This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 197.
Welcome to Your Anxiety Toolkit. I’m your host, Kimberley Quinlan. This podcast is fueled by three main goals. The first goal is to provide you with some extra tools to help you manage your anxiety. Second goal, to inspire you. Anxiety doesn’t get to decide how you live your life. And number three, and I leave the best for last, is to provide you with one big, fat virtual hug, because experiencing anxiety ain’t easy. If that sounds good to you, let’s go.
Welcome back, you guys. So grateful to have this precious time with you. Thank you so much for coming and spending your very, very precious time with me. As we do this together, it’s exciting, we’re almost at 200 episodes. You guys, I cannot believe it. I am pretty, pretty proud of that, I’m not going to lie.
Today’s episode is with the amazing Jon Hershfield. He’s been on the show multiple times and I have been really reflecting and thinking about how important it is for us to practice response prevention and how that is so, so important for everybody who has any type of anxiety, whether that be an anxiety disorder like OCD, social anxiety, specific phobia, generalized anxiety. Even for myself, I’ve been reflecting on any time I’m responding to fear and responding to discomfort. It’s just a topic that I want to continue to address because I think from you guys, I just continue to see how much it’s a struggle for you.
As I thought about continuing education on tools you can use, I thought, who else can I have none other, but Jon Hershfield to talk about using mindfulness to manage compulsions. Now we talk about compulsions like mental compulsions and rumination. We talk about reassurance-seeking, avoidance, any kind of physical compulsion. We also talk about how to practice mindfulness so that it doesn’t become a compulsion. And so I’m just so grateful to have John give us his very valuable time and to talk with you guys about these amazing concepts.
I’m not going to spend too much more time doing the introduction. You guys know how amazing Jon Hershfield is. He has some amazing books. He has The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD, and he has Everyday Mindfulness that he co-authored with Shala Nicely, and The Teen OCD Workbook, and Harm OCD book. He’s just written amazing books. So please do go out and support him. He does share all that information at the end of the show, and I can’t wait for you guys to listen.
In the meantime, please do go and leave a review. It helps us to reach more people. I’m going to be quiet now and let you listen to Jon’s wisdom. Have a wonderful day.
Kimberley: All right, welcome. I am so happy to have the amazing Jon Hershfield with us again today.
Jon: Thanks for having me. You make me sound like Spiderman of the OCD world.
Kimberley: You are the Spiderman of the OCD world. I love it.
Jon: What does that mean?
Kimberley: Yeah, it’s true. Well, that’s a good thing. I know my son is probably jumping up and down at the idea of me meeting the Spiderman of something. Thank you for coming on. I really wanted to invite you on, of course, because I love the work that you’re doing regarding mindfulness in OCD. I really wanted to talk about how we can use mindfulness, particularly to address compulsion, because a big part of Exposure and Response Prevention is the response prevention piece. I would really love to pick your mind on how you implement mindfulness as a part of that and also address some of the misunderstandings that happen regarding mindfulness.
So, let me first ask you, just for those who don’t know or new to the show, how would you give a definition? How would you explain mindfulness, particularly in the respect of treatment?
Jon: It’s interesting because we all make this same grammatical error. I do it too. We say we use mindfulness as if mindfulness was an act or an action or a thing that you use as opposed to a perspective that you take. So I’m thinking about what mindfulness means. Usually, the definition we hear is “Paying attention to the present moment as it is without judgment and without the desire to change it.” And that’s a great definition. It’s escaping me at the moment who actually coined that exact language, but I think it applies to most mindfulness concepts.
But I don’t like that it starts with the word “paying” because it still implies that you’re doing something. I think mindfulness is actually the perspective that you have when you’re paying attention to the present moment. If you want to play around with the words, it’s really noticing the fullness of the mind – mindfulness, right? It’s a position that you take as opposed to a thing that you do. Right now, I’m sitting here in my desk chair. I’m aware of the sensation of my body in the chair, hearing my voice in the headphones and I have coffee and tasting that coffee. These are all things that I’m noticing and I’m being mindful of.
The other part of mindfulness that I think is important to understand is that, in a state of mindfulness, you’re best able to observe the difference between an experience – I just listed for you a bunch of experiences – and a story. A story is a narrative. It’s the meaning and the webs that we weave around those experiences. So it’s me thinking I’d had too much coffee today, right? That’s a story about the taste of coffee in my mouth right now and its significance, but they’re two separate things.
