I’m telling a client that trying to breathe deeply while he’s having a panic attack is a bad idea because one of panicking’s best features is the ability to convince you that you cannot breathe.
I tell him,
“Just try reminding yourself that even though you’re sure you’re about to have a heart attack and die, you’re not, you’re actually going to be OK.”
He looks at me the way that everyone I ever gave this advice looks at me, with a, “remind me why I’m paying you?” face.
Later, I’m writing to someone who is feeling so beaten down by the relentless nothingness of lockdown that they have lost all motivation and purpose.
“I’m trying to push myself to get things done but I find that I can’t even do the things I enjoy.”
The frustration and dismay are palpable.
In my reply, I write,
“Just let yourself be sad and stop trying to feel better all the time.”
One advantage of written work is that I don’t have to see a clients bewildered face when I tell them to do precisely the opposite from what their instinct is insisting.
Reading through my email, I notice that Oliver Burkeman is dishing out pretty much the same advice to his readers.
He is describing how anything we do to make things better or to change our behaviour that feels good as we’re doing it is probably the opposite of what we actually need.
Sitting with anxiety and panic until it passes makes you feel like you’re dying, and dealing with procrastination by doing the work despite the awful pull in the opposite direction seems like an impossibility.
The entire self-help industry is built on the desires of people to find simple answers to things that are mostly hard and require us to be uncomfortable for sometimes extended periods of time.
I consider writing to Oliver Burkeman to thank him for his insight but I have written to him after receiving his newsletter on the last two occasions, essentially to thank him for his insight.
I decide that the warm feeling I get at writing an email to someone I admire is probably an indication that it’s the opposite of what I should actually do.
I too am no stranger to the compulsive draw towards ill-fated solutions.
Over the years I have bought countless books in a fruitless effort to help me solve numerous problems.
I have downloaded apps to help me procrastinate less, work more effectively and organise my time better.
I bought a book before Christmas which is essentially thousands of guitar chords for alternative tunings which, as I write, I have not yet opened.
Wondering why this might be I realise that trying to find them myself without the book is hard, but at least I did it. Now I have something to help me and make it easier, I appear to have lost my enthusiasm.
Instead of focusing on the behaviours we need to make ourselves feel better maybe we’re better off building up our tolerance for the uncomfortable emotions associated with where we are now because, when they pass, change may feel more achievable.