Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversation on “Great Connections Lead to Great Ideas.” Yesterday, Michael Bungay Stanier showed how our connections help bring our projects to fruition. Today, Todd Kashdan prepares us to be open to role reversals.
Be Open to Role-Reversals: The Curious Mind Finds Inspiration Everywhere
A decade ago, I was leading a group of adults suffering from unbearable anxiety and depression. As the therapist, I introduced new ideas, new skills, and helped my clients problem-solve how to make more friends and fewer foes in everyday life.
But one woman ended up becoming my teacher.
Almost every session, in front of the other 6 people in the group, she would lash out at me: “You have as many problems as we do, you just won’t admit it. You’re a hypocrite. You only run these groups because you refuse to look at your own problems.” One morning, she felt compelled to tell everyone how she spent the weekend: “I had my fly swatter and when I saw a bug, I would think of Todd and crush it, Die Todd, Die.”
Everyone in the group gasped and looked at me to see what I would do next. My throat was too parched to speak, my heart wanted to leap out of my chest. It was one of those days when you wished you decided to be a librarian instead of a psychologist.
Her strategy for handling the fear of being scrutinized by other people made perfect sense.
She attacked me before I could attack her. She rejected me before I could reject her. She was in charge because she was always the first to act. And I thought about how this dynamic in the therapy session plays out in her real-life. She reminded me that just because everyone shares something in common, in this case suffering from anxiety, this has no bearing on the rest of their personality.
To this day, the stereotype of people who suffer from anxiety is that they are shy, withdrawn, and passive. Well, here was a woman who was aggressive, impulsive, and manipulative. It didn’t fit with the storyline being told by other therapists, scientists, and authors. This client of mine who seemingly despised me, this client of mine who disrupted my sense of calm, led me to a new idea about social anxiety.
The new idea from the unlikely source
While most people might avoid rejection by avoiding other people, other people might avoid rejection by forcefully grabbing control by being the first to attack, embarrass, and ostracize other people.
Years later, my research found support for this idea. Although 80% of people who are chronically anxious tend to be shy and inhibited, 20% of people who are chronically anxious are aggressive, impulsive, hypersexual, and seek out novelty (instead of running from it). Both groups of people share the same fears but they cope in vastly different ways. And while the aggressive, impulsive, hypersexual, novelty seekers might grab more pleasurable moments than their shy peers in the long-run, they have greater difficulty with their relationships, they have greater difficulty being productive and creative at work, and they are less inclined to seek help from other people. They suffer in silence.
In honor of this client, who was one tough character to be around, I will try my best to ensure that they no longer suffer in silence. I’ve just gotten started…
How has a role reversal inspired or influenced your ideas?
More about Todd: Todd Kashdan‘s mission is to increase the amount of well-being in this world. He uses cutting-edge science to help people function optimally in life and business. Since receiving his Ph.D. in 2004 in clinical psychology, he has published over 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals. His work focuses primarily on how to foster and sustain happiness and meaning in life, strength use and development, stress and anxiety, mindfulness, gratitude, social relationships and self-regulation.
Todd is author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life (Harper Collins), presents keynotes and workshops, teaches college courses on the science of happiness, and is a contributing blogger at outlets such as The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.