Friday, March 16, 2012

CBT session #5: Willpower is not a feeling

I had another session of cognitive behavioral therapy with my therapist today, and I left his office with a concrete plan and determination.
After our last session, I felt frustrated about the course the therapy seemed to have taken. I didn’t feel like I was working on the obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wrote about my concerns here.
As some of you said in your comments, working on other anxiety concerns would benefit the work I was doing on the OCD.
During today’s session, we discussed the importance of staying open to working on my avoidance of conflict and my fear of anger, in addition to other sources of anxiety. But today, I wanted to work on OCD.
We focused on something that I’ve been avoiding: going through piles of papers and organizing the mess.
I have stacks of opened and unopened mail and other papers sitting on the dining table, on my desk and in boxes.
A number of anxieties keep me from going through the papers, including fear of what I might find. What if I found a bill I hadn’t paid? What if I discovered some legality that I hadn’t followed? What if I found something that would cause me to obsess over things like, did I really pay that bill? Did I check my bank statement carefully enough? Did I miss something vital when I read the insurance explanation?
In other words, what if it fired up my checking and scrupulosity rituals?
I was also overwhelmed at the thought of taking the time and making the effort of going through what seems like a mountain of stuff.
We made a plan for me to take 20 minutes this evening and sort through the papers on the table, putting them into piles to later go through more closely.
I can string together as many 20-30 minute periods as I want to, but for the purposes of therapy, we would focus on the first exercise.
My therapist and I talked about the steps I would take to do the exercise, including deciding on the categories I would sort the items into and then the actual sorting.
Then we discussed obstacles I might face.
There is the “I don’t want to do this” obstacle.
Willpower is the best way I can push through that obstacle. My therapist said something very helpful about willpower.
“Willpower is not a feeling you have. It’s action you take,” he said.
He told me a story about himself. Earlier this week, he took a walk. He decided to examine his own resistance to going for a walk and see how far he was into the walk before his attitude began to change.
He said I would just need to take one step at a time, and if I thought it would help, I could practice “watching” my own reactions and examine my own resistance.
Also, he reminded me that I was not my brain any more than I was my gut. The brain and gut were parts of me, but not all of me.
My thoughts might tell me that since I didn’t feel like doing the exercise or I felt anxious about it, I didn’t have to do it. But my brain wouldn’t learn anything from it, and I wouldn’t move forward.
He said the only thing my brain would listen to was real data. If I completed the task, my brain would make note that nothing terrible happened: I didn’t die, I didn’t get arrested and no one else was harmed.
Another obstacle I face is the fear of feeling even more overwhelmed by the task I have before me.
He assured me that no matter what, whether I was able to work for the 20 minutes or not, the exercise would be valuable because it would tell us something about my anxiety and what we needed to work on.
So, at 8:50 p.m. this evening, I started.

Anxiety levels

Anxiety level immediately pre-exercise: 5
Anxiety level during exercise: rose to 7 to 8
Anxiety level immediately post-exercise: 7 to 8
Anxiety level one hour post-exercise: 6

The process

I was able to quickly sort the items, even opening up envelopes and glancing at the contents to know where to place them in the stacks.
I had four piles: bills to pay; items to file, such as paycheck stubs, receipts, and bank statements; items to look at and do something with soon, such as an envelope with a return address I need to record, the county personal property statement and car insurance cards I need to place in my car and purse; and items to read/file at some point.
I finished up the sorting before 20 minutes had passed, so I looked at some items more closely and sorted through a box of decorative items that I need to take to the basement.

My experience

The time didn’t pass quickly enough. I kept looking at the clock to check the time and calculate how much longer I had to do this.
I didn’t find any late bills or other items that needed immediate attention.
But I did begin to feel very overwhelmed, because I knew how much more I needed to accomplish beyond the 20 minutes of sorting.
My anxiety level did not drop as quickly or as much as it does when I do the other cognitive behavioral exercise I’ve worked on, the one where I write for 30 minutes without editing.
But I felt good that I had done as much as I had. Nothing awful happened.
And I was able to follow the exercise with a shower and then a relaxing time watching the season premiere of “In Plain Sight.” My anxiety level has dropped down to about a four now.
One step at a time. Push through the resistance. Willpower is action.


  1. Yes! You did it. You took action, and I think that's the most important gave your brain the "learning experience," as you say in your post.....congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Janet! It did feel good to act and not just think.

  2. As someone who lives with an anxiety disorder, I applaud you for yet another excellent post that makes many points useful for those who suffer. You set a time limit, you took care of yourself after the exercise, etc. You also asked some great "what if?" questions. This has been so valuable for me so that I can see all my many choices. I was using that exercise today, in fact, because I'm facing a scary situation later this afternoon. I thank God for CBT -- it was life-changing for me. I still feel a lot of fear, but my CBT tools kick in almost automatically these days, and it doesn't slow down my life anymore.

    I just can't say enough what a super job you're doing in sharing these details so clearly. You are making such a difference for others by doing so.

    1. Nadine, Thank you so very much! I appreciate your encouragement more than you know.

      I am finding CBT to be a powerful tool--much more powerful than I thought before I started. I hope some day the tools will kick in automatically for me too!

  3. But Tina, you DID it! and for that I hope you feel pride in yourself. It is NOT easy forging ahead and finding that willpower but once you can depend on it, what a freeing feeling!
    Good for you!

    1. That's a good way to put it, Tracy--once I can depend on it. That will be great when I know that if I just push through the resistance to do something I want/need to do, I will reach the motivational level. Thank you for your comment!

  4. Excellent post! And again, I love that quote on will power that your therapist said.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth! I love what he said about willpower too. It's my new mantra.

  5. Congrats!!! Great post. I enjoyed reading it and will have to use that willpower quote to get my butt in gear about exercise. I guess i'm waiting for willpower to arrive, but so far it hasn't.

    1. Karin, I have been waiting for that motivation to arrive, too! LOL

      I had never thought of it in terms of action instead of feelings, but it makes sense. Surely top athletes don't ALWAYS feel like going through their exercise routine, surely all musicians don't ALWAYS feel like practicing for hours.

      Thank you for your comment!

  6. I'm proud of you for facing your fears! I hope the next 20 minute session moves a little faster for you.

    1. Lisa, Thank you! I hope it speeds by, too, and leaves me wanting more!

  7. Look at you making progress! I'm very proud of you. I know how difficult that was. You know that old saying, "The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time." Before you know it, you will have sorted through everything. At some point you may even start to find it easy and wonder why you ever thought it was hard. That has happened to me several times. Just keep working at it. You will be so glad you did when you get to the other side of it.

    1. Thank you so much, Sunny! One bite at a time, one step at a time . . . Gotta keep going. Thank you for being on the journey with me!

  8. I love his quote about willpower. That is awesome.

    Good for you...I'm so happy you were able to DO IT.

    I've learned something about anxiety's not all it's chalked up to be. I used to worry a lot about a lot of things....(I'm sure I still do). Sometimes when thinking about it, I would think...."but what if I die"....then my counselor said to me once, "well...then you won't have to worry anymore." True. So true. So what am I so worked up about. :) Seems simple...but works for me.

    One day you will look back and think...."hmmmmm....what was I so worked up over." At least, that's what I HOPE for you. :)

    Keep up with it. You are doing good things here.

    1. Melanie, Thank you for your encourgagement. I like what you said about anxiety. You're right--if you carry it to its end, it really starts to not matter so much.

      Hope is a very powerful thing. Thank you for having it for me!


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