Since prehistoric times, humans have been shackled to an ancient biological switch of fight or flight to ward off imminent danger. Despite centuries of civilization-structuring and the softening effects of society, this old, primitive response system has never departed from our human experience. Do we still face the threat of approaching large animals that could swallow us whole? Hardly. The specter of direct physical threat has largely disappeared in our modern age and has been replaced, I would argue, with psychological threat.
Think about it: no longer focused on the bare bones of survival, we live in a age concerned with identity crises, persistent mental illness, and tangly relationship dynamics in such a way that our ancient predecessors and even, say, our 19th century counterparts would have been patently unfamiliar with. We have upgraded to substantial levels of “psychological threat”, you could say.
Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a pyramidal arrangement foundationally built on one’s most basic requirements for survival and famously culminating at its pinnacle in the ideal of “self-actualization”. The progression of civilization is such that we climb this pyramid, leaving more of the physical threats in the dust and exchanging them for the equally preoccupying “threats” of psychological wellness.
The entire dynamic of threat and response has been co-opted to fit our contemporary environment and its own set of concerns. The passage of time has wrought a shift from physical labor to mental labor. The utility of our bodies has yielded to the utility of our brains. The locus of “threat”, then, has accordingly taken up residence in the cognitive realm. All this to say, the fight/flight response is alive and well — in all the myriad of decisions we make every day, in the sticky intricacies of our relationships, in all the small ways that we brush up against our own unfulfillment in life. This is but a few broad examples of all that can make us feel psychological discomfort.
The question becomes: What do we do with that discomfort? “Psychological discomfort” is such an annoyingly vague term to use, after all, and yet nonetheless, most people feel a visceral reaction to hearing it. They know what that feels like. I think it’s worthwhile to use such a broad label, however, and to keep the discussion broad. We are often schooled in coping strategies for particular problems, but rarely do we consider a coping strategy for all of this so-called psychological discomfort and so we have only a handful of Band-Aid solutions which are only helpful to a point; thus, we are lacking in a philosophy of life.
What’s remarkable about our current era is the sheer number of people seeking to flee themselves. Panic that we once reserved for external threats is now localized internally- in our very selves, in the bodies that we walk around in. The truth is, most people are running from their feelings. Most people push discomfort underneath the rug in order to keep intact the thin veneer of social composure. The impulse to flee (i.e. the flight response) can over time, easily calcify into a near-unbreakable pattern.
And unconscious problems are tremendously hard to break. When people flee from their problems, medicating themselves with a whole buffet of distractions or unhealthy behaviors (or even plain avoidance will do), two things begin to happen: 1) they lose clarity and 2) they lose bravery. These are the unavoidable side effects. When we do not confront our discomfort and force ourselves to articulate our problems, we likely choose instead to submerge ourselves in a fog of “I don’t see my own problems” — an exercise in self-denial with messy consequences. Nothing unresolved in the mind truly disintegrates. It always finds a place to tuck away in.
People sacrifice a sharp-edged focus when they refuse to engage with their problems. They muddle up their life and often aren’t even aware. Small bouts of unresolved internal conflict collect and commence an act of inside-out sabotage. Those people fluent in the practice of fleeing (which would be plenty of us), will act irritated and groggy — physical manifestations of psychological distress. Hostile people are usually confused people. They don’t know what to do with their pile of feelings and in this muddied state, visible anger results that, in reality, cloaks their fear. It has always been this way: Anger is a mask for a host of vulnerabilities.
Clarity naturally comes from confrontation, does it not? It results from dragging things out of the shadows and into the harsh light instead of keeping it locked into the cluttered, dark confines of a psychological closet. People suspect that truly facing themselves and all their terrifying feelings they keep hidden will be too painful — but they are usually incorrect. Instead, they may be surprised to feel — once the momentary discomfort has passed, that is — unexpected relief and the the healing presence of catharsis.
You have to actually clean your own mind, so to speak, in order to experience peace. You have to stay put and resist the urge to bolt and contend with all that you avoid. You will be surprised how quickly your cagey fear of your own self will shrivel up and drop away if you forthrightly decide to clean up the mess inside your head, to tidy up your own psychological clutter.
Making that decision feels courageous, does it not? After all, people loathe watching themselves behave in a cowardly manner and dashing away from one’s problems in hopes of outwitting them is just that — cowardly.
Because you can’t outrun your own problems — they aren’t a tiger hiding in the bushes (a physical threat) but are intangible objects of fear housed shelved somewhere in your own terrifyingly inescapable mind.
Most of us, as proper adults clean up after ourselves. We tidy up our living spaces and we make our own beds — fashioning order, organization, restoration, over and over again. We don’t apply this same logic (of cleaning up!) to our minds, however. Partly because the task appears daunting and maddeningly un-straightforward. But it’s really not.
You must simply forge a more hospitable relationship with yourself. Attune yourself to your feelings, sit with them long enough so that you can translate the nebulousness of sensation into intelligible language, and from there, listen to what your self has been trying to tell you, act appropriately and repeat and repeat and repeat.
Stop running from your feelings; stay put! That’s the antidote. Stop running and be able to face the pain in your life in the present moment. Be able to face your own truth rising up from the surface. Realize how many times you’re running in daily life. Because it’s astounding.
When you run from your problems not only are you are accepting a position of inferiority and submission but you are implicitly stating that they (your problems) are more powerful than you. And that’s a dangerous thing to teach yourself — and to teach yourself over and over again, as per the repeatable process of flight impulse.
When you take responsibility for yourself and learn that it is not so difficult or ambiguous to preside over your own problems (as distanced fear in the case of avoidance is apt to persuade) you will grow less scared of the shadows inside of you — simply because there are less!
You will feel less like you are hunted in your own mind by the predatory monsters of your own abandoned problems. Isn’t it funny that that things that we run from appear to come running after us?