How I learned to act in spite of my feelings

July, 2015


I started therapy because of problems in my marriage; and at first my wife, who was very angry with me, did most of the work. Eventually I realized that I needed to do some work on myself. I was having trouble coping with my own negative feelings. Anxiety was the main problem.

My anxieties affected my life in many ways. I was, for one thing, agoraphobic. Travel of any kind was very stressful for me. I also had what they now call Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other somatic symptoms. And I was a worrier. My personal motto was “Every silver lining has a cloud.”

All of these things had bothered my since I was twelve. I decided I’d like to get control of these feelings. Get rid of them.

The therapist didn’t tell me, but the fact is that it is almost impossible to control one’s feelings. They are what they are, caused by some combination of our genes, our history and our current environment.

So I started work on my negative feelings, thinking I could change them for the better, but they got worse. My worry was greater than usual and my physical symptoms got stronger and more painful. I complained bitterly to the therapist about this, and he said:

“There is an inherent lie in the therapeutic contract. You come in and ask if I can help you feel better. And I say, truthfully, that I believe I can. But what I don’t say is that the way to feeling better is through feeling worse. You are in the middle of the river of pain. You can go back or go forward, but either way you go will involve more pain. If you go forward, you can reach the other side, where things will be better.”

“What is the way forward?” I asked.

“You have to learn to act in spite of your feelings,” he said. “When you feel anxious and want to curl up in bed all day, you have to go about your business ‘as if’ you were OK.”

I thought it would be impossible for me to follow that prescription, but with a lot of help, over time I learned to act as if I were happy when I wasn’t, as if things were OK when they weren’t, and as if I were calm when I was actually quite anxious.

Ironically, over time (“thousands of trials”, my therapist used to say), some of my worst feelings abated. They never went away, but they became far less a presence in my life. And my relationships with others improved.

But I still hate to travel.

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