Ridding Happiness Contaminants 1: Ego Anxiety
The privilege of a lifetime is being you.
Posted September 4, 2015
Since January 2013, I have posted 34 Happiness On Purpose blogs, each of which have delivered a powerful strategy to help you increase your happiness quotient. I am confident that, if you have integrated only some of these into the fabric of your life, you have experienced more happiness than you have ever had.
The fact is, though, that there are four emotional contaminants that can scuttle even your best efforts. These include: anxiety, anger, depression, and guilt. Each minute of your life you spend experiencing one or more of these painful feelings, you will be unable to enjoy happiness.
This blog helps you overcome one of the two types of happiness- contaminating anxiety – Ego Anxiety. Please read it carefully and see if you suffer from this nasty scourge to your happiness. If so, follow the prescriptions that follow with dedication and determination. Over time, you will see your anxiety dissipate and your happiness increase.
The ABC's of Anxiety
The first step in ridding the emotional contaminants of anxiety is to understand exactly what causes it. Fortunately, through thousands of research studies, and hundreds of thousands of clinical cases, we now know its genesis. Quite simply, anxiety is caused by thinking catastrophically about some potential future event that you perceive to be undesirable and onerous.
Take the case of 42-year-old Mike who suffered anxiety over the possibility of stuttering in public. His catastrophic thinking: “Oh, my God, it would be absolutely horrible if I stuttered in front of people. They’ll think badly of me and that must never happen.”
Or, how about 27-year old Carrie. She had unprotected sex and was practically apoplectic over the remote possibility of acquiring an STD. Her catastrophic thinking: “It would be so terrible to get herpes that I couldn't stand it.”
Then there is 56-year old Linda who had such severe anxiety over disapproval that she automatically said “yes” to any and all requests made of her. Her catastrophic thinking: “If he/she/they get upset with me, it would be just unbearable.”
The common denomination in each of these three cases was that they were, first, all anxious about something yet to happen. Then, second, they judged these possible events to be so devastating they’d be unbearable.
So, it's not just the possibility of some onerous event happening that causes anxiety; it’s the judgment that it would be awful, horrible, or terrible to have to experience that event. We who practice cognitive-behavior therapy illustrate this in a simple, easy to remember ABC formula. The “A” stands for the Activating Event, the future thing about which we feel anxious – for Mike, the disapproval of others over his stuttering; the possibility for Carrie of contracting herpes; in Linda's case, somebody being upset with her. The “B” is the catastrophic Belief that the person has about the “A” – the “awful,” the “horrible,” the “terrible.” Then, the “C” refers to the Emotional Consequence of thinking catastrophically – the anxiety.
To sum, it's not the Activating Event (the A) that causes the Emotional Contaminant of anxiety (the C), but your catastrophic Beliefs (the B). When you think about it, that's wonderful news. For, though you yourself cause your anxiety, you have the power to retrain your thinking and eliminate it. How exactly to do that comes a little later, so hang in there.
The Ego Anxiety Killer B’s. As with all anxieties, ego anxieties are caused by catastrophizing ways of thinking. To flesh this out, let's follow the conversation I had with Linda that revealed her catastrophic thinking.
Dr. G: So, Linda, as I understand it, as soon as Phil asked you to take on that chore at work, your anxiety ignited. Is that right?
Dr. G: Well, what were you afraid would happen?
Linda: That he'd get mad at me if I said I was too busy.
Dr. G: And that would be horrible to you because…?
Linda: Because that would make me a bad person.
Dr. G: Okay. So, now, I think we've got to the cause of your anxiety with Phil. What you're saying is that your thought was: If Phil were to get mad at me, I would have done something so horrible that my whole self would become worthless, rotten, and damnable. Did I say it accurately?
Dr. G: Can you see, Linda, that, by putting your whole self-worth at stake with regard to being perfect and getting Phil’s approval, you could hardly feel anything but anxiety?
Dr. G: Can you connect the dots for me? Why do you think that kind of thinking lead to your anxiety?
Linda: (she pauses and thinks) Because I've mixed up my whole self-worth with whether or not Phil’s upset with me.
Dr. G: Right! So if you disconnect your worth from Phil, if you see that, while he can get made at you, he cannot turn you into sub-human, you need not have anxiety? Can you see that?
Dr. G: Okay. Good. Now let me ask you a question. Is this an isolated instance of your thinking in that way, or do you think this way in other situations as well?
Linda: Oh, I do this all the time – at work, with my family, everywhere.
Dr. G: So, it sounds like you carry around a strong, general belief that gets activated by a lot of different circumstances. It's kind a like two sides of the same hand: on the one side, you think you must never, ever, make a mistake or do wrong and displease anybody; on the other side, you believe that, if you do, you become so bad that you should roast in hell for at least half an eternity. Have we nailed it?
Linda: Pretty much.
Dr. G: Well, so long as you believe all that, there's no way you won't have anxiety. Our job is to get that way of thinking out of your head so you can live virtually anxiety free. Are you on board?
Linda: I am.
There, dear reader, is ego anxiety in a nutshell. Ego anxiety is caused by a person holding two twin beliefs, one that leads to the other, then the other leading back to the first one, and on-and-on into a never ending cycle of cause-and-effect.
• I must always do well and be approved.
• If I don't, then I’m a horrible, terrible, worthless person.
