Learning to Live in Shades of Gray

Note: I didn’t intend to blog about all of my therapy sessions, but I realize now that they have been/will continue to be a huge part of my journey. I fear keeping them out of this blog would take away some of the authenticity and transparency I am trying to maintain. I hope you, as readers, don’t mind!

Last night was my second therapy session, and something we talked about was the tendency for anxious people like myself to see the world very black and white, versus embracing the world’s many shades of gray.

Though as humans we want to make a simple choices of, “Yes or No,” really, life isn’t quite so simple and is lived in that in-between shade of gray.

But for someone with anxiety disorder–or someone who is OCD like me (I got the billing last night that I am blessed with both!) it’s very hard for us to live in the gray.

For us, there’s right and wrong. Black and white. Gray? Um, that’s reserved for the color of my favorite Ann Taylor dress pants!

One of the cognitive behavioral therapy exercises we did last night was she had me walk through my midnight eating incidents and my thought processes that occur when it happens, to identify rational and irrational thoughts so we can sort through them.

The more I talked, the more I realized how irrational I sounded, especially calling myself a “failure” for nights when I eat in the middle of the night. (She was jotting down my thought process as I spoke).

Basically, her take was that eating peanut butter at 3 a.m. isn’t inherently wrong and it’s only my labeling it as a “bad” thing that makes it so. Like she said, a diabetic would maybe need to eat then–and lots of people eat in the middle of the night.

If I am not going over my points, aren’t I still within the parameters of my diet? (Yes).

If I am not going over my points–what’s the harm in the peanut butter especially if it will fuel my workout 2 hours later at 5 a.m.? (No.)

I’m not eating a gallon of ice cream, and she argued whether I’m eating it at 6 p.m. or 3 a.m., it’s still the same calories and if I’m not gaining weight, what is the big deal if it is at 3 a.m.? (Um…)

I did push back a little there, because I’m also not losing weight right now, either, and I fear this is what is holding me back. And I told her a little of what I talked about here yesterday, about wanting to eat more normally during the day so my subconscious doesn’t wake me to eat! Plus, I argued, still don’t think “normal” people wake and eat at 3 a.m.

To which she asked, “What is normal? Everyone has a different ‘normal’!” Hmm…

Ultimately, what’s “wrong,” (or, “irrational”), she says, is that I believe I am a failure when it happens. So we’re going to work on changing that thought process and already I feel better knowing it’s not the end of the world if I eat at night–I won’t gain weight from it, so long as I am still within the parameters of Weight Watchers.

Rational thinking today, hurrah! The goal is to make it a constant, ingrained thought and not just a fleeting one.

Also, because I most likely have OCD, she isn’t 100% sure cognitive behavioral therapy alone will be the most effective way to handle my anxiety (but she’s willing to try it in addition to something else).

So she offered two methods typically used to help bring those of us with OCD on the wayyyyy left side of the spectrum a little closer to the average anxious person (also on the left, but less so): flooding and systematic desensitization.

(Note: these methods are aside from medication, which she wasn’t promoting or even suggesting–though I like how she called anti-depressants “mind-optimizers”, de-stigmatizing them. Nowadays ADs are prescribed for so many conditions now, and people tend to assume it’s all for the same one so I liked her lexical choice!).

As she said, all anxious people have a threshold of how much they can take–there is a certain ceiling where the anxiety keeps building and building…. and then the anxiety lessens because it has nowhere else to go.

With the first method, flooding, the anxious person is put in the most uncomfortable of positions–the most anxious of situations–repeatedly. But they reach that threshold quickly.

(For example, if you’re afraid of snakes, it would mean putting you in the snake pit with nonvenomous snakes to help you overcome that fear; when you realize nothing happens, you’d no longer fear snakes). As she told me, this method isn’t really practiced because, well, it works but no one would come back!

With systematic desensitization, the person slowly reaches various, intensifying levels of discomfort/anxiety. For example, not journaling or not working out both make me nervous and anxious. Flooding would mean me going cold turkey of changing my whole organized lifestyle.

But with systematic desensitization, it’d be more gradual. Maybe one week I’d skip journaling altogether and then when I’m comfortable, move on to taking a week off from exercise and so on and so forth, til the obsession with food and exercise is less consuming, if at all. It’s a much slower process, but as she says it, too, works.

And so that, coupled with behavioral cognitive therapy, seems to be the path we’ll be taking. I think an existence in the gray would be a much happier and healthier one. Through the combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (to cope with anxiety disorder) and systematic desensitization (to cope with OCD), I think I can get there.

I don’t see her again until next Thursday, but I’m already looking forward to it!!

How about you? Do you tend to be black and white, or have you found peace in the gray?

