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New! Promoting Healthy Thinking & Life Skills Workshop 30th May - 18th July 2017 (8 weeks)
I know I've got to do it myself, but ...
Most people now accept that there is no single outside influence, either personal or chemical, which will magically and passively relieve anxiety disorders. That is, a person suffering in this way has to go through getting better, they cannot just be better. Looking at the work involved, and the fact that we are going to have to do most of it ourselves, this is not a cheering thought. But our problems do belong to us, however tortuous the process of acquisition and regardless of the number of people and events that helped these problems to grow. Suggesting that someone ‘takes responsibility’ for their problems and ‘does it themselves’ is then, theoretically, a good idea. But taking responsibility for oneself has to be a voluntary act. Literally it means being able and ready to respond to one’s obvious, or not so obvious, needs. So the trouble occurs with all the difficulties that get in between the idea and the reality.
For example (just for a start), people must be aware that their problem is a problem and not an inevitable part of life; have the experience and insight to make use of the facts offered about the problem and it’s solution; and believe that they are well and strong enough to do the work that accepting involves. So, not understanding these absolutely basic requirements, outsiders may talk in such simplistic terms about taking responsibility that the one who is supposed to be doing the work, seeing no actual way to do this from their own perspective, begins to view him- or herself as some kind of inadequate wimp instead of gaining anything from the suggestion. So this kind of glib ‘it’s all down to you’ statement can just lead to more anxiety and, possibly, depressive, helpless feelings too in those it was supposed to encourage.
Many of us do not understand the subtleties of ‘doing it yourself’ and how much a person’s life, from plain poverty to horrendous emotional problems, affects the possibility of getting a grip on that life, let alone taking control. Also, how any change, painfully and slowly made, will not be a final answer but just the first steps that may be obliterated if that life hits back too hard in the future. People need to know not only that their problems belong to them, but also that they have a sporting chance of getting somewhere if they act on this and give up habits of avoidance and retreating from change. It’s not easy.
So people can find it extraordinarily difficult to make the decision to try for a better way, and it is often obvious why. Additional problems will occur if they have strong feelings of personal worthlessness. Then, deciding to ‘do something’ runs the risk of ‘proving’ (by their failure) that they were indeed as useless and incompetent as they may have long suspected. Such a decision might also take them out of their current social network, away from family and friends who are used to them the way they are. This could reinforce other hovering terrors like isolation and loneliness. And if they have a tendency towards poor decision-making then the whole process of ‘deciding’ might offer only confusion and helplessness.
The need to learn
Making a decision also means that people should have available to them and understand the full facts about what they are giving up and what they will then be getting into. With many people this simply isn’t the case. We all tend to do what seems like a good idea at the time, and a lot of this ‘good idea learning’ offered by well meaning people (and booklets like this) could be more accurately described as ‘temporary awareness’ - a piece of information that passes through the mind rather than finding a home inside it. People need more than simply the facts laid out before them for learning to take place. Learning requires being able to relate information, ideas and events to oneself. So, much information offered with good intentions is not going to ‘stick’ and is not really useful grounds for decision making at all. (This will be discussed at greater length later in this booklet).
Anxiety can make sufferers literally terrified for their lives or their mental existence when faced by situations that are not actually a serious threat at all by the majority’s standards. But this does not mean that a sufferer will file these ‘non-threats’ in some different compartment to tornadoes, muggers, ferocious animals and runaway trucks that the rest of the population would regard as ‘really frightening and life threatening and to be avoided at all costs’. Survival is best served by avoiding threatening situations rather than escaping from them. That is something we all know instinctively. You take the long way round the lion’s cage. You don’t open the door and walk through it and trust to your fleetness of foot to save you. Deciding to put such knowledge aside and to open the cage deliberately, even if it houses something that everyone but you seems to find harmless, is therefore hugely difficult and goes against very deep instincts. You might know that theoretically ‘opening the cage’ will bring long term relief at the cost of short term, probably extreme, discomfort; and that your version of ‘walking round the cage’ (or avoidance) brings very short term relief at the cost of long term handicap. But if, at that moment, you fear for your physical or mental survival and/or your body and mind is screaming for you to escape, your personal reality simply swamps the reality that the rest of the world seems to adhere to - and you do what you have to do.
