Self-Therapy Against Anxiety, Guilt, and Shame
We’re all prone to and struggle with evil, energy-sucking emotions like anxiety, guilt, and shame. If you want a good life, you must keep those dark forces out of your head.
Men have the ability to compartmentalize emotions. They can laugh and have a beer right after a fistfight, while women still nurse their wounds six years after that hurtful comment overheard from inside the bathroom. The longer we hold onto these poisonous thoughts, the more incapable we are of feeling happy.
The simplest method of self-therapy against these emotions is writing about them on paper. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, has conducted much of the research on the health benefits of expressive writing. 4 He discovered writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma. When participants write nonstop while exploring their innermost thoughts and feelings without inhibition, it helps people to organize thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience. The process of writing may enable them to regulate their emotions and break free of the endless mental cycling typical of brooding or rumination. When people open up privately about a traumatic event, they are more likely to talk with others about it—and this suggests that writing leads indirectly to reaching out for social support that can aid healing. The next time you find yourself nursing the old wounds, write down your feeling in a notebook. Don’t worry if you can only write words and phrases at first; no one can read it but you. Call it your journal of emotions. Create a habit of describing why you feel that way on paper, and date your entries. After a couple of months, go back and read your earlier writing; you’ll see how far you’ve gone on the path of healing. Unleash your emotional burden on paper so you can live free.
The pressing desire to do better while believing you can’t.
Having too many worries leads to anxiety. The emotion hits like a tornado or earthquake we are always underprepared for. Here I’ll show you the temporary fix followed by a permanent solution.
Try this breathing exercise when you feel anxious. It takes less than a minute.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of four.
Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of four.
Hold your breath again for a count of four. This is one breath.
Inhale and repeat the cycle three more times.
Do you feel calmer now? Good. You just completed the tactical breathing exercise designed for Navy SEALs, SWAT teams, and police officers to remain calm in high-stress situations. 5 This technique breaks the moment of tension and allows oxygen to infuse your body to boost energy level. The next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, try this breathing technique to regain control. A research study by Nobel prize-winning researcher Elizabeth Blackburn shows a regular routine of mindful breathing or meditation strengthens genetic expression and even slows the natural process of aging. 6
Let’s move on to finding a permanent solution for your anxiety. The key is reverse engineering. The Cambridge Dictionary defines reverse engineer as the act of copying the product … by looking carefully at how it is made. 7 This technique has been used widely in pharmaceutical, technology, and business industry.
To reverse engineer the best solution to a problem, we must start from the endpoint and work backward until we reach the starting point. This method keeps us laser-focused on our goal, preventing the unnecessary detours and unintentional backsteps. Once you grasp the concept, you can apply it to other issues at hand. This is very useful tool for planning and problems solving.
Think of a particular problem that keeps you up at night, and write it down at the bottom of a page in your notebook. Use as few words as possible to consolidate your thoughts. This is your starting point. You want to be anxiety-free; that’s your endpoint. Write STOP WORRYING ABOUT X PROBLEM on the top of the same page. Now, focus your mind on this question: If everything goes as you wish, what has to happen to relieve you from anxiety? Consolidate your thoughts into specific points, and record your wish list below the phrase STOP WORRYING ABOUT X PROBLEM. Next, brainstorm actions you can take to get you closer to that wish list. When you’re done, record the steps you come up with.
Here’s the example of how I dealt with anxiety over sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). When my son, Ethan, was little, I was plagued with the fear that one morning I would walk up and find his plump cheeks icy cold. Everyone told me not to worry about it. But the nagging fear stayed with me every time I left his room. I woke up at random hours, checking on him, arranging and rearranging his blanket to minimize the risk of suffocation. This went on for months until one day I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to put an end to this ridiculous fear, or I would go crazy.
I wrote STOP THE UNREASONABLE FEAR ABOUT SIDS at the top of the page. Then I identified two things that could alleviate my anxiety.
I can find a type of blanket that won’t suffocate Ethan and still keep him warm and comfortable at night.
Ethan isn’t at risk for stopping breathing on his own.
Then I looked for options to get me closer to my wish list.
For item 1: I could put Ethan in a sleep sack and remove his blanket.
For item 2: I looked up the information and statistics about SIDS and found Ethan wasn’t at risk for spontaneous respiratory depression. Ethan’s pediatrician assured me that as well.
I posted the piece of paper on the wall. Every night, I would read it before tucking Ethan in, and I’d force myself to stay in bed when I habitually woke up in the middle of the night. I told myself if Ethan wasn’t hungry or needed a diaper change, I shouldn’t get up. After two weeks, my anxiety lessened. Soon, I cured my anxiety.
The belief you are a terrible person because of the harm you imposed upon others, real and imagined.
We make mistakes, and we feel guilty for what we have done or what we believe we have done. It’s normal to feel remorse after we mess up, but the constant inward blame is not.
Have you ever felt outraged by your child’s accidental spill in the kitchen, or yelled at your partner for his inability to remember to buy milk? You were livid; your entire body shook over something so insignificant and forgivable. Ever wonder why you acted that way? Does stress make us scream at our loved ones?
Anger is often the outer manifestation of guilt. We defend our vulnerability by attacking people, and as a result, sink deeper into guilt afterward. Remember Helen from Chapter 3? She lashed out at her twin daughters even though she loves them dearly. The higher the standards we uphold, the harder we work and the easier it is to feel guilty for the things that go wrong. Sometimes, uncontrolled anxiety leads to guilt. In my case, if I hadn’t overcome the fear of SIDS, I might have become chronically depressed, feeling guilty for the imagined harm I was causing my son. We have to forgive ourselves and turn the toxic energy into actions to make things better for ourselves and others.
