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You’re Your Own Worst Enemy: Could It Be?

Apr 19

G’day all! Once again I have returned from my journey to the LMD; I am pleased to report that all is well in the world; things could be worse (yes, even in your life!) I apologize to those who had to wait to have comments posted or messages answered. Interestingly, on this journey I was contacted by several of you who had in common that you were in conflict with your employer in one way or another. The common concern among this group was the ability to control their emotions when in front of some board of review, disciplinary hearing, or the like. As there appeared to be a common theme running through these members’ experience, I thought I might offer you the following. Once again, and before I begin, I assert that I am not offering you therapy, or being critical of your therapist whatever stripe that person may be of. I am simply providing something for you to think about.

As you may have already gathered through your reading of this blog, I pay little attention to the direct attempt to reduce symptoms. I base this perspective upon the belief that vigorous attempts to rid oneself of a symptom actually triggers the disorder in question in the first place! Think about it for a moment, as soon as your uncomfortable emotional experience was labelled as the “symptom” of a “disorder”, did you not immediately begin to struggle with it in an attempt to rid yourself of some “pathology”? And was it not this struggle and the newly applied “diagnosis” that then created the “disease”? Think further (especially if you are a martial artist), what does your opponent do if you vigorously push against that person? Of course, that opponent will push back!

Consider this! There is a school of thought that asserts that human language is the culprit that creates suffering for us all. The way this works is it sets us up for a struggle with our own thoughts and feelings. (The process even has a name…..”experiential avoidance”).

It is well accepted that the single biggest evolutionary benefit of human language is to anticipate and solve problems. If you think about it for a moment, this advantage has not only contributed to the development of human society, but also allowed us to travel beyond our society and beyond this planet. The simple approach of defining a problem and then solving it has proven to work well in the practical world e.g. we use shelter to protect us from the elements; or we can increase the odds of survival by living in communities rather than by ourselves. So as these problem solving strategies seemed to work well in the “outside” world, we naturally think they will work well in the “inside” or psychological world of thoughts and feelings. Tragically however when we try to rid ourselves of these inner experiences, we end up magnifying them. Likely one of the better examples of this process is to be found in the creation of addictive behaviour. It is arguable that nearly every addictive behaviour known to us began as an attempt to rid ourselves of unwanted thoughts or feelings. The addictive behaviour then becomes self reinforcing as it provides an effective way of ridding us of cravings or the symptoms of withdrawal.

Now turn your attention to yourself or those I noted at the beginning of this piece. Think of how anxious you become in anticipation of whatever type of board, hearing, or trial (all “performances”) you are about to face. Riddle me this, the more time you spend wrestling with unwanted (illogical?) thoughts and their emotional consequences, the more you suffer psychologically, don’t you? The handful of you that I spoke to were dealing with anxiety; more accurately termed “performance anxiety”. To be consistent with what was presented above, it’s not the presence of anxiety that is the essence of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal human emotion; the problem lays in your preoccupation with trying to avoid or rid yourself of anxiety. The “performance anxiety” you experience provides us a perfect example. The more you tell yourself you “can’t/shouldn’t feel” what you are feeling because it will detract from your performance (and cause you embarrassment) the more anxious you will become. You now reach the point where you are “feeling anxious about feeling anxious”. This is the vicious cycle found at the heart of any anxiety disorder.

There exists a ponderous body of research data suggesting that higher “experiential avoidance” is associated with anxiety disorders, depression, poor work performance, chronic substance abuse, poor life quality, high risk sexual behaviour, Bipolar Personality Disorder, severe posttraumatic stress, long term disability, and alexithymia (remember this one?).

So there it is! It seems that all your “emotional control” strategies (used to defeat your anxiety, anger, depression etc.) could quite likely have become costly, life-distorting, or harmful. There are alternatives to “experiential avoidance” to be found in a variety of therapeutic interventions. But enough for now. Next time I will introduce you to some of those interventions. Until then keep this in mind…….

“There is no need to push the river, for it flows by itself”

Dr. Mike Webster
Registered Psychologist

  1. Osprey inquired of Squirrel Sensai, “When my meditation is going well, is it good to squeeze an hour or two more out of it?” Squirrel answered, “My babies will be born in the Spring.” Osprey cocked her head and said, “So we shouldn’t push it?” Squirrel concluded with, “Best to let it push you.”

  2. Moose said, “I wish I wasn’t so anxious when the hunters are about”. Cougar Roshi whispered, “Aren’t all targets anxious?”


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