Dancing with The Devil on Your Back

Mory Fontanez

I am a serial optimist with chronic anxiety.  Like dark and light in the same container, I’m a walking oxymoron and a constant source of confusion to myself and my closest tribe. I believe that everything, literally everything, happens for a reason and that with enough faith and patience we will always see that the universe is conspiring for our highest good.  I also spend 18 out of 24 hours of the day worrying about one thing or another – working out a solution for one worry in my head only to replace it with the next one on the conveyor belt.

The punchline of this joke is that as a woke person who has dedicated my life to purpose coaching – walking people and systems toward truth and purpose – I didn’t realize this VERY pivotal truth about myself until about three weeks ago.

There I was standing at the mirror getting ready for my stepson’s birthday one morning when I caught myself running through my daily routine. One worry in, solved, next one in, solved and so on.  I had a moment where it felt like I was watching myself from a distance, drowning in my own worry while carrying on with the day-to-day tasks of life.  This, I realized, was my normal.  There was no peace in my mind, ever. 

I also realized that simultaneous to this worry stream, I was envisioning how my newest project would help so many leaders and thinking about new ways we can reach even more people. I was seeing my own purpose with clarity and buoyancy. I noticed then too that I always walk around with an unending sense of hope and certainty that people can transform -- and that I can help them do it.

I was in the state of being two exact opposite things at once. The truth hit me: that is who I am – a combination of both optimism and angst. It only took me so long to see it because I couldn’t accept it.  I preferred to revel in my optimism alone and ignore the side of me that lives in worry.

I once attended a Dharma talk with the very gifted spiritual teacher, Tara Brach. During the talk she was telling a man who was angry at the way his life had turned out, that he needed to allow the anger to have a place within his life. That instead of shoving it away, he needed to invite it in for tea and that in accepting he felt anger, the anger itself would dissipate.

So, I sat down to do that with my anxiety.  I literally stopped what I was doing, sat on the couch with music blaring in my headphones and invited the anxiety to take the stage and tell me what it wanted.  It didn’t suddenly disappear, but it did tell me something that’s shifted my way of seeing myself and others. 

It showed me that facing our inner-most shadows is a mother-f#*er because we’re judgmental beings. Judgmental beings that are particularly hard on ourselves. That we have a hard time facing our own darkness because we believe we have to be ONE thing. That if we label ourselves anxious, then that’s who we are and we can’t be more than that. If we label ourselves “successful,” we have no room for our failures, “kind-hearted,” then we aren’t allowed to have difficult feelings about someone else.

Sitting with that anxiety instead of trying to solve it reminded me of what I tell people I coach: to lead our lives with purpose, it takes courage. The courage is in seeing all parts of ourselves and accepting that every angle and dimension belongs there. Think about it like a self portrait – sometimes the artist has to use less vibrant shades to make the picture whole.  Without those shadows, we aren’t fully ourselves.  

Here’s the most salient message I heard that day that I want to share with you: You are more than one thing.

Your colleagues and employees are more than one thing. As are your children, partners, and friends. So today I ask you to think about this: How can you, in accepting the things you dislike about yourself, the things you may run away from, accept others more unconditionally?  For you leaders out there, I have one more: With that level of profound acceptance, what can you teach others about embracing their perceived limitations so that they can use them to reach even greater heights?

My favorite singer – Florence and The Machine - says in one of her most famous songs, “and it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back so shake him off.”  Maybe the problem is that we’ve been trying to shake him off for too long. What if we invited him to dance instead?