In this wonderfully unique and useful conversation, we are speaking with Dr. Todd Pressman about deconstructing anxiety. Dr. Pressman’s work first caught my attention for he has some rather radical ideas about anxiety: Firstly, he proposes any negative experience we have is really a fear in disguise; so all our emotions, from anger to guilt, all find their roots in fear.
Then, he suggests we can all reveal one core fear at the root of all the other emotional difficulties we have, and that core fear is going to be the same every time. Just to give you a clue, these five core fears are: abandonment, loss of identity, loss of meaning, loss of purpose and death.
These are not just theories, Dr. Todd also offers some effective and practical exercises we can do right now to unpeeled layers of our fears and achieve more freedom and calm. We will walk through some of these exercises in the episode.
I can’t wait to share his knowledge, creativity and wisdom with you!
ABOUT THE GUEST
Todd Evan Pressman, Ph.D. is an international presenter, psychologist and author. He is the founder and director of Logos Wellness Center and Pressman and Associates Life Counseling Center, dedicated to helping people design lives of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.
A Trailer: ” WHY ARE SENSITIVE PEOPLE MARGINALISED?
Imi: Hi. Hi, Dr. Todd Pressman. Good to have you on.
Todd: It’s absolutely a pleasure to be here, Imi. Thank you for having me.
Imi: Yes. When I first found your book, I just thought it was profound. It has helped me personally in a great deal and I can’t wait to have your wisdom benefit our listeners as well.
Todd: I’m honored.
Imi: Yes, so first of all, I just want to get to know a little bit more about your personal experience, because having written a book about anxiety and being a prominent psychologist I would imagine a lot of people put you on a pedestal, and they may not be able to see that you are a human too, and you were once a child and you have your own personal life experience. Do you mind telling us your story briefly, so we get to know who you are as a person a bit more?
DR. PRESSMAN’S CHILDHOOD AND SPIRITUAL BACKGROUND
Todd: Surely. Yes, I was a child, and in fact I was a child born to a father who was a psychoanalyst and a mother who was a social worker, so-
Imi: I did not know that.
Todd: I had to be a psychologist, right? Actually, I came to it very naturally and it was totally in congruence with my spiritual bent in life, so at the tender age of 12 years old I found myself asking the usual philosophical questions. Why are we here and what’s my purpose? And what’s this world all about? I came to it with a great, great intensity. I needed answers and it was prompted actually by a very profound experience of confronting what sometimes is called the existential void, where I felt my infinite smallness in the face of an unfathomable universe and it was very anxiety producing.
Todd: My whole childhood, which was a very beautiful childhood, was blown to smithereens as they say in the States, and I needed to make sense out of that, so it set me on a quest and my father, who was very avant garde himself, started reading Eastern literature and I followed suit, and then I actually had the very good fortune of taking a journey around the world to study with some of the great wisdom teachers in Zen. I studied with a Zen master in Kyoto and followed up in the States, as well as a Zoroastrian high priest in Mumbai and a fire-walker in Sri Lanka.
Todd: Well, I don’t know about in your part of the world, but mindfulness is all the rage here and it is based on Buddhism, so it’s a very nice trend forward. Those journeys and my traditional background, especially the grooming from my father, a lot of influence from a wonderful teaching called A Course in Miracles.
Imi: Yes, I’m familiar with that. I think Marianne Williamson has really brought it to the mainstream consciousness.
Todd: Yes, she has her own slant on it, the original is what I always recommend, but Marianne’s done a great service, and those are some of the big influences that led me to the deconstructing anxiety model. Now, of course, I practice with clients over many years. I’ve been in practice for 34 years now, and most of all my primary subject was myself, so I tried-
Imi: Don’t we all?
Todd: Yes. I was looking for answers and I think I found something that coheres nicely into a unified program that really makes a difference for people.
Imi: Yes. Now I see why I’m drawn to your work naturally, because like you I’m quite hungry in my search for knowledge and philosophies, and I like combining the Eastern and the Western stuff, and whenever I’m forced to be holding on only one thing I feel a little trapped, so I really admire your ability to do that, and you do that very, very well in your book.
Todd: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Imi: Before we jump on this call, I sent you who I am and a link to my website, so you already know that I specialize in working with people who consider themselves sensitive and intense. I wonder if you would also consider yourself emotionally sensitive and intense.
Todd: I definitely would, and I’d be interested to hear your definition of that, because I browsed your website and I love that focus. We talk about highly sensitive people. At least in the States that’s a new field. My wife and daughter definitely qualify. Say, “You don’t understand dad,” but no. I think that it’s for certain, if my understanding is correct, it’s another way of saying that people who are on a path, whether they call it a psychological or a spiritual path, or what have you, have to raise their awareness and put out their feelers to become highly sensitive, and of course that can make for difficulties, right? It’s not as comfortable perhaps, as dulling your emotions, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Let me understand your definition, if you would.
Imi: Yes. Elaine Aron, who wrote Highly Sensitive People in 1995 I think, she’s the one who really created the concept and brought it to public consciousness, so when I first discovered her work, when I was young, oh my god, this is me. There’s a tribe, but then gradually I discovered more and more layers into this whole thing, and I defined … Define might not be the word, but the population that I work with and my definition is slightly different.