When we’re treating something like OCD, which is very much about being pulled away by your mind into these narratives, these fear-based narratives – to be able to drop out of the narrative and into the experience would be to take a mindful perspective, or in colloquial terms “to use mindfulness.” But I think a lot of times when we say “using mindfulness,” we associate that with stopping what we’re doing and focusing on the breath, or pulling out an app and doing a meditation, or trying to execute change in our environment by being mindful. When in fact, mindfulness is very much the opposite of that. It’s not about executing change. It’s actually about stepping back and seeing the way things really are.
Kimberley: Right. I love this. So would you say in this perspective that mindfulness is not adding something on, it’s just dropping down into what was already there?
Jon: Yes. I would agree with that.
Kimberley: I like that. So how might we use this, particularly in terms of managing anxiety or uncertainty or any other discomfort? Can you give me a walk-through of what that might sound like or look like for somebody who is practicing mindfulness?
Jon: Well, one of the things you might think about, when somebody feels triggered, something happens. You’ve touched something you think is contaminated or you’ve become aware of an unwanted, intrusive thought, a harming thought, or something like that. Then you have an experience in the brain and in the body that alerts you to the fact that you’re under attack, that you’re distressed, something is wrong and it needs to be fixed.
What most people do is they immediately go into the story of, “This is bad. I’m triggered. I need to get away from this trigger. How do I make this feeling go away? Because it’s unpleasant.” Of course, it’s unpleasant because it’s your brain’s way of trying to help you jump into action to get away from the things that could harm you. So it’s natural that we want to get rid of this feeling.
And then we do these things called compulsions that reliably, in the short term, get rid of these feelings. If you know anything about OCD as you do, it’s like you get stuck in that loop. The more you compulse, the more you really feel the responsibility towards your obsessions as they arise.
In that space, between the trigger and the compulsion, there’s an experience you’re having. A person who has been practicing mindfulness or who is mindfully aware can show up to that experience in the same way they might show up to other experiences, again, without having to make it go away. So you render the compulsion less important because you’re willing to be in the presence of that triggering experience.
If you were to take this to the mat and think about, “Well, what happens when you’re meditating and you get an itch?” what is the instruction? It’s not, “Well, just scratch it so you can be more comfortable.” It’s usually, “Okay, well, notice what itching is like. Notice what it’s like to be sitting, which is what you’re doing, and then have your attention pulled away from the sitting to the sensation of itching, to be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s itching.’”
Now at some point, we all break and we start scratching ourselves all over it because it’s too much, but that’s fine. But that’s not the first instruction. The first instruction is simply notice itching. And then if you’re capable of letting go of that and going back to what you were doing before you got distracted by the itch, you’d go back to your breath or whatever the anchor of your meditation might’ve been.
It’s the same thing in real life. You’re minding your own business. You’re trying to read a book and then you have an intrusive thought that something terrible is going to happen. And then you notice that experience of this mental itching and you’re, “Okay, that’s happening.” And then you have a choice. You can drop down out of that back into your book, or you can dwell on it, ruminate on it, try to figure it out, try to figure out a way to make it go away, and then give yourself permission to go back to your book.
Kimberley: So, we call it in my practice, my staff have called it “itch surfing.”
Jon: Itch surfing. Yeah.
Kimberley: I always laugh when I say “itch surfing.” So, let’s say you have the presence of a thought that’s really concerning, right? It’s triggering. And you’re trying to be mindful, but you’re also not trying to step across the line to where you are ruminating or being compulsive related to that. How might someone differentiate between the two?
Jon: So there’s a couple of things to consider here. One is that a lot of people will say, mindfulness is about watching your thoughts come and go. There’s a good reason why we use that metaphor, that idea of sitting at the bank of the stream and watching the leaves go by. But it’s not really accurate in the sense that it’s more about just noticing thoughts coming and going. Watching thoughts coming and going implies that you’re supposed to sit there and stare at them and give them special attention. You’re supposed to remember, right? It’s a perspective. It’s not an act. You’re supposed to remember like, “Oh yeah, it was a thought coming and going. Okay, that’s cool.” And then let go of it.
