I went to a rally the other night for a political candidate who I support, and I was struck by how comforting it felt to be in a room full of people who probably agree with me on most things.
Contrast that with some recent trips to the dog park, where one regular tends to be outspoken with his views that are opposite mine. When the conversation really gets going around politics at the dog park, especially if this person is there, I tend to slip out quietly, while others (whom I admire) stay around and debate with him.
Given the choice between being surrounded by people who agree or disagree with us, most of us choose the former.
But why do some of us feel so uncomfortable with standing up for our own opinions and views or even being around others who oppose them?
First, in general terms, it comes back to the way we feel that we have to be in order to survive. Early in life, we absorb the feeling that “there’s something wrong with me” from our parents and surroundings. This negative feeling, which I call Learned Distress, creates the need for a survival mechanism that we use to navigate throughout our lives. We feel that as long as we can be this certain way, things will be okay.
Specifically, being in situations where not everyone agrees with me ignites a crazy combination of three pieces of Learned Distress.
The first is feeling that in order to survive, I need to conform to and go along with the views of those around me. Paradoxically, the second is that in order to survive, I have to know and do things my own way, and I have to do them perfectly, to boot. You can imagine that these two demanding pieces of Learned Distress make me feel like I’m in a big tug of war most of the time. The third is feeling that in order to survive, I must never win or even compete openly.
Given all of that, you can see now why I would feel way more comfortable at the political rally than at the dog park political debate.
I have to conform and it’s not safe to win, but I feel pretty strongly about my own opinions and they long to be voiced. However, if I were to voice them, I would have to do it perfectly, with every single fact and figure lined up and ready to fire. It gets even a little more intense when you bring it back to my need to conform. I have found that if I can bring everyone around to my way of thinking, then I can feel comfortable again—in essence, I get them to conform to my views (by having my perfectly crafted arguments, of course). The dog park guy is never going to see things my way, so I find myself just slipping out the gate in retreat.
Believe it or not, my experience of this crazy combination is much less intense than it used to be, thanks to unlearning a great deal of Learned Distress through the transformational work I do.
At worst, I find myself cutting a perfectly good dog park evening short. Now, in contrast to the way it used to be, once I get in the car and drive away, the discomfort fades quickly. I used to lose sleep over situations like this. In the past, I might even have found a new dog park to go to just to avoid this situation entirely.
The more I’ve unlearned, the more my deepest core voice has been free to speak the things that no one could have taught me or convinced me of when my Learned Distress was still completely in the driver’s seat.
What I think matters regardless of anyone else agreeing with me, or not. I have my own unique way of voicing my thoughts, and there is no comparison involved when it comes to uniqueness, so “perfect” isn’t even in the equation. The world is a richer and better place when I voice my uniqueness, which means that everyone wins.
Does any of this ring a bell for you, or is your Learned Distress the opposite of mine, and you love to debate with others? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments below, share this article with others, and above all, if you live in the U.S., that you will voice your opinion in the ballot box on Tuesday!
Editor: Kate Bartolotta