How Being Honest Reduces Anxiety -Dan Munro

Dan Munro

Dan Munro Explores how being honest reduces anxiety

Secrets are like a physical weight.

I used to keep a lot of secrets.

I told myself that I was an honest person, because I didn’t deliberately tell malicious lies. In reality, however, most of my truth was hidden beneath my social mask, like the mass of an iceberg below the surface.

I hid opinions that would cause conflict. I hid emotions that would provoke judgment. I hid pain that would invite pity. I pretended everything was OK and that life didn’t bother me, especially when it really did.

I did all this to avoid rejection and derision. I was terrified of being found out and humiliated for the weak and pathetic thing I believed myself to be. I didn’t want anyone to discover that under my mask I wasn’t good enough.

And, as a direct result of this secret-keeping, I experienced low-level chronic anxiety for most of my life. I woke up with it every morning. It peaked before and during any social event. I turned to humour, alcohol and sarcasm to protect myself.

THE BURDEN OF DISHONESTY

When you hide things about yourself, your mind carries this information like a heavy burden. When you interact with others, your mind is forced to make lightning-quick calculations on how you must moderate what you say, to keep the secrets safe.

The more secrets you have; the slower and more painful this process is.

Picture a computer with too many applications open at the same time. This is your brain on anxiety. Before you can speak, your brain must open and review every secret-withholding application that you have, to check that you’re not about to sabotage your security.

The social mask must be protected at all costs. The mask is made of secrets.

Secrets about your perceived weaknesses, your embarrassing memories, your awkward uncertainties, your failures and weirdness. The mask must successfully block anyone from seeing these things.

You can feel this security-checking process as it occurs. It’s that anxious feeling that grows when you’re in the company of strangers, or attractive people, or high-status people – whomever represents a “risky” social environment.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Your mind races in “high-risk” social situations, carefully designing and redesigning the rules limiting how accurately you can express yourself. Your brain weighs your secrets, relative to the audience, and dictates your required dishonesty for the present situation.

Your brain sees that attractive person and goes, “OK, you are allowed to talk about things you’ve done well and activities you enjoy, but no talk of dark emotions, no insecurities or neediness, and no confused or awkward silences. Those are the rules to protect yourself today. Ready? No mistakes, OK? Now go for it!”

Exhausting, isn’t it? It’s only reasonable to feel anxious in the face of such an impossibly complicated task.

SOCIAL SHAME

Social anxiety is born of social shame. It’s the feeling of worry that comes from imagining what will happen if people know the dark truth about you. Anxiety comes from believing there’s something wrong with you.

You believe that if people saw you for what you truly are – insecure, anxious, uncertain, miserable (a.k.a. a normal human being) – they will reject you, laugh at you, spread rumours about you, and otherwise ruin your potential to connect with others.

Yet, where does this belief come from? Why are you so sure that letting people see who you are will end in pain for you?

Maybe you were bullied. Maybe you had critical, unsupportive parents. Maybe you just watch too many unrealistic movies. Maybe you’ve come to believe, in a bizarre reverse-entitlement, that you’re different from all the others – “special” in your freak-ness.

YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF

The critical thing to understand is that no matter how this shame started, it’s currently perpetuated by your dishonesty today. The shame cannot continue without your present-day secrets.

You are the one who hides your true feelings of anger, stress and attraction. You are the one who chooses to hide those confrontational opinions and ideas. You are the one who won’t reveal those embarrassing stories about your past.

You are the one who doesn’t let people in. You shame yourself. Nobody else is even given the opportunity to contribute to your shame.

You feel anxious because you have decided to keep these things secret. By making your truth inappropriate to share, you tell yourself that there’s something wrong with you.

Then you worry that others will find out.

It’s the act of hiding that makes these things “wrong” in the first place! Before you decided to keep these things secret, they were neutral. Neither right nor wrong, just true. Now, with all this secrecy, they become taboo.

OTHER PEOPLE REJECTING YOU IS FINE

Sure, other people might judge or dislike you if they were to see your true colours, but this would simply mean they are judgmental and probably not worth spending time with. You can survive this.