Ruminating is when you’re digging up that thought for the purpose of trying to figure it out to digest it. You’re trying to act on the thought and get certainty about it. It’s a very active thing you’re doing when you’re ruminating.
To be mindful would really be the opposite of that. It would be to notice that you’re ruminating and stop. Because the whole point, if you’re being mindful, it’s not that you’re executing change on your environment, but you’re simply noticing what’s coming up. So it was really impossible to be mindful and ruminate at the same time because that would be like being mindful while trying to figure out some problem.
So the instruction would be to notice that urge to ruminate, to notice what’s coming up for you in your body, that experience of, “I really want to figure this out,” and then to allow that experience to be there, and again, drop back down into your anchor. In real life, it’s whatever you were doing before you got distracted. In meditation, it’s whatever your anchor is – the breath, the feeling of your body in the seat.
Kimberley: So it’d be like using the metaphor of, if you’re sitting at the edge of the stream and you’re just watching the leaves come and go, that would be mindfulness. But ruminating or being hyper-aware would be like watching the leaf after it’s way, way, way, way down the river, but you’re still giving that attention and missing what’s right in front of you?
Jon: Yeah. It’s easy to make that mistake because you could feel like you’re being mindful. You could say like, “Well, I’m just watching this leaf and seeing how far it goes.” But in fact, when you’re doing that, you’re missing everything that’s happening in the present moment, all those other leaves that are going by.
A lot of times, people think of themselves as being very negative because they get distracted by negative thoughts, and the thought comes down the stream and they follow it. And while they’re falling, those negative thoughts, all sorts of other nice things are happening – the smell of their breakfast or the warmth of the sun or whatever it might be. But they’re not noticing that stuff because they’re immersed in tracking that negative experience that they had. They think of their lives as being negative instead of thinking of their lives as just being whatever it happens to be in any given moment.
Kimberley: Right. Talk about, if you will, hyper-awareness, because I think sometimes people think they’re being mindful, and I think it’s going to be very similar maybe in your answer, but I just want to be really clear for people who I’ve heard struggle with. They’re trying to be mindful, but it becomes hyper-awareness. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Jon: A lot of this, I think, comes down again to language. Most of us are trained to say things like “Sit with uncertainty,” which sounds like a good idea, but the implication for some is that you’re literally sitting and there’s literally uncertainty in front of you. It’s like sitting on your head and you’re immersed in it and you’re dwelling on it. So it gets translated as “Dwell on uncertainty,” and feel bad as long as you can feel bad.
Actually, I interviewed Jon Abramowitz who some of you may know in a lecture series here at Sheppard Pratt not too long ago. He said he likes to say, “Act with uncertainty instead.” I really like that because to me, that is still mindfulness. You’re doing something, you notice you became distracted, cool. That’s what that’s like. Now I’m going to go back to what I was doing before I got distracted. I’m going to act with the uncertainty instead of sitting, letting the uncertainty sit on my head.
I think it’s such an important distinction because to be mindful of your thought process is to be aware of it. But it’s not the same thing as to be trying to figure it out or be certain about it. That would be the opposite of mindfulness. And so the whole instruction, if you’ve had a lot of experience meditating, it might sound something like you wander away from your anchor and you start trying to figure out what’s wrong with your life. And then you go, “Oh yeah, thinking.” And then you go back to your anchor. No meditation teacher is going to tell you like, “Well, just notice that you’re trying to figure it out and keep trying to figure it out and try to get to some sort of outcome.” That really would go against the larger project.
Kimberley: Yeah. I mean, for me, if I were to explain it, if I were out and about, and let’s say another emotion showed up, like shame or guilt or something, my practice is just to go, “Oh, hi, Shame.” I think actually in the last episode, you were here talking about teens and you were like, “That’s cool, bruh,” or whatever it was, but that’s observing it and allowing it to be there. But then there’s a redirect to the present. Would you agree that’s a method that you use? I mean, again, we’re saying it’s not a doing, but talk to me about whether that’s something that you would apply to.
Jon: I would absolutely apply that. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re coming up with fancier and fancier ways of politely and compassionately saying, “Let it go.” We might have all the different ways of saying “It’s okay to let it go,” where we understand that it’s very painful to have these experiences and that makes it difficult to let it go. We don’t mean let it go, like, “Oh, you’re being silly.” I mean literally, it arrived and you allowed that, and now it’s leaving and you can allow that to let it go.
