How do you turn off your inner superego-centric pessimist?

By the way, I’m actually asking the question,  not answering it.

I have a very stubborn inner pessimist. Negative thinking has taken me to very many places in my life and it’s been largely a cold and dark experience. Sometimes dark and dank are just what you need though, so what exactly am I missing out on?

I’m told by the media,  by my mother, by my therapist, by that labrador down the road that positive thinking is a good thing that you can learn, and that you don’t have to just (figuratively) shit all over everything including yourself. Though this is far more frowned upon as literal behaviour.

As it happens I am in the process of nominating someone for an award and so am having to overcome the cringe-inducing wince-fest that comes with open and borderline superfluous flattery. I recognise all these awesome qualities in people around me but I never tell them, and I’m unable to recognise them in myself. 

Fortune peeked over my shoulder and decided that my therapist should get me to focus on the good things as about myself cos I figure I’m pretty sucky in most capacities compared to everyone else. The single admirable property that I will openly admit to possessing is honesty. The rest of that box remains bare. Sorry doc that’s it, the thesaurus has been scoured and there are no more appropriate adjectives. But low and behold a far worse challenge lay ahead. Due to my utter failure to get with the positivity program, I was tasked with asking a few close people to tell me what they like about me. Apparently this is not just attention-seeking…

Have you ever asked someone what they like about you? It’s fucking weird. I mean in Britain, you don’t go gushing about why you love your friends or family, you just stick by them and they should know that if you hang around long enough then you probably like them some. It goes unsaid, like some mystery current underlying your relationships. You’re never quite sure if your pal secretly thinks you are a wanker but they bought you a pint at the weekend so you’re probably ok in their eyes. So why are we so repressed and inhibited that it feels plain creepy to go listing the things you like about someone? In theory it’s a perfectly pleasant thing to do.

 I’ve only got as far as asking two people, one of whom could only come up with one thing that they like about me and that is my nose, which makes me paranoid because I have kind of a big nose and is by far my least attractive facial feature. Sigh. I’m not going to list the things my therapist and other generous surveyee said because that would take this horrifying experiment to another level of unnecessary squirming to this most uncomfortable topic. 

I can’t quite explain the emotional reaction I have to being given compliments, it’s something deeply awkward and dismissive, because I suspect there is some species-wide delusion  psychosis or pity going on behind those positive words and I don’t want to be the one to burst the bubble. If you’ve seen the series braindead where people are being controlled by brain munching bugs? I imagine it’s something like that. On some level of course I really appreciate the comments even if I don’t believe them because it shows people care enough to try and boost my self-esteem. I assume others feel the same so I avoid dishing out compliments but maybe I’m the only weirdo who finds all this pretty nauseating because sarcasm has to be replaced with earnestness (real word) and that’s a damned big leap. I’m tempted to try reciprocity on this subject with my therapist as an experiment to see if she feels uncomfortable, partly because I want to give something back and partly to look for signs of squirming. Humans are bizarre.

I understand from old Freud’s theory that this kind of self-denial phenomena is due to a strong superego and weak ego.  Superego being the morals that parents bestow in the early years and ego being the logical decision-making mediator between your mind’s chaotic self-gratifying impulses (Id) and reality.This seems fair because a weak ego is also considered the cause of anxiety. So this deflated balloon of a personal aspect needs a bit of air, even if I think it’s just hot air!

Ironically without a highly functioning logical sector, this challenge seems utterly abstract and unattainable. Maybe I’ll start reading Jung again, he seemed to have it all sorted. 

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Facing the dragon and staring at it for a few seconds before running away

As you know. A few weeks back I proferred some uninvited information for my therapist…it was three major incidents that have affected my health anxiety, a list of health problems that I am terrified that I have or will get, and a list of things that anxiety stops me from doing. The final list was pretty depressing, spanning from driving to dining out to exercising to travelling and maintaining relationships. We are talking some pretty major areas of one’s life there.
Have I told you I didn’t used to be this boring? When I didn’t think I was dying the whole time I could even be a bit fun every now and then. Imagine that!

