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EAL #4 – Something’s Wrong! The Pathologizing Reflex

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Something’s Wrong With Me, Help!

Let’s go back to that big room in Beth Israel where I was doing the 8-week mindfulness program and my mind was going haywire. I told you I made the beginner’s mistake of thinking meditation was about controlling my thoughts. Rookie error. Classic.

As significant as this error was, I was making a more subtle, more fundamental mistake. One that it’s taken me a decade to really start catching and taking seriously. 

I was trying to fix myself. 

I was subscribing to the idea that there was something wrong with me, that I had a problem (loads and loads of urgent problems!) that needed fixing. That my experience was not okay and I needed to remediate it. That I was not okay and I needed to remediate me.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Say you’re feeling anxious — here’s what the fixing thing looks like: 

Oh no, why am I anxious? What’s wrong with me that I’m so anxious? How do I get rid of this once and for all? Which experience in my childhood caused me to be this way? Maybe it’s my genetics? Which side of the family do you think it’s from? Oh yeah, my aunt is crazy anxious all the time, must be that side of the family. Yada, yada, yada… 

Two hours later you stop scrolling on Twitter where you fled from the rumination and unpleasant feelings.

Sound familiar?

I call this “pathologizing” our experience. We experience something out of the range of what we think is “normal,” something we don’t want to feel, and we pathologize it. We decide it’s problematic, that it’s not okay to have. We attempt to fix it. We suppress it, deny it, or run away from it (thank God for iPhones, right?). 

I think it’s fair to say that virtually all ordinary mental “illness” is really just pathologizing difficult experience. (Goodbye DSM-V or whatever number they’re up to, not sure you were all that useful anyway.) There’s something wrong with me. I shouldn’t be experiencing this. I shouldn’t be thinking this. How do I fix it and make it go away? 

We all do this. If your inner world is chaotic, filled with a lot of difficult emotions, you do it even more. But everyone does it. Every. Single. Human. Being. 

And it can be very subtle, a low-grade sensation on the periphery of consciousness that something is wrong that exerts a profound influence over your attention and your reactions to life. So subtle, that most of us may never even realize it’s there steering the ship. We just wonder why we spent 3 hours bingeing  when we want to be writing a book or spending time with someone.

Why the Pathologizing Reflex is Like an Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior

Let’s break this pathologizing tendency down a bit with an example. Suppose you work in a sophisticated law firm and you’re a capable guy or gal, but you tend to be afflicted by flair-ups of imposter syndrome. I don’t fit here, my work is not good enough, people are unhappy with me, your mind whispers, something’s wrong. I get it, it’s a mighty uncomfortable feeling. I feel it all the time. 

So what do you do? If you’re like me, you do things like tell yourself about all your accomplishments or about the great memo you wrote last week, which that big old scary partner was so happy with. You might seek reassurance from a friendly colleague or another confidante. Basically, you do all you can to get rid of the feeling.

If you’re familiar with obsessive-compulsive “disorder” (OCD), you know that an obsession is an irrational fear of something, say of having “contaminated” hands. A compulsion is the action taken to assuage the fear, say washing your hands four-and-a-half times with soap, twice with hand sanitizer, and then drying them with a light red towel hot out of the dryer.

The reason OCD is so sticky is because there is some relief brought on by the compulsion. But the obsession can never resolve this way because the act of doing the compulsion legitimizes the fear of contamination and maintains the underlying mental structure. 

The solution to this is a form of exposure therapy: get the person to stop doing the compulsion and to experience the fear and feel that nothing happens. Done properly (i.e., where the person can let go and allow themselves to experience the fear), the power of the obsession wanes and the associated compulsion weakens.

Obsessions are obviously mental behaviors, but so are compulsions actually. Indeed, every external behavior is just a particular form of mental behavior linked up to a motor behavior. The underlying obsessive-compulsive tendency is just two different mental behaviors that reinforce each other.

The same is true of our attempts to get rid of our imposter feelings. We’re afraid (the obsession) that we might be unworthy, undeserving, less-than, and so we run off and engage in our fixing or suppressing behavior of choice (the compulsion). In doing so, we legitimize the underlying fear and deny it the possibility of resolution. It’s really just an obsessive-compulsive cycle with no external behavior.

Another way of saying this is that your reaction to the reaction is the issue. Something arises in you — you’re feeling like an imposter or are super anxious — and rather than meet that experience and allow it to be there and ultimately resolve, your mind freaks out and does whatever it can to fix it or push it out of consciousness.  

Why We Run Away and Why It’s Existentially Expensive to Do So

Everything we do has some logic to it and running away is no different. We run away from difficult experiences because …. uhhhh, because they’re difficult experiences?! Feeling like an imposter is intensely unpleasant. The underlying self-loathing and unworthiness are excruciating. Layer onto this our judgment that there’s something wrong with us that we’re feeling this and it becomes intolerable. 

And so it’s deeply functional to run away — it prevents us from being overwhelmed by experiences we don’t know how to handle. Seen this way, it’s an act of care for ourselves, an act of love. We’re moving away from something that hurts. 

The problem is that the underlying feelings and beliefs can only be resolved by allowing them to rise into consciousness and be fully experienced. By continually running away from them, you make it impossible for this to happen. You remain perpetually chained to them by your fear of experiencing them. 

And so they persist, indefinitely, and often forever. (Forever! That’s pretty serious. Have I said already we’re talking about serious stuff here?!)

How’s running away working for you? It definitely has not been working for me.

The Alternative to Pathologizing: Normalizing

So what’s the alternative?

The alternative to running away is to run towards. Okay, you don’t have to get that zealous right away, but let’s even start with walking towards or just leaning towards. Instead of pathologizing difficult experience, we want to start normalizing more and more of our experience. We want to gradually expand the circle of what we’re willing to allow ourselves to feel so that we have more and more freedom to choose our way rather than needing to escape all the time. 

If you’re feeling something, then it’s “normal,” whatever the hell normal is. Actually, let’s just define normal as the range of feelings that you experience. No, you don’t have to call the Oxford Dictionary and tell them we have a new definition, the point is that if it’s happening to you, it’s okay. It’s normal for you. (And chances are normal for many other people on the planet, I’d hazard that at least uhhh… ten million people out of 8 billion experience the same thing, if not all 8 billion.) 

Nothing is wrong. It’s okay. We can learn to be okay with whatever is here. We can learn to be with whatever is here. And when we do — when we stop trying to fix and change and improve and become that perfect person that can’t exist — things shift. The great paradox here is that the more we let go of changing ourselves the more we naturally begin to change. 

Or maybe we just start peeling away the things that keep who we are hidden. 

Who knows.

May you have an “okay” day,


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