One of the most powerful metaphors I’ve seen was in Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, of the cartoon with the frog in the pot of water. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water he will immediate catapult himself out of the pot. But if you drop a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will remain in the pot and slowly boil to death. This is not unlike how it works with our own emotional suffering.
The same mechanism that protects us from emotions that hurt is the very thing that keeps us from seeing that we’ve been hurt. It’s a subconscious mechanism that works to shield us from suffering by numbing our senses, just like the frog’s senses being numbed by the gradual heating of the water. The problem with this mechanism is that the numbing mechanism keeps us in denial of the emotional pain and trauma we carry with us each day of our lives. Hence the saying, “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
In our modern society we are continually bombarded with distractions, sensory immersion, and potential addictions of all kind. These forms of distractions and addictions serve to support the numbing mechanism by preventing us from facing into the emotional traumas we carry.
Having been raised in an abusive environment I can attest from experience to the strength of this mechanism to shield us from the truth and stymie the process of emotional healing. When I was a child this mechanism served me well. As an adult it prevented me from experiencing the fullness of life that is possible because the dysfunction of my emotions followed me wherever I went. I knew I had been traumatized, I just didn’t know how it was affecting literally every aspect of my life. I thought that by remembering and being aware of my abuse that I had overcome it. How wrong I was.
The antidote to the suffering is to face into the trauma, which is scary, because it means we have to relive our painful experiences to fully process the emotion and release it. This isn’t so bad with something like losing our temper with a loved one. It may be hard to apologize and process what we were feeling, but the fear is not so great that we can’t do it. The fear of facing long held repressed emotions, however, tends to be irrationally strong.
This numbing, protection mechanism works the very same way in organizations. Huffington Post executive editor Jo Cofino hit the nail on the head with the dilemma of modern business in, Why Business Needs To Learn The Language Of Love. Cofino wrote, “The core of the problem is that we have developed a corporate culture that is based largely on fear — that unless we are number one, then we are failing, and that at any moment defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory.”
The “fear” that Cofino spoke about is pervasive in business and mirrors the fear we have of facing our own emotional sufferings. The business narrative says we must succeed no matter what, because the alternative is scary. Avoiding the scary alternative is the protection mechanism at work. It’s pushing us to keep driving forward and not to think about what we fear and why.
There is no such thing as perfect parenting, or perfect school systems, or perfect friends or relationships, or perfect businesses. The process of life continually serves us experiences from which to learn, and it’s the hurt (and even trauma) that contains the lessons from which we grow.
In business, it is the risks we take that help us to learn. Without risk there is no innovation.
In life, we can only achieve happiness through vulnerability, as through the risking of our hearts we gain trust, compassion, sensitivity and deep connection with those we love.
When we risk (whether in business or in life) we give ourselves the opportunity to heal and to grow. The more we risk, the more we come to know what we previously didn’t know we didn’t know — as the saying goes.
Great stuff Glenn,
yes, I remember first hearing the statement, “You don’t know, what you don’t know” when I guided troubled adolescents in the Bennett Hills of Southern Idaho at a wilderness therapy program. That statement sticks with me to this very day and being aware of this construct, I believe is paramount to be taught to our children, if we are to survive as a species. I equate this statement with what we term, “shadow” in MKP; a term taken from Carl Gustov Jung, one of the finest minds in the history of our species (IMHO). What really scares the @#$% out of me is when people are not aware that this construct, “I/we don’t know what we don’t know,” will be with us for the rest of our lives, and although initially frightening to admit, can be the crown jewel of my creativity.
I agree with Confino’s statement about fear, AND, I also believe their is “shadow” in the demonizing/pathologizing of any emotion. Emotions are not to good, bad, right, wrong, they are just part of the human experience and I believe always will be. They have got us to this point in our evolution, yet, I believe I/We, MWE, have come to a place in our evolution, where MWE see that we can learn to pause, notice non-judgmentally what our emotions are saying via the triune brain, heart brain and gut brain, then choose how we want to transform this energy and information, hopefully in a life affirming manner.
Wishing you and your family a joy filled, peaceful Thanksgiving!
Thank you for these enriching thoughts on this topic Eric.