By John Gregory, Ph.D.
People generally tend to divide their experience of themselves and their world into two categories. such as “good” and “bad”, “acceptable,” and “unacceptable”, “beautiful” and “ugly”, “attractive” and “repulsive”, etc. It is usually the case that people are better off psychologically when they do not draw the line between these two categories too starkly, when they allow for more “shades of gray,” and when they are able to be more accepting of the existence of the less desirable aspects of themselves, even if they continue not to like them. As with most lessons in life, this is much easier to agree to in theory than to actually put into practice. And for people who suffer from phobic anxiety, this can be a particularly difficult—and yet a particularly important—goal to strive for.
Most people recognize the desirability of self-acceptance, but it is another matter when one focuses in particular on the acceptance of phobic anxiety. The natural impulse of anyone who has experienced this kind of anxiety is to hope that he or she never experiences it again. Even one experience is too many, a person would naturally feel. This is not unlike the instinctive, self-protective reaction that leads people to avoid touching something very hot once they have been burned. And yet Contextual Therapy encourages the sufferer of phobic anxiety to “expect, allow, and accept” that it will come again. How are we to understand this?
There are at least two inescapable reasons. One is that there is actually no other way. A person who suffers from phobic anxiety is inclined to experience it again; it has become part of their way of responding to certain situations, thoughts or feelings, and it cannot be switched off like n electrical current or snuffed out like a flame. As long as a person holds onto the goal of never experiencing this anxiety again—no matter how understandable this goal is –the person is setting himself or herself up for failure. When a sufferer of phobic anxiety approaches life in this way, he or she is likely to feel dismay, defeat, and even the beginnings of panic, whenever the tell-tale signs of phobic anxiety appear.
Contextual Therapy, therefore, encourages such a person to exchange the goal of never feeling the feelings again, for the goal of being able to function with a manageable degree of they feelings when they (inevitably) reappear. This gives the person a goal that, however difficult, is at least possible. Rather than being doomed to face repeated experiences of frustration and defeat, the phobic person can set himself or herself a goal that can actually be worked on in specific and manageable steps.
A second reason to “expect, allow and accept that fear will arise” is that it makes it possible to see phobic anxiety in a different way. One can discover that this fear need not be just a single, uniform, overwhelming experience. The sufferer can learn that accepting the recurrence of these feelings does not mean that they will always be experienced in their worst and most intense form. It becomes more possible to focus on the fact that the feelings are actually experienced in a wide range of intensity, and that sometimes the feelings are more manageable than others. In fact, accepting these feelings opens the door to being able to think about approaching situations that have become associated with phobic fear, as long as this is done in such a way that the degree of anxiety remains low enough to be manageable. A world of new possibilities opens up.
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