People who are compulsive, workaholic or Type a personality have a, well, special relationship with anxiety. It propels them to get lots done, but it also makes it hard for them to enjoy life. And those at the unhealthy end of the compulsive spectrum who have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), have such pressing anxiety that they may never enjoy life.
Leaping from one to-do list to the next, they try to jump over the deeper and ignored fears that lead to the anxiety. Crossing things off a list may give some immediate comfort, but it only leads to more anxiety because it doesn’t really address the underlying issue. And it further invests in the idea that doing relieves anxiety.
A friend of mine used to have a note on her refrigerator: “Action Absorbs Anxiety.” True, it does. But like the gunk in a sponge, it doesn’t really go away so easily. It’s a short term solution to a long term problem.
In this post I will suggest that if we listen to anxiety as a signal that something is awry, a message that we are out of contact with something important and are out of balance, we can find a way to respond to it meaningfully rather than reacting to it frantically with compulsive doing.
The Differences Between OCPD Anxiety, Surface Fears, and Deep Fears
First, let’s clarify a few terms.
Anxiety is vague and free-floating.
Fear is more specific.
Some fears are conscious, but sit on top of deeper fears that we’re not aware of. I call these conscious fears “surface fears.” Will I be on time? Can I pay my bills? Is that painting on the wall not straight? Is that guy over there breaking the rules? Is my post perfect?
Other fears are more disturbing and less conscious. I call these “deep fears.” Will I be completely alone? Am I a good person? Will I be humiliated? Will I get in trouble? Am I fundamentally inadequate or flawed? Does my life have any meaning? Because these deeper fears are more disturbing we try to avoid them and we often are not aware of them. These are the ones that really cause us trouble.
Facing your deep fears sounds exciting until it comes down to what it is you actually need to do or not do in order to deal with them. Asking a boss for a raise? Sure. Rock climbing? No problem. Public speaking? Cinch. Allowing yourself to let go of control, be imperfect, late or lazy? Forget it.
Avoidance Amplifies Anxiety
But here’s the thing about anxiety: the more you avoid it, the more anxious you get.
Let’s say that you avoid letting people down, so you do your best never to disappoint them. You become a people pleaser. You can’t say just why, but you know it brings up a deep, unnamable terror if any one is unhappy with you. It makes no sense of course, we all know that. But you just can’t stop it. Understandably then, you do whatever you need to do to keep from letting people down and feeling the fear that comes with it.
You get really good at it.
Problem is, you not only become more afraid of any deeper fear that you’re avoiding, you also become more and more invested in your defense—pleasing people. You begin to believe (at least unconsciously) that that’s the only way to live.
The Compulsive Response to OCPD Anxiety and Fear
Compulsive people tend to use action to distract from deep fear and anxiety, so the anxiety is often masked, or persists at a very low level. This can go on for a long time, disguised, because compulsives have the energy and disposition to be very productive and meticulous anyway.
But take away their compulsion (e.g. work, control, and perfection) and it all becomes painfully obvious.
Four Steps to Using Anxiety as an Invitation to Becoming Healthier
Here are four steps to get off the hamster wheel of compulsive behavior in order to feel better. They don’t always happen in this sequence. You may need to stop compulsing (yes, I know that’s not a proper verb) before you can recognize and name the deeper fears.
Name. Confront. Stop. Pursue.
- Welcome anxiety into awareness with curiosity so that you can name the deeper fear beneath it that you’ve been avoiding.
- Confront your fears and ask yourself if you could survive the worst case scenario.
- Stop doing the things such as cleaning, planning, controlling, organizing, and perfecting that allow you to avoid deep fears. This helps you to feel and face them.
- Pursue what you want to do rather than simply avoid what you don’t want to feel. Pursue the things that will be fulfilling such as self acceptance, healthy relationships, and meaning, rather than avoid your fears. All this compulsive energy wanted to go somewhere and do something good before it got enlisted in the service of avoiding fear.
I’ll go through these four steps in more detail below. But first let me introduce Mary as a condensed and simplified example of what this process is like.
Mary tries to avoid her fears with work and control
Mary is a single mother who worked very long hours in her management job at a large corporation. She’s anxious and it shows. Her surface fears are that if she loses her job, she won’t find another one, and then she won’t be able to provide for her teenage son. She tries to deal with it all by controlling: she’s known as a bit of a terror at her job. No patience. Unforgiving. Bossy.
Her son would also have a thing or two to say about her anxiety, and about how it makes her even more controlling than the most severe of parents.
Mary has good reason to be cautious: she has a demanding job in an unforgiving environment with no family around to back her up.
But this isn’t just about providing for her son.
If it was she’d provide a lot more love and affection. Plenty of people make far less money than she does and still support their families. Her anxiety and control have a desperate edge to them which indicate a deeper fear beneath her surface fears.
For years Mary never considered that maybe, just maybe, her anxiety had something to tell her.
1. Name: Identifying Surface Fears and Deep Fears
Naming your fears will require slowing down to feel and reflect, which will be challenging but rewarding in itself. Whenever you find yourself anxious, rushing, perfecting, and telling yourself that you have to do something, ask what it is you really fear.
Let’s take the example of being late. Sure, you don’t want to be late, but what is it about being late that’s so frightening? Does it mean that everyone will think you aren’t as good as they thought you were? That you are somehow flawed personally? That they will see that you’re really a very angry person who tries to hide it by being compliant? Or that this is yet another sign that you will always be a failure?
