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Thomas Fenichel is an Online Life Coach who started his professional life as a computer engineer and then shifted to psychotherapy and coaching. His transition from technology to psychology forced him to make inner changes. Thomas devoted more than 20 years to the study and practice of self-transformation. He also developed a working model of the personality and a meditative practice that enables deep self-transformation. Let's get to know more about Thomas:
WikiExpert: What inspired you to become a Life Coach and leave your career as a computer engineer?
Thomas Fenichel: Developing new technologies was exciting for me in my twenties, but as I grew older, I felt increasingly unfulfilled. I was still fascinated by science and technology, but at the same time there was an inner voice in me that said “you did not come to this world to have a safe job in front of a computer.” And while I thrived in my profession, I was socially shy and I could not find joy in my relationships, nor was I able to attract women that I found attractive.
This contradiction between my professional and social self-esteem drove me crazy because I could not understand it. I went to psychologists and I visited different workshops but nothing helped. Eventually, the call for adventure became bigger than any rational thinking. I decided to dedicate my life to figure out what social anxiety is and how to overcome it. I have spent years studying psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy. The discoveries along the path exceeded my expectations and wildest dreams.
WikiExpert: One of the services you offer is helping Clients with social anxiety. Tell us how can people overcome this?
Thomas Fenichel: Overcoming social anxiety was the passion that drove me to embark on this path in the first place. Once I had achieved this, my passion has shifted to help those who still suffer from it. This is how I have become a Psychotherapist and later a Life Coach. In my experience, it is so much easier to overcome social anxiety with the help of someone who has gone through it himself.
The way I help my Clients is by teaching a psychological model of the personality that makes social anxiety not only understandable but also accessible to change. This model is the basis of the work to overcome this. There is also a meditative technique that I have discovered that is combined with this model. There is no point to ask a shy person to simply go out of his “comfort zone” before a preparation work had been done. This is like suggesting to someone with a broken leg to go jogging. Without a working model, it is unlikely that he will be able to learn anything from the experience anyway, ending up only feeling embarrassed and humiliated. Social anxiety is a real problem and it should be taken seriously. It’s true that for many people it goes away by itself during or soon after puberty. But when it doesn’t, it needs to be handled, else life becomes very limited.
WikiExpert: What causes social anxiety?
Thomas Fenichel: Social anxiety typically appears at the beginning of puberty. During this time, the 2 poles in the personality – thinking and sexuality are fully developed but they still need to be integrated with one another for the purpose of identity creation. Without such integration, the 2 poles tend to fight each other without the person being aware of what is going on inside him. It’s important to note that when I say sexuality, I mean it in a much broader way than just sex. It involves lots of emotions and fantasies. I will not get into too many details here but social anxiety is caused when almost every social encounter, maybe as insignificant as buying something to drink, triggers powerful emotions in the brain that the thinking mind cannot process so it becomes overwhelmed and anxious.
So, language and the mind differentiate us from the apes and make us human, but they have also created a psychological “place” that is prone to anxiety because creating and maintaining a mental reality in a physical brain is a very complex task.
WikiExpert: You published an interesting article, On Shyness and the Human Condition. It was enjoyed by many readers! In your opinion, is shyness a good or bad thing?
Thomas Fenichel: Shyness is a good thing when it is not exaggerated. Most people describe themselves as shy in some situations. Shyness also means the capacity to be sensitive, empathic, self-reflective, admitting mistakes, feeling guilty when we have done wrong to someone, etc. Psychopaths are charming because they have no inhibitions, but is it good to be a psychopath? I don’t think so.
But when the mechanisms of shyness are too intense, then it can turn into a real problem that seriously sabotages our life. We become not just sensitive but overly sensitive, admitting mistakes, or feeling guilty when we have done nothing wrong, etc. We admire many people around us at the cost of feeling ourselves to be small for no rational reason. When this happens, it becomes difficult to enjoy social interactions without becoming anxious. It’s such a pity that many people go through their entire life in this state of mind when there is a way to grow out of it.
WikiExpert: How can Clients overcome shyness and how do you help them with overcoming it?
Thomas Fenichel: As mentioned, shyness is a good thing, so we want to mitigate it if it has become too intense. We don’t want to eliminate it completely. But we also don’t want shyness to develop into full-blown social anxiety. The first step is to make sense of it and to stop beating yourself about it. But at the end of the day, coming to terms with shyness and overcoming social anxiety is not an intellectual process.