People don’t consciously choose to handicap themselves of course; but many people coming to Anxiety Care seem to have built up a set of fears and beliefs that allows it to happen. A belief that not being particularly good at certain things makes one totally no good, is a common one. (See Caxton’s ‘4 C’s below) Beliefs of this kind easily take hold and are maintained by carefully filtering out anything that doesn’t confirm them. Thus one may see people who dismiss their spontaneous kindness and warmth and the fact that they may be liked and admired by others as ‘one-offs’ or ‘mistakes’. If the beliefs centre round feelings of personal vileness that (this person believes) might leap out in a disgusting way if not heavily controlled, it gets worse. Many people the charity encounters don’t understand that evil is as evil does, not as evil thinks about doing. (See the articles ‘Obsessional Thinking’ and ‘Guilt and Shame’ on this site). The human mind drifts into many embarrassing and alarming back alleys at times. That is just the way our brains work - one thought birthing another that focuses on (according to our perception) the most important or frightening element of the first, and that thought drawing another one, and so on. Everyone does it, but the majority recognise the random, odd, embarrassing debris that occurs for what it is and dismiss it as irrelevant. However, some people feel so guilty and out of control of their minds all the time that they see their ‘bad’ thoughts, tossed up in this way, as further proof of their awfulness and try even harder to lock them away. This simply makes the ‘badness’ too concentrated and important as it roars and complains behind it’s locked door, trying to get back to it’s rightful place as a small (but valid) part of the whole that makes up a personality. Experiencing the mental fuss and torment, a person trapped in this way easily sees this bluster as proof of the rightness of their fear and snaps another lock on the door; not understanding that if they hadn’t tried to force the ‘badness’ away in the first place it would simply have settled down without a whimper (or not much of one) and soon become what it was supposed to be, a small interesting shade in a multi coloured mind.
Learning about oneself
One really easy way of making ‘doing it yourself’ difficult is not understanding what comprises ‘me’. Anxiety Care encounters many anxiety sufferers who have accepted other people’s values (usually a parent or some significant ‘other’) and have made these their own despite all evidence to the contrary thrown up by their own lives. This is particularly clear with women who have good track records as wives and mothers but who harbour the belief, picked up from somewhere else, that if their ‘real’ selves were allowed freedom they would be wanton or in some way fall into ridicule and humiliation.
A particular case springs to mind: A woman who offered words and phrases that were probably used on her when she was six or less as ‘proof’ that she was a bad person and not acceptable in civilised society. The problems that were giving her so much misery and pain all came under three general ‘wisdom of a bad mother’ headings: ‘Nice girls do not have libido’; ‘mummy will know if you do wrong’; ‘mummies have no responsibility to teach or inform, so any mistakes you make are through your own badness, ignorance and fault and will put mummy in an early grave’.
The problems festering under this outlook might well have raised eyebrows if recounted by a child, but were almost totally irrelevant to a mature, married woman. It looked as if she had locked away the ‘facts’ about what constituted a ‘good girl’ so long ago and so completely that they had never gained from being filtered through her adult self’s wider perception of the world. An extra complication was that this woman tended to see much of the ‘nastiness’ she couldn’t allow in herself, in those around her. This distortion served to ensure that she never obtained a true picture of people and so was never in a position to work out what was wrong with her philosophy and how it made it difficult for people to relate to her. In effect, her social problems were a direct response to a false ‘truth’ rather than proof of its correctness. Taking responsibility for her own problems and ‘doing it herself’ was going to take more effort and involve more change than most of us would be willing to face.
Another case involves a young woman who described an appalling history of parental abuse and neglect. Most of her learning was also of a very negative, childlike kind: ‘Adult males hurt you when you’re naughty and you don’t know when you have been naughty so you have to be careful all the time’; ‘I am stupid, selfish and worthless’; ‘I must make no attempt to be assertive and to do the things I want to do’; ‘daddy is always right’. (It seemed that daddy liked power and control). There was a lot more of the same, all negative and all leading to very understandable feelings of worthlessness and insecurity in this young woman. To her, even small challenges were a threat. It was easier (and safer) for her to accept the false ‘truth’, filter out anything to the contrary and live that way. It was bad but it was familiar. She learned to survive at least. The alternative of seeking out kind, decent companions when she had no experience of the breed at all, but only the word of others that they existed, was to risk a new kind of pain and rejection. She already knew that life was hard, so seeking out new ways to live (to her ways to be further hurt) required more courage and faith than could reasonably be expected.
