Recently, Matt and I did a couple of videos exploring intrusive thoughts or anxieties and why it’s useful to look at why we’re afraid of the consequences of those thoughts or anxieties coming true. There’s an exercise for doing that, The 5 Whys, which I shared in my book, The Mind Workout, and Matt explains near the end of this video:
He very helpfully offered to go through the exercise, exploring why anxiety was coming up in social situations, and to hear the results of that, check out this video:
There’s a really important reason for doing this type of exercise. It’s not to obsess about problems or search for some deep subconscious hidden secrets in our brains. This is an exercise to expose all of the very obvious things we’re doing in our every day lives to fuel the symptoms that bother us.
Mental health challenges are like mountains. These challenges have peaks. We like sticking names on the peaks. The peaks of these challenges catch our attention and we go to get help for the name we’ve stuck on that peak. Somebody might say something like: “I need help being less anxious in meetings.” They’ve noticed Anxious Meeting Mountain.
But that peak is only a tiny piece of the mountain. There’s much more mountain leading up to it, although maybe that was never tall enough or pointy enough to catch your attention. If that mountain is getting in the way of your life, taking off the top won’t make much of a difference. There’s still the entire mountain on top of which was that peak. You have to blow up the entire mountain and the 5 Whys exercise shows you how.
If somebody struggling with anxiety in meetings does the 5 Whys, you could find a bunch of different things. Let’s assume you do it and discover you’re afraid of saying something wrong and you believe people won’t like you if you make mistakes and do the “wrong” thing. The next step is to look holistically at your entire life and all of the ways you try to cope with, check on, or control uncertainty about doing the wrong thing or making mistakes or trying to control what others think about you. That will show you the complete mountain:
For recovering from mental health challenges, it can help to see them as the result of the practice that makes up that mountain. Those beliefs at the foundation, and the compulsions that result from those beliefs, naturally lead the brain to being terrified of saying something stupid in a meeting. Through your practice of trying to avoid and control those uncertainties, your brain very naturally and logically learns to be afraid of all the other ways you could say something wrong and people could judge you. Because it’s a practice, focusing in on a particular situation, like meetings, while continuing the compulsions throughout your life, won’t solve anything. This is a mountain that grows its own peaks. Cut out compulsions in meetings but keep doing them every day in other areas, and it’ll simply grow another peak about another specific topic. You’ve got to rip up the mountain’s foundations.
To get over this, you can take all of those compulsions, arrange them in a list ordered from the easiest to cut out to the most difficult, and then progressively work your way through them, eliminating and replacing them with proactive actions that help you build and create the things you actually want in your life.
As you do that, it’s important to look at unhelpful beliefs and work on changing those as well. If you believe that saying the wrong thing will make everybody hate you and you’ll be alone and being alone is the worst thing ever, then you’ll feel an ongoing pressure to get back into compulsions to control uncertainties about being alone. Learning how to be comfortable with being alone and enjoy that can actually be an amazing support for building healthy relationships because we’re not doing from a place of insecurity and fear, but instead to grow something of value we want to build between ourselves and others.