette again in your whole life? They say no. What’s going on there? Really being able to feel through your wants is another great thing. To intellectually see how many double binds you are in with your own shame, where you are in no win situations where there is no way you have an out, and then to find your wants so that you can see what the right out is, those are really good, useful things.
The other thing is to feel the shame all the way through. Shame has a stagnation, and the stagnation occurs because you don’t want to feel it. You don’t want to think about it. You push it aside, and if you stop pushing it aside and you ask what is that thing and how I can love it because the shame, in a weird way, is the absence of love. If you can love that thing you are ashamed of, then you can move through it.

Brett: It is almost an absence of awareness. Awareness tends to naturally draw itself away from where there is shame, and it becomes this barren wasteland in the body. If you bring awareness back to it, it is as though shame is an emotion that blocks other emotions. It is an emotional nemesis.

Joe: Yeah, it does. It stops that fluidity from happening. It feels so uncomfortable to us that we just push it and anything that comes with it aside. People who are ashamed of their sexuality can’t feel that full desire. They can’t feel that full wanting. When they are having sex, they are not like fully deeply into the pleasure. The sex is going to be much quicker and harder. They can’t actually fully allow all of the pleasure of that sexual experience into their system. It is the same thing with somebody eating. If they have a lot of shame around their food, they are not able to really taste it and savor it. That’s not to say that people who don’t taste all have shame around their food. That’s not what I am saying, or that you can’t have all sorts of sex and enjoy it. I am just saying the capacity to enjoy it goes away if you have shame.

Brett: It sounds like there is a lot of subtlety here as there is with any emotion. If you look at an emotion, for example, you feel sadness, there can be more and more subtle levels of sadness or different subtle kinds of emotion that are something next to sadness, melancholy, nostalgia, and the like. The same can be true for shame.

I notice there is a progression that happens when we start to do more emotional exploration. We start by not being aware of the emotion or we report it as we feel good or we feel bad. Then we start to recognize the emotion. I feel shame. Getting deeper, it might be I feel specifically the shame around money, but sometimes I don’t feel ashamed about making money. Maybe I feel ashamed about making money if I don’t feel like I am really creating value or that it came from some work ethic that was trained up in me. If I make the money but I don’t feel like I deserve it or all these different subtleties.
But then also each of the subtleties, you can get lost in. I have this particular, subtle form of shame. Then creating that label that shame is still an intellectual barrier to actually experiencing and feeling it in the body.

Joe: If you can feel and experience it in the body, you don’t have to name it. You don’t have to understand very much of it. If somebody asked what the quickest way was to get through shame, I would say every time you feel it, stop, invite it, love it, welcome it back anytime it wants to come, and when it is ready, then you move. Then you keep moving until the next time you feel it. If you just did that, you wouldn’t have to understand anything. You would just more and more be in love with your life and each other.

There is this fear. People think if I do that, then I will be a psychopath and I will start hurting people. I will only be self-interested. That’s the belief system, but what actually happens is you become more and more in love with yourself and everybody else if you really feel the love for all of the things you are ashamed of. That love has a very strong moral compass. The more that you are in love with people, the more painful it is to do anything that would be knowingly hurting them in the long run. You might be happy to hurt them in the short run if it is for their greater good.

Brett: The very fact that you are even asking this of yourself, what if I become a psychopath? I don’t know of any psychopaths who ask themselves what if I became a psychopath and didn’t care about people’s feelings or how I am hurting people. That’s just not how a psychopath operates. This moral compass is even there in the belief system that would hold you back from feeling your shame.

Joe: That’s beautiful. I hadn’t thought about it that way. That’s beautiful. If you find yourself wanting something and you are ashamed of that thing you want, you can just ask yourself this really cool and very simple question, which is if I thought I was inherently good, how would I interpret that want? How would I see that want? I want a billion dollars. That’s selfish. That’s greedy. I should be ashamed of that. If you saw yourself as inherently good, what would you make of that want? I see that I want security. I see that I want to feel safe. I see that I want to be seen as important. I see that I want to help people. I see that I want autonomy. You could see what was behind the want.

What happens in shame is that there has to be a belief system that you are not inherently good, and if you can get in touch with your inherent goodness. What’s interesting is the idea that if I let go of my shame, I will be bad, but what’s actually happening is when you let go of your shame, you get in touch with your inherent goodness.

Brett: I can also see what our notions of inherently good mean might also color this as well. I just want to become the leader of the free world so that I can finally implement the surveillance and police state that will finally make everybody safe. That’s just my inherent goodness coming out.

