Why Do I Hold Myself Back?

I recently received an email from a client asking, “Why do I hold myself back?” Her precise words were, “I continue to feel myself holding back a small part of me … not wanting to fully engage myself. I recognize that I do this in several areas of my life. I protect myself in this way. But from what????”

I would like to share with you my answer to this question, “Why do I hold myself back?” which I believe we all ask. We may hold back from our partners, from our children, from our friends, or from deepening ourselves in other ways. Regardless of the context, I believe the following excerpt from David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal, addresses the reason why we hold back.

Brooks’ tells two stories in his book. One story explains how our minds work. The other story demonstrates what this looks like in the lives of two people, Harold and Erica, who by the end of the book have shared a lifetime, and a marriage, full of memories.

“Erica came back out onto the porch and dropped the tray she was carrying and screamed and rushed over to Harold and grabbed his hand. His body had sagged and was inert. His head was on his chin and drool was coming out of his mouth. She looked into his eyes, the eyes could see no reaction there, though he was breathing. She made a move to run to the phone, but Harold’s hand tightened around hers. She sat back down looking him in the face and weeping.

“Harold had lost consciousness but not life. Images flowed into his head the way they do in the seconds before one falls asleep. They came in a chaotic succession. In his un-selfconsciousness, he didn’t regard them the way he would have at an earlier time. He regarded them in a way that was beyond words. We would say he regarded them holistically, somehow feeling everything at once. We would say he participated in them impressionistically, rather than analytically. He felt presences.

“As I put them down on this page I have to put them in one sentence after another, but this is not how Harold experienced them. There were images of the paths he used to ride his bike on as a boy and the mountains he looked out upon that day. There he was doing homework with his mother, and also tackling a running back in high school. There were speeches he had made, compliments he had received, sex he had had, books he had read and moments when some new idea had broken over him like a wave.

“For a few moments, consciousness seemed about to flicker back. He could sense Erica weeping out there and compassion enveloped him. Inside, the swirls in his mind were still interlooping with hers. They were shared swirls that leaped across from her conscious world to his unconscious one. Categories fell away. Tenderness was out of control. His ability to focus attention ended and at the same time his ability to interpenetrate the souls of others increased. His relation to her at this moment was direct. There were no analytics, no reservations, no ambitions, no future desires or past difficulties. It was just I and Thou. A unity of being. A high state of knowledge. A merger of souls. At this point his questions about the meaning of life were no longer asked, but were answered.

“Harold entered the hidden kingdom entirely and then lost consciousness forever. In his last moments there were neither boundaries nor features. He was unable to wield the power of self-consciousness but also freed from its shackles. He had been blessed with consciousness so that he might help direct his own life and nurture his inner life, but the cost of that consciousness was an awareness that he would die. Now he lost that awareness. He was past noticing anything now, and had entered the realm of the unutterable.

“It would be interesting to know if this meant he had also entered a kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom. But that was not communicated back to Erica. His heart continued to beat for a few minutes, and his lungs filled and emptied with air and electrochemical impulses still surged through his brain. He made some gestures and twitches, which the doctors would call involuntary but which in this case were more deeply felt than any other gesture could be. And one of them was a long squeeze of the hand, which Erica took to mean good-by.”*

* Excerpt from David Brooks’ The Social Animal

When I read this passage, I touch and sadden myself to realize how armored and defended most of us are. What are we protecting? Our identity…our ego…our sense of self? To be conscious means that we have an identity, an ego, a sense of self—but if we develop our consciousness beyond a certain point, we can then give up our unnecessary defenses so that we more deeply connect with those people we love. This is the purpose of Live Conscious.

Please continue reading the comments posted below. This subject has generated meaningful conversation, and there is room for you to join our conversation.




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21 Responses to Why Do I Hold Myself Back?

  1. Mary July 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    Can you please say more about how you think of Harold and Erica? I am moved by the story, but say more about how this relates to holding back.