In her situation, an understandable mistrust of the world and the pain and confusion of her very nice self’s attempt to lead a life that suited her true needs, had laid the ground for panic attacks and agoraphobic symptoms. Anyone responding to her anxiety by patiently explaining that the worlds isn’t dangerous and that she had to take responsibility for her life would be showing ignorance and expecting miracles.
The problem of bad learning
At the heart of the problem of much anxiety/depression is bad learning that produces false beliefs. As Smail (1984) says, these lead people to fear that they will be overwhelmed by the world (as an agoraphobic might feel); or do something so despicable that everyone will be disgusted (as with many social phobics); or that they are responsible for the safety of others or need to perform lengthy ritual actions to get them correct (as seen with many obsessive/compulsive disorders). These strongly embedded behaviour patterns cannot be given up easily. Appealing to reason or providing worthy books on anxiety management and personal growth will make very little difference.
As Smail continues, in this situation, being agoraphobic, deciding that the world should be avoided, might be a logical response. The problem is that the price is so high. A decision then to reject the anxiety problems and take steps to get back into the real world doesn’t necessarily mean that this person has begun to see the world as less dangerous or more attractive. It might only mean that the cost in lost freedom, family pain and (probably), an overwhelming sense of self-disgust can no longer be borne. If the latter is true, this is not a very good way to approach major life changes. Learning is a difficult process sometimes. And in the interaction between ‘Teacher and Taught’, it is very easy indeed for the challenge of learning to turn into a threat. Even trained and experienced professional teachers can miss that crucial point when a challenge to open up to new things becomes too much and the students begin to feel overwhelmed and threatened. In this state, people switch off and start to react to all attempts to urge more work with confusion, anxiety and hostility. So it could be useful here to look at the problems of learning about life changes as it relates to ‘doing it ourselves’.
Beliefs about what constitutes ‘me’, in any of us (as briefly mentioned earlier), and our willingness to accept anything that goes against them is obviously not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ area. All of us have a sliding scale of ‘truth’ ranging from ‘indisputably true’ through to ‘probably true, but I’m open to discussion’. How well we learn depends on how many of the things that need changing in us are locked behind the ‘absolutely’ door and how long ago the door was locked. If we locked it a long time ago we might be clinging to a child’s truth (with the tenacity and single mindedness of a child), or a truth that is not relevant to current situations. In ‘Live and Learn’ (1984), Caxton lists his ‘4 C’s’. These are general anti-learning factors that affect many people who come to Anxiety Care.
As Caxton continues, the person who sees competence as vitally important is unlikely to be willing to let go of ‘absolute’ truths and risk ‘failing’ in the face of the struggle and doubt that goes with learning. If consistency is paramount, this person will not risk trying new ways or new ideas because these mean thinking or acting along lines that don’t fit with the theory of ‘this is me’. This is a major problem, particularly amongst those who fear their personal ‘awfulness’ escaping. Control may be lost in crossing the ‘no-mans land’ between the security and comfort of current knowledge and understanding and accepting new knowledge (a frightening task for all of us whether we suffer from severe anxiety or not). This will be aggravated if the person needs outside help to make sense of this new knowledge. Comfort will be threatened by all of these and will be multiplied by any present tendency towards severe anxiety.
For a person in whom these ‘4 C’s’ are strongly held, any learning that threatens them is an attack on the frightened inner person, making the learning process intolerably anxiety raising. Such a person then retreats into denying or avoiding the need to learn; basically escaping in any way he or she can from yet another situation that is threatening. Such negative feelings can close people off from ‘going out’ or ‘doing something’ before they have a chance to open up to the idea. Such people have learned to have a very fast and very large ‘drawbridge’ to protect their inner selves from new learning or new experience or, sometimes, even minor stress. Some people become so over protective of themselves that the drawbridge smashes shut at the first rustling in the bushes. They hide away in their anxiety castle imagining the terrors outside, whether they are there or not. Then everything becomes a major problem and ‘do-it-yourself’ is impossible.
