Healing your Social Anxiety (Part 2)

Using Skepticism
to Heal Your Social Anxiety.

Incorrect Reasoning.

While the socially anxious can be their own worst critic, in the sense of being extremely hard on themselves – they can also be their own worst critic, in the sense of assessing interactions incorrectly. This distortion – of overestimating dangerousness while underestimating social competence – is at the very core of social phobia. Socially anxious persons incorrectly use their anxiety as a measuring stick that tells them how well they are functioning. Rather than considering objective criteria, they make the mistake of evaluating their performance based on how anxious they are – but this turns out to be an unreliable measure.

I once had a client attempt to persuade me that she performed poorly in public speaking situations. To offer evidence, she brought me two audio recordings containing separate interviews where she spoke in her area of expertise. In the first tape, she asserted, “It was a disaster. I sucked.” But in the second, she admitted, “this one wasn’t so bad; I guess I did okay.” I was intrigued.

As a researcher, I listened intently to the two recordings, searching for objective patterns in her speech – such as “um,” “like,” “you know“ – as well as any pauses, tangents, or stutters. But to my ears, both interviews were nearly flawless, and, for all intents and purposes, essentially the same. When I gave my client this feedback, each of us had our own revelations. As for my client, she was astounded to hear how these two interviews were actually so similar. Once she considered the more objective criteria, her face lit up with a sense of genuine discovery. Amazingly, she was able to admit that these two recordings were fairly identical, and that she gave strong performances in both situations.

As for my own insight, I was able to glean just how and why she had inferred such drastically different interpretations. It turned out that in the first setting, she had been sitting face-to-face with the interviewer in a recording studio – very stressful indeed! But in the second situation, she had given the interview over the phone. Relaxed and at her home, the interview was recorded while she sat in bed, in her pajamas, with her cat! What did these different contexts have to do to her self-assessment? They gave her the feeling that one was terrible and the other was ok. But this distinction was only in her head, not in reality. Her misappraisal was a fitting example of how people use their levels of anxiety to determine social performance, referencing their own internal states and using their distress as an unreliable barometer.

The Role of Congruence.

In order to appreciate how undependable this internal reference can be, it is important to understand the mind’s drive towards congruence. All humans have a very powerful motivation to achieve a state of “internal consistency,” a feeling of correctness where everything matches up and makes sense. Our thoughts seek to find interpretations that mirror our feelings, and will produce explanations, however faulty. Emotions take the lead, and the mind follows, filling in gaps of uncertainty with what feels like accurate knowledge. In the end, this “matching” process will take precedence over truth, governing our interpretations even when they are grossly incorrect.

Just as the person suffering from panic attacks believes “I must be dying,” so does the socially anxious person believe “this person hates me.” On the one hand, these are perfectly “good” explanations, because they seamlessly mirror their internal experiences. In a state of panic, where there is a huge, unexplained spike in the nervous system, “dying” does seem like a correct interpretation. And, in a state of profound insecurity, where the person feels overwhelmingly ill at ease, rejection seems completely plausible. Yes, these explanations are congruent, and yes, they are the most convincing. Indeed, they do match up with anxiety. Only . . . they’re wrong.

Separating Empathy from Mental Control.

Another blind spot has to do with “overvaluing” intuitive abilities. Many of my clients have the genuine ability to sense other people’s moods, and they will often report that they are extremely empathic. This becomes problematic when they “perceive” judgmental thoughts in others that often do not exist. Emotional attunement leads to a slippery slope when it gives way to hypervigilance and “mind-reading.” Sure, the person may have started with a deep sensitivity and ability to read others, but when social anxiety took over, it distorted this ability. If you are suffering from the grips of social phobia, please consider how happy you will be to discover that your thoughts might be wrong – especially if you think others are judging you. In order to convince you that your perceptions can’t be trusted, please let me present. . . “Doll Face.”

“Doll Face?” or “Dull Face?”

I have a friend who is a very adoring husband, although his wife repeatedly accuses him of judging her. One day, my friend was venting about endless conversations they have, where he is unable to reassure her of how wonderful he thinks she is. He mentioned an ongoing fight for over 25 years, where he was accused of insulting his wife on their very first date. According to my friend, he gazed at her from across the room, and melted. “Hi Doll Face,” he murmured, before going to embrace her. But what she heard was, “Dull Face!” To this day, she insists that he said, “Dull Face,” and there’s nothing he can do to change her mind. “Doll Face” or “Dull Face?” – you decide! I’m going with “Doll face” – not because I am friends with the husband, but because I am using objective criteria. “Doll Face” is a charming, old-school term of endearment that was commonly used in their day. To my knowledge, “Dull Face” has never been an expression!

The moral of this story is that we should not use anxiety as a gauge, or reference point. We should look to see if the other person is leaning forward, smiling, nodding, and continuing to engage. We should note whether we are asked for a personal opinion, a second date, a follow up interview, or a marriage proposal. While it might be tempting to look inwardly for interpretations, the task is to look outward – both to remain engaged and to find objective criteria. There is a more reliable yard stick, and it doesn’t include anxiety. The evidence you seek cannot necessarily be found within your subjective experience – so remember to use skepticism to heal your social anxiety.

 

Part Three:
Using Creative Hopelessness to Heal Your Social Anxiety

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Healing your Social Anxiety (Part 1)

Using Honesty
to Heal Your Social Anxiety.

Social phobia, essentially defined as a debilitating fear of negative scrutiny, can be one of the most devastating anxiety disorders. We are social animals living in a social world, and people are all around us. If you suffer from social phobia (also referred to as social anxiety disorder) – every moment or future moment contains a potential “threat” of a dreaded interaction that feels completely unsurvivable.

For those who don’t suffer, interpersonal dynamics are merciful – they simply transpire without too much awareness. Much like the body, which is taken for granted until a specific pain makes us aware, social interactions don’t usually claw at our attention. Fluid and natural, these events usually require only our moderate attention before they disappear into the landscape of everyday life.

But for the socially anxious, these dynamics are painstaking. In a world of opposites, light conversations are heavy and burdensome; happenstance meetings are a jolt and a shock; brief encounters feel like an endless eternity; and pleasantries are anything but pleasant. Tragically, social anxiety tramples the hearts of the most genuine and deeply kind, stepping on self-confidence before shattering the sufferer’s remaining self-worth. “What are they thinking?” is perhaps the most repetitious thought in the person’s mind, second only to, “How can I get out of this?” In anticipation of social or performance situations, these are the mind’s unanswerable loops, playing over and over as painful obsessions that can’t truly be solved.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.”― Walter Scott.

Perhaps the biggest cost has to do with the sufferer’s self-worth, because the deception that avoidance requires wears on the conscience of this otherwise honest person. Unattendance, excuses, even white lies are person’s primary means of warding off anticipated discomfort. But these control strategies can fail or even backfire, in the sense of raising some red flags. Commitments or plans become derailed by escape tactics, ultimately producing confusion and disappointment in other people. Where negative judgment didn’t appear before, now it actually seems likely. One avoidance begets another, and now there is even more to worry about!

Shaking the Hand of Social Anxiety.

Social anxiety offers false promises to “solve” emotional pain – through avoidance, mind-reading, and obsessional worry. In this way, the disorder convinces sufferers that distress can be assuaged through certain acts of “mental control.” Taking over each present moment, it replaces authenticity with painful self-consciousness. Tainting the future, it marks new interactions with anticipatory dread. Corrupting the past, it stains memories with a negative review. Social anxiety is a predator and a thief, stalking the spontaneous.

Calculating the odds of unending scenarios, social phobia baits the person to produce guestimates about what others might think. And while the person is busy worrying, it creates side bets on shame and embarrassment, making deals in dark corners. It robs authentic interactions, producing a “counterfeit currency” of forced smiles and compulsory exchanges. “How can I get out of this?” leaves the person stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is no place to go, and planning to escape from future scenarios seems just as impossible as leaving a life of organized crime. The handshake was made, and the linchpin of social anxiety just won’t let them leave.