People have been judging and disliking you your entire life, yet here you are, totally alive. There are over 7 billion people on the planet completely ignoring you right now, yet you experience no harm from this.

It’s YOU who rejects you – it happens inside your own mind, without any participation from others.

When you choose not to share something true about yourself, you reject who you are. This is where the “I’m not good enough” story is created – you wrote it yourself. Those feelings of loneliness have nothing to do with other people, they are all from you being nasty to yourself about things that are true.

MAKING A CHANGE

Imagine if you didn’t believe anything was wrong with you. Imagine if it was OK to be a flawed human being.

When I finally came to realize that I do this damage to myself – that my social anxiety was caused by me rejecting myself – I knew the change had to come from within me.

I knew I could never rely on others to treat me well, because humans are notoriously unpredictable and have a tendency to be critical. I also knew that my mask didn’t increase my quality of life, and prevented people getting close to me.

I had to stop rejecting me. I had to stop creating my own loneliness. I had to stop manufacturing chronic anxiety. But how?

By letting go of my secrets.

At first, I started small. When someone would ask me how my day was going, I stopped saying things like “Fine,” and started telling people how I really felt. I let people see when I was stressed, tired, even depressed. I let them know if I had a tough week, as well as talking about the good times.

Then, encouraged by the responses I received from a few kind people, I built up to bigger things. I started telling people when I was attracted to them. I shared secrets with people I didn’t totally trust. I admitted my weaknesses to my team at work.

Something incredible began to happen. Actually, two things:

First, the weight began to lift. I had originally predicted that revealing these secrets would give me more anxiety – I thought that people would use this information against me. But the truth was, once I revealed this stuff, no-one could use it against me. If I was shameless about something, I was invincible to it. It was an incredibly free feeling.

Secondly, people started to connect with me in a way I’d never experienced before. When I opened up, many others reciprocated and related to me. We found common ground in our insecurities, fears and weaknesses. I discovered that true connection happens in the darkness, not in the light.

My fear that people would abandon me was aggravated by hiding who I was, because I couldn’t create real, meaningful connections while I was being fake. Once I let people in, the connections were more secure and believable – I could finally relax in social situations.

Put it this way; when someone has seen all your darkness and bullshit and yet STILL likes you, you don’t need to worry about them leaving, compared with someone who only likes you for your mask and performance.

Start small, with people you already feel safe with. Then build up slowly until you’re sharing unsafe things with unsafe people.

Keep this in mind at all times: no secret can harm you unless you want it to be secret.

 

Dan Munro is a Confidence Coach and Director of The Brojo, New Zealands premier self-development community. He specializes in helping Nice Guys and People Pleasers discover confidence through integrity and authentic living.

 

Family Constellations: The Invisible Ties That Bind Us

Exploring how the behaviour of past generations influences who we are in the present is an important aspect of therapy. We may have heard that developing awareness of how we were bought up, and paying attention to the environment that shaped our lives will help us find freedom that isn’t conditioned by our upbringing. But, is this really the case, and, if so, how far back should we go?

As a therapist, I am often engaged in an exploration in to my clients’ family dynamics. The aim of this is not to place blame at the feet of a parent or sibling (although sometimes that is exactly what is needed), but to get an understanding of how the client relates to others and to the world in general: what unexamined rules and moral codes they have found themselves living by.

During therapy, I am always aware of ‘who else is in the room’. By this I mean that by listening carefully to how my client speaks, I will often hear ‘voices’ from their past. For example, a cruel mother that imparts criticism at every turn, or perhaps a rivalrous sibling that manipulated our parents’ attention away from us. By bringing awareness to these ‘voices’, we can begin to discern the interactions that still govern their lives and potentially keep them locked into patterns of behaviour. By looking closely at these dynamics, we are able to untangle what is family conditioning and what is their own volition.

But what if we take this one step further and start to think about our parents’ parents or even our great grandparents and beyond?

