How to Release Our Inner Brake (Episode 39-39)
Updated: Jun 2
Through letting go of shame and the embracing of Wu Wei
Here we are, close to one year later from when this all started. It has been 39 times 9 days, and today I’ve arrived at my final post for this project; number 39. I like the topic for this closing episode; how to release our inner brake. As it turns out, the basis for our brake preventing us to flourish and flow is laid during our early years in life. There, we can find the root causes of many of the shame and other inhibiting factors we experience which end up holding us back later in life. When we can come to terms with these events, and see them for what they are, and how they do not define us, but how instead we define ourselves, then we can start to tap into the true flow of life, dealing with things as they come, instead of how we want them to be. Because that’s a certain given, life will always unfold differently then we imagine. As the careful observer will attest, there is great value in that fact.
Patterns in our thinking and doing
The vast majority of what we do, and how we do it is habitual and repetitive. It is not our present mind making conscious decisions. Instead, we act, react, and make meaning based on learnt behaviors which turned into patters through repetitive use. The same was true for our parents, and their parents, and theirs. You get the point. A lot of these patterns and ways of being have been passed on to our parents, and have they passed on to us. Especially in our early years on this wonderful planet, lasting impressions were made and stored in our subconscious mind. ‘Our earliest experiences shape our lives far down the road’ (Winfrey and Perry, 2021). See my earlier posts on life’s continuous transitions, focusing, compassion, hypnosis, the stories we tell ourselves, vulnerability and asking for help, yoga, leading yourself and others, and on being present for more background in relation to this. These impressions, and traumas, big and small, have resulted in particular coping mechanisms. This helps us function as if on an auto pilot. Some of the ‘programming’ that happened throughout our lives, and especially in our early years, has an inhibiting effect on us. It makes our world smaller, and the perception of who we are, and can be, in that world. When we can begin to recognize these patterns and developed coping mechanisms, we can set ourselves free and release our inner brakes. Then, by our conscious choice, we can make a difference and chose how we act in the world and react to those around us. This is determined by our attitude. ‘The only authentic control we have lies within us – and our attitudes toward life’ (Borysenko, 2007). ‘Who we are today is the result of a journey we make from birth, or maybe even before birth […] where the first years are […] elementary to who we are today. […] We have to make the journey [back to our early years] in order to be able to leave shame, fear, and mistrust behind in order to be in another connection with our workers, colleagues, customers, [and] suppliers’ (Soeters, 2022). What happened in our earlier parts of life has a lot to do with what’s holding us back later on in life. This can result in us living with the brake pressed down, holding ourselves and our potential back.
A sailing yacht named Wu Wei
To learn more about the process of releasing our inner brake(s), destiny brought me to Michiel Soeters. When researching the topic of Wu Wei, a Taoist principle of non-doing, I found a sailing yacht with the same name in a post on LinkedIn. When I read more, I learnt about its owner and his work around shame and releasing our brakes. It turned out to be a perfect fit and a most suitable topic to close this series; to release our brakes, and proceed to live fully and uninhibited. Michiel is the founder of ‘Geen Man Overboord’, a coaching business centered around the premise of releasing our brakes and increasing safety in organizations and our minds. Growing up with the turbulence of an alcoholic father, at a young age, Michiel made a firm decision for himself to live his live based on love and trust, instead of based on fear and mistrust (Soeters, 2022). This decision, motivated by anger in response to his father, became a positive thread for his life and work. For his earlier work in quality assurance, Michiel visited and worked in over 350 companies. He became both fascinated and surprised by the amount of fear in organizations and the lack of trust. As he witnessed, often leaders ask their people to trust them first before they actually trust their people (Soeters, 2022). Of course, it should be the other way around. During this time, but also after when Michiel started to lead and run different companies, he continued working based on the principles of love and trust. ‘A leader should be there next to his people; challenging them, but not taking over. Providing a secure base where people feel safe’ (Soeters, 2022). Through George Kohlrieser, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD in Switzerland, Michiel learnt about secure based leadership. ‘[A] secure base is a person, place, goal or object that provides a sense of protection, gives a sense of comfort, and offers a source of energy and inspiration to explore, take risks and seek change’ (Kohlrieser, 2012).