A first step on the way out of this situation is to accept that the anxiety reactions are not attributable to external factors such as ‘infection’ or ‘life’s cruelties’. On the contrary, they were probably adopted because, at the time, they really did seem a good survival choice. They kept the world’s nastiness at bay, or one’s feared awfulness in, and allowed this person to live some kind of life. They may have been a useful defensive tool that was picked up for a purpose, albeit probably not consciously; and as it was a choice, this person can choose again - to put it down now that it is no longer useful and, in fact, comprises a handicap in itself. The trick is to find out how to put it down and as Caxton and others suggest, there are many ways this could be achieved. Here are a few:
In effect, people suffering in this way have to understand that their sensitivity to feeling out of control, uncomfortable and incompetent is not pleasant, but neither is it terminal. They may well have to face more of the same in order to be free of the problem, and this is not going to kill them or drive them crazy either.
A case study in bad learning and the many sides of ‘truth’
This client, a single woman in her early thirties, describes having been drawn into her parents marital problems at a very early age. From her viewpoint, they appeared to be immersed in themselves, seeing her as just another wedge to shore up their marriage. She felt that she was expected to keep her younger brothers amused and out of the way in order to give her parents time together; and was continually rebuked for being ungrateful and selfish, and a ‘baby’ when she expressed fears about her competence to do this. She further felt that she had been required to accept her parents ‘little weaknesses’ (her words), such as father’s heavy drinking and violence and mother’s depression, and to be the family anchor - all while she was still at primary school.
While this scenario probably did take place much as described, and is almost certainly the cause of the disabling anxiety in this young woman, we must be aware with stories like these that there are many aspects to ‘truth’. So a point should be considered here about this: When listening to ourselves and other people recount the past, it is essential to understand that this is a very personal version of ‘the truth’. With this young woman, the past is the memory it has for her now, probably showing herself in the most favourable light. The events recounted are beliefs, not an accurate record. They are what ‘must have happened’ to her, casting her characters in the roles that best suit such wounding responses. Her younger brothers might tell a very different story of that time - describe parents that are hardly recognisable as the same people.
Saying that, does not mean that this young woman is lying, or that siblings describing these events would have been telling the ‘whole truth’ about those days and those parents. The fact is, we do tend to treat our children differently. But this does not necessarily mean deliberate cruelty or neglect, or even playing favourites. Some children’s personalities might not fit comfortably with their parents’ needs for them to be very much like them, for example, or easily manipulated or even the ‘right’ sex. The negative parental response to such differences on the child’s part could cause such a child much pain and unhappiness. In the case above, it could also be that she saw her father in such a bad light because she never dared to stand up to him. So she would never see him as anything but a drunken tyrant. What is more, her story would not relate everything that went on, only that part of the experience and pain that she, at such a young age, was aware of or could understand.
However, whatever the situation, there is no doubt of the anxiety, pain and confusion that this young woman experienced as a child. But happily (albeit slowly) she is beginning to look at her life and find ways to ‘do-it-herself’. She is learning not to listen to the words, or to accept what ‘must be true’. She is watching what the important people in her life (including herself) are actually doing, not what they say they are doing. She is beginning to be suspicious of her own ‘absolute’ beliefs and certainties. She is making ready to accept that her blanket view of herself as stupid, selfish, to blame for everything and being (still) childishly inept, has tainted her view of the world for years. She is just beginning to accept how much energy she has wasted defending these beliefs when her own needs and feelings were in conflict with them. She is becoming aware of how much of herself has gone into denying, evading and running away from problems. She is realising how much better it would have been if this energy had gone into solving her problems. She is angry. But for the first time in a long time, she is not angry with herself or a specific ‘other’, but at the waste.
