When I was little, my parents moved to a Seneca reservation in upstate New York while my father, a filmmaker, worked on a documentary there. The tribe adopted us. Although I was only a baby, the depth and vibrancy of the Seneca culture sparked in me a lifelong interest in transformation through uncertainties. As an adult, I studied shamanism and gradually came to realize that the most important rituals of the Seneca and other indigenous cultures take place during key life transitions.
Today, as a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher, I help people transform fear and difficult emotions. Since fear is universal and we can’t expect to get rid of it, what then do we do with it since it causes so much physical and emotional distress? How can we make it work for us rather than against us?
Through my work, I've realized we are most vulnerable to fear and disintegration during life transitions the in-between stages of jobs, careers, and relationships. The frightening thing about these times is uncertainty: We're neither the person we used to be, nor the one we're about to become. The lack of definition is challenging, but there s more to it: In the hugely unstructured space of transitions, we catch a glimpse of the person we could be. The magnitude of that potential is scary. What if we don't get there? What if we do?
During transitions, we contend with cultural and personal beliefs about our limitations and responsibilities; beliefs which often keep us from moving forward. Personally, I grew up thinking that others needs should come before my own and that my creativity is secondary to others expectations. This belief is strong not only because I'man oldest child, but because I'ma healer and teacher. I've had to re-examine and challenge it at every major turning point in my life.
Life Throws Surprises
At 28, I thought my professional path was set in stone. I'd had my doctorate for three years and worked for a group psychotherapy practice in Chicago. I enjoyed the challenge of doing therapy with hospitalized adolescents. They were raw, honest, and confrontational they made amazing breakthroughs. My mentor challenged my boundaries and the way I saw myself. For example, public speaking unnerved me, so he signed me up for as many opportunities as possible. This taught me to survive, and enjoy, speaking to large groups of people.
Just as things were going smooth professionally, I learned that I'd need major surgery, requiring six weeks off and several months on crutches. The owner of the group practice would take care of me. But just two weeks prior to the surgery, they laid me off along with others. It felt like a betrayal. Prospective employers shied away from the thought of hiring someone who would be on crutches for so long it wouldn't be good for the patients. So without work lined up, I faced the surgery. Psychologists salaries were so low that only one of my three internship supervisors still worked in the field. One bought a Kinko s franchise and another left psychology to start a construction company. I had two choices: give up and get a different kind of job, or reinvent myself.
The solution came to me suddenly just as my money was running out: I could open a private practice at the same psychiatric hospital where I'd been working! Right away, of course, I had to contend with some large-scale uncertainties and self-doubt: Who was I to think I could do this on my own? What if I wound up with no clients and couldn't make it work? Despite these worries, I met with the hospital CEO and proposed to stay on. She gave me an office, and within 30 days I'd joined forces with a dynamic female psychiatrist who referred patients to me for therapy and psychological testing. My practice thrived, and it gave me more autonomy and creative opportunity than I would have had working for my old company. I began to design continuing education courses for social workers and psychologists, and ran small conferences at the hospital. In retrospect, I never would have left the company on my own. I needed that push that difficult, fearful ending to get there.
It Didn't Stop There. . .
Three years after I launched my business, another transition arose. A multi-state psychology group offered me the job of Chief Executive Officer. I was only 31 years old, and it felt like an opportunity I couldn't turn down. But many of the group s long-term employees were resentful they hadn't been chosen. They sabotaged me at every chance they got. They made snide remarks about my eating granola, practicing yoga, and living a healthy lifestyle. During the 2 years I stayed, I was tired all the time, and my morale was low. My immune system was weak and I got sick more frequently. The environment felt so toxic, I feared I'd get cancer. Eventually, the board and I agreed to part ways.
One day, close to the end of my tenure there, I was standing in line at Whole Foods flipping through a magazine. On the back page was an ad for a yoga retreat center on Paradise Island in Nassau. A strong feeling came over me: Go. The yoga awakened something within me. I felt a huge sense of familiarity. At the same time, in those five days I tapped into a part of me so powerful that it would lead me far away from everything I'd known. It would take years for me to give myself permission to explore yoga more deeply, to let it influence or as sometimes I jokingly say ruin my life.
Responding to Fear
Fear can be all-consuming. And yet, we each possess a built-in, bio-available technology for transforming fear.
Fear is mediated through our autonomic nervous system. This double-pronged system includes two branches: the sympathetic (fight-flight-freeze) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest). These two branches structure our emotional well-being. The more we practice a response, the more we wire that pattern into place. Eventually, it becomes our default mode. So to regulate and transform our fear, we must learn how to balance our nervous system, to dim the lights on the fight-flight-freeze branch and turn them up on the rest-and-digest one. Yet how, exactly, do we do this?
