There’s a great “Mad TV” sketch on YouTube guest starring the incomparable Bob Newhart as—what else?—a psychiatrist. His patient tells him she has a pathological fear of being buried alive in a box. He has two words of wisdom: “Stop it!”
Somewhat taken aback, she goes on to detail her other issues: she’s bulimic, she’s been stuck in a series of abusive relationships, she’s a compulsive hand-washer. “Stop it,” he says. “Just stop it, what are you, some kind of nut?”
After five minutes of this, she’s had it. Outraged, she protests that she hates this therapy, it’s moving too fast, it’s ridiculously simplistic. “You want more?” asks Newhart. She nods. He leans across his desk. “Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box!” he shouts.
Newhart’s couch-side manner sucks, no question. But what about that idea that we could just “stop it”—stop our fears, our destructive behaviors, our dysfunctional patterns—it’s not that easy, right? Right?
Not sure? Okay, here’s another way to look at it. The Mad TV sketch is actually an update of an old vaudeville standard:
“Doc,” says the patient, “it hurts when I do this. What should I do?”
“Don’t do that,” says the physician.
If you’ve ever done something stupid like hammering your thumb or grabbing a hot pan without using an oven mitt, you probably think you wouldn’t willingly and knowingly repeat the action. And yet, metaphorically speaking, we do this all the time.
Eating cheeseburgers and curly fries three times a week even though they give us heartburn and send our cholesterol skyrocketing is the equivalent of deliberately hammering our thumbs. Repeatedly getting involved with people who are emotionally controlling or abusive or staying in a job that demeans or bores us is uncomfortably close to reaching for that hot skillet with our bare hands, over and over again.
The difference is, the intense pain of physical trauma is immediate and obvious. You know you’re hurt; probably everyone within swearing distance knows you’re hurt. But emotional pain isn’t always so easy to see. It sneaks up on us slowly, disguised as companionship, as approval, as comfort, as the familiar, as our sense of identity. Sometimes we’re not even consciously aware of it—and even when we are, we tell ourselves things to make it seem okay: It’s not so bad. Things could be worse. It’s just the way things are, right? Right?
When it comes to breaking destructive behavior patterns, overcoming crippling fear, and challenging painful beliefs and limiting thoughts, can we just “stop it?” Yes, with a few caveats. In order to stop it, we’ve got to be aware of the pattern in the first place. We’ve got to be willing to look at it unflinchingly and at what our part is in perpetuating it. We’ve got to want to stop it.
But probably the biggest difference between actually stopping it and reflexively repeating it is finding a different thought, a different pattern, a different tool to grab onto when the thing that triggers that old behavior, pattern or fear rears its ugly head. We’re much more likely to keep grabbing that hot skillet with our bare hands if there isn’t a pot holder when we really need it.
What are the ways in which you keep yourself small, hurt yourself, or let yourself down? As you become aware of them, ask yourself if you’re willing to accept that kind of pain in your life, and, if not, what you’re willing to do about it.
So take a look, a good hard look, and find the better thought, the freeing belief, the healthier pattern—the pot holder, if you will.
And then, yes: stop it.