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  • Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Taking control

    I had an interesting conversation at the hairdresser today. My hairdresser, Ed, has a lot of insight into dealing with relationships and emotions. He has gone to many workshops and lectures over the years and then developed his own theories.

    Today I asked Ed if he had any suggestions on anxiety.

    Discovering the underlying emotion

    His take on it is that anxiety is triggered by some other emotion. Am I feeling powerless? (Usually) Am I feeling angry? (Sometimes) Frustrated? (Yeah, probably) But since we don't take time to think about, experience, or process the underlying emotion, and sometimes suppress it to fit cultural norms, we get anxiety. Anxiety is the catch-all for emotions that have not been dealt with.

    His advice is that when I feel anxiety coming on, take time to figure out what I am really feeling. Then, when I have identified the underlying emotion, I need to actively reach for a different emotion.

    Ed said that in his experience, it usually doesn't work to make big leaps of emotion. If you're feeling frustrated, you probably won't be successful in grabbing happiness; but you might be able to move from frustration to anger at the situation, and then from anger to action and finally some level of satisfaction.

    What are my triggers?

    The other thing that's important is recognizing triggers. What sets off my anxiety? Some common ones are impending piano students (expectation of frustration?), impending situations of increased responsibility such as musical performances or babysitting (fear of failure?), and being faced with a lot of housework (frustration at not being able to sit around and knit, most likely).

    By recognizing the triggers and analyzing their causes I should be able to come up with alternate responses to the situations that commonly cause my anxiety.

    Regarding binge-eating as a tactic for dealing with anxiety, Ed pointed out that historically there might have been some primeval need for eating more food in times of stress, and that it is important to find modern solutions to the situations.

    Controlling emotion through assertiveness training

    The concept of taking control of my emotions isn't all that foreign. Some years ago I learned to stop being manipulated by my mother-in-law through a book on assertiveness that my friend Chris Boihem recommended. Chris has a degree in social work, preferring that to psychology as her best route to helping alleviate human suffering.

    The assertiveness book worked on the principle that when a person routinely elicits in me the same response over and over, the person is doing it on purpose to gain some benefit for himself. The person often is not aware that he is doing it, but even if the goal is subconscious, the person is still doing the behavior to get an expected response.

    Once you identify the emotion the person elicits, you watch the person to see what he does to elicit it. Then when you catch the person at it, you say to yourself, "he's doing his thing again," and just take yourself out of gear emotionally. You respond to the person in the exact opposite way you normally do, which leaves him unable to proceed because he does not know this new script.

    For example, MIL once came to our place and invited Paul to go shopping with her to choose a couch for our apartment. I was left at home with the kids. They came home with a hideous couch, and even more hideous fabric to make a slipcover for it. (Since Paul has good taste, I can only assume she manipulated him, too.) This made me feel powerless, childish, useless, and angry, and then guilty because I was not grateful for her purchasing us a couch. By repeatedly making me feel powerless, angry, and guilty, she was able to train me to do whatever she wanted just by using certain catch-phrases such as "don't you agree," "of course you . . ." or ridiculing my suggestions by laughing at them.

    After reading the book on assertiveness training and recognizing that MIL was making me feel these emotions on purpose and was controlling me in this way, I actually found it interesting to watch her at work. When she said, "don't you agree . . ." I would say, "Actually I think . . . " If she laughed at me I would would ignore her and go on with whatever she was laughing at.

    The culmination came when the kids and I arrived at her house for a week's visit and she promptly wanted us to go to her favorite discount shopping center. I intensely dislike shopping, and moreover had just driven 1400 miles with 6 children between the ages of 15 and 4 (Paul flew in later in the week since he had limited vacation time). I told her that we were tired, and also needed to clean out our car before we could go anywhere. MIL went through her routine, but I was able to remain disengaged emotionally, and just kept cleaning the car. I assured her that I would go shopping with her when the car was clean and the kids had been out of the car long enough to not go berserk the minute they got back in it. She appeared to acquiesce, but in fact went in and laid down on her bed and told the kids she was sick. My teenagers saw this for what it was, but Sharman, who is really compassionate, finally begged me to go shopping with Grandma to end the charade. I felt comfortable doing this because I want my children to learn to be compassionate as well as assertive. The minute I agreed, MIL became well.

    Applying assertiveness to anxiety

    I am pretty good at disengaging my emotions when people are manipulating me. Can I disengage my emotions when I'm manipulating myself? I bet I can.

    Just as Ed suggested, step one would be to identify the emotion, and step two to identify what triggers it. Then when I see the trigger coming, I would disengage myself emotionally, and then DO THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what I usually do, so something so unexpected that I surprise myself and break the anxiety cycle.