Shaking it Off.

I know how you got here, dear anxious person. You got into some trouble because you trusted the wrong ally. You shook the wrong hand and fell in with the wrong crowd. But it’s time you got out – and I’m not talking about your next social engagement! It’s time you got out of your contract with social phobia. It’s time to shake it off, and to shake things up.

The first order of business is to draw a line between truth and deception, recognizing that excuses and control strategies – the methods you have been using – are essentially manipulative. Wishful thinking, mental rehearsals, avoidance – all of these are covert acts that involve too much scheming. Beside the fact that these tactics are unworkable (you trade short-term relief for a long-term problem) – this approach doesn’t fit you as a person. Being ingenuine doesn’t work for you, in the sense that it doesn’t reflect your integrity.

Deception isn’t going to get you out of your social anxiety, but honesty just might. Your integrity and your goodness are so much more workable, and besides, they more accurately represent who you are. From now on, we’re going to put your sincerity in charge. But before we go any further, let’s break you out of some other traps. These have to do with some faulty reasoning, and the miscalculations of mental control.

 

Part Two:
Using Skepticism to Heal your Social Anxiety

 

 

 

 

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Healing Your Social Anxiety (Part 4)

Using Kindness
to Heal Your Social Anxiety.

The Double-Bind Challenge.

Having completed the first three parts of this series, you are in an optimal mindset for change. In Part One, you used honesty as an alternative to deception—relinquishing the manipulative strategies of excuses, white lies, and avoidance. In Part Two, you learned not to trust your anxiety as a reliable measure —instead using skepticism and objectivity to assess certain social situations. In Part Three, you used grief to dissolve social phobia – allowing creative hopelessness to release some entrenched patterns of mental control.

Now that you have made these changes from a heartfelt place, we’re going to give anxiety a run for its money. How are we going to do this? We’re going to use kindness to “double-bind” social phobia – taking “I’m too nice” and putting it to work! You have a defining characteristic of kindness, and it can be harnessed to serve you instead of your social anxiety. Instead of the strategies that operate “behind the scenes,” let’s keep kindness front and center. This is your ally, your advantage, and we’re going to use it.

To have a better sense of this, consider the following exercise. Imagine that I pointed to someone and asked you to dislike that person. Or, even the opposite, that I wanted you to really like somebody that I liked. “Come on,” I might say. “It means a whole lot to me. Just try. I really want you to feel the way I do. Please. Can’t you change your mind for me?” My guess is that you would not only find it quite difficult to do, you might also think I was being intrusive. And you’re right – I would be way too controlling to even suggest such a thing. The whole idea might seem absurd to you as well: “What makes her think she can influence how I really feel?”

Being persuaded to “change our feelings” has probably happened to each and every one of us, and it can feel pretty slimy. When I was young, my uncle married a “gentile,” – to use my family’s language – meaning, “a non-Jew.” My siblings and I really loved my aunt; she was pretty, she was nice, she was interesting, and she made my uncle very happy. But we were told not to like her, because, apparently, she didn’t jump up right away to clear the dinner dishes and . . . well, she was Catholic. I remember looking at my parents and thinking, “Your request makes no sense. I like her. My feelings can’t be changed. I can’t feel differently just because you want me to.”

Consider in the same way how intrusive it would be for you to insist that others have a positive opinion of you. It’s invasive, it isn’t possible, and it isn’t fair. Yes, I understand that this is just your hope and that there is no outright attempt to control others. But the wishful thinking, the mental rehearsals, the mind-reading, the people-pleasing – these are all manipulations of sorts. Each person has their own unique tastes, their likes and dislikes, and they don’t need to defend or change any of it – not even to make us comfortable. Other people are entitled to have their feelings about us, and we need to allow this to happen. We shouldn’t interfere. While it’s natural to hope that others will like us, socially desired outcomes cannot – should not – be controlled from inside our heads.

As a kind person, you would never want to see yourself as intrusive or controlling, and if you suddenly realized it was happening, I think you would try to change. This is the purpose of the double-bind – to confront your thinking; to give you pause to reconsider. I’m sorry to take such an aggressive approach, and I don’t mean to shame you. But your social anxiety gets really stuck, and we have to release its grip on you. Recognizing this internal conflict can loosen your perspective around what is making you suffer, while intentionally throwing your social anxiety for a loop. This demand on your integrity relaxes the grip of social anxiety, allowing you to to think, to unshake its hand. All you have to do is align with your kindness, while committing to stay out of other people’s thoughts.

Stop Messing with Other People’s Thoughts.

Do you want to see yourself as respectful of others? Do you want to be nice? Then focus on your respect for the other person, so that you can practice staying out of their business. Do you see yourself as a giving person? Then go deep inside and find the most generous place in your heart. Allow the other to have their entire experience of you – whatever that is. See if you can go into a place of reverence and respect, recognizing that they have free will and get to decide whatever they want, whatever they think, whatever they feel — and you will not interfere.

When you start to become afraid of other people’s judgments, this approach will feel counter-intuitive. We are still working against your evolutionary hardwiring – the “trigger” that tells you that rejection is unsurvivable. For this reason, it is important to immediately consider how survivable the situation actually is. When the alarm bell goes off, make a decision to survive the possibility that someone might judge you. You don’t have to like this possibility, you just have to handle it.

Practice being brave in the face of other people’s opinions, like you are doing some training around it, and becoming stronger. Picture yourself tolerating the other person’s thoughts, wholly and completely, without defense. Imagine that you are still here, that you have worth, that you are still intact, and that other people’s perspectives will not change who you are. Just as you will not interfere with the feelings of others, others’ feelings will not change the essence of you. Surviving other people’s opinions doesn’t require you to suddenly have overwhelming confidence or high self-esteem. Instead, it requires that you develop a little more resilience while learning to tolerate ambiguity. To help you step into that mindset, you will want to try using these phrases:

  • Maybe they like me, maybe they don’t – I’m not quite sure.
  • Maybe they think ____________ about me, maybe not – I may never know.
  • Whatever their opinion is, I’ll be ok.

Notice that we aren’t pumping you up with statements about how others probably like you, or how acceptable you are. These coping statements purposely don’t address the question of whether or not you are being judged. Positive statements are not always effective, nor are they totally believable. For that reason, we won’t try to solve the question of what others might think. The words I am suggesting pull for you to be strong, to embrace ambiguity, to use your kindness as an ally. If you can’t remember anything else, just remember this: “I can tolerate other people’s feelings. What other people think of me is none of my business.”

Special Note to the Reader.

Your beautiful trait of kindness should never be left out of treatment. I realized this in my own practice, when something unexpected occurred. It happened one day, when a client turned to me and said, “I hate my anxious self.” I was completely astounded, and the shock of these words became a turning point in my work. Part of my dismay had to do with the timing, since we were right at the very end of our sessions, and treatment had gone really well. And it has happened a few times since. Inserted discretely in their goodbye, walking towards the door, shaking my hand, and surveying the therapy office for the very last time, the client dropped the bombshell: “I hate my anxious self.”

“It’s so weak. I can’t stand when it shows up.”
“It just ruins my life. I want it to just leave me alone.”
“I wish it would just die. I wish I could just kill it.”

Now I am ready for these words, and I won’t let this happen any longer. But more importantly, I hope you won’t either. You may feel too gentle for this world, but isn’t gentleness what this world needs? When you turn away from kindness, it is deeply tragic. And when you hide, the world suffers from your absence. I see your true worth, and will continue to honor you, including your anxiety, until you can do the same. You are every bit worth knowing, and worth having. You are the kindest of souls, with a rich interior and gifted intelligence. The things you share make me certain that you are adding value to the world. And because you bring kindness with you, you make this a better place. You are the very best version of what it means to be human.  Heal your social anxiety with kindness, because, as you do this, you also heal the world.

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Healing Your Social Anxiety (Part 3)

Using Creative Hopelessness
to Heal Your Social Anxiety.

“I’m Too Nice!” and Anxious Chickens.

