Unless you were one of the lucky ones, you learned fears during your childhood that remain active today if you actually listen to your private thoughts.
I was talking with a client recently who, in my opinion, has been putting some significant but inconsistent effort into controlling his anxiety and panic attacks as well as his obsessive-compulsive behaviors [OCD}.
Now, what do we mean by obsessive-compulsive behaviors ? Actually, they are very common, although differing in frequency and certainly intensity, where an individual finds himself feeling an urge to carry out some ritualistic behavior, repeating that behavior to a point that it can be disruptive in his life. I see people suffering from this type of anxiety reaction every day. One person may find himself giving in to the urge to check over his tax return over and over, even though no errors were found. Another might have spilled some cleaning substance on their hands and then found herself washing her hands and arms, repeating the action even when her hands became chapped and bleeding. Then maybe a child feels an urge to say good-night and blow a kiss to each of her more than one hundred stuffed animals before she can go to sleep at night, only to find herself having to repeat the process for over two hours for fear she missed one of her precious inanimate friends.
These rituals can take over one’s life to one degree or another, but are responses to inner conflict that is often hidden to others, and even unknown or unrecognized by the client. My experience is that the conflicts are just below the surface but are issues the person may just not feel able to deal with, thus is consciously or subconsciously avoiding.
The client I was talking with came to realize that his OCD, which had grown in power and was ruling much of his life, was a reaction to conflict. There was an inner desire to do more with his life and escape the shadow cast by his family tree,a history of depression, negativity, avoidance and regret. He came to realize that most of his anxiety was due to the personally painful reality that he had and was avoiding making needed changes in his life. His negative thoughts and fears were echoing through his mind, but more importantly were and still are the habitual thoughts of his past and especially his parents whose lives were ruled by fear.
He could catch himself in his private thoughts saying “I’m not smart enough !”, or ” Who do I think I am, that I could do something special with my life ? “. He had also become vividly aware through introspection triggered in part by therapy, that these were the thoughts based on fears of rejection and failure, that he had been taught by his mother. Even recently, when he discussed possibly looking for a another job that was more challenging and he could feel some passion over, his mother, backed by other family members, said ” Just be happy you have a job !”
This client had taken some steps to challenge his fears. He did at one point go back to school to take course he was very interested in, and from that experience, learned that he was not stupid. He was able to master the material, and in fact thrived in that class and others and was actuallycalled upon by the teacher to share more of his thoughts with the class. He found himself actually tutoring others who were struggling more with the classes subject matter. It was very esteeming for him. So, that should have turned his life around, right ? In fact, his obsessive-compulsive behavior was down significantly. He really felt great about the stretching he was doing. However, due to changes with his present but boring job, he was distracted from continuing his course work. His efforts were very positive, but the reality was that once he stopped stretching, he fell back into the gravitational pull of his past negative thoughts, and his family history of self-defeatism. He lost that momentum he had begun by stretching outside his comfort zone.
Now he realizes what happened, that it takes frequent and consistent exercising of one’s energies to escape the gravity of the past. Just as it does with physical exercise, where muscle turns to flab when the exercise stops, his efforts to challenge his fears worked, but needed to become part of his life, not a past chapter.
So, now he is beginning to edit the book that is the story of his life. Armed with the awareness of what he did, and therefore what he COULD DO, he is working to create an ongoing momentum, one that he must nurture through repeated experiences that will desensitize him to his fears and emboldenhim to persevere.
How much are you ruled by fear ? How often do you hear yourself uttering or thinking something sabotaging, that shuts you down and causes you to avoid ? Where did you learn fear and avoidance ?
Gene Benedetto, Psychologist
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