By the way, shy people are often very smart and they spend most of their time “in their heads.” So, if there were a cognitive solution to exaggerated shyness, they would have easily found it by themselves. But it’s all about integrating the intellect with the rest of the brain so that the mind can transform physical excitement into feelings of enthusiasm, creative thoughts, and emotional bonding. Else the mind remains a thinking bubble that collapses whenever the brain gets excited. There is, of course, an intellectual aspect in understanding the working model of the personality at the beginning of the work, but the main progress is achieved through practice that builds a better emotional capacity. Connecting with one’s own emotions is the key to be able to connect emotionally with others.
WikiExpert: Another article you published, On Shyness and Sexual Selection. Does shyness affect intimate relationships?
Thomas Fenichel: You’d be surprised, but shyness can be good for intimate relationships, because as mentioned, shy people are sensitive, understanding, empathic, loyal, etc. No wonder that women preferred men with bigger brains, promoting the growth of the brain in an evolutionary process of sexual selection. The main problem that many shy people typically experience when it comes to intimate relationships is that, when their shyness has been exaggerated, they are not able to attract the partner of their dreams, to begin with.
Another problem is that their difficulty to be assertive in life means that they might become passive and withdrawn and this can be frustrating to the partner that in turn, tries to “squeeze” emotions out of them. This situation is then unpleasant for both sides. Also, avoiding social events can make the relationship feel isolated and small, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the partners to grow in it.
WikiExpert: What does your typical online session look like and what do you cover in these?
Thomas Fenichel: The first session is free of charge, and its purpose is to understand the situation of the Client, his goals, and to see whether there is a good match for us to work together. I only work with Clients who are highly motivated to do the work to achieve personal transformation. Without commitment, it is going to be a waste of time and money.
The second thing to note is that it is not psychotherapy, because my experience is that psychotherapy is not very effective in resolving social anxiety. Sessions typically start with me asking the Client about his current situation in case there have been changes since our last talk, progress and challenges with our meditative practice, questions that may have popped up in the meantime, and then we will agree on the goal of the current session. Based on this information that we process together, I will give the Client immediate feedback to help him move forward most efficiently. Typically, I will then share another psychological element from our working model that is most relevant to where the Client currently is and to the goals that we have just agreed upon. We will end the session with ideas on what the Client can do to keep the progress going, based on everything that we have discussed and learned in the session.
Also, with Clients who are “good dreamers,” meaning that they often remember their dreams and their dreams tend to be rich with symbols and “weird” stuff, I like to do dream analysis because it is typically a great way to illustrate how the model of the personality that we are working with appears in practice in the personality of the Client. In this regard, I can only quote Freud’s most famous statement that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the knowledge of the unconscious.”
WikiExpert: You also developed a meditative practice that enables deep self-transformation. Tell us about this?
Thomas Fenichel: Sure, but let me emphasize first that this meditative practice aims to achieve psychological development and it’s not about spirituality. Not that I have anything against spirituality but this is not the topic of my work.
The practice starts with a tweak in the vipassana meditation that focuses on the breath. Instead of focusing solely on the breath, I suggest to my Clients to focus on the play between 3 elements: breath, thinking, and flow of energy in the brain. With some practice, it is easy to notice that thoughts and flow of energy are constantly transforming one another, and this has profound consequences.
As a beginner, you may start by trying to focus on the breath, like in vipassana. But I encourage my Clients to quickly become aware of the interaction between the 3 elements that I just mentioned. The ideal state in this practice is achieved with a pleasant sensation in which energy flows freely up and down through the brain and the body. It requires that the mind becomes inactive. Doing this practice, you will observe how thoughts disturb this flow, causing for example pain in the neck because the energy gets stuck there. The amazing thing is to discover that no matter what happens, we can always feel confident and good when the mind is relaxed. It’s a skill that can be taught and practiced. This is done without unhealthy drugs or alcohol, nor do we need to fake positive thinking. When the dynamics between the mind and the rest of the brain is pleasant, thoughts become naturally positive.
The practice moves my Clients from knowing about their inner dynamics to actually sensing them. I explain that these sensations are the neuronal bridge between the thinking mind and the rest of the brain. This will gradually make the mindless anxious, realizing that these sensations are a source of energy, and not something to be anxious about. Knowing without practicing is like reading a book about bodybuilding. The change in the body begins only when we start going to the gym, and this is also true about changing our “psychological body”. Knowing alone does not lead to change, especially when the knowledge comes from someone else. But when change takes place, self-knowledge happens naturally.
This is of course just the tip of an iceberg, but it’s where the work begins. I go much deeper into this stuff with my Clients to reach the desired transformation.