Imi: I wanted to add the dimension of intensity, which does represent a side of people who are more rigorous, passionate, and also an intellectual intensity, and I also realize it very much overlaps with intellectual giftedness, where lots of people who are highly intelligent are also highly creative and sensitive, so my work’s come in, in that part of the Venn diagram. So I think the people that I work with and define the target let’s say, they do a lot of them have traits that overlap with highly sensitive people, original highly sensitive people definition, but there’s more and there’s a dimension of passion, intensity and rigor.
Todd: Well, I absolutely love that, because the passion, intensity and rigor to me speak to a very important concept in deconstructing anxiety. We have as I say at the beginning of the book two drives. One for fear and one for fulfilment. Actually, fulfilment is the a priori drive. That’s how we’re born, and we check it when we learn about the ways of fear and say I can’t just pursue my fulfilment. I have to watch out for fear, and that puts a damper on things. People who are passionate and emotionally intense, intelligent and driven for that fulfilment will move through the fear and say I’m not going to settle for just damping down on who I am and what my purpose is. I’m going to go for it, even though I have this struggle against such a high awareness of what life can do.
Imi: Exactly. Oh my god, we can just chat about this forever already.
Todd: Very appreciative of what you’ve just described. I think that’s really important.
WHY ARE SENSITVE PEOPLE MARGINALISED?
Imi: Thank you. Why do you think sensitive people are marginalized in, if you think they are? I think in the mainstream society, especially for a man actually.
Todd: I was just going to say especially for men, especially in America. I think that’s clear, because again, well, in the deconstructing anxiety model, but really any kind of, most therapeutic models, we understand the concept of defenses, right? As protections against fear or anxiety, and people who would marginalize those who are emotionally intense and aware are going to feel perhaps a little bit threatened, right? I got my defenses in place and I don’t want anybody reminding me, on an unconscious level usually, that I’m shutting down a part of myself, so let’s just make things nice and calm. Don’t rock the boat. I have a saying that I think is very apt: People who don’t know that they have anxiety, or think that they’re all fine and everything is perfect, and there’s nothing troublesome about life, are, here’s the quote, living conveniently inside their defenses.
Todd: Lucky enough that their circumstances allow them to push away all that awareness, that high sensitive awareness, and say everything’s fine. I don’t have to look outside my little box. There’s no problem. Unfortunately, they’re going to get hit with some hard realities when life says I don’t agree, and life obviously wins.
Imi: Absolutely, and I guess in Carl Jung’s language that would be their shadow, and they don’t want to be faced with their shadow, so if they have to scapegoat anyone or attack anyone it’s of course those people who represent the shadow.
Todd: Sure, yes.
Imi: Shows them what they don’t want to see, inconveniently.
Todd: Same page for sure with that one.
Imi: I hope our world is changing though, slowly.
Todd: I think so. I think that the awareness that we are interdependent and unfortunately the pandemic is helping raise that awareness, we really cannot afford to ignore each other’s sensitivities and inner experience, because we are going through quite a difficulty together that raises awareness. Of course, you can’t again live inside those defenses when something like this is happening, and it’s helping, well, some people of course are reacting in the extreme opposite direction. Trying to build their defenses more thickly. That’s not working so well, and then we have people who in the United States I’m sure you’re aware are protesting.
Imi: For sure.
Todd: Just that, and saying we have to raise awareness. Black Lives Matter and all these other issues, and so forth.
Imi: Yes. Gosh. We can just chat about these random topics forever, but I guess we do need to move to the meat of the podcast, which is anxiety, so you’ve written a book called Deconstructing Anxiety. Why focus on anxiety out of all the emotions?
ON DECONSTRUCTING ANXIETY
Todd: Thank you for that great question. Yes, it’s a puzzle at first, because obviously anxiety is a big issue for a lot of people. In the States, one in nearly five people have it as a clinical diagnosis, which is horrific when you think about it, and I believe-
Imi: Going to make some notes.
Todd: The statistics around the world are one in three. I’m not-
Imi: Is that more rampant than depression then?
Todd: Well, yes. In the States, it recently surpassed depression as the number one clinical diagnosis. Not a cause for celebration, obviously.
Imi: I did not know that.
Todd: Yes, but here’s my real answer to your question. I believe anxiety is 100% inherent in the human experience. We come here to become afraid, and that sounds funny, but what I mean is we want to be our own autonomous beings separate from the rest of the world. I’m special. This is especially prevalent in the west. I’m special, I’m important. I’m going to be wonderful. I’m going to be the kind of the world, right? That’s a big phenomenon in our culture at least, and that’s a set up for anxiety of course, because once you’re separate from other people you’re at war with them. If you want the same prize then who’s going to get there first? And not just at war with other people, but at war with reality, because reality says you want this need to be met.
Todd: I’m not so sure you’re going to be able to get it, so where life becomes a journey from here where we feel separate in this moment of time and this point in space, to over there where our fulfillment lies, and we have to travel toward that and there are all kinds of potential dangers that could interfere with our success. The nature of the human experience is fear, until we get wise to some of these principles and how to reverse that.
