Day 7: Pressure and Criticism Before we dive into techniques to help generate an overall sense of safety (Day 9), I want to talk about two other self-inflicting behaviors that can activate our brain’s danger signals: pressure and criticism. Steve Sax's Downfall In 1983, Steve Sax was the starting second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was 23 years old and coming off a fantastic rookie season…life was good. Then one game, early in the season, he made a throwing error. It got in his head a little. A few games later, he made another error. He started thinking about it more. Then it happened again. It seemed the harder he tried, the worse it got. Soon, every time a ground ball was hit to him, it was an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes he’d throw the ball in the dirt, sometimes he’d throw the ball so far over the first baseman’s head, it’d sail into the bleachers. It became a national joke – opposing fans started wearing helmets to the games as mock protection. In practice, he was fine. He could make the throws blindfolded. But come game-time, he was overwhelmed by pressure. It’s as if he forgot how to throw. The Cost of Pressure Pressure, like fear, can activate our danger signals. On the surface, these self-directed thoughts may seem harmless: “You need to get an A on your test!” “You have to lose five pounds by your wedding!” “You need to meditate for 20 minutes a day!” But it’s not the words that are the problem, it’s the tone behind the words. When we pressure ourselves, our brains hear the message, “You need to do this, or else…” Remember, the opposite of danger is safety and there’s nothing safe about “or else…” When we’re truly in danger, pressure helps us in the same way that fear does – it enhances our ability to overcome threats. But when we’re not in danger, pressure can make our brains think that we are. Sunday Funday One Sunday, during the height of my physical symptoms, I decided to do everything “right.” For eleven straight hours, I meditated, I stood up to the inner bully, I felt my feelings, I attended to my internal state, and I gave myself positive self-talk. And at the end of this marathon session…my pain was even worse! I couldn’t believe it…I’d done everything I was supposed to do, and my pain actually increased. “I’m done trying!” I thought. “I give up.” And within five minutes of surrendering, my pain decreased 50%. I did all the right techniques, but it didn’t come from place of enthusiasm or joy or self-care, it came from a place of crushing, uncompromising pressure: “You need to do this, or else…” Sax’s Redemption Steve Sax had a rough year in 1983. He even considered retiring. But once he let go of the pressure, he overcame his throwing issues and went on to make five all-star teams and win two World Series. And even though they ended up naming the condition after him (google “Steve Sax Syndrome,”) the moral of the story is that he battled back by from adversity by not battling at all. Criticism Jimmy Kimmel has a hilarious segment on his show where celebrities read mean tweets that people have written about them: As funny as ruthless twitter rants can be, it’s a lot less funny when we’re the ones getting criticized. If you post a picture on Facebook, you can have 20 comments talking about how great you look, but that one comment making fun of your hair is the one that sticks out. Like pressure, criticism can activate our brains' danger signals. Brain researcher, Martin Paulus, found that when we hear a criticism, our brains literally take it as a threat. So imagine the impact on your psyche if you’re constantly beating yourself up throughout the day. Self-criticism is not only mean, it puts our brains on high alert, making it difficult to attain any semblance of peace. The Triad of Pain Fear, pressure, and criticism activate our danger signals, prevent our brains from feeling safe, and perpetuate a cycle of pain. It’s important to recognize these behaviors and the impact they can have, so that we’re able to change them. Before we start down the path of overcoming these destructive behaviors, there’s one more step in the process: the ignition for change.