The Attitude Hierarchy

Recently during my OCD support group, a member asked something along the lines of, “What type of attitude should we be approaching our OCD with?” A discussion ensued with a few different thoughts on attitudes towards OCD. I found myself filing through my own personal experience with this and how much my attitude can change from moment to moment. As I took in the question, I began to realize that it wasn’t about committing yourself to one particular attitude, in fact in some ways I think it’s quite the opposite.

In an ideal world, every week I would choose to take on my OCD by doing as much ERP as possible. That attitude of, “$%# you OCD, I’m ready to get my life back.” It’s a great mindset to be in and it can be incredibly productive. Some of my best therapy sessions have been a result of me showing up in that frame of mind. And while I think it’s possible to cultivate this attitude, I can’t say it’s the attitude I’ve walked through the door with the majority of my therapy sessions. In fact a lot of times it has been far from it. The thing is; we are all human and we are full of emotions and experiences. Life can be hard, and it can alter the attitude we carry around with us. I think the more pressure we put on ourselves to always have a perfect attitude the more we are going to suffer. Now I’m not saying if you’re someone who feels they can wake up with that positive, determined attitude each and every day that you should stop doing that. By no means stop, you have a gift, and you do you. But for those that find that task nearly impossible, I think we need to put less pressure on ourselves to show up with one specific attitude and focus our attention on giving ourselves the opportunity to be flexible.

I’m going to use myself as an example for this. I’ve recently started to view the attitudes I tend to have as a hierarchy or ladder. In the past two and a half years of therapy, I would say these are the five attitudes I tend to consistently rotate between:

  1. Go Getter-These are the days I show up to therapy and pretty much say, “I’m all in. I want to do all the challenging ERP today.”
  2. Worthy Adversary– On these days when my OCD catches me off guard my mindset lies somewhere along the lines of, “Oh hey there OCD, that’s a good one. You almost had me, but I’m going to choose to do XYZ instead.”
  3. Half Way There– On these days I’m willing to take on my OCD, but I’m not always willing to go all in. My thought process would be something like, “Sure let’s do some ERP, but I’m only ready to do XYZ right now and I’m going to let myself be okay with the fact I’m not doing the hard stuff today.”
  4. White Knuckling– This is where I begin to falter and my mindset falls to, “Fine, I’ll grin and bear my way through this ERP because I know it’s something I’m supposed to do.” It’s not effective for me because I don’t allow myself to feel the feelings. I’m forcing the exposure and I’m resisting everything I should be allowing myself to experience. It always backfires and usually leads to shutdown.
  5. Shutdown-At this point I’m checked out and want nothing to do with ERP. This is when the commentary turns into, “I can’t do ERP. I’m never going to get better. Life sucks blah, blah, blah”. It’s a pretty ugly place and almost always results in a depressive period for me.

These are the five most common attitudes I carry around when it comes to my OCD, and on any given day when I walk into my therapist’s office I could be anywhere along that continuum depending on a variety of outside factors. These factors could include: Did I get triggered by something random five minutes before walking into therapy? Is something already depressing me? Did something happen in my personal life? Am I feeling ashamed about something? All of these factors, and so many others, can impact the attitude I show up with, and the attitude I carry with me throughout any given day.

I used to put a lot of pressure on myself (without even realizing it) to show up with that “Go Getter” attitude each week. If I wasn’t in that mental space I often struggled immensely in sessions. I felt like I was doing something wrong or not tough enough if I couldn’t just take my OCD on in the quickest, and most challenging way possible. Even if I showed up with the “Go Getter” attitude, more often than not there would be an unexpected obstacle that I would encounter in therapy that threw that attitude off kilter. Maybe something triggered me or I had a hard time sitting with a certain emotion from my past. Those unexpected obstacles used to take me from being a “Go Getter” to complete “Shutdown” in no more than 30 seconds on a good day (seriously). I didn’t allow myself to be flexible.  It was all or nothing for me. I’m going to do the hardest ERP possible and if I can’t then I failed. I’ve realized though that no matter what attitude I show up to therapy with, there will always be unexpected obstacles. Therapy is complex and sometimes the unexpected shows up when I least expect it, and that’s okay.

