Anxiety

Wise Mind and Therapeutic Surrender

Here's a better alternative to "thinking positive."

Posted Sep 14, 2019

Photo by Natalia Figueredo on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Natalia Figueredo on Unsplash

In the previous blog, we showed that the Worried Voice of “what if?” and the well-meaning voice of False Comfort--who provides all forms of  “thinking positive”-- together keep up a circular dialogue, and never manage to reduce anxiety. 

Let’s take an entirely different approach-- a mindful one. Here is where your Wise Mind steps in. 

Worry Voice: That kitten is so cute and vulnerable. What if I strangled it? It would be so easy.

False Comfort: You would never do that!!

Worry Voice: Look--my fingers just fit around its neck.

False Comfort: Don’t be ridiculous. You are kind and loving!

Worry Voice: How do you know that? I had that surge of road rage yesterday. What if I can’t help myself?

False Comfort: You just felt angry, you didn’t do anything. Just stop thinking that.  It won’t happen.

Worry Voice: There is always a first time.

Wise Mind: Let me step in here, please. These are thoughts, not facts. This is your imagination, not an emergency.  I am observing the two of you fighting. I notice the more you argue, the more upset you get. And the more it seems like a real issue needing attention. It is actually a wild intrusion of a thought that can happen to anyone and essentially means nothing.   What would happen if you just let them be. Let them remain as thoughts. They are not warnings or signals or messages or urges. It is actually your joint struggle to make them go away that fuels them on.

Therapeutic Surrender is a way to contact your own Wise Mind, the most effective and efficient way to lessen your suffering, as your brain and body learn to be more comfortable with anxious feelings.

The attitude of therapeutic surrender is not a technique for controlling or reducing anxiety itself.  Efforts to control, eliminate, avoid or suppress anxiety tend to backfire, as we have discussed in the previous blog , and as you probably already have found out by trying various “anxiety management techniques”.  

Nor is Therapeutic Surrender just giving in to your anxiety. It is not surrendering to the need for reassurance, or hopeless resignation to endless misery, and it certainly isn’t taking seriously the words of Worry Voice or False Comfort.  It is a way of interrupting the process that maintains your anxiety, not dealing with the content of the worry. It is also not a technique for banishing doubts: it is learning how to practice an essential attitude shift. Therapeutic Surrender is most effective not when used to reduce anxiety, but rather as a way to be while you experience  it.  The relief comes by changing your relationship with worry, anxiety, doubt and uncertainty.

Therapeutic Surrender requires that you make a distinction between what you reject, and what you allow. It means rejecting the option to end your discomfort with another dose of reassurance or some form of avoidance. But it also means surrendering to the feelings of anxiety, distress, guilt and frustration that come about when you forego reassurance and avoidance and false comfort. It entails actively allowing the feelings and thoughts, while rejecting and refusing to do what the feelings and thoughts are telling you do. 

Therapeutic Surrender means rejecting a fruitless quest for an answer to an unanswerable question or a guarantee for safety or success that cannot happen. It means refusing to confuse a feeling of urgency with the fact of a true emergency. It means acknowledging your anxious thoughts and feelings, but not letting them bully you into seeking unproductive reassurance or even responding to their content: your work is to not dignify the content of your worries with ongoing consideration.

When Therapeutic Surrender is well learned and has become your automatic response, here is what happens: the anxious thoughts no longer matter. They can’t derail you. They come and go. They happen less often. They fade away. It is an indirect path to reducing distress, not a direct one.

Successful Therapeutic Surrender involves refusing to give in to the urge for a fix, for reassurance, for avoidance or for short term relief. It means denying yourself the short-lived comfort that comes from “Let me think something positive” and “it would be easy to just do this…” and “I will feel better if I just do this….” In the moment, some kinds of unproductive “coping techniques” are so easy and automatic that it is really hard to resist. It just takes a moment to send another text, offer yourself a soothing bit of empty reassurance or plan an escape “in case”. 

It is not an easy task to choose to identify the worry as a thought, mindfully focus on the nature of your discomfort, and then wait and let time pass while being aware of your anxiety.

But it is an attitude anyone can learn with practice. It is also an opportunity for you to focus on long term goals and values instead of short term relief.  While you are doing nothing whatever about your doubts or worries, you can pursue doing whatever is next to do, whether it is petting your dog, making lunch, having a conversation, getting out of bed or doing your work.  There is plenty of room for both Therapeutic Surrender and a full life.