In this space, I explore ideas about emotion, cover different therapeutic methods for healing, and write about myriad aspects of the feeling field, including overlooked pioneers in psychology and psychoanalysis, all to encourage the question: How do I want to live? Past posts can be read HERE, and you can keep up with me on FB, IG & Twitter.
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(I am neither a therapist nor a medical professional; I am simply someone using my lifelong experience with an anxiety disorder to highlight material well understood by psychologists. Existence is painful. I like helping.)
“A man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.” —Seneca
What if we had metaphysical archery quivers with arrows customized to pin our troubles and anxieties to the wall, allowing us to move past them and into our lives without constant mental anguish?
That is, each of us has the ability to learn little tricks to get us through hard times. Some people call these “hacks,” but as you get to know me, you’ll find that I am not a fan of overused words—their potency loses meaning when you hear something too often (like someone who says I love you 55 times a day).
Montaigne, Seneca, Epictetus, and all the Stoics used little tricks to get through hard times, and friends …
… so do I.
Read on for their favorite tricks, and for mine.
But first, a tale of woe, followed by a surreptitious dollop of hope.
Because of the popularity of the posts: Resolving the Unresolvable and Dr. Chansky’s Rules for Ruminators, I asked Dr. Tamar Chansky to join me in a Live Q&A on the topic of anxiety and rumination. The goal was to field questions and offer suggestions and answers for how to move through hard times, especially during the holidays, now known as the pandemic holidays. (Does a truer oxymoron exist?)
I was excited about this event; confident even. After some reading and thinking preparation, I was looking forward to hanging out with Dr. Chansky, to work and learn alongside her. I’m grateful to her for so many reasons, and I do not take her time (or her mind) for granted. I also really wanted everyone to meet her, because she’s an invaluable resource and has the most generous and kind heart. And, of course, I was excited to meet everyone who joined us, and, my friends, I FELT CALM. CALM! ME!
But, my friends, the Live event did not go well.
First of all, I couldn’t get the camera to work, even with actual, professional, expert tech help. An app I once downloaded and actually THREW OUT was apparently blocking my access to my camera. Dr. Chansky couldn’t get on until I sent her the link, but I couldn’t send her a link until I got on. MEANWHILE, the Live talk was scheduled for 5 p.m., and since I logged on at five minutes to 5 anticipating a smooth and seamless entry into this new world of “being live” (don’t think about this concept too much or you’ll get a “meta-migraine”—trademark pending!), and it took 15 minutes before I actually was able to get on, I was, well, no longer calm.
People with anxiety and panic disorders (or both) are constantly battling with the concept and mental weight of time. Our relationship with time is … fraught. I’ll delve deeper into this conversation another time, but for now, just know that I do not like to be late, nor do I like when others are late. I FEEL the lateness pressing against my soul. It’s not just that it’s rude, but whenever I’m on time and someone else is late, I start questioning whether I’m in the right place, or if I got the time wrong, the date wrong, the YEAR wrong? I worry that something happened to them, that they are hurt, in trouble, or perhaps even dead. Then, I worry that perhaps they’re actually inside the restaurant (or wherever we’re meeting) and now I’m actually the one who is late and they are fractalling inside the emotional geometry of their own time-anxiety. When I go and look for them inside and don’t see them, I question whether I looked hard enough, or missed a secret room, or a trick door I don’t know about, and on and on it goes until they show up and I’m drained and exhausted and just want to put my head down on the table and go to sleep.
I was late to the Live event and I did not like it one bit. I was imagining those who were waiting for us to appear at the appointed time, not knowing what was happening and questioning their own reality—the worst-case scenario for those with anxiety. After trying and failing, and trying and failing, my tech guru suggested that I abandon my computer and get on my phone, and finally I appeared on the Live video feed, but there was no Dr. Chansky. Something on her end wasn’t working either, and no matter how many times we tried, neither of us could get her on the stream. Comments were pouring up from the bottom of the screen like confetti going in the wrong direction. Viewers were writing helpful tips for how to get her on, and I was attempting to fill the time while reading the comments, trying to follow the tips, all the while being cheered on and championed by viewers. Admittedly, the incoming comments and my trying to find a way to get Dr. Chansky on the Live rattled and overwhelmed me so much, I began to feel myself slip into paralysis.
One of my fears is to suddenly freeze when others are waiting on me. Because when people are expecting something from me, and I’m paralyzed, it exacerbates the paralysis—it’s like I’m in a conscious coma. But that day, something magical happened.