WikiExpert: What are the most common factors that cause low self-esteem?
Thomas Fenichel: Self-esteem is not a well-defined concept in psychology, and it depends on which approach you are taking. I address self-esteem in the social context and not in my career.
You can THINK highly of yourself, but what matters to me is how you FEEL in social interactions. If they make you anxious, then you have low self-esteem. I would define social self-esteem as simply the capacity to feel good in social interactions. People with high self-esteem radiate their good feeling and this makes people love being around them. You really don’t have to be very talkative to become attractive.
There are several factors that cause low self-esteem, but they can be summarized in the lack of experience of the mind working with its emotions. The emotions have become alien to the mind, something to be afraid of because they disturb the thoughts instead of vitalizing them. This typically happens in families where the parents are either focused solely on their own emotions or when the parents have detached from emotions altogether. In the latter case, the child grows up thinking that he has to be rational, smart, “nice,” etc. In this case, any source of excitement is experienced by the mind as scary, because it could mean losing the love of the adults, which is a matter of life and death for the child. The result is low self-esteem. I am not even talking here about abusive parents, but rather about parents with best intentions who simply know nothing about this stuff because of how they were raised, and because our scientific culture has lost all knowledge about it.
It’s important to note that the human mind cannot integrate with emotions without external support, ideally from caregivers early in life. So, labels such as “loser,” or “failure” are really out of place. It’s not your fault that you did not get the psychological support you needed. But there is also no point in spending the rest of our life blaming our parents for not knowing better. Fortunately, no matter how old you are, it is possible to catch up and start a new chapter.
WikiExpert: How do you help Clients with improving their self-esteem?
Thomas Fenichel: In contrast to other approaches that seem to prevail in our time, I do not focus on the so-called “limiting beliefs,” because to me they are symptom rather than cause. I help my Clients to go deeper than any thought or belief. As long as the personal dynamics are out of reach, the anxious mind will create all kinds of rationalizations to explain its state, like “I am shy,” “this is who I am,” “I will never change,” etc. I will never try to convince my Clients that they are “wrong,” because this rarely leads to change.
My favorite metaphor in this regard is to compare the mind with the digestive system. To improve self-esteem, the mind needs to be able to “digest” emotions. You can go to the best restaurant, but if your body cannot digest the food, then you are not going to enjoy it. My work helps my Clients’ minds to metabolize whatever happens in their brain, for example, excitements. Once the mind can get excited and energized, social interactions are no longer something to be afraid of, and their self-esteem improves automatically as a result.
WikiExpert: You also offer emotional healing. How can Clients benefit from this?
Thomas Fenichel: The benefits of emotional healing are endless. We have already mentioned overcoming anxieties and improved self-esteem. In addition, Clients will improve the quality of their relationships, they will enjoy a better quality of sleep, improved body and mental resilience. The list goes on, but the truth is that emotional healing can have a positive effect on every aspect of physical and mental wellbeing. Even conventional medicine has realized that physical health is closely dependent on mental health.
Now, let's get to know more about Thomas:
WikiExpert: When you're not helping others, where can we find you? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Thomas Fenichel: When I’m not working, I like spending time with my girlfriend, friends and family. When alone, I enjoy working out at the gym, reading books, and of course meditating. You might also find me in the Austrian alps – skiing in winter or hiking in summer.
WikiExpert: You experienced some radical changes in your life, what were these?
Thomas Fenichel: Yes, that’s true. I honestly believe that at the heart of many shy individuals lies a very adventurous soul, waiting to be freed from all the fears inflicted upon it by the mind. I am happy that I did not resist the call for adventure coming from my heart, and that I was able to set myself free.
The most radical change started when I decided to quit my job as a computer engineer, without having a clear plan for the future. I just knew that I had to break free from the golden cage in which I was living, both externally and internally. But I don’t recommend my Clients to do something “crazy” like I did, and sometimes I wish that I would have found back then the program that I offer today. It would have saved me many years of pain and loneliness. Today, it is my mission to help those who are in a similar situation, because now there is another way available.
WikiExpert: Do you have any goals for the future? Both personally and professionally?
Thomas Fenichel: Personally, my biggest plan at the moment is to travel with my girlfriend to Australia and New Zealand when the Corona situation allows it.
Professionally, I’m currently working to create an online community that will offer support and inspiration to people who seek self-transformation all over the world. In the long run, I hope to make my discoveries published and available to as many people as possible.
Ready to make a change in your life? Message Thomas Fenichel for free today to book a session.