A client asked me today "Am I crazy?". It's not the first time I've been asked that question and it probably won't be the last. He didn't mean 'do I have a mental illness?'. What he meant was - 'I can't make sense of why I'm doing the things that I'm doing'.
There's function in dysfunction
Let's take a few steps back. This client, and like many of the clients that I see, has come to counselling because the feelings he was experiencing has become too overwhelming. And more importantly, the ways in which he was coping with these unpleasant feelings were no longer working for him. It was stopping him from living the life that he wanted to live. He told me that in order to cope with social events, he'd learnt that having a few beers beforehand would make him feel more relaxed and able to socialise better. However, over the years, this turned into more substantial drinking both before and during the social event. It lead to arguments with his partner, significant hangovers which was making him moody with his children the next day, and he'd put on weight. In short, he was not being the husband or father he'd hoped he would be. In order to reduce his alcohol consumption, he started avoiding social interactions with people he didn't know very well, which was usually his wife's friends. And, as you may have guessed, this didn't go well in terms of improving his relationship.
Our first point of action was to acknowledge the fact that these strategies were, in their own dysfunctional way, helpful in reducing the anxiety he was experiencing. They worked for a period of time. Who hasn't heard the term "have a bit of Dutch courage" - it makes sense to have some alcohol in a social situations because it can disinhibit us, make us feel calmer and looser in terms of socialising. But after a while, it lost its effect.
Moving towards the life we want to live
This is often the case - the strategies we figure out to manage a stressful situation or to cope with a problem make sense in the beginning. But overtime, they usually stop working or are causing different problems. Only attending parties when you know most of the people works well as a young person, but declining invites and friends moving in different paths can lead to a dwindling of a social circle. Testing your partner to determine if he really loves you works in the beginning, until your partner has had enough and calls it quits. There are many, many more examples of this.
The question becomes - is this way of coping working for you now? Is it bringing you closer towards the life that you want to live? In the case of my client, that was a no. Not only did he remain anxious in social situations, but his relationship with his wife and children were strained.
Making room for anxiety and discomfort
It's easy to say "just go to the party, you'll be ok". The problem is that while most people recognise on an intellectual level that things will be ok, on an emotional level, our body and our 'emotional' mind is telling us a very different story. So choosing to try alternative strategies is hard - it often brings on the very symptoms we are trying to avoid.
The biggest challenge when coping with strong emotions and dysfunctional behaviours is acknowledging that these behaviours are no longer working. That means making a choice in trying new strategies that fit more with the life that you want to live and the values that you want to live your life by (see my youtube video on values here). In my client's case, it was important to him to attend his wife's work function. Our focus was on his values of connectedness and love to his family, which meant being supportive. We acknowledged that it would be anxiety provoking, because that was a natural response to meeting new people, and we had a few techniques to help him manage his anxiety so that it didn't overwhelm him, but we accepted the fact that it was probably going to be uncomfortable. By focusing on his values, however, my client was able to ackowledge the importance of attending and choosing to implement alternative strategies to alcohol, and make room for the anxiety. We also took away the pressure of not having anxiety by normalising that feeling when meeting new people.
Let me know in the comments below what are the values that are important to you?