Our brake as an adaptation to our surroundings
Having our brakes activated in life is a metaphor for the adaptations we learn to make in our childhood years (Soeters, 2022). ‘[T]he earliest experiences have the biggest impact because that is when the brain is most rapidly growing’ (Winfrey and Perry, 2021). A newborn child registers emotionally what it thinks or anticipates is needed to receive food, physical touch, and love (Soeters, 2022). Instead of being unconditionally accepted and loved, young children are being confronted with the individual stories, expectations, and patterns of the parent(s). They bring their own fear and shame and are influenced by this in how they interact with their child. Often, these fears and shames come from a family system long before them. Through this, although we are born free, we become chained in the patterns which our past generations and parents provide us with. ‘As young children, in the age between 0-5 years of age, we learn to adapt ourselves to what we think is needed to optimize [receiving] food, physical attachment and emotional attachment’ (Soeters, 2022). This learned behavior is a survival mechanism at first, but becomes an issue in our later life (Soeters, 2022). As an example, Michiel illustrates this during our talk with the example of a child who was taught not to express anger as a young child, who grows up to a person unable to indicate boundaries. Thus, many of our brakes holding us back today where a survival mechanism when we were young, and no one helped us to transform this into a force (Soeters, 2022).
The impact of shame
Shame relates to the inability to accept ourselves, and to the lack of acceptance of others. As articulated by Joseph Burgo, there are different forms of shame. There is the big and impactful shame which effects our sense of wellbeing. It’s the shame which is inflicted on the children of abusive parents, and which strikes when society rejects those who cannot help being different. There is also shame as an overarching category of emotions, such as embarrassment, guilt and self-consciousness (Burgo, 2018). ‘To feel shame can be agonizing or just slightly unpleasant; it might be transient or enduring’ (Burgo, 2018). Stephan Poulter defines shame as ‘a primary emotional wound, not a secondary belief, based on a particular action; a paralyzing emotional, mental, psychological state of mind that distorts a person’s view of themselves in their world and with others, preventing them from developing a loving sense of self and impairing the individual from developing trusting, secure, safe relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding; a chronic fear state of being discovered as a phony, a fraud, and an imposter’ (Poulter, 2019).
According to Poulter, shame is the monster in your closet which, when you open the closet and turn on the light, appears to be an old yellow raincoat (Soeters, 2022). Shame thus, is an illusion. It originates from our early childhood messages; mainly implicit messages, but at times also explicit messages where we internalize that if we do X, Y, Z, we will be rejected and maybe found not good enough (Soeters, 2022). It is the internal notion that we are not good enough, not worthy of love, or are an imposter that causes us to feel shame (Soeters, 2022). As with a peat fire, shame is within us and spreading underground flaming up when stirred. Thus, the experience of shame alters our behavior and feelings about our connection, or lack thereof, with the people and the world around us. Shame is the result of a loss of our own identity. ‘Letting go of shame is regaining your identity’ (Soeters, 2022).
Expressing shame to get over it
When we experience shame, we behave differently. A lot of addictive behavior stems from a desire to avoid pain and to prove ourselves that we are good enough, ultimately triggered by feelings of shame (Soeters, 2022). The same is true of people pleasing behavior, or not speaking up. When we experience shame, we have to embrace it, and express it. That is the only way to become free from it. ‘There is no […] cure against shame other than practicing vulnerability’ (Soeters, 2022). Ideally, we do this with people we trust; secure bases, as mentioned above. Thus, we need to find and build secure bases, and express ourselves fully in order to become free from shame. Getting rid of shame, and experiencing freedom through it, happens through three steps:
Talking. We have to talk about it with others, people you feel safe with, your secure base;
Opening the closet. We have to open up and let our shame be seen, in front of someone else, and not alone. We have to be witnessed for this process to have effect, and for shame to lose its grip;
New stories. Practice telling yourself new stories, practice calmness and perceive things from an eagle view. Thus, we need to zoom out, and oversee all from above with serenity (Soeters, 2022).
