“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”
― Erin Hanson
One of the most powerful and insightful questions you can ask yourself and one that can often highlight both your greatest hopes and your worst fears. It is one of those dead simple but meta-level thought experiments that can provide you with some deep insights into what you think and feel about yourself and others, the world we live in and life in general. A lot of the posts that I have discovered online about the subject of What If mostly had to do with the psychology of anxiety and regret when people feel they have made mistakes or have been hurt in the past. We all get conditioned by our past experiences and it is common to get stuck in the stories of our personal trauma; places where we think we have failed, or where we felt shame or guilt, felt alone, abused, abandoned or unloved. It’s a subject that I often mine for gold in because I sometimes write stories and poetry about subjects like that – stuff about relationships, love, loss and longing (and lust) that help me to express some things that I am feeling or have felt in the past, or I just like to write about because I am a silly boy. Anyway, I stumbled upon a Brene Brown talk last night on the subject of vulnerability and how many of us spend a lot of time ‘in the cheap seats’ instead of ‘in the arena’ of our lives (if you aren’t familiar with Brene – check her out, she’s got some good stuff to say). Her talk spoke to me directly and I got to pondering what is currently happening and what I want to have happening in my life and writing the next few chapters – I’ve always believed in the power that we all have to be the authors of our own stories and the stars of our own show. The talk triggered some things about past relationships and my current status quo, as did my own little list of ‘what ifs’… my hopes, dreams, fears, and all that stuff that I keep locked away in a box in my bedroom closet, underneath that pile of laundry that’s been sitting there for longer than I care to admit. I don’t really beat myself up too much though; I tend not to dwell in the past and I don’t really do regret, I just never found living with those those things to be particularly constructive or productive. I always eventually do my laundry, and so that box gets opened from time to time… I can have all kinds of ‘the feels’ about it all, and I do, I just don’t like to live there for very long. When I think about some of the stuff in the box, I actually have to cut myself some slack because I’ve done a whole bunch of things in the last few years that, in retrospect, really were big leaps for me out of my old comfort zone and old patterns and got me out into the great wide open. One of those things was starting to write, and putting some of my writing – good or bad – out there in the world for public consumption (like this blog). I also left behind a lot of safety and security and started doing things that I really wanted to do simply for the joy of doing them, like visiting some places on the planet I always wanted to see. I decided that I didn’t want to wait. I made a lot of choices that friends and family couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand and I have taken some risks that many others wouldn’t have or couldn’t.
Blah blah blah enough about me, and back to the big What If. My point is that a while ago I asked myself about the story that I was living, and why, and what would happen if I started to do those all of the things I wanted to do instead of just following a script. What if I ditched my old career, started to travel, to seek out some new adventures and experiences, to write, and to ‘put myself out there’ as so many people had told me I needed to start doing? I go back to the simple poem at the top of this post, and to the idea that we can safely play this little What If thought experiment with ourselves, and, in doing so, we can begin to understand what’s behind some of the things that are going on in our lives and relationships. We can also then begin to make better and more conscious decisions about everything; what direction we want our lives to go in and what kinds of relationships we want, and with whom. When we understand that we have much more power than we often give ourselves credit for, we can really become the authors of our own greatest successes and failures. And yes, my dear, fail you will, because that is a fact of life. I have fallen hard before (maybe once or twice) and it really hurt but I lived. And I expect that I will probably fall down a few more times in a few more ways before I’m done. Brene’s talk went on at length about how we view that, how we measure that, and it’s a whole other subject but it’s also all the cliché stuff you read again and again that’s very true… to play it safe is not to play.
So the next time you have something going on or a situation that maybe you’re a little uncomfortable with, feels a little sticky, emotions are running too hot or too cold and you’re not certain about how you feel or what’s behind those feelings and what to do…ask yourself What If. Write down all the things about it that you’re thinking and feeling. Most often my lists will have more in the ‘not so good’ column first, and that’s ok, that’s pretty normal. I like to go all the way with that shit (because that’s how I roll). I sit with some of that fear and anxiety about falling on my face and I try to understand where those thoughts and feelings are coming from and what is actually behind it. It can be pretty uncomfortable, sometimes it brings up some old wounds and things that are buried, or things that I thought were dealt with and have resurfaced…stuff that can go wayyy back into childhood. I think about what outcomes I see as most likely to happen as a result of things not turning out how I hope, and how I would feel in those situations. This part for me is important because it really highlights how I may be unconsciously projecting stuff about myself, my old stories and old wounds into situations and onto others in my life. Ok, so now I maybe understand the fears part, the little traps I can set and areas of potential self-sabotage based upon my own expectations. The next step is the hopes column, the ‘good stuff’ list. What if… I fly? What does that look like? What if things work out exactly how I hope they will? What if things actually went so well that I can’t even imagine or comprehend the potential for happiness, success… even joy as a result? Really important to use this part to step outside of yourself and to dream, and dream really big. Paint a really amazing picture where you get everything you want, and then even go beyond that. Now sit with those thoughts and feelings, and be especially mindful of the places where you set ‘yeah-but’ traps and where you place limitations on yourself or others. If you can imagine all of the places where things might go south, put at least as much effort and depth into using your imagination on how things could go perfectly wonderfully. What does it look like? How does it feel? How do you feel about yourself? Are you actually afraid to fly (some of us actually are)? Now ask yourself what you truly believe is going to happen and, if you go rummaging into the dirty laundry pile instead of pulling out the clean sheets, challenge yourself as to why you do that. My guess is that often it’s easier to do the worst case scenario stuff, because that’s a lot of our past story, it’s what we know, and what we consider to be safe. In many cases it’s been a repeating pattern for us so it doesn’t really take much effort, ‘we got this’… it’s the comfort of the same old song and dance. But this is where some of the realization starts to happen that we might be limiting ourselves based upon some of those old chapters that we find easier to re-read instead of writing new ones.
Watching that Brene talk last night I realized that I still have some stuff to work on around vulnerability. I am looking at making some big moves soon and into another phase and I’ve felt kind of… stalled or stuck, and have been coasting a bit in safe mode. So I am sitting here today watching the spring rain, doing my laundry and writing about it as I chip away at my list of reasons why I could fall, and reasons why I could fly.
I am asking myself What If…?