Imi: Well, thank you for sharing that. Actually, in your book, you’ve made a bold proposition, which I think on some deep level I immediately resonated with, but I’m going to share it with our listeners first, so we’re on the same page. You basically said all is rooted in fear. To quote you directly, let me read out one of your quotes. “Any negative experience regardless of the emotion it evokes is really a fear in disguise,” and then you referenced various emotions. For example, anger is a forceful way of saying stop scaring me. Great is an anxious attempt to secure what we’re afraid of not having. I particularly liked that one. In the Buddhist concept you said you have greed and anger and ignorance, the three types of personality. I’m the greed type, so resonated with that, and sadness is a response to our fear of having to live without something that was important to us. Guilt is a way of punishing oneself as payment for wrongdoing, and et cetera, but then I can immediately imagine some other emotional experts or people who specialize in this, including even some of my previous guests. They might disagree with this and they might say all emotions are legitimate in themselves. You’re saying that they’re all rooted in fear, may diminish the legitimacy of other emotions. I wonder if you can explain and expand on that a bit more.
Todd: Sure. I would never minimize the legitimacy of any emotion. It’s essential as per traditional psychology that we have access to a full range of emotions. Otherwise, we’re cutting off a part of ourselves and this is a work about regaining our wholeness in order to feel that fulfillment, but I would say that you can trace and I can demonstrate that you can trace any emotion, any negative emotion at all down to a core fear. I use the words fear and anxiety interchangeable, and we can talk about that. It’s actually a Buddhist concept as well, but you can trace it down, deconstruct down an emotion like anger or jealousy or greed, or what have you, with a process that I call digging for gold. We can get into that.
Imi: We absolutely have to dig into that.
Todd: That will reveal one core fear at the root of all the other emotional difficulties we have, and that core fear is going to be the same every time. It’s a remarkable discovery, because it demystifies our suffering. We never have to wonder again what’s causing my upset in any particular situation, which of course all look like they’re different. Pandora’s box of problems, right? Are myriad, but they do reduce down or deconstruct down to one single core fear that’s at the bedrock of our own conscious.
THE FIVE CORE FEARS
Imi: Yes. It’s such a handy model. I kept, it’s not easy to get into at first for me personally, but once I do, I do find it repeatedly useful, so please let’s get into it. I want to share it with my listeners, so in your book there are these five core fears, which are abandonment, loss of identity, loss of meaning, loss of purpose and death. I’ve just read them out really quickly and I don’t think they are immediately understood, unless you expand on them, so please Todd, why thee five and how did you come up with them?
Todd: I came up with them through experience working with clients and myself. These seem-
Imi: Lifelong research project.
Todd: Right, but having landed on those five many years ago I do find that everybody’s core fear fits into one of these broad stroke categories, and to expand upon them, as you said, everybody’s familiar with the fear of abandonment. It’s sometimes called rejection, or disapproval, or loss of love. All of these five core fears, by the way, are what I call universal themes of loss. They do represent a sense of losing some aspect of who we are and what we need in order to feel whole, complete and fulfilled, so fear of abandonment is the loss of love. We definitely need that to feel complete and fulfilled.
Todd: Loss of identity. Again, not too hard to understand, because we’re very familiar in psychology anyhow, with the idea that we develop persona, personas, layers and layers of masks about how we want to present ourselves to other people, perhaps to protect ourselves from losing love or perhaps to try and achieve a sense of fulfillment in a backwards way that says I’m this special identity. I’m better than everyone else. Narcissism, for instance.
Todd: Loss of meaning is basically defined as a sense of worth and value. Am I really meaningful? Is the world really meaningful or is it just empty and a chance, random experience that didn’t have any ultimate value? We need to know that, in order to feel like we can have a sense of wholeness and fulfillment, once again. Loss of purpose is slightly different than meaning. Very related, but purpose is as I define it about expressing that sense of value. Making a contribution and offering it to others to help improve our lives and the world.
Todd: Purpose is driven toward a goal. A goal of fulfillment and however one defines that, and the fear of death is what I call the granddaddy of them all. It encompasses the other four, because you can’t have your love, identity, meaning and purpose if you’re facing death, but overcoming these things is what’s so important in the model, because we can transform a fear of losing love into the pursuit and attainment of love once we resolve the fear. There’s a drive toward love, it’s one of the aspects of fulfillment, that again gets stopped or dampened by fear. We take away the fear and we’re free to pursue that love once again.
Todd: Same thing with the drive to be an authentic identity. This is who I really am. I’m not going to hide myself behind those masks anymore. I’m going to sing my music to the world, or as Walt Whitman said, sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world, right? One of the quotes.
Todd: Meaning I’ve got to know that I mean something. That I’m not … Not in an arrogant, egotistical way, but that my life has value and the world has value, purpose. I’m going to express that according to my unique gifts and talents, to make a difference and help others to see their value, and finally this is important. When we resolve the fear of death it enables us to live life more fully. If we’re constantly worried about that boogeyman, as they say, the end in our lives, then it takes us out of the present moment, which is the only place that fulfillment can be found.
Imi: Yes. I think about that a lot. A few years ago I discovered the work of stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, and since then I just try to meditate on that and the end of our lives every day, and it has absolutely changed my life. I enjoy system thinking, and when I look at these five I just find them to be really neat. It even sparks a lot of my thinking. For instance, I wonder if they could be correlated with certain personality types, natural temperament, so I wonder if in your clinical experience does one come up more than others?
