People with difficult feelings like anxiety or depression often believe what they think. This is a common and dangerous trap that most people fall into from time to time. Here’s a phrase that I find myself using over and over with my clients and with myself: JUST BECAUSE YOU THINK SOMETHING DOESN’T MAKE IT TRUE! Simple right? Well, not that simple. We all get into thinking habits like “I’m not good enough,” or “I’ll never find anyone that will understand me,” or “If I touch that doorknob I’ll probably get sick,” or, “If only I could save more money I’d be happy.” If you have thoughts like those you might feel depressed or anxious. Learning to not believe what you think takes practice (and often therapy). But for now, let’s play a game.
People with anxiety disorders worry. They worry about getting sick, running out of money, losing control, becoming embarrassed, making mistakes, getting hurt, hurting someone else, forgetting to do something, and on and on. Anxious worries rarely happen, but sometimes they do. People do get sick, run out of money, embarrass themselves, make mistakes, get hurt, hurt others, forget stuff, and so on. The worries of those with anxiety are reality based. However, anxious people usually inflate the actual level of risk. For example, it is true that cold viruses often linger on surfaces after an infected person coughs, sneezes onto something. If you touch an infected surface and then rub your eyes or scratch your nose, it’s quite possible that you can get sick. However, you probably have touched zillions of things in your life without getting sick. The overall risk is pretty low.
What kind of title is that for a blog? Why would you want to make more mistakes and even if you did, why on Monday? Let’s deal with the making more mistakes part first. Many of the clients I see express the need to be perfect. They fear making mistakes and feel horrible when they mess up. Some of these folks even berate themselves for making trivial, largely inconsequential mistakes like parking a few inches over the line of a parking space or making a few typoss on a blog (NOTE TO EDITOR: please don’t correct my typos in today’s blog!). Some clients with sever obsessive compulsive disorder rachet this concern up to the point that they spend hours reviewing everything they right to insure a complete absence of errors. Others re-read passages from books over and over again to be sure that they remember every single detail. Still others consume large blocks of time arranging everything in their closets in perfect alignment with identical spacing between each item. If you’re a perfectionist, I strongly recommend that you get a grip! Stop viewing all mistakes as terrible. I can guarantee you that I’ve learned more from making mistakes than I ever would have if I didn’t make them.
Did you remember to pay your bills on time? How about making that appointment with the dentist? Do you need more gas in the car this week or will it wait until the weekend? Is that parent teacher appointment next week or the next? Did you make up that list of questions for the teacher? How will you ever find time to look up a new recipe and get to the store before your friends are coming over for dinner? If you have a life full of responsibilities, like many people you feel stressed out at times. There are many details that adults have to juggle. Chronic stress can lead to disorders such as anxiety or depression. But stress can also interfere with optimal brain function, especially memory. These lapses of memory caused by stress actually increase stress by making people forget to do some daily responsibilities. For example, most people misplace objects from time to time. They put something down (such as keys) thoughtlessly and a few hours later have no recollection on where they put them. Then their minds start spinning unhelpful thoughts such as, “I must be really stupid,” or “I wonder if I am becoming demented?,” or “What’s wrong with my brain?”
I’m sure you know what selfish means and it’s not considered a particularly lovely trait by most people. But what do I mean when I suggest that you become self-less? Typically, the term selfless refers to people who put other people’s needs before their own. Selfless people typically have very little concern for making money, becoming famous, or obtaining a prestigious position. But that definition doesn’t quite fit what I mean by self-less (note I put in a hyphen to distinguish the term from selfless). I think people can and probably should have at least some concern for their own needs in terms of finances, relationships, security, and so on. And sometimes your own needs may even have to take precedence over the needs of others. But people all too often seriously mess themselves up when they become overly concerned about themselves and their egos. They experience exquisite concerns with how they look, what they say, mistakes they make, who likes them and who doesn’t, et cetera. People who worry a lot about their egos judge just about everything that they do. Their internal dialogues consist of an endless loop of self-hate and vitriol with thoughts such as “How could I be so stupid?,” “I hate myself,” “No one could be this dumb,” “I’ll never amount to anything,” “Nobody could ever like me,” and on and on. It’s pretty difficult to feel alright with thoughts like those.
Have you ever awakened at 3:00 am and found your mind racing? You might dwell on making sure you don’t forget some important work issue or start organizing your day to be sure you have time to finish everything you need to. Or then again, your mind might start focusing on thoughts about how horrible it would be to have a lousy night’s sleep. Such thoughts include:
John wakes up this morning instantly anxious. He tossed and turned most of the night, waking and worrying. He stands in the shower until the water begins to get cold, once out, he experiences a terrible cold even though it is warm in the house. He notices his hands trembling while he brushes his teeth. His stomach is upset, he feels no hunger. He makes himself a cup of coffee hoping the caffeine will help him stay focused. His mind is racing; thoughts tumbling over each other. He feels like he can’t catch his breath. He tries to settle himself by thinking calm thoughts and taking deep breaths. Finally, he puts on his jacket and heads to the door, chanting, “One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.”
Laura and I sometimes amuse ourselves by noticing how language and expressions gradually morph over time. For example, have you ever taken note of how often people preface something they’re about to say with the single word, “Look!”? I think in the past, folks used to call attention to what they were about to say with “Listen.” Why the change? Go figure (another one of my favorite phrases). And then there’s the ever popular “Seriously?...Really?” I like that one a lot. Why? I really don’t know. It just conveys a tone that I like. Perhaps it’s my sarcastic streak. At any rate, I find myself wanting to say “Seriously?....Really?” pretty often when I confront the thoughts that constantly bombard the minds of people who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
I recently ran across a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) for an elementary school girl. Behavioral Intervention Plans are often a good idea and can be used to teach students to focus better, reduce their oppositionality, follow rules more often, and become more cooperative. These plans usually emphasize positive interventions (such as rewards and attention) although they also employ negative consequences judiciously, when called for. The original idea behind BIP’s was grounded in something called learning theory. In brief, learning theory proposes that kids will do more of what they are rewarded for and less of what they aren’t. They’re also likely to engage in disruptive behaviors less often if those behaviors result in a loss of something the child likes or if the behavior is followed by a mildly unpleasant consequence. However, some of the BIP’s that I’ve seen in recent years seem to have lost their original grounding in learning theory. The school girl I mentioned (we’ll call her Nicole) had been failing to follow rules, blurting out inappropriate comments in class, banging her head, arguing with the teacher, and sometimes trying to leave the classroom when she shouldn’t. Here are some relevant snippets from Nicole’s BIP: