It’s Monday morning, and I have set aside most of the day to tackle this writing project. I’ve cleared my desk, turned off my e-mail, and posted a handwritten sign just outside my office door: “Serious Writing in Progress!”
At my first break, I visit the bathroom, only to discover that the toilet is plugged up. I flush to clear it and then ... a mass of filthy brown toilet water begins to rise—not gradually, mind you—edging toward the rim of the bowl. I rush to close the shut-off valve, frantically turning the knob, but it’s futile. I turn and turn in vain as the water spills over the sides of the bowl and onto my pristine white Berber carpet. I fumble for the plunger, and now I have a split-second decision to make—a decision with dire consequences:
Do I stick the plunger into the toilet, thus displacing more water onto the no-longer-pristine, once-white Berber carpet, or do I hesitate and see if the water stops flowing?
Forget it! No time to hesitate! In goes the plunger as more brown water splashes over the edge and onto the floor.
Finally, I get results. The water has returned to its proper position at the bottom of the bowl ... only now I am left with this giant mess and only a few hours to address this before clients arrive. I grudgingly retrieve the wet-dry vacuum from the shed, suck up the spilled water, wash down the area with disinfectant, and then suck that up, too. I resentfully pull up that end of the bathroom carpet to let it dry, hook up the fans to speed the drying process, and wash the throw rugs. My pants and shoes are soaked with soiled toilet water, so I’ve got to change those, too. No surprise: These are my favorite shoes. All of this is eating up my very precious writing time. Geez, I might as well march up the stairs and change the sign: “Serious Cleaning in Progress!”
I’m bent over beside the toilet, sound suppressor earmuffs in place, extracting the liquid with the almost deafening wet-dry vac, feeling appropriately irritated and grumbling to myself, “This is the last thing I need right now!” A moment later, I find myself subvocalizing, “This is exactly what I need right now.”
That was a weird thing to say.
Where did that come from?
Almost instantaneously, all sound quiets in my mind. I am calm and clear. I continue working efficiently, just as I was before and without any mental suffering.
I didn’t purposely call up that message. It was just hanging out somewhere in my subconscious and then popped up at that very moment. I didn’t have to figure out why this mess of a task was exactly what I needed ... I just had to get into that frame of mind, and for some reason, that was impressively easy to do. I could still recognize how inconvenient and unpleasant the situation was, but by letting my body and mind respond to this new and refreshing perspective, delivered in a memo-to-self, I instantly changed my relationship with this (unpleasant and inconvenient) moment.
Since then, whenever I can latch onto that perspective, it instantly lifts me from my suffering. If I can catch myself saying something that resembles “I don’t like this” or “I don’t want this” or “I’m anxious about this,” and if I can then step back from that comment and shift to a welcoming tone—“This is exactly what I want right now”—I find myself in a much better place psychologically. It works like a charm.
(Then again, I am a normal human being, so in most cases, I don’t remember to make the shift out of my resistant stance and remain stuck in my suffering.)
In any distressing situation, we have only two choices: We accept, or we resist. If we fight the present moment, we are chewing up consciousness that could otherwise be used to cope with the circumstance. Anxiety thrives on your resistance to uncertainty and discomfort. If you want to take territory back from Anxiety, you’ll need to respond paradoxically to these troubling thoughts and feelings. How will you achieve that? Don’t look to just tolerate those inner experiences; a sentiment like “I guess I can stomach this” isn’t going to cut it. You have to find a way to honestly, purposely, and willingly welcome your uncertainty and distress. Invite them in when they show up, and be open to them unpacking their bags and sticking around if they so choose.
Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.