Todd: No, and that’s an interesting question, in my experience. I would say, and this is important, we all have all five core fears, but according to our unique childhood experiences we land on one that is predominant over the others, so it’s sometimes confusing for people to say, well, I don’t want to just pick one. I know that I have fear in all of these different domains, and that’s true, but think for example, if somebody has a core fear of losing their identity, we just referenced this.
Todd: It could be that they’re very afraid of losing love, but if you deconstruct that further underneath the fear of losing love is if I lose love I’m going to lose my identity, my sense of who I am, or if somebody has a fear of death. That could be the ultimate core fear for them, or it could be that if I die I’m taken away from my chance to express my purpose in life, where purpose is their core fear, so you can’t predict what’s going to be for anybody and these are very much part of a system.
Todd: We all have all five of them, but it’d be very, very, very helpful to understand which one is predominant for us, which again we can do with this digging for gold exercise, and then see, wow, everything in my life is explained. Every time I was less than perfectly fulfilled, it’s because this core fear, my unique take on the core fear has been driving the show.
Imi: Yes. I absolutely want to go to the digging for gold exercise, but before that I still have some curiosity about the system itself, because I like that you mentioned they might correlate with early experiences. It does make me think of the age at which people get wounded. The abandonment— it’s so early. It’s almost preverbal that you feel it. And then the identity and meaning things feel a little bit older, so I wonder if it may relate to when people were developmentally injured as well. Not expecting an answer from you, but I just think these are really interesting food for thought.
Todd: That is a very good question, and actually I have not thought about that before, so you’ve given me food for thought.
Imi: The next book.
Todd: Well, it’s terrific, because I can agree with you. We do seem to be born with the readiness to feel abandoned and attachment theory is doing a great service in helping us understand that, and sense of identity I would say doesn’t really develop fully until adolescence. There are precursors to it before then. A lot happens in adolescence, meaning like these questions, what is the meaning of it all? What is my purpose?
Todd: Purpose lasts a lifetime. Fear of death doesn’t even show up until later in life, so very helpful. Thank you, but I do have an additional point. There’s it’s fun when you write a book, because it clarifies your thinking. You get new insights. I say that there are three stages in the development of a core fear. We also have to talk about the flip side of the core fear called the chief defense, the primary strategy we use to protect ourselves from our fear, and the core fear and the chief defense together make our personality, again. Except for those times when we’re really in our fulfillment, and we’re feeling whole and complete in all those five dimensions, but the three stages of development of the core fear are believe it or not first in the birth experience, and Otto Rank, one of Freud’s students, talked about the trauma of birth.
Todd: Stan Grof, one of my mentors, really elaborated on this and did some fascinating work, does some fascinating work with it, and developed a technique called holotropic breathwork, where you can sometimes relive your birth experience. It’s quite remarkable. In the birth experience we have our first confrontation with fear. Before that we’re floating in the amniotic fluid and all of our needs are met through the umbilical cord and everything is blissful, and then boom. The walls of the uterus are contracting down and it feels like we’re about to die, so that’s our first confrontation with fear and we have to make sense out of it, and we start in a preverbal way to look for interpretations, again, without words, to make a world that coheres, a worldview that coheres.
Todd: Like I was this person and I was having this experience, and now that’s being threatened. How do I make sense out of that? Different variations on the theme according to a person’s birth experience. Lots of interesting things to talk about, whether they’re complications, cord around the neck, getting stuck in the, as you’re coming out and it can lead to what they call band headaches, because the crown of the head is stuck right there and it creates great pain. Many, many interesting variations on the theme, but we don’t have time for all of that.
Todd: The second stage of the development of a core fear is what we usually focus on in psychology, early childhood experiences. Something comes along. Assuming that we’ve had a loving family and our needs get met, and we’re free to grow and develop in a healthy way. Nevertheless, something comes along that says you have to watch out for fear, and that’s a very profound moment in the development of the core fear built on top of what happens in the birth process, but the third experience that seals our fate in terms of landing on this core fear is in adolescence.
Todd: It’s like a second birth into a new world. A world of adulthood, and we are exposed to a much bigger understanding. Neurologically, we’re ready for that, about how life can be threatening, and again we have to make sense out of it and come up with an interpretation that we can work with, so that we know how to navigate the world, and the core fear is set in adolescence, but it’s built on the precursors in early childhood and the birth process.
Imi: Yes. That’s a really useful model. The reason why I asked the question I asked is because I was thinking about myself, and I’m not entirely sure, but I think my core fear probably lies in the loss of identity. I have most of my injuries lie in later years… I guess it’s not always obvious what our core fears are, so watching the time I think we absolutely need to go into the digging for gold exercise that you have expounded on so profoundly in your book, so please talk us through that process. How do we find out what our core fears are?
THE ‘DIGGING FOR GOLD’ EXERCISE
Todd: Sure. It’s a very simple process, very elegant in the sense that it’s really streamlined, and it minimizes the room, the chance for distraction, which really come from defenses, because our defenses don’t want us to find our core fear. You start with a problem and it can be any problem. Why? Because all of them will deconstruct down to the same core fear, and you state it as a short, single phrase. That’s important, because again defenses will have us go off on all kinds of tangents.
