She’s a phobic flier, and she has come for help. And, as simplistic as it sounds, one of the tools for confronting irrational fear is "self-talk," meaning, changing the way we talk to ourselves.
When you hear ding-ding-ding and the flight attendant walks briskly into the cockpit, The Phobia says the pilot is probably telling her that one of the wings has come off, and, yes, he knows she’s married, but he’s always wanted to kiss her. So, since they are all about to die in a huge fireball and all bets are off, would she like to make out with him here in the cockpit now?
So you deploy self-talk. You look the Phobic Voice right in the eye, the way you look at those really odd people with minds like sparklers who have a way of getting elected to church boards and school parent groups and keep babbling distracting, irritating non sequiturs and make you wanna dart them and have them relocated to somebody else’s church or school, and you say: "Thanks for sharing. Please sit down now, and try not to speak."
No. The pilot just wants some more coffee. And, like a good professional, he’ll keep his extramarital fantasies to himself.
That’s self-talk. Reminding ourselves we get to decide which of our inner voices is trustworthy. We decide which voices deserve listening, and which should be acknowledged, then ignored.
And I think of my therapist: "Steven, I don’t think you should trust that feeling."
When my therapist says this — and she says it a lot — I always have this clash inside myself. First it irritates me, like I wanna smack her. Then it makes me thoughtful. Stills me a bit. Then I notice I’m relieved.
But yikes, my feelings? My precious feelings? My feelings feel so real. I have such big feelings. They are so powerful, these feelings. My feelings toss me like a storm tosses a small ship at sea. So they must be real, right? Don’t people say, "Trust your gut?"
Well, yeah, people do say that. But here’s what they forget to add: Only trust your gut if your gut is trustworthy.
I sometimes react inappropriately and inaccurately with feelings that are more of a psycho-historical habit than an authentic experience of what’s really going on. More simply, my feelings sometimes lie. Misapprehend. Unnecessarily interfere with my happiness and sometimes with the happiness of people wanting to get close to me.
In the 2001 film "A Beautiful Mind," we meet Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. Nash suffers from schizophrenia. His anti-psychotic medications cloud his mind and prevent his intellectual brilliance. So he stops his meds. With the help of his wife and trusted friends, he decides to recognize and then ignore the characters in his hallucinations. In one scene, he tells the characters goodbye, and says he won’t be able to speak to them anymore.
Like breaking up with a mistress to save your marriage.
As the movie closes, Nash is back in the classroom, passing out papers. He pauses at a student’s desk. He leans down and asks the student if there is a man standing in the doorway. She looks, quizzically, and says, "No." Nash thanks her, and goes on about teaching class.
Now, Good Reader, speaking of hallucinations, I did not just invite everyone with a mental health diagnosis to stop taking their meds. No. Here’s my point:
Some of our deepest psychic wounds will never entirely be well. I will, I think, always have a "default" reaction to certain experiences, especially in important relationships. The reaction includes anxiety, feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Likewise, maybe the phobic flier will always have a little telltale parasympathetic sweat on her palms when she flies.
Responsible living is a commitment to recognize the feelings and behaviors peculiar to our own psychic scars and injuries, and then to manage those feelings and behaviors. Acknowledge them. Then ignore them.
And when all else fails, we turn to people we trust and get some feedback.
If I ever find my soulmate, one of the ways I’ll recognize her, I think, is she’ll have an uncanny ability to know when to place her hand on my cheek or chest, look me in the eye and say: "Steven, everything’s OK. I’m here. With you. And glad to be." And then I’ll take a deep breath. And ignore the Other Voices. Because they lie. I’ll relax.
OK, maybe I’ll always have a little telltale sweat on my palms.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.