We were at an outdoor blues concert on a beautiful summer evening. My 5 year old daughter, Hanako, was dancing to the music when she asked me to dance with her.
“No, darling,” I said. “Dance with your brother.”
Thinking of dancing made me immediately self-conscious. I was afraid of looking foolish and so, instead of sharing a magical moment with my daughter, I chose to stay in a prison I built myself.
The prisons we carry around with us
We build our prisons out of stories we tell ourselves - and the memories and feelings we replay as we tell those stories again and again. Over time, we come to believe them, and they become as real and hard to break as any prison walls.
Martha Beck, in “Steering by Starlight”, calls them “shackling beliefs.”
“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands. This is a brilliant illustration of what most of us are doing when we say - when we deeply believe - that we are “trapped.””
When Hanako asked me to dance, it immediately triggered my “I can’t dance” belief. And though I truly wanted to dance with her, I felt I just couldn’t. The flood of anxiety, however ridiculous, overwhelmed that desire. I shackled myself.
Getting out of jail
The key to unlocking your prison is first awareness that the prison exists and then practicing 3 simple steps:
- Spot the shackling belief
- Stop, breathe, and examine the imprisoning thoughts
- Substitute alternative, positive thoughts
Focusing on your breath for even a moment helps you break the cycle you’ve rehearsed so many times. And it gives you just enough time to examine your thoughts and figure out why they're false. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes “Breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness, the bridge that unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
For my particular dancing prison, the sequence would go like this:
Spot: “Dance? Oh, no. I can’t dance!” "Hey, there's that imprisoning belief again."
Stop: “Wait a minute.” <deep, slow inhale & exhale> “I’m getting anxious over nothing.”<deep, slow inhale & exhale> "No one here cares what I look like."
Substitute: “Even if people watch me dance, I won’t look foolish, I’ll look like an awesome dad!”
Sounds too simple? A more scientific explanation of why this works can be found in books on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
“CBT...helps individuals challenge their patterns and beliefs and replace "errors in thinking such as overgeneralizing, magnifying negatives, minimizing positives and catastrophizing" with "more realistic and effective thoughts, thus decreasing emotional distress and self-defeating behavior” or to take a more open, mindful, and aware posture toward them so as to diminish their impact.”
More prisons, more hope
For sure, dancing isn’t my only prison. I’ve built prisons around things as simple as karaoke. Around smiling in a photo. And around more substantial things like (mis)managing money. I’m a regular prison developer. But I’m also getting better at seeing the prisons for what they are - just stories I tell myself. Over time, with awareness and practice, I know I can create new narratives for myself, and new possibilities.
These mental prisons make life much smaller and harsher than it has to be. When I look at the way my kids dance, sing, draw and do most anything, they seem so free. It’s clear they’re yet to create their own shackling beliefs.
I hope it stays that way. And I hope Hanako asks me to dance again.