Much of the learning required for this kind of recovery can be found within the Anxiety Care services: that is, discussion and observation as a member of support, recovery and/or confidence building groups; and the more intensive one-to-one work. People are not ‘put right’. Rarely are there ‘thunderbolts of enlightenment’ in the various charity services. Mostly people are helped to feel safe in the environment and to begin to experiment with behaviour. This young woman, as an example, has begun to realise that trying to follow other people’s rules, particularly rules that go against one’s need to be true to oneself, just lead to confusion, guilt, anxiety and, often, a barely acknowledged feeling of self-disgust.
So, Anxiety Care mutual support groups and their attached discussion and recovery groups, are a good place to start the process of taking charge of one’s life. Their benign and nurturing culture lets people know that the consequences of feelings and of behaving in certain ways are not automatically disastrous. Group members do not have to make the effort to ‘teach’. Their natural responses are enough for new members to learn, gradually, that the world won’t collapse if they say ‘no’; or if they are spontaneous, or not over sympathetic or over caring. Members do not need their behaviour explained or interpreted; and they don’t need to be deeply questioned or mentally ‘pulled apart’ in the guise of helping. This is always basic within such groups.
However, people like this young woman have missed out on a great deal of caring and nurturing in their lives - more than any group could hope to replace. Anxiety Care does not expect to watch people change their lives hugely (although it has happened). We understand that any worthwhile change has to be built up slowly on good, solid foundations. So it is unlikely that group members will actually witness a filling of the ‘caring void’. A good group understands this and continues to work, becoming expert at sighting small changes and nurturing growth.
One thing the groups do not do is to encourage anger over the past. Natural rage as a temporary and cleansing thing is fine, but focusing on it can easily lead down blind alleys of ‘me and why I feel so bad’.
It is very easy for an anger-focus to turn into self-indulgence: picking over old hurts and concentrating on behaviour rather than the meaning of behaviour. It is also easy to become lost in a ‘search for the villain’. Immersion in the helplessness and rage of feeling wronged is an oddly attractive and comforting activity and many people never struggle free of it. Taking responsibility for oneself has to include accepting the wounds others have inflicted upon us. It is not possible to go through childhood wound free - that’s just a fact of being human. (One Anxiety Care counsellor states that he has never encountered anyone, inside or outside the charity, healthy or not, who could not make a case for being ‘barking mad’ if they set their mind to it.)
So wounds have to be accepted within oneself as examples of our and others’ bad learning or lack of insight or lack of experience of love. People do rotten things through their own pain, or malice or ignorance, or self-involvement, or just because they can. As Fromm says, some people have never encountered a loving person or are so narcissistic that they barely accept the existence of others in the world. It’s nasty, it’s sad, but trying to apportion blame is a pointless and endless task. Somebody did something to you. Who did something to them to make it likely that they would do something to you? How far back do you go? Grandparents? Great Grandparents? And if by chance you found the villain, what then? Finding a reason does not take the pain away. Further, it is often used to stop the effort of recovery as if such a discovery was an end in itself. ‘Why?’ can be so complicated and/or multi-faceted; so much caught up in events, reactions, tendencies, chance, personality etc., that no single ‘reason’ can ever be fully isolated.
So ‘doing it oneself’ has to include many things. It means accepting that we have to forgive (but not forget) the people involved in the making of the wounded self (and that includes our own culpability). This means, as Smail says, that we have to accept that all the people we have collided with in life are caught up in illusion: The illusion that we know why we do what we do; The illusion that our actions are reasonable, rational, logical, well intentioned and justified most of the time; The illusion that what we do is occasioned by personal choice rather than understanding the extent to which fear, anxiety, and unconscious acceptance of other people’s values colour all our actions. As Smail continues, doing it oneself has to include accepting that being helped to examine what one wants to be isn’t going to generate lasting change. Change needs reinforcing every step of the way; and the bigger the needed changes, the harder it will be and the longer it will take. Finding worthwhile goals may well initiate and direct behaviour, but it won’t sustain it. People don’t change easily or by trying to think themselves different. People need to see the way these changes affect the manner in which others relate to them and regard them. It means getting well around other people, not in isolation. It means very specifically accepting that relationships do, (and need to), grow and change. It means accepting that this movement in relationships may throw up problems itself; but these are likely to be ‘normal’ events that can be seen as different from anxiety based difficulties and so, something that can be a healthy signpost to a better something else; Not something that needs to be viewed with foreboding or suspicion.
