Josh Killam, LPC
The Man Behind the Green Curtain
We all have a story to tell. That we don't know about. A story that is being lived out constantly. It's like the idea of the Wizard of Oz. A little man behind the green curtain calling all the shots. In the world of psychology, this is considered the unconscious. Our unconscious has a story that it is trying to tell. We possess a deep desire to be heard, so our unconscious does its best to do just that. When our story is an unconscious one, we do not get to have control over it. We just get to experience the outcomes. I do not mean that we cannot have a sense of control and tell our own story. I only mean that most of us do not have a conscious awareness of our story playing out behind the curtain. We are a puppet, and the master pulling strings are our unconscious processes.
A recent conversation I had with a client involved exploring some of these unconscious processes. At the start of our session, she described an anxiety storm that she had experienced that morning. This anxiety consisted of a series of "things" that she must complete by the end of the day. She described feeling trapped and paralyzed, unable to finish any of these tasks while simultaneously feeling compelled to complete them. I imagine that this is a familiar feeling for many of us who have experienced anxiety. Her reason for bringing this was that she wanted some tools to help her quell her anxiety to focus on what she needed to get done.
What my client was asking for was a list of counteractive techniques for anxiety. These are the relaxing self-help "tools" that get put out, recycled, and posted on Instagram. These tools include such things as mindful breathing, mediation, visualizing, and journaling. If you are unfamiliar, just go to your nearest Instagram self-help influencer's page to get a list of "Relaxation" techniques. I find immense value in counteractive strategies. They are invaluable and can be tools we use to begin to feel safe enough to dig deeper. However, these tools do not get to the core of the client's story. They do not reach down into the depths of the person to identify and understand what is propelling anxiety.
I began to describe how anxiety can be viewed as a type of protective mechanism—a form of energy that shows up to protect or help us avoid a painful feeling—for example, fear, loss, abandonment, separation, longing, and sadness. When we are not aware of what is going on behind the curtain, our anxieties kick in to protect us from those feelings. An unknown danger is received as a threat, even if that unknown danger is your feelings. An anxiety response includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, kicking our nervous system into hyperdrive. This moves you into a fight or flight response to be ready to ward off the threat. This process typically comes with reactive behaviors and uncontrollable/overwhelming thought patterns. Then comes that wonderful sense of impending doom that is familiar to so many of us.
Once we worked through understanding how anxiety might work for her, I asked her to take a deep breath and try and invite some feelings to come to the surface. If you want more detail on the process of understanding your emotions, see my previous blog, Attending to Your Feelings. My client and I then used our conversation to try on certain feelings and ideas that came up for her. She threw out a couple thoughts or feelings that, after some inspection, did not hold up. These initial thoughts that arise when we begin this process can be seen as distractions that our unconscious throws out to knock us off the trail. Imagine a fear response or a form of self-deception. This another mechanism that is used to "protect us." Remember, our nervous system thinks that it is warding off a dangerous threat, and a conversation is an exploratory tool being used to get to the core of the feeling. The closer we get to the truth, the more painful it can be and the more complex our defense mechanism becomes.
As we continued to try different ideas and feelings, working with a felt sense of her body, we finally realized something that felt most true for her. She had a deep emotional need and was afraid of not having this need met, so she thought her way into a fit of anxiety because she was terrified of not having this need met. Ah-ha! The man behind the curtain was a fear of not having a need met. In her situation, it was a need to be trusted and not forgotten. Her unconscious processes were doing what was perceived as the "right" thing. There was fear of not having a need met, so her anxiety stepped in to defend against this fear being realized. Motivations that spark your anxiety very often have good intentions. They genuinely try to solve particular problems. However, we very often do not have access to our full range of emotions and needs.
The challenging part about protecting ourselves from emotional pain is that there are unintended consequences that come along with it when attempted incorrectly. Often because our anxious and reactive behaviors miss the core issue. When we react impulsively, we do not get the whole picture. We miss what is true and needs to be attended to. How does this happen? Our unconscious hides behind the curtain! Can you see what's on the other side of the curtain when you're behind it? Exactly! When we got in touch with her true feelings, we made space for them, we found tears, and her deeply felt emotional pain. Which resulted in the sense of relief and a clear path forward that felt true and needed. The anxiety symptoms were alleviated, and all her energy was now able to be focused on attending to what she truly needed.
When we focus on what we really need, our minds slow down. All of that energy gets aimed at a single focus. This works because our bodies inherently know what they need. It is our mind that gets left behind and stuck on unhelpful thoughts. When we dig deep enough and in the right direction, we will know when we find what is true. The anxiety basically stops. At least for the moment. A felt sense of "oh yea that is what I need." An analogy that comes to mind is a fish is out of the water. The fish will wiggle and jump until you put them back in the water. When we put ourselves back in the water, we can turn all of that anxious energy into a productive direction, leading to our needs being met.
We all have a story that is being lived out that we do not have control over. Learn to listen and explore this story. The man behind the curtain wants to work with you. He craves your attention. We need to only listen to what he has to say. So yes, use your self-care strategies to slow yourself down enough to listen. Get yourself a safe relationship to explore your inner thoughts and feelings and try different things until you find what fits. There is always somewhere to go internally, emotionally. I promise that it is anything but boring. So the next time you are having an anxiety attack and need help, ask yourself, "what is the story that I am trying to tell?" What is behind the curtain that needs to be seen?