Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The anxiety I used to struggle with was intense and crippling. Everyday I am truly grateful that this is no longer the case for me. However one habit that seems to linger is the desire or need to 'figure things out.'
What do I mean by 'figuring things out?'
Firstly I mean pre-empting things, planning and being prepared for all eventualities, e.g. umbrella in case it rains, plasters for blisters or some coins in case I have to pay for parking, that kind of thing.
Now to me this is harmless preparation which doesn't involve other people and is not a bad trait to have.
Things get more complicated when it involves pre-empting or figuring out people.
I can remember from a very young age witnessing people experience regret and thinking if only they had thought that through and been mindful of the consequences. Or maybe it was regretting a certain behaviour or action or the opposite and having not expressed how they felt or what they wanted. This created a trigger for me. A trigger that says 'I don't ever want to be unprepared. I don't ever want to miss an opportunity. I don't ever want to look back and wish I had done something differently! I don't ever want my life to be like the movies where if only the main characters had spoken honestly about how the felt about each other or if only the lead had not covered for his friend?' Welcome to the world of 'if only'!
To avoid these things I had to be prepared and so I set some rules to live by :-
Always be honest
Treat others how you wish to be treated
are a few examples.
I believed that if I was good everything else would be. OK I was naive but I believed in the goodness of people and wanted to feel my trust would not be abused. As time passed I realised that it really wasn't as simple as being good and trusting all would be well. I needed to learn from situations that hurt me and anticipate what could go wrong. I had to take control of my life.
No matter what structure I tried to put in place I still made mistakes and regretted things that happened due to my choices.
Control is something most anxiety sufferers dream of having. They believe that everyone else must have it in order not to worry the way they themselves do and they are failing themselves by not having it. This is in fact not true and chasing control, believing it to give you the perfect life, is not how to figure it out.
Around 6 years ago,during a one to one CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) session, my need to control and fear of not controlling was brought to light in a bizarre way.
During each session my therapist would make notes and draw diagrams on a flip chart. He admitted his spelling wasn't the best and that his writing tended to slope off down the page. My reaction was to shrug and focus on the content of the session. That was until he asked me to write on the board.
Shit! I hadn't factored this into the session. I hadn't thought of this before turning up. Damn it! I should've thought of this before and stated at the start that I didn't want to write on the board. I should've figured this out. Idiot!
Errr no it's OK , you carry on with the writing.
Much to my dismay he persisted claiming it was now my turn to take responsibility for what needed to go on the flip chart.
I felt the sweat trickle down my sides and a fierce blush heat my face and neck.
No I really don't want to write, if you don't mind?
My therapist sat back in his chair, looked me in the eyes and questioned my response.
What's this about Claire?
I just don't want to write on the board
I don't know!
But you are used to using whiteboards and flip charts in your job are you not?
Well yes but that is with children.
What's the difference?
Children expect less.
'What do you mean?'
If I write something on a white board that looks wrong I can wipe it off with a cloth or my sleeve before they notice. If I make a mistake on paper I can ask the children what is wrong and make it about them correcting it for me. I can make it seem like a deliberate mistake. If I make a mistake here with another adult I will look stupid!
I have to say that my therapist was on this like a shot.
So you fear that I may think you are stupid, that I will judge you?
I guess so.
He then went on to ask if I had judged him when at the start of the session he had explained that his spelling wasn't great and his sentences tended to slope down the paper.
Of course not. You know what you are doing. I'm the mess!
You would rather not write anything for fear of judgement on the way you write rather than the content?
My therapist then asked me to sit with this thought for a while. In that very moment it was more important for me not to be judged than to heal.
I sat, looking at the floor, aware of my therapist's eyes on me.
If I refused to do this not only would I be shutting down a part of my session but I would be making the world in which I felt safe even smaller. If I let this fear or desire to control take root and I refuse to write on a board today , tomorrow I might refuse to leave my house? Is this healthy?
Something that I had learned but seemed unaware of in this moment was that when you control things to avoid what you fear your world gradually decreases in size.
As you shut out and bypass those things that you can't control or figure out, you place an invisible wall around your life. These walls may act as protection but they can in fact be more like prison walls preventing you from stepping out of your comfort zone , taking a risk and perhaps even writing on a flip chart!
I am glad to say that I did write on that flip chart and I did recognise the constraints that had been building up under the guise of control and protection.
There are a two main of points that I took away from these sessions; one was the power of positive visualisations and the emotions that you give them and the second was how to sit with discomfort, especially emotional discomfort.
As time has gone by I have learned to sit with what frightens me or ignites the desire to control and let it settle. Often I will sleep on things, giving myself the space to clear away the fear and sense of threat and go on to make a rational decision and action.
We don't need to figure 'everything' out or have to control the world as we see it. In fact all we need to do is breathe and trust the solution will to come to us at the right time.
Stay safe, stay well and be kind.