Beware the siren call of the familiar

When we move in the direction of our heart’s true desires, our mind can play tricks to hold us back. Self-doubt, self-criticism and projection of these onto other people are some of my personal favourites for self-censorship. I’ve come to understand these as largely unconscious attempts to keep ourselves safe from real or perceived threat:

To live a life of deep and radical integrity – of uncompromisingly pursuing what we most wish for and believe in – is to live a life of risk.

We are, for the most part, not brought up to be this bold.

This brilliant.

This…. free.

In fact, it is often discouraged and may encounter resistance, criticism, punishment and even violence from others. This isn’t just imagined, it’s real for me and you and many many others.

I will write more on this conditioning we are battling another time. Enough to say for now that these forces are so powerful that we will unconsciously prevent ourselves from crossing invisible lines throughout our lives. Who needs physical prison walls when we will discipline our own hearts, minds and bodies without ever knowing or questioning?

Realising that we have been trained to be “good”, not free, can feel daunting and overwhelming. Facing the weight of our social conditioning, we can feel angry, hopeless, repeating the same things again and again, often stuck in a narrative of blame and disempowerment. But there are many tools for breaking out.

What we can do straight away is increase our awareness of how habitual patterns of self-censorship play out in our own lives. With awareness, we can begin to take back our power and make different choices.

Today I will shine a light on just one of our mind’s tricks – what I’ll speak of here as ‘the siren call of the familiar.’

Last week I went sailing for the first time in four years. It reignited mine and my partner’s passion for the sea and our desire to live aboard and run retreats and the like from a boat. Apart from Ordination within my Buddhist community, I’ve known nothing like the hold the water has on me. I’ve only really sailed once before, but just like I knew I was a Buddhist on my first retreat, I knew then I was a sailor and that my future was bound to those mysterious depths – both literal and symbolic. It’s a wild enough dream for me to be worth living it.

We’ve recommitted to raising the money necessary to buy a boat when certain other important conditions come together. I’ve started talking in terms of when not if and I’ve got tangible next steps to make it happen. My calling to offer what I loosely term “women’s empowerment coaching” makes much more sense to me within the context of sailing for some of the year - the mythic imagery of “Journey to the Deep” is clearer. The direction feels right, beautiful, outrageous.

But last night I dreamt of an old workplace. I saw friendly colleagues and the CEO offered me a role again, clearly impressed by everything I had done since and keen to have me in the team. Memories of the building surfaced and so did a story I used to have that a thread of that place would wind its way through my life, that perhaps I would return. I had started there young and been given responsibility quickly. The lure of being a confident, capable consultant again to international brands was compelling. The role, the money, the person I was - all were a known quantity.

On waking up, I tried to make sense of what had been playing out in my dream world. It seems like some part of me is anxious about stepping more boldly into the unknown. Themes of that anxiety include financial precarity, fear of not receiving praise and recognition for work I’ve labelled as ‘worthy’, and, perhaps the least obvious but strongest: anxiety about becoming a version of myself I don’t fully recognise or inhabit.

That ‘me’ in the future scares the shit out of me. She can do anything. How would I live my life if I really understood and took responsibility for that amount of power? It feels unwieldy, exposing and I can feel my body want to shrink back into a smallness it knows.

Fuelled by these unconscious fears of uncertainty and change, my mind offers the temptation of the opposite: the familiar. Warm, inviting, safe. It had a sort of glowing quality to it in the dream – soporific even.

Initially I thought I would just call this piece “Beware the call of the familiar” – and then the word “siren” popped into my mind. Much more fitting – apart from the weird, gendered connotations of men being tempted to their deaths by women that have plagued us for generations...

Setting this aside, the call of the siren speaks of an enticing song promising pleasure without pain, drawing you away from your intended destination and the struggles of your journey. But of course, following that song you instead become lost and are led to your destruction…

If we re-imagine the siren as being a part of our own minds, she becomes that part of ourselves distracting and drawing ourselves away from where we really want to go. Our journey can feel scary, tiring, difficult – it doesn’t take much sometimes to give it up in exchange for apparent comfort. If we let ourselves be completely drawn off course though, something in us will die.

So how do we work with the siren call of the familiar?

As I said at the beginning, the first step is awareness. Notice that this tendency is playing out and see how it shows up in its own particular way right now for you – as it may be different at different times, or for different people.

I’m not planning on going back to my old kind of work. But there are many ways in which I can distract myself from taking the next step into the unknown. One of the main ones at the moment is getting caught up in emails, Whatsapp, planning, designing social media posts, and admin instead of actually writing and connecting with you. I know how to do all the bitty stuff and it gives the illusion of making progress. I can make a whole list (and have done) of posts I could write and create a whole schedule, without actually writing any of it!

Because being this open about the inner workings of my own mind, what I think helps and sharing that in written form is vulnerable and some part of me doubts whether I’m good enough for you. It’s as simple as that. That anxious voice asks…Does it make sense? Will you like it? Will it help you? Will you read more? And – let’s face it – will at some point you be willing to pay for a workshop or course with me? That boat ain’t going to pay for itself! Does telling you this, with the radical honesty I want to offer so that you know I’m walking alongside you in your own journey, make me seem less credible? What if, what if, what if…?

Instead of the scary task of putting my work out there, I can procrastinate with doing what I know. I literally just had to drag myself away from writing another checklist on Trello to finish this off.

So what are your siren calls of the familiar? And what are the anxieties and discomforts that she is tapping into?

This doesn’t have to be about avoiding making massive changes in your life. I know I’m making some quite alternative choices, but don’t let that distract you or think this isn’t relatable.

I think the main ways in which I have grown over the years have been more subtle than that. It’s the daily work to break free from my habitual patterns that has most shaped me – becoming clear on the kind of person I want to be in the world, what my values are, how I want to be in relationship to others and then living in accordance with all of that. Those count hugely. Slipping out of the same old ways of doing life sometimes feels like pulling myself out of deep mud.

But yes, you might deep (or not so deep) down actually want to live wildly different. Who knows? You won’t until you do the work. Stop distracting yourself from it.

So here are some suggestions for how the siren call of the familiar might show up for you in these different ways….

Do you stay in your existing job role without talking candidly to your manager about your future, perhaps because “you’re not the sort of person who will hold a senior leadership position”?

Do you avoid conversations about pay rises, because you don’t know what to say if you meet resistance, or if they asked how much you want?!

Do you rehearse and rehearse certain conversations you want to have without actually having them?

Do you shy away from making changes in your romantic relationships, even though you feel dissatisfied, because you’re afraid of what might happen if you say how you’re feeling?

Do you do the same things with your friends at the weekend even though you don’t want to? Are you done with partying but scared you’ll be lonely if you don’t go out, or will be rejected if you suggest something different?

Do you find yourself regularly distracted by TV, social media or whatever else your “go to” brain filler is, without leaving time to just be with yourself and find out what’s beneath the surface?

Do you fantasise about living a different kind of life – maybe watching other people on social media live it instead – without really exploring what it could actually look like for you, even if it was just for a year or a sabbatical? (I see you friends who tell me you’ve always wanted a van!)

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