To become aware that you have an urge to ruminate or an urge to do some other compulsion and to let that urge be a thing, don’t sit there and stare at the urge and wait for it to go away. just be like, “Oh, that’s happening.” Just like shame arises or guilt arises. And then just gently note it and allow it to be, and you don’t have to do anything. It’s really a beautiful thing. The shame and the guilt and the urge to ruminate and the urge to wash, it’ll go away in its own time. You don’t have to be actively involved in it.
Kimberley: Right. It’s like mindfulness underneath there. A major component is non-attachment, to not be attached to it or the story we tell about it or what it means and all the things.
Jon: I mean, if you look at that and the concept of diffusion, they have specific skills for trying to make that happen. I think people can argue over like, “Well, what are the mechanics of building those skills? And could there be some compulsivity involved in that?” I mean, I think there’s some people that certainly could. If you’re going around saying, “It’s just the thought, it’s just the thought, it’s just the thought,” that’s not exactly what we’re getting at when we talk about diffusion. But the end game is diffusion, it’s being able to say, “I’m having a thought that...” What we want is to be able to do that without having to say it, without having to remind ourselves. But instead, simply have the experience that the thought arises much the same way the credits in a movie arise on a screen. Okay, yeah, that is the thought.
And then you get to decide, “Do I want to engage with this or let it go?” If it’s an obsessive thought that you’ve been grappling with, that you’ve decided is your OCD because you keep trying to get certainty about it, well then the instruction is going to be to drop it, not to play with it.
Kimberley: Right. Yeah. I think that this was a lesson for me early in my mindfulness game. Mindfulness is not just that heady, heady meaning like only a cognitive skill. It’s like you talk about dropping down, and it’s a behavioral skill as well. It’s not just sitting still and thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking your way out of discomfort. It’s also a doing. It’s a body thing as well, instead of it just being heady. I think that’s where we get into trouble, right? We start to try to think our way out of problems or our way out of discomfort.
Jon: Look at checking OCD, for example, like OCD where there’s a lot of checking compulsions. What happens is there’s this experience of not being complete, something missing or something being lost. And rather than own that experience and be able to say, “That’s something that just came up for me and I’m willing to allow that,” the instinct is to get rid of that experience by engaging in the checking compulsion. So, mindfulness plays an important role in being able to say, “I’m aware of this urge to check, and that’s fine. I have all kinds of urges throughout the day. I don’t have to give in to this urge.” You don’t have to do anything about it.
Like you were saying, that’s an experience you have in the body, like a sense that the body is craving a change and your willingness to allow that craving. Again, not to sit there and stare at it and wait for it to go away, but just simply just know that it is there and then go onto the next thing.
Kimberley: Right. I think that this is true in so many compulsions. Would you use the same skill? Would you use the same concepts regarding reassurance-seeking compulsions?
Jon: Yeah. Well, reassurance-seeking is really just another form of checking, isn’t it? It’s like you have a sense that you know something, just like you have a sense that your door is locked when you go back to make sure. In the case of reassurance-seeking, you’re going to a person or the internet to try to make sure. But again, it’s that experience of dis-ease, right? Not feeling ease with your experience and wanting to change. Instead of resisting that by doing compulsions, you’re saying, “I’ll allow it.”
I’ve been using this coping skill with the client. I might have mentioned that they prefer “allow” rather than “accept” because accept felt, I don’t know, it felt different to them. We can use whatever language you want, but I liked it. I’ve noticed that as a coping statement. If something comes up, like, “I want to change it,” and they’re like, “Nope, I’ll allow it.” And then now you’re free.
Kimberley: Open the gates to it.
Kimberley: Right. I like that a lot. The same goes for avoidance, right? Do you want to share how you might drop into mindfulness when it comes to avoiding, whether you’re about to avoid or you’re already in avoidance? What would your thoughts be there?
