Archive for February 6th, 2011
You may find yourself feeling miserable because of the way you see yourself in the world. You may say to yourself, “Why does this always happen to me, you think, or why does life have to be so unfair? or why is it so hard?” You react this way when you secretly imagine yourself as being at the center of the universe. This isn’t conceit or arrogance, but it can be called “narcissism”. It’s what happens when you’re the point of reference for everything that happens all around you. We are all a bit narcissistic. A little of that is natural; you look out at the world through your own eyes and hear through your very own set of ears. But when you act like everything happens because of you, you’re headed for trouble.
This makes me think of a client, named Frank I saw a few years ago. Frank was an employee at a mid-sized corporation. Lately, the company has been doing too good and Frank’s boss, Mark had been directing more and more of his complaints and insults specifically at Frank. Frank was having a difficult time not taking this personally and came to my office to discuss his options.
Counselor “Why do you take’s Mark’s criticism personally?”
Frank “How do you not take it personally when someone says, ‘you’re a stupid, lazy, liar who is not pulling his weight ‘?”
Counselor “What does it mean when you take something personally?”
Frank “It means I feel insulted, offended and hurt.”
Counselor “What is that feeling called when you hurt and offended?”
Frank “I feel worthless.”
Counselor “You are telling me that you just let Mark’s childish nonsense from the fourth grade rob you of your self-respect.”
Frank “Well it was personal he was looking right at me. How else should I react?”
Counselor “That’s the trick. They don’t teach you how to cope with this stuff in school, do they?”
Frank “My teacher always told me to ignore it.”
Counselor “How is that working for you?”
Counselor “It’s one thing to ignore a dumb remark. It’s quite another to ignore the loss of your worth as a person.”
Frank “But its not fair, I do a good job.”
Counselor “Does arguing with Mark’s insults make things better?”
Frank “No. I lost my cool and now my job is sending me here or I’ll be fired.”
Counselor “Then Mark was successful in dragging you down to his immature, inappropriate level. You cannot solve problems that way. People who do not respect themselves very much use these school yard tactics because that is where they learned to solve problems. They haven’t refined their techniques much in the interim. Instead you can choose to take away their power that robs you of your self-respect.” Frank “How?”
Counselor “It helps if you know what self-respect means. It is the feeling that you are unconditionally a worthwhile human being in spite of your faults and imperfections.”
Frank “Even if other people think I’m a jerk?”
Counselor “You are not less lovable because of your behavior. You are worthwhile in spite of it. You will never be inferior nor will you be superior, you will always be good enough. Your mistake is to take his kid stuff personally which you can stop doing at any time you choose. You can also choose to identify his insults as absurd nonsense and not take them seriously. If he called you a purple elephant would you change colors and grow a trunk? If I say the world is flat and the grass is pink does it make it so? In a way, he is demonstrating that his arguments are bankrupt and he is regressing to this absurd, pre-teen level of debate because he is out of ammo. Once he has faked you out of your self-respect, you are at a disadvantage. You are in pain. You try to relieve the pain of your lost self-respect by tearing him down.”
Frank “That’s kid stuff, too.”
Counselor “One of you has to grow up. It’s better when you can see these people coming. But now you know what he is up to. When Mark starts antagonizing you, you can shift your gears. You can detach and disengage emotionally from his provocation. You can choose not to take their absurd false accusations seriously, as if they made sense. His accusations are false, they don’t make sense, so don’t take it personally as if it is an ultimate evaluation of your worth as a person.”
Frank “I can always walk away.”
Counselor “Yes, that is called disengaging with your feet.”
Frank “What if he says, ‘Frank you’re such a dumb ass’.”
Counselor “You are not required to prove how smart you are to him. How did her get to be the final judge over you? He is also a human and has his own standards and preferences for how things ought to be. You don’t have to be perfectly smart. You are smart enough as you are. You are worthwhile in spite of you mistakes. You can say ‘There’s a lot of that going around, I don’t know how you stand it’. or ‘I never thought of it that way’
Frank “What if he says something that’s true – like I really did forget to check with Supply before ordering that part?”
Counselor “It only proves that you are an imperfect human being. It’s not a reflection on you. Self respecting people learn from their mistakes. You can say, ‘It’s awful when that happens, isn’t it?” Frank “What if it’s my fault?”
