How do you know which of your inner voices to trust?

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My post on Martha Beck’s blog this week deals with anxiety that arises when in pursuit of your dreams.  It is more common than you think!  Enjoy.

A core part of Martha’s approach to life coaching is the concept of the Body Compass.  Housed deep inside you, your compass is always pointed True North, towards the life that will make you happy, healthy, wealthy and wise.

The body compass speaks through your physical body.  So as you think of incredibly positive experiences in your life, you pay attention to how your body feels when you are having this experience.  Then, you do the same for incredibly negative experiences.   (See complete Body Compass instructions at the end of this post)

Everyone is different, but many people find the following physical reactions when they are pointed in a positive direction:

  • Open, full breathing
  • Relaxed muscles, especially in the shoulder and neck area
  • A feeling of lightness and openness in the head

When pointed in a negative direction, they find the following physical reactions:

  • muscle constriction in general, in the shoulder and neck area in particular
  • tightness or "pit" in stomach
  • headaches, inability to concentrate

With this information, when you are faced with tough decisions, you can use your physical feelings to guide you towards a good answer.

But here is the catch:  What do you do when your body compass talks trash?

Here is an example:

My client was frustrated on our call. He is a talented musician who has wrestled with the idea of performing full-time professionally vs doing it for kicks on the side of a day job. He was unsure of the right answer, since in the past when he had done lots of live performances, he was plagued by insomnia the night before shows.

After doing the body compass exercise and lots of research and reflection, he came to the conclusion that he did, indeed, want to do music professionally.  He scheduled a show, and shared the following experience with me:

"I don’t know about this body compass stuff. I did all this work to get clear on what I wanted to do, and it all pointed to music. I scheduled a gig that I was excited about and all seemed well. Then the night before my performance, the insomnia hit again. When I would start to drift off to sleep, it felt like a chemical would shoot through my body and my eyes would fly open.

If music is something that I am supposed to do, why am I getting such a strong negative signal from my body when I pursue it? Does this mean the body compass is bunk, I am moving in the wrong direction, or my compass is broken?"

I had an inkling that what my client was feeling was a strong case of lizard fears.  To check my assumptions, I called Martha.  After explaining my client’s situation, she said:

"Now that you mention it, in my books, I have never directly addressed the issue of how anxiety frequently comes up when you are on your path to your North Star.  In my own life, I felt intense anxiety, sometimes paralyzing, when making positive life changes like writing a book or becoming a life coach.  I am so used to it that I never thought to write about it.  But it is very common, and can make it really hard to read your body compass."

She suggested I look at the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders.  This is what I discovered, via the National Institute of Mental Health:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months. People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • muscle aches
  • difficulty swallowing
  • trembling
  • twitching
  • irritability
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness
  • having to go to the bathroom frequently
  • feeling out of breath
  • hot flashes

Do you notice the link with these physical symptoms and the negative body compass symptoms?   Not everyone will have full-blown General Anxiety Disorder of course, but many of us experience mild versions, like my client’s insomnia.

Why do we get so anxious when we are headed in the right direction?

Steven Pressfield, in his brilliant book The War of Art describes it this way:

"Are you paralyzed with fear?  That’s a good sign.

Fear is good.  Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator.  Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb:  The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.  Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.  That’s why we feel so much Resistance.  If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Have you ever watched Inside the Actors Studio?  The host, James Lipton, invariably asks his guests, ‘What factors make you decide to take on a particular role?’ The actor always answers: ‘Because I’m afraid of it.’

Anxiety can hit anyone, regardless of his or her level of talent (Sir Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand both  developed social anxiety disorder at the height of their careers).  It makes sense that enormous talent would feel like an enormous responsibility, which can lead to anxiety.

So how can you distinguish between "anxiety because you are on the right path" and a "negative body compass reading," which means you are heading away from your North Star? read the rest here, and don’t miss the instructional video I conned my son Jeffery into doing with me.  Ah, the perils of a life coach in the family!

7 Responses to “How do you know which of your inner voices to trust?”

  1. Heya i?m for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It really helpful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to provide something back and aid others such as you helped me.

  2. Wow! So glad to hear this issue talked about! Especially since the question came from a musician! I experience this often. I like the rule of thumb mentioned about how we know about a calling being right when we are afraid of it. I’ve always found this to be a guiding principle that took me a long time to figure out and that I have to constantly remind myself about.

  3. Interesting post — found you on Google while researching something. My area of expertise is in permanent clearing of limiting beliefs, and I always teach people a Truth Testing method (Body Compass, muscle testing, or using a pendulum – these are my 3 preferred methods to teach), so they don’t have to take my word for anything –they can test for themselves.

    In most cases, I find that when a reliable truth testing method seems to have led us astray, it’s because we either have a belief that prevents access to the truth or we’re attached to a particular outcome.

    For example, if you used a truth testing method to ask if you’re an alcoholic, you’d likely get a negative answer that may or may not be false, because you’re quite attached to the answer being “no.”

    There are methods to ensure that bias is not present (for example, asking for another test from someone else, who is unbiased — you don’t even have to tell them the question, you can phrase it in your mind, and have them check for yes or no) and that ego/fear isn’t running the show.

    Thanks for this post!


  4. In high school, I was nominated for some class office. I completely froze at the podium when I was supposed to give my campaign speech. My conclusion was that I was “afraid of public speaking.” Years later, in a public speaking class, I realized I’m kind of a ham and am not afraid of public speaking at all. The lizard brain that had gotten me going that day was something different altogether: I could not reconcile the positive opinion of me reflected in being nominated by one of the “popular” people with my negative assessment of myself!

    Following career dreams often mean defying what you have been told (or have come to believe) is your “place.” What could be more anxiety-provoking than that?

  5. Todd Reed says:

    I love how blog posts work together. I found this entry on ( which is a good story to accompany your post. Be sure to listen to the 30 minute mp3.

    Really enjoy your blog.

    While typing this, I just heard her recommend using a consultant or coach.

  6. Christine says:

    Excellent, excellent post. I have seen you mention Steven Pressfield’s book before and it reminds me to put it next on my reading list.

    When he writes: “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it” it is actually extremely comforting.


  7. Tim Berry says:

    Wow, really interesting post Pam. I’m pretty sure that you’re onto something. I wonder — I think through the years my body compass was more likely to be wrong at the crucial moments than on the smaller things. Maybe that’s when other factors have more influence. Maybe it’s when I’m messing it up with extra inputs. And here I thought “follow your heart” was always good advice, but you just made me think about it, and maybe not; or at least, not always. Tim.

    Tim, given your life path, I think your body compass has led you in a pretty good direction. 🙂

    This issue of “anxiety because I am going in a bad direction” vs. “anxiety because I am going in a good direction” is pretty powerful, and Martha and I have been discussing it a lot lately. It can be tricky to distinguish between the two!

    Thanks for stopping by.