It is in the fragile moments when we experience shame, where we can own up to it and share it with others. Through this process we overcome the shame by embracing it through vulnerability. Having someone with us for this process whom we trust is crucial for this. Being witnessed is an important part of moving though the experience. With Michael Kolb, I discussed a similar process for expressing honesty. There too, we need to express fully and honestly to get over something. Being witnessed and heard in this process helps us do so. That’s not something we can do alone. This process is a journey mentioned Michiel during our talk; to really acknowledge his own shame patterns and talk about this with his wife is what sets Michael free from the grip of the experience of shame when it arises. Acknowledging that shame is there extends the time before it will happen again when it’s witnessed and experienced in earnest. Through the practice of recognizing, addressing, and sharing it shame becomes less intrusive in life (Soeters, 2022).
Pivoting shame into a driving force
For me personally, I have been more and more able to see fear as an indication of growth and as an opportunity to learn and develop. Now, instead of being discouraged by fear, I now recognize it for what it is; a signal for an opportunity to grow. The more I am able to reframe fear like this, the more daring I become. The more full of life. Through this, I gain control instead of the fear controlling me. During our talk, I asked Michiel if there is a similar way where we can pivot shame. To turn it into a driving force, instead of something that makes us small and reserved. As he responded, and already discussed above, it is very important to talk about the things we feel ashamed about it. As with the yellow raincoat in the closet, once our shame is out in the open, it disappears. For this, it is important to do so with our secure base. Someone we can open up with. When we do so, our shame lessens. Shame melts away when we put it to be seen. For this, we need to take risk and be vulnerable. We need to risk being rejected by opening up and showing ourselves. Ultimately, this is what connects us as human beings, our imperfections.
Another important element needed for pivoting our shame into a driving force is the ability to stay calm. We need to learn how to cultivate calmness. ‘Without peace of mind, life is just a shadow of its limitless possibilities’ (Borysenko, 2007). This is especially true when we’re experiencing shame, as shame is inflammatory. It is an explosive emotion, igniting our primary emotional system, and triggers our fight, flight or freeze reflexes (Soeters, 2022). Thus, shame also triggers a physical reaction. Our body reacts when we experience shame. We heat up, become tense, and find it more difficult to breathe. When we cultivate calmness, we reduce these physiological, but also mental effects, on our being. Hence, limiting the effects of shame. Meditation, breathwork, but also physical exercise all help regulate our systems and to cultivate calmness, and thereby better deal with experiences of shame. When we can stay calm during an inflammation of shame, we can remain present, seeing things for what they are, instead of what we, or our past experiences, have made them into.
Our body, a physical storage space of all unprocessed
All impactful experiences and trauma are stored in our physical body when left unprocessed. The book ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ from Bessel van der Kolk provides a great source into this topic. Trauma and impactful experiences can keep us in a continuous cycle of fight or flight. They alter our brain and nervous system (Van der Kolk, 2015). What remains unprocessed inhibits us and holds us back. The more we leave untouched and unaddressed, the more we become distanced from ourselves. But as Van der Kolk rightfully argues:
‘Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being;
Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning;
We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching;
We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive’ (Van der Kolk, 2015).
