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How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You
By Albert Ellis, Kristene A. Doyle
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1998 Albert Ellis Institute
All rights reserved.
Why I Am Convinced That You Can Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You
Until the age of nineteen, I was an extremely anxious individual. In fact, I think that I was probably born with a tendency toward making myself anxious. My mother was like that: She was a generally happy person but she also made herself quite anxious about little things — money, for example. During my childhood and youth, she never really wanted for money. At one time, my father, who was a promoter and a great salesman, literally had a million dollars — and that was a great deal of money back in the 1920s. But she always worried about expenses, and whenever he left a fifty-dollar tip for a waiter, she would secretly take it back and substitute a much smaller tip. She saved her money in a separate account and had thousands of dollars in it. But she always worried about not having enough.
After my father lost his first million in the stock market, was on his way to making his second one, and the family really was doing well financially, my mother still worried about money — and several other relatively unimportant things — and kept saving and saving. She wasn't entirely wrong about this, for in 1929, my father lost his second million and couldn't pay her the regular alimony he was supposed to pay. But we got through the Great Depression all right because my brother, sister, and I started working and supporting the family. Still, my mother worried incessantly — till she died, with savings, at the age of ninety-three.
You could say that I probably learned how to worry from her, but that would hardly be accurate. My brother, who was nineteen months younger than I, also was raised in the same environment, and he was almost a pathological nonworrier. He took risks and did all kinds of "dangerous" things, and he never seemed to worry about the outcome. If these turned out all right, fine; and if they turned out badly, he was never thrown for a loop. He just went on to risk the next venture, whether it was social or business. In fact, he did very well for himself — just because he rarely worried about anything.
Not so I! I was afraid of all kinds of unseen eventualities. I was a definitely shy, conforming, and hesitant child and adolescent, and I rarely took any great risks — or, if I did take them, I worried about them. I especially had a great fear, and a real phobia, about public speaking. I was bright and talented enough and was often asked to make a little speech, be it in a class play or speaking out in class and giving answers to questions that the teacher felt sure I could answer. But, I voluntarily held myself in much of the time; and I particularly avoided public presentations.
Let me give you a typical example. I was a good speller, often the best in the class, but I avoided participating in spelling bees because I might make a mistake (which I practically never did) and thereby "make a fool" of myself. When forced by the teacher to participate, I would almost always outspell all the other kids and become the winner; but I was exceptionally anxious while doing so, and I didn't enjoy the spelling bees at all. I only enjoyed winning. Briefly.
Another example: Once in a while, we had to memorize a short poem and repeat it in front of the class the next day. I was terribly anxious that I would splutter and stutter while presenting, even though I was excellent at memorizing. Reciting the poem publicly was terrorizing for me. So the morning of the day I was supposed to recite the poem to the class, I would make myself get a splitting headache, and put the thermometer next to the radiator to show that I had a fever. This induced my mother to let me stay home from school that day. What, me recite badly and show the teacher and the other kids how anxious I was? Never!
One time, when I was about eleven years old, I won a medal in Sunday school and had to go up to the platform, at assembly time, to receive it and merely thank the president of the school as I received it. I went up and got the medal and thanked the president, but when I sat down again, a friend of mine said, "Why are you crying?" I was so anxious about appearing in public that my eyes were grandly watering and it looked like I was crying.
I also had extreme social anxiety — when meeting new kids, when talking to people in authority, and especially when meeting new females. I was most interested in girls ever since the age of five and a half, when I was madly in love with a neighborhood charmer. After she disappeared from my life, I kept falling passionately in love, practically every year, with the most attractive girl in my school class. Yes, passionately in love: a real obsessive–compulsive attachment. But no matter how much I adored these girls, and how constantly I thought about getting intimate with them — which I did practically all the time, for hours on end — I never spoke to them or actually tried to get close to them. I shyly, fearfully stayed away from them, shut my big mouth, and only looked lustfully at them without any verbal contact. I was scared to death that if I did approach them and try to become friendly, they would see my failings, rightly reject me, and make me feel impossibly small. I didn't exactly see myself falling through the floor if I actually got rejected, but very nearly!