Anyway enough about that. I want to talk about how cbt is shaping up. Having given this information, my therapist made a formulation… That is a flow diagram showing the vicious cycles that involve being triggered until automatic negative thoughts, having inappropriate cognative and behavioral responses as well as extreme emotional responses, that all feed back into the negative thoughts. You don’t need to know what weird shit I do when I get panicky, but what you should know is that the idea is to gradually stop relying on those unhelpful or inappropriate coping mechanisms by considering an alternative to the doom and gloom, end of the universe, deadly premonition that happens with every sniffle. For me, the downside are that you have to replace the negative responses with something else and therefore I have to be less harsh with myself, which feels unnatural and frankly trite after years of constantly telling myself that I’m a worthless piece of crap and that everything is my fault. I’ve got to the point where I’m so damned negative that I complain about everything and find it quite uncomfortable to even compliment someone else, let alone myself! That’s fucked up because people can be awesome and they deserve to know it.

Anyway, now I have to try and stop doing so much weird shit when I get worried, and focus on something else, cos I spend about 99% of my time thinking about me me me and as I’m not even that interesting, I think you’ll agree that’s a tragic waste of my time. I could be thinking about something more productive like banjo-playing unicorns.

In addition, I’ve been told I need to start exposing myself to things that make me anxious, like to start with, cleaning chemicals, and more strenuous exercise. That’s this week’s task. So far I cycled to and from work a bit faster than usual and I have to say I do feel like I achieved something. My heartrate increased, I sweated a bit and I got a bit of a sore throat, I got that weird pulsing in my eyes (does anyone else get that or is it just my bizarro physiology?) but I didn’t pass out when I stopped and I didn’t wake up the next day having dropped a stone of weight. Triumph. Unfortunately another source of anxiety popped up from under the rocks when my boss told me in no uncertain terms that I was NOT to make mistakes in the future (regarding a minor typo in an email). Because I am a robot without fat fingers, yes? Ugh. No pressure then!

I’m beginning to warm to this therapist after our rocky start. Possibly because she chose to work with what I voulenteered as I thought it was the most important stuff. She’s offered to give some information for my partner to read about my erm condition, so he knows how best to support me (I.e. constantly telling me I’m lazy and to just get on with things like a normal person may not be the best tact)…lets see how that goes down. I’m already worrying about the approaching therapist abandonment.

Parrots with bad attitudes and Dragons with razor teeth

I’m going at this new course of CBT (cognative behavioural therapy) all wrong.

I know it.

I don’t like my new therapist much, and I’m increasingly reminded about why I hated CBT before and why it was so unhelpful.

What it boils down to is that I’m not stupid, in fact I have a higher than average intelligence (not my opinion, this is evidence-based) and find it intolerable to be patronised or condescended.

In principle, the theory of CBT aught to work in many cases, but only if the therapist can intuit when the patient wants to punch them in the face, and take the therapy a bit off the beaten track.

This week I was asked if I knew what the diaphragm was. Erm Biology doctorate? Then had diaphragmatic breathing demonstrated. Honestly, I expected more. I can only imagine that my face exhibited the single raised eyebrow of derision.

I can be such a bitch but unfortunately it slips out when my tolerance threshold gets approached. Maybe I should explain.

As an ex-flautist, my natural way of breathing is deeply from the diaphragm, I would like to know breathing exercises, eg how many seconds to breathe in/out/hold, some visualisation or mantra or something but no, I got told to breathe like I do anyway. I’m not convinced she knows anything further than that. I was promised muscle relaxation techniques too but I suspect that involves ‘just relax your muscles and you will feel relaxed’, in the simplistic style of delivery I am coming to expect from CBT.

I was given a handout that came complete with cartoons – perfect for your children who have anxiety problems. Apparently I have a toxic bullying parrot in my head and if I ignore it I will be calm and happy.

Cheers for that. I’m not pissing myself with laughter at this idea at all. Nope. Not one bit.

What she doesn’t realise is I don’t have a parrot, I have a dragon (see blog header for a portrait of the beast), and it doesn’t bully me, it messes my personality about and makes quite compelling and intelligent conversation.

I also don’t think that I like the idea that you have no control over your thoughts. For example, let’s say that you keep thinking about killing yourself. Then magically by the power of CBT you start ignoring that thought… I mean, that seems a bit off-piste to me…aren’t you better off dealing with why you feel like that and changing your thought patterns rather than accepting you will repeatedly have those thoughts forever?

The therapist seems baffled by some of my problematic anxious thoughts because she sees them as relatively realistic – as in – there is  a historical reason why I think those thoughts, so they aren’t disordered. Erm, so…that means I don’t have health anxiety? I’m really not convinced about that. I have stomach pains (from suspected gastritis) so I avoid loads of things (foods / drinks/ medications/travelling/social meals/drinks) to avoid the prospect of stomach pains that will most likely not happen but could and she thinks that’s ok? I’ll wager she doesn’t know enough about these physical conditions (gastritis / ibs) and how they relate to anxiety so just tells me that they might not get any better after therapy. So….what exactly am I doing here if you keep telling me that this doesn’t work for everyone and physical symptoms that perpetuate anxiety will not be improved?