Joe: What I am suggesting is more of when you feel the shame, interpret it through the lens of you are inherently good, not using I am inherently good to run your shame down and push it down and justify your behavior that feels like shit inside of your system.

Brett: How do you notice the difference between what you are doing there if that’s the case?

Joe: Your body doesn’t like it. There is no way that the person who is like I want to control everything so that I feel safe feels good in their body. I’ve seen those people. They are incredibly rigid. They are held all the time. Their shoulders are rocks. Those people are not not in conflict in their body. They have cut themselves off from their body because if they felt their body, they would be screaming in pain.

Brett: Part of the practice is becoming more aware of the subtle, unconscious tensions in our body and the conflict in our emotions. That’s just part of this entire journey. Shame is one dimension on which to make that exploration.

Joe: If you go back to our original definition of shame, it is what society does to tell you that you are not behaving properly. It controls. It is that mechanism, but it is also the blocking of emotions. All we are doing is we are actually freeing the blocking of emotions by feeling our body and creating love where there was abandonment. It is as simple as that. It is just counteracting it.
Brett: From that perspective, there is a way you could see shame as a way that we abandon ourselves. There is some part of us, some natural instinct, some natural impulse to be fully who we are and we abandon that part by withdrawing from it in shame.

Joe: Unless there is the natural shame, like I said. I think there is a natural shame. There are certain behaviors that as humans, if we do it, we are going to feel that shame probably with or without a society. Hurting people we love on purpose for our own good, for our own short term good, is going to feel crappy in people’s bodies probably no matter whose body it is unless they are neurologically atypical.

Brett: I think part of what we have been talking about with exploring the shame and bringing attention and love to it is that it will distill into its more natural form. It won’t entirely go away. By doing self-exploration in any emotion, you are not going to be able to remove the experience of emotion just because you are working to deconstruct if it is really meant to be there. If there is really something in you that’s bringing up anger, you could suppress the anger, but you are not going to convince your system to just fully release the sense of something being violated unless there is just a story to be seen through and that story was just vapor along.

Joe: I would say that with all of the emotions, including shame, if you are trying to get rid of it, then you are not welcoming it. Then you are not actually loving it. It is like welcoming kids into the house just so you can get the fuck rid of them. They don’t feel loved. The idea is you are actually welcoming shame, and you look forward to feeling it. You invite it. It is not in any way to get rid of it. As that happens, it becomes more of its natural expression rather than the expression that people use to control you when you were a kid or to control you in society. Not to say that they were trying to control you because they were bad, they were just passing on what they had learned.

Brett: This brings me to another question, which is how we relate to others when others are feeling shamed. When somebody comes up and they give us an apology with a bunch of shame, and we talked about in the last episode how that feels to receive. Let’s say somebody in our lives is repeating a shame loop, and maybe the actions they are taking in that shame loop are hurting us. Maybe it is an employee who is not delivering or not being honest or maybe it is a partner or a brother who is addicted to some drug, and there is this shame loop. You see somebody in it. What’s a way to be with them in that shame?

Joe: There are kind of two things there. The first one is if I see somebody in shame. The way Tara and I have decided to raise our kids is that we don’t shame them. We don’t punish them and we don’t shame them. What I’ve noticed in them is they will shame themselves. We don’t have to do anything. When they do something that is not in alignment with their moral compass, they will shame themselves. Sometimes they will even shame themselves when I think that’s ridiculous. Please don’t. I will literally say that to them. I will say I see you are ashamed, and I want you to know there is nothing in me that wants you to be ashamed. You are welcome to be ashamed, and I can be with you while you are ashamed, but I just want you to know there is nothing in me that wants you to be ashamed. Imagine hearing that from your parent in a moment of shame. It makes me misty inside just thinking I am able to give that gift to my girls. There is that.

I think if you see somebody in shame, to be able to stand in love and say there is nothing to be ashamed of is great. With that said and even when people have done some pretty bad things to me out of their own neurosis, and you get a lot of that as a coach, I will say to them I want you to do that again. I might even stop our relationship, and I don’t want you to feel ashamed. The reason I don't want them to feel ashamed is because that’s just going to recreate the behavior. If they can steal my love, then hopefully that behavior becomes less prevalent in their life.