Todd: Start with the problem stated in short, single phrase, and then we ask one of three questions. Why is that upsetting to you? Why is that problem upsetting to you? What are you afraid will happen next? And what are you afraid you would miss or lose? So you have a problem.
Todd: Let’s say my boss is displeased with me. You can ask either any one of those questions, whichever one seems most helpful. Try a different one, if the first one isn’t working so well, but why is my boss being upset with me upsetting to me? Sounds a little funny to use that language. Why is my boss having a problem with me upsetting to me? Why is that upsetting to me? And the answer is going to be a next level of fear one level closer to the core, so you put that on line two underneath the first problem.
Todd: Then the answer might be if my boss has a problem with me it’s upsetting to me, because my job might be at stake, right? Just making up an example. Then you ask one of those three questions again. If my job is at stake what am I afraid is going to happen next? Well, the answer might be I could lose my job, right? And then we keep going in this way. If I lose my job what am I afraid is going to happen next? I might be out on the street, and frankly it’s important in this process. There are lots of technical tips, which I list in the book, that help us not skip steps.
Todd: If I lose my job what am I afraid will happen next? I won’t be able to pay my bills, and what am I afraid I’ll miss or lose if I can’t pay my bills? I might lose my house. Put that on the left. Each of these steps gets one level closer to the core fear. If I lose my house, why is that upsetting to me? I might be out on the street. If I’m out on the street what am I afraid will happen next? I could die of exposure. Something like that.
Todd: Now, that would be a core fear of death. We don’t want to stop once we get to one of these five core fears. We have to keep asking the questions a couple more times, to make sure they’re not hiding an even deeper core fear, so again if somebody says I might die what are they afraid they’ll miss or lose if they die? Their chance to love other people or be loved by other people. Core fear of abandonment, or perhaps they would say their chance to express their purpose, or the chance to feel like they’ve recovered their full identity.
Todd: We can as clinicians impose our interpretation on somebody else’s core fear process, because then we’ll be coming from our own core fear and we really need to stay open minded to that. I was taught that once when somebody I was working with said, yes his boss could be upset with him if he didn’t read enough radiology reports. He was a radiologist, and what’s that going to lead to? What is he afraid would happen next? That he could lose his job, and then I thought it might follow the example I just gave, but in fact his fear was if he loses his job he’ll lose the respect of his peers, and that was core for him.
Todd: Went to a core fear of identity, because his whole history opened up where he remembered his father being extremely severe and critical, saying, “You’re never good enough. You’re not doing this well enough,” and it threatened his identity, and that’s what drove him his whole life. The moment a person finds their core fear they often have these flashbacks and associations and profound memories that explain everything about the course of their lives, why they made the decisions they did, how they got to the place they did, how they developed the personality that they developed.
UDERSTANDING OUR CHIEF DEFENSE
Imi: Wow. That’s really profound. Yes, I was trying to go through it myself in my head again. Where do you see people get stuck in their digging for gold process usually?
Todd: That’s a really great question. The answer is applicable to any of the exercises in the deconstructing anxiety program, the rest of which, well, we have an exercise for finding our core fear. Then we need to understand our chief defense. That strategy, again, that we use to protect ourselves. Lifelong strategy to protect ourselves from that core fear, which just keeps the fear alive. It’s like saying there’s something really scare there that I better be protecting myself from, and then there are exercises for doing the opposite of that chief defense. Lifting off that lid to expose ourselves to the fear and discover every time there was no threat there.
Todd: One of my favorite quotes is my life was filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened, so we have to expose ourselves to the fear in order to discover that it’s not what we thought it was. Maybe there’s a problem, but it’s always a manageable problem. Always, and usually there’s no problem at all, because it’s made up of a childhood belief that was just not accurate, so when we do these other exercises for correcting the core fear, resolving it and discovering it’s an illusion, we can also get some interference, just like with the digging for gold exercise.
Todd: To answer your question, the interference is always going to be some form of our chief defense. Again, our chief defense does not want us to find our core fear, doesn’t want us to look at it. Fear almost has a life of its own and it has its survival strategies, as I call them in the book. It wants to live and be our ‘best friend’ as a way to make us feel safe in life, but it robs us of our freedom and our fulfillment. When something interferes with any of these exercises it’s a form of the defense that’s hiding a fear. Then we have our solution. Look at that fear that the defense was hiding and do the same exercise on that fear, so I can give you an example.
Todd: There was someone, a therapist, in a seminar I was leading on deconstructing anxiety and she’s doing the digging for gold process, and every time I asked she volunteered to go through it in front of the group. Every time I said, “All right, what are you afraid would happen next?” She would think, well, it could be this, or it could be that. Sometime, I remember when it was this, but then it changed a little bit. It went on and on like that.
Todd: The process of finding your core fear when you get good at it takes about five minutes. To reach the root level of your unconscious in about five minutes, seriously, but this was going on and on, so I sniffed the defense at work and I said let’s interrupt this process, and I looked for the fear underneath the defense of trying to find a perfect answer. She had a defense of perfectionism. What would happen, I asked, or what are you afraid would happen next, or what are you afraid you would miss or lose if you gave me an answer that wasn’t perfect?