I came out with what I consider to be a highly relevant and important statement. That I suspect that I allow myself to get very anxious because I want an excuse to be imperfect. I have had something ‘wrong’ with me since 15 and it’s been touted as why my exam grades slipped, why I got a 2:1, why I struggled so much during my PhD. Maybe I’m just not the best at stuff after all – and I cannot accept failure. Hence I do not try to control my anxiety as it gives me a nice get-out clause. What about that then Ms therapist lady?

Well. She wasn’t interested in that theory at all. She just thinks I’m too harsh on myself and that self-criticism is bad. The ONLY thing she wrote down this session was when I said that I felt self-criticism could be a good thing. A concept utterly alien to her – that the inability to see and accept one’s own flaws turns one into an arrogant narcissistic douche. The ability to self-criticise is inbuilt in any half decent scientist (or artist, or y’know… human being) – you judge what you have done, your level of ability, your qualities and you think about how it can be improved (or ruminate of how it cannot if you so choose)- that is the instigator of progress and understanding of the shortfalls of others- realisation that things are not perfect. Am I getting through here???

I’m trying to stick with it – but I feel  I am being asked the wrong questions. I’ll fill out the inane homework things I’ve been asked to complete but in addition I will write something about the stuff that I think is relevant.

Chronic anxiety for me is not all about a single thought or situation that happens every week- I may not have a panic attack during the whole course of treatment – but the problem comes from big overwhelming thoughts that rarely specifically get triggered but are always lurking in the wings, hovering and ruminating and  stopping you from living your life. And that is what I will write about.

Does anyone know the trick of getting off one’s high horse and trying to accept that very simplistic and superficial things might be helpful?

 

 

I know what you said, but that doesn’t mean that I understand which hat to wear

You sit me down to watch a TV show about health anxiety that makes me uncomfortable (due to being comparably mildly inflicted, and finding their behaviors grotesquely inspiring) and tell me in less than eloquent ways, that this stomach-churning anxiety I allegedly feel coursing through me on a daily and irrational basis is simply a fictitious product of what would, if it were real, be munchausen syndrome. That I’m not happy unless there is something wrong with me, and implying that I haven’t really achieved anything in overcoming a 15-year eating disorder because I’ve just replaced it with something else to fixate on. You seem to think that you understand exactly what is going on, that I’m copying someone else, and that I don’t need comforting or therapy or medication because there is nothing wrong with me and I just need to grow up and get on with things. At times like this, I just want to cry.

(Before I continue, I put on the hat of honesty with baubles of self-doubt)
I am in the referral process for CBT for anxiety. I recognised that this issue is infringing too much on my life and needs to be tackled (preferably without meds). I’ve had anxiety (mostly health and social-related) since I was about 5. I had my first panic attack at that age not long after I cut my hand on a broken mirror and realised that I was actually mortal, and not magical after all. It’s been downhill from there. It didn’t occur to me before now, before those suggestions of fake illness, that I might not be deemed ‘sick enough’ to be helped, but now I wonder. Do I really have anxiety? (puts in analytical hat) Well I have the physical symptoms, racing heart, chest pains, tension headaches, ibs, nausea, sweating, shaking, numb extremities, dizziness, the familiar racing thoughts, sleep disturbance, exhaustion, and terrible waves of nauseating fear, and I’ve been diagnosed and medicated for it before, but (puts on elaborate self-doubt hat) what if I’m making myself feel all that now so I can basically get attention? That would be so messed up. If that were true then surely THAT would need some psychological straightening out?

I was feeling positive about the prospect of new therapy and another bright shiny door towards freedom opening, but voices all too real and present, seem determined to tell me what I am and what I am not.(dons wizard’s hat) Few things upset and piss me off more than being told what I am, who I am, what I represent. I detest being defined as a portrait of a person that I don’t identify with. You think I haven’t changed? Well I’ve got news for you buddy…

So why, if I’m so worried about my health, can I let a dog lick my face, and cuddle a muddy horse? Why can I drink from a hosepipe but not take the last cup at the water dispenser or use a fork with any suspect marks on it? Well (balances analytical hat ontop of wizards hat) that, my darling, is a lesson in inconsistent and irrational thoughts.

“If you were my head
I would be heard”~K’s choice, my head