It can be hugely difficult, sometimes virtually impossible, to absorb new ideas and experiences if they cannot be linked with current ones. If the tools of recovery in the form of information and help are available but a person feels unable to apply them, then this doesn’t mean a need for more knowledge or a better therapist (and perhaps an excuse to procrastinate a bit longer), rather it shows a need to find ways to make existing knowledge link in with the self or to find a deeper, more relevant meaning to what is already known. Mostly, it means accepting that there is a big difference between being in possession of information and using it to change the way we behave and relate to the world. Most difficult of all, doing-it-oneself may mean accepting that some of the wounds will never heal.
One perceptual change may need to be in the area of ‘ balance’. We all have ‘balance’ in our lives. Those inner scales that weigh every action: Do I? Don’t I? Staying in a warm bed is very attractive on a cold morning, but the children need feeding; or I might get sacked if I don’t get up. Those clothes on the shop rail are beautiful, but food or an unpaid bill is more important.
Most of us are socialised or ‘civilised’ to such a degree that the many personally preferable alternatives in every-day actions are hardly considered; and these alternatives themselves are usually so minor or so well understood that real conflict does not occur. However, this social balance is quickly lost when severe anxiety surfaces. ‘Going shopping’ may suddenly feel so terrifying that only pending starvation makes a ’balance’ possible. ‘Travelling on the Underground’ is so terrible that only the fear of losing our livelihood keeps us doing it; and sometimes not even that. Suddenly, the balances have gone wrong after years of barely acknowledging them.
To many people this is terrifyingly incomprehensible. Reality seems to have changed and that is frightening for anyone, as we all rely hugely on our unconscious beliefs that some things just ‘are’. When some of these ‘absolutes’ change - usually to our detriment - we begin to lose faith in all the rest. Doubting personal abilities becomes a chronic habit very quickly. In terms of balance this invariably means a great deal more weight on our side to make, sometimes, the simplest every-day activities possible. Doubt and fear leaps to the mind and fills the places that our adult confidence used to be so comfortable with that we barely noticed it. This is very apparent with driving a car for example. People who have driven for many years, because of their growing anxiety condition, suddenly feel they have to think about every driving movement to ensure that it is correct. So of course it becomes stilted, awkward ‘wrong’ and so additionally frightening. Casual belief in our own eyes and our reflexes that we will avoid killing pedestrians with our car is lost. Every bump in the road is a dead child. Suddenly, ‘driving’ becomes monstrously dangerous and unbalanced to a degree that may make it impossible.
In this way, in the clutches of an anxiety disorder, our revised and erroneous belief in what constitutes balance means that many things in life have to be brought to a crisis level before they ‘weigh enough’ to counter the huge, feared weight on the other side. This makes life hard and exhausting. There are countless stories within Anxiety Care of people who live like this every day. It is a salute to human kind’s flexibility and endurance that most of these sufferers’ families or co-workers are completely ignorant of the fact that they live this way. One of the charity’s main areas of work is in helping to redress these imbalances. However, it is vitally important for anyone considering an attempt to counter their anxiety disorder through personal effort to be aware of their own balances when they begin. Attending a group or counselling may involve much effort and courage. It is then too easy to demand (subconsciously) an equal balance of benefit in return. However unrealistic, part of us in such a situation, requires a huge payment as balance for all that anxiety. Inevitably it doesn’t happen. But understanding the situation, armed with knowledge about the inequity we will feel, means that we are able to overcome the disappointment and try again next week. Ignorant of our wrong balance, we just feel let down or cheated and don’t come again. This leads to ‘butterflying’ where sufferers dip in to one new thing after another because only the phoney balance of unrealistic expectation (the fantasy of passive cure) makes all that effort worthwhile.
A version of this is that many people coming to Anxiety Care have unrealistic hopes and beliefs about their future. They tend to feel that unless a full happy life is guaranteed as balance for the work, then the work won’t be done. This is understandable, as the work load can look incredibly daunting, but it is foolish. Anxiety cannot be removed from a person’s mind, because it has survival value in everyone’s life. But it can be reduced to a point where normal life is possible and pleasant. There is no guarantee that there won’t be setbacks. The body and mind has found a successful way to shut down when it feels threatened and cannot be expected to give up this skill. The problem is that the strategies we use to defend ourselves from life also prevent us from using our potential to improve.
