What if Control is the Problem?
By Parke Sterling, LPC
What if IT, this thing that you have been struggling with for so long, isn’t a problem to be solved? What if you don’t truly have control over IT anyway? And what if the attempts at control are actually making IT worse?
As we have previously covered, human pain is universal. It’s part of the ballgame. When we agreed to this being human (I don’t remember signing up for it, by the way), we consented to experience about an even split of pleasure and pain — sometimes a little more of the former and sometimes a little more of the latter, depending on the season of life, our particular genetics and our life experiences.
One of the most tragic misunderstandings in life is that IT — whatever unpleasant thought, emotion or sensation arising in the moment — “should not be here,” that I should be “happy” most, if not all of the time because everyone sure seems that way. And since IT is here, that is just more evidence that I’m different, defective or broken. And what do we do with something that is broken? We try to fix it.
It can be helpful to start by looking at what has made us the most dominant species (for better, but mostly worse) the planet has ever seen. We aren’t that fast, we can’t jump that high, we are relatively slow, we don’t have big teeth or big horns, but we humans reign supreme on this planet. This is attributed to our cognitive function and specifically our ability to describe, evaluate and problem-solve.
Think about this example. You are walking down the street on the way to work, when all of a sudden, a man jumps out from around a corner with a knife. You reflexively describe: “I don’t know that guy and he looks like he wants to do some damage.” You then evaluate: “This is a problem, this is dangerous.” You then problem-solve by either fighting him or running from him and yelling for help. Assuming you are a fast runner, a good fighter or there are other people around, situation solved!
We will call that example an “outside the skin problem.” And our ability to successfully control outside the skins problems through the process of describing, evaluating and problem-solving is a godsend. It works and we use it well.
Now say you later are walking down the same street and you start to approach the same corner. You have a knot in the pit of your stomach, your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty. You are breathing quickly, you're hyper vigilant and that monkey mind is reeling off an impressive list of doomsday and what-if scenarios. We call this “anxiety.” That may seem obvious, but it’s worth noting that “anxiety” is just a sound that we attribute to an experience. And that experience is, in fact, our own body, our own mind and our own conditioning or life history. It’s not separate from us.
You then attempt to apply the same process that you used earlier in the guy-with-the-knife scenario. The big difference, however, is that now you are dealing with an “inside the skin problem" and this process doesn’t work out too well with those.
You describe: “Anxiety is here.” You evaluate: “This is bad, this shouldn’t be here and I need to get rid of this.” You then try to problem-solve. But wait, what have you really done here? You have made anxiety the enemy. And again, what is anxiety? It’s our own body, mind and life history. Thus, you have made yourself the enemy and then you go to war with that enemy.
When that happens, we can easily go to extremes to subdue our enemy. We all have our favorites. Some of us hammer back booze or benzos or Ben & Jerry’s. Some of us check Instagram for the 300th time that day in an attempt to distract ourselves from the mind’s worry or the uneasiness in the body. Some of us start to avoid situations and people who trigger anxiety even if those situations or people are important to us or to the people we love. We don’t have difficult conversations because we “don’t like confrontation” or we “like to keep the peace.” But really what we are saying is, “I’m going to repress this need to speak up on this topic of importance to me or show up at this function that is important to my spouse because it triggers an unpleasant feeling within me.” In our attempt to control this feeling, we are sacrificing something we value.
You may say, “But wait, I use healthy coping strategies like deep breathing or meditation.” And I would say, “Awesome, those things are great.” But they need to be put in the right context. We will never deep breathe IT away or meditate IT away. If we find ourselves clinging to those things like a life raft that will save us from this turbulent sea of anxiety, then we will end up being disappointed and those very things will become linked to the very feeling that we are trying to subdue. I can’t tell you how many clients I have worked with who practice deep breathing before an event and find that the deep breathing triggers more anxiety! It’s as if the body and mind recognize, “Oh shit, he’s deep breathing. We are about to do something REALLY anxiety-inducing; he needs more adrenaline!”
Are these attempts at control worth it? Are they costing us more than they are providing? Do they actually work in the long run or are they just examples of sacrificing the long-term for temporary short-term relief?
We will examine this and more in Part 2 of this article. And before you say, “Hey, this article was supposed to be about suffering and dammit, you haven’t mentioned that word once!” Don’t worry, we will get there! If you are ready to cease the war with anxiety, reach out to talk about therapy can help. You can reach me at Parke@RichmondAnxiety.com. Or feel free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more, visit www.RichmondAnxiety.com