Breaking Free of Fears that Plague You
By Sean Grover
“Unfurl the ropes!”
The white-haired captain barks as he surveys the wind-bellied sails. My twelve-year-old mind is spinning. Unfurl? What does unfurl mean?
I’m clearly in over my head. What have I gotten myself into?
The captain points to a large pile of twisted and knotted ropes on deck. In a leap of faith, I decide that unfurl must mean to untangle and I go right to work, pulling the ropes apart as fast as I can. Unfortunately, the more I try, the more tangled they become. I can feel the captain’s severe eyes squinting down on me.
“Good God, son! What are you doing?”
“Untangling the ropes…”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake…”
My face grows hot. I want to run and hide, but where?
He clambers onto the deck and marches toward me until his shadow blocks out the sun.
“Give me those.”
I hand him the ropes, and in one swift motion, he throws them overboard. My mind explodes. Why did he do that? Am I supposed to jump in and retrieve them?
He puts a firm hand on my shoulder and guides me to the stern. “Come with me.”
Looking over the rear of the boat, I notice white water gushing all around. He points a gnarled finger to the deck.
“Now…take a good look.”
I notice the ends of the ropes are tied a rear deck cleat. My eyes follow the ropes from the cleat and into the water. In the distance behind us, I see them bouncing and thrashing about, spinning free in the open sea. Within seconds they untangle themselves and drift in three perfectly straight lines behind the sailboat.
“That’s how you unfurl ropes, kid.”
I’ve thought of this episode many times in my life – the force of the boat moving forward, the captain’s confidence, my own struggles with insecurities. And of course, those damn tangled ropes.
As a psychotherapist, it’s my job to deal with knotty problems. Patients share their agonizing histories, longings and fears. They come to my office twisted up inside, unable to break free of their pasts, sinking into depression or drowning in anxiety. I know this struggle well.
In my own therapy, I was fortunate to have many good captains: therapists and teachers, who believed in me, never let me down, or abandoned me when I was lost or became difficult. Yes, therapy is grueling at times, but self-mastery requires hard work. As an old Chinese proverb says, “Those who understand others are powerful, those who understand themselves are enlightened.”
Untangling Stubborn Problems & Life Tendencies
What do you do with bad habits that just won’t go away? Habits that seem to get worse the more you focus on them?
Let’s take a moment to consider those twisted ropes. Why did they untangle so quickly? I could have spent an hour or more trying to understand how they got tangled, actually trying to untangle them, blaming others for tangling them, or bemoaning my fate. Ultimately, none of those choices would have really helped and would’ve have been a waste of my efforts.
Yet the ropes untangled so quickly, almost effortlessly. What untangled them? It was the force of the boat moving forward. The energy of forward movement was all it took.
In life, sometimes we suffer analysis-paralysis; we know our problems too intimately. We even supply ourselves with convincing narratives for why they exist:
“I’m this way because my parents did (or didn’t)…”
“I don’t trust people because (this and that) happened to me…”
Each time we justify our weak choices, we forfeit growth; we cherish our problems more than solutions. In this way, we become the greatest perpetrators of our own unhappiness.
To foster the breakthroughs you seek, you must challenge yourself and break free of your insecurities. You must choose to move forward. That means making new choices, trying new activities, cultivating new relationships. A commitment to self-growth requires that you continue to supply yourself with fresh and stimulating experiences, greater creativity, and more inspiration. Joining a writing class, exercise class, or therapy group; attending dance or theater performances; or changing your daily routine will help. All these things can offer you a new perspective.
All these choices require that you move out of your comfort zone and take chances, forcing you to get out of your own way. In the end, there is nothing more difficult than trying to change self-limiting life tendencies. Choosing to move forward will help you untangle those knots you feel inside, so the problems that plague you today will move out of your way and go where they belong – in your past.