I had so much energy after our talk that I went out for a long walk, processing so much. It felt like such an answer for me that I have been searching…[ Judy W ] >
Sally's Panic Attacks: Moving On From a Relationship.
FROM JOYWORDS BY FRANK MOSCA, PHD
A woman in her late thirties came to me with a complaint of initial panic attacks. She was rapidly becoming unable to travel out of a very circumscribed area and this experience was threatening every aspect of her everyday life.
Upon opening up a dialogue with her about her situation several things came to light. She was in a long term relationship with a man with whom she had had a child, but with whom she was no longer in love. Instead, she was involved with another person whom she found much more compatible and loving. She was filled with guilt about her feelings and this was exacerbated by family members warning her of dire consequences should she surrender the financial security of her first relationship. The crucial pieces of the dialogue centered around how "bad" she felt for this man, who had not shown any real interest or affection for her in years and who often was away from home for long stretches of time. The dialogue went this way: (F: being Frank Mosca and S: Sally)
F: What about the thought of Joe (the father of her child) being upset with you distresses you?
S: Well, he's done a lot for me over the years, despite his coldness; and after all Jenny is his child. How could I just tell him that I want out of the relationship? My Aunt Freda keeps phoning me to say how terrible that would be and how dangerous it would be to lose the financial security he represents.
F: Even if others are afraid for you, why would you personally be distressed to change the situation if you wanted to?
S: Well, I just wouldn't be fair to him to do this.
F: What do you mean "fair"?
S: You know, after all this time and his investment in the house and support and everything, to just dump him.
F: Are you saying that it would mean something about you were you to decide to leave?
S: Well, yes, I would be ungrateful.
F: What do you mean?
S: That I owe him for his time and effort with me and Jenny.
F: What do you mean by "owe"?
S: That when people do something for you that puts you in their debt. And I feel the guilt of not honoring that debt.
F: In what way did his freely doing what he wanted to do for you and your and his child put you in any position of debt to him?
S: Well, how are you supposed to respond to such actions?
F: How do you want to?
S: I'm so damned sick and tired of feeling all this obligation to everyone.
F: In what way do you feel obliged?
S: What he did binds me to him.
F: How does it do that?
S: I don't know but it just feels like it does.
F: And what are you afraid would happen if you didn't feel obligated to him as you do?
S: Well if I didn't feel obligated I would feel okay.
F: Yes, but listen to the question again: “What are you afraid would happen if you did not feel obligated?”
S: Ah, yes, well I would feel like a real ungrateful bitch if I didn't feel any sense of obligation to him.
F: So are you saying that your way of making sure you don't feel like an ungrateful bitch is by holding on to your sense of obligation?
S: Yeah, yeah. I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that's strange isn't it?
F: What do you mean?
S: I mean that I feel really shitty and angry being obliged to him and yet, as I just saw, I do it so that I won't feel shitty and angry as an ungrateful bitch. My feeling obliged doesn't really help me to feel any better anyhow.
F: So what would it be like for you not to feel obliged?
S: Well as I sit here now I'm beginning to feel okay about that.
F: Can you really feel okay in your gut with that sense of feeling no obligation whatsoever to this man for what he has done?
S: (Pause as she thinks it over). Yes, yeah, you know I really can. But, how can that be that it’s okay to feel that way?
F: Do you still feel in any way that it means something about you that you don't feel obliged?
S: No, but I still feel grateful to him.
F: Is feeling grateful the same as feeling obliged?
S: (Pause as she works that out ). No, no. Feeling grateful doesn't have any pain attached to it. It just seems to be acknowledging that someone was willing to do whatever they did. Joe did what he wanted to do for us, as you said earlier, freely. No one coerced him. And as far as I know, he may be supportive even when he discovers that I love someone else.
F: Wouldn't you want to know if someone didn't love you, since love is what we give freely, spontaneously.
S: Yes, that's right. I am doing him no favor just remaining an irritated, unhappy person in his life. I wouldn't want anyone, except that they freely chose to want me. I guess this is really being compassionate?
F: What do you think?
S: Yes, that's a definite yes, just allowing him to be whatever he is--that feels like compassion to me.
F: How do you feel?
S: (pause with her eyes glazed over with a gloss of tears). You know, I feel good, really good and I can' believe it, or rather I do believe it. It's just a good feeling inside.
Sally went on not only to change her relationships in an amicable and financially reasonable way, but also to discover that her panic attacks disappeared as she let go of her beliefs about how she "ought" to be in the eyes of others. It became clear to her that the panic was just the manifestation in public places of her fears of being "wrong" for herself. When she no longer felt that "wrong for me" feeling, and also felt free to attend to her own sense of how she wished to be cautious, then there was no panic to be found anywhere: "A person comfortable with their own sense of caution; who does not feel challenged to 'overcome' their so-called fear, will not feel the fear...." This is an important point. All too often we are taught that we must surrender our caution to some familial or cultural imperative. Fearing shame, we choose to go against that sense of caution, all the while resenting our surrender.
Thus for both men and women, we are told to measure up to the standards set by others before we have become comfortable that that represents something good for us. But the taunts of being a "wimp" or a "coward" or not sufficiently "macho" can be something we allow to intimidate us. By committing ourselves prematurely to standards of conduct that violate our sense of caution, we can develop fears, phobias, even obsessions. For while at the one and the same time we are making a show of compliance, we are also holding back out of our sense of caution which we are too fearful to acknowledge. Eventually, this initially conscious duplicity becomes hidden in our belief patterns and all we are left with is the apparently inexplicable, puzzling sense of dread and dis-ease in the many ways this might manifest itself in our lives. Now, Sally's release from this very conflict was accomplished in three sessions of one hour each. Not that this is by far always the case, but it does demonstrate that our ability to let go of what seem insurmountable issues can surprise us.