Note To Self: When You Get The Message…
Recently I’ve spoken about the past and sometimes living in it. But sometimes I live in the future as well.
I’ve had this mind-virus for years now: When I learn of something coming up that’s unpleasant or that I dread, even if it’s far off, I start obsessing about it right away, thereby taking what belongs in tomorrow, and plopping it into today.
This sometimes results in beginning to dread the return of cold autumn weather starting sometime in May. It’s a kind of thinking that makes me miserable. But I’ve been learning recently how to overcome it.
It all started for me back in elementary school, the day Mark Alderman said, “Meet me outside after school ’cause I’m gonna kick your ass!”
It was maybe 11:00 am, which meant that I had about four hours of dread, during which I basically scared myself shitless. By the time school let out I was a nervous wreck, and ran home with my tail between my legs. If Mark had said, “Come here, asshole! I’m gonna kick your ass right now!” it would have been a lot easier for me to deal with.
Indeed, it turns out that it’s the anticipation of pain, or something scary, that scares me, and does so much more than the thing itself. This proclivity often leads to what we therapists call catastrophizing. For example, the dread of having my ass kicked was far worse than any ass kicking would have been. What I do in my mind is far worse than what happens in reality. Like the Mark Twain line I’ve quoted here before, “I’ve been beset with numerous calamities in my life, some of which actually happened!”
A client recently reported a self-discovery that struck me:
“I realize I’m scared to death of fear”, he said. Hmm, maybe that’s it. And maybe I’ve found ways to make this work to my advantage.
For example, I once attended an outdoor men’s weekend. At one point they told us the next event would be a Zip Line.
This meant holding onto a line and stepping off a cliff. When the 14 of us guys worked our way to the top, and looked out over the cliff to the abyss below, I began to feel weak in the knees and jumpy in the stomach. I knew from my prior encounters with this kind of fear that time was not on my side. So what did I do? I elbowed my way to the front of the line. (And as no one else wanted to go first, this wasn’t difficult.). Instead of standing around waiting with increasing dread, I got busy getting harnessed up, listening to the instructions and breathing my way from one moment to another. The result was that the actual experience of then stepping off the ledge turned out to be thrilling!
What I learned that day was that taking action turns my fear into excitement.
Likewise, I came to realize that the stage fright I thought I suffered from was really something else. The days or weeks before I’d have to deliver a lecture or appear on camera, I’d be a sweaty wreck. But the moment that moment would arrive, all my anxiety would evaporate, and I’d enter the stage poised and present, and ready to present very well. So what I’ve suffered from over the years is really pre-stage fright!
You may know that as a therapist I’ve always believed that emotions are information. So for me the emotion of fear or dread in response to an upcoming event is my body’s way of warning me that something is going to occur that is potentially dangerous. The purpose of the fear is to get me to make damn sure I prepare myself adequately.
It’s like the different ways you can deal with physical pain. One way is you can try to ignore it, because it’s unpleasant and may be scary, and this often results in its persistence. My friend Ernst has a different way. He says pain is your body’s signal that something needs attention. So his solution is to pay attention, e.g., by scheduling a doctor’s appointment. And then he takes a painkiller.
It’s called – Get the message. And when you get the message, hang up the phone.
So my task has been to learn how — when I get the message of fear — which as I said translates to “Warning! Prepare!” — to take precautions and then stop listening, lest the fear become debilitating.
Actually I have been getting better at this. One thing that’s helped calm me over the years is having developed a track record of never chickening out. So now when I learn of an uncomfortable upcoming event, I can calm my warning system, knowing from past experience that,
a) I will prepare and deal with it, and
b) it’s never as bad as I expect.
So I’ve become better at tuning out the chattering monkeys, because I know that I’ll get to it and it’ll work out.
Also lately I’ve noticed that as the time of a scary encounter or event grows near, I begin to feel both excited and increasingly relieved: I’ll finally be able to deal with this and get it over with!
The mechanisms of obsession and dread I developed long ago as a result of running away from fear, I’m finally learning to transform by facing it.