You have the built-in capacity to transform fear right inside your own bodies. Drawing from a variety of sources, from yoga to the latest research in neuroscience, I give my students tools for creating emotional well-being, including meditation, breathing exercises, active yoga, and Restorative Yoga (a relaxation-based practice). We know, through research, that these tools work in the following ways:
Meditation calms our nervous system and helps us stay in the present moment, no matter how difficult, without moving into narrative mode
Staying present in this way without telling the story that we are a loser or doomed to fail is deeply healing, and reduces anxiety
Even a 10-minute daily yoga practice increases stress resilience and helps with fear management
When your yoga practice includes an emotional, ethical, or spiritual component, it balances anxiety more effectively
Contemplative, relaxation-based practices such as Restorative Yoga help reduce anxiety and fearfulness
Deep nasal breathing, especially when the exhale is longer than the inhale, helps slow the heart and calm anxiety
I practice yoga and meditation every day; they ve given my nervous system a new set-point and helped me stay grounded in times of transition and uncertainties. Through these tools, I can regulate my fear and change my relationship to it. I don't aspire to be fearless. To me the important question is: Can I metabolize and tolerate my fear long enough for it to transform?
Unaddressed fear becomes toxic; it erodes our mind, body, and spirit. When we try to avoid our fear, we feed it. When we lean into it, we soften it. The fear-busting practices of yoga and meditation help us lean into our fear. They help us be present with it which is when, ironically, it begins to feel more transient, more a part of the ebb and flow of daily emotional life.
Our personal lives mirror our professional lives, and vice versa. it's important to re-condition ourselves and realize that our times of greatest vulnerability are also when we are most alive. It requires us to be shamans: to go through regular cycles of death, such as the failure of a business plan or idea, or the end of a relationship. To endure uncertainty, and live in spaces that can feel frightening, barren, or lacking in structure. How willing are we to go through the death of old structures in our lives? How ready are we to tolerate lack of definition? The more willing and ready we are, the more we can use fear as an impetus for growth. This, to me, is the true meaning of fearlessness.
Breakthrough Steps with Fear
People often say that when we're paralyzed by fear, we should take small, daily steps toward our goal. But personally, in the spaces where I feel most vulnerable and alone, I find it also helps to think big. Not big as in drastic, life-changing externally-driven moves like quitting a job or moving across the country, but internally big.
When the most intense part of the fear passes, I ask myself: What would you like to do that would make you incredibly happy, even if it feels professionally out of reach?
I'd always had this desire to work with one of the professional sport teams I'd idolized as a kid. It occurred to me that one particular team was under a new ownership. I summoned up my courage and cold-called the team s new CEO. To my surprise, I scored a meeting with him and the General Manager. They scared the hell out of me in that first meeting: They demanded a brochure, which I didn't have, and challenged me to tell them how I could help and why. I was all the way to the elevator, pressing the down button disconsolately, when the CEO came loping down the hallway to invite me back.
Within a year, I was doing therapeutic yoga with the team as they made their way through an historic championship run. That opened up to me the world of therapeutic yoga for sports performance, which I've developed into a system called Functional Integrated Yoga. Working with athletes can be challenging, especially as a woman in a male-dominated field. But it makes me happy. It balances the intensity of working with so much emotional suffering. I've done yoga therapy with baseball and basketball players, and even a race car driver in Italy. it's fun, and that s one of the best medicines for anxiety and for the challenge of running your own company.
Not Belonging Is OK
One of my hardest lessons has to do with belonging. I never wanted to be a maverick. I wanted to belong to an already-established group of psychotherapist yogis, for example. But such a group didn't exist. When I started integrating yoga and psychology, the yoga world didn't view psychology as particularly spiritual, and the psychology community saw yoga as a fringe activity for artsy people.
I've finally come to realize that creativity and success are not about belonging. Sometimes the key is having the courage NOT to belong.
When you re trying to shift paradigms, belonging isn't part of the equation. You will stand out. And you will face uncertainties. People will rarely be indifferent to you, always having a reaction to what you say or do. They may love you or hate you never ignore you.
I want to see our society make a dent in the epidemics of anxiety and depression. I want to see us use spiritual education and practice (like yoga and meditation) as a means for social change. And I'mwilling to endure large amounts of fear, and to devote myself daily to my mind-body fear-busting practices, in order to help make that happen.
More Information: Bo Forbes is a psychologist, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist. She has been exploring fearlessness and transformation since childhood. Learn more about her: www.boforbes.com and www.boforbesyoga.com. Her YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/yoginibf.
Photo by kevin dooley.