Sheila was raised to be a "good girl." To her that meant always being kind, helpful, and forgiving. For example, even when she was exhausted, she'd make daily dutiful calls or visits to ailing friends and family. She could never prioritize herself. The guilt was too unbearable.
Sheila felt anxious most of the time. She recognized her anxiety by a low level vibration that she felt throughout her body and a persistent knot in her stomach.
In our first session, I taught Sheila how to deep belly breathe to help calm the anxiety so we could find the emotions and conflicts that lay underneath. I explicitly invited Sheila to slow way down to connect with her body.
"Just notice the shaky feeling inside without judging it or trying to change it. Try to approach yourself with a compassionate and curious stance," I advised.
"I'm calming down," she reported, which didn't surprise me. Although it's initially counter-intuitive, paying attention to anxiety in the body tends to calm it.
"As the anxiety decreases, what do you notice comes up?" I asked.
"I am so tired of doing things for other people," she said. "But, I feel like it is the right thing to do."
"I hear a part of you needs a break from doing things for others; and another part of you feels like caring for others, even at the expense of yourself, is the right thing to do. Is that right?" I asked.
"YES!" she said emphatically nodding excitedly, appreciating being heard and validated.
"That's quite a conflict" I confirmed.
When I met Sheila, she was not explicitly aware of having a conflict, per se. She just felt the gnawing discomfort of anxiety.
Conflicts can be conscious or completely out of awareness. But we can use anxiety as a signal to check for conflicts we may be experiencing. Once we identify both sides of the conflict, we will feel better because the mind and body relaxes when we understand ourselves.
Once we identify the conflict, we can take steps to help ourselves. If the conflict cannot be reconciled, we can at least come to a "good enough" compromise.
Examples of common conflicts that may be out of awareness
I have work to do but I am not in the mood.
I’m jealous of you but I like you.
I want you to leave but I fear being alone.
I am angry but being angry is bad.
I want to travel but I am afraid.
I feel sad but that means I am weak.
And, remember Sheila from the above example said, I am so tired of doing things for other people but I feel like it is the right thing to do.
Tips to naming conflicts and minimizing the anxiety conflicts cause
See how the above conflicts that people express have a "but" between each side of the conflict. Replacing the word "but" with the word "and" allows us to honor and validate both sides equally. And that feels calmer to our mind, body, and brain.
Sheila reframed her conflict to: I am so tired of doing things for other people and I feel like it is the right thing to do.
Now the goal was to get to know both sides of this conflict. I asked her to share more about the part of her that was tired and what that part of her needed.
I need a vacation from care taking! she said.
Then I asked her to speak from the other part of her, that part that felt too guilty to prioritize her own health and wellbeing.
I can’t bear the guilt! She lamented.
Lastly, we explored two other important aspects of this conflict:
Where she learned not to prioritize herself. This inquiry shed light on the subjective nature of caretaking. She connected her experience with generations of women in her family that toiled endlessly at the expense of themselves. We discussed the consequences both on these women and on the family members around them.
The actual feeling of guilt and how she experienced it physically. This exploration helped detoxify guilt so she could better withstand it. As a result, she wouldn't have to avoid this emotion despite how uncomfortable it felt in her body. She practiced tolerating it for longer and longer periods of time until she built new muscles, metaphorically speaking, that helped her make new and more balanced choices.
Sheila was able to set a new goal for herself. She would listen to her body for how much stress it held. She monitored her stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most stress she ever had and 1 being calm. If on a particular day, her stress exceeded level 6, she would prioritize herself until her stress level decreased to ideally a level 4 or below. She was motivated to do this as she knew both her mental and physical health were at stake.
To accomplish this goal, Sheila and I discussed strategies to tolerate the guilty feelings that we knew would inevitably arise. She used a mindful stance to notice the guilt in her body as she used positive self-talk and self-compassion to calm the guilt. Try this mindful mediation for soothing guilt.
Conflicts are a part of life. Next time you feel anxious, consider the idea that you might be in conflict about something. Then with a combination of "listening" to the anxiety in your body, and thinking about what may be putting you into conflict, try to articulate your conflict. Get to know both sides without having to reconcile the conflict yet. Just by listening to both sides of a conflict, we often come up with solutions. Often mere acceptance of a difficult conflict will ease anxiety. You can experiment with the various tools and techniques described above and see which ones help you.
A+ for trying!
For more tips and tools to work with emotions and conflicts, check out “It’s Not Always Depression” (Random House & Penguin UK) .