Todd: In 30 seconds she got her core fear. She said, “If I don’t get the perfect answer then I’m going to lose this opportunity to find out what my fear’s all about, and then I’ll be stuck with fear and I’m going to be lost forever, and no one will love me.” Boom. It happened in 30 seconds, so we find the defense that’s interfering with the process, work with the fear that the defense is hiding, with the same exercises, and you’ll find your way free. It’s almost foolproof. It’s very rare that, I can’t even think of an example where that hasn’t worked to resolve the problem.
Imi: Wow. Yes, it is. As therapists and psychologists, we see again and again how peoples’ life can be shaped around the core defense. It’s maddening to watch just ourselves, to construct our entire life and that has shaped our character, our behavior, our values. What might be a less obvious defense that you see in your practice with people?
Todd: A less obvious one. Well, let me give a little context. I say there’s a chief defense. A primary umbrella strategy for how to protect ourselves from fear.
Imi: Actually, just to interrupt, I think to keep our listeners up to speed it may be useful for us to just list a few defenses, so people know what we’re talking about.
Todd: Good idea.
Imi: For instance, I can name a few, intellectualizing, substances, what else?
Todd: People pleasing is a big one in the States anyhow. Yes, we have to be nice. We have to make sure nobody’s going to be offended by us and we have to hide our true feelings, just so that we keep the peace. That’s a big one here. Actually, my context that I was going to present can help answer this question too, because there are chief defenses, the umbrella overall description of how we protect ourselves from fear in general, and then there are secondary defenses, which are spinoffs of that chief defense that are adjustments to the particular circumstances we are in. So someone who has a chief defense of let’s say people pleasing, there’s no real good word for that, might be a very pleasant person all around, and yet if they’re cornered they might get angry as a way of saying you may not think that I’m a bad person. You must think I’m a nice person, right?
Todd: That’s a secondary defense. There are tertiary defenses, and it goes on and on and on, because we become extraordinarily sophisticated and with elaborate defense systems, of course, that are tailored to try and keep ourselves safe in any of the myriad situations we find ourselves in, so I give you a very unusual one. You asked for a less obvious one.
Todd: I’m working with a guy who has OCD, and he didn’t believe that all his fears, all his problems boiled down to one core fear, and his core fear we had already discovered was a fear of loss of love/security. They went together for him, and it’s not that we have to use one of those five words. We have to get a feeling for what’s at that root for us, and I said give me an example of something that you don’t think is related. A problem you don’t think is related.
Todd: Now, he said, again, he had OCD. He said, “I have this weird little problem, totally unrelated, about brushing my teeth. Sometimes I get afraid of brushing my teeth,” and I said, “All right. Why is that upsetting to you?” He said, “Well, there might be a bit of grit on my tooth and if I brush it,” what are you afraid is going to happen next? “I might scrape away some of the enamel.” I thought where on earth is this going? How does this relate to a loss of love? We kept going, because I knew the process worked.
Todd: If I scrape the enamel I might have to go to the dentist. What am I afraid will happen next? I might have to go to the dentist. If I have to go to the dentist I might have to go under anesthesia, and why is anesthesia upsetting to you? I will lose consciousness, and why is losing consciousness fearful to you? Because anything could happen, and I said, well, we have to define that better, so you can really use it. What could happen, for instance? That’s where the whole thing unfolded.
Todd: He said, “It could be the moment when I’m unconscious that my girlfriend is ready to give me the love I’ve always wanted, and I won’t be awake and aware to receive it,” and he remembered. His unconscious opened up. He remembered where all of this started. He had a mother who was very impaired. No father at all. His mother was more of a child to him, made him the parent. She was like the child, and he never experienced that love and security that he needed from her. All of this from a fear of brushing teeth, so it does come down to the same core fear each time.
WHY IS SITTING STILL DIFFICULT FOR US? — THE ‘PRODUCTIVE AND AMBITIOUS DEFENSE’
Imi: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. That does bring things to life, yes. I’m noticing the time. I can just talk to you forever. I want to be respectful of the time. I do find one strategy particularly interesting, which is think of what you cannot imagine doing that other people may do, such as handling a particular challenge, problem, threat or goal. One common thing I see in my clients is that they can’t imagine sitting still, or not doing something perfectly. I suppose they’re slightly different, the perfectionism and the not sitting still. Why is doing nothing so daunting for people in our modern world?
Todd: I would call that a chief defense of having to be productive or ambitious. It’s usually a common thing in our culture. I didn’t see it in myself until several years ago, and it changed my life when I saw it. There’s a zen master who, I just love this, he says, “Let’s waste time together,” and it’s so counter to what we think of as a way to find meaning, but if we’re feeling fear about using our time productively and achieving our ambitions then we’re not going to achieve them in a fulfilling way.
Todd: We might get them, but we’re going to be always be scared about something taking them away, right? So that is a powerful defense in our society. Sitting still is actually a key or a gateway to allowing a higher awareness of what constitutes fulfillment to come through. We’ve got these preset agenda from childhood, adolescence at least, that say this is how I’m going to be fulfilled, and we set about with all kinds of intensity and effort to go fulfill it, and yet if it’s driven by fear we’re going to head into trouble, so to do the backward step, as they say in Buddhism.