Jon: Well, it’s like observing your inner magnet, right? Something is pulling you in a direction. It might be pulling you away from something or pulling you towards it. And again, what does that feel like for you? What does that experience in the body? And rather than telling yourself “Accept it, accept it, I got to accept it, and push, push, push, push, push,” can you just notice where the resistance is? Can you let go of that, that part of you that’s resisting? you want to go to this party, but it’s overstimulating and you might say something embarrassing and there’s something there that might be triggering for you or something like that. But you want to go. As you’re approaching it, do you notice that resistance? Do you notice that push-pull in your body? And again, can you allow it? Can you say, “Worth it, investment return, worth it.” Very quickly, not spending a lot of time on it.
Again, I think cognitive therapy gets a bad rap a little bit in the OCD world because it can so easily turn into mental rituals, trying to assess the probabilities and things like that. But just a pinch, like a pinch of salt, a pinch of cognitive therapy where you’re able to say, “Come on now, this is a black and white thinking. I can handle this.” If you’re allowed to do that.
Kimberley: It’s funny that you say that because I was actually just about to ask you, like, go back to your story. Remember at the beginning, you were talking about the stories we tell ourselves. And I think in avoidance, there are so many stories that take us away from mindfulness. So I was actually going to ask you. Do you want to share how you would maybe implement a cognitive skill there?
Jon: So, if you’re being mindful, it means that you’re aware that you’re thinking. And if you can be aware that you’re thinking, you can also be aware of the tone of thinking. This is especially useful if you’re trying to quickly assess. Are you ruminating? Are you engaged in mental rehearsal? Are you thought-neutralizing? What is the mental behavior? If you’re noticing the way that you’re thinking and that tone, you might be able to pick up historically if that tone has been helpful or not, or if it usually ends in you feeling like you have to do compulsions.
Take catastrophizing, for example. You’re saying, “Something in the future is definitely going to go badly and I’m not going to be able to handle it.” Now, if you’re aware and you’re mindful, you know you’re thinking, and then you know that that’s what you’re thinking, and you know that that’s catastrophizing, you can simply say, “Yeah, that’s catastrophizing. I don’t need to do that right now.” Very simple. “I can’t predict the future.” You don’t have to go into “Everything will be fine,” or “The probability is that this is going to go my way.” Again, we want to spend as little time there as possible because we don’t want to get wrapped up in arguing with the OCD, but to just call it out and say like, “I can’t predict the future. I’m going to just go with this and see what happens.” And then when you make that choice, notice what that feels like. Can you allow that or not? And if you can’t, that’s okay. You can go find something else that you can allow.
Kimberley: Right. I will always remember many, many years ago, probably even when we worked together, a client of mine, and they gave me permission to tell this story, but I won’t, of course, disclose any information. But they always said they can feel the shift in their body. And that was them being mindful. They said as if they were holding onto the sides of their chair. So even though they weren’t sitting in a chair, they could feel this shift in their body of clenching. You can’t see me on the video. You can see me on the video, but listeners can’t. But just this wringing of the hands or clinging of the hands, and that her being able to just identify that slight shift in her body was enough to be able to shift out of that avoidance or resistance. I think just being aware and mindful of that, I think, is a big piece of the pie.
Jon: So, it’s knowing the quality and the tone and the texture of your internal experience. That’s essential for being able to pick out and resist mental compulsions. Ruminating is not just thinking about something because you like to think about it. Ruminating is very much like, there’s a puzzle and you’ve put all the pieces together but one, and now you can’t find that one piece that it’s somewhere. Maybe it’s on the floor, it’s under your desk. You know what that feeling is like. It’s so intense. And that mental quality is what’s going on with the person who’s ruminating. And that’s what they have to let go of, or be able to experience to let go of the ruminating.
If you can’t truly appreciate the tone and texture of your mind that “Sometimes when I’m thinking this way, it feels like this, sometimes when I’m thinking this way, it feels like that,” it’s just very difficult to trust yourself enough to call out the mental compulsion as they happen.
Kimberley: Yeah. I love this so much. I think it’s so important that we do address it. So, in all, I know there has-- we have addressed this, but I want to make sure we’re really clear. Do you believe that someone can mindfully ruminate?
Jon: I think it’s an oxymoron because to be mindful is to remember that everything going on inside is an object of attention, and to ruminate is to really engage in a changed behavior. So it’s really the opposite of mindfulness. There are types of meditations like traditional meditation. You have an anchor. You notice when you’re not paying attention to the anchor, you return your attention. Then there’s other types of meditations that might involve free-floating, like free-associating. Notice that this thought then connected to that thought, then connected to that thought. That is a kind of meditation. And you could argue that there’s a kind of mindful awareness of where things are going when you’re doing that. I still wouldn’t call that ruminating though, because ruminating is done with purpose. It’s done with a specific intention. It’s not just watching where your thoughts land.
