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Choosing Greater Good

Finding Motivation in the Face of Anxiety

I'm feeling exceptionally motivated at this moment, exhausted from a long day, anxious about having to come up with just the right words to convey what I hope to here, and yet ready to stay up all night at my computer if necessary to share with you a simple but profound motivation technique that has saved my life--the very same motivating approach that has me typing these words right now.

I call it the Greater Good Perspective Shift, and I stumbled across it more than a decade ago, while clawing my way out of The Shadow of Doubt (that cold, dark place that consumed me during my worst years battling severe OCD). While it grew out of my battles with OCD, I've become convinced over the years that it can be an effective tool for anyone--with or without OCD--facing decisions clouded by doubt. At its core, the GGPS is nothing more than a willful shifting of decision-making frameworks--from one based on fear and doubt to another based on purpose and service. This may all sound a little namby-pamby and Pollyannaish, but as I've come to discover, there's growing empirical research to support what I, myself, learned out of necessity through my own experiences. I'll get back to that evidence in a bit, but first I want to introduce you to the two frameworks I believe we each have available to us when making decisions, big and small.

The Default Framework

This first framework I call "default" because for me, like so many others who struggle with anxiety, this is the decision-making structure that comes most naturally--the one I resort to without even thinking about it. In it, my "doubt bully" (that imaginary source of my what-if? anxiety) is in charge, presenting me with predictably black and white choices. Typically, these options are framed as right vs. wrong, or "good" vs. "bad," based entirely on their impacts on my anxiety levels. More specifically, my bully would have me believe that choices are "good" if they offer me relief from my anxiety, and "bad" if they require my sitting with the discomfort of my anxiety. [This, by the way, is precisely how my bully lures me to the "trapdoors" (checking, reassurance-seeking, etc.) that I blogged about several weeks ago.]

Here's a real-life example that I share in When in Doubt, Make Belief:

It's three years ago, and I am just arriving at a bookstore for my very first signing. Several dozen people are seated and waiting for me. As I make my way toward them, my doubt bully begins his taunting: What if you're unknowingly carrying some horrific disease? What if you shake hands with a reader and he later becomes deathly ill? Soon I find myself in the restroom, standing at the sink and weighing the two very distinct choices my bully lays out for me. The "good" choice, he tells me, is to scrub my hands, because it will reduce my chances of making someone else sick, and therefore reduce my anxiety (if only temporarily). The "bad" choice, he insists, would be to go give my talk without scrubbing, risking that I might infect others, and therefore requiring me to sit with the discomfort of that anxiety.

As depicted in the diagram below, fear and doubt are my decision motivators in this default framework, leading me by default to the bully's "good" choice of scrubbing. (Please note my use of quotation marks around "good" and "bad" to stress that these are my bully's labels, not mine!)

(from When in Doubt, Make Belief copyright (c) 2009 by Jeff Bell)

The Greater Good Framework

Fortunately for the people who showed up that night--and, even more, for me--I was able to break out of my bully's grip, employing this GGPS right there at the sink. Doing so required my finding a way to trump the bully's all too compelling "good" choice (scrubbing) with something even more compelling--something clearly greater than "good."

So, what constitute such a Greater Good choice? In my experience, the answer inherently involves objectives bigger than myself and my doubts. This choice must offer me, in some concrete way, the opportunity to be of service to others, enhance my own sense of purpose, or both. In practice, the notion of service is clear enough: doing something, big or small, to empower others in some constructive way. As for purpose, to me, this motivator involves finding ways in which to empower myself, tapping into author Marianne Williamson's sage observation that "the purpose of our lives is to give birth to the best which is within us."

It's my contention that, given the opportunity, purpose and service will trump fear and doubt as motivators every time. In the early days of my outreach, I was always careful to qualify that I had no proof of this hypothesis, save for the years' worth of evidence I had compiled in my own journey out of the Shadow of Doubt. But that was before I ran across the work of U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and other researchers studying the motivating power of altruistic and purpose-driven goals. As I've come to find, minds far brighter, and far more trained, than my own are corroborating empirically what I have learned experientially. Pretty cool, as far as I'm concerned! [For a terrific overview of this new research, by the way, pick up a copy of Dacher Keltner's eye-opening book, Born to be Good.]

