Monday, April 02, 2007

"What If I Scream?" "Don't Worry, You Won't."


I spent the day at the Seminary on Saturday, attending a health ministry conference about Fear. My hope was to learn something I could use to develop a continuing education unit for my Stephen Ministers. It was a long day, and it was amazingly rich. The presenter, a pastor, therapist, and educator, has his own set of fears and phobias, about which he is remarkably open. His admission adds to his credibility.
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A considerable amout of time was spent on a discussion of our mental defenses, as originally outlined by Freud. We learned or relearned about three tiers of defenses: Immature (Denial, Projection, Regression); Neurotic (Repression, Displacement, Isolation/Intellectualization, Reaction Formation, and Rationalization); and Mature (Suppression, Anticipation, Humor, Sublimation, and Altruism), and I believe this will be the focus of the presentation I develop for my students. We learned how to try to lead a fear-filled person out of the lower level defenses into the use of the higher ones. Of course it is far more comfortable to look at these defenses in the context of another person (!), and I thought about someone I know who is going through a very bad time right now, and was able to identify instances where she has used defenses at all three levels. I noticed that when she uses the mature level of defenses, she is easier to be around than when she uses the immature or even the neurotic.
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The format of the day was three sets of alternating presentation/small group discussion periods. In the small group we identified some of the big fears that we have trouble managing. I owned up to two: Fear of getting Alzheimer's dementia, and an irrational fear of traffic on long interstate trips when my husband is the driver, not I. The Alzheimer's fear is so huge that I was unable to more than speak it; I could not even look at the defenses I use in dealing with it. For the "panicked passenger" syndrome, I felt mildly proud of identifying the use of some of the mature defenses -- anticipation, humor, and sublimation. I spoke of my husband's amazing tolerance and patience for this problem of mine, which surely must be very difficult for him as the driver. I told of the creative ways he distracts me out of the low level responses to the higher: setting up a counting competition where one of us counts cows and the other roadkill to see who wins, handing me the map and having me look up an obscure route or two, and most imaginative, having me keep a record of the serial numbers of Walmart trucks and the precise mile-post where they are sighted. This is a man who has never attended a seminar on dealing with fear!
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At one point during the presentation, our lecturer made reference to a new book by Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There http://www.amazon.com/Wish-Could-Be-There-Phobic/dp/0670038423/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-7418495-3423851?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1175560320&sr=8-1 . Mr. Shawn is an agoraphobic and I thought his book might be interesting, so during the lunch break I purchased a copy. My closest friend suffers from this disorder, and I hoped to gain some insights. I admit that over the years I have been less than totally compassionate about her condition, honestly believing that "mind over matter" was the key to resolving these "imagined" panic attacks. What I failed to take into account was the fact that the mind is where the problem originates. Many the time she has phoned to make sure I was going to be home so if she got into a panic on the road, she could call for reassurance, for help. How frequently when we planned to go to a concert, a show, to church together, she would say to me, "What if I scream?" "Don't worry," I'd tell her. "You won't." And I'm always right (she said smugly).
. . . .
I'm barely thirty pages into Mr. Shawn's book, and it is some of the most powerful writing I've ever encountered. I am able to understand from this author what I have not been able in more than thirty years to totally understand from my friend -- the person I love the most outside of my own family -- the reality of what happens to him -- and to her -- during a panic attack. And I am filled with remorse for my limited compassion.
. . . .
Our speaker said, "When people are afraid, what they need most immediately and for a long time -- they do not need to be judged, do not reason with them, they do not need us to interpret and play psychologist -- what they need is to be held emotionally and sometimes physically in attention, in compassion, and empathy. Our capacity to do what is right," he adds, "depends on skill, but also on our own self-awareness."
. . . .
I am so thankful that I attended this conference. Indeed, I gleaned enough material to develop one or perhaps even two meaningful units for my Stephen Ministers. But, more important, I learned how to be a better friend.

9 comments:

Shelina said...

Wow, I majored in psychology and I don't remember learning about the three layers of defense. Very powerful stuff.

What brilliant insight you received from the seminar and from the book. You're right, most people just need someone to provide support and give them the strength to carry forth. When something comes easy to you, it is so hard to see how it could possibly be so incredibly difficult for anyone else.

Mrs. Goodneedle said...

Great post, just when I needed it the most! Ah, there are no coincidences... are there? Life is Good! Thanks, Nancy, this was like one big affirming hug from you today!

P.S. an after-thought said...

Very interesting post. I can see that there is a fine line between supporting someone who has a problem, like your friend does, and not being sympathetic enough. It would seem to me that in caving in to her fears, you wouldn't give her the experience of NOT having her fears come true.

You can't reason her out of her fears, but you can help her experience her way out of her fears, one by one.

Yes, a fine line.....

Hits home because my sister suffers from some compulsions. And if you don't do the compulsive behaviors, you get more anxiety. Yet for years and years, all her doctors did was to put her on pills rather than help her understand ways to cope with these anxieties.

Ms. Jan said...

Pretty amazing stuff, Nance. I so love your openness.....

Tanya said...

Your post is mind boggling. What a thinker! I tend to wander through life and complain or laugh but your summary of the seminar gave me food for thought. Thank you for putting the time in to share all that. Blessings!

Susan said...

Thanks for an insightful post, Nancy. In the end, you wound up thinking about it through you, which is how I relate to most psychology. "How do I do this?" is my most common question!

It isn't just fears. I think most people share something and just want to be heard, perhaps have their terrible situation acknowledged as terrible. I tend to be a "fixer," so this is very hard for me, but I'm getting there. I think. =)

Helen said...

Hi Nancy
Thanks for visiting my blog. I am glad you enjoyed the tutorial. I am sad to say that I haven't made any more blocks since then, but the holidays start today so I am going to spend 2 weeks doing quilty things. I hope to get more blocks done, enough to finish!! I enjoyed your Holy Week display. What a great idea.
Happy Easter
Helen

Anonymous said...

Nancy,
I so enjoyed reading your post. And I had an "AHA" moment. So many times I try to rationalize and explain away my students fears and stressors, when often they really just need that support that what they are feeling is real to them. I am trying to do better with these very troubled teens.
Thanks for the insight!
Kathy B

Rose said...

Great post.....thnx for sharing so openly!!