One form of cognitive behavioral therapy is exposure therapy, where your brain is supposed to form new connections and rewrite the language of your amygdala (fear center), so that it doesn’t associate every dog with the pit bull who took a bite out of your thigh in the fourth grade. By doing the exact thing that you most fear, you are, essentially, telling the old neurons in your brain to take a hike so that new ones, who don’t know anything about the pit bull, can now live inside your brain and tell you that everything is peachy.
Yeah, well, that’s the theory.
So you jump into a pit bull fight and say, “Here, doggie, doggie, you want a treat?” If he doesn’t take your leg off, you are good to go!
If he does take your leg off, you have much more exposure therapy ahead of you… For which you might want to wear a padded suit.
Exposure therapy has two forms: systematic desensitization, which is more gradual, and flooding, where you jump in with your doggie treats. I learned all this in the book, Extinguishing Anxiety, by Catherine Pittman, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Karle.
I believe in the effectiveness of exposure therapy. I believe that our brains are plastic and, through exposure therapy, we develop new connections that compete with the jaded old guys, that our brains are capable of birthing a flock of optimistic buggers who are eager to try anything.
I tried this exposure therapy in May, when I spoke to about 3500 to 4000 people. Upon seeing all the chairs set up on the lawn, I experienced the same nausea that I do every time I have to drive across the Bay Bridge to the eastern shore of Maryland. Ever since my colossal breakdown, public speaking and pretty much everything that exposes me has that effect. So when I was trying out the microphone and sound system, I may as well have been looking down at a pack of pit bulls. However, I managed to get through the speech using relaxation techniques, exercise (I ran eight miles just before) and other tools that are described “Extinguishing Anxiety.” I am positive that my brain formed new connections from that experience, and that every time I walk up to a podium from now on will be a tad easier.
With that victory behind me, I have decided to use exposure therapy to conquer another behavior of mine in need of major modification: apologizing.
I have what my therapist calls an “apology problem.” I guess you could say that I am an apology addict. I can’t say “I’m sorry” enough in a day. Somewhere in my amygdala is written that if I say I am sorry, the person in front of me or on the other line of the phone has to like me … that my apology will smooth out any awkwardness between us. Sometimes it does, and I can live the next ten minutes with a tranquil consolation that the person now likes me and the world is one giant smiley face. However, two minutes later, I will inevitably say something inappropriate and I am back to apologizing.
It gets tiring, this apology habit.
So, as part of an exposure therapy exercise, I decided to try and see what would happen if I didn’t apologize…if I jumped over the neighbor’s fence and said hello to the pit bulls and gave them all some belly rubs.
Two nights ago was my big test.
There was a woman at a party with whom I used to be good friends. I really like her, but the friendship was not healthy for me… for many reasons. However, I have always felt guilty for distancing myself from her rather suddenly. If there was ever a temptation to apologize, this was it, and as the night went on, my need to apologize grew bigger and stronger and louder and wider. I felt like if I opened my mouth, nothing but an apology would come out. So I didn’t open my mouth.
“You’ll be okay. Really, it will be okay,” I had to reassure myself, just like when I was on the podium talking to 4000 people or at the highest point of the Bay Bridge.
I waited for the room to erupt in flames. But it didn’t. Or for me to suddenly collapse because she had been practicing with her voodoo dolls. But that didn’t happen either. There was a country’s worth of discomfort and awkwardness as I ate my crab balls … but nothing that eventful or bad happened. I was pretty sure that, by seeing me, she was reminded that she doesn’t like me. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I can live in my community knowing that a few people disapprove of me or something I have done.
By the time the three hours were over, the temptation to apologize was still there, but I knew that my brain had developed at least a few new connections that said it was okay to put my “so sorry” sign away. Moreover, I know that every time I resist the urge to apologize, and participate in a kind of exposure therapy, I will have paved a brain highway that communicates to my mouth that it only has to apologize when it’s appropriate and necessary.
If not, I’m sorry for wasting your time.
Originally published on Psych Central.