Let's Pretend!

Worrying is an attempt at problem solving, but it's ineffective and burdensome.

Posted Feb 13, 2016

In freefall, he hears the internal recriminations start up: “What’s it going to be this time? How much will it cost? How will I pay for it? What will this do to my career? Then, how will I pay for it?”

Landing on the hard-packed snow, he hears the crack, feels the pain. The unwanted thoughts continue: “How could you be so clumsy/careless/stupid?”

These merciless “familiars” accompany him as he gets airlifted off the slopes, as he gets rushed to a nearby hospital, as he awaits the inevitable cast, this time on his arm. Now, the thoughts become joined by echoes of his brother’s voice, during childhood: “Mom will be so pissed.” And indeed, his mother’s voice: “I don’t have time for this, Jordan.”

Jordan (as always, I’ve disguised some aspects of him for the sake of privacy) is a professional violinist with moderate success and large ambitions. Those ambitions have been thwarted to some extent by his style as a chronic worrier: In addition to all the mental “chatter” described above, the prospect of auditions for orchestral positions ratchets up the worry. The compound fractures he sustained when skiing mean some actual uncertainty about whether he’ll be fully enough healed that he’ll be able to perform  in a scheduled audition.

In psychologese (the language that psychologists use to describe common phenomena), Jordan is a catastrophizer. He lives in a land of anticipation—anticipation of the worst possible outcome. In the words of my colleague Dr. David Carbonell, he’s “playing” a mental game that can be described as “What if?” or “Let’s Pretend.” As Dr. Carbonell describes it in his recent book, The Worry Trick,

People generally don’t “what if” about good stuff. It’s all about negative, terrible, dreadful things that could possibly happen in the future.

So “what if” really means, “Let’s pretend something bad.”

Dr. Carbonell has a wonderful sense of humor—and thinking about anxiety in a different way, as well as lightening up the sense of crisis, can begin to be one way Jordan can think about his experience.

I’ve just started meeting with Jordan. We may approach his worrying from various angles. To some extent, this will be based on the research literature; some will depend on my own knowledge and experience with people like him; some will depend on what he’s looking for in our work. And a lot will depend on how he and I best go about working together.

If Jordan’s going to be able to perform in the upcoming audition—and if this is where he would like us to work right now—we may start with the mental skills he’ll find useful in order to handle the audition well. That will involve various psychological skills techniques (PSTs) that I write about so frequently in these blog posts, such as diaphragmatic breathing for tension management, imagery as part of the mental as well as physical rehearsal process, and ways in which he can constructively see this audition as an opportunity rather than a test of his entire self-worth.

But focusing only on this one audition may be a bit short-sighted. It’s clear to me that Jordan isn’t just concerned about the audition. He’s a chronic worrier. We may decide to address his whole style of approaching the world.

Source: pixabay.com

We may start by differentiating “real” worries from “Baroque” worries, those compellingly beautiful, intricate curves and curlicues of thought that fill one’s entire mind but don’t go anywhere.

Jordan may be able to generalize from the PSTs he’s learned. That’s part of the reason that I enjoy working on performance issues with people: These skills really can work more broadly than just being applied to a specific performance event.

We may use some classic cognitive-behavioral techniques, such as challenging his worrying thoughts. We might approach his worrying from the perspective of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), so that he can appreciate that thoughts are…merely thoughts. They don’t define who he is.

And if Jordan is a reader, I’ll no doubt recommend that he read The Worry Trick.

If Jordan sticks around for a while, and if he’s interested in some deeper change, we might begin addressing those experiences from the past that continue to hamper his sense of well-being. I tend to think of this as rearranging the “internal furniture” of oneself—sort of a feng shui of the self. I’ve found, for example, that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can offer meaningful change both to performance and to a person’s sense of self.

With these three levels of involvement, Jordan and I will be able to address the past, the present, and the future. Performance skills address the ways in which one can stay focused—or return to focus—in the present. When we address his worries, Jordan can let the future unfold in its own way. And by sorting out and clearing up his past experiences and old beliefs, he won’t need to pretend. He’ll be able to address the very real and current challenges—and joys—of his life as it actually is.