“I have panic attacks every day!” the woman said to me as she sat down for her first appointment with me. “How do I make them stop?”
An hour later a married couple came into my office and proceeded to tell me how all they ever do is argue. “Can you help us?”
An hour after that my third client of the day spoke of how he has problems managing his anger. My fourth client was traumatized from an abusive relationship. My fifth client was appalled that a coworker would unfriend her on Facebook simply because of a misunderstanding at work. And on and on throughout the day.
Some of the nicest and brightest people can struggle with anxiety or depression. Every relationship can have its share of ups and downs. And grief over loss happens to practically all of us. But over the course of thirty years in private practice I routinely detect beliefs and attitudes that are quite commonplace which nonetheless interfere with people’s inability to really make a positive transformation in their lives.
“It’s Not My Fault”
People start to make improvements when they accept full responsibility for their choices and actions. No doubt some circumstances are quite challenging and we all can succumb to the pressures of some situations and blame others. But if time and again we find ourselves in situations that make us miserable it is never a good idea to believe that “someone else is at fault.” I see many couples who get into power struggles, each claiming the other is obstinate, uncooperative, unfair, or just plain wrong. For some, the only strategy may be to leave a toxic relationship rather than continue to fight to get the other person to change. We must assume responsibility for our happiness. Despite chronic health problems, economic challenges, or whatever else may be dragging us down we may have to learn to accept the things we cannot change and change what we can.
“I Must Win the Approval of Others”
Another version of this belief is “It would be awful if someone disliked me!” People who doubt their worth or competence often will allow themselves to be taken advantage of because they want to be viewed as a very good and kind person. They work hard to manage the impressions others have of them, like politicians do to win votes. Inwardly, they get easily hurt or disappointed when others are not there for them when needed. They would have “dropped everything” to help others and yet no one else seems to be willing to do the same for them. It may not be always true but I find that folks with panic disorder are often “people pleasers.” They are typically warm-hearted people and well-liked but somehow they feel a need to constantly prove their worth by winning people over. And they are sensitive to slights. Hurt, they feel angry or resentful but then fear their anger (“What if people don’t like me if I get mad?”) and go back to over-functioning for others to make themselves feel worthwhile. They are at the mercy of the “WPT’s”—what-people-think. It is more rewarding to be yourself and let the chips fall where they may. Yes, if someone has taken advantage of you they might not like the new you who is capable of saying “No” instead of “yes.” But they are not really the best people to have in your life anyway.
“I Find That Offensive!”
There is a grievance mentality that is quite commonplace in society. The dynamic is that if someone is offended then the offender is automatically wrong or must somehow apologize or change his or her ways. Emotionally healthy people do not go out of their way to be offensive and are not easily offended. If they are ridiculed or treated unfairly they do not take it personally. Folks who are quick to get angry are basically living by the belief “I must not be inconvenienced or made to feel wrong or hurt in any way otherwise I have a right to protest.” It helps if we develop a thicker skin. There will always be people who judge us, reject us, dislike us, or ignore us. It can be rainy day on the beach and the driver in front of you may have his blinker on for ten miles. Accept it. Anytime you need someone else to change in order for you to feel better you give up power.
“If Someone Is Hurting I Am Responsible”
Compassion is a wonderful thing and necessary. In fact, emotionally healthy people are quite compassionate. But compassion (“to suffer with”) does not necessarily mean you must seek to always fix another’s problem. You may not be responsible for why someone else is hurting and it may not be your job to stop their pain. You can be comforting and supportive, you can offer assistance, but many times it is important for the one in pain to find ways to manage the situation so that they develop competence. As a simple example, parents of young children getting on the school bus for the first time might want to protect their children from whatever fears the kids may have about going off to school. But ultimately the children themselves must find a way to emotionally cope—to see themselves successfully navigate through the predictable stressors of school life—because that will help them gain confidence and self-esteem. Facing fears enhances esteem. Escaping from them perpetuates low esteem.
We grow when we are greatly challenged by life circumstances—when we have to persevere, when we have to call forth strengths we did not know we had, when we have to let go of beliefs that no longer serve us. In other words, suffering is not always a bad thing although it is always a painful thing. We must sometimes step back and allow others to walk their own journey—we cannot walk it for them. We can care aboutthem but we cannot always care for them.
“I Am Owed”
When you see life as a gift and are grateful for what you have rather than resentful of what you lost or do not have, you don’t feel that anyone owes you anything. Yes, it would be nice if people treated you fairly but that doesn’t always happen. Taken too far, “I am owed” becomes a sense of entitlement where you feel so deserving of something you do not yet have that you go to war to get it. Sometimes the only way to deal with a grossly unfair situation is to leave the situation. If you cannot leave it—and you cannot get what you think you should—it is a time to practice acceptance and trust. Accept what you cannot change and nourish a greater trust that something good can from it. The good might be a lesson learned or a virtue strengthened. There are numerous other ways we sabotage our own happiness and impede our self-improvement. But the five I mentioned above I see almost on a daily basis.
Which ones resonate for you?
Are you willing to try to let go of those beliefs?