Scary And Difficult Do Not Mean Ineffective
Recovery by way of facing fear is scary and difficult. When people choose to recover by learning how to accept, tolerate, surrender to and move through anxiety panic and fear, sometimes they will declare that it doesn’t work for them. They’ll say that because they are afraid and they are challenged. They accidentally equate being afraid with recovery not working. They’ll decide that being challenged means that they’re not getting better or can’t get better this way. These are logical errors.
Today lets talk about how recovering in this manner means you WILL be scared and you WILL be challenged, but that neither of those facts means that this doesn’t work. Let’s talk about accidentally selling yourself short and abandoning hope simply because you are afraid or encountering difficulties.
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Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Amazon Music | Watch on YouTube
Full Transcript Of Today’s Episode
When someone says that this approach to recovery doesn’t work for them, we have to dig a little bit deeper into that statement to see where it comes from.
Now, let me clearly and loudly acknowledge here that everyone gets to choose their own path to recovery. I don’t get to dictate how you do this. Nor is it my place that convince you to do it this way. I don’t even want to do that. If you feel that this is the wrong path for you, I totally respect that. And whatever your reasons are, I would still wish you well on whatever recovery path you choose to travel as one human being to another. But today, I want to try to unmask some of the fear driven distortions that many struggle with when they want to do it this way, but wind up feeling discouraged or defeated because this is in fact difficult and scary work. So take it as a bit of education and a bit of cheerleading, maybe rolled into one today.
Most often, I hear a few statements. These are:
“I tried it, and it made me worse.”
“It’s very scary.”
“But it’s so hard!”
Let’s break all of that down.
When you stop hiding, and shielding and soothing, and you go toward what you fear, you will feel more. MORE is to be expected. Let’s say you wrap yourself in bubble wrap every day. You will feel very little of anything as you go through life. If you take away the bubble wrap, without that protective layer you’re going to feel rain. You’re going to feel the bumping into walls. You’re going to feel it when you accidentally kick the leg of the table. You’re going to feel it when your cat sort of accidentally scratches you when you’re playing. You wouldn’t question that because you know that you took away the protection. You took away the shield the buffer. You unwrapped the bubble wrap and went into life without a shield. Well, the same thing holds true with taking steps toward your panic and anxiety and your triggers and intentionally triggering yourself for a reason without trying to save yourself or run away or put a shield or a buffer between you and those things, those scary things. You feel it MORE. There’s really no news there. Be careful about saying that feeling more means that you got worse.
You are essentially in the same situation that you’ve always been in, but you’ve taken off the bubble wrap and decided to intentionally trigger that fear and that anxiety and that panic for a reason to learn lessons that will help you get better. If you’re going to intentionally trigger yourself, then you will feel things and since there’s no shield anymore and you’ve stopped running, you will feel them more intensely. They are the same things that were always there. You just feel them more because you took away the buffer between you and them. That’s not news. And it’s to be expected.
Just be careful about saying that feeling it more means that it made you worse. You just decided to actually feel things that you’ve been really trying hard to not feel. That doesn’t mean that you got worse. Now, you may feel that if I feel it more intently.
“Well, that is worse for me, because I don’t like that!”
I get that. That’s valid. That’s 100% true. And I wouldn’t argue with that. But just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it made you worse. It just means that it feels worse for sure. So we can acknowledge that. But that’s a really important distinction. I think, when people say it made me worse, what they’re saying is, “I don’t hide from it anymore. So now I feel it. And I don’t like feeling it”. But that doesn’t mean you’ve gone backwards, it actually means you’re going forward within the context of this theoretical orientation.
Let’s look at that second argument or the second statement. It’s not necessarily an argument, people aren’t trying to argue. People will say, “But this is really scary!” And that is correct. And oftentimes it is. If you’re going towards the things that you fear and you’re allowing yourself to trigger your fear. That is scary work. And they’ll say, “But’s this is so hard. It seems so simple Drew, but it’s really so hard.” And yes, that is 100% true. I probably say the phrase, this is hard more than I say any other phrase. If you go back and analyze every word I’ve ever said on this podcast, I have a feeling that that would be true, because it is hard. And it is scary. I’ve done the work. I know what it is, I get how difficult it is. It is a simple plan, it’s just very hard to execute, because it is scary, because it does require courage. And that makes it difficult. I don’t want to minimize the effort it takes to recover. And I’ve just tried to take a minute to acknowledge it again. And again. And again, it takes a lot of effort. And it’s hard and scary work.
But let’s use a very oversimplified gym analogy here. If you decide you want to be stronger, and you go to the gym to start lifting weights, that will be difficult. That is hard work. You’re working against gravity, you don’t have the strength you want, yet. You struggle. You wind up uncomfortable out of breath, gasping for air. Maybe you’re even sore for a few days afterwards, or in some actual pain. Do you look at all of this and stop going? Does it mean that lifting weights doesn’t work? Or does it mean that you see yourself as incapable of tolerating and handling that discomfort and that challenge. If you keep lifting weights, unless there’s something physiologically wrong with your body, you will in fact get stronger, but it will be a struggle to do that.