With each unexpected obstacle I’ve begun to recognize there are always two choices I can choose from in response. When I get angry, sad, upset, or frustrated that I’m not able to do something with the attitude I want, I can choose to be self-compassionate in that moment or I can engage in a self-hating behavior. If I choose self-hate, without fail it tends to lead into hopelessness, negativity, and on the really rough days a lengthy stay with my good friend depression. The other option, self-compassion, it turns out can really be a game-changer. For a while I thought it was a crock of shit quite honestly, but in reality it’s the oil that keeps the machine moving. No matter where I am on my continuum of attitudes if I can allow myself to be self-compassionate I give myself a greater chance at returning to the “Go Getter” attitude, and much more quickly than if I choose to dabble in self-hate for any given amount of time.

Self-compassion allows me to move from one attitude to the next, and I need to use it no matter which way I’m moving along the continuum. I may need to exercise self-compassion when I realize I’m not in a place to go all in. So instead of dropping to the bottom of the hierarchy because I start talking negatively to myself, instead I’m mindful of how I’m feeling, take a step back and embrace a less daunting attitude all the while being kind to myself. It could look something like, “I really thought I was all in today, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and need to take a step back, so I’m going to be okay with only doing this level of ERP today.”

Or maybe I need self-compassion because I find myself at the bottom of the ladder already completely shut down. Then on those days, sometimes it takes everything I have but I lend myself as much self-compassion as I can muster up, and I allow myself the opportunity to move up the ladder in the positive direction. It could go something like, “My OCD really annihilated me today and I’m feeling incredibly depressed and unmotivated, but sometimes this happens to me, and I can remind myself it’s part of the process but in this moment I’m going to give myself the opportunity to do XYZ regardless of how I’m feeling.” Self-compassion is a funny thing, because it’s always readily available to us but for some reason so many of us don’t even acknowledge its presence, especially in the moments we need it the most. It’s the life raft that comes to us as we’re floating with a group of people in the middle of the ocean, but we convince ourselves there will be no room for us, so we don’t even try to get on.

We can all strive to reach for that “Go Getter” attitude with more consistency, but of more importance is the way in which we allow ourselves to adapt when faced with adversity. Every person is different and the emotions and experiences we have impact and change our attitudes, sometimes by the minute. That’s part of being human. The more we can take the rigidity out of our expectations when it comes to our own attitude and allow there to be some fluidity to how we approach it, we give ourselves a greater chance at success. I think self-compassion always has to be a part of the equation though. It gives us the opportunity to be resilient when we are thrown a curve ball, where self-hate does the contrary. This has been one of my biggest lessons in my therapy journey, and it has been an ongoing learning experience because there are still many days I let my attitude tank a therapy session, and choose to go the route of self-hate. The thing is though, when I allow myself to be mindful of whatever attitude I’m holding and give myself some self-compassion for being in whatever mental space I may be, positive always comes from it.  And more often than not I take a step up the attitude ladder.

For me, sometimes my biggest exposure is being okay with whatever attitude I’m holding at any given time, taking from it what I can, and being willing to transition that attitude compassionately in either direction. Being willing to be my biggest cheerleader when I feel like I can make a positive transition and being willing to be the compassionate friend sitting beside myself when my attitude takes an unexpected hit. We all want to be able to carry around that positive, determined attitude everywhere we go but the only way to increase the consistency at which we find ourselves in that mental space is to cut out the self-hate and substitute it with self-compassion. It’s less about always carrying the perfect attitude, and more about being mindful of where your attitude stands at any given moment. It’s lending yourself some grace if you’re not where you want to be and giving yourself the opportunity to adapt. Let your attitude ebb and flow naturally, without punishing yourself. Let yourself approach your attitude with some flexibility and take what you can from whatever attitude you have. But most importantly throw your attitude a little self-compassion, and I think you’ll realize just how resilient it really can be.

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