The importance of human connection
During our talk, I asked Michiel which other factors, apart from shame and fear, hold us back and result in us keeping the brakes on. Without hesitation, he mentioned the lack of connection with others. Although interrelated with shame and fear, we need secure bases in our lives. We find these with the people around us if things are well. When we lack interaction and real human connection, we don’t do well as human beings. We need a feeling of attachment and security in our connections with others. This is not only important in our earlier years in life, but it continues to be important as we leave our parental homes growing up argues Michiel. ‘We need emotional connections to people on the one hand giving us safety, in the sense that we are allowed to be who we are with everything that’s there; our fears, pains, etcetera, without being judged. On the other hand, dare us to step back into the world’ (Soeters, 2022). Thus, a secure base is a caring and daring person who inspires us to step forward while also holding the space when we’re experiencing fear or pain. A leader in an organization needs to be a secure base for its people too, allowing for safe and secure human connection to take place. It is essential for us as human beings to be able to emotionally connect with other people. If we lack this, we die, or die earlier than we’d otherwise would.
Risk being rejected
As Michiel mentioned during our talk, taking risk is not about sailing a boat in a storm. No, it’s about taking emotional risk. Telling someone what you really feel or think, beyond the point that you are afraid to be rejected. According to Michiel, not taking emotional risks is one of the five reasons why leaders fail (Soeters, 2022). Failing to truly connect and showing vulnerability, but instead remain hidden behind their masks. The same is true when it comes to shame. We need to open up and be witnessed in the process of getting past our shame. For this, we need to risk being rejected. Embracing this as a fact of life will inevitably bring us closer to ourselves and to others. When we truly show up, we invite others to do the same. It is scary, but a wonderful process. Then, when we can be ourselves, we can let go of trying to control things. ‘The more we try to control life, the less control we have’ (Borysenko, 2007). Instead, we need to trust the process, and relax. The Taoist concepts of Wu Wei and Wu Nengsi can help us here.
Wu Wei, amongst other things, is about inexertion, inaction, or effortless action. It’s also about achieving state of unconflicting personal harmony, free flowing spontaneity and the letting go of tension. Michiel added to this that Wu Wei is an ‘unconditional positive regard’ (Soeters, 2022). Personally, I believe that it’s the forceful tension and push that often, or perhaps even always, works against us. Wu Wei is a Taoist concept that calls to refrain from interfering, not to take action. It’s not about being lethargic, it is about not interfering with the flow of nature. When we can be our full selves, I believe that the flow of nature will provide us with exactly what we need and need to do. Wu Nengsi relates to not knowing. For Michiel, Wu Wei and Wu Nengsi form the center of his ability to be a leader and a coach (Soeters, 2022). Shutting out the catholic church, Michiel was looking for another way for finding guidance in life. In his search for other forms of spirituality, he found this, Taoism and Zen Buddhism as something central to hold on to, and to be comfortable with (Soeters, 2022). Both the concept of Wu Wei and Wu Nengsi allow Michiel to ‘[h]old the space without having to judge, without having to know the solution. Just by being curious and listening to my body and my intuition which question comes up’ (Soeters, 2022). In the context of leadership or coaching, when Michiel has to work emotionally, he focuses on breathing, sitting still, and listen to what question comes up. Without thinking about it, then just asking this question. ‘It normally, is the right question’ (Soeters, 2022). This builds on trust in our own abilities, in being connected to something bigger than ourselves which helps us. The idea of Wu Wei and Wu Nengsi then is about trusting that the Tao (the way) will give us the answer (Soeters, 2022). ‘Something will come up, as long as you allow it to’ (Soeters, 2022).
Wu Wei in relation to persistence and discipline
During our talk, I asked Michiel about the relation between Wu Wei and persistence and discipline, as one could argue these might appear to be opposing concepts. He responded bringing things back to the books of Stephan Poulter, ‘The Father Factor’, ‘The Mother Factor’, and ‘The Shame Factor’. One the one side, there is a forceful way of trying to achieve things driven to prove yourself to the rest of the world; that you’re good enough, or doing things in accordance with how you’ve learnt them in your family system. These are trauma related issues driving you (Soeters, 2022). The other side is about forming your identity and trying to find what is your calling which helps you to discipline yourself (Soeters, 2022). The latter type is in line with the principles of Wu Wei, yet still relating to persistence and discipline. In this way, it almost becomes a pulling, instead of a pushing.