• Since I’ll become a horrible, terrible, worthless person if I do badly and incur disapproval, then I must always do well and be approved.
Debunking The Ego Anxiety Killer B’s. To rid ego-anxiety requires you to clearly understand and accept how irrational these twin irrational beliefs are. Here are the reasons.
• I must always do well and always have approval.
1. Thinking this way it's not in your best interest. It serves to cause you anxiety and to block your happiness.
2. Thinking this way implies that your life is in danger, for the concept of “must” connotes necessity, and necessity implies life and death. A mistake or someone else’s disapproval may lead to some undesirable hardship, but hardly ever to death.
3. Thinking this way is unreasonably perfectionistic. Because of your innate fallibility, it is impossible for you to always do well and be liked, no matter how hard you may try. You will periodically error and fail, as does everyone else. Furthermore, should you magically ever become perfect, some people will still disapprove of you. Why? Because they too are fallible and, therefore, won't always appreciate your wondrousness.
4. Thinking this way implies that there is a special law of the universe, Linda's Law, for instance, that dictates that you and she must always do right and always be liked. Come on – is there really such a law for Linda? For you?
5. Thinking this way is both illogical and egotistical. It is illogical because, no matter how much you may want to always do well and garner approval, it doesn't follow that you must. It is egotistical because you are saying that you are the center of the universe and that, because you want perfection, it should automatically be granted to you.
• I'm a worthless person.
1. As a human being, you just are. You are alive – a living, breathing, functioning, mistake making creature. Judging your self as being bad or worthless, just because you performed badly and/or because someone got upset with you, makes as much sense as judging a piano as bad when only one key is out of tune.
2. This moment when you behaved poorly and/or encountered disapproval is just a small snapshot of your life, hardly an indictment of the total whole of it.
3. The people about whom you think whose disapproval you need may be special to you, but they are not special people. That is, they do not have special powers to anoint you with human worth, nor can they damn you into worthlessness.
4. You can never, ever be a worthless person. By definition, a worthless person is someone who only and always acts worthlessly. These people cannot ever act good, appropriate, or well. Literally no one who ever existed fits this description. This hardly fits you, does it, what with the hundreds of thousands of positive things you've done in your life.
5. If we have to think about human worth it all, it must exist because of conditions that can never change: being alive, being human, and, I add, being a child of God who loves you if you are a person of faith. So, you had worth the second you existed, and will always do so, despite the varieties of good and ill you do as you travel through your life.
Ridding Ego Anxiety. To rid your ego anxiety, you must relinquish your Killer B’s and re-indoctrinate yourself with more rational ways of thinking. This is what you must convince yourself to be true and live by it.
1. While I certainly desire, want, prefer, and enjoy doing well and receiving approval, I'm not superhuman, such that I can always succeed and look good in all peoples’ eyes. I'll do my best, but, when I goof, I'll remember that I'm human, and try to learn from my mistake.
2. My human worth is unconditional. I have worth by virtue of being alive, human, and, if a person of faith, a child of God. Nothing can give me more of it; nothing can take it away from me.
The re-learning of Killer B’s that cause your ego anxiety will take some time and effort on your part. But, with work, you can do it. To start the process, I suggest you immediately embark on these two therapeutic practices.
1. Recall, Identify, Dispute, Supplant (RIDS). Pick a standard time each evening, say at 7:00 pm. Review your day and recall a situation in which you experienced anxiety. If you’ve had an anxiety-free day, remember a situation yesterday, the week before, or whenever. It is the B we’re trying to change, not to fix the A.
Then, identify your ego anxiety Killer B’s. Put them into sentence form, so you can clearly see them. Accept that this is the way you think to make yourself anxious. Label these Killer B’s your enemy.
Next, dispute them by revealing to yourself their falseness. To do this, turn to the section in this blog titled, “Debunking The Ego Anxiety Killer B’s,” above. Reflecting on these arguments, really think about how absurd these beliefs are so that you can not only understand how self-defeating they are, but also how fallacious they are as well.
Lastly, supplant the Killer B’s with more rational thoughts that won't create anxiety, as per above.
2. Six and Five. Six times a day (breakfast, midmorning, lunch, midafternoon, supper, and before bedtime), take five minutes to review rational thoughts and apply them to the situations in your life. For example, at breakfast, after reflecting on the rational thoughts, you might then apply them to your 9:00 am staff meeting by forcefully telling yourself: “I'll do my best to sound intelligent and look good in the eyes of my colleagues. But, I don't have to. It's not life and death. Besides, I'm still me, a worthwhile person, whether I do well or not.”
These two strategies are not one-trick ponies. That is, you'll not master your ego anxiety by doing them in one day or one week. But, I promise you, if you avidly practice them for a month or so, you'll begin to see the reduction in your ego anxiety.
How do I know this? Well, I've applied it to myself, as well as to thousands of other people.
I hope this blog is helpful to you. It can be if you work the strategies. Be sure to realize that healthy thinking, like any other positive skill, takes sustained effort to habituate. But, I believe you're worth the effort. Be sure to think so yourself.
Please feel free to contact me at any time by email. In the meantime, with healthy, happy, and with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. The author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live, he invites you to check out his new relationship happiness book, The Couples Therapy Companion; A Cognitive Behavior Workbook. You may contact Dr. Grieger for questions or for more information at email@example.com