There is a colloquialism in the field of psychology that “research is me-search.”
Many of us who were drawn to study psychology have some personal connection to the topic we study. One of my colleagues who studies LGBTQ stigma is a member of that community.
Another colleague of mine who studies childhood sexual abuse was themselves a victim.
I was attracted to studying anxiety because I had experienced anxiety as a child. I often heard people say to me, “there is nothing to be afraid of—just do it.” From a young age I associated avoidance with fear. This was advantageous when I went to graduate school and had the great fortune of working at one of the most revered anxiety clinics in the world. At the clinic and through my graduate training I learned how to help people whose avoidance was keeping them from living their full lives.
There was the client whose avoidance of driving made it impossible for her to work and socialize, and the man whose avoidance of public speaking kept him in a low-paying job. I helped these people find their voice and break free from their avoidance. They were then able to live their lives by design rather than by default.
Maybe because I was younger, or had not done as much personal work at that time, I thought that avoidance should always be challenged and pushed. My black and white thinking led me to the conclusion that if there was something I avoided I should push myself to do it. Avoidance equaled fear in my mind. This approach helped me with my clients tremendously and I have been fortunate to watch many people change and live more joyful lives.
However, like most black and white thinking patterns, it got me caught in a cycle. In my personal life if there was something I did not want to do I made myself do it, because avoidance meant fear and fear meant a limited life. With experience, personal work and maturity I have learned the inherent rigidness in this type of thinking. Yes, there are situations where you want to push yourself hard to overcome a fear or resistance. However, there are also times when it is appropriate to say, as my daughter did a few weeks ago, ”I am not feeling this right now.”
Any type of black and white thinking or strict rules leave me feeling constricted and physically tense. I end up feeling like there are only two options—success or failure and there’s a sense of gravity to the decisions I make.
When I embrace the “grey” area and say to myself, “maybe I do not feel like writing this email now, but likely will be ready later” I feel my whole body release and relax. When you are stuck in a fear paralysis state, time stops. You have no concept that you will have another opportunity to act. Your whole nervous system says “it is now or never.” If you put a hand on your heart or your head or any part of your body and say, “can this wait?” you will feel a huge release of tension. This release of tension will lead to better perspective on the situation.
Again, if you find yourself consistently avoiding something that impacts your way of life (driving, taking the subway, asking for help, requesting a raise) you need to work on that with a push-through attitude. However, for most of life’s “ugh I do not feel like it” moments you can be more gentle, reflective and kind to yourself.