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You don’t have to be perfect - 3/13/2015

A patient I hadn’t seen in therapy for more than three years called my office and asked for an emergency appointment. He sat down in the chair as though he totally was exhausted. Then, he pulled a paper from his pocket and asked, “Do these rules still apply? I was recently promoted and between my increased responsibilities and new boss, I feel like I’m a total failure. I can’t sleep at night and I’m half asleep at work. I’m obsessing about being fired and procrastinating about everything else. That’s why I searched for this list. You gave it to me years ago regarding how to deal with my inner fears.” As I listened to Brian read the list, I thought, I don’t remember writing the list, but it sounded like me and, best of all, it seemed like pretty good advice.

My next thought was: Maybe I should share this list with every one of you who, similar to Brian, have ever felt paralyzed to the point that you had difficulty with concentrating, thinking clearly and making decisive decisions – all of which caused you to become so depressed that you frequently were unable to initiate any sort of constructive behavior. Even worse, during those occasions, you felt as though you were trapped in a rut, spinning your wheels and sinking so low that you questioned whether life was worth living. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is, and to provide you with a game plan to make you better tomorrow.

First, determine what’s causing your problem. Could it be physical, due to a thyroid dysfunction, a blood chemistry imbalance, a neurological abnormality or possibly something emotional in nature, stemming from your DNA, your childhood rearing or situational factors, such as excessive use of alcohol or drugs? To make that determination, you may need the aid of a professional who can determine what is really broke. The reason: You can’t fix something until you know what’s broken.

If it’s emotional in nature, you need to search inside for the real problem, because more often than not, your symptoms serve as a defense mechanism designed to protect you by denying, hiding, redirecting or transferring your fears to a more palatable, less emotionally hurtful source. You might think of it as similar to stomping on your big toe to rid yourself of a headache. The problem is that the price you pay for that detour can be extremely high – in this example, a broken toe.

To help you lower that price, let me share the items on Brian’s list:

1. It is all right to feel anxious and depressed. Despite what society says, you needn’t take an antidepressant if you’re sad at a funeral, getting a divorce or experiencing a physical or emotional loss. In fact, it’s healthier to feel and face the pain, anxiety or stress, than to hold it inside and allow it to corrode its container. So, understand that emotions, whether positive or negative, are normal. Therefore, it is essential that you learn to accept them, rather than attempt to deny or fix them.

2. Value every feeling that you experience. Whether happy or sad, they are important to your emotional growth. They alert you to internal upset or conflict to which you otherwise might be blind. When you accept and face them, they help you learn to cope and deal with challenges you inevitably will encounter in the future. Hiding from, displacing or denying your feelings doesn’t work. For example, no matter how hard you pinch yourself to avoid the pain you anticipate from an injection, the anticipation of hurt will still be there the next time. Pinching is only a short-term fix. Your new rule of thumb needs to be “feel it now and grow from it later.”

3. Recognize that demonstrating emotions doesn’t make you a weak person or reflect negatively on your character. It only reinforces your humanness, and that’s positive, because humans are allowed to make mistakes, display anger, feel weak, and still be worthwhile. It’s far easier to live your life when you keep that in mind.

4. Never attempt to intellectualize your way out of your anxieties or depression. Remember they’re emotions; therefore, they don’t respond to logic or intellect. The curious paradox is that, although your objective is to rid yourself of your hurts, you first must run toward them and get a firm grasp of them, so that you effectively can throw them away. For example, when dealing with emotions, “grabbing hold” consists of three steps: identifying, owning and forgiving the true contributors to your stress. Taking these steps aids you to realize that you’re OK, in spite of your insecurities. It’s not that your insecurities disappear. It’s that taking ownership of them divests them of their power and enables you to live better with them.

5. It’s essential that you learn to fail and to accept your perceived insufficiencies. If you don’t, later in life you will be fearful to take risks, and excessively defensive of perceived criticism. You then will feel hurt and resentment, which you will use as a smoke screen to avoid facing your true inner fears. What you need to do is to recognize that neither fight nor flight are indicative of strength, and that only emotionally secure persons can be humble, forgiving and vulnerable.

6. Resign yourself to give your best effort and accept the outcome. I know it’s scary to let go of old voices that constantly urge you to do more. I promise, whether you fail or succeed, your emotional health will be far better after you reduce the pressure you put on yourself. By accepting your limitations, you reduce your expectation, which ironically enables you to take greater risks and challenges, because you are far less paralyzed by the possibility of failure.

7. Take responsibility for you; not for your children, spouse, parents, siblings or friends. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help others, but what they do with that help solely is up to them. All you are responsible for is to do your best, which is easier when you remember that mistakes are normal, because you are not perfect. It sounds easier than it is, but if you can accept that notion, you will be better able to accept yourself. You won’t need obsessions, anger or depression to hide behind. Instead, you will accept your good, and forgive your bad and your ugly. That’s what letting go is all about. In the end, it results in your loving yourself. That’s the key to most of the problems you ever will face in life. When you own that key, you no longer will need to control the world or the people in it.

This list provided Brian with a sense of emotional support. I hope it will for you, as well.

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