FREEZING/ THE WARRIOR’S STANCE
Todd: To sit still first, and there’s an exercise in deconstructing anxiety called the warrior’s stance, where you stop in the middle of some activity that you feel compelled by fear to finish— Can be anything— Something big or something small. I sometimes tell people watch. Put that forkful of food right in front of your face and refuse to put it in your mouth. Let yourself smell it, let yourself imagine how good it’ll taste, and refuse to put it in your mouth, or find yourself typing on the computer and refuse to finish the sentence.
Todd: Stand still. Freeze like a warrior with the commitment not to let fear drive you, and all the fear will rush at you saying this is foolhardy. It’s dangerous. You’re going to lose your chance to reach your goals, your fulfillment, and the fear will die away in about three to five minutes. A lifetime of fear can dissolve that quickly. It may need to be repeated of course, but the profound shift and awareness that can occur in that moment or with the other exercises like the alchemist or the witness, letting go of resistance to resistance as I call it, is profound, because we see without question it was all made up.
Todd: Again, my life was filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened. It was all made up, so sitting still or freezing as in the warrior stance can be a really powerful tool in this arsenal for getting free of fear.
Imi: Yes. I’m glad you’ve brought up the resolutions to these fears. Here’s a quote that you have written in regards to the warrior stance that I would like to read out. You suggested no matter how powerful the compulsion, no matter how we want solid ground under our feet once again, we resist the urge to solve a problem, find an answer, come to a conclusion or organize our thinking in a neat and tidy way. We surrender the attempts to get control through understanding. How hard is that? But it does remind me of one of my favorite books in the world, which is Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. It’s very much the concept in Tibetan Buddhism to go through it, the way through fear is to go through it, which also encourages us to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. Easier said than done though.
Todd: Easier said than done, except I’m happy to say that with the alchemist and the witness exercises in particular, and then the last exercise in the program is called the vision quest, where we find what George Bernard Shaw called a mighty purpose. Something so inspiring and fulfilling and compelling that it draws our attention here, and the fear just shrivels up, because of a lack of attention, but I’m happy to say that it’s not actually so hard to move through these fears.
Todd: The key, we all know about, many of us know about exposure therapy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t it’s because we haven’t moved through the core fear, the root of it all, all the way. We may take care of some superficial levels of fear and get some freedom, but it’ll come back in a different form, symptom, substitution and so forth.
THE ALCHEMIST EXERCISE
Todd: You dig through the core fear all the way and the alchemist is extraordinarily powerful for that, where you’re imagining living through your core fear for eons and eons of time, or step by tiny step not resisting, not defending, and again it disperses, and it feels really safe to do so. I’ve never had anybody say this is too scary. I can give you a couple of reasons why, but the same with the witness, which is very much the Buddhist technique amplified according to our understanding the core of fear and chief defense.
Todd: You expand around the physical sensation of the problem. Wider and wider and wider, until infinity, and you’re just floating in infinite space. What I call an inner cosmos of all your life experiences, free to chose which one to invest your attention in, free to take your attention off of that and create a different reality in your perception. These things are not that hard.
Imi: Yes. Just to quickly organize, so you have a few suggestions on how we resolve the fears, and obviously we can’t lay them all out in a short conversation, but chiefly they are the warrior stance, which is about interrupting our pattern, if I were to sum it up like that. The witness, which is very much close to the mindfulness practice, where we practice being an observing ego. The alchemist strategy is interesting, and actually that’s my favorite one. Do you think you’re able to sum it up in two sentences what that is, the alchemist strategy?
Todd: Sure. I’ll do my best, and it takes a good 45 minutes or more to actually go through it, but it’s worth it, because it can, people routinely say it’s life changing. I’m not patting myself on the back. I’m quoting other people. We start with a picture of a problem. It’s helpful to visualize it on a movie screen, so that it keeps us grounded in actual time and space, and you keep asking the same question as in digging gold. What happens next? Here I am in the scene of my problem. What does the fear say will happen next, and next, and next? And you go frame, by frame, by frame, settling into it. Not using your defense to escape it or make it more comfortable, or find a solution.
Todd: We want to let this movie of our fear that’s been chasing us our whole lives play out all the way. Again, moving through it all the way, and we can speed that up by imagining living with that scene for an hour, and then a half a day, and then a week, and then a month and a year, and we expand it out literally. You can’t imagine doing this by my describing it. You must go through it, in order for it to come into a living experience, but after a long enough amount of time we picture our problem and ourselves situated in this infinite context, and our tiny little ego problems just disappear. They can’t seem to be so all important, screaming at us in our face, when we’re just this floating speck in an infinite universe with which we now identify. We now have lost our separate sense of little local ego and become one with this vastness,
Todd: Okay, and the freedom that comes from that is extraordinary. The fear people routinely say it just floated away, or I see that it was all made up, or it’s complete illusion. I’m free to go. Here’s a quick example. Somebody had a terrible social anxiety. He went through this process, visualized himself dying, and when that happens you still continue with the process and you say all right. Here you are on the other side of life. What happens next? And it was pure blackness. Nothingness, but little by little the scene started to light up. It’s fascinating, because it always is a matter of darkness turning into light with these processes, and he saw eventually that yes, he was a disembodied consciousness, but then he was oriented in space looking this way, so there was a head, and then there was a body and it was sitting on a stone, and then there was a rectangle of stones in front of him, which symbolized for him the space in which he was confined by his social anxiety, and once he lost his fear he said, “Oh my goodness, there’s nothing holding me back. I can easily step over these stones, and in fact I feel like it and there are people out there, and I want to go join with them and I want to go play.” He was free from his social anxiety from that moment on.
