‘I’m terrified I’m going to lose my job,’ *Emma explained when she called to make an appointment. ‘I’m so stressed, I make stupid mistakes all the time. Then I lie awake all night worrying, so I’m permanently exhausted. Can you please help me get my anxiety under control?’
Emma works as a senior manager for a finance company. Since lockdown she’s been busier than ever working from home, but between the 'chaos' of family life and her anxiety about Covid-19, she's been struggling to focus.
‘My teenagers are driving me up the wall,’ she complained. ‘All they do is lounge around on their phones, leaving a trail of dirty dishes in their wake. The only time my daughters move is when they’re arguing. And my son’s become really withdrawn - he barely comes out of his bedroom. I'm at my wits' end. All I’ve ever really been good at is my job – providing a roof over our heads – and now I’m messing that up.’
The Magic Wand Question
After Emma had explained the problem, I asked her what she wanted instead. She looked blank.
‘If your fairy godmother came to you tonight and promised that with one wave of her magic wand you could have the life you want, what would you ask her for?’ I prompted.
‘Well, there’d be a vaccine against the coronavirus. My kids would be doing something productive – their summer schoolwork or at least a hobby. My husband would help out around the house. And my boss would stop piling work on me at an impossible rate, and would actually give me some recognition!’
I nodded sympathetically. ‘And if you had all those things, how would you feel?’
‘I wouldn’t feel like screaming at the kids… I wouldn’t be terrified of catching the virus every time one of us leaves the house… I wouldn’t row with Simon all the time... And I wouldn’t lie awake every night worrying about losing my job and not being able to pay the bills,’ replied Emma.
‘That does sound like an improvement,’ I agreed. ‘So how would you feel instead?’
Again Emma looked blank. Like many people, she had no idea how to answer this question, because she’d never spent any time considering her own needs and wants.
From an early age, Emma realised, she had defined her self-worth first by her success at school, and then at work. Scoring highly for intellectual intensity, she has a quick and bright mind, a talent for problem-solving, a tendency to perfectionism, and a strong competitive streak.
The problem, Emma began to see, was that in a post-Covid world, with work not going so well, she’d begun to lose her sense of identity.
‘I feel like my life’s unravelling. It’s terrifying.’
A Starting Point For Change
Gradually, over the course of our sessions together, Emma began to get in touch with who she is underneath all the responsibilities she was exhausting herself trying to do perfectly (an impossible feat!).
She also started to see the logic in taking time to look after her own needs.
‘I guess my being this stressed all the time doesn’t help anyone, it just puts everyone else on edge, too.’
Of course, recognising the logic in an idea doesn’t instantly bring change. That’s where cognitive hypnotherapy comes in.
I told Emma that, unlike her fairy godmother, I don’t have a magic wand.
‘The more you engage in the process, the more successful our work together will be,’ I explained.
I also warned Emma that she might find some of the things I asked her to do more challenging than others – like making time to listen to a short hypnosis recording I made for her.
Emma laughed. ‘I’m that desperate, I’ll do anything. Even take some downtime!’
The Power of an Internal Locus of Control
Throughout our work together, my focus was on encouraging Emma to relate to the world with an internal locus of control, rather than an external locus of control.
When we have an external locus of control (eloc), we’re constantly scanning our environment for danger. We think we’re not good enough. We imagine others are judging us. We’re terrified of rejection, being hurt, being humiliated. We have no power. We feel disconnected from life. We become people-pleasers, victims, rescuers or bullies.
When we have an internal locus of control (iloc), on the other hand, we accept ourselves unconditionally as the (imperfect) human beings that we are. We feel comfortable in our skin. We feel confident. We’re connected with our strengths and capabilities. We have good boundaries. We know that life won’t always be easy, but we’re confident we have what we need to face any challenges that come along. From this place, we’re naturally kind and compassionate to others, we take responsibility for our choices, and other people like being around us.
Emma's tendency towards eloc began in childhood, so our work started with healing some mild childhood traumas she hadn’t even realised were continuing to trigger her as an adult. I also taught her some techniques to use at home that would help her feel calmer when her anxiety began to rise, and gave her some tasks to do between sessions.
Finally, I helped Emma identify her strengths and values, explaining that if she could take little time every day to feed her strengths in the service of what’s important to her, she might be surprised at the results.
The Surprising Result
By harnessing her unconscious resources over the course of our six weeks together, Emma not only let go of her fear of losing her job, but also told me she was feeling calmer at home, and more relaxed generally about life in a post-Covid world.
‘The strange thing is,’ Emma reflected during our final session, ‘nothing’s changed at work. Things are still very uncertain, but I’ve realised that while I can’t control that process, I can choose how I feel about it. And the truth is, I’d been wondering about going freelance for a while. I’ve built up a pretty solid reputation in my industry, and I’ve got a great network. In fact, if I get the chance I might opt for voluntary redundancy!’
‘Now I know that I’m allowed to have my own needs, I’m letting Simon help at home. I don’t think I gave him a look-in before, I was too busy trying to be the perfect wife and mother,’ she added sheepishly.
‘As for the children – well, parenting teens isn’t meant to be easy is it? But I’ve realised that they’re good kids at heart, and I’ve got to trust them to live their own lives and learn from their own mistakes. All I can do is be there when they need me, and try to be a good role model.’
What more can any of us do?
* * *
*Emma is a fictitious composite character based on a number of clients I've worked with.
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Thanks to Bianca Mentil for the beautiful photo