The prisons I build myself

"Daddy, dance with me!"

“Daddy, dance with me!”

“Daddy, dance with me!”

We were at an outdoor blues concert on a beautiful summer evening. My 5 year old daughter, Hanako, was dancing to the music when she asked me to dance with her.

“No, darling,” I said. “Dance with your brother.”

Thinking of dancing made me immediately self-conscious. I was afraid of looking foolish and so, instead of sharing a magical moment with my daughter, I chose to stay in a prison I built myself.


The prisons we carry around with us

Prisons we carry around with us

Prisons we carry around with us

We build our prisons out of stories we tell ourselves – and the memories and feelings we replay as we tell those stories again and again. Over time, we come to believe them, and they become as real and hard to break as any prison walls.

Martha Beck, in “Steering by Starlight”, calls them “shackling beliefs.”

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands. This is a brilliant illustration of what most of us are doing when we say – when we deeply believe – that we are “trapped.””

When Hanako asked me to dance, it immediately triggered my “I can’t dance” belief. And though I truly wanted to dance with her, I felt I just couldn’t. The flood of anxiety, however ridiculous, overwhelmed that desire. I shackled myself.

Getting out of jail

The key to unlocking your prison is first awareness that the prison exists and then practicing 3 simple steps:

  1. Spot the shackling belief
  2. Stop, breathe, and examine the imprisoning thoughts
  3. Substitute alternative, positive thoughts

Focusing on your breath for even a moment helps you break the cycle you’ve rehearsed so many times. And it gives you just enough time to examine your thoughts and figure out why they’re false. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes “Breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness, the bridge that unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

For my particular dancing prison, the sequence would go like this:

Spot: “Dance? Oh, no. I can’t dance!” “Hey, there’s that imprisoning belief again.”

Stop: “Wait a minute.” <deep, slow inhale & exhale> “I’m getting anxious over nothing.”<deep, slow inhale & exhale> “No one here cares what I look like.”

Substitute: “Even if people watch me dance, I won’t look foolish, I’ll look like an awesome dad!”

Sounds too simple? A more scientific explanation of why this works can be found in books on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

“CBT…helps individuals challenge their patterns and beliefs and replace “errors in thinking such as overgeneralizing, magnifying negatives, minimizing positives and catastrophizing” with “more realistic and effective thoughts, thus decreasing emotional distress and self-defeating behavior” or to take a more open, mindful, and aware posture toward them so as to diminish their impact.”

More prisons, more hope

For sure, dancing isn’t my only prison. I’ve built prisons around things as simple as karaoke. Around smiling in a photo. And around more substantial things like (mis)managing money. I’m a regular prison developer. But I’m also getting better at seeing the prisons for what they are – just stories I tell myself. Over time, with awareness and practice, I know I can create new narratives for myself, and new possibilities.

These mental prisons make life much smaller and harsher than it has to be. When I look at the way my kids dance, sing, draw and do most anything, they seem so free. It’s clear they’re yet to create their own shackling beliefs.

I hope it stays that way. And I hope Hanako asks me to dance again.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The prisons I build myself

  1. Reblogged this on Houldsworth's Random Ramblings and commented:
    This is something I find myself doing, and something that I need to work on. I’ve become better over the years but I still have a long way to go.
    Great post!

  2. John says:

    Great post. “So often times it happens, we live our lives in chains, never even knowing we have the keys” Stolen lyric from the Eagles but so appropriate for your latest post. And your post is about the everyday, not just improving the work environment.

  3. John says:

    Hi John,

    I am also John. And I also have a daughter named Hanako.

    I’ve. Been experiencing a beautiful bunch of events replete with synchronicity.

    Seeing your post is one. Send me an email.


  4. moyramackie says:

    Great post John. “I can’t….” is one of the biggest shackles we have. And the smarter we are the more we use our intellect to justify our self-limiting choice. For me, the most insidious one is “I don’t have enough time to …” I await both a picture of you dancing and smiling ; -)

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Moyra. “I don’t have time…” is by far the most common shackle I see and hear at work. I could have included that in this post but will save it for the future. I’m working on something now that might help people with that particular prison.

      • moyramackie says:

        You should see my post this week on managing time;-) I would love to know about your work on that shackle. It is the key to doing the right things and overcoming busyness.

  5. Loved the post, John. And once again impressed with your erudition. Have you read Eckhart Tolle. If you like Thich Naht Hahn, I have a feeling you will like Tolle’s writings too. And love the name, Hanako – so unique.

    • John Stepper says:

      Funny you should mention that. I just finished “A New Earth” recently and started “The Power of Now”. Very helpful books.

