Insights: The Tarzan Effect

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Michael Phelps won 18 gold medals in the Olympics; he’s also hit the lowest point in life. He went from gold to the ground.

Phelps, like many of us, endured his family falling apart with the divorce of his parents, had his heart broken, and thought he had true friends only to find out they just used him for his status.

Sadly, Phelps found ways to deal with his life’s challenges that have become too common in our society: addiction.

We are now living in an age where there is more addiction that any other time in history.  I have noticed how normalized addictions are these days, with common statements such as “I just like to have a few drinks to relax,” or “I just take a hit of marijuana to help me sleep,” or “everybody is online looking at porn, it’s the norm.” The list goes on.

If people do not turn to addiction to manage their challenges, they turn to numbing themselves through work, social media, computer activities, busyness, shallow relationships, spending too much, or overeating, to name a few.

There is a deeper part to addiction. It is not just about a biological genetic pull, but also how we have learned to deal with our life challenges and our vulnerabilities.  So often we learn to stuff down our emotions such as sadness, anger, disappointment, and fear, because people are afraid of showing their true selves.

This can be seen as weakness.  Vulnerability can be used against you. People can reject how you feel, or minimize it, or judge it.  I hear people say “don’t cry.” I say why not? If someone feels sad, crying is a very healthy way to express our feelings.  Another one I hear often is “you don’t feel…” (fill in the blank).  It seems we are scared of our own feelings.

As Brene Brown says in her book “Rising Strong,” the feelings we disown, or hide, end up owning us. We become disconnected from ourselves and who we are. When we own our emotions, we become integrated in who we are. When we can own our vulnerabilities, we can own all the parts of ourselves—therefore not having a need to fill ourselves up with numbing activities.

Part of owning our feelings is allowing ourselves to feel the discomfort of the unknown.  We like to stay with the known even if it is not what we want.

How often do people stay in poor relationships or a dissatisfying job because they prefer the discomfort of what they know than the discomfort of what they don’t know?

The moment we are avoiding is what I call the Tarzan affect. This is when Tarzan grasps onto one vine, then lets go to grab the other vine, and in doing so there is a split second when he is not holding either vine and he could fall. That moment is the unknown.  This unknown moment is what we are afraid of.  What makes it worse is that we are not just afraid of that moment, but also what others might think if we fall, or fail.

When Michael Phelps realized he had to deal with his addictions, his fears were also about how he had embarrassed himself and disappointed many people in his life.  These are normal parts of our experiences, but we need to explore deeper and wonder what is happening in our lives that needs to be different. What am I not owning?

We need to forgive ourselves for being imperfect human beings who are trying to find our way through sometimes difficult times in our lives, be it a divorce, a failed business, a depression or addiction.

Own who you are, show your underbelly and hold your authenticity.  This is where feelings of wholeness come from.

Brene Brown sums it up nicely: “I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad.  My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: love, belonging, trust, joy and creativity to name a few.”

So own all of yourself—your whole imperfect self.

Contact Dr. Zavala at [email protected] or

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