When people go to the gym to try to get stronger, and they decide to stop going to the gym, it is rare that you’ll hear them say it didn’t work. “Well, I kept lifting more and more weight.” But if you kept lifting more and more weight, you are in fact getting stronger. They will say, “You know what? I couldn’t bring myself to do it every day. It was really hard. I wound up sore all the time.” Totally fine, I get that. That’s fair. But people will rarely give up on a difficult thing and say that it just didn’t work. They’ll just acknowledge it was really hard. “And you know what, that’s not a priority in my life right now.” Cool, no problem. This will be difficult work. There’s no doubt about that. But difficult doesn’t mean it’s not working. And again, I don’t want to use an oversimplified gym analogy to minimize the work of anxiety recovery. Remember, I went through it too, I understand how intently scary and therefore difficult this is. But we have to be super careful about saying, “Well, it’s scary, so it means it doesn’t work. Or it’s difficult because doesn’t work.”
This is important, because when you throw your hands up and you declare that this method doesn’t work, you’re adding yet another thing to the list of things that didn’t work, simply because they didn’t make you feel better right away, or permanently or consistently, which is unfortunately not how this works. You are doubling down on the idea that the only way you could be okay, is if you eliminate the struggle, eliminate the challenge and eliminate the discomfort. That is so unfair to you. because it’s almost an impossible ask. “I can only get better … and I will only define getting better is if I am calm all the time, I never struggle. I never feel things I don’t want to feel. I need to make it all go away!” If that’s the only way that you think you can get better (remember, you do have the right to choose that path), I think that it just ultimately leads to feeling frustrated and sometimes feeling hopeless, which is heartbreaking to see because that is a very big ask. It’s already a big ask to try to make yourself do things that are intentionally triggering, scary, difficult, HARD make you feel things that you wish you didn’t feel. As big of an ask that that is of yourself, I believe that it is an even bigger ask – it is a bigger demand and an almost more impossible demand – to say, “I will never feel these things again. And then I’ll say I’m better”, because that just isn’t realistic.
It’s not realistic. People get triggered, life is difficult. Life is stressful. For many people that tried to do it that way, when they wind up in a rough patch, they often find that their anxiety problems have flared up again. And then they think, “Oh, I’m not really better. This is horrible. I’m back to square one.”, because they got triggered and that wasn’t part of the plan for them. Their plan was make it go away forever, or else … fail.
Sometimes I just want to unmask some of that distortion and the unrealistic thinking and maybe aiming at the wrong target. So just because something is scary, or difficult, doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. I said today we’re going to tie together the concepts of effective, difficult and scary because as often as the case in life, more than one thing can be true at a time, something can be effective, while also being difficult and scary. And sometimes it’s the difficulty and the scariness that actually makes it so effective. That applies in this case here.
Again, I’m not here to convince you to do it this way. I’m just going to give you information that maybe you can make good decisions on. And if you have been beating yourself up or declaring yourself hopeless or a failure, because being scared or challenged somehow is equated to the fact that this won’t work for you, you can let yourself off the hook. That’s not being very fair to yourself. That’s not a realistic conclusion to reach. And you’re really selling yourself short.
So why do I say that scary and difficult in this situation do not equal in effective? It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, because we have so much real life data that shows that this is an effective way to do this. No data says it’s easy. None of the data, none of the clinical data, none of the research data says it’s easy. None of what comes out of research or actual clinical practice says, “Oh, here’s a simple, gentle way to do this.” None of that. Unfortunately, in fact, there’s quite a lot in the literature that talks about issues of say non-compliance (that just means somebody bails on therapy), because it’s so difficult. The research and the professional literature in this area even acknowledges that sometimes we have a hard time with clients staying in therapy because this is such a challenging therapy. But when they do, the outcomes tend to be pretty good. And as this approach evolves over time, and we get away from some more of the old school CBT and into more of the more recent third wave or beyond modalities where we’re concerned a little bit more with process and acceptance and things of mindfulness, the outcomes become even better. Over a large population over time, recovery is a little more durable, a little more lasting, and the relapse rate is going down. Things are getting better and better as we go. But it is difficult and scary work.
Be careful of selling yourself short. Because you are being challenged or or that you are afraid, in this context, you did not get worse. You just feel it more because you have chosen to feel it more. I can’t I cannot stress this enough. If you accept the challenge to feel it more, then you feel it more, you’re being incredibly unfair to yourself, if you draw the conclusion, “I’m worse.” If I decide to go to the pool, for instance, and I want to become a better swimmer. If I decide, “Let me go practice.” I go jump in the water. If I jump out of the pool and say, “Oh my God, I wound up under the water! This doesn’t work!”, you would say, “You just jumped in the pool. You literally decided to challenge yourself to become a better swimmer!” That might be oversimplifying, but the same principle is underneath all of that fear.
If you choose to trigger yourself you will feel – that doesn’t make you worse. It makes you challenged and it makes you afraid. Neither of those things is failure, neither of those things is doing it wrong, and neither is things as a crime in recovery.
If you are choosing to do it this way, even if you’re stumbling in those first few steps, you have chosen to turn and face toward your fear. That is incredibly brave. It is an incredibly good thing to do for yourself. It is incredibly strong. And you have my respect my admiration and my support for doing it. So don’t forget that you’re choosing to do hard things. Give yourself some leeway. Allow the challenge, allow the fear, do your best to navigate. Remember why you’re doing it. And don’t don’t wave the white flag when things get really rough. You’ll be tempted to – we all are tempted to – but you don’t have to do that because you are capable.
I promise you really are.
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