In family constellations, we take the whole family as a living system that influences all the members. By mapping out the family dynamics and learning to be archaeologically curious we begin to unearth some insights that keep the system in balance but set seemingly invisible rules, that end up governing our behaviour and thinking.

For example, there may have been a tragedy in a former generation that split the family and ended with someone being scapegoated, which in turn created a feeling of anger and shame, which in turn energetically entered the family system appearing, sometimes generations later as a sense of not belonging or of feeling constantly ostracised. Not until we turn to face these hidden stories from our past can we set ourselves free from the ‘rules’ of the family system.

In a family constellations workshop the attendee would be known as the ‘issue holder’ and will be responsible for placing the ‘representatives’ (other workshop participants) around the room. The idea is to create a visual representation of the family and by tuning into some of the nuances between the members of the system the issue holder can get a clearer understanding of their place and their (often unconscious) roles within the family. The facilitator will keep checking in with the representatives to get feedback on how it feels to be standing in the position they have been placed, which also serves to shed light on the family dynamics.

For instance, in one workshop the issue holder was trying to understand why she felt so intensely drawn towards the church. She identified that her great grandmother had been ostracised by the family for divorcing her husband when this was still heavily frowned upon. She placed the representative of her great grandmother at the edge of the room facing the wall and the facilitator asked for the representative’s feedback. She replied that she felt ‘invisible and full of sadness and loss’. The issue holder then asked the representative to turn around and be seen by the other members of the system and there was a big release of compassion and love for this forgotten relative. The issue holder realised that she had been holding the compassion and forgiveness for the whole family system and this was being expressed as a strong desire to go into the sisterhood.

The representatives almost always report that they get a very strong sense of how it must have felt for that family member, and are usually quite astonished by this.

Some of the one-to-one work with family systems is also incredibly fruitful. Simply by laying objects on a table that represent the different members can reveal to the client that they have been either been placed in a role, or decided to hide at the edge, simply because they felt that it was their place due to the unspoken ‘rules’. Some of the work in psychotherapy is to challenge those roles and self-limiting decisions – which clients often find incredibly liberating. However, it can be a slow and difficult process, a bit like taking two steps forward and one step back, because family systems thrive on everyone agreeing to play their roles, so when one of the members actively rejects their given role it will reverberate through the system and upset the status quo. But it can be done!

It will take perseverance, compassion and courage to step into a new reality, but ultimately, it’s worth the effort because truly stepping into one’s power and shedding outdated roles is cathartic. Become the detective of your own life and start piecing together your family tree. Being curious about family dynamics across the generations can truly unlock hidden tensions, which, when untangled, will create healthier and happier relationships in the present.

This article was written for Welldoing.org

 

The will to become free from addiction

Deepening his understanding of the will from a psychosynthesis perspective has given Paul Henry a clearer insight into his experience of being an alcoholic in recovery.

Finding work, initiating a new relationship, asking for a loan, and introducing ourselves to someone who can help us, are all examples of the will at work.(1) The will is an affirmation of our self employed in many everyday activities and in each of these activities a different aspect of will may be utilised. Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, describes these aspects of will as: strong will, skillful will, good will and transpersonal will. He says, in order to gain a complete picture of the will, and a grasp on how to train it, we first need to understand these aspects and qualities of the will.(2)

Four qualities of will

When we make a determined physical or mental effort to withstand a force or overcome a hurdle, we experience ourselves ‘willing’.(1) In this instance, we use strong will. Misunderstandings about the will arise from the misconception that strong will represents the whole will.(2) However, will requires reflection, observation and discernment in its expression.(3)

Erikson describes a more subtle aspect of will when he says: ‘To will does not mean to be willful but rather to gain gradually the power of increased judgement and decision in the application of drive.’ (4) Assagioli calls this skillful will, which relies more on aptitude to obtain the desired result, with least possible expenditure of energy.(2) These two aspects of the will can be illustrated in different approaches to the simple task of moving a car from point A to B. Using strong will, the car might be pushed from one point to the other. However, using skillful will, the ignition key may be located and the car driven.