I once saw a beautiful 12-year-old that came to her first session sitting very still next to her mother: back perfectly straight, a serious expression on her delicate face, and a thoughtful, pensive way of speaking. “What brings you to therapy?” I asked her. “How can I help?” “I’m too nice,” she said simply, her words conveying a grave sadness that suggested a life sentence of emotional pain.

This precious soul could have been any one of my clients, of any gender, of any age. Many of my clients are too nice, and for whatever reason, this attribute tends to go with the socially anxious person. Socially anxious people can become way too accommodating – going “above and beyond” in order to create insurance that others will like them. However, this people-pleasing strategy can often fail in its attempts. All too often generosity leads to exhaustion; compassion leads to co-dependence; agreeableness leads to poor self-esteem. As any one of my clients will tell you, I’m a huge fan of the anxious/sensitive person, but I can also see the downsides. As this lovely young person was trying to convey, being too nice comes with a cost.

While it’s laudable to put others’ needs first at times, continuously adapting to the needs of others can comprise a second “layer” of suffering that goes beyond the social anxiety itself. People-pleasing becomes a burden when it is at odds with the person’s available time, resources, values, or wishes. Without keeping the right balance between self and other, being “too nice” eventually compromises the person’s self-care and quality of life.

The relationship between people-pleasing and social anxiety might be difficult to unravel, especially when we try to distinguish a survival strategy from a character trait. Long ago, when human survival was at stake on a more imminent basis, rejection by one’s tribe could mean desertion and possibly death. To that end, there is an interesting evolutionary perspective which holds that we may be programmed with certain “hard-wiring” that drives us to remain in others’ good graces. Being “too nice” might be an evolutionary relic as much as a character trait, derived from this primitive fear of exile. In thinking about this connection between social anxiety and niceness, we can then contemplate: which came first – the anxious chicken or the people-pleasing egg?

It’s not so hard, therefore, to imagine why socially anxious people have catastrophic feelings about being rejected – why they would regard social situations as if they truly have a “life-or-death” quality. But this scenario of annihilation is surely obsolete. Because nowadays, if someone doesn’t like us, it really shouldn’t wreck us. No matter how catastrophic things seem, the opinions of others – even if they are negative – will not destroy us. The truth is, we can exist alongside the perceptions of others, and it is wholly survivable.

Like me, you may be wondering when the IT person going to show up and fix the bug in our computer-brains. We aren’t currently faced with many survival situations, and this is outdated software that clearly needs an update. There are too many “apps” running in the background, and people-pleasing is taking up too much mental space – draining the battery of emotional reserve. But we’ll just have to do some reprogramming ourselves. We need to outsmart this malware by taking an unexpected approach. But how? We’re going to foster a condition of authentic change by using something called, “creative hopelessness,” exploring what it means to grieve over unsatisfied longings as well as our limited influence over others.

Creative Hopelessness.

There is a Buddhist saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” and this can apply to social anxiety as well. We have all experienced the inescapable pain that happens when we feel a certain discord between others and ourselves. We respond with uneasiness when we learn of someone’s rejection or disapproval, and we feel its impact, sharp as an arrow. But suffering has to do with a second arrow, the part we can control – and this is the piece that is “optional.” Suffering takes place when we struggle with our pain. The attempts we make to manage distress – worry, rumination, avoidance – only make suffering worse.

Conversely, many people make a heartfelt change from a perspective called, “creative hopelessness.” (This is a term that is used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Creative hopelessness is when we hit bottom, so to speak, recognizing that all the control strategies we used didn’t provide the relief we were hoping for. Creative hopelessness happens when we finally acknowledge the futility of our efforts to control. It’s like taking a big breath and saying, “I have no idea anymore. I’m at a complete loss, even though I tried like crazy to figure this thing out. I so wanted to fix this, but nothing has worked. So . . . where am I now? What happens next?” This act of meeting the unknown by letting down one’s guard is the very best place to be. At last, unshackled from our defenses, we can begin to create change.

Do you think it’s weak or stupid that you suffer so much? Think again, and have mercy. You have been living in fear and self-loathing, and it’s time to be kind to yourself. You have an authentic desire for connection, and this is a beautiful aspect of being human. It is not “weak” to have intense longing for others; it is, in fact, quite precious. It is not “stupid” to become wounded in relationships; it speaks to the value you place on other human beings.

Your longing for acceptance is so understandable, and it has the deepest of origins. Imagine, if you will, your very first hunger; your first reaction to cold; your first experience of being left alone — and the shock of this happening the very first time. Developmental psychologists describe this original trauma – this lack of fit of nurturing responses – as nothing short of emotionally devastating.

The memory of this primary wound recedes over time, although powerful needs do not. In this way, the trauma becomes “re-triggered,” echoing throughout the course of a life. Later, when other longings emerge – such as the need to be loved, understood, and accepted – these, too, feel essential to our existence. But when they go unsatisfied, the trauma reverberates, threatening to devastate us. Each time our desires and others’ fail to coincide, the shockwave ripples, reawakening this original wound. Doesn’t it make sense that you would suffer so much? This is an area of deeply-rooted pain that continues to surface, so try to be kind to yourself.

There are numerous moments, both past and present, when we are confronted with this lack of fit. Sadly, our needs and others’ do not always mesh, and the same goes for our thoughts. There is an inevitable clash of perspectives that will remain between people, despite our deepest longings. But our psyches are more mature now, and we can handle the disappointment. Rather than using forms of mental control, we can stretch ourselves to tolerate the discordance, letting go the hope that other people’s approval should match with our expectations. This is a softer, kinder outlook, one that accepts Reality on its terms.

Grief Can Dissolve Social Anxiety.

Recovering from our lowest ebb requires an authentic process from which to emerge, and such transformation can be attained through the experience of grief. “Why grief?!” you may ask reluctantly. “I was just trying to heal my social anxiety. Don’t give me any more pain!” I understand this response, but please be patient. If you gave me a choice between grief or anxiety, I would choose grief any day. Anxiety stays “stuck,” and therefore, “disordered.” But grief, on the other hand, is a deep and heartfelt emotion. It is universally shared by all human beings, and can be transformed into healing. Grief feels hard, but it doesn’t feel crazy. And the best part is, it moves. Grief doesn’t stay stuck, so it doesn’t become “disordered.”

Let’s take a moment to consider what it is you might be grieving. You longed for a world where you would never be judged. You longed to ensure the approval of other people. You longed to never fall short. You longed to always be perfect, or, at times, invisible. You longed to avoid situations that exposed your flaws. You longed to never have conflict. But you are no match for Reality, and Reality has moments where these difficulties exist. We are always confronted with our common humanity, including its imperfections, conflicts, and misunderstandings.

To grieve is to understand the truth that we are completely powerless when it comes to other people’s thoughts. Cutting through the second layer of suffering, grief puts us back in touch with inescapable pain. Grief speaks to “meaningful suffering,” not “meaningless suffering,” fostering healing as it elicits kindness. It helps us to become more receptive, more able to make a significant shift. Grief dissolves social anxiety; transforming it first into tenderness, and ultimately, release. This new sense of openness promotes a genuine mindset where creativity and change can fully emerge. Creative hopelessness, paradoxically, can make you more hopeful – so remember to use it to heal your social anxiety.

 

Part Four:
Using Kindness to Heal Your Social Anxiety

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How to Deal with the “Negative Review”

The negative review is the act of rehashing and embellishing conversations in our minds after an interaction has already occurred, while at the same time focusing on our perceived shortcomings. It is a shameful, demoralizing, and unproductive process. These following steps will help you to overcome the negative review and put your thoughts back into balance.