Now, if you have OCD and you’re learning to meditate, I certainly wouldn’t recommend you do the type of meditation where you just watch your thoughts bounce around each other. But if you’re a more experienced meditator and you want to do that free-associating of watching each thought arise and fall and rise and fall and connect to other thoughts and feelings, that can be fun. But it’s not ruminating. To ruminate would be to intentionally try to figure out or try to get certain about your obsessive content. And I don’t think that there’s any mindful way to do that because it is literally the antithesis of mindfulness, in my opinion.
Kimberley: Right. No, and that’s how I was trained on it as well. I think the thing that I often will say to clients is, anything can become compulsive. Treatment can become compulsive. If you were to technically look at the term, engaging in compulsive treatment isn’t actual treatment because it’s going in the direction of doing compulsions, which is not the technical term for treatment.
Jon: It’s tricky with exposures. For example, I encounter people all the time who are doing checking compulsions but calling them exposures. “I have a fear of something. So I’m going to go over and pretend to do that thing and expose myself to that fear by being in this scary situation. And then it’s going to go away and then I’ll know that I’m not going to do that thing.” Well, that wasn’t an exposure. It might’ve been hard, but it really wasn’t ERP. I usually tell people not to do ERP when they want to. That’s usually suspicious of that. And also to consider what the point of it is. Like, if your OCD is getting between you and some valued behavior, that’s a good reason to go do that ERP. But if it’s not, and it just exists in your head, you don’t have to go ahead and be ready to go find any ERP to do. You’re allowed to just live your life. That’s allowed.
Jon: Yeah. I think that the other thing that happens with rumination that I think is very confusing and hard for people to appreciate is that, though, I wouldn’t say you can mindfully ruminate. You can certainly be lost in thought and you can certainly ruminate without full awareness of what you’re doing, because a lot of it is habit, right? Rumination, some compulsions, they can become habitual, but most of them are pretty easy to tease apart from habits. But mental behavior is a little bit trickier, I think.
In the same way that a person who’s-- let’s say they have difficulty with biting their nails, and they always bite their nails when in front of the computer. The computer becomes the cue to bite their nails. The hands go up to their face. They start chewing on their nails. They’re not necessarily thinking, “Oh, I’m going to bite my nails now.” It’s just happening. And then they might become aware of it. And if they’re working on it, then they might use a habit blocker or some other strategy that they might remember to be mindful of the urge to bite it and come up with another strategy.
The same thing happens in the mind where if you’re someone who’s used to engaging in compulsive rumination in different contexts of your life, there are going to be things that actually cue you to do it without you paying attention. You might not notice that, but it’s like, “Oh, every time I’m in this chair, I start to ruminate.”
The goal here in terms of improving your mental health situation would be to take ownership of the moment that you become aware of what you’re doing. Not to beat yourself up for ruminating, because again, your mind was like, “Oh, are we sitting in that chair? Okay, sure. Let’s bring up that topic and start reviewing it.” And you can’t take responsibility for something you can’t control.
You might argue, “Okay, well, that’s not really rumination because you’re not the one trying to control it,” but it has all the same words. You’re just lost in this thought of like, “Well, I know this thought must not be true because of this and that, plus my therapist said this and I read in a book, blah, blah, blah, blah.” You don’t know that you’ve left the building. You still think you’re sitting in the chair. But then, boom, you become aware. You suddenly remember, “Wait a minute, I’m a guy sitting in a chair, having a thought, and wait, I’m trying to figure out if my obsessions are true. Nope. Not going to do that. That’s rumination. Okay, good. Where was I?” Let it go.
But I think people can get very self-critical, really hard on themselves, and say, “I can’t stop thinking, I can’t stop ruminating.” In part, some of that is then taking responsibility for something that’s-- it’s just habit. It’s just the brain has been trained to just start revving up the engine. That’s all right. You’ll catch it earlier and earlier and earlier if you practice.
