The Emerald Cockroach Wasp, featured on an episode of Radio Lab, is able to essentially turn a cockroach into a zombie by stinging it in the brain with her venom. Once stung, the cockroach is under the wasp’s control. It is no longer master of itself, no longer what it once was. The cockroach is at the mercy of the parasite.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Perfectionism and Anxiety can feel like parasites. Stress has shown again and again to be a leading cause of heart disease and other unpleasant physical ailments. There is no denying that these “disorders” and “problems” afflict many people and cause much damage. I see this every week in my counseling office. People worn down by worry, stress, and anxiety. I have even been that person. Feeling tired, scattered, confused and “not myself.”
What lies hidden behind these pervasive symptoms is sometimes difficult to uncover. Like a garden weed, stress has a sneaky way of winding itself around the flowers in our lives, the things that truly matter to us. Our thoughts, expectations and values become compromised. It is only by unraveling the weed from the flower that you can ensure a bed full of beautiful, life-giving growth.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) helps us identify the thoughts and expectations that lie at the heart of our responses. We must slow ourselves down to catch these racing revelations. They speed through our heads day in and day out, leaving ideas implanted in our beings, swaying our actions, causing emotions to well up and make us feel out of control. I call them the “speed demons.” How crafty are our thoughts. Silently and stealthily informing our world when we don’t even consciously grasp that they are there.
Yet, there is hope! We all have the ability to recognize their presence. If we slow ourselves down enough to practice getting to know them, we will begin to recognize these thoughts. We will begin to catch them like butterflies in a net. Examine them. Decide which ones to act on and let the others go. This is where our control as human beings lies. In the catching, examining and letting go. Our power lies in the ability to decide whether or not to act on the thoughts, expectations, perceptions and values that we find hanging around in our minds.
OCD, Perfectionism and Anxiety “trick” us into having unrealistic and rigid expectations for ourselves, others and the world around us. They keep us stuck in ineffective ways of thinking, caught up in the “shoulds” and “should nots.” They numb us from acting on our true values and desires. Like the zombie cockroach, we become lost to our true selves, restricted and controlled by our minds.
This week, ask yourself what distressing thoughts, expectations and perceptions seem to have a hold on you. Try to catch these thoughts as they come to you during the day. Become familiar with their presence. And, perhaps, choose to let go of them in the moment.
In the United States today, the majority of people polled identify themselves with a specific religious institution. Christianity, Buddhism and Islam are among the top three named. It’s relatively easy for most people to pinpoint values that these religious doctrines encompass: charity, forgiveness, love, compassion, etc. One might assume that people belonging to these religious communities would serve these values. Yet it’s just as probable that all of us, religious or not, are serving values we don’t even recognize.
Richard Naegle, a Jungian oriented psychologist, espouses that all of us serve something or someone. We bow down to ideas of who we are or what we want to be. We bow down to emotions, traumas, and ideals. We even bow down to the standards society has set for us. These “gods” are subtle. We probably don’t recognize how they influence us on a daily basis. We can be sure, however, that our reverence to them is affecting our own reality. As Naegle says, whatever we serve becomes our master.
This can be a hallowing revelation. It is discouraging to think our own blindness may have kept us in dark and unhappy places. Yet, it can also be a wake up call and an opportunity to realize just how powerful our willingness to live with our eyes wide open can be.
A Zen saying says: “The hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither one.” This proverb is paralleled in other religious texts. The Bible reads, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” The Koran includes, “Allah has not made for any man two hearts in his (one) body.” Obviously mankind has recognized this polarization for some time as well as the pull to serve what will undoubtedly lead us astray.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the client is given the opportunity to clarify values and reflect on how decisions and behaviors she has engaged in have lined up with those values. She begins to discover what has kept her from living congruently with her beliefs and values and how she may have to change to accommodate them.
1. This week, examine your intrinsic values. What kind of person do you want to be in this world? How do you want to be in relationships?
2. Ask yourself what your most recent thoughts, behaviors and reactions reveal that you are serving? Do you make decisions based on your values, or are they made in fear, influenced by pride or guilt? Are you listening to yourself or just trying to placate the values of others?
3. What would have to change for you to live more in line with your values? What transformation would need to happen in your mind and heart in order to be who you want to be in this world? How can you begin to take control of making that happen?
The Spirit of Therapy
Where psychotherapy interacts with our mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and relational wellbeing.