Life is inherently challenging. Sadness, regret, self-doubt, worry--even depression and anxiety--are common and natural responses to the frustration that arises when we feel blocked from achieving fundamental goals, or from living fully in accordance with our values. Yet despite this obvious fact, when sadness or anxiety arise, or when we are not feeling up to life’s challenges, nearly all of us can easily fall into the trap of assigning blame.
Often this takes the form of blaming oneself. It might be a subtle feeling of “something is wrong with me,” or it might be a stern inner critic actually telling us we are terribly flawed. Or, it might be a logical, well-meaning voice that seeks solutions by analyzing our “problems.”
Blame also assumes the form of judging the people close to you. “If only my husband would contribute more to household chores, I would be happy.” “If only my wife would be affectionate when I got home, I would have no complaints.” “If only my kids cleaned up more, I would be in a better mood.”
At this point you may be thinking, “Well, I do need to stop eating junk-food”, or “My husband doesn’t help out enough.” And you are probably right. But there are two problems with getting stuck in blame. The first is that it gives us an illusory sense of control over life’s frustrations and sorrows. The second problem is that blame almost always places the fault within people: in their character, their morals, their personality, or their past.
I have come to believe that it is extremely difficult to find the optimism, strength, and creativity necessary for overcoming obstacles by assuming that either you or those closest to you are flawed. In fact, going automatically to an analysis of who or what is wrong or at fault is often like trying to pull yourself out of quicksand by flailing your arms more vigorously.
I agree strongly with the words of the late psychologist, Steve DeShazer: “Clients are not the problem, they have problems.” When I see clients, I listen very carefully to what is going wrong, and I listen just as carefully to what is going right. I do this, not so that we can put on rose-colored glasses or ignore difficulties, but rather, because I believe it is very important to see the whole person. It is when we both see the whole person that we can begin to imagine--and work towards--imaginative, realistic solutions, rather than getting stuck in old habits of analyzing defects or assigning blame.
Worry March 2, 2013
At a recent conference, one of the presenters stated, “Our ancestors were the ones that were the best worriers.” He was referring to the unique evolution of the human brain, with its astounding capacity to anticipate future dangers, real or imagined. I loved this statement because it captured one essential quality of the human dilemma: that so many of our most useful traits also lead us into trouble, and vice-versa. It also reminded me that worry is not just a symptom of a condition or diagnosis, but an inherent part of being human.
The most worrisome aspect of worry is that the content of our worries may actually be quite real. There are in fact a lot of things to worry about, whether its climate change or your next dental surgery. Some worries can be calmed though reassurance, which often takes the form of evaluating probabilities. One of my teachers in grad school used to say that “teaching kids about probability is one of the most important things parents do.” At other times – whether the fears are realistic or not - simply checking the facts will do. For example, when my daughter was little, and was afraid of monsters in the closet, we would look together, and make sure the closet was monster-free.
But what about the worries that can not be dispelled by checking the closet? For most of us, the strategy is to worry more. In fact, one ironic aspect of worry is that by trying to reassure ourselves we can actually make ourselves even more worried. This is because at the core of worrying lies a natural fear of uncertainty. By employing a strategy of worry and anxiety, we are actually sending a continual message back to the “panic center” of the brain saying, in effect, “You’re right, we can’t deal with uncertainty--we have to panic.”
One of the things I do in my practice to help clients with worry and anxiety, whether it is mild or more severe (like panic attacks), is to first help them develop a strategy for distinguishing between real emergencies and those that either are unreal or at least don’t require immediate attention. I find that many people have developed a strategy for this of yelling at themselves, “That’s stupid to be afraid of that!” (This is a bit like shaming a child for their fears instead of checking the closet.) For this reason, an important first step is to help clients kindly acknowledge to themselves their fears or worries, no matter how realistic or imagined.
After acknowledging fears and ruling out real or immediate dangers, my clients and I strategize further about what resources they can employ to keep themselves from getting hung up in the content of their worries, and to focus instead on ways to cope with uncertainty itself. By approaching anxiety in this way, my clients have often been surprised to find wellsprings of courage, resiliency and imagination they did not know they had. For example, a chronic “planner” might discover that in fact they are much more adaptable and flexible in the face of unpredicted events than they had ever realized. Or an adolescent prone to almost paralyzing worries might discover a way to “talk back” to anxiety, in effect “reassuring” it that its services, though well meant, are no longer needed.
In summary, I’ve learned over my years of practice that worry, fear, and anxiety are in many ways an inevitable part of the human condition. But I’ve also learned that by means of patient investigation, acceptance and imagination my clients and I can figure out effective strategies for dealing with anxiety that our worrying ancestors (probably) did not know they had.