This potential for being so much more than we appear to be is clear in many clients the charity encounters. Many people put on a ‘fake’ competence for a few important people in their lives. They are often very convincing, but it doesn’t seem to occur to many of them that the fact that they can act competent (however much effort this takes), means that the knowledge of how to be competent people must exist in their ability bank somewhere. Their personalities must, to some extent, match this knowledge or the act would not be so convincing. People need to understand that their ‘self’ is actually made up of a multitude of different elements including the things they pretend to be as well as (possibly) the things they fear they are. People are not set and rigid but have multifaceted personalities and possess the ability to change in all manner of ways. Once this is accepted, then real growth can begin.
Accepting this is crucial, but it can be nasty and full of pitfalls for the budding confidence to look around inside ourselves. As Pessoa once said ‘In every corner of my soul there is an altar to a different God’; And some of these Gods can be very strange indeed: meanness and cruelty; selfishness and childish rage and some things we cannot even bear to poke with a long stick. Looking at our inner selves, armed with dissatisfaction, growth and positive change can look like (and is) a job for life. It is then very easy to become caught up in the belief that the only spur to change is dissatisfaction with ourselves; that we have to hate, or be disgusted with, our current selves to make it work. If we fall into this trap we are simply setting up more problems. Nobody is able to spend the rest of their lives loathing themselves and still stay on top of things enough to get by. Pretty soon, this untenable feeling leads to hiding the causes again or simply denying their existence. Then the nastiness is reburied and free to fester away to its hearts content. Far better to be brave enough to love oneself, understanding that positive change can only seed in that kind of soil.
Most of us fall over ourselves to be kind to downtrodden others, but treat our fragile inner selves with a cruelty that would keep the Court of Human Rights busy for all eternity. Nelson-Jones (1984) lists some mitigating circumstances that we might all bear in mind when tempted to bring out the mental stick to use against this ‘self’.
All that might not bring us a ‘not guilty’ verdict, but the least we can expect is that we will let ourselves off with a caution. Having said that however, anyone suffering from anxiety knows that we often compromise with our anxiety restrictions. Not to put too fine a point on it, we tend to be as fettered as we allow ourselves to be.
Some people will find that statement outrageous. But it is true. Anxiety is not like pregnancy or measles. It is not linear. There is no inevitability about it’s process. Anxiety presses up against the edges of one’s life and quickly takes up any space allowed to it. However, it’s very flexibility means that it can be pushed back too. So, a diagram of a person’s incapacity would look like a coastline - all inlets, bays and out-jutting cliffs. No straight lines. In this situation, it is not at all unusual for people’s incapacity to be incomprehensible (and therefore suspect) to outsiders who expect straight lines and continuity of the measles/pregnancy type. So outsiders might find it difficult to understand that it is perfectly possible to find someone who cannot walk to the corner shop, but can drive a car into the next county without a tremor. Or somebody who cannot walk within thirty feet of a gas pipe outside, but passes within three feet of his own gas pipes at home all the time.
Discussing such disparities in handicap often reveals a version of ‘balancing’ that the sufferer has negotiated with him- or herself. That is, some areas of life are so vital to maintain for this person that they reject the incapacity in that area to maintain this viability (like the gas pipes above). Anyone conversant with anxiety disorder would not find this strange. However, it does throw up a solid fact: that it can be controlled if the need is great enough. In other words, the anxiety is only as containing as we allow it to be and under some circumstances we can pull some of our life back.
There are two problems with this. One is that we cannot live at crisis level all the time as mentioned earlier. In that case we have to work at reducing the weight on the opposing side or increasing the weight on our side (in a non-destructive way) to obtain balance. Increasing our side in a way that doesn’t involve a crisis could be via determination, motivation and positive attitude. Decreasing the other side could be through familiarity breeding less fear each time the anxiety-generating situation occurs; more accurate perception of the feared situation; and more understanding of the physical symptoms.