  2. Jake Eagle July 14, 2011 at 6:09 pm #


    To me, this story represents an ultimate truth having to do with how we armor and protect ourselves throughout our lives. And the degree to which we armor ourselves is the degree to which we distance ourselves from other people, the degree to which we hold ourselves back. In the end, Harold’s need to protect himself faded as his consciousness faded, suggesting that consciousness may be a metaphor for protecting ourselves.

    “…Categories fell away. Tenderness was out of control. His ability to focus attention ended and at the same time his ability to interpenetrate the souls of others increased.

    “…In the last moments there were neither boundaries nor features. He was unable to wield the power of self-consciousness but also freed from its shackles.”

    It is my belief that we can grow to the point of living, not without consciousness, but without the need to protect ourselves. We can become so self-accepting that we are porous, all things move effortlessly through us. In this state we can experience “a merger of souls.”

    Instead of waiting until the moment before death…what if we live our lives as much this way as possible every day…

    I know this is possible.

  3. Katie July 14, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    Can you say more about consciousness as a metaphor for protecting ourselves?

    • Jake Eagle July 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

      Consciousness is the birthplace of our stories, and the home of our “pasts” and “futures.”

      We use our stories as transportation, traveling to the past or the future, and in so doing we avoid being fully present, thus avoiding our fears of being vulnerable. So you could say that consciousness is a means of protecting ourselves.

      Protecting ourselves from what?
      From such deep connection with another that loss seems intolerable.
      From no boundaries, without which we experience a depth of empathy that is unbearable if we assume responsibility for those we empathize with.
      From those aspects of our humanity that we do not accept.

      If we don’t use our consciousness to protect ourselves from these things we fear, then our consciousness becomes available for connecting more deeply with others and with ourselves, healing our fears so we no longer needing to protect ourselves.

  4. Talitha July 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    I see how consciousness is the home of stories and that we use these stories to direct our behavior. Elsewhere, I believe, you’ve mentioned how fear and the fight or flight response were in pre-history essential but today are out of place. Do you think these stories we use to hold ourselves back are similar in that we are wired to memorize painful experiences to remember them late so as to avoid them. And if so, how do we stop? I would love to stop being influenced by a handful of outdated personal stories, I would love to truly begin again.

    • Jake Eagle July 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm #


      Yes, our fight/flight response is often inappropriately activated. In most developed nations it is rare that our survival is threatened. We are actually quite safe. What’s threatened is our identity, our sense of self, our ego, but this does not require a fight/flight response. Actually, it requires the opposite…a thoughtful and considered response.

      And, yes, some painful experiences our recorded so that we learn to avoid the stimulus that caused the pain.

      But, other painful experiences are recorded as incomplete, and we are left longing. It is in these cases that we go back, again and again, trying to satiate ourselves by getting what it is we never got enough of…love from our parents, appreciation from a critical parent, or just being seen.

      I have two suggestions that may be helpful in resolving your painful stories.

      First, we must understand and accept that we will never get what it is we didn’t get——not if it’s a childhood need. We are no longer children and therefore there are certain things we can no longer receive, not the way we would have received them when we were very young. So, we must let go…

      Second, we can help ourselves by finding a new voice with which to narrate our stories. We can begin again if we use an adult voice to narrate our stories, not a child’s voice. Speak from an empowered place, not a victimized place. Doing this alters the context of our stories and thus we reorient ourselves. We grow ourselves up in relationship to our stories.

      For example, what do you do now, today, with the stories of your past? Do you use them to create healthier boundaries, to motivate yourself, to be congruent? Do you use your stories as “lessons learned,” and as a consequence you are a deeper person or a wiser person? What do you, as an adult, constructively do with your stories?

      Let me know if you help yourself with my comments, and do you have more questions?


