I had watched Mark’s videos over and over again, especially my favorite one, “How to Deal With Intrusive Thoughts“. The end of the video was always my favorite part, it seemed to sum up what you need to do for OCD recovery (and really, recovery from any anxiety disorder) really well: Accept all the stuff in your head while DOING the things you really care about. When you focus on the things you actually care about, all the worries and uncertainties your brain was giving you (because it was trying to help you by thinking you should solve them) eventually dissipate.
One thing I always used to think, but didn’t realize it until much later, was that I always had this expectation that once I did the things I actually cared about, my anxiety would go away. Basically, I tried to accept the stuff in my head, and then I would go do stuff I cared about, like focusing on my studies, socializing with friends or strangers, and making sure I ate three meals a day. But I did those things with the expectation that this was part of some magical formula that would get rid of my anxiety. Does this sound familiar? Does doing a certain action to get rid of anxiety sound familiar? Like a compulsion, almost? This is what I did for the longest time! I turned healthy actions into compulsions, something I like to call “Recovery OCD.” Any action can become compulsive if you do it to avoid a bad feeling or thought, even the actions you would consider to be good for you and part of your recovery! This made it harder to see what I was doing wrong.
The key thing here was the expectation that I was supposed to be anxiety free after all this. I was doing all the things that I valued, why wasn’t my anxiety gone? Well, I was giving into the fundamental pattern of OCD. I kept doing all these great, recovery related things in order to get rid of my anxiety. The result was that I kind of became a highly functioning anxious person for a while, instead of a low-functioning one. I needed to break through that mindset of trying to chase good feelings and avoid bad with every action I took.
This was hard. How would I get rid of this pattern? How would I know that it wouldn’t just become another compulsive action? I turned everything into a compulsion! Was I broken? I didn’t trust myself at all to know what to do. The answer was unexpected but it has undeniably served me well.
There’s an ancient Chinese principle called Wu-wei, and one its tenets is that you can’t achieve things out of your control by going after them directly (I’m very roughly paraphrasing here). I wanted emotional stability and I never stopped chasing it. It wasn’t until I gave up focusing on my inner turmoil and TRULY focused on my values that I began to get the relief I was seeking. It was then I realized that my values were valuable in and of themselves, not because they would save me from anxiety. Being able to focus on my studies is amazing because I learn so much in school and I value knowledge. Socializing is awesome because other people can be a lot of fun to be around. Eating regularly helps keep me healthy. All of this is great whether I have anxiety or not!
What this looks like in real life is that I stopped focusing on what was going on with my emotions, good or bad. This doesn’t mean I ignore them, it’s just whatever is happening is happening. My inner world are just clouds in the sky, and I can look at the clouds or ignore them, but I don’t have to focus on having clear skies anymore. This means I can do awesome things no matter what this “inner sky” looks like!