An Interview With Barbara Sher

by Randy Peyser

Randy Peyser:  I've really enjoyed reading your latest book, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, How to Discover What You Really Want and How To Get It. You filled my mind with many new ideas.  I would love to hear you comment on some of the things you've said in your book. For example, you say, "Getting your love life in order can be the most efficient thing you can do toward getting your career."

Barbara Sher:  That's right. Absolutely. It's partly because it's considered politically incorrect for women to care about whether they have somebody to love or not. Women are supposed to care about their work and themselves. And you should care about your work and yourself ...that's very important. But sometimes when you're lonely, what happens is you're completely distracted. 

You're supposed to be able to be 100% fine on your own. Some people are and some people aren't. You don't tell a sheep to eat chocolate bars or a horse to eat lamb chops; every animal has it's own needs and so do humans. Everyone is so unique, you really have to listen to what you need and then you have to get it. 

So my advice is that you've got to really listen to yourself.  If your mind is bored you need to learn something or create something.  And if your belly is empty you should eat and if your heart is lonely you need to get love. 

If any of these things are bothering you, you cannot focus on anything else. You know you can't go after a good job if you're starving to death, because all you think about is food. It's a very good idea for your career, or for you, to take care of these basic needs including love. 

Things seem to be so intertwined. Many times women would come to see me and say things like, "I don't know what I want to do for my career."  And everything they told me that they used to want to do, they no longer want to do. I just couldn't get them to be enthusiastic. So, I'd say, "Look, you're depressed about something. Are you a depressive?  Should you be on medication?" And they'd say, "I'm not a depressive.  I don't know." Then I'd ask them,  "How's your love life?" And half of them would start crying.

But, let me tell you this story. There was a woman who loved this guy, and he loved her. But he was a cautious guy and he just moved onto this other town. She was trying to find a way to bury her sorrows in a career, and she had a very good career. But she walked away from it; she just didn't care about anything. Then she decided to go after it. I said to her, "If you're sure he loves you, then don't let him get away with that—he's scared. He's scared; get to work on him."  And in fact, it worked—they've been very happily married now for 10 years.

Suppose there's somebody who you love, who you know loves you, but it's not working out. And it's not because you're feeling sorry for yourself and sulking and being afraid. But you're really working on your least you're giving it your best shot. 

Don't get obsessive about it. Do a couple of things and then leave it alone and work on a second project. You cannot just work on your love life—it isn't good for your love life. You may or may not be able to get what you want. Half of that is in the hands of fate, and you don't have control over that. 

While you're waiting for the seeds you've planted to grow, roll up your sleeves and get started on your career. 

RP:   I feel like you've been talking to me personally. I'm in a relationship with a woman who I love, who absolutely loves me.  And we've been in a difficult place and not able to be with each other as easily as we'd like to be right now. I keep going into such intense fear.

BS:   Work on it.  You've got to go after what you want. And then you'll either get it or you won't get it. But if you go after it and don't get it, believe it or not, it's less painful than if you don't go after it. 

The worst thing that can happen is that you will feel sorrow and pain, but not fear or abandonment. Roll up your sleeves and say "Whatever is needed, we will do," or 'I will do."

RP:  In your book you say, "Don't give up unless you've played your best hand."

BS:  That's right. Then you'll know that you gave it your best shot.  It's like trying to save lives in an emergency ward. If you screw up, you can never forgive yourself. But if you gave it everything you had, all you feel afterwards is sorrow. You won't feel a whole bunch of conflicts and confusions and inadequacies, you just feel sorrow. 

RP:  Then there's always the possibility of joy and of things working out  well.

BS:  Exactly. Problems are to be solved. You're supposed to work on it. You have a shot at it if you try. 

BS:  Don't give up too soon. Notice how much pain you're feeling.  You're not supposed to be feeling too much pain or too much fear.  A little pain, a little fear—but if you're feeling too much, it's from your childhood, it isn't about this. You've got to get that out of your system. You have to deal with the past. You need to go back into your childhood and cry it out. Adults don't need to feel that. 

RP:  I noticed I was feeling happier than I'd ever been in a relationship. So the next thing I did was sabotage it by going into bigtime fear and needing space. Then I shut down and I couldn't feel love. I felt cut off.

BS:  Yes and nobody could love you, so you couldn't let it in. Any time you feel fear, go into your childhood and say "If I were feeling this, what would it be about?" Pure pain is what will come out.  And the fear will go away. 

Your body doesn't know the difference between emotional and physical pain. It wants to protect you by letting you feel nothing.  And so it's got a million dodges and then you just sit there scared as if pain were dangerous.

BS:  If you feel turned off, that's anger. Sometimes you're angry at people for scaring you by loving you. You are not conscious of it, but it's a way of saying, "Get away from me. Don't you love me."

RP:  Bingo!

BS: It's actually pretty simple in a funny way. You're happy being with someone and then suddenly you feel like your clothes are on fire and you have to get the hell out of there. You feel panic. 

When you find out what the original feeling is about and break it and cry, then you come back into the present and the feeling is not in the present. There may be sadness there about what you uncovered in the past, but there's no fear. And then you are not turned off, you are fine. 

