In psychiatry, when we talk about depression, we don’t refer to the momentary feeling of frustration one feels when things don’t go her way. Depression is a very serious condition that requires specific interventions to improve. When I hear the word “paranoid” I think immediately of schizophrenia, another serious mental illness. Maybe the passerby who thought she was “paranoid” was referring to being too afraid to admit that a certain unthinkable situation could happen. It’s not paranoia; it is flat out fear. Why, I wonder, do people misuse words so badly? And what kind of effect does that have on them when they do?
When one talks about herself as “paranoid” or “I am such an idiot to have sent that e-mail without spell checking,” she makes herself feel that she can’t do anything right; she can’t trust herself that she saw a painful reality and dismisses it thinking what she sees because it is so unlikely. Unlikely but not impossible. People have affairs and get caught all the time. Why put yourself down? Why induce in yourself a state of mind of mistrust and self-deprecation? Isn’t it better to call it as it is? “I have seen my best friend with the husband of another friend. I wonder what that is about.”
One of my patients suffering from severe anxiety kept saying how “stupid” she was because she was blurting out exactly what she was thinking in moments of frustration, coming across as “nasty” and very “rude.” At a closer look, it turned out she wasn’t doing it because she was “nasty” but because her anxiety was making her so overwhelmingly frustrated that anxiety was taking away her social filters. It was such a powerful, unbearable feeling that she had to release it immediately. Unfortunately for her, she was releasing these feelings by lashing out angrily at whomever happened to be around. It didn’t matter if it was the delivery man, her husband or even her bosses. Afterwards, because she was really a very nice person, she would torture herself with guilt and embarrassment.
Once we understood that this behavior was a manifestation of anxiety, I assured her that as soon as we got the anxiety under control, she would stop doing it. She was very uncertain about that and she said it in a quite hostile, angry way. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth and said: “See? I did it again. Do you now understand what I mean?” I know she felt really bad she was angry with me. But it was too late. Once something is said, it can’t be un-said. Her anxiety won, yet again, the battle over her best judgment in her mind. In the end, we decided she will learn to quiet down her anxiety and she agreed to take a small dose of an anti-anxiety medication. Also, we composed a short sentence she can say to herself whenever she gets impatient or irritated with others. That phrase was: “I can say everything I need to say, at anytime, and to anybody, in a polite and courteous way.” She wrote it on a piece of paper, repeated it a few times, folded it neatly and put it in her wallet.
“It’s brilliant! How did you do it?” I asked, surprised.
“I think it’s the medication.”
“I really doubt that, since Celexa needs at least two to three weeks to work.”
I knew it wasn’t the medication. It was rather the fact that she kept repeating in her mind the sentence we agreed upon, every time she was about to lash out at her guilty but repentant niece. In other words, she used powerful words to control her anxiety and change her behavior, avoiding adding more drama to a bad situation.
Why did it work? Because words have power. They can send our subconscious mind positive or negative signals which determine automatically the choice of words or behavior. This is how she avoided a potentially disastrous fight with her niece. Feeling very proud of herself was an extra bonus.
The take-home point here is, please, try to be kinder with yourself. Soften your inner dialogue. Say you are “disappointed” rather than “depressed;” say you will do an extra proof reading next time you need to send an important e-mail rather than “I’m such an idiot.” When you make a mistake, any mistake, don’t ask yourself, “How can I be so stupid?” Try instead: “Whoops! I made a blunder. But I am learning. I will do it better next time.”
MATISSE INSPIRATION by Christine Forest, Jan. 20,2010
(my first water color adventure)