  1. Notice that it’s happening. Observe that you are feeling lured inward and pulled into the content. Identify the trigger and when it occurred. Notice your suffering, and be compassionate.
  2. Label the temptation to ruminate, by saying, “This is the ‘Negative Review!’”
  3. Be suspicious of your mind. Do not trust this process of investigating your thoughts. The mind is not your friend at this point. It is doing a lot of repeating and reviewing; it is stuck in the same gear, doing an endless loop. And it’s shaming. Don’t participate.
  4. Think briefly about your usual triggers with social interactions. Do you worry about being misunderstood, blamed, or judged? Are you afraid of looking dumb, awkward, anxious, rude, or foolish? You may be jumping to the wrong conclusions. This incorrect process of using negative feelings to assess reality is called “emotional reasoning.” Emotional reasoning happens when we say, “it feels true, so it must be true.” But feeling judged doesn’t actually equate to being judged. Feeling stupid doesn’t equate to sounding stupid. For this reason, it would be helpful to use the coping statement, “It feels true but it might not be true.”
  5. Don’t try to find evidence. When we use worry as “evidence” that things are going poorly, we also fall into the trap of “self-confirmatory bias” — proving to ourselves over and over again that the worst thing is really happening. But anxiety isn’t the most reliable tool for measuring social interactions. Feelings matter a great deal, but they shouldn’t be used as explanations for reality. The truth is, our anxiety isn’t so easily detected by others, and we can actually be anxious and socially competent at the same time!
  6. Check in with your feelings (perhaps refer to a “Feelings List”). Identify as many as you can. Use self-compassion to short-circuit the mind’s obsessions. Keep distrusting your mind, but make sure to have sympathy for your feelings. Every time you identify a feeling, put your hand on your heart and say, “Of course I would feel this way. . . This is the area where I suffer. . . No wonder I experienced that. . . . This is so hard . . .These emotions are acceptable. . . Everything is forgiveable. . . I need to be kind to myself.”
  7. Notice whether you are also beginning to obsess over a future social situation. Beginning to strategize about future conversations is just like doing the Negative Review but in reverse – an equally unproductive and demoralizing process. Rehearsing a speech is fine, but rehearsing the future isn’t going to work, because you don’t have access to all the information yet. Reality takes place in the present moment, with give-and-take dynamics that are continuously unfolding. When it comes to small talk, you will be better “prepared” if you simply wait for the moment to occur.
  8. Use Coping Statements. When a future scenario begins to play out in your head, say, “It’s not happening right now.” “I guess I will just wait and see.” “I’ll handle things when they occur.” This is what resilient people say, so start practicing this internal dialogue as soon as possible so that you can begin to feel stronger. There is no future conversation that will take place exactly as you imagine it, so you needn’t plan for it in any detail. You are off the hook in terms of trying to anticipate the future or manage things from inside your head. Save yourself from unnecessary agony and don’t even try.
  9. Mindfulness will save you. Let go of both past and future conversations. If you’re craving more certainty and detail, you won’t find them by ruminating. You only have complete information in the Now, which is where you are anyway. So stay right here — you’re in a good place! Try to be more graceful with ambiguity and the unknown; set the future and the past aside. Orient yourself by saying, “Back to Now,” and focus outward, using your senses to anchor you. Become completely absorbed in what is in front of you. Find comfort in your own constant presence. Remember that you have never not been in the Now. You are here Now, with all the information you need, and you are safe.
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Your Path to Recovery

Come over to the right side – your path to recovery.

  • Don’t trade short-term relief for a long-term anxiety disorder. Instead, say
    yes to more things and remain in more anxious situations, without resorting to escape or avoidance.

Choose the right kind of hard.

  • Choose “meaningful hard” rather than “meaningless hard.” Pain may be inevitable, but you can choose to make it productive and for something worthwhile. This time around, trade short-term anxiety for long-term recovery. Be willing to do something hard if it is in service of your wellbeing. And know that the suffering is temporary; things will get much easier the more you habituate.

Use better coping skills.

  • Abdominal Breathing.
  • Mindfulness (using your senses to focus on your present surroundings).
  • Willingness (allowing the anxiety to be there so you can let go of the struggle).
  • Coping statements (“I am willing to be anxious” or, “I can tolerate uncertainty”).

Experience the change.

  • Stay in the situation until habituation occurs. Over time, you will be much more comfortable. You will also have a new belief system – that symptoms remit on their own without avoidance, escape, or safety behaviors. This new “learning is necessary for changing your outlook, improving your mood, and getting the life you want.

Encourage yourself.

  • Be grateful to yourself for choosing this path, be compassionate to yourself for this difficult journey, and be proud of your commitment to healing yourself.
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Who’s Searching For Bad News: A Special Note to the “You Did Something” Group

As a follow-up to my article, “Searching for Bad News” – a piece I wrote about individuals who desperately try to prove something dreadful – I wanted to respond to a particular group of people who bravely reached out me. This is the self-identified group of ‘You Did Something’ OCD sufferers that think their partners are guilty of cheating or hiding something – even when the obsession is unfounded.

This group was only one-third of the clients I had described in my article: the other two consisting of I Did Something (as in, “I think I ran over someone with my car”), and I Have Something (as in, “I think I may have cancer”). The You Did Something group stood out from the other two, in the sense that these individuals projected the source of badness onto others rather than believing the aberration lived inside of them. For making others’ lives so difficult, these individuals even got a mild tongue-lashing from me, and I certainly came down hardest on this group. And, while the You Did Something category didn’t receive too much space when considering the hefty pages of my longest article, it definitely got the most play. Well. . . sort of. At least, not at first.

It was three years ago that I wrote that article, and for the first year that it was posted on my website, I was certain that nobody liked it! Even though I had shared this article with some of my clients, they never gave me a response about whether or not it was helpful. Likewise, there didn’t seem to be any on-line readers who were reviewing this article, so far as I could tell. I simply heard nothing, and interpreted the silence to be a bad review.

Since that time, however, I have received an outpouring of heartfelt messages of gratitude, especially from distant readers who have visited my website. Amazingly, it seems that the ones who have benefitted the most from my “Searching for Bad News” article have been from “your” group – the ones who were suspicious of their significant others. And, as a result of this article, I have received more of you as clients than ever before. And I have since learned a ton. So, to this special group, I want to say three things:

Who is Contacting Me (OCD meets PTSD)?

First, if you’re interested in the demographic of who has reached out to me from this You Did Something group, I feel it appropriate to share that all of them so far have been women. At the beginning of every message, each of them made initial introductions by “outing” themselves as being in the You Did Something category.

Without conducting an actual study, I am unable to fully explain why only women have identified with this group. However, I would like to still try to offer some discussion around this, along with a few working hypotheses. And while I don’t wish to stereotype around genders, I do want to be able to consider the significance of this occurrence. Simply stated, it was only women who reached out to me, and all with marked similarities – so much so that I considered this discovery to be important.

The fact that women seek psychological services more frequently than men could be one possible explanation as to why only women have reached out to me regarding this section of my article. However, I am contacted about equally from men and women alike, with both genders commenting on various pieces of my writing. To that end, there still seems to be a disproportionate number of women who have self-identified as the You Did Something OCD sufferers. So again, it seems fair to ask, “why women?”

One consideration might be whether women have a transactional style that is more internal, complicated, indirect or discreet. (Please don’t interpret that I’m suggesting women are “manipulative.”) What I’m thinking is far less pejorative: it is something along the lines of whether there is an evolutionary propensity for women to rely on our wits and our will, if it is intended (even unconsciously) to be an equalizer between the sexes. Whether or not this sounds “politically incorrect,” women are typically smaller than men, and often physically weaker. We also have different brains than men, and for sure, different ways of processing and relating.

As I listened to these women, I also discovered that many had some trauma in their histories. There were several narratives about a parent cheating or abandoning the family, or a previous relationship that included some form of sex addiction, cheating, lying, or abuse. I got the sense that there was a connection between their underlying fear and helplessness on the one hand, and the indirect ways they were behaving on the other. These women seemed to be doing things in their relationships that were intended to make them feel more powerful, but it wasn’t working. Even when they reported how good the relationship was in all other respects, they still succumbed to insecurity and distrust. Disoriented by the vulnerable feelings that were awakened by intimacy, they began their covert operations. Looking in all the wrong places for safety and security – phone records, internet history, or anything else they could monitor – they searched for bad news to orient them and give them back their bearings.