21 thoughts on “Learning to Live in Shades of Gray

  1. just wanted to mention that i found your blog by chance and that i am so, so happy that i did. i honestly look forward to your entry each day because you’re able to put words to events and emotions that are recently rearing their scary little faces more and more frequently in my life. so, thanks, lady; thanks for articulating the details of your “night incidents” (i have them, too), for helping me feel a little more hopeful about my own therapy sessions (frustrationland, USA, pop: me) and for earnestly making an effort to feel the best you possibly can. you’re inspiring, really, and for whatever reason i feel like today might be more okay than yesterday was. i hope your today is great, and thanks again for internettin’.

  2. My husband has severe OCD combined with general anxiety disorder (not so rare since OCD is a type of anxiety disorder). We finally found a clinic that specializes in anxiety disorders. They have him doing CBT combined with exposure therapy (akin to systematic desensitization). We have seen HUGE results with this combo. He has made more progress in 3 months than in the previous 3 years. The good news aobut OCD is it is one of the most treatable mental illnesses. He’s also on meds – but he’s been on those for years. It wasn’t until we added the other therapies he started to improve.

    Anyhow, sorry to ramble but just wanted to let you know that the therapies really do work. I’m currently using CBT as well as part of my ED therapy and love it.

  3. I definitely see things black and white. It’s weird because I usually see both sides of an argument, but it’s hard to distinguish a gray medium. I too, tend to be anxious. It’s hard for me to do spontaneous things with my friends even such as happy hour (it has to be PLANNED at least a day ahead) and I distinguish things from “normal” and “not normal” in my life. I like to meticulously plan everything in my schedule (which drives the BF nuts) but if I don’t know exactly what is going to happen (when and where) I become anxious. Would spontaneous planning and outings be considered a gray area? I wish that I wasn’t so self-controlling and such a planner so I could enjoy the gray (free and careless) part of life, too.

  4. SB, thanks so much! I hope you have a great day, too. It’s funny, all my life wearing my heart on my sleeve has been a risk-factor, but here, the transparancy is really inviting I think–and I hope to keep things that way! 🙂

    Charlotte, that is so encouraging about your husband and I hope between CBT and SD I can get there, too!! Congrats to him!!

    Lauren, I can definitely relate–I think spontaneous outings and things would be considered “gray” but I don’t know for sure. I, like you, live my life planned with so much rigidity, there’s little room for fun/joy. Even that needs to be planned! OY. And that to me is super-sad.

  5. Reading your posts and reading the comments is a little eerie… it’s like reading my own mind! Especially Lauren’s comments.

  6. Aimee, I get that a lot. It’s because so many of us are dealing with similar issues that go under the radar screen. Here–in the blog and people’s comments–we’re exposing it. The good, bad and ugly. Don’t be afraid 😉

  7. I am definitely black or white. I write things down and i try to stick with it 100% I know this is not a behaviour that is good in the long term and i wish i could live in the gray areas and maybe i will some time! But it’s going to take a lot of work.

  8. Good luck, Suzanne–remember too that being so focused can work wonders at work–likely our tasks get done and done well, because we have to stick to our plans!! But in other areas, it can be detrimental.

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  10. I am definitely black and white, but trying to live in shades of gray. You mentioned that you have OCD – I have OCPD, and the two are often confused. (Actually, look up OCPD on Wikipedia – it was creepy reading the symptoms after I found out that I had it.)

    I’m up to 3 days of “normal” now 🙂

  11. Interesting!!! I took a peek and I don’t think my traits are OCPD based on a couple of the things in there, but very interesting no less and I can see how they’d be confused to the untrained reader. (like me!)

    Congrats on 3 days of “normal”–though as Dr G says, what IS normal?! There is only OUR individual normal.

  12. It’s normal for humans to try to make things as simple as possible. That’s why we try to see things in black and white. When you acknowledge something is gray, you have to see the complications and details which is much harder than just seeing one absolute black or white answer. I definitely have problems with this too, but I have a wonderful therapist and I think seeing her really helps!

  13. Thanks for your insight, Lindsey. I agree–it’s a lot harder to allow ourselves to see the complexities.

  14. First off, I don’t think anyone minds you blogging about your therapy sessions. It’s actually helping me understand therapy better and hopefully it will help me eventually overcome my reluctance to return to therapy myself.

    As far as the “living in the gray” that’s very hard. I think our society is built to program us to see things in black and white, moral or amoral, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. It’s like the constant debate about eggs, They’re good for you, they’re bad for you, egg whites are ok but yolks are bad, no eat the whole thing…etc. There’s never a “well this food is healthy in moderation”.

    So yeah, I’m with you on the problem of letting go of the black and white view…

  15. Thanks, Meg. Glad to know it helps–I’ve never blogged before starting Tales so it’s hard to gauge appropriateness, ya know?

    Exactly…our society IS built that way, so much so.

    But then I think the recent Batman movie and there’s a line about how even our heroes become villians — blurring the lines between good and evil (because chaos breaks out in spite of Batman’s presence). It’s almost a “gray” concept… It was a surprisingly profound film!!!

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