It’s another great big beautiful day, with perfect temps in the 70’s and no rain in the forecast. Finally, after a prolonged, wet and bone-chilling spring, it’s finally beginning to feel like summer here in the armpit of the Midwest. A good day to get things done at home, take care of business, and enjoy feeling like I’ve accomplished something. This is not easy for me to do. I’m my own worst critic and tend to harsh on myself for even the smallest things. Truth is I’ve come a long way in the past nine years, since first entering DBT.
One of the key skills I’ve learned to use is Opposite to Emotion action. In the simplest terms, this means “showing up” for things and being willing to do what it takes. For someone with crippling social anxiety, this takes a great deal of practice. At the root of my fear lies the thought that I am not good enough and that others will see this and judge me. I remember bowing out of countless things and feeling overwhelmed by even the most fundamental social interactions, such as meeting a repair person at the house to fix a broken washing machine. Going for coffee at an unfamiliar cafe could send me into a tailspin. Drinks with one or two colleagues after work would shut me down, and I’d make an excuse to get out of it. Any situation in which I would might be exposed, have to make conversation, eye contact, or talk about myself was utterly mortifying. To add injury, I’d be forced to explain my behavior to others, bringing even more attention to this great big Brontosaurus that was my anxiety.
I’ve learned that success in DBT is based on taking calculated risks. This means going to group every week and participating. Keeping my therapy appointments. Calling my therapist when I’m feeling like the bottom may drop out. Accepting social invitations as often as I can, and actually showing up—despite the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside my head. I’ve found it helpful to honor the fears, to gently acknowledge and recognize them with “I hear you, fear”, but not cave into their demands. I often imagine putting my fear in a box “for now” and placing it on a high shelf out of reach. I’ve got things to do and experiences to live, so the fears can live in that box (punch a few holes in the top so they can breathe) until I’m done doing what I want. The tricky part of all this goes back to core mindfulness skills of being present.
If I allow my fears to take over my brain, I lose the ability to remain present. Losing the present moment means that I lose my ability to act on my own behalf. I can only advocate for myself if I’m here right now. A therapist once described this to me as “allowing one’s emotions to drive the bus”, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. If we allow the noise of our fears to overwhelm us and our anxious thoughts to grab the wheel, we’re not in control of our own lives.
What this means is that even when we’re scared, we can choose to move forward. For example, today I can decide to meet a friend for coffee and not worry that I might have to sit there alone for a few minutes. I can recognize the fear in me, put on a half-smile and take a deep breath knowing that it’s my choice. I can remain present, be gentle with myself, knowing that despite any anxiety, I’m in charge. The fear and anxiety recede when we don’t give them all of our present energy. And we can go back to living life as it is meant to be lived—in the now. We can enjoy whatever it is we’re doing with peace of mind and our full attention.
My theory is that often if I bring the body, the mind will follow. So I simply drag my carcass to the show, and let things unfold as they will. What I’ve found is that my fear and anxiety has been significantly reduced, and my joy in ordinary daily life has increased ten-fold.