Yes, I avow that I have done all of this in pursuit of trying to relieve pain and find my J.O.Y. joy:

I have been in and out of therapist’s offices; perused the self-help aisles and read the self-help books. In my twenties I was on at least ten different anti-depressants and not a single one of them worked. I was a cutter; I was anorexic until I couldn’t stand not to eat, at which point I was bulimic; I cried myself to sleep every night for months at a time; I wrote about suicide in my journals like it was a long, sweet vacation that I was looking forward to. I have stood up in front of rooms and told everyone present that I felt as though “negativity were my disease.” I have tried all four of the most common fear routines : perfectionism, self-sabotage, people-pleasying martyrism, playing the eternal victim/skeptic.

And on the other side of all of that, what have I found to be the real work of getting to one’s joy?

Accessing the body and feeling the Big Bad Feelings (which are, of course, not really “Bad,” though they might feel Big).

I talk to all of my clients about how we build up our armor through fear routines , cover ourselves with protective layers, and how to use practical and useful tools to let go of those fear routines. Much of the work is about taking that armor off because, as Pema Chodron so aptly puts it, “You’re the one who put it there.”

There’s not this other series of steps that one needs to take, some happy path to walk alongside this other one. The work IS getting present to our fear routines and what it will take to change, and for many of us, that part of the journey sucks.

I’m so sorry to break the “bad news” (which is, of course, not really “bad” news): that accessing the body, going into the feelings, and taking off the armor IS the work to get to feeling/being/experiencing joyFULLness on a regular basis.

The “good news”? It gets really, really beautiful when the armor is no longer so heavy, and for some individuals it’s even experienced as a sort of easeful surrender and unfolding, and those people are some lucky ducks.

But for most people I’ve met, including myself? The growth phase of taking shifting the fear routines is often messy.

–Not sexy.
–Not quick.
–not easy.

Few people want to hear this, until I add this part:

But no matter how down and out you are, no matter how entrenched those fear routines are, you can change.

Fear routines are based in habit-formation and you can absolutely break down each piece of a fear routine, see the habits that underlie it, and make changes along the habit change that add up to more courageous habits (and those more courageous habits? They change your life).

Getting out of Denial about Fear Routines

To shift fear routines, we need to stop drinking the “Denial Kool-Aid” and stop deluding ourselves that there isn’t really a problem.

“Denial Kool-Aid” is that Thing that we turn to in order to avoid facing feelings.

For some people, the Thing is really obvious, like drugs or alcohol or shopping or television or workaholism. What’s less obvious? When the Thing is an argument with our partner–that gets so easily disguised as just “finally telling the truth about how I feel.” Or perhaps the Thing for someone else is quitting a job and starting their own business (Only in hindsight to I now realize that the first time I ever left a job, it was, to some degree, a mechanism I was using for avoiding facing feelings–all of my “stuff” had been projected onto my day job, and I was using working for myself as a salve for that).

We’ve got to stop denying that we have fear routines because only when we acknowledge them, can we change them.

That’s why accessing the body and getting present is so important–only then do we feel in touch with our choices so that we can get underneath the fear routines to understand them better and change them. Get present–watch closely.

It’s not until we start acknowledging that our fear routines exist and accessing the body, going fully into the Big Bad Feelings…that we can move through them.

I love what Jessica Morrow wrote about this–so honest, so raw, so true. She writes: “And eventually, yeah, I had to sit down on the ground & rip grass out of the earth in fistfuls; and I had to cry, something I’d been terrified of doing because I’d thought it would never stop once it started…The only way to really “rid” yourself of a painful emotion is to experience it until it dissipates.”

For me, someone who was a suicidal, bulimic, anorexic depressed cutter, I had to look those fear routines straight in the face, seeing all the places where I was caught in routines of perfectionism, routines of self-sabotage, routines of people-pleasing, routines of skepticism and eternal pessimism. I needed to access the body, listen without attachment, reframe limiting stories, and reach out to create community. I needed to find the people who could hold the container for me to cry until I was wrung out, hit something until my arms ached, and then keep telling me again and again that I would find a way through this, somehow. The equation of integrity + love has worked really well for me.

Those people saved my life, and their generosity and grace are what fuel me in the work that I do, today.

I know that we all want to experience joy. There just might be a courageous choice to make with how you habitually respond to fear, in the interim.