If somebody is in a shame loop and they are doing something over and over again, and it is creating that bad habit or it is locking that bad habit in place, then I think it is usually best to just draw boundaries. It is not to try to save them from it. It is to be clear and honest with them and to say I don’t want you to be ashamed. I don’t want this kind of behavior in my life, so when you are ready to not have this kind of behavior, you are always welcome here. If somebody is in a loop, that can be really devastating for your life and theirs. I mean that is drug addiction. That is constantly stealing from somebody, and it is that kind of behavior. For me, I just draw boundaries around it. It doesn’t help them for me to be codependent with them.

Brett: One thing you mentioned in the way you relate to your daughters is you said you don’t want them to feel shame, but you are also welcome to feel the shame if you want to. I think that’s an important component here because, coming from a place of trigger and frustration with somebody who is in a shame cycle around them, somebody could tell them to stop feeling shame. Then that would just create a whole new shame pattern around the shame.

Joe: Yeah, I did that once or twice. Their shame was so uncomfortable for me that I wanted them to stop it.

Brett: Which brings us back to apologies. I am sorry that I have feelings around your shame and I am trying to control you. I have shame.

Joe: Exactly. I think the thing about shame is it is a bit of a paper dragon in the fact that, or paper tiger, it melts with love. In a weird way, I would even say that shame is a version of love in the fact that it is care. It is weird. We feel shame, and we interpret that as there is something wrong with us. There is something bad. There is something that’s unacceptable in us. The only reason that we would think that is because we care to be good. We care for other people. It is the thing that shows us that we love. It is an action of love. It is a sign of our inherent goodness that we feel it.
When you see it that way, instead of as this horrific thing you want to get rid of, it really can transform. The way it looks when it transforms, it just becomes natural guiderails about how you want to live your life. You know if you do that, it is going to feel crappy, so you don’t want to do that. It is just like that. But it is not based on what other people said. It is based on your love and how you want to be in the world, not based on some weird authority figure who needed to have people act a certain way so they could feel safe.

Brett: In that sense, it feels like there is a natural progression of things. When you are a child, it makes sense for your parents, your family or tribe to instill in you the understanding of what is or isn’t accepted or what will or will not get you ousted, and then as you develop and mature as an adult, you get to develop your own inner compass and connect more and more to that compass yourself and inspect that shame, test it out and see what really actually feels good. Now that you understand the world a little bit more and you have lived in it some time, and then that locus of that internal compass becomes yours and not something that you have just adopted from the outside.

Joe: The only thing I would change about that is that my experience with my daughters is that the moral compass is in them I wouldn’t say right from the start, but it starts developing around five or six years old. There is this natural desire to be good if they haven’t been traumatized, if they haven’t been shamed. If you just allow them to figure out and listen to themselves, they learn this thing very naturally. They want to love and be loved. Humans want to love and be loved. You traumatize them. You beat them up. You tell them they are bad, and they will believe it and they will not be in touch with that desire to love and be loved. They will start trying to make up with it for control, dominance or violence.

Brett: All of those things just delay the onset or perpetually perhaps forever delay the onset or stunt the onset of that internal compass. It is natural for it to arise much earlier than we might expect if we buy into the belief system that shame is a tool for social justice or shame is the way we teach people to operate in society.

One thing I’ve noticed also and something we have talked about before is one way to relieve some shame in our system is to share it. If we have been in a co-dependent pattern with somebody, we need to say I know I have been trying to control you, and I realize I have actually been avoiding my own shame. Just noting it and saying that, that can be a way for the whole thing to just start dissolving in us.
Joe: Absolutely. AA is built on that. Twelve step programs are built on that premise. A lot of group work is built on the premise of if I bring my shame out into the light and let people see it, especially if those people still love me and can still accept me, then the shame can vanish.

Brett: As we close this episode, my invitation here is that I am going to add all of the things that I wrote in my notebook last night into our show notes. I also invite anybody else to go to our website,, and there is a feedback form there. You can just say here is some shame. Use a fictitious name if you want or no name. We are going to use names in the show notes. As they come in, I will just add them to the list. You can check out all of the different kinds of shame people have had that they have sent in and see where some of them might show up in you. You might think that you hadn’t even thought of one, but that one is real for me.

Joe: That’s cool. Also, when you are going through them and you think that’s ridiculous that anybody would be ashamed of that, know that there is somebody out there looking at your shame list thinking the same thing. They shouldn’t be ashamed of that. That’s just human. That’s just natural. What a pleasure. What a good idea. Thanks for coming up with that one.

Brett: Thank you, Joe. Thanks everybody for listening.

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