Counselor “You are not guilty of a crime. It’s not a crime to make a mistake. It’s not a matter of assigning guilt, fault and blame. It is a matter of human imperfection. The issue is how can you fix it.” Frank “Shouldn’t I try to prevent it from happening again?”
Counselor “There is no way to prevent imperfect human beings from being imperfect. You take reasonable precautions, but beyond a certain point, your good intention to ‘control’ becomes counter-productive. Everyone is afraid to make a move for fear of being criticized. So nothing gets done. Everyone becomes discouraged. That is the worst mistake of all, and it was all done by management with the ‘best of intentions.’
Frank “I’ve done a lot of favors for Mark. He doesn’t appreciate all the breaks I’ve given him.”
Counselor “Do you take that personally, too?”
Frank “Sure I do.”
Counselor “So you are angry at him for his lack of consideration. It is unfair when he doesn’t reciprocate your consideration on his behalf. Who else are you angry at?”
Frank “At myself, for being such a chump.”
Counselor “Mark’s ingratitude is causing you to feel ‘good for nothing,’ which means ‘worthless.’ You have just lost your self respect again!”
Frank “How can I stop it?”
Counselor “By no longer defining your self worth in terms of ‘getting approval or being appreciated for what you do.’ You are a worthwhile human being in spite of your faults and imperfections, whether Mark appreciates you or not. You don’t do it to prove anything. You get to be the judge of how smart is smart enough. You don’t need a gold star for someone else. It is nice to get others’ approval, but it is not a requirement. He does not get to make a final evaluation of you. Your performance varies for hour to hour day to day and you make the best decision you can with the information available to the time. You are not helpful just to get others’ approval, you do it because of you value generosity and your judgment told you that it is good to help out. Its regrettable that you are not being appreciated, but you get to be the judge of how good is good enough, not him. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Frank “No. I didn’t.”
Counselor “As a worthwhile human being in your own right, you are not dependent on Mark for the validation of your worth as a person. You have the power now to validate your own efforts, your own judgment, your own worth as a human being.”
Frank “What if he says something bad about the company?”
Counselor “Mark knows all of your soft spots, doesn’t he? He knows that you are a loyal employee and that he can provoke and antagonize your anger by bad mouthing the company. You do not take that personally either. You can remind yourself that his words are smoke and mirrors for his own pain. You remind yourself that he has his own opinions and preferences based on his own unique experiences and expectations. They’re not right or wrong, just a matter of his own personal taste. You remind yourself that you get to define yourself, based on your own judgment and you can validate your efforts even if the outcomes are not perfect. If you want to do what Mark doesn’t expect, you can agree with him! You can say, ‘I don’t know how you stand it!’
Frank “It still makes me angry.”
Counselor “Then you can choose to tell him the truth like a grown up, you can say ‘It makes me angry when you say that’.” Frank “What if he says, ‘I don’t care’.” Counselor “That makes you even angrier. You can say, “You just made it worse. I’m angrier now than I was before’.
Frank “What if he says, ‘I’m angry at you!’”
Counselor “You can validate his anger, which is a legitimate human emotion. You can say, ‘I don’t blame you for being angry. I get angry too when this don’t go my way. I’m sorry your angry, but I’m still angry too.”
Frank “Why should I say, ‘I’m sorry?’ I didn’t do anything.”
Counselor “You are not expressing ‘guilt.’ You are expressing regret that he is angry, but that is his problem. Guilt implies you take ownership over a problem. Regret is the wish that things were other than they are. You can regret his painful anger without taking ownership over it.”
Frank “What if he says, ‘It’s your fault, you were wrong?’”
Counselor “And you hate to be in the wrong. But, once again, it’s not a matter of right and wrong. This is a carryover from childhood when things were either right or wrong. Now, as an adult, you can live in the middle ground between these two extremes. You can choose not to argue about right or wrong!. You can choose to validate yourself as good enough based on the information you had at the time.”
Frank “But I wasn’t wrong, I was right!”
Counselor “But you really do not know what is best. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolutes.You have enough trouble figuring out what is best for yourself, how can you know what best for anyone else Your human imperfections make people angry sometimes, you may trigger their memories and they may mismanage their emotions. It is regrettable when they do and you can express appropriate regret. Here you are modeling validation, acknowledging their emotion without condoning it. This behavior is an example for them to see and follow; if they choose..”