Follow, as a disciple
What Michiel also highlighted, was that the word discipline stems from disciple, which is a believer or follower of something. As he added, discipline is not about pushing, but is about following (Soeters, 2022). I recognize this from my training practice from the last two years leading up to my Ironman triathlon race coming Sunday. People have commented on my discipline regarding my training practice, and my commitment to make sure I’m putting in the hours each day. However, it has become second nature, habit, and an intricate part of my days and life. Indeed, I don’t have to push for it, but instead I am following obediently almost. The question then becomes, what are we following? Are we following what we have learnt as coping mechanisms or means to receive food, physical touch, and love? Or did we free ourselves enough to be able to ask; ‘who am I, and what do I want to achieve in the world, and how do I want to be as a person?’ When we start working from the answers to these questions, the experience of persistence and discipline will change from a forceful pushing to an almost effortless state of flow and harmony.
Wu Wei and releasing our inner brake(s)
Wu Wei teaches us acceptance of the fact that we cannot influence everything. We have to accept and work with what comes on our path. We have very limited, if any, choosing in that matter. We do on the other hand, have all the choice as to how we react to what comes on our path. Michiel mentioned the work of Edith Eva Eger, a holocaust survivor who wrote about freeing herself from the imprisonment in our minds in her book ‘The Choice’. In line with the works of Victor Frankl, and Eddie Jaku, she argues that even in the gravest of circumstances, we have the freedom to choose how we react and what meaning we attribute to what happens to us. Wu Wei then is also about accepting what the world brings to us. Both the good and the terrible. It’s all part of life. This is our own responsibility, and Wu Wei helps us accept and not interfere and not be judgmental (Soeters, 2022). Being free from judgment of what happens to us, what other people do is important. Additionally, we also need to become free from the judgement of ourselves. When we become free from our own judgements, and the brake it holds on to us, we become more able to get in touch and aligned with the principles of Wu Wei. ‘The mind is a tool we use; it is not meant to be our jailer’ (Borysenko, 2007).
Thus, when we can embrace our full selves, with all our imperfections, that is when we can let go of our shame, our luggage from our past, and past generations. While being witnessed, when we can learn to express what we experience, give words to our existence, while staying calm and actually experience what is there in the present moment, that is where we become free. That is where we become ourselves. That is where we evolve, dynamic as we are. With that, I’d like to leave you with an invitation to be imperfect. To show up, as you are. Be it. Embrace it and be seen for it. Then, inevitably, you will release your brakes and live fully, finding what you need, when you need it.
For my last post, number 39 of 39, ending this project with the foot off the brake pedal, I have researched how we can release our inner brakes, let go of shame, and utilize the power of Wu Wei, the ancient Taoist concept of non-doing. Wu Wei translates to inexertion, inaction, or effortless action.
For this, I’ve visited the yacht which carries the name Wu Wei, and its owner, Michiel Soeters. It was through the yacht that I found Michiel, and his work on leadership coaching, shame, and releasing our inner brakes. Michiel translated ‘The Shame Factor’ of Stephan Poulter into Dutch, as well as two other books of Poulter. Building on decades of experience, Michiel now focuses on helping people and teams with leadership and development. His focus is on the relationship between leaders and themselves, before going into the relationship between the leader and their team.
We talked for almost four hours, of which the interview lasted an hour and twenty minutes. It was a truly great talk, which I suspect, could be of great value for you, as it certainly was for me. After the majority of online video calls for the many interviews conducted, I am grateful to be able to close this project with Michiel Soeters in person on his yacht. Therefore, please excuse the creaking of the mast, and other sounds from the yacht on which we recorded this interview. I’m sure it won’t take away from the value and insights shared. Enjoy, and thank you for being with me on this journey.
Website of Geen Man Overboord, company of Michiel Soeters: http://geenmanoverboord.nl
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