To extend the analogy further, if, on the journey, a hitchhiker is picked up, this could be considered an illustration of good will. Good will is endowed with strength and skill and characterised by qualities like compassion, selflessness, surrender and service to others.(2) Good will draws on a palette of psychological resources to achieve a chosen and balanced outcome, in a similar way to the way in which a film director pools the diverse individual characters and resources available in a production team. In both cases, to achieve the desired outcome, a directive energy, with the qualities of humanity, strength and skill, guides the process, using effective, healthy communication. Some directors rule through fear and achieve their end using a dictatorial approach, imposing their strong will through force and manipulation. Perhaps this is what Assagioli alludes to when he cautions: ‘…learning to choose the right goals is an essential aspect of training the will’.(2)

Strong, skillful and good will all concern personal self. Transpersonal will is different because it’s an expression of the higher or transpersonal self. Experiences of transpersonal will are widely reported in the psychotherapy community. Carl Jung, Maurice Bucke and William James all refer to religious experiences involving a ‘call’ from God or a ‘pull’ from some Higher Power.2 A central theme in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step programme is this connection with a Higher Power: ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’(5)

Love and will

The various aspects of will have different qualities and characteristics that can be placed along a spectrum between two polarities: love and will. These qualities exist in us all, although they’re not necessarily obvious to others. The quality expressed in the AA quote above is surrender, one of the qualities of good will: compassion, selflessness and surrender. These qualities appear at the love polarity,(2) whereas energy, mastery and determination appear at the will end.

People often develop one quality of the will at the expense of another. This can lead to certain qualities always being called upon and others overlooked, causing an imbalance to develop and leading to distortion. Assagioli advocates a healthy balance of love and will, and observes that ‘one of the principal causes of today’s disorders is the lack of love on the part of those who have will and the lack of will in those who are good and loving’.(2)

Stages of will

Evolution of will is experienced in a cycle of stages: ‘no will’, ‘will exists’, ‘I have will’, and ‘I am will’. Whenever our will is suppressed, violated or ignored, pain and illness arise, and the hurt goes all the way to the core, causing the connection between I and self to become fractured.6 Ferrucci tells us will is the faculty closest to the self,(6) and the absence of will, or no will, ‘makes our life tiring, bitter, sometimes impossible’.(1) At any stage you can go back to no will in a cycle that begins again.(3)

Deepening my understanding of the will has given me a clearer insight into my alcoholism and the impact of this illness on the will. Alcoholism leads to a state of no will, where pain and illness, arising in the form of grave psychological and physical disturbances, go all the way to the core and erode human freedom and personal power.(6) And when will is missing, the psychological space it should occupy is taken over by anguish, depression, resentment and confusion.(6)

AA recognises that by the time the sufferer becomes aware of the grip of alcoholism and its compulsive nature, it’s too powerful to conquer with willpower alone: ‘Remember we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us.’(5) My will had been supplanted by survival needs. All I could think about was the next drink. I had an uncontrollable physical craving for alcohol, a mental obsession for oblivion, and a spiritual malady.(7)

Initially engaged in resisting the urge to drink, my will had distorted and was fully engaged in acquiring the next drink. For me, many will qualities became limited or unavailable: choice and freedom associated with mastery had distorted into inertia and procrastination; courage and daring associated with initiative had become fearfulness and introspection. Alcoholism also distorted my subpersonalities. The inner critic that may have formerly cautioned moderation, now continuously scolded me. And the inner judge, who once weighed the consequences, now constantly condemned me. These harsh taskmasters gave rise to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and failure, and brought me to my knees – to no will.