Even into my teens, up to the age of nineteen, I never really approached any of the women to whom I was attracted. About two hundred days a year, I went to the Bronx Botanical Gardens, a lovely place near my home, and sat on a bench or on the grass in order to read one of my many books, and to look at the attractive women (of all ages) and flirt with them. But I never approached them or said a single thing to them. Typically, I would sit on one stone bench near the Bronx River Parkway, and a girl or a woman would sit on another bench, about ten feet away from me. I would immediately look at her (I was, at that age, interested in all females, yes, about a hundred times out of a hundred), and sometimes she would look back at me. I would keep sneaking looks at her, obviously flirting with her, and often she would flirt back at me. Some of them were definitely interested, and presumably would have been receptive had I approached them and started to talk to them.
Not me! I always copped out. I made up a million excuses to myself — she was too tall or too short, too old or too young, too smart or too stupid. I had all kinds of excuses and rationalizations. So I never talked to a single one of them — no matter how interested in me they appeared to be and how presumably receptive. Then, when the object of my passion finally got up and walked away or I had to get up and leave myself, I cursed my foolishness in not approaching, not taking a risk, put myself down severely for copping out, and resolved to try — really try — to approach the next suitable prospect. But I never did.
HOW I OVERCAME MY PUBLIC SPEAKING ANXIETY
Then, at the age of nineteen, I decided to get over my anxieties. First, I decided to rid myself of my fear of public speaking. At that time, I was actively immersed in a political organization, a liberal group of which I was actually the youth leader. It was only a small organization, and nearly all the young members were friends of mine, so I didn't have too much trouble speaking to eight or ten of them at a time. I didn't consider that a public kind of performance. On the other hand, I was supposed to speak to other organizations and groups, to tell them about my particular society and to try to get them to join it. I was supposed to be, especially as their youth leader, a public propagandist for my organization. But I was too afraid to try to fill that role, so I refused many invitations to do so — invitations that came mainly from the adult section of our group, New America, which ran the youth section, Young America. As usual, I copped out.
Pressure on me to give public talks for Young America continued, and I finally decided to give in to it and get over my public speaking phobia. I had previously read a great deal of philosophy and psychology, and I was someday going to write a book on the psychology of human happiness, in which I had a great personal interest (because of my anxiety). So I already had an idea based on the writings of that day (1932), on how to handle anxiety and phobias. I had read what some of the great philosophers — such as Confucius and Gautama Buddha — had said about conquering anxiety. I had especially noted what some of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers — such as Epicurus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — had said about it. And since philosophy was my great hobby at that time (from the age of sixteen onward), I had read what many of the modern philosophers, such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Bertrand Russell, had said about dealing with anxiety. Finally, I had read, at that time, most of the modern psychologists, such as Freud, Jung, and Adler, who were also interested in curing people of their anxiety. So I was philosophically and psychologically prepared.
But I had also read the famous behaviorist John B. Watson, on his early experiments aimed at curing children of their overwhelming fears and anxieties. Watson and his assistants took children seven or eight years of age who were terribly afraid of animals (such as a mouse or a rabbit) and actually exposed the children to the feared objects, first at a distance and then at closer range. Meanwhile, Watson talked to the children and distracted them, then he gradually moved the feared animals closer and closer. What do you know — after around twenty minutes of exposure, the children would become unafraid and would actually start petting the animals. This deconditioning procedure, which is called in vivo (live) desensitization, worked very well, and in one or a few sessions, he trained the children to rid themselves of their extreme anxieties and phobias.
"Well," I said to myself, "if it's good enough for little children, it should be good enough for me. I'll try it."
So, for practically the first time in my life, instead of avoiding public speaking engagements, I did just the opposite. Every single week, I set up at least one speech that I was to present in public for my organization, Young America, and I made sure that come hell or high water I presented that speech. I was still as scared as I could be; and I was most uncomfortable making the first few speeches. But I knew from my reading and from figuring out things for myself that my discomfort would not exactly kill me. I also reasoned that the dire things that I imagined were going to happen — including my audiences laughing at me and booing me — in all probability would not occur. I would merely give a fairly poor speech, would not by any means convince my audience that Young America was the greatest political group since the United States rebelled against England, and, at worst, few people would join it. Oh, well, that would be bad — but it wouldn't be the end of the world.