RP:  I know that my girlfriend really loves me. She loves me and cares about me in a way that nobody else ever has. And I respond by shutting down in fear.

BS:  So, I would suggest that you do this exercise first when you feel fear, and then do the same exercise when you feel turned off:  First  make the turned off feeling as big as you can so you can be aware of it and so you can feel it. See what it's like. Imagine her looking at you and you're shut down.

Imagine yourself having that feeling as a little kid. You won't necessarily have a memory, but you will have an emotional memory.  You will remember where the anger comes from. And you'll feel it towards that sister, or mother or whoever you remember it from.

Just sit there and take that behavior—it's what I call 'taking the feeling home.'  You have it about the right person. When you face the original anger, the tears come right through, as a child. Once that happens, the "turned off" feeling goes away.

You can't do that with your brain—you can only do that with your feelings. You can't talk yourself out of turned off behavior, and you can't talk yourself out of fear. This is an animal reaction, a child reaction. And you can only have the feelings of a child. 

Feelings of fear and of being turned off will go away. They won't go away forever, but they'll go away for a long time. When they come back, you just do it again. And every time you do it, it gets less and less.

RP:  Can you talk a little bit about commitment? I love some of the things you've put in your book like "When you're feeling shaky about commitment, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other," and if you're scared and you're saying to yourself something like "Why am I doing this?" You say, "You're doing it because you decided to. Don't reevaluate it. You're putting one foot forward in front of the other and sticking to your commitment. 

BS:  You have to practice commitment. The first thing you do is you check out your goal. If you have a fear of commitment then you have to make a practice commitment. I'll tell a person, "I'm going to make you pretend that you've made a lifetime permanent commitment. It's for 2 weeks and at the end of 2 weeks you can change your mind, but in that 2 weeks you cannot say, do I really like this? Is this is what I want to be doing?"  Because we don't care, you're drafted. 

As long as one is suspended and won't make a decision, we never know what's going on— we can't find out, they're playing it too safe. So I put them in danger, that is, some kind of psychic danger that the psyche feels they'll be in as they make a commitment.  We'll simulate the situation that they want to create, so it will come out and start screaming at them. I want to find out what it's got to say. And it works every time. 

For example, I worked with a woman who wanted to be a singer.   I had her get coaching, take lessons, do everything but sign a contract or write a big check. I told her to act like the rest of her life she'd be dedicated to her music. 

She said, "What happens if I think 'why am I doing this'?"  And I said, "You're not allowed to think that. You're supposed to do the next thing. Then you need to have a cut off date in case you've made the wrong decision. That's alright. You can back out but we don't want any of that." 

When you're afraid, you're system will tell you to quit. It will come up with many ingenious reasons and some of them may be true.  What if you really don't want to do this the rest of your life? Maybe you really don't, but you can pretend you do for two weeks. 

When I saw this woman two weeks later, she walked in and said, "This is amazing. I tried to vocalize in the morning and I found myself getting anxious. I wanted a sandwich. I wanted to paint the house. I wanted to do anything but sing. I feel like I'm being driven away from the piano."

She didn't know it was fear—but avoidance is always, always fueled by fear. And fear is almost invariably fueled by pain.  And it comes from, not a fear of commitment, but a fear of being happy. 

And I asked her if there was somebody sad in her background?  And she said, "Yes, my mother never had a chance to sing. She was a good singer, but my dad died when I was about nine and she had to raise three of us and she often talked about how she wished she could have had a career."

I asked her if when she sat down at the piano in the morning and started to sing, if she got scared immediately or did she get scared when she started sounding good and enjoying herself? 

She got scared when she was really enjoying herself. She'd have a couple of great notes come up and then think, "God I love this," and then suddenly have to run. 

Every time she started getting happy, pain came up. She was remembering her mother. She'd made a contract with herself that wouldn't let her be too happy. She made that contract when she was  so little that she doesn't remember making it. It was her way of protecting herself from the pain of seeing her sad mother all those years. 

She saw it right away and she started to cry. I told her to call her mother and I told her a whole bunch of things to do that were kind of fun like singing to her mother on the phone. The key thing was when she sat at the piano and started singing, and loving it and when she started to feel the fear, I wanted her at that moment just to put her head in her arms and say, "My mother never got what she wanted," and start to cry. You have to cry for 30 seconds.  Then I want her to sit there for a second and to start singing again, because pain always drives fear away. They don't co-exist.  Pain is like hot water and fear is like an ice cube. 

And it worked. We did another 2 weeks series and then she came back and said, "I can't believe it really works."  And I said, "Great!  Now you have a choice." 

She said, "I don't know if I want to be a singer." I said. "No, but now you've got a choice. You can be or you don't have to be. Now you know what is at the bottom of being afraid of happiness; which is commitment. 

Commitment is happiness. Commitment means now I'm going to throw myself into this and have such a great time and I'm going to forget everything else, and just really do this thing. And commitment, to people who are commitment phobic means the rest of your life. Commitment does not mean a penitentiary sentence for the rest of your life. People who are not afraid of commitment are people who know that when it finishes they can stop and make a different one. But people who are afraid of commitment feel like they're walking into a prison and the gates are going to shut. What they don't know is that their fear could be covering their great happiness.

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