Positive desire or wish(8) had been supplanted by survival instinct and the I-Self connection had become weakened or fractured.6 Firman and Gila describe the I-Self connection as ‘ultimately a spiritual connection’,(9) which, if disturbed by nonempathic unifying centres, may result in splitting. The example that follows describes my alcoholic reasoning perfectly: ‘I use alcohol not only to overcome my feelings of anxiety and emptiness (lower unconcious) but in order to feel connected to other people (higher unconcious). This higher-lower splitting is largely repressed but has a profound and pervasive effect, causing painful inner conflicts.’(9)

The AA literature states that the sufferer ‘will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping off place. He will wish for the end.’(5) Here, the bridge between ‘desire and action’10 has been destroyed. There is no will ‘muscle’(11) to work with, and an absence of what Rollo May describes as ‘wish’: ‘Will gives the self-direction the maturity to “wish”… but without “wish”, “will” loses its life blood and tends to expire.’(8)

A higher power

The psychotherapy community and AA seem to largely agree that, at the point of no will, something significant must happen to help the will evolve – leading to recovery and rebuilding of the I-Self connection: ‘After hitting bottom and recognising the wounded layers in the recognition phase, we are ready to move into acceptance.’(9) Bonnie and Richard Schaub say that in this realisation, and in the act of surrender and acceptance, the sufferer becomes a recoverer: ‘…if the person accepts guidance he literally begins to build a new subpersonality – a “sober” person… he accepts that he must imitate the thinking and behaviours of a sober person in order to save his life.’(12)

Surrender enabled me to move away from no will and spiritually reconnect with others. My experience is echoed in the psychosynthesis concept of universal will: ‘…the relation between a drop of water and all the waters existing in our planet.’(2) The drop of water may not understand how it is related to ice, snow and steam, but it will inherently know it has the same chemical compound.

The process of cultivating will, beyond realising that ‘will exists’, appears to have Assagioli and Firman and Gila at odds. Assagioli claims ‘If it is weak, it can be trained by regular exercise, in the same way muscles are developed by gymnastics.’(11) Whereas Firman and Gila argue: ‘…just as “I” does not develop but rather emerges, so will does not develop but instead emerges.’(13)

This apparent difference of opinion may be more a question of chronology. Looking at the phases laid out in the psychosynthesis model, ‘Evolution of the Will’, may make it clearer. Pauline Hancock describes the evolution of will as ‘a cyclical process’; ‘no will’ leads to ‘will exists’, leads to ‘I have will’, leads to ‘I am will’.(3) My experience is that the will must emerge from ‘no will’ to ‘the will exists’ before it can be developed as Assagioli describes it.(2)

When I was at the stage of no will I had to undergo a spiritual awakening in order for my will to emerge. This happened through a process of complete surrender to a power greater than myself: a Higher Power.(2) In AA, this surrender is also to a Higher Power: ‘…may I do thy will always’.(5)

Hancock also emphasises that the state of ‘no will’ may return again if the I-Self connection is disrupted by a non-empathic influence. For example, the ‘alcoholic self’ subpersonality may be in conflict with the newly formed ‘sober self’. However, if the individual can identify and experience the conflicting subpersonalities, this knowledge can change that person’s ‘self-awareness and his whole attitude to himself, other people and the world’.(2)

Working with subpersonalities and disidentification exercises, the will moves from shadow to purpose, from no will to recognition that the will exists. My first experience of this was losing the compulsion to drink, one day at a time. This experience was fragile at first, but as days were added together, my will was devloping and emerging. However, as Yalom says, ‘…awareness of responsibility in itself is not synonymous with change; it is only the first step in the process of change’.(10)

My experience in AA

In the second phase, the realisation of having a will, Assagioli talks about the will being like a muscle that requires constant exercise in order to become healthy and remain healthy.2 AA step work performs a similar function for the will. Ferrucci suggests ‘the simplest of all ways we can discover or intensify our will is by using it’.(6) He suggests the client completes rudimentary illustrative exercises, like undertaking a task that requires courage, making a plan and following it through, or doing something very slowly – all of these being expressions of will or wish.

