It’s nearly the New Year, time to evaluate those strategies of coping with stress yet again. But before you make any new resolutions, why not evaluate why you’re hanging onto the old? Here’s some insight from therapist Judith Schwartz, author of The Therapist’s New Clothes:
Jennifer Haupt: Do most people even realize it when they're hanging onto strategies in their lives that aren't working?
Judith Schwartz: Often no, because we find virtue in the act of holding to whatever course we’ve decided upon. We may end up putting more emphasis on the strategy—whether it’s using a particular health modality, following a diet, or a sure-fire way to succeed at work—than on the results. And when we check on our “progress”, that too can be deceptive. That’s what happened to me with psychotherapy. If I felt bad, I could say, “This must be the pain I need to experience in order to be okay.”
JH: What's the pay-off of staying in a bad relationship?
JS: I co-wrote a book on honesty and deceptive in marriage (Tell Me No Lies) and this was a revelation: people lie to each other in order to keep things the same. Basically, people bond in a way that feels good, and then do anything they can—lie, tolerate abuse, abandon dreams—in order to maintain that feeling. So the payoff is having access to that good feeling, or at least the illusion of getting there again. There may be a point when that payoff isn’t enough, and that’s when you do something. But it is amazing what people will live with.
JH: I find stress is kind of like caffeine -- it gets me pumped up and is addictive even though I know it's bad for me. Are other emotions addictive?
JS: I know what you mean about the “up-ness” of caffeine. This is a complicated question, because emotions are mediated through our biochemistry. Before I found the right medication I had no middle-ground; I was either up or down. I learned to bump myself into a caffeine-like stress zone because “up” felt better than “down”. But in a very real physiological sense emotions can be addictive in that neurological patterns get entrenched. That’s why, for me, being urged to “feel the pain” was counterproductive, as well as uncomfortable.
JH: What life strategy did you have to give up in order to heal?
JS: The main one was the willingness to give complete power to another person, in my case a therapist. The other was the quest for “answers”—some kind of epiphany or catharsis that would free me up. But letting go of that quest ultimately proved more liberating.
JH: What's the first step people can take in giving up strategies, relationships and habits that are destructive?
JS: A willingness to question whether things are working. It sounds simple, but we’re often fearful of losing our nerve—or even losing our identity, which can become bound up in a given way of doing things. It’s also good to have reality checks in your life—and to listen to them.