  5. Walker July 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Timely. Thanks.

  6. Reaching Out July 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    I hold back – make invisible to others – parts of me because I can control the holding back but not the reactions to those parts of me….and I still care, for whatever reason, about the reactions to parts of me that I do not please myself with….and if I cannot assure myself ahead of time that those parts of me will be received neutrally or positively, not negatively, I wait. And to your comment, Jake, what am I waiting for? The perfect friend, lover, mentor, coach, who will accept all of me as is? I puzzle myself about this part of my thinking that I (intellectually speaking) hold out as some kind of goal – perfect acceptance. First, I need to accept myself, as is. Ahah!! So that is where I have me now. Working this part of my own non self-acceptance of the parts I find unacceptable – to me! I put onto others the accepting / rejecting and I have not yet done my own work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this excerpt. I continue my inner journey more fully awake having read all the above exchanges.

  7. In my rhythm, I am July 23, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Since my late 20’s I have pondered myself on this:
    “Instead of waiting until the moment before death…what if we live our lives as much this way as possible every day…”

    and respond to your invitation, Jake: “I wonder what others of you do with that story in you?”

    On reading your earlier post,
    I revisit the time when I was in my late 20’s and I fell 40 feet on rocks. At that time of fall, I thought I was going to die and was certain that I had only these few seconds to live–so in those moments, I let go of all fear, resolved to live however time I had left (falling) and intent on being present and aware of the event when my consciousness and awreness would switch from there to none. In those milliseconds, I experienced in me total openness, having the whole universe rush in and through me, feeling myself one with all….

    I had a taste of this experience be a defining moment in my life. Since then, I resolved myself to seek and explore in my attempt to get myself back to this state of being. When I have told this story, I have some of these others be dismissive of my experience hearing talk of adrenaline and chemical changes inducing such a state– etc., etc —
    But, no matter, I profound myself having experienced this state of letting go/no fear/oneness/no boundaries in me and have quested myself to come home to this-in-me and also experience this state with an other.

    I ironic myself that I have questing be an action that will not land me in that state. Only on one rare momentary (but oh so brief) transcendent time have I experienced myself in “fearless nakedness” —- a letting go, releasing, total-openning-myself-sense-in-me. But so far, I elusive myself.

    Recenlty, I conflicted me with my beloved and had our fiery exchange be disconnecting to both of us. Afterwards, he wanted us to just drop the “argument” and have me embody openess toward him, instead of all the reasoning and articulations we had ourselves in. I have our narrative of each other close me off to him and I disappoint myself of my inability to reach that state in me of letting go. Always I am aware how fragile we are and how transitory our relationship may be so I have us aware ourselves of how we do ourselves in our time together. Even with that, I have me hold on to timeline.

    I note (again) that me desiring myself to be in that state results in sticking myself and defeating my purpose. I sadden myself and then still add another layer to not abling me to let go. I imagine that grasping, wanting, disappointing or anything is just that–all transitory states—and the state of openess, porous-ness , “fearless nakedness” which is also transitory, happens within the immediacy of death and in this case, a death to my reasonning self who also keeps time.

    • Jake Eagle July 23, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

      Maybe the state of “fearless nakedness” only happens within the immediate awareness of death…but death occurs every moment of our lives. What do you think about embracing the death of every moment in hopes that this will allow us to stop holding back?

  8. Maryann July 24, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    Is there such a thing as Ego death and would that bring about the needed change to live completly in the moment with nothing to defend or hide from ourselfs or others?

    • Jake Eagle July 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

      From my point of view, no. It’s not realistic to think we can get rid of our ego. I write about this in some detail in my book, Speak Love Not War. My basic point is that our ego is a necessary and vital aspect of what it means to be human.

      So many people think our ego limits us, but I think our ego is our ego and simply reflects our stage of development. If we are immature, our ego is immature. If we are mature, our ego is mature.

      If we do enough personal work and adopt the perspective of Green Psychology, we realize that we don’t need to defend ourselves. We still have an ego, but one that does not require defending.

      Thanks for the thoughtful question.

  9. Viva Cost July 24, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    I have armoring be a coping strategy developed by the unaided child to protect his/herself. I have it be a difficult habit to break. I have it be important to develop other strategies to protect ourselves. . .