Frank “Mark really does know how to push my buttons, doesn’t he?”
Counselor “He uses your vulnerabilities against you. The more you recognize your own efforts, the less you will rely on others for validation. By acknowledging your success, you come to respect yourself as a worthwhile human being and with time you develop think skin and are the less vulnerable to his provocations.”
Frank “Why does he do it?”
Counselor “Because he doesn’t respect himself as much as he needs to. He is trying to relieve the pain of his own self-doubt by building himself up at your expense.”
Frank “That doesn’t work.”
Counselor “That’s why he has to keep doing it. If it worked, he could stop.”
Frank “How can I get him to stop?”
Counselor “By disengaging and emotionally detaching. Your reaction reinforces his antagonism. You can chose to respect yourself in spite of his unnecessary nonsense. When he sees that his provocation is running off of you like water off a duck, he will leave you alone.”
Frank “What will he do?”
Counselor “He might go and find himself another pushover, or he might find himself following your example of self respect whether he is aware of it or not.” He might even begin cooperating with you as two equal members of the human race doing what reality requires them to do.”
We have an epidemic of endlessly circular, obsessive thinking in this country. Many sufferers do not realize that they have the disorder. They call it “worrying” as if they were qualified to diagnose their own peculiarity. They often imagine that it is merely a “weakness” or a “bad habit”. They see it as a problem and see themselves as problem solvers. They define their worth in terms of solving problems single-handed. To self-appointed problem solvers, admitting “failure” or “defeat” by “depending” on a professional counselor or revealing “weakness” are too painful. These feelings only magnify and compound with time. Stopping them from solving problems, which makes life utterly unacceptable.
In addressing obsessive thinking, we must first correct the mistaken impression that the issue is “thinking”. The obsessive mental merry go round is a symptom of pain that lies further down. We can relieve the pain by identifying the components that contribute to it. Each of these factors can then be put in a more moderate and manageable perspective. Aft we have done so, the mental turntable ceases to spin.
Obsessing often begins with a problem, particularly a problem that seems “unsolvable”. Now not only do they have to find a solution, but they have to solve it perfectly. Nothing less will do! A partial solution will not give them the relief they seek from the tension of this unsolved problem. Since they cannot get relief from their self-imposed standard of perfection, they cannot get relief from their own distress. They only compound their misery. The turntable keeps spinning.
A major factor in obsessive thinking is the issue of control. Obsessors have mistakenly defined control as “preventing” bad things from happening. The bad thing may be a personal shortcoming, which is taken as a “failure”, “abandonment”, or “vulnerability”. These terrifying possibilities give rise to painful anxiety along with constant rumination. What is even more painful is the mounting conviction that they will be unable to prevent the disastrous, bad thing that they have prophesized to occur, from happening. Their thing is distorted and out of control. They begin to act in way to gain control, the harder they try to gain control in this absurd way, they more out of control they feel. They become tense and up tight, which are manifestations of their underlying effort to avoid losing control by controlling what they can.
In almost every case of obsessive thinking there is an anger component. Obsessors may be angry with the person who caused them to face this unsolvable problem. They may be angry with themselves for their own “failure” to solve the problem before it occurred. They may be angry with themselves for letting this bother them. Their thoughts are filled with phrases like “weak”, “stupid”, “failure” or “worthless.” In a sense, it is this anger, which gives energy to the wheel of obsessive thinking. As long as they are angry with themselves for their imagined “failure” the wheel cannot stop spinning.
I’ve noticed that every obsessive client I have ever seen has a similar theme that contributes to their endless dwelling. It is a theme of unfairness. A wife may feel it is unfair that her husband puts his mother’s concerns ahead of her own, a rejected lover may feel it is unfair that his beloved no longer cares for him, or an employee may feel it is unfair that a coworker receives a promotion. These experiences of unfairness are painful. Their self-esteem is so paper thin that these experiences are used to confirm their pre-existing feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.
