Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
- Serenity Prayer
A while back, a client told me, “I’m not sure if I’m cured.” He said this after having made major changes in his life. He had stopped destructive tendencies and started healthier habits. He had worked hard in and outside of the virtual therapy office. As a result, he was happier with the man he was. However, he had fallen into the trap that so many of us do. He was gauging his ultimate progress on whether he had completely eradicated his unpleasant thoughts and emotions. I have written about this topic before, but feel that it cannot be emphasized enough.
You are not “on the hook” for the inner weather that you experience on a daily basis. You came by it honestly through your unique genetic code and the life experiences that you have encountered thus far. You didn’t have a say in either of those two ingredients that make up the thoughts and emotions that spontaneously arise.
To even call them “your” thoughts and emotions is pretty far-fetched. The implied ownership is simply a result of how we use language. They are not “yours” because you do not summon them. They just arise. If you don’t believe me, then simply hit the off switch on obsessive thinking, sadness and anxiety in favor of nothing but joy, peace and love. I have tried this. I couldn’t get it to work. And from what I can tell, others can’t either.
We have to have the “wisdom to know the difference.” Our job, our “response-ability,” is how we respond to these thoughts, emotions and sensations — what we do with our hands and feet in quest of achieving a life well-lived.
Let’s look at a man named Jim. He has an impulse control disorder called pyromania. He loves fire. He has always been fascinated by it. He loves the feeling that arises when he is just holding matches or flicking a lighter over and over again. He doesn’t know why. It’s always been this way. It has gotten him into trouble throughout the years, starting when he set his neighbor’s barn on fire as a kid and most recently when he was arrested for arson as an adult.
Now, we could say Jim is “broken” or a “trouble-maker,” that no “normal” person would struggle with this, that Jim needs to “grow up.” But all we are doing here is casting judgment by holding Jim to our set of standards based on the thoughts, emotions and sensations that we experience. Jim experiences an entirely different set of thoughts, emotions and sensations because he has an entirely different set of genetics and life experiences.
So is Jim doomed to be at the complete mercy of his inner weather? No, he is not. He cannot control the waves of thoughts and emotions, but he can learn to surf them effectively.
An analogy that I often use is one of dominoes falling. So, Jim’s on probation and he walks into Home Depot to buy equipment for his landscape business. He spots a gas can, stops dead in his tracks and is instantly mesmerized. That’s the first domino. Can Jim control this domino? No, he cannot avoid every fire-related trigger in his life. He has to live.
Thoughts start pouring into Jim’s mind. “I could cancel my appointment this morning and set a fire at that old warehouse on Back Street. I could do just one and not tell anyone. It wouldn’t hurt anybody and someone might even get some insurance money out of it.” That is the second domino that has been triggered by the first. Jim sure as hell doesn’t have control of this one as he surely would have chosen to delete this type of thinking after his run-ins with the law. Then finally, the third domino falls. His heart is beating, he starts to breathe quicker, he is salivating. He is excited almost to the point of sexual arousal. He is about to lose control of his actions.
Finally, the moment arrives when Jim does have control. He recognizes that he has been triggered. He knows that he cannot trust himself in this moment. He forces his mind to “play the tape forward” to recognize the consequences of past actions. He calls his girlfriend because he knows he needs to “tell on himself” before he ruins everything. He trusts her and knows she will be non-judgmental and will meet him at the store. He sits outside, breathing slowly and using his senses to get out of his mind because that is not a safe place for him right now.
He regains control and becomes stronger in the process. He is not “cured” of the urges and will most likely never be. They will probably lessen as he continues to get better at this. But again, that is icing on the cake. The cake is that Jim’s life and freedom are not dictated by thoughts, emotions and sensations that are outside his control. Jim doesn’t like what he experiences. Nor does he completely understand it. But he accepts it because what other choice does he have in the matter? He does understand that those first three dominoes are impersonal and he can even muster some compassion for himself that he has to navigate such madness.
Jim is not free of the madness, but Jim is free from the madness. And that will have to do. Because that is as close to “cured” as any of us can get. But, it’s also as close to “cured” as any of needs to get to lead a life well-lived.
If you are struggling with your own particular flavor of madness right now, reach out to talk about how therapy can help.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or feel free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more, visit www.richmondanxiety.com.