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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Stuck in Compulsive Worry

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stuck in Compulsive Worry

"There's what we do.  And then there is what we do with what we do." ~ A colleague of mine...

who has been in practice for many decades brought this idea back to me as we were discussing the nature of our work.  We were musing over such themes as mistakes, self-forgiveness, worry and sadness.  She was telling me about an awareness that she had a few years back while having lunch with her mother.  They were sitting at a very upscale Manhattan restaurant talking about the family, which her mom likes to do.   In the midst of the normal ebb and flow of the conversation her mother said easily, "Your sisters were always more accomplished than you.  I don't know why you could not be more like them."

My colleague said that at the time she just continued on with lunch and chit-chat, barely noticing the comment.  It was not until later that she sat back, quietly, in what she calls her "thinking chair" and marveled at the comment.  She, like many of us in the field of psychotherapy, had long been studying mother - daughter relationships, the deep and profound longing and linking that mothers and daughters have for each other, the spectrum of distance to connection, of approval seeking, dependence and individuating, the obvious effects that mothers and daughters have on each other, and the deep, subtle, but often powerful imprint and psychic shaping the relationship has for both, but most profoundly, a mother to a daughter.  And my colleague has spent many years studying her own relationship with her mother.

She knew that this remark was not consciously meant to hurt her.  Her mother valued law and medicine.  Her mother's own upbringing reinforced the value of these degrees as status and symbolic of success, security, safety, respect, and prestige.  So when one daughter became a doctor and one an attorney, my colleagues mother filled with pride and relief. 

What stood out to my colleague that day at lunch was this though:  Somehow in all of her own success in her own career, and her own graciousness toward her own mistakes and foibles, she still worried a lot, much of the time in fact.  And she realized in that moment that while there are many truths, many pieces to the puzzle of the human mind, psyche and feelings, that one piece for her, concerning her worrying was this message.  It was this voice that she had imbued, internalized, taken as her own that lived in her, quietly on a conscious level, but very much at work underneath the surface.

This was not a "blame your mother" moment.  Not at all.  She had long since made peace with the gifts and disappointments of her relationship with her mother.  Rather, she recognized that the worrying she did was her loyalty to that relationship.  It was a carrying on of the culture that was familiar to her.  Because underneath the feeling of worry, were thoughts and beliefs at work.  Her own mother's fear that she was not good enough, not doing enough, that there would not be enough, that things could and might at any moment go wrong.  That one should not feel secure or positive lest one be knocked off guard unprepared.  The worry, in part, was her connection to her mother, her likeness to her, complicated as that seemed at times.

Of course, there is always more to the story.  And when it comes to being stuck in compulsive worry (or sadness for that matter - more on that one day too), there are many things we can do to get relief.  There are behavior techniques, there are thought changing and meditation techniques, there is wide variety of practical things to do, and of course, talking.  But there is also the look back.  The understanding of what might be going on underneath the surface.  Sometimes along with the worry there is anger, fear, insecurity, self doubt.  And it takes a bit of talking it through and letting it out to get to a better place.  When we are stuck and the obvious is not working, or working well enough to bring relief, it helps to dig a bit deeper and stretch into understanding whose voice it really is in our head, or what combination of voices, what we may be tied to and why.  When we unpack our minds a bit, it often leads to a deeper more steady sense of self.  It makes our relationships better and helps us to move forward in ways that feel right, calm and good.

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