The other, related, problem is that many sufferers do not have the energy available to do the work needed within their current life situation. They are, quite literally, already working to their perceived physical and mental limit. Within the Groups this is described as being so busy not drowning that they do not strike out for the shore. The difficulty with this is that if staying afloat does not involve an active effort to go somewhere, a person drowns eventually. It is vital, therefore, that a person suffering in this way accepts help that will increase their perceived abilities to counter the problem. While simply staying afloat is the only goal, recovery is not possible. A person has to be brave enough to take a chance and invest some energy in recovery work.
From Anxiety Care’s experience, people are stronger than they believe they are. Once they increase their focus to include a positive future, there is invariably some small amount of energy that can be harnessed in the service of recovery. To start, it only has to be a small amount. Sometimes, if a person simply draws a metaphorical line across his or her life: a straight line that will not allow anxiety restrictions to creep in any further, it is a beginning. Stretching the coastline metaphor a little, this could be seen as a dam that will not allow anxiety to take any more space. It doesn’t take any back for a while, but it stops the encroachment. Once a person realises that they can, in fact, deny further restrictions in their life, the confidence starts to grow.
Attitude has a major part to play then. People who have gone through severe anxiety disorders and come out the other side often mention a curious fact. That recovery started, not with a reduction in symptoms, but with a change in attitude on their part towards these symptoms. That is, the feared response or situation still occurred but the usual self-recriminating, self-pitying feelings this invariably generated, did not, or not to the same extent, once recovery was underway.
One of Anxiety Care’s trainers uses ‘The Hamster Weekend’ as an example of this. Staying at a friend’s home for two nights, he had to share the only bed space with a large hamster in a cage. At bedtime, the hamster was happy and alert, hurtling round in its wheel, hanging from the roof bars, generally ready to start it’s nocturnal day. The trainer was tired and irritated. He lay in his bed and cursed the creature for keeping him awake, and cursed it again every time it woke him during the night. The following day he was tired and bad tempered and feeling sorry for himself. That night he went up to bed again to see the same energy filled hamster regarding him from behind the bars. However, this time he felt differently. He talked to the hamster (quietly), saying that he understood that this was the hamster’s space; that night was the hamster’s time, but he hoped the creature would keep the noise down a bit. It didn’t; but the trainer’s attitude was different. He didn’t allow anger or resentment to keep him awake, or fuel him when he was woken again on several occasions during the night. The actual hours asleep were not different, but that second day at his friend’s he was relaxed and content.
Not a major landmark in anyone’s life, but personal versions of such a ‘hamster weekend’ can make a huge difference to the way anxiety ‘bites’. Here a good group can help. It is not at all unusual for members of a recovery group to laugh about their anxiety responses as they recount a week’s happenings. An outsider might be forgiven for thinking these people had lost touch with reality; but such a response by group members is a vital and positive one. Getting away from the endless loop of fear and catastrophic thinking - throwing an amused or ridiculing light on the gloom begins to show it for what it is: irrelevant. Rigid, fearful, almost superstitious responses fuel anxiety. Open, calm discussion puts it in it’s place.
One concluding point: None of this booklet was written as an attempt to arm people with all they need to know about setting themselves and others right. Successfully taking charge of oneself does not mean swallowing theories whole and being led around by the nose. Anyone who is that malleable is very unlikely to stick to ‘new truth’ once the influence of the group, or therapist, or booklet has gone. Success is developing in one’s own way, forming relationships with others and coming to terms with what we are, while giving up the belief that we can ‘cut out’ the bits of ourselves we don’t like. It’s a big job by anyone’s standards. Good luck!
Source material and references
This booklet grew out of ideas and techniques, the sources of which, in many cases, are long forgotten, but will definitely owe a lot to the work of Smail (whose insightful work forms the basis for much of this article); Fromm and Caxton. A few of those not forgotten are listed below. Any author who feels that he or she has been left out or wrongly cited should contact Anxiety Care with the required changes which will be made as soon as is possible. All readers are requested to note that this is a non-profit publication and that it is also not a substitute for medical advice.
Ashton, H. (1989) ‘Anything for a quiet life?’, New Scientist,
6 May 1989 pg52-55
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