Obsessors often feel that they have “failed” to prevent the problem from happening. For them, this implies guilt, guilty of the “crime” of disappointment, displeasing, or irresponsibility. They have no one but themselves to blame. Their mistaken experience of guilt pushes them to punish themselves. They assume it will hurt less and they will have some control if they punish themselves. This kind of thinking does not work and worse still it stops them of resolving the problem that faces them. As children, we learn that guilt leads to punishment and as adults they see to it that their own guilt is suitably punished. They would feel “irresponsible if they didn’t. Yet, they are now locked into a vicious cycle of guilt and punishment from which they do not see themselves as “deserving” to escape. Obsessors do not torment themselves in this way because they enjoy it. They are not masochists. They are in pain and suffer from an underlying conviction that they are worthless, inferior and inadequate to cope. So they behave accordingly. But they hate it.
Underlying obsessive thinking is the fact that we are trying to predict the future. We are trying to solve a problem in the present to prevent disaster in the future. We are trying to come up with a plan to feel secure about some problem that may or may not happen tomorrow. In the mean time we are not living in the present. Our life is on hold until we find an acceptable solution to this unsolvable problem. We have set ourselves up. We cannot find an accurate plan for the future because it has not happened yet. When we do not have a plan we feel pain and this pain is too much to bear. So we act in ways to punish ourselves to teach ourselves a lesson for our “failure”. We cannot control the future. We can only live in the present. But when our worth as a person seems to be at stake, we cannot allow ourselves to have peace of mind until this ordeal is over. This is a prescription for anxiety, which frequently accompanies obsessive thinking and compounds our pain.
Some obsessive thinkers try to relive their distress by “fighting” their thoughts. They assume that their problem is a matter of willpower and they can end this line of thinking by simply saying to themselves, “Stop it this instant” or “I will not think this way anymore.” This approach does not make things better. It makes them worse. It is a good intention. It sounds logical, but it is counter productive. It has the undesired effect of giving the obsessive thoughts more power and significance then they deserve.
Julie had been a “worry wart” all her life. The morning of her big presentation, she found herself at it again. She worried about her presentation, its impact of her future with the company and her kids. She experienced some of the same old feelings that had been around since childhood: dread, nausea, tension, pressure, stress and the fleeting with that she were dead and out of her misery. But Julie had learned how to identify her worrying as obsessive thinking and she learned what not to do. She didn’t fight it or try to pretend it wasn’t there. She learned how to deal with it and get rid of it.
Julie began by identifying the components of her obsessive thinking. The first component was her unsolvable problem: how to keep from messing up her presentation and getting fired. This was the impossible problem that she had to solve perfectly four hours before her meeting began. However, she was able to see the absurdity of this fictitious problem. She began to tell herself: “I don’t have to solve the problem at all. It doesn’t exist. I will deal with the presentation as it unfolds and do the best I can in the moment.” She identified the control component: “I should have prepared more, but now it’s too late and I’m just going to screw it up and forget something.” But she caught herself and instead thought: “I am not out of control. I have spent hours going over the material. I am prepared enough and I do not have to be any more prepared then that.” She also identified her anger component. “I am angry at myself for not being smarter than I am. If I were as smart as other employees I wouldn’t have to work so hard or prepare so much. I wouldn’t be so afraid of failing.” However, Julie applied the following affirmation instead: “I am smart enough. I can choose to forgive myself for my human imperfections. Perfection is not a requirement for success.”
Julie identified the unfairness component. “If I screw up this presentation I’ll get fired. I won’t have a career. I won’t be able to support my kids. I’ll have to resign myself to being a failure as an employee and mother.” Now she could replace this thought with a healthier outlook: “Life is not fair, but unfairness is not personal. I am a worthwhile human being whether I advance in my career or not. I am not ever going to be superior or inferior. I am good enough. I am free to concentrate on what I have to do. The chances are I’ll do a lot better than I did in the past. All this worry only gets in my way.”
Julie has done a good job sorting through he fears and pain. But the proof of her relief came when she was able to give her presentation and felt calm. She felt competent, confident, secure and focused. She trusted her judgment. She had an independent identity that had nothing to do with how others viewed her. She took action in the present reality and did the best she could. She did what was hard and did it anyways. She experienced feelings of accomplishment and success. She got through her presentation without all the worry and pain that she used to inflict on herself. She learned that she was in control of her judgment and her judgment was good enough to solve her painful problem.