If you resonate with these other women, you may also consider whether you have some trauma in your past that exacerbates your OCD. While I still recommend that you see an OCD specialist first and foremost, your therapist will need to appreciate this nuance. This can get very tricky, in terms of trying to sort these issues out.

But I truly believe that regular “talk-therapy” won’t help your OCD, and you may be in treatment far too long without getting the results you so deserve. Many of my clients have told me that their individual or couples therapists have actually encouraged more reassurances from their partner, as if these constant assurances would eventually work to satisfy the obsession. But as you can confirm, reassurances don’t last, and this compulsive “checking” behavior should never be encouraged. You do need to see an OCD expert so that you can nail this thing, but your therapist should also give you some extra care to help you heal around the issues of your past. While your obsession is unreasonable, your suffering is valid, and your trauma is real. With the right therapist, you can move forward, overcoming both your trauma and your OCD.

I’m Sorry.

Second, I confess I may have misjudged you. Before having so many of you as clients, I often heard from people who were on the other side of this – all the partners who were unable to provide enough reassurances and were constantly being accused of something they didn’t do. Before knowing you as well as I do now, I was guilty for privately thinking that your loved one was suffering more around this than you were, and I may have been more sympathetic to the other side. I now know this is not the case.

I was also unsure as to how hard you might work in therapy, in terms of owning your own suffering. Before working with some of you, I anticipated that you might be tempted to project onto others, hoping to change the other’s behavior instead of your own. I thought you might be somewhat inflexible, or lacking in insight, since your partners’ alleged wrongdoings were often the focus of your obsessions. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I really do know how bad this is for you, and I’m very sorry if I misjudged or underestimated you. At a minimum, please know that I regret this and deeply sympathize with your pain.

I Admire You.

Third, I want you to know that I respect the hell out of you. You researched this problem, you asked for help, and you looked for a better path. How easy would it have been to continue to blame the other – to insist that they jump through hoops for you in order to take your pain away? You have clearly tried that, and saw that it wasn’t the answer. You started to look within, and attempted to address your own your suffering. If anyone has ever owned their sh*t, it has been you. I have never seen anyone work so hard in therapy, have such amazing insight, and receive such positive treatment outcomes – especially regarding your relationships.

What has impressed me the most was your decision to trust, which is the bravest thing any of us can ever do. And you did this while you were afraid. You took a huge leap of faith, while your intuition was taking you in the other direction. You did all this because your love is strong, because you care about others, because you have integrity, and because it was the right thing to do. Bravo.

So, it is you whom I wish to thank – for changing my mind, for giving me the chance to learn more, and for helping me own my own biases. Because you work so hard on yourself, I will work harder on myself as well. Thank you for helping me understand when I was wrong. I am, without a doubt, your biggest fan. Thank you for reaching out to me, for your lovely feedback, and for working so hard. You make my work and my writing a joyful surprise.

©2017 Heather Stone, Ph.D.

 

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Cognitive Distortions

Catastrophizing: You tell yourself that the very worst is happening or is going to happen.

Overestimating Probabilities/ Underestimating Coping Response: You overestimate difficulty or danger while underestimating your ability to cope with the situation.

All-or-Nothing (Black-and-White) Thinking: You view a situation in extremes rather than on a continuum.

Over-generalizing: You generalize from one situation to the next, believing that future experiences will be similar or identical to past experiences.

Self-Confirmatory Bias: You find “evidence” that helps you justify or maintain your belief system.

Emotional Reasoning: You think something must be true simply because it “feels” true.

Overvaluing Thoughts:  You ascribe credibility and meaning to senseless or random thoughts.

Overvaluing Sensations: You misinterpret bodily sensations as being exaggerated, life-threatening or dangerous.

Worrying as Superstitious Thinking: Continuing to worry helps you feel that you will not be caught off-guard. It also feels like constant worrying could ward off the dreaded situation.

Foreclosure: You focus on the possible ways that a situation might end, because it feels too hard to be in a state of uncertainty.

Mind Reading: You guess what others are thinking, and refrain from checking to see whether your impressions are correct.

Negative Review: You replay a performance, conversation or interaction after the moment has passed, focusing on your perceived shortcomings and wishing you had done something different.

Should Statements: You think in terms of how you, others, or the world “should” be. This type of thinking usually accompanies perfectionism and/or a rigid style of thinking.

Discounting the Positive:  You minimize or discount any positive feedback or perspective while maintaining a familiar, negative outlook.

Beck’s Negative Triad: You have a negative view of the self; negative view of the world; and negative view of the future.

Note to reader: This list is a compilation of some commonly used terms that have been originated, modified and/or re-stated by many cognitive-behavioral therapists. Dr. Stone therefore does not claim authorship to these terms.

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Finding the Compass in Compassion: A New Model of Caring for Others and Ourselves

When I first came to therapy as a client at the age of twenty-one, I worried at the end of my initial session that my suffering would burden my therapist in some way. “Isn’t it too much,” I asked, “to be constantly listening to the painful stories of others? How do you do it, hour after hour, day after day – doesn’t it wreck you? Isn’t it a burden? Are you sure you want me to continue?” My therapist closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them before deciding to speak. Her reply, which I have thought about many times over the years, was a revelation. “No,” she replied thoughtfully. “I don’t feel burdened. I feel . . . connected. I feel . . . moved.” This response was incredible to me, one I would not have considered. But I immediately grasped what she was saying, and believed her insight to be credible. From that point on, I knew that I was going to be okay, because she was going to be ok. After that pivotal moment, I knew we could both move forward, and that I could begin my work.

I share this true story with you with a specific purpose in mind: to give you the same glimpse, the same hope, the same pivotal moment, so that this can be your starting place as well. This internal shift – to be deeply moved by someone else’s pain – is the compass I would like to offer to you. Learning to become moved rather than overwhelmed can be the key to your emotional freedom, allowing you to be helpful and present without exhausting yourself in the process. This is the instrument you can use to assist you while you are in the process of assisting someone else.

The Circuit-Breaker.

I’ve had some unusual requests over the years, and this is one of them: some of my clients have specifically asked me to help them to care less – to not feel so much – because whatever they were experiencing was too painful. They were hoping that I could “dumb them down,” so to speak, in regards to their emotions. They were worried about someone, and it was wrecking them. Or, they weren’t feeling loved in their relationship, and wanted to diminish their longing. Whatever the circumstance, they were trying to suppress their feelings. Not only did they think this was an option – that it could actually be done – they thought I was somehow capable of helping them. They were hoping that I could find the circuit breaker to their emotions, and just switch it off.

You can only imagine my dismay. Isn’t the goal of therapy – or of life in general – to experience more instead of less? More integration, more awareness, more insight, more range of emotion, more balance, more fulfillment? I had to break it to them: “Even if I could help you to feel less, even if it were possible – which of course it is not – I wouldn’t do it. Because you can’t remove something that’s essential to you, something connected to your innermost self. Your feelings are precious, they’re authentic. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be killed. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” (This news never goes over very well).

Dr. Steven C. Hayes has proposed that in contrast to emotional avoidance, we should instead practice “experiential acceptance,” which would allow us to have a fuller range of authentic emotions.1 If you are one of those people who feel reluctant to having a broader range of feelings because it feels too overwhelming, you may want to read my other article, entitled, How to Practice Willingness. Suffice it to say, one of the main reasons we feel a barrage of negative emotions is because we refuse to feel them, and it’s the internal struggle to keep them at bay that keeps them so strong. I’ll say a little bit more about this later.

To be fair, I get it. The most characteristic thing about the heart may very well be its expansive nature. And the fact that it aches. Caring about others comes certainly with a cost. It can leave us feeling depleted, disoriented, and overwhelmed – consumed by the problems of others. Ironically, certain acts of giving can even “backfire” to the point of producing unintended consequences or strained relationships. How did it happen that we had a certain intention in mind when we first started to be helpful, but suddenly ended up in a different spot? Surveying the fallout of depleted resources or strained relationships, we claim never to have foreseen the flaws in our well-meaning gestures. Believing our assistance was sure to be constructive, it can be difficult to comprehend just when or where “too much support” occurred, the “help” that inadvertently impeded the recipient’s success or independence in some way.

