Mrs. B, a woman in the early fifties, has been plagued by anxiety for decades. Her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she grew up as a neglected, unwanted, unloved child. She is married with six children and seems to have a good life, but her anxiety creates a multitude of problems for herself and in her relationships.
She experiences heart palpitations, tightness in her chest and irregular breathing. To escape these sensations, she starts fights with her husband over little things and then becomes defensive and blames others, while inside she strongly condemns herself and then hits herself in the head as punishment.
One of the strategies that were used in this case study was to recognize and name the anxiety. Mrs. B’s husband noticed it in her restless eyes. Since it usually crept in as if shuffling its feet, Mrs. B suggested calling it Schlurfi (from the word shlurfen in German).
So instead of waking up with an uneasy feeling in the morning she started having a conversation with Schlurfi. ‘Good morning, Schlurfi, nice to see you. Listen, today just for you I will make at least four mistakes, and say the wrong thing on the telephone twice.’ She and Shlurfi laughed.
The strategy that was used in this case is called Paradoxical Intention, and it is part of a complex therapeutic process. Outside a therapy context, you can develop the habit of noticing what you are saying to yourself before you are about to repeat a pattern of behavior that you will later regret.
In Mrs. B’s case, the behavior was her tendency to pick fights, park badly, burn the food and make inappropriate and nonsensical comments. Behind this behavior was anxiety. Behind the anxiety were self-statements such as: ‘I am good for nothing. My mother was right to try to abort me.’
A rabbinic source states the following truth: Reish Lakish taught: No person sins unless a spirit of stupidity has first entered. Put differently, behind every act of stupidity is a stupid thought.
Thus, the first of the 12 strategies to enhance better decision making and self-trust is to recognize what is making you do stupid things.
Immediately before you do something that you shouldn’t do, a mental commentary is going on in your head. The voice of conscience says ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and the voice of delusion drowns it out and says ‘Never mind; it will be okay.’ You have to recognize the voice of delusion and stare it in the face.
In the case study, Mrs. B gave her anxiety a name. By engaging with it, ‘Shlurfi’ could no longer escape notice. ‘ As Lukas explains: ‘[Shlurfi] is clearly recognized. Whether she is sitting on the lawnmower or crawling onto the sofa, Schlurfi is immediately subjected to ridicule, which makes it impossible for anxiety to take hold.’ (Living Logotherapy: Meaning-Centred Psychotherapy, Elisabeth Lukas and Heidi Schonfeld, p. 68)
When you give your anxiety a name, you gain distance from it and you don’t allow it to trap you. You let it know who is boss and you are not helpless. The better you are at recognizing its presence, the more adept you will be at catching it in its tracks before it does mischief, the less likely you will do things you regret, and the better you will feel about yourself, because your decisions will be good ones.