      Thanks for the erudition comment. 🙂 As I’m getting older, I’m gradually caring less about appearing smart and I’m caring more about being helpful or useful. In time, maybe I can acquire the skills necessary to make systemic changes like those chronicled in “Mountains Beyond Mountains” or “The Blue Sweater”.

  6. great post, JA! You’re right, we often let ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) imprison us. Being self-aware of the limits of one’s abilities is different to being self-conscious and it’s important to know the difference, IMHO. Hey, why wait for her to ask? Next time, YOU ask her to dance. She’ll treasure that surprise forever! 🙂

  7. If you pay attention, magical moments come along fairly often. No one should choose one they don’t feel completely happy with, the right magical moment will come along soon.. In fact, if we choose to take part in every single magical moment without exercising good judgement, then they might begin to feel less magical, we may begin to take them for granted. They are kind of like chocolate. Too many of them is not good. We have to remember to say no to chocolate, or at least be choosy about when we say yes, and focus on our meat and potatoes or we get sick. Life is too short for regrets, and distractions.

  8. timgincentralnj says:

    Another very moving post. I’m not the best dancer in the world myself (something my wife likes to remind me of at the most “opportune” time…like when we’re at a wedding. Can you say “thank you, dear”? ha ha), but when it comes to either of my kids, I will say that I relish the opportunity to make a fool of myself if it means that I will get to hear them laugh and have fun. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve made plenty of other “prisons” for myself, but I’m happy to say this is not one of them.

    As for your daughter, little girls love dancing ANY time, ANY place. So, do yourself a favor; don’t wait for her to ask you. The days of our daughters (or sons) wanting to dance with us will not last forever…..

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Tim. Yes, several people have encouraged me to “ask her!” Good advice. And I have the same sense of trepidation s at weddings. For that, a few simple dance lessons would go a long way. A little knowledge and practice would unlock some great times. Don’t know why I’ve waited this long. But there’s plenty of time to enjoy the benefits.

    • absolutely,Tim, I’m with you on this one. I used to let my husband’s “prisons” imprison me when the kids were little, so I know exactly what you mean – missed opportunities and memorable moments to be a friend to them instead of upholding the authoritative “parent” image all the time.
      John, dance lessons!? Honestly, I wouldnt bother ‘cos it’d only make me more self-conscious if I’m dancing “right”….just jive with the music ever which way you choose! As long as you and yours are having a good time who cares what others think! 🙂

  9. Rajdeep says:

    Thanks for a great post!
    Reminds of the magical moments we let fly by in search of better time. Most importantly these prison wall grows taller and taller as the time flies.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Rajdeep. You’re right about those walls getting higher just as habitual ruts gets deeper.

      But human beings are incredibly adaptable and plastic. Old dogs are actually great at learning new tricks if the environment is conducive to it.

  10. dasaraujo says:

    In spite of the lack of originality, I will still leave you with the thought I had the second I finished reading this fundamental wakeup call, after the very moment you published it John: “Are you really going to wait for your BEAUTIFUL Hanako to ask you again?! I sincerely hope you haven’t.

    Your liberating alert has changed the way I see my relationship with both my 9 and 2 year old sons. Although I wouldn’t be embarrassed to dance with either of them (only my less caring acts can really make me blush 😉 ), I will now make sure I won’t miss any of the probable ‘one in a lifetime’ bonding moments I may hopefully still be granted by both. Thank you and all your contributors for that! 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      It’s funny. She asked me to dance last night and, unlike other times since I’ve written, this was in public again.

      I immediately thought back to this post and all the encouragement here and we had a great time. Pure joy!

      Thanks to all of you!

  11. dasaraujo says:

    Lovely news John. Good to know that Hanako has daddy’s determined spirit! May you two have many dances. Diana

    • John Stepper says:

      It’s 2am and I’ve been dancing for 3 nights in a row: at a conference in Las Vegas; at my daughter’s Halloween party; at my neighbor’s birthday.

      I am, as Ben Zander described in “Art of Possibility”, BTFI. Beyond The Fuck It.

      I now recognize how insane it is to stand on the sidelines while others of all shapes, ages, and abilities enjoy themselves dancing. And I refuse to deprive myself of those feelings of joy, of peace, of belonging.

      No matter how I look, no matter my technique, I will dance.

      While I danced , I saw a couple on the sidelines. “Dance”, I said. They refused. Shyly, they replied, “No, we are not dancers.”

      “We are all dancers,” I said, confident in my newfound wisdom. “Every child knows how to dance until they are taught otherwise.”

      And so the prison is no more. I am a dancer. I am free.

  12. Reblogged this on jenniferfrancisblog and commented:
    So true. Thanks John. I find this very helpful.

  13. Mike says:

    Mr Stepper sounds like a great name for a two stepper!

  14. Pingback: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? | johnstepper

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