Instead of doing what I would normally do when I freeze, which is to transform into an automaton, I suddenly realized I had to abandon the pretense that I could execute the original plan on my own, and to accept the circumstances at hand, recalibrate and give them not what was advertised, but what I knew I was capable of offering, which was my own experience, and what I’ve learned.
And so, that’s what I did. I ignored the streams of comments, but more importantly, I ignored the pull of my own fear that was trying to shut me down instead of open me up. My brain didn’t know what to do, but my body did: My body told me to let go of trying to fill both Dr. Chansky’s role and my own,and instead go toward the subject I knew best, the one I felt most comfortable talking about—my own experience. And so I did. I forced myself to sit back and focus on what I needed to move forward and not let my anxiety overwhelm me, but rather co-exist with it, and carry on. And as I did that, I realized that I was employing a method that I learned by writing this newsletter: Morita Therapy. The longer the Q&A went on, the more I was putting “How to Live” methods to the test. I was practicing new techniques in real time, and they were working.
Below are some of the best bits from the Live Q&A, including the methods I used to get through the early treachery of the Live, and the useful tricks for facing fears that I shared with the viewers.
THE LIVE Q&A:
One viewer asked:
One viewer offered this:
With Dr. Chansky in the comments, offering her advice, we came up with this response:
One viewer concurred and gave her own great life advice:
We suggested that she sort out with her boyfriend what his fear actually is. Once they can identify his fear (rational or irrational, it really doesn’t matter) then they can begin to pinpoint the situations that trigger his anxiety, and figure out ways to manage it. For instance, let’s say that whenever she asks for space, he worries that she’s going to leave him.
In a partnership, communication is vital (and by communication, I mean expressing how you feel in the moment, or whenever you’re able, explaining what it is you feel, need, and want; or don’t feel, don’t need, or don’t want) Once she hears this, she’ll be able to soothe his anxiety and together they can strategize a way to face this anxiety together—perhaps they can come up with ways to communicate “I need space” that feel less threatening to him than say, throwing a bucket of water on his face (metaphorically speaking, of course)
I’m a big fan of shorthand between partners for long-hand relationship issues. Let’s say your partner is doing something that triggers your abandonment fears. After you’ve talked it out, explained it to your partner, and made sure they understand, you can now try out a shorthand for when you’re triggered again in the future. With this shorthand, you’ll both know, without having to get into it yet again, what’s happening and hopefully, with any luck, your partner can change course, and implement the word or phrase you’ve decided on, which will soothe both of you.
In response to something I said about feeling anxiety in your body, we got this question:
One viewer offered a great suggestion for where to practice:
When you have anxiety, you often get stuck inside of rumination and the reason it’s so hard for us to get out of it is that we are, according to organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, asking the wrong question. When we are stuck, too frequently we are asking WHY? Why am I like this? Why did this happen to me? Why does everyone else get what I want, and I don’t? The question of “why” sinks you deeper inside the mesh tangle of despair. Instead of why, the question that can pull us out of the depth is to ask: WHAT?
At the point in which I began to feel myself freeze during the Live, I could hear the “why” in my head. Why was this happening during my first Live? Why couldn’t I get Dr. Chansky on the stream? Why were we having tech issues? And I realized in that moment that I was ruminating over “why” and it was dragging me in the wrong direction. And so I redirected and asked myself what I needed to do to make this livestream work.
The answer, of course, was: abandon the original plan. Forget trying to give people what I advertised, and instead give them what I knew how to give. Ignore the distractions, ignore the tech difficulties, ignore the suggestions, and just focus on delivering the content, and on the questions people are asking that I can answer.
At the same time, I was also employing another method I’ve written about—Morita Therapy, which says that instead of allowing our emotions to dictate what we do or don’t do, feel your emotions, but focus on what needs doing so that you’re not neglecting your life. Be sad, but do your laundry anyway. Be frustrated, but go to work anyway. Be anxious, but give people what you are capable of giving, anyway.
And that is when I remembered something that the mid-first-century Common Era philosopher Seneca told me (we dated a really, really, really long time ago) about the problem of expectation: Don’t have any. (More on this below.)
