How it is is how it oughta be…

—David Byrne & St. Vincent, “Optimist”

Adam wrote a self-help book about problematic relationships. It took him just a few months to complete. He wrote in an obsessive-compulsive frenzy using copious notes that he’d gathered when he was part of a writing group. But it took him years to undo the complex web of interpersonal entanglements he created during the process of writing that book. Ironically, perhaps, the worst of these resulted from the many ways that Adam was caretaking various people who’d joined him as he put together the various iterations of his self-help book. And though it turned out to be true that “success has many parents” (late in the game a lawyer hired to protect Adam after a colleague attempted to take ownership of the manuscript made the claim), Adam had a more hidden agenda. He hid his own talents, built on the fear that his dreams might come true within these faux collaborations with people who failed to contribute in any meaningful way to the process. Complex and messy, yes, but years into writing the book, Adam had finally been signed by a literary agent, interest was expressed by a number of serious publishers, and the manuscript was in the hands of an extremely competent editor. Publication was just over the horizon. Time to celebrate? Not quite.

“He's not talking about us, is he?”Grant

It seemed to have all come together—for just a moment, Adam’s mind was quiet, and he had a chance to actually experience all the hard work and effort that he’d put into this extremely anxiety-riddled process over the years. But instead of a sense of completion and peace he suddenly felt himself unraveling. For just a moment, Adam was between obsessions. He had an “Aha” moment and saw what he had done. He’d given up many meaningful things in his life—a love-life, advancement at his job, relations with friends and family (to name a few) as he allowed himself to be caught up in the writing process. Being between obsessions, just for a brief time, was enough for him to feel that.

But he couldn’t take the impact and information about the truth of his behavior and so—with the fuel of all that stress—he immediately started the next book in the series. The compulsion, irrelationship is compulsive caretaking after all, kick-started again; as before, the results of the—one might go so far as to say manic—obsessive process were super productive. Or were they?

the storm before the calm

What is the problem here? Adam was super productive, and, ultimately, highly successful. So…Why kick what in so very many ways actually works—it really does—as a panacea for the primary ailment of our times: anxiety, stress and all of its myriad—if not ubiquitous—symptomal manifestations?

Everyone experiences anxiety and finds ways of managing it. When anxiety is managed well, we function better and are authentically happier. But when anxiety is handled in ways that diminish awareness of our feelings but not the feelings themselves, we lose the guidance of our emotions. Adam’s whole obsessive-compulsive routine had him playing out his old irrelationship roles—both as Performer (writing a book, and disallowing his partners to contribute), and as Audience (acting as if his partner’s contributions equaled genuine authorship).  His co-authors in turn were infected by Adam’s irrelationship dynamics (of course) and wondered were they making meaningful contributions, or just feeding Adam’s obsessions? Not a fun place to be.

“Nope, I'm not talking about us.”Mark

When we play out this kind of routine we are at risk for getting into unhealthy, and even dangerous, situations and relationships. Our emotions are our most current source of information about what’s going on within us, and the world around us. They also monitor our basic needs and give us the necessary motivation to act. As our anxiety grows, we are in a set-up for walking straight into routines that blind us to our feelings. This psychological adaptation actually results in changes to the structure of the brain. Our frontal cortex (the “higher brain”) gets into the habit of inhibiting our limbic system (the “emotional brain”). Without a balance that makes use of both our ability to reason and reflect and the capacity for emotional experience, our opportunity to live full, rich, and related lives is impaired.

kicking the habit, again

So, again we’ll ask, why kick? Aren’t we all tired of living in such chronically worry-logged states? We know that obsessive-compulsive routines (irrelationship being one of them) work against anxiety—they do. Such routines work, in a nutshell, like this: a free-floating and out-of-control emotional experience (anxiety) is transferred into thought (obsession) where it then is put into action (compulsion) hence bypassing all conscious awareness of said anxiety.

Voila—here we are learning more about how irrelationship works!

The problem is that this process—part of our psychological defense system—allows only the awareness of the emotion/anxiety to go undetected. We know that repressed emotion is generally far more destructive (via so-called acting out behaviors) than the feelings we are aware of and can, hence, process and do something with. Alas, the effects of unexpressed (and often unknown) emotion go on unabated, often times doing their very worst (just sit in on any 12-Step meeting worldwide if you want to hear some “war stories” about the ways in which compulsive behaviors—drinking, drug use, gambling, eating, sexually acting out and a vast array of soul crushing routines—play out in the lives of people and their families).

In that moment of some kind of “awakening,” Adam suffered.

“Well, that's a relief, huh?”Daniel

And what if what we are really protecting ourselves from is not the threat of some terrifying (anxiety-provoking) prospect or devastating loss but from our love of and for our life exactly as is? What if Adam was protecting himself from the very things that he felt as a “loss” when he woke up between obsessions? He had a brief Aha of having cut out so much from his life, and then he jumped back into the fire of book two. What if, in some imperative way, the signal (what it is that we feel as actually important in our lives) is lost in the noise (of self-protection)—in the brainlock of all the irrelationship song-and-dance routines that we keep playing out? What if what our routines are really, and tragically, protecting us from is how truly and totally at risk we are when we acknowledge and accept ourselves and our lives—those in it (our friends, our spouses, our children, our families) and our circumstances (our history, our experiences, our education, our jobs, careers)—exactly as is?

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ann
ann
5 years ago

I’m finding this site very interesting. I recognise this pattern, as I tend to throw myself into a project (sometimes throw all of my money at that project….), get completely obsessed with it, often burn out and become physically unwell – sometimes bedridden – with exhaustion, and when it’s over I feel nothing about it; I just feel bored and empty. That last paragraph rings true with me but I don’t know if it’s in the same way you mean it. For me, when I sit back and look at my real life and feel that I see nothingness (unreasonably, I have a job, friends, flat, some success…), I am comparing it with the “ideal” life that is in my mind (of unlimited success, sometimes even fame….basically a high degree of status that I do not in fact have in real life). I know it’s probably an issue for me to be so obsessed with status and success, but without it I feel that I do not exist at all. That feeling of being non-existent drives me to strive again for success via my next project. I don’t seem to recognise that I do in fact have success (compared with the average); I never have enough of it. But then when will I have enough of it? I can’t possibly be “the best in the world’ at anything I do, though I might do quite well.

I once told a boyfriend that if I did not become a professional scriptwriter I would kill myself as I would have nothing to live for. Since then I have sold scripts, though I still have my dayjob, and those sales have not made one iota of a difference to how I feel (they don’t ‘count’, for some reason).

That proved there was something wrong. I am trying to embrace the emptiness a bit more and reimagine my life a little to work out what is actually important to me and not. I’m trying to live by my values and to embrace the process instead of getting obsessed with the outcome.