Kimberley: Right. Okay. Is there anything else that you feel we haven’t covered in this area? I mean, of course, we haven’t covered everything, but is there anything that you really want to drive home here in this conversation?
Jon: Well, I guess one thing that’s been on my mind is, we talk a lot about how thoughts aren’t the problem, right? If you’re being mindful, thought as a thought is a thought. And if you have mastery over your OCD, whatever, a thought about what day it is or a thought about hurting your baby, they’re just thoughts. It’s no big deal. And to some extent, that’s true. We don’t treat OCD by treating what thoughts people have. We address how they’re relating to those thoughts and what behaviors they’re choosing in response to that experience.
But in the interest of remembering self-compassion too, I think it’s important to recognize that it may also be the case that people with OCD are more predisposed to the average person to receive certain types of thoughts in a certain way. So even though those thoughts are normal events, it is normal for you to have thoughts about all of the potentials in human existence, all of the different things. We can kill and have sex with all of these things. It’s totally normal to have thoughts about them. But it might also be that when you have that thought, it hits you in a way that immediately generates an urge or a moral responsibility to address it.
And yes, mindfulness can help because it can help. You both recognize the arising of the thought as an object of consciousness and the arising of that desire to do something about it as an object of consciousness. But it’s also worth noting that it’s just hard to have OCD sometimes. And every once in a while, you’re just going to get sucker-punched by it. And that’s not because you’ve done something wrong, it’s because your brain is conditioned or wired to receive some thoughts in that way. And that can be something that you develop mastery over. But I think when we take all of the emphasis on behavior and none of the emphasis on perspective or predisposition, some people feel like they’re not being heard.
Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you for saying that. I think that that’s been largely the feedback I have gotten as well. If people are struggling and they don’t want to struggle, and they’re trying to navigate this thing, that feels like an absolutely crazy puzzle that, like you said, they don’t even have all the pieces. They don’t even have half the pieces yet. So I totally really loved that you said that. I love the idea of compassionate responsibility, which is, we can take responsibility for our experience with the absence of self-criticism. I think we sometimes think that owning this and experiencing this has to mean you have to beat yourself up and that it has to be like “You should’ve done better” kind of thing. But I do not like that.
Jon: Well, you’ve recently written a book on the subject, and I could go on and on about self-compassion. We could do a whole other episode on it. But I do want to end on this note, which is, a lot of what mindfulness means is simply being honest, and we often lie to ourselves about our experiences. We say, “I should have known better,” but when you look at it, there’s no way to have known better, that everything you’ve done is preceded by a thought or an urge or an emotion and we can track this back very, very far. I’m not making the case for no free will or not taking responsibility for anything. I’m just saying self-criticism is inherently dishonest. I say, “I’m a bad person.” That’s a story. That’s not an objective fact. I say, “I feel terrible.” That’s an experience. That’s honest and that’s also mindful.
Kimberley: Right. I love it. Thank you so much. I’m so grateful. I wanted to navigate all this, but I didn’t want to do it on my own. So, thank you for coming on and helping me because you’re just so good at explaining this stuff, and I really appreciate the way that you conceptualize this. So thank you.
Jon: Well, I appreciate you inviting me. I always love hanging out.
Kimberley: Yeah. Are there any projects or things you’ve got going on that you want to share with us?
Jon: Well, right now, we’re working really hard at The Center for OCD and Anxiety at Sheppard Pratt. We have some new team members and so we’re helping a lot of people that way. Not too long ago, we launched the residential program, the OCD program at the retreat here at Sheppard. We’ve had a few people come in and out of that program. It’s really exciting because it’s just a different way of working, working as a team on one or two cases at a time and seeing them every day. That dynamic is new and exciting for us. And then book-wise, the OCD Workbook for Teens is out there. The second edition of Mindfulness Workbook for OCD is out there. I just started working on a new one that I’m co-writing with a friend on how to combine ERP and DBT.
Kimberley: That’s fantastic.
Jon: Yeah. So, dealing with relentless thoughts and painful emotions.
Kimberley: Nice. That would be so important.
Jon: Yeah, I hope so.
Kimberley: Oh, without a doubt, DBT is such an important piece of the work, particularly when those emotions are really strong. So that’s super exciting. We’ll make sure all of those links to that are in the podcast notes so people can check that. Thank you again.
Jon: Thank you.
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