Now then, back to the bookstore.

I am standing at the sink, water running. My doubt bully has me convinced that my "good" choice is to scrub my hands (and this could be a very long process). I am in my "default" decision-making framework, about to fall through the trapdoor of "protecting." But what if I can shift my decision options-from "good" and "bad"... to "good" and Greater Good?

I can. And here's how:

  1. I acknowledge my bully's "good" choice and leave it on the table. Over the years, I've learned it's pointless to try to deny the emotional power of my bully's arguments, even if (intellectually) I understand how twisted they are.
  2. I recognize that--while I'm stuck in my bully's black-and-white world--I can really only consider two choices at a time, so by necessity . . .
  3. I reframe my bully's "bad" choice as a Greater Good choice by identifying several purpose and/or service objectives that could be met by making that choice.

In this book-signing example, my Greater Good choice is to get myself out of the restroom and give my talk. To do this, I have to identify specific ways in which making this choice is of service to others or enhances my owns sense of purpose. Fortunately, there are several:

  • By giving my talk, I can be of service to the people who have shown up to learn something about OCD and its treatment.
  • By giving my talk, I can further the empowering sense of purpose that my OCD awareness outreach provides me.
  • And, by giving my talk, I can tap into the ultimate sense of purpose I get when standing up to my bully and furthering my recovery.

In this fashion (and as shown below), I am able to choose my Greater Good option over my bully's "good" option, leave the restroom, and give my talk--anxious, yes, but motivated to push through that anxiety.

(from When in Doubt, Make Belief copyright (c) 2009 by Jeff Bell)

If this all seems a bit too simple to be effective, I assure you it works. I have used this GGPS to break free from my bully hundreds, maybe thousands, of times over the past many years. Friends and readers--with and without OCD--have shared with me their own successes using the concept. But (and you knew there had to be a catch, right?) . . . there is one important caveat to keep in mind:

When applying the GGPS, both choices you're considering must be feasible ones, by which I mean realistically doable for you. As I blogged about earlier, OCD treatment is always best approached on a hierarchical basis (that is, in a gradual and progressive way). This, I'm convinced, is true with life, as well! In developing Greater Good choices, it's key to remember that--while these choices will inherently require us to sit with our anxiety--they must never put ourselves or others in any kind of physical or emotional danger. As someone with years' worth of driving obsessions and compulsions, for example, my Greater Good options are not ever likely to involve driving a taxi cab through the streets of San Francisco! That said, they can--and do--often involve my facing down doable driving challenges in my day-to-day travels. Sorting all this out can be tricky, which is why, for those of us with OCD, there's no substitute for working with a trained therapist when developing and tackling challenge hierarchies.

Years ago, during my worst battles with OCD, my harm obsessions prevented me from providing anything even resembling guidance. I couldn't begin to tell you how many times I simply shrugged my shoulders and said something like "Gosh, I'm not sure" in response to the most basic requests for an opinion. To a much lesser degree, I still battle this fear, hence my anxiety as I sat down to write this blog tonight. My bully was right there to suggest that my "good" choice was to avoid writing about the GGPS and risking leading anyone astray. Only by reminding myself of the potential Greater Good of this effort was I able to get to this final sentence. My hope--and my motivation--is that this blog might be of some service to you.


Thank you again for all your terrific, insightful comments. I'm behind in my responses, and I apologize. I hope to spend several hours catching up soon. Please do continue to share; it's what this blog is all about! And, again, know that if I can't answer your questions, I will find the specialists who can, thanks to the involvement of the International OCD Foundation Scientific Advisory Board.

Speaking of the OCDF, I'm thrilled to report that our new and improved web site is up and running. Please pay us a visit and check out the terrific new resources:

Do you Twitter? Interested in OCD-related news and events? Follow my tweets at @jbellnews.