Finally, I wrapped things up by giving away a couple of my favorite, and now not-so-secret, little tricks for:
FACING YOUR FEARS IN REAL TIME / STERN TRICKS
For Social Anxiety:
Years ago, I devised a tried-and-true method that gets me through every bout of social anxiety, and allows me to attend parties and events like I am a dreamy, introspective, celebrated indie filmmaker/style icon with preternatural talent, a cult following, and a cool, aloof, inscrutable, yet understated presence. How? I pretend I’m Sofia Coppola. That’s right. You read those words correctly. When I pretend I’m her, I am no longer mired in my own particular insecurities and anxieties. Instead I’m playing a part, which is a distraction and a job, and both things are crucial when you want to get out of your mind-state. You can choose whomever you want to be, but the person should be someone who you would actually switch places with for at least one night. Feel free to customize this to your specifications, and if it works for you, please let me know!
For dealing with a difficult family member:
Is there someone (or many someones) in your family you wish you were nicer to? Is there someone you wish you could get along with, if only to get through a holiday dinner? Is there someone in your family who grates on you so much, you feel internal bleeding just thinking about having to be near this person? Welcome to my next trick: pretend this family member is actually a friend of your family, and not actually a member of your family. You may find yourself being nicer to them. You can reframe the parts about them you find difficult or awful, and instead of regarding them as an ignorant, evil racist, consider their awfulness a crippling emotional condition (which, in the case of this example, is accurate). When you reframe things this way, you are softer with people, and when you are softer, you can handle things in new and better ways, which might just lead to improved relationships over time. If you try this and it works, please report back!
FACING FEAR IN REAL TIME / TRICKS OF THE STOICS
The Stoics, whom I mentioned in the beginning, devised techniques for facing reality by facing it, and also by not facing it.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 4 B.C.–A.D. 65), known to friends, family, countrymen, and modern readers the world over as “Seneca,” was a Roman Stoic philosopher, political leader, and writer. He believed in the eradication of expectation. It is a crutch that hurts us. In his view, we become frustrated and angry by things, not because they are irritating or maddening, but because we assume an outcome which can never match what will actually happen. We create a fictional scenario and then when reality doesn’t match the scenario we’ve imagined, we become aggrieved, and angry at ourselves or others. Better not to have any expectation at all, he proclaimed, and just accept what happens. When you take expectation out of context, you can see just how absurd it is as a practice. Expectation is a wish your imagination makes, and when the wish doesn’t come true, we get mad at reality for not acting out our fantasies.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) was a hugely significant and influential French philosopher whose first claim to fame was inventing the essay as a literary genre. Montaigne suffered enormous hardships, having lost five of six daughters, and then his best friend Étienne de la Boétie, the most important relationship of his life.
In his grief and despair, Montaigne turned to the Hellenistic philosophies— Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism—for lessons on how to cope with reality. Skepticism taught him to see things from other perspectives; to avoid making assumptions. Life’s goal, for him and for the Hellenistic philosophers, was to be free of anxiety (amen, brothers), to move through life evenly, without the erratic (and often traumatic) highs and lows of extreme emotion. They wanted to be present, yet not suffer the emotional dysregulation of everyday life. The word for the state they wanted to achieve and the way of living they desired was “eudaimonia,” or human flourishing. To achieve eudaimonia one needed to be free of anxiety, and the way the Stoics and Epicureans got there was to use little tricks, and so Montaigne followed suit.
He decided to rely upon diversion to get through his grief over losing a loved one, and to help face aging, which frightened him. For grief over a loved one, he contrived a way to become besotted by another. To fend off his fear of aging, he looked back to his past and stroked fond memories of his youth. To get over rejection from a loved one, or the death of his best friend, he decided he must get a crush on someone else.
His other recommendations were to “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; Don't worry about death; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; be ordinary and imperfect.”
The Greek philosopher Plutarch (A.D. 46–after A.D. 119) thought it best to pretend that you have lost the thing or person you are starting to take for granted, or losing a taste for, and then miss them tremendously, as though they have died. Grieve for them. Mourn for them. Employing this method will revive the appreciation and value we actually have, but have misplaced somewhere along the way.
Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher (c. A.D.50 –c. A.D. 135) was also devoted to the idea of shedding yourself of expectation. This, I think, is some very solid advice. It’s hard to practice, but I try.
In the two months that I’ve been writing this newsletter, I’ve not only learned a lot about a variety of therapeutic modalities and mental states, but I’ve discovered so much about myself and my ability to implement these tools. And I’m so grateful to you, dear subscribers, for your comments and emails, for your time and attention, for your appreciation and for your interest in these topics. Thank you.
And you? Have you devised any tricks to face your fears? Tell me in the comments!
Until next week I am…
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
Wikipedia (for life-span dates of the Stoics!)
"How to Live" is a newsletter about all things psychological. To read more and subscribe, go to amandastern.bulletin.com