In other words, I used a combination of talking to myself rationally — which I had largely learned from philosophers — exposed myself to what I feared most and was uncomfortable doing, and forced myself to speak and speak in public every week for the next ten weeks. Well, it worked! I was very uncomfortable, then I was less uncomfortable, and then, actually — surprise! — comfortable. My heart palpitations, my sweating, and my stumbling over words went down and down and down. I learned to focus intently on the content of my talks — how great a political group Young America was — rather than on how I was doing at speaking and how anxious I was about speaking. I also discovered, much to my surprise, that I really could be quite a fluent speaker, with just as little trouble speaking in public as I normally had in speaking to one person or to a group of my friends. Actually, I was never really poor at speaking, but, because of my anxiety, just terribly afraid of public speaking. My vocal cords and my ability to make sensible sentences, had always been okay, and now, with practice, they were getting even better.
That experience, of forcing myself — yes, forcing myself — to speak in public no matter how uncomfortable I was until I got comfortable and began enjoying it, made a profound impression on me. It was one of the main reasons that, nine years later, I decided to become a psychotherapist. At the time I gave my first public speeches, I was not at all interested in becoming a therapist but was obsessed with becoming a writer — and possibly a writer on the subject of human happiness. Perhaps I was hooked on becoming a writer just because I could do it without having to speak in public. In any case, I was not interested in being a therapist, just in being a less anxious, happier individual. And in very short order, I achieved exactly that. I became completely unanxious about public speaking — I lost my phobia totally. Seeing that I had conquered anxiety in this area, I also became somewhat less anxious generally.
I had always, for example, had to accomplish, had to succeed — in school, at sports, at looking well, and at other important endeavors. I tried very hard to succeed and was reasonably good at it. I especially studied hard, did my homework, and got along well in school. But, of course, I was quite anxious about doing so — since I had to succeed to be a worthwhile individual, and there was always a chance that I would fail. Horrors! — that would be awful.
Now that I saw that I could be uncomfortable in public, and at times even speak badly and not put myself down for doing so, I became a lot less anxious about success. I still wanted success, but didn't absolutely need it.
HOW I OVERCAME MY SOCIAL ANXIETY
To test myself out, however, I decided to do the second great experiment of my life: to try to get rid of my social anxiety — and particularly my fear of being rejected by women in whom I was interested. This anxiety had plagued me all my life and was much more important than my fear of public speaking. Remember, I was aiming to be a writer and therefore could largely avoid appearing at public presentations. But if I were to continue my interest in women — which indeed I intended to continue — my not being able to approach and speak to those I was interested in would certainly be too restricting! I would be reduced to meeting new women through my friends and relatives, and I would not be able to meet them on my own. What a drag!
So, keeping in mind my success with public speaking, I decided to use the same procedures with my social anxiety. The August before I was about to go back to college to finish my senior year, I gave myself the brilliant homework assignment of going to the Bronx Botanical Garden every day. I would talk to strange women no matter how uncomfortable I felt about doing so. I would, I told myself, walk in the park until I saw a suitable woman sitting alone on a bench, and then I would quickly, immediately, sit next to her. No, not in her lap, but next to her on the very same bench on which she was sitting (instead of a bench away). Then, having accomplished that — which I was afraid to do because I feared that she would reject me and quickly walk away — I would do the most dangerous thing that I had always avoided: I would give myself one minute, no more than one lousy minute, to talk to her. Yes, if I died I'd die! I would speak to her within one minute, no matter how uncomfortable I felt, and no matter how foreboding she looked. That was my brilliant homework assignment to myself. Why was it brilliant? Because if I quickly spoke to her instead of waiting and waiting to do so, I knew I would be less anxious, would get the damned thing over with, and would have a better chance of getting somewhere with her.
Well, I did exactly what I assigned myself to do. No matter how anxious I was, whenever I saw a woman sitting alone on a park bench, I immediately — no debate! — sat next to her on the bench. I allowed no excuses as to how she looked, how old she was, whether she was tall or short, and so on. No excuses! I just forced myself, very uncomfortably, to sit next to her, whereupon, immediately, many of the women I sat next to quickly got up and walked away. All told, I think I approached and sat next to 130 women that month of August. Thirty, or almost a third of them, immediately walked away. Very discouraging! But that left me with an even hundred who still stayed — which was good for research purposes!
Not at all daunted, I spoke to the remaining hundred women just as I had planned to do. I spoke about the flowers, the trees, the weather, the birds, the bees, the book or paper they were reading — anything, just to make conversation. Nothing brilliant or clever. Nothing personal. No remarks about their looks or anything else that might make them afraid of me and make them turn away or leave. Just one hundred ordinary statements.
Excerpted from How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You by Albert Ellis, Kristene A. Doyle. Copyright © 1998 Albert Ellis Institute. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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