Working moms often feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children. As long as the kids are safe and sound, your absence won’t jeopardize their well-being. After all, most of us have to work to support our families. With child-rearing, what matters is the quality of time spent with them rather than the quantity. Because of the time restraints you have, focus on making your time together special and meaningful.
Before we tackle guilt, ask yourself if the harm you perceived actually happened or only exists in your head.
Say you had an argument with a friend. She rushed out, and a car hit her. She lost a leg and could no longer be a pro athlete. You hate yourself for the terrible thing you did to your friend. You could never face her again.
Write OVERCOMING YOUR GUILT at the top of a page. Now, let’s examine the root cause of your guilt. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true that your action didn’t cause the accident. It was her action (rushing out without looking) that led to the accident. Yes, she became angry and distracted because of your argument, but you’re not in fact responsible for how disturbed she became. It’s the same argument with driving on a stormy day. If a car spins on a freeway and runs into two other cars, can we blame the accident on the weather rather than the driver? In this case, your action only indirectly caused your friend harm. It’s crucial to differentiate the direct and indirect cause.
Well, you say, the causal relation doesn’t matter because your friend’s life is ruined. She hates you, and you hate yourself. So we know the root cause of your guilt is that you fear your friend will never forgive you.
Let’s reverse engineer the steps to get your friend to forgive you. To do this, you must start from the endpoint and work backward until you reach the starting point. There are many things you can do right away. Visit her and ask for her forgiveness. Offer to help to make her life more comfortable. Find out what other career options she is open to and find opportunities for her. Bring her to her favorite places and introduce her to new friends. If she’s single, you might even help her meet her potential life partner. The bottom line is: don’t get stuck in the dark corner with your debilitating thoughts while doing nothing to ease your friend’s suffering.
You see, life goes on. She is young and healthy, and she bounces back faster than the average person. It’s a pity that her pro career ended prematurely, but that’s not the end of the world. She can still live a full life. You can too. Strengthen your friendship after the accident by giving back and helping her achieve the new goals in her life.
Don’t feel guilty when you’re luckier than those around you. Fate favors you, and it’s not your fault. It’s likely you’re gifted and worked hard for what you have or accomplished, which led you on a path that few travel. Turn your burden into assets by helping those in need because of your unique position.
If you feel guilty because you’re unable to meet everyone’s needs, think of it this way: you can’t help everyone every single time. It’s impossible, even for a saint. Help when you can. When you can’t, say so. If people love you, they’ll understand. If they abuse your kindness and guilt-trip you into doing more, then they don’t care about you, so why should you kill yourself for them?
Many moms experience guilt after yelling at their children when they’re busy or tired. Helen from Chapter 3 did when helping her twins with their homework. I yelled when Ethan asked me at 8:45 p.m. on a Sunday to buy school supplies for his next morning’s class. The image of him on the brink of tears flashed in front of my eyes as I drove to the nearest Target store to get the shopping done. I apologized to Ethan when I got home. We made a deal: I would try my best to be patient and supportive, and in the future he would tell me things like this ahead of time. Since then, I make it a rule to always apologize to Ethan for my impatience no matter how justifiable the situation may seem. Even though I’m an imperfect mom, I want Ethan to feel that he is the perfect child for me.
If your children rely on you for homework help, teach them problem-solving skills rather than solving each problem with them. It’s their job to practice what they learn at school, and your job to assist, not to take over. Let your kids do the work themselves. If they ask for your help, try understanding what they struggle with first. Be sure to use their familiar methods to explain a new concept. This way, your children will likely build confidence to tackle harder problems by themselves in the future. Both self-reliance and confidence are important for a growing mind.
Tell your children you understand that learning new things are hard, and everyone makes mistakes. The first time my husband drove on the left side of the road in New Zealand, the windshield wipers turned on every time he tried to give a turn signal. Make sure your kids understand it’s okay to fail as long as they learn from their mistakes.
The dark cloak you wear that no one else can see.
Everyone experiences shame. Together with vulnerability and insecurity, these acute emotions make us who we are. Shame can be related to our looks or to a part of our body; how we fail to succeed when we are expected to; how we suck at the one thing that comes easily for everyone else.
Dr. Brené Brown is a well-known researcher in guilt, shame, and vulnerability. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” 8 The longer we keep shame to ourselves, the more powerful it becomes. The antidote, Brown says, is empathy. By talking about your shame with a friend who expresses empathy, the painful feeling will go away.
So open up to someone who wants you to be happy, who loves you even when you don’t love yourself, who won’t judge you despite knowing your secret.
Ethan and I had a conversation about shame when he was eight years old. He had just finished reading the novel Wonder by R. J. Palacio. It was a story about Auggie, a ten-year-old boy born with a rare facial deformity and a cleft lip, who gains confidence through friendships at a local private school. I asked Ethan if he would be a friend with someone like Auggie. He said he would because Auggie was a good person and very funny.
“What if you looked like Auggie, would you go to school and make friends?” I asked.
Ethan didn’t answer me. When I asked him again, he said no, because he didn’t want people to stare at him.
I told Ethan I would love him regardless of how he looked.
“That’s because you’re my mommy. Other people won’t.”
“What if you are a good person and very funny?”
Ethan shook his head. “No. I would rather stay at home.”
So I hugged him and told him what mattered was on the inside, not the outside. “When you make friends, make sure they are good people and very funny.”
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