  10. Janet July 26, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    Thank you for posting the story. I very much enjoyed it. I cannot preceive it’s connection to “why we hold back” unless of course it’s an example of the opposite. I am not convinced that I understand even with all the explaination.

    • Jake Eagle July 26, 2011 at 8:27 am #

      Hi Janet,

      We hold back because we are afraid to really be seen. We armor ourselves——keeping people at arm’s length——so that they won’t hurt us with their judgments or outright rejection of us. (That’s from a non-green point of view. From a green point of view other people really can’t hurt us, but that’s another topic.)

      Harold waited until he was dying before he allowed “tenderness to be out of control.” I’m suggesting people are holding back their tenderness because they fear being hurt. Harold held back from Erica for 40 years. Then, in his final moments, because he was dying, because he could no longer muster his defenses, he let down his guard and his tenderness was out of control.

      Why not live that way everyday? Why wait until we are dying? Maybe we don’t want to do this with everyone all the time, but at least we could live this way with our closest partner.

      The story is an example of no longer holding back, but he waited until he was dying.

      Does this help? Would it help if I gave examples of what I mean by “defending ourselves”?


      • Janet July 26, 2011 at 10:34 am #


      • Michaela December 29, 2012 at 12:27 am #

        I don’t understand why I hold myself back. I want to be able to say something but it’s like I’m afraid. I’m afraid of going forward. I’m afraid of saying how I truly feel. free I am unable to express myself talking to that one particular person I want to talk to them, but I won’t. I don’t know why I do this? I don’t know why I think of these things and maybe it’s my fear of rejection it when the other person so friendly and forthcoming at all I do is keep holding myself back because I told myself that I can

        • Jake Eagle December 29, 2012 at 10:28 am #

          Michaela— I suppose when you boil all of this down, yes, “fear” is why we hold ourselves back. But fear of what? I’m suggesting that we often exaggerate our fears, acting as if our survival is at risk, but seldom is that the case.
          What would happen if you told the person you want express yourself to that you are anxious about doing so? This might help you ease into the conversation.
          I will point out that by holding back you get whatever you’ve gotten so far, if you want more, more is required of you.

  11. Beks January 24, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    I get what you say about holding back out of fear, and how that shouldn’t be the case, especially with our closest partner. In my case I am always in a tug of war with holding back fully loving and involving myself with my spouse and my two wonderful little daughters. I had a horrible parenting example; a self absorbed, over eater, depressed mother and a self absorbed, narcissistic father. Both practically ignored, my dad made me feel like a disappointment, and my mom continually told me that I was conceived so she could receive unconditional love from a baby. What a mind job! So I have major issues trusting my spouse and my children to not run away with my heart, so I lock it up most of the time so it can’t be broken. In the meantime I’m going through perfunctory motions of caring for them but dying inside every day because I don’t feel like I have true meaning in my life. How in the world can I let myself be free to love without conditions, and with abandon? My mind knows I won’t die if they hurt me but my heart squeezes at the mere thought of such “betrayal”. But I’m desperate not to continue the cycle my parents unknowingly instilled in me.

    • Jake Eagle January 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

      Beks— there is no reason to try to “love without conditions.” We all have conditions. We all need to set boundaries. What conditions and boundaries do you need so that you will feel safe to love your partner and daughters?

      It’s your responsibility to set those conditions and then see if your partner will meet them.

      Remember, your partner and your daughters are not your parents. By learning to love your partner and daughters in a new way you can heal some of your old wounds. Your new family won’t run away with your heart if you stay engaged with them and learn how to maturely express your love for one another.

      I do wonder what you imagine when you say they might “run away with your heart”?

      I encourage you to directly address your patterns so that you don’t pass them along to your daughters.

  12. Lucinda October 5, 2019 at 11:28 am #

    Beks- Im new to this and read your story. Maybe you can find closeness by setting boundaries with the ones you love?

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