It’s a Better Life

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“Controlling people are anxious people; that’s how they go about reducing their anxiety.” Rarely does a week go by that I don’t repeat those words to clients.

When I think about “controlling people”, I think about Mr. Potter in the 1946 Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart (as George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Bailey), and Lionel Barrymore (as Mr. Potter). I’m writing this blog three days after Christmas which gives you some idea what I’ve been watching on TV in the past week. You know the story well. George grows up in Bedford Falls, New York and dreams of travelling the world. He reluctantly agrees to run the Bailey Building and Loan Association until his younger brother, Harry, graduates from school and replaces him at the helm. It never happens. George gets stuck occupationally, and becomes increasingly depressed. He never leaves Bedford Falls. He never travels the world. On Christmas Eve George becomes so depressed that he contemplates suicide. Heaven assigns Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class to save George, thereby earning Clarence his wings. The movie ends with a redeemed George realizing he’s lived “a wonderful life.”

My synoptic focus in the preceding paragraph is not George Bailey, but the controlling, rapacious slumlord Mr. Potter, who is bent on reducing his anxiety by controlling (dissolving) his business competition – the Bailey Building and Loan. The formula is simple. Eliminate the competition and Mr. Potter can settle back to being the richest, most powerful man in Bedford Falls. Anxiety gone.

While “controlling behavior” is anathema, some degree of control, or predictability, is desirable. For example, while Mr. Potter was ever-trying to reduce his anxiety at the expense of others, the altruistic George Bailey was understandably trying to reduce his anxiety by importing some measure of predictability into his depressive episodes; thus the difference between “controlling” and “control.” Reminds me of my October 8, 2012 blog, where I cited Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky, and his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (3rd ed., 2004). There, Sapolsky identifies five “stress-reducing research principles – two of which are “predictability” and the closely related “control.”

Let’s shift the focus from Mr. Potter’s controlling behavior to the control available to George Bailey – had he utilized it (which, of course, would have altered the Christmas classic substantially). If I was counseling George during his slough of despondency, I could have introduced him to four behaviors drawn from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). DBT was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan (1993) at the University of Washington. It is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) aimed at teaching emotionally dysregulated individuals some measure of control in their relationships, emotions, and stressful situations. George Bailey was most definitely dysregulated at times in the movie. Remember his behaviors at home with the family after Uncle Billy’s loss of the bank money?  On the phone with Zuzu’s teacher? In Martini’s bar? Contemplating suicide on the bridge? As the plot thickened, so did George’s emotionally dysregulated behavior. Just prior to the movie’s denouement, George resembled a trapped animal posed to fight or flee. His eyes were downright scary.

As an introduction to DBT, I might scoot my chair next to George and write the following four behaviors:

–          Mindfulness

–          Communication

–          Interpretation

–          Toleration

Regarding “Mindfulness,” I would urge George to stay in the present moment, hard as it is. Uncle Billy’s loss of the bank money understandably triggered George’s anxiety; a loss that could have easily sent him to jail. But, thoughts of his past and future exacerbated the situation. Consider again George’s behavior at home, on the phone, in the bar, and on the bridge. His regretfully perceived past and uncertain future tormented George’s thinking, and propelled him toward the bridge that night. Thinking about the past often triggers negative emotions; things that have happened, or not happened; things we’ve done, or not done. Similarly, living in the future triggers worry about what might go wrong. Living in the past or the future is the opposite of mindfulness. In therapy, I contrast mindfulness with “automaticity” (we’re on auto-pilot), while mindfulness implies awareness – and acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like it, just accept what is. Bringing ourselves back to the present tends to harness the energy needed to handle stressors. Preoccupations with the past and/or future dissipate that energy.

Regarding “Communication,” I would encourage George to share with me his feelings, thoughts, and needs (“I feel…I think…I need…”) – and continue to do the same with others – especially Mr. Potter. Although George’s communicative style in the movie was most often assertive (polite, but direct; never passive), several times he became aggressive, meaning there were indeed moments when George tried to reduce his anxieties in domineering and controlling ways. But, again, notice how often George’s aggressive/controlling moments were supercharged by his past regrets and/or future worries.

(Remember: We’re talking 4 behaviors that can bring us a measure of control/predictability.)

Regarding “Interpretation,” perhaps the most important consideration for George Bailey, I would challenge his automatic negative thoughts (ANTS!); specifically, his negative self-talk of personal worthlessness (where he had not travelled, what he had not accomplished, who he had not influenced). It is to be remembered that George only became aware of his “wonderful life” at the end of the movie. Prior to this eleventh-hour epiphany, it was “A Worthless Life” for George Bailey. Here’s where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is such an important component of DBT. Our thoughts influence for better or worse our emotions and behaviors. CBT urges the importance of “disputing” negative thoughts. An example of this disputation would be the evidence for George’s worthless life? Where was the evidence? The evidence of worthlessness wasn’t there except for George, and Mr. Potter. It was the role of Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class to prove George wrong. The interpretive component of CBT/DBT asks us to perform the role of Clarence on ourselves.

Regarding “Toleration,” I would help George inventory his “distress tolerance skills.” Even with enriched mindfulness, communication, and interpretation, life is still hard and distress tolerance is need. There were escalating moments in the movie when Mr. Bailey was obviously not tolerating stress well. Sometimes we need to distract ourselves from the intensity of certain moments. At other less intense times, we can “soothe our senses” by relaxing. For example, I might ask George to audit his five senses (sight? sound? touch? smell? taste?) and tell me how he currently relaxes? Or, how he’s relaxed in the past? Or, perhaps a relaxation strategy he’s not yet tried? Admittedly, there’s much about life we cannot control – and should not expect to. But, there are four behaviors that have the potential to improve our quality of life. They are: Mindfulness, Communication, Interpretation, and Toleration. Who knows? We might even conclude “”It’s a Better Life.”

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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