One of the foundations of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is that our thoughts affect our emotions. And much of what we think, even if we strongly believe our assumptions, may not be true.
Anger is one of many emotions fueled by our thoughts about the behavior of others. The stories we create in our minds may be complete fictions, but we rarely stop to consider alternate interpretations.
If someone cuts you off in traffic, say, how do you react? I doubt the first thing that comes to mind would be: “Oh, she must rushing to the ER because the police just called to say her teenager was hit by a car while crossing the street on the way to school.” More likely, you would be thinking, “ What an inconsiderate !!@**” Neither thought is truer than the other, yet your emotional response to each would likely be completely different.
Considering a possible backstory can be a powerful way to defuse a highly charged, negative emotional reaction.
I recently had the opportunity to experience such a change in perspective when I learned some new information about my dog Roland, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever we adopted when he was just one. He had spent the first year of his life as an outside dog in rural Louisiana, so kitchen appliances, stairs, and traffic all provoked frenzied barking and mouthing, drawing blood or ripping clothing if an arm or leg was in close proximity. He also came to us with multiple medical problems and partial blindness, all of which contributed to his arousal.
Fast forward two years later, and Roland is much calmer. A model dog, almost. I no longer have bruises and scabs on my arms and legs, and most of the time, I can cook dinner without having to endure an hour of ear-splitting barking. But one behavior I have not been successful in training out of him is food thievery. Even though we try to be careful not to leave food within reach on the kitchen counter, he has managed to snag a bowlful of rising pizza dough (resulting in an expensive trip to the ER), a piece of raisin (a potential toxin to dogs) bread, and hunks of imported Parmigianino Reggiano from the fridge.
I used to get angry and—I am embarrassed to admit this because I consider myself a “positive trainer” who does not believe punishment changes the behavior of animals or people—shout at Roland. But a few weeks ago I learned something that has made it easier for me to remain calm, or at least calmer, when he misbehaves.
Through some Facebook sleuthing, I tracked down the breeder who owns his parents. She told me he was the runt of the litter. His mother rejected him, and he had to be hand-fed to get enough milk. Poor puppy! Any irritation I had felt towards him melted away, replaced by sadness and compassion.
Everyone has a backstory–maybe not as compelling as Roland’s but still deserving of consideration. So, before jumping to conclusions about a person’s character when an interaction upsets you, try stepping back and observing your reactions without judging. Even if your anger persists, you may avert a response you will later regret.
Imagine walking in the forest, lost in contemplation, when suddenly you feel a searing pain in your calf. Looking down, you see blood pouring from a wound and an arrow sticking out of your leg. Far ahead, behind a tree, you catch sight of an archer, bow and arrow poised to shoot a deer in the clearing. How do you react?
You are in pain, of course. An arrow piercing your flesh is no trivial matter. But what you do next will determine how you cope with the wound. If you clean it, bind it to stanch the bleeding, and hobble home to tend to it, you still will feel the pain. But if you start berating yourself for not seeing the archer, or getting upset with yourself for having gone for a hike instead of staying home to tend to neglected chores, you will be shooting yourself with a second arrow.
The Buddhist parable of the second arrow is metaphor for how we turn pain into suffering. We often add insult to injury by blaming others or ourselves for the consequences of an action, feeling guilty or dwelling on regret for choices we have made. The suffering the second arrow causes magnifies the pain one hundred-fold.
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to practice not shooting myself with the second arrow after I fractured my ankle when my dog pulled me over onto the ice. In the first two days after the accident, the second arrow really wounded me. I beat myself up for choosing to walk the dogs that afternoon instead of opting for a trip to the grocery store. I told myself I was a failure as a dog trainer (ironically halfway through an online course, 21 Days to Stress Free Walks.) I lamented having to delay a trip I’d been eagerly anticipating. But three weeks into my recovery, I am coping with the inconvenience and, yes, the physical pain, better.
What has changed? I still have a broken ankle. I can’t walk my dogs or ride my exercise bike. Going to the grocery store and even just taking a shower require major efforts and logistical maneuvers. I have no idea how long I will have to wear a walking boot or when I will be able to return to my normal activities.
But I am practicing an attitude of acceptance.I recognize I have no control over the situation and very little ability to influence the outcome, aside from following the doctor’s orders. Do I like it? No, but I am seeing it for what it is without adding to the discomfort and inconvenience by shooting myself with the second arrow.
A little gratitude and perspective also help. I am thankful my fracture, on scale of 1-10 was only, as my orthopedist put it, a 2. A neighbor told me of her leg injury, much more severe than mine, requiring surgery. I also learned of someone else whose dog pulled her down, causing four broken ribs and a broken arm.
Removing the second arrow has allowed me to attend to the slow process of recovery without the weight of added emotional baggage. I almost feel lucky.
With all the misinformation about vaccines and health risks, you would think people might think twice about looking to the internet for diagnostic advice about their mental status. Sadly, this is not the case.
Despite the many credible sources (including this one) dispelling the myth of “pure O” OCD, I still get frequent queries from people who have diagnosed themselves as having “pure O” and are looking for treatment to help them get rid of their disturbing thoughts.
If you think you suffer from Pure O, you probably have been stuck in a repetitive thought loop about a distressing event or belief. You think you have obsessions without compulsions (such as the stereotypical ones like hand-washing and checking). But I guarantee you are engaging in rituals even if they are not readily apparent to an outside observer or only exist in your head.
Here are some common obsessional thoughts that may masquerade as Pure O:
I am a pedophile.
I have violent thoughts and may kill someone.
I might kill myself.
I have an underlying mental illness and will go crazy.
Let’s do some unpacking:
If you worry about having these types of thoughts, you are falling prey to a common OCD cognitive distortion: thought-action fusion—the belief that thinking about an action is the same as actually doing it. Thought-action fusion can also cause you to believe, superstitiously, that having a thought will make the event more likely to happen.
Thoughts of committing a violent or repugnant act can feel very real. Such obsessions often lead to repeated attempts (compulsions) to push them away in order to relieve distress. Some common rituals are: mentally reviewing the past for signs of the feared action; seeking reassurance from friends and family; repeating a phrase or mantra (“I would never do that,” “I’m a good person”); praying; doing research about people who have committed the feared action and comparing yourself to them.
Trying to control thoughts only makes them more tenacious, as countless experiments on thought suppression have shown. Contrary to what the false notion of Pure O would have us believe, thoughts are not the problem!
OCD worries gain a foothold from the efforts to suppress thoughts, not from the thoughts themselves. The most effective way to deal with unwanted mental intrusions, then, is to allow them. In fact, if you stop trying to barricade the door against the unwelcome cognitive intruders and invite them in, they will lose their power over you in time. Little by little, you will find it easier to realize they are not evidence of a deep-seated pathology or predictions of future actions.
They are just products of an over-active imagination, nothing more.
So remember: “Pure O” is never pure, and don’t trust those who tell you otherwise.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.