The Heart’s Trajectory.

Perhaps it is the amenable nature of kindness itself that has the ability to overextend us. Perhaps it is the enigmatic and existential condition of our hearts – that they are, by nature, boundary-less. Compassion can be limitless, and for better or for worse, the heart has the ability to spread out, seemingly forever. “Love knows no bounds,” as it were. The heart may not tell us when to stop and take inventory; it may not even notice when the recipient stopped benefitting, has given up motivation, or is using our good nature against us. The same may be true for guilt, a close relative of kindness, that offers no “sell by” date to indicate when our obligation has expired. It’s hard to know how far to extend ourselves.

But love as a “feeling” is far different than the “doing” aspect of love, and if we fail to notice this distinction, the “doing” part can hijack love’s unending flight. The slippery slope begins when we overestimate the powers of our giving, blurring the boundaries between caring and controlling. This “offense” may be quite forgivable, however, and it happens to the best of us – especially the kind-hearted.

In trying to keep pace with the heart’s trajectory, certain acts of generosity can go “above and beyond” until we find ourselves lost or over-extended. As we will discuss, there are numerous aspects of caring we will want to keep, since compassion has so many benefits, even to the giver. Although caring can indeed be risky business, I still believe we should remain open-hearted, allowing the heart to keep its expansive nature. But I would propose that instead of trying to turn it off, to limit something that can’t be diminished, we really just need to add something to the act of caring. That something is humility, the admission of being powerless. Because no matter what we tell ourselves, we really aren’t that influential over other people’s lives.

Blind Spots.

Unlike the heart, which may genuinely possess an infinite capacity for love, the mind has marked limitations, although it will never admit that it does. The mind possesses a built-in deficiency that it cannot see, where it overestimates its own capacity in a variety of ways. These are sometimes referred to in psychological literature as “blind spots.” One of these – the overconfidence effect – is a well-known bias that includes the subjective belief that one’s judgment is better than it actually is.2 If this appears as a quirky or harmless tendency, consider instead how overconfidence could lead to serious catastrophes – such as housing bubbles, stock market crashes, excessive litigation, and even war.

There are numerous times that we aren’t necessarily “right” when we think we are, and this may also apply to our conviction that we know what’s best for others. Admittedly, when a scenario is laid out in front of us, it’s easy to have an opinion about what the other “should” do. But we are spectators at best, and we should let this voice quiet down a bit.  Ask yourself whether you have correctly predicted everything in your own life, and if you can admit to being periodically surprised, why would you be so confident in your predictions about the lives of others?

Psychologists have also identified another blind spot which has to do with motivations, and this relative cluelessness about what drives us is another area of overconfidence. While we often assume we know ourselves well, the truth is that we can be deeply biased without even knowing that we are.3 To appreciate how we might be governed by hidden motivations, consider another question: What if our certainty in believing we know what’s best for others is really a protective “shield” – a defensive armor that prevents us from feeling too much discomfort or despair? We might be seeing something heartbreaking or chaotic, and it scares us. From here, we might suddenly be motivated to start advising or directing, aware only of our desire to be generous rather than our desire to feel less out-of-control.

“Preferred” emotional states, like feeling knowledgeable or superior, can push us toward the temptation to judge or to blame. This position might produce a sense of being momentarily powerful when we might otherwise feel overwhelmingly impotent. Likewise, feelings of “certainty” may temporarily remove our experience of disorientation, so it makes sense that we could be internally motivated to defend this style of thinking. In this way, our frantic attempts to create semblance in another person’s life may provide a sense of control when circumstances look exceedingly bleak or chaotic. As such, our drive to “fix” someone else’s pain can distract us from feeling desperate about their circumstances. “Helping” is a perfect camouflage for worry or despair, and for that reason, it can produce a blind spot. When this occurs, our rescuing can feel like a welcome distraction, and our assistance could possibly be more about saving ourselves rather than the other.

The Picket Line.

When the unconscious veil of overconfidence disintegrates, it can be a bit of a shock. Shifting abruptly from over-involvement to sheer resentment, it’s tempting to detach in an exasperated gesture of “I’m done!” This is the visceral equivalent a “no more” gesture, of throwing up our hands and taking a step backwards as we put up an emotional wall. Interestingly, it isn’t until burnout starts to appear that we even begin to assess the landscape – searching for our compass, retracing our footsteps, and taking inventory. But as clear and decisive as this voice first announces itself, “I’m done!” often comes a little bit late. Despair and exhaustion have already culminated as a protest, signaling some sort of wear and tear. Like erecting a sign on a picket line, our objection indicates that something went wrong, that there was a breakdown of sorts, that we can no longer function on previous terms.

Unfortunately, many of our intuitive responses end up becoming self-defeating. Psychological research shows that when we try to numb our feelings or block something from awareness, we create a “rebound effect” where intrusive thoughts and images attack with a vengeance.4 The surge of worry that ensues, the decrease of positive emotions we didn’t intend to lose, and the loss of our connection with others – all these things come at a dear price while bringing us no closer to equilibrium. Trying not to care, it seems, isn’t feasible. “Suppressed caring” – if that’s what we’re trying to do – will inevitably break through and show up in some other form of wear and tear.5

The Bandits of Burnout.

“Compassion fatigue” is a known hazard to helping professionals, but any generous person can feel it every bit as much.  While this particular brand of burnout can feel depleting and exhausting, it would be a mistake to assume that it resulted from caring too much. On the contrary, compassion fatigue is caused by certain identifiable culprits that behave a little bit like gypsies. They are the “bandits of burnout,” drifters who seize our good nature and cause us to lose our compass. Easily unnoticed, they have a unique and disarming way of seamlessly creeping up on us. In order to catch them in the act, we need to notice these bandits before they take over, and if we pay close attention, we can begin to recognize them by the way they make us feel. We will know we have been emotionally hijacked when we:

  • Believe that we ultimately know what is best for another person.
  • Become too invested or attached to specific outcomes for the person we are concerned about.
  • Feel indispensable; attached to an identity that is heroic or “right.”
  • Feel resentment towards the person we were trying to help.
  • Feel dismayed that our efforts ultimately did not give us a sense of self-worth.
  • Feel hurt that our efforts did not produce any gratitude.
  • Feel frustrated or disappointed that our efforts did not produce significant changes.
  • Feel disoriented about unexpected outcomes.

So, what do we do once we recognize these culprits? We can learn more about what makes us particularly susceptible, and slow down before we get lost in our giving. We can develop the insight that this was never a matter of caring “too much.” Because the truth is, burnout sneaks up on us when we stop focusing on ourselves. If our desire is to help the other person re-engage with their own life, we must also work on re-engaging with our own. And it doesn’t need to happen in a radical, “I’m done!” gesture. Defending against worry or concern may seem like the right reaction, but ask yourself honestly: can you really decide to feel less – of anything – especially when considering your tremendous heart? I would argue that the answer is no, and I have something quite different in mind.

The Paradoxical Role of Compassion.

While ‘suppressed caring’ can cause a host of undesirable consequences, increased caring can allow a broader range of emotions that includes more richness, more ease, more space to breathe. It’s a feeling of being more connected to the self and the other – of feeling awake, flexible, and free. It feels like truth and presence and complexity. I recommend it.

If you need a more down-to-earth, practical reason for caring more, you should know that compassion and self-compassion contain enormous payoffs. Most notably, they generate what are called “protective factors” – things that actually enhance our wellbeing. Yes, compassion can provoke painful empathy, but it also has the ability to produce tremendous benefits, both physical and emotional.6 In one study, warm, gentle and soft vocalizations were scientifically shown to reduce cortisol (a chemical released during stress), and release oxytocin (a beneficial chemical).7 Oxytocin – the chemical that is released in moments of love and caring – reduces pain, blood pressure, and even anxiety.8

Thinking more kindly towards ourselves when we are worried about others would do wonders in a difficult situation, and speaking in gentle tones out loud or even inside our own heads might possibly be more beneficial than any concrete advice or negative judgment we would be tempted to convey. Forgiving others’ imperfections as well as our own is another aspect of caring more, and this is a more understanding position that acknowledges our common humanity.9   This would require a softer outlook, where we would refrain from harsh outward criticisms and self-recriminations. This qualitative shift would allow us to treat ourselves with more patience and kindness, and to accept our own limits.