This mirrors my AA experience. My will grew stronger by following simple suggestions: daily prayers, writing an evening journal, phoning another alcoholic daily, reading AA literature each morning, and getting to three meetings a week. I reached out and connected with other members of AA, which brought me a dimension of transpersonal will, and I embarked on the 12-step recovery programme, which is like an act of faith or universal will – constantly taking inventory of ourselves, good and bad, and ‘where we are wrong, promptly admitting it’.(5)

The fact we are able to apologise and make amends for our actions or words reflects Firman and Gila’s assertion that, as our will emerges and takes us away from our place of annihilation, it also means we are free to accept adversity when it arises.(9) The main purpose of phase two is forming a bridge between having a will and phase three: being a will.

Remaining clean and sober for 18 years has required continued and rigorous work. I see the willingness to do this as ‘being a will’. I will always be an alcoholic physically. However, remaining sober ‘is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition’.(5) Maintaining the will to do the work has been hardest when I don’t pray and I lose my transpersonal connection with my Higher Power. When I pray, I listen for my Higher Power’s will for me. Sharing experience with other alcoholics in AA meetings and helping newcomers to find courage, are examples of transpersonal and universal will at work.

Will work with clients

In clinical work, understanding the condition of the client’s will is central to any psychosynthesis strategy. Clients with addiction issues will often be driven by distorted will. One addictive behaviour will typically give way to another: bulimia may be followed by anorexic restriction, anorexic restriction by alcoholic bingeing when the ‘physical pain, distress and misery associated with starvation’(14) becomes too much. Contrasting extremes of distorted will succeed one another – absolute control following complete abandonment and vice versa. Understanding the nature of a client’s will is central to the long-term strategy for therapeutic work. For a client who appears positive about change, a simple act, such as making daily entries in an evening journal, might begin the process of rekindling healthy will, which may be developed and strengthened.

Beyond creating an empathic relationship with clients, acknowledging and exploring their subpersonalities using visualisation, guided imagery and chair work will help them get to know these parts of themselves and enable them to disidentify; understanding that they are more than these parts – allowing the rebuilding of the I-Self connection on which will depends. Long term, I will hold my client bifocally, mindful of will and listening for emerging purpose, week by week, and adjusting my strategy accordingly.

Paul Henry

With thirty years experience in creative businesses and twenty years of recovery from alcoholism and addiction, Paul’s work focuses on performance anxieties in creative, professional and parental roles, addiction and substance misuse, and the everyday sufferings of life in an increasingly frantic world. His practice is based at London Bridge, Clapham Junction and Pinewood Studios. www.paulhenry.net

References

1. Ferrucci P. Your inner will. New York: Penguin Group; 2014.
2. Assagioli, R. The act of will: self-actualisation through psychosynthesis. Winnipeg, MB: Turnstone Press; 1973.
3. Hancock P. Cultivation of the will seminar. London: Psychosynthesis Trust; 2013.
4. Erikson E. Insight and responsibility. New York: Norton; 1964.
5. Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous (third edition). York, UK: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services; 1976.
6. Ferrucci R. What we may be. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin; 1982.
7. Anonymous. Step one: the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of alcoholism. [Online.] https://www.justloveaudio.com/resources/12_Steps_Recovery/Step_1/Step_1_Physical_Mental_Spiritual.pdf (accessed 16 May 2016).
8. May R. Love and will. New York: Dell Publishing; 2013.
9. Firman J, Gila A. Psychosynthesis: a psychology of the spirit. Albany, NY: Suny Press; 2002.
10. Yalom ID. Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books; 1980.
11. Assagioli R. The golden mean of Roberto Assagioli – Sam Keen interview. Psychology Today; December 1974. [Online.] http://samkeen.com/interviews-by-sam/interviews-by-sam/the-golden-mean-of-roberto-assagioli/ (accessed 16 May 2016).
12. Schaub B, Schaub R. Advanced recovery: emotional strength and spiritual discovery. New York: New York Psychosynthesis Institute; 2014.
13. Firman J, Gila A. Assagioli’s seven core concepts for psychosynthesis training. Palo Alto, CA: Psychosynthesis Palo Alto; 2007.
14. Treasure J. Anorexia nervosa: a survival guide for families, friends and sufferers. London: Psychology Press; 1997