The description IS the problem

(The following is based on an extract from The Origin of Anxieties.)

“Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” Benjamin Whorf

The way we describe our experiences matters; words shape the way we think. The descriptions we choose can be problematic by making things seem unusual or more difficult than they are. We have seen that the most common descriptions we use put the cause of our difficult experiences somewhere outside our control; in the chemistry of our brains, or in the dim and distant past. These descriptions tell us we are helpless to do anything about our problems.

In another sense the description is the problem because the description we choose defines the problem. An example may help.

Suppose someone is anxious about going out; we’ll call her Ms Walker. Let’s look at the different ways we could describe her difficulties.

Ms Walker suffers from agoraphobia.

Ms Walker has agoraphobia.

When she goes out Ms Walker gets anxious.

Whenever Ms Walker thinks about going out she thinks anxious thoughts; she predicts
something bad will happen.

Since she had some difficulties in her life Ms *
Walker has got into a habit of sometimes
predicting bad things might happen
when she thinks about
going out.

Ms Walker doesn’t like going out.

Ms Walker likes to stay at home.

If you had difficulties going out which of these would you use to describe your situation? Which would be most accurate? Which would help you feel better about yourself? Which would give you hope that there was something you could do to help yourself?

The last two descriptions in the list are probably unhelpful because they could allow us to pretend there isn’t a problem at all. This could take away any urge to do anything about it. We would then end up living with unnecessary restrictions that we were unwittingly imposing on ourselves.

We can see from this example that the description we choose makes a big difference. If we describe our difficulties in one way we can see them as a problem we’re stuck with; if we describe them in another we can see the possibility of change.

So if you have a problem which sort of description are you going to choose?

Choose one that doesn’t make you feel powerless and more concerned with yourself and what is happening.

Choose one that doesn’t suggest your anxieties are global and forever

One way we make life difficult is by focusing on the things we find difficult. At times we can find it easy to think they are the only things about us that matter. Don’t think about yourself as just an anxious person. This can make it sound as if you’re always anxious about everything. This is guaranteed to make us, feel worse.

Get things into a better perspective. If you are anxious about some situations remember that there are plenty of things you are not anxious about. You may be anxious about X, Y and Z, but remember that you aren’t about A, B and C. Shrink the problem down to size. Remember other things about you whether it’s your achievements, your qualities, or anything else positive.

Choose one that reminds you that anxiety is something we do and that we can all get drawn into bad habits, especially when things are difficult for us.

Choose one that emphasises what you can do to help yourself.

For many of us the description marked with * may be the one that recognises the problem but keeps it in perspective and leaves open the possibility of change.