The Paradoxical Role of Powerlessness.

Here is both good news and bad news: The bad news is that we never really had much control over others. And the good news is that we still don’t. Think about what this could mean to you, that you have limited power, and that you are not ultimately responsible for circling around another person’s life, holding their entire world together with duct tape.

Admitting powerlessness over others is neither apathy nor indifference. Rather, it is about respect. This acknowledgment is a key to emotional freedom; it provides more freedom and ease, a more flexible way of relating to others. As my therapist so willingly shared, the experience of feeling moved by another’s relationship to their suffering can be uplifting, energizing, and inspiring. We find that through powerlessness we feel less of a struggle, less need to control suffering. We are less susceptible to the bandits of burnout.

There is a Buddhist saying: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” This means that without our interference or our rejection, pain will arise and dissolve on its own. (Yes, even other people’s pain). But suffering, on the other hand, is what happens when we struggle, when we try to fix or “improve” things, and here we may be talking about getting too involved in managing other people’s lives.

Many people who have been lost in the process of giving will have a huge reaction to the notion of powerlessness, mainly because they have begun to over-emphasize their role in influencing someone’s life. And perhaps this sneaky suspicion of powerlessness has presented itself before, and not in a pleasing way. To be sure, we can become so painfully worried that doing for others seems essential. But as with many profound axioms, there is a paradoxical element here: Admitting we are powerless can be very empowering. And the same is true on the other side of this paradox: believing we are powerful may blind us to our relative powerlessness.

It is difficult, and yet essential, that we come to terms with the fact that we really aren’t so powerful. As a therapist, I have to humble myself on a regular basis, realizing even though my clients are giving me express permission to help them, I do not have much – if any – control over their circumstances. For my clients’ sake and for mine, I need to not inflate my sense of importance, to not overstate my influence. Admitting our powerlessness over others is a humbling and ongoing practice that puts us back into reality. It asks us to take inventory, to remain aware of our personal limits. And luckily, it happens alongside caring, so our hearts can remain open. Admitting our powerlessness is different than the harsh stance of “I’m done.” It’s a gesture of respect that acknowledges the boundary between self and other. It makes us reasonable and humble; it helps us let go.

In the literature of Co-Dependents Anonymous, Step One reads: “We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable.”10 This step can be a revelatory goldmine when applied to our tendencies toward “helping.” If you have ever talked to an addict who is very sincere about their recovery, you will quite often hear them say, “I’m doing great, but I’m back to working on Step One.” As a therapist and recovering co-dependent, I can completely understand why someone would say that. Because Step One is, in my opinion, the most important step.

Compassion and powerlessness are two essential and complementary instruments of the compass. When used together, they keep us balanced and steady so we don’t topple over the landscape of other people’s lives. These stabilizing practices can help us to avoid succumbing to enabling behaviors, falling through the cracks of burnout, or overstepping our bounds.

Creative Hopelessness.

Now that the word “powerlessness,” may not trigger the same jolt, perhaps you won’t be so easily disheartened by the term “hopelessness.” In many ways, this is similar to the notion of “hitting bottom,” as the phrase is often used in 12-step recovery. Dr. Steven C. Hayes discusses the value of admitting how our repeated attempts to control outcomes can ultimately be defeating.11 Advising, directing, or rescuing others are short term strategies that may eventually fail. Approaches we are tempted to repeat in an effort to make things “better” can produce a feeling of change, but this can be a seduction more than anything else. Time and time again we exert our most valiant efforts, only to discover than nothing much has improved. Instead, by admitting our own limitations, new and creative solutions can emerge, often for ourselves and for the other person.

This is when “hopelessness” becomes a beautiful word, not something demoralizing. The openness, the feeling of surrender, the experience of hitting bottom – all occur when real change begins to happen. Interestingly, we have arrived at another paradox: by giving up, things suddenly begin to look hopeful again.

A similar concept, “radical acceptance,”12 is offered by Dr. Marsha Linehan, who recommends the simultaneous practice of both acceptance and change. We can thus radically accept the reality of our loved one’s circumstances while being proactive with our own self-care. Likewise, we can radically accept our powerlessness while increasing our compassion, exercising our ability to comfort without “fixing.” To be sure, powerlessness, creative hopelessness, and radical acceptance should not be confused with apathy or complacency. They are part of the delicate equation for creating balance so that we can care more without depleting ourselves. They are the more intricate inner-workings of the compass.

Circumstances Don’t Define Us. Or Them.

Too often we overstate our confidence in changing another person’s situation, ignoring the fact that they have free will and are on a very personal journey that may be only meaningful to them. When we become hyper-focused on the details of someone’s life rather than its potential for meaning and discovery, we might be thinking too literally, too superficially. We may simply be seeing the broken mechanisms of the compass rather than the beauty of its design, or the direction it might still be pointing.

But our concrete thinking is a limited perspective. We are not expected, nor are we entitled, to know what is ultimately best for another human being. Suspending our judgment and embracing a sense of not knowing, we can begin to appreciate the significance of another’s suffering – that it has courage, poetry and meaning – and is part of a significant and greater story that is largely mysterious. It is a story whose meaning may only be revealed later, and only to them.

I have heard it said that in one’s final moments, when looking back over the totality of one’s life, people who are dying tend to focus not so much on the significant events that transpired, but more on their responses to those events. Apparently, it is not the literal happenings that matter as much as the ways in which we reacted. The highs, the lows – the accidental circumstances that include both good fortune and bad – these do not carry as much weight as our responses do. Circumstances are not just imposed on us, they summon us, asking that we reveal or reinvent ourselves. They do not define us, nor the person we are trying to help.

Choosing Reality.

After listening to others’ stories over many, many years, I can tell you that Reality usually has something different in store than what we think “should” happen. I’m also both sorry and pleased to tell you that not one of us is a true contender against Reality itself. If we can’t completely rule over our own lives, how on earth do we think we can influence somebody else’s?

I saw a saying once: “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, then it’s not the end.” So, before you say you know how some outcome will be, or how it will be if someone doesn’t approach things in the way you would have them do, consider that Reality often produces something better, something more personal, something that’s tailored to the unique story of a person’s life.

Take a look at your own life, and consider the most astounding things that have ever happened, both good and bad. They were always things that were previously unknown to you. Music is a great metaphor for this, because while you are the authority on your musical taste, you are also not literally the person that composed your music collection. If you’re so clear about your preferences, then what prevented you from writing all the songs in your music library? Not even your own imagination could have designed your favorite song, your happiest moment, your soulmate, or your greatest lesson.

If you are tempted to believe you know how another person’s future should unfold, take a moment to consider that you could not have predicted the details of your own life in their entirety. And if you are tempted to think you know what’s best for another human being, consider again the limitations of your own sense of control and your imagination. The meaning of another person’s life is something that may be knowable and reachable only to them. And it will be far different and more meaningful than anything you can possibly imagine.

 

Extras: Further Suggestions for Balancing Compassion with Powerlessness

If I’m Not “Helping,” What Should I be Doing Instead?