Common and less obvious deep fears
Some of the most common deep fears are abandonment, rejection, isolation, chastisement and humiliation. Other fears may be harder to access, but are at least as potent: not being able to reach our potential, fear that we aren’t as good, moral or skillful as we thought we were, fear of our own dark side (e.g. greed and anger), fear of our own self-judgment, and fears of not living a meaningful life.
Mary’s names her fears
When Mary finally couldn’t tolerate her stress and unhappiness, she sat down to write out her fears. What she hadn’t wanted to face were her deep fears of not being a good mother, of being alone, of not being as smart and talented as everyone told her she was when she was young, of being out of control with anger, and of living a meaningless life. While she did occasionally have some awareness of these fears, she usually focused on the surface fears of losing her job and not having enough money.
2. Confront: Facing Worst Case Scenarios
Most people handle “crises” better than they imagine they would.* This also applies to the “crisis” of what you imagine will happen if you let go of control.
It’s no accident that we have so many myths about facing, slaying and even befriending our demons. We intuited this long before psychologists could study it. These myths are intended to guide and inspire us, and to help us know that we too can face our demons.
We’re capable of enduring and even thriving despite adverse conditions.
You don’t necessarily have to figure out how you would survive. That could play in to your tendency to obsess. But it is important to know that you are capable of surviving.
Besides, would the worst case be any worse than your current state of perpetual worrying and working?
Facing the deeper fears requires self acceptance, and the willingness to make change. We may need to acknowledge that perhaps there is reason to fear not living up to our potential or not living a meaningful life. At this point we need to take responsibility for our shortcomings, but not assign blame.
Mary confronts her surface fears and her deeper fears
After naming her fears Mary had to realistically assess whether she and her son could survive if she lost her job. The truth was that she had an impressive resume and, even if she had to take a lower position after some months off, they could get by. She might not be able to afford tutoring for him, but she could help him herself, which could actually be a good thing. It might actually be a relief to leave the job.
And she also had to face the deeper fears. She felt conflicted between providing financially for her son and being there emotionally for him. While she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, she knew on some level that she had not been present for him when he needed her and she felt terrible about it. But it didn’t mean she was a terrible mother. It only meant that she faced the conflict that every parent faces, and she may have erred in one direction for a while. It was a mistake, not a sign of flawed character.
She couldn’t control whether she would find a partner, but she could find ways to make her life more fulfilling, such as making friends and being part of a community, even if she were single.
And whatever expectations she and her family had had for herself, self-attack was not helping anyone. She had done the best she could.
3. Stop: Facing Fear by not Compulsing
Naming and confronting are necessary but not sufficient. You will also need to stop perfecting, overworking, and controlling, and then tolerate the fears that arise when you aren’t covering them with lists and tasks. You may even become aware of more deep fears as you do this.
When you expose yourself to the thing you fear, it becomes less daunting.
Meditation, exercise and deep belly breathing can all be helpful in getting through the initial stages of stopping. In effect you are going through withdrawal, and these can help you get through it. They are also quite helpful in ongoing well-being.
But more importantly notice that there is something gratifying about being present to what you really feel rather than avoiding it. It’s as if you’ve been walking around clinging to something very fragile that you needed to protect.
And maybe you don’t need to.
Facing your fears takes strength, courage, and faith in yourself. Faith that you are basically good, that you can take care of yourself, and that you’ve done your best.
Mary slows down
Will and control were Mary’s mantras, her strategies to get through her day. And when she cut back some on her hours and stopped trying to micromanage her son and the people that worked for her, she felt more anxiety. At first.
She had to face the shame and insecurity that had lead her to try to prove herself, rather than pursue what she really wanted. This required that she mourn all that she had missed and left out by playing it safe.
She couldn’t just casually hang out with her son at first. She was too restless. But with time it became more comfortable for her. She began to respond to the message of restlessness with exercise. She began feeling less anxious, but she also noticed some emptiness. The energy she had been using to avoid her fears needed someplace more fulfilling to go.
4. Pursue: Listening to the Message of Anxiety and Choosing a Meaningful Life
If you just stop perfecting, overworking and controlling, the problem may migrate somewhere else if you don’t understand where it’s really coming from or what it could be pointing you toward.
Anxiety may actually be a warning message that there is a deeper fear we need to face, and a signal that we’re trying to control that which is out of our control. And, at least as importantly, it may be a signal that some essential part of us needs mindful expression. Letting go of control leaves more room to pursue this.
People who are compulsive were born with energy and passion. Once those are no longer hijacked by fear and anxiety, they can be redirected consciously in a more fulfilling way.
I mentioned that Mary never considered that anxiety had something to tell her. Now I can explain why.
Mary was a very strong woman, but her strength was being used to avoid her deeper fears. Her anxiety eventually forced her to stop and reflect on how she wanted to live her life.
She didn’t have to leave her job, but she did need to hold on to it less desperately by not overworking, bullying, and perfecting. Nor did she need to control her son with unreasonable demands and discipline. But she did need to show him more love.
Rather than feeling an urgent inner demand to be a perfect mother, Mary began to focus on what she wanted to do with her son that would be satisfying and enjoyable for both of them. She began to pursue meaning with him rather than just react to her guilt. She began to recall what originally lead her to have a child.
She realized that her management position offered her opportunity to positively impact other people. And that had meaning for her.
None of these came easily, and she couldn’t always stay in that mindset. But she did develop a much different perspective that reduced her anxiety and improved her sense of self.
Most importantly, she got back to what was important.
*If you’re not so convinced that we generally handle crisis better than expected, read Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, where he quotes oodles of research indicating that we are very bad at predicting how well we will handle disasters, and that we usually overestimate how badly they will affect us.
For more on the subject of anxiety, see a more recent post, Naming and Taming The Core Fears That Control Us.
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