There’s a common thread tying us all together these days, it seems—I call it Modern Anxiety, and I call it the bane of our existence as a society. Even “relaxed” San Diegans seem to suffer from it. An estimated 90% of the people that come to TCTG have it.
Modern Anxiety is about anxious, repetitive, obsessive, unproductive thinking—thinking that we do in a vain and exhausting attempt to figure out precisely how we feel and to talk ourselves through that. We let ourselves imagine that if we go through the scenario one more time in our minds, that this time we will come to a different conclusion. And we never do, so we indulge again. And again.
Thinking is not a cure for Anxiety or Depression.
Underlying this toxic chant is a vague, mysterious f e e l i n g. It’s a rotting stew of emotion like unrest, dissatisfaction, sadness, uncertainty, anger, shame, longing, loneliness and maybe the sense that we are running out of time. We compare ourselves negatively to others; the outlook is grim. Petulant and slow, we are nonetheless too wired for proper sleep, and pleasure is something for Others to feel, not us.
Why are we so jangled; why can’t we get any rest?
These are the dilemmas we encounter in our practice. And TCT (Total Context Therapy, our therapy modality) is focused on unsnarling the mess that Modern Anxiety makes of our lives.
You may ask, how does TCT calm me if I’m talking about all this anxiety?? The answer is simply that TCT provides perspective and techniques, and if used liberally and consistently, it works. It is also easily customizable, and people I see will frequently come up with their own version based on the original, and then it works even better.
I also find that TCT starts working almost immediately. Many people report that applying the techniques is easy and as I told them it would, becomes automatic pretty quickly. Best of all, it becomes unnoticeable. It’s not as if you are working it forevermore, like the Twelve Steps. As for the perspective part, TCT sessions help you start becoming your own therapist. You counsel yourself from a different angle. And not that I’m a huge proponent of CBT, but TCT works a little like it in principle: once you start thinking different things, you start feeling different.
While we are on that subject, it’s very important that I tell you my opinion on thinking versus feeling as it applies to getting better and to dealing with Modern Anxiety.
Think of it like this: How often do you go to your therapist and when he or she asks you, “So, how are you?” you say, “Well, I’m thinking better lately.” No. You either say, “I’m feeling better”, or you say, “I’m still feeling (anxious), or (depressed) or feeling (you name the symptom). To me, therapy is not about thinking, and changes to your thinking do not result in changes to your feelings. Read that last line again.
We say instead that thinking and feeling are worlds apart, and all that midnight thinking is not going to help with your feelings. That may be discouraging to hear. It’s not that thinking is not necessary to healing or to change; it is, but it is not sufficient. Feelings are what hurt us; feelings are what disturb us, and feelings fuel the endless, obsessive, painful ratiocination that brings people to therapy.
Again, examine your life and ask yourself, do you change your unwanted behavior (and thinking is a behavior) because you judge it to be unwanted, wrong, inappropriate, or whatever? No, or at least I doubt it. (There is one woman I know, Linda, who is stunningly able to make intellectual decisions about romantic situations and act on them. But she is the only example of this ability I can name.) Most of us can realize, think, say, scream, declare, and swear that we KNOW exactly what we are doing wrong! But we cannot act on our knowledge! Why, oh why??
The answer is that we can know one thing about a situation and feel another, and our feeling keeps us from acting in our own best interest. Sometimes we are able to break away, to make that move, change course or something else big, but most of the time we end up marvelously, supremely frustrated. We are correct; right; certain; positive; determined—but stuck.
Blaise Pascal knew this in the 1600’s. He said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” Well, I’m no mathematician-philosopher, but I’m in the same camp as ol’ BP.
If people were able to make intellectual decisions about emotional issues and then actually act on them in a way that resolves both the thought problems and the feeling problems, well then I and most of my colleagues would have gone to college and graduate school and many trainings and conferences and certification courses and hours on the couch for naught. People with problems would come into our office and we would say, “What are you thinking? Oh, really, is that what you are thinking? Ok, think this other thing instead and you’ll be fine. Ok. Pay on your way out. Thank you for coming.”
As a supervisor of interns a few years ago, I had an especially astute gentleman under my wing. I so enjoyed our supervision hour each week, because he brought so much to the table. But it always came to the same thing: he would tell me about what his clients had reported to him and how he brilliantly reasoned with them. Truly, he was a brilliant reasoner. But as he himself eventually realized, people don’t go to therapists to be reasoned with. People can reason with themselves. And they do. They do it to the point of driving themselves nuts.
Indeed, people will come to my office and want to tell me every single reason they should not be doing the things they are doing. And I get it; people want to explain themselves and be thought of as reasonable people. They ARE reasonable people. It’s just that reason doesn’t make problem behavior or painful feelings go away.
Here is some quickie advice to all over-thinking, stuck, reasonable people out there: stop trying to reason your way out of anxiety or depression. Instead, try this: Grab a list of feelings off the Internet and sit down with some kind of note-taking device. There are so many feelings to explore! Start with the ones that start with “A”; maybe take just one on at a time.
Take the first word on the list; say it’s the word “abhor”.
a. What do you abhor? Whom do you abhor and what about them particularly makes you feel this way? Can you tell them about it? If you cannot, how does that make you feel? Is the condition of not verbally expressing your feelings one of the reasons you are depressed/anxious? (Usually the answer to this is no but I don’t often believe it.)
b. When was the first time you felt this feeling of abhorring something or someone? For example, I remember abhorring my second grade teacher, Sister Teresa, for ridiculing me in front of the class for coloring my math paper in red and brown, which I thought was a classy color combo. When I think of this event, it brings up so many other feelings, and times when I’ve had a similar experience. This early experience etched “abhor” and all the connecting feelings of that experience into my little psyche, where it has stayed all these years. Except now when it comes up it does not make me miserable. I find it interesting, and not the least painful. Of course it isn’t, you say; it was a million years ago. But it is precisely the events of our defenseless youth that make us vulnerable to pain anytime events in our adult lives trigger those memories (even subconsciously). In order to stop the misery, we have to see how the chain of events was forged, and feel rather than think this through. In this example, if this were your experience, you would be able to regard other abhorring events dispassionately or from a learning stance. It’s making gold out of yesterday’s pain, and anybody can do it.
c. Now, make some feeling connections of your own about the word “abhor”. When you experience the feeling “abhor” now, what images, scenes, memories, people, nightmares, or particulars come to mind? Just flow; don’t push it. It will come. Of course there is no right or wrong here. In TCT we create a diagram of these interconnecting feelings and the ways they come into play. There’s more, but guidance and discussion is necessary.
This is the beginning of TCT in a very truncated way. I’m not going to give away my trade secrets, but I will say that in session we will pretty quickly be able to connect all the ways that “abhor” (for example) is meaningful to you, in terms of your love life, your creative life, your sex life, your experience as an adult child of X-type parents, your work life, your friendships, your physical life, your money life, your hopes, your fears, and your worst and best memories. Wow, that’s a lot of feeling.
As you learn to see it, feel it, assert it, and yes think about it effectively, you might start to enjoy the whole problem, and kind of appreciate the pain you went through. No, TCT is not about loving our feelings in an everything-is- beautiful-in-its- own-way kind of way. But it is about reckoning with our feelings, and respecting them, and then being able to regard them and keep them, or regard them and get over them. Learning to reckon with your feelings gives you control over your Modern Anxiety.