Breathe. Do less. Offer a walk, a hug, a movie, a dessert, or cup of tea. Offer your warmth, your company, but don’t give any advice. Here are some healthy practices you might try in the alternative:

  • Cultivate equanimity. When caught by excessive attachment, untangle yourself by considering, “My loved one has free will, and their life has meaning that may only be knowable to them. It is their choice how they move through their pain or suffering.” This may sound like indifference, but it isn’t – it is respectful of the other person’s journey and is a key to emotional freedom.
  • Try “lovingkindness” mantras, such as: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I live with ease.” And then, “May my loved one be safe. May they be happy. May they live with ease.” Compassion means simply wishing well for the intended recipient. It needn’t be gushy, over-the-top, or complicated. As you reflect on their circumstances, try to generate some sincere well wishes. Keep it simple, and let it go.
  • Listen to free self-compassion meditations, such as on Kristen Neff’s website at self-compassion.org.
  • Practice “Step One” (admitting powerlessness over others). Or explore the idea of “radical acceptance,” embracing the other’s journey as really their own. If you are interested in the mindfulness and acceptance-based practices, work with “creative hopelessness,” where you take an honest look at the control strategies you may use around trying to “fix” others. Write them all down, and review whether or not they actually worked. Notice all your “shoulds” – both for others and for you. Let go of your control, your agenda, your need to be right, and the temptation to think about what’s best for the other person.
  • Practice mindfulness, acceptance and willingness. Stay in the present moment, feel more of your feelings, and don’t try to suppress a thought. But at the same time, remember the overconfidence effect, and beware of your blind spots. Stay a little guarded when it comes to your mind, since our thoughts cannot always be trusted. Attachment to outcomes, worrying about the person’s future, and judging their experiences or behaviors as good or bad – are a few common pitfalls of the “mind” that are also connected to burnout.
  • Embrace your humanity. Practice forgiveness toward yourself, for your limitations and your imperfections. It is enough for you to show up with your authentic presence; it’s ok not to have all the answers or the resources. It’s also ok to slow down. Refrain from harsh criticism and negative self-judgment. Above all, treat yourself with patience and kindness.
  • Dare to care more. Explore your own healthy balance between compassion and letting go. Find a sense of awe and reverence for your loved one’s story, however painful or triumphant. Appreciate it, but don’t own it. Care more and control less, for your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of your loved one.

Notes

  1. Walser, Robyn D., Westrub, Darrah. (2007). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma-Related Problems, a Practitioner’s Guide to Using Mindfulness & Acceptance Strategies. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 200-201, 223-224.
  2. Moore, Don A., Healy, Paul J. (2008). “The trouble with overconfidence.” Psychological Review. 115(2):502-517; Hoffrage, Ulrich. (2012). “Overconfidence.” In Pohl, Rüdiger. Cognitive Illusions: a Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory. New York: Psychological Press, 351-4; Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence.” New York Times; Plous, Scott. (1993). The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. USA: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
  3. Pronin, Emily, Lin Daniel Y., Ross, Lee. (2002). “The bias blind spot: perceptions of bias in self versus others.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3): 369-381; Pronin, Emily. (2008). “How we see ourselves and how we see others.” 320(5880): 1177-1180.
  4. Wegner, Daniel M., Schneider, David J., Carter, Samuel R., & White, Teri L. (1987). “Paradoxical effects of thought suppression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53 (1): 5-13.
  5. Gross, James J., Levenson, Robert W. (1997). “Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 62 (4): 565-85; Cioffi, Delia, Holloway, James. (1993). “Delayed costs of suppressed pain.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (2): 274-82; Feldner, Matthew T., Zvolensky, Michael J., Eifert, Georg H., & Spira, Adam P. (2003). “Emotional avoidance: an experimental test of individual differences and response suppression using biological challenge.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, 41(4): 403-411.
  6. Neff, Kristen. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins Books, 47.
  7. Seltzer, Leslie J., Ziegler, Toni E., & Pollak, Seth D. (2010). “Social vocalizations can release oxytocin in humans.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.
  8. Lee, Heon-Jin, Macbeth, Abbe H., Pagani, Jerome, & Young, W. Scott. (2009). “Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life.” Progress in Neurobiology 88 (2): 127-151.
  9. Brown, Brené. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 128, 133; Brown, Brené. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Should Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City: Hazelden.
  10. Co-Dependents Anonymous, coda.org/pdfs/Fellowship_Service_Manual.pdf.
  11. Hayes, Steven C., Strosahl, Kirk D. (eds.). (2004). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New York: Springer Science and Business Media, Inc., 36, 47, 65, 70, 85-87, 99-100.
  12. Hayes, Steven C., Follette, Victoria M., & Linehan, Marsha M. (eds.). (2004). Mindfulness and

Acceptance: Expanding the Cognitive-Behavioral Tradition. New York: The Guilford Press, 30, 38, 62.

 

©2017 Heather Stone, Ph.D.

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Coping With Ambiguity (And the Trouble with Affirmations)

I don’t believe in affirmations, but I do believe in coping statements. Affirmations are a form of magical thinking, a fervent wish that Reality be somehow different than what it is. Affirmations are used for the purpose of cancelling out “negativity,” a practice that seeks to banish anything undesirable from appearing in the mind or in real life. However, psychological research shows that thought suppression will create a rebound effect, allowing disturbing thoughts and images to intrude with a vengeance. The result is to feel deflated and demoralized as the negative thoughts take over and spiral out of control. Worse, when we start to believe that our thoughts create reality, we may become even more discouraged or afraid. As Pema Chödrön states, “Affirmations are like screaming you’re okay to overcome this whisper that you’re not.”

Coping statements, on the other hand, especially the ones offered in this handout, are intended to help you use less control. They do not oppose Reality; rather, they help you to embrace it. Paradoxically, giving up control can help you feel more in control. The following are the kinds of statements people say to themselves when they have overcome anxiety disorders, so beginning to talk to yourself this way will help you to feel stronger – authentically stronger. After a while, your inner voice will sound more powerful than your anxious thoughts, and your symptoms will subside more easily. Coping statements are qualitatively different than affirmations, because they emphasize resilience, not perfection.

Practice Willingness for short increments of time, by saying:

“I’m willing to be anxious,”
“I’m willing to be uncomfortable.”
“I’m willing to accept Reality, on its terms.”
“I’m willing to acknowledge that this difficult thing is happening.”

Set a timer, and just try to be willing for 30 seconds, 3 minutes, or whatever. We should be 100% willing, but we can’t do it all of the time. Practice willingness in short, manageable bursts. Imagine turning a willingness dial all the way up to 100%.

Move towards Ambiguity, by saying:

“I’ll never know for sure.”
“Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.”
“I can’t predict the future.”
“Anything is possible.”
“I guess I’ll find out.”
“I guess I’ll just wait and see.”
“Things can be better or worse than I’m imagining.”
“I’ll cope with things as they happen.”

Stay with the Now, by saying:

“Back to Now.” (And tune in to your senses and your present activity).
“Right now, in this moment, I’m ok.”
(You probably are. The worst we can feel is “extremely uncomfortable”).
“Right now, in this moment, I have relatively enough information.”
(If you’re craving more certainty, the present moment has more of it than any other time you might be able to imagine).

Move towards Acceptance, by saying:

“The nature of Reality is uncertain and unpredictable, and will remain this way whether I accept it or not.”
“I could choose resistance, but I usually lose that battle.”
“Acceptance is paradoxical: it empowers me, makes me more flexible, and brings me
closer to Reality.”
“When I try to struggle against Reality, I suffer.”
“Wishing for things to be different can be a trap. It can feel like an internal manipulation with my thoughts – a perpetual dissatisfaction.”

Give up Control in order to get your life back, by saying:

“Less struggle equals less anxiety.”
“I hate being blindsided. But if I have to trade letting go of worry for the possibility of being surprised – I’ll do it.”
“I’m willing to be caught off guard in order to have more experiences and feel alive.”
“Worrying doesn’t keep me safe. Bad things happen whether I worry or not.”
“It’s good that I can’t control everything. I couldn’t have created or predicted some of
the best moments, or people in my life.”
“Every good thing that ever happened to me came from the Unknown.”

Change your stance from Fear to Awe, by saying:

“I can have reverence and awe instead of just fear.”
“I am moved by the plight of humanity. I know there is also bravery, compassion,
kindness and grace – which also show up in the face of adversity.”
“I don’t know the end of the story. Things are sometimes unknowable, and yet, can
contain beauty and meaning that isn’t revealed right away.”

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