Imi: Yes. Wow. I also do find going through with the fear a really helpful and powerful strategy for myself, even before I have discovered your book. I’ve never found the consolation of just don’t think about it. Just put it in the back of … I never found that helpful, and in traditional CBT being told that my feeling or my fears were not rationale. That was not too helpful for me, so I do find these strategies a lot more helpful. It actually reminds me of the idea of negative visualization in stoic philosophy, where we’re encouraged to think about the worst and then allow our mind to go through with it, although I do imagine at first glance a lot of people would be worried that they will be overwhelmed by the terror.
Todd: There are ways to make it feel very safe, and the distinction that I think is crucial between regular exposure therapy or the stoic philosophy you’re describing is that we must go meticulously step by step through the fear. Why? Because defenses will try to come in and stop the process in any number of sneaky ways, and as the clinician or if you get skilled enough to do it yourself, which is very possible, we want to be wise to that and stay with just letting the scene of the fear unfold knowing it is ultimately going to prove itself to be an illusion. Knowing that it’s just a projection of that core fear that we learned in childhood, which isn’t true.
Todd: I like to use the metaphor from the Wizard of Oz. There’s this big, scary hologram, right? This wizard with smoke and fire, and teeth and anger, and then you pull the curtain back and there’s this kindly old man pulling levers and dials in the back of your mind let’s say, and it’s all perfectly safe, so we do live in a projection, a three dimensional multisensory hologram that we’re taking as real, but it’s all the product of someone or something pushing levers and dials in the back of our mind, that we can get some control over.
DEFINITION OF RESILLIENCE
Imi: Thank you. I’m just aware of time and I’m very much enjoying this chat. Yes, I’ve really enjoyed your book, which is a conglomerate of many wisdoms from around the world. I see strong Buddhist influence and I also see you quoting from A Course in Miracles, deep spiritual wisdom and also psychodynamic theory, so very much encourage my listeners to go get it, especially if they struggle with anxiety. Coming to the final few questions. What is your definition of resilience?
Todd: Resilience I would say, is the conviction and confidence that the core fear is not real, so that even though we’re going to be duped by it from time to time, less and less as we get good at these practices, we don’t stop for it, and that is my big message. It is never what it promises to be. It’s what I call the lie of fear. The five deceptions and the eight manipulations of fear that I talk about in the book, they’re not real, and yet we act upon them and make, we reify them. We make them real by acting upon them, telling ourselves there must be something terrible, or I wouldn’t be acting this way with my defenses. Take the defense away. Do the opposite, according to these exercises. Expose the lie of fear and set yourself free. That’s the definition of resilience. Someone who can come back even in the face of apparently scary situations. Nothing can stop us when we have that conviction.
A BOOK THAT HAS CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
Imi: Thank you. That’s powerful. Can you share with us a book that has changed your life?
Todd: Many, but A Course in Miracles is by far the number one. Yes. It’s extraordinary.
Imi: Of course. Yes. You’ve shared with us many quotes along the way. Do you have a powerful, well, powerful, do you have a favorite song or quote or poem who may be particularly apt for our listeners who are intense and sensitive?
Todd: Wow. I have to shuffle through many, many in my mind. Actually use the opportunity to tell your listeners I have a free ebook of quotes and stories that can change your life, which I’d just love to give away. They’re really special, so please sign up for that if you’d like. It’s available at my website for free. One that I would suggest, it’s hard to tie it in to sensitivity at the moment, without giving it more thought, but here’s a great one. I referenced it earlier, George Bernard Shaw. It’s long, so I can only quote a couple of important lines. This is the true joy in life. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Imi: Love that, so sobering.
Todd: Yes, and here’s the real punchy line that just means so much to me. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, so here it is. We sensitive people, we emotionally intense people want to sing our song and make our contribution and not let fear stop us, because that sensitivity is such a gift and it is another description of high, high awareness I believe that the world sorely needs, so let’s really let ourselves be used up before we die.
Imi: Let us be spent. Yes. That’s so beautiful. Thank you so much. Just finally tell us where to find you and how we can support your brilliant work.
Todd: Shucks, thank you. I have a website. It’s easy to remember, my name, Todd Pressman, T-O-D-D, P like Peter, R-E-S-S-M-A-N.com, or deconstructinganxiety.com. Again, you’ll see a popup to get that free ebook of quotes and stories. I strongly encourage you to do that, because it’s fun, fun, fun and they’re very powerful, and one more quick offer. I am starting my next eight week webinar, intensive webinar on deconstructing anxiety. I would love to offer your audience a discount off of that, if they just let me know that they’ve listened to their podcast. We just finished our first eight week and people were so excited about it that they’ve asked me to do a certification program for deconstructing anxiety, so things are moving along and I would love to have any of your listeners be part of the eight week.
Imi: Thank you so, so much. This has been wonderful chat. Very fruitful, very productive and highly meaningful. I feel a little more spent by the universe, so, I think. My death anxiety has been alleviated. Thank you.
Todd: Good. Then we’ve done our service for the day, both of us together. Thank you Imi. It was such a pleasure. It really was.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.