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Compulsive Striving in a time of COVID

Well, as it turns out, I have a super fan of my blog postings!  Her name is Judy, and yes, she is my mom (Hi mom!).  She mentioned in passing that she had not seen a blog post in a while on this site.  I told her that since the pandemic hit the globe, not to mention other life and death matters like civil rights – life as a therapist has been a bit busy.  I said to her, “maybe I’ll write something about COVID” to which she responded “oh for goodness sake, everyone is tired of hearing about COVID.”  So, with full disclosure, if you are tired of talking COVID, feel free to skip this blog (including you mom, I dare you!).  If you are – like me – fatigued with the word fatigue, I suggest you also take a pass.  For those of you willing to read through, I promise not to use the words unprecedented, Zoom, herd immunity, vaccination, or remind you to sing happy birthday while you wash your hands for the umpteenth time today.

In all seriousness, however, what has come to light (and maybe it is just me), is just a wee bit of panic setting in before the vaccine arrives en masse.  Don’t get me wrong, I feel blessed to live in a part of the world where our COVID numbers are relatively low, with a Provincial Health Director who tells us everyday to “be kind, be calm and be safe” (thanks Dr Bonnie Henry!).  I feel relieved that a vaccine is here, and that our front-line care givers and elders are the first receiving it.  I thank the universe I have not been infected to date and have such privilege to be working from home.   And yet, I had the most OC moment in the universe this week: people will have done so much more than I when we get back to “normal.”

One would think with the mental health crisis that COVID uncovered and the subsequent fear, grief and existential crisis that has ensued that just being a therapist would be “enough.” After all, our calling is not easy work.  We hang out in the darkest corners of people’s lives; we get covered in the cobwebs of pain and suffering.  When the pandemic hit, we became therapeutic on-line influencers, adapting and evolving with carrying our care over the internet. But of course, to someone who leans to OC, “enough” is never enough.  While I was editing this blog, my colleague Neil Howell sent an article exactly about this, and one comment about “enough” rings true: “The goal can’t be satisfied; most people never feel “successful enough.” The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next goal. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which satisfaction wears off almost immediately and we must run on to the next reward to avoid the feeling of falling behind. This is why so many studies show that successful people are almost invariably envious of people who are more successful.” (see https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/07/why-success-wont-make-you-happy/614731/ for the full read). So what does this hedonic treadmill link to RO DBT biosocial theory, COVID and the internet?

When we teach the biosocial model in RO DBT, we discuss the biotemperament of people who lean to OC (high threat sensitivity, low reward sensitivity, high detail processing and being able to inhibit/delay gratification).  We then discuss how these interface with environments such as family, school, community, or vocation that instils messages that mistakes are intolerable, emotions should be masked, and that winning is essential.  The coping strategies that emerge can include an aloof and distant manner, risk aversion, and compulsive striving.   Compulsive striving is something my OC clients can easily relate to – never resting or celebrating, but onto the next degree, next marathon (no! make it a triple triathlon!), promotion, etc.  Compulsive striving can also be reflected in areas such as self care – if I am going to relax, I am going to do it perfectly! Oh, and we also see it in therapy – I am going to be the best damn client or class member! (Or RO therapist, tee-hee!)

So back to COVID and that damn internet!  It has been a double edge sword – on the one hand connecting me with my family, friends, and clients, and on the other hand, upping the social comparison of what could be done in a pandemic.  Just when I thought I was on the up and up showering twice a week, others are posting that they are learning Mandarin or nurturing a sour dough starter.  A blog I follow came through today with a New Years-y posting of “the greatest teacher that COVID could be” involving people coming to the realization that they were living a fraudulent life pre-COVID.  I too, have had some clarifications of values during this time, but a lot of these revelations in the aforementioned blog require a hefty chunk of privilege.  And while I know this rationally, I can’t help but wonder if I will be somehow behind in my personal development when I get back into the office.  Suddenly I am in a race against the vaccine to be in the best shape of my life, teach my dogs 25 new commands so they can be self supporting on Instagram, learn the Latin names of everything in my garden, and learn to cook more than my repertoire of 5 dishes (which are all variations of carbs and cheese, BTW, so essentially the same dish).

So, what do we teach our clients about compulsive striving?  As therapists, we acknowledge “hey, you have worked hard enough, come sit a while and rest, you deserve it.”  Many years ago, I played a video game where on one level a wise one would emerge and say “Stay awhile and listen” but I was too much in a hurry to get to the next level.  I never stopped to “stay a while and listen,” which is probably why I stayed circulating through that game level longer than needed.  Even in my rest and relaxation hobby, I was fixated on getting ahead of the other players.

An unfortunate consequence of compulsive striving (besides being tired all the time) and its associated social comparison comes envy, so we also teach that there is a difference between helpful envy and unhelpful envy.  Helpful envy is more like aspiration.  A COVID example might be my partner taking up a daily yoga practice versus weekly.  I can have helpful envy for this that might spur me to do more yoga (which, for the record, is very unlikely, don’t tell my teacher!).  Unhelpful envy would be turning off her alarm clock or hiding her yoga props; essentially anti-celebration of other people’s goals and successes. The good news with this is that envy is not bad, per say, but the bad news is that unhelpful envy can also lead to more compulsive striving.  Compulsive striving, as a result of unhelpful envy, might lead me to becoming a yoga teacher just to prove a point.  As I can relate, and as my clients have told me, compulsive striving exists even for things we do not necessarily care passionately about, much like my yoga example above. But the driver is to be the first, the best, the most productive.

So here we are on the cusp of both COVID variants and vaccination.  As I finish this blog, I am in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in sweeping trees, screeching Ravens, plucky bald Eagles and animals I can hear but not see.  I am fairly convinced that although they live in eco-harmony they do not have a regular committee meeting discussing how to be first, the best, the most productive.  The goal of coming to the middle of nowhere was to come to be productive, tighten up creative loose ends, and get other projects started.  After finishing this blog, I think I could just take the dogs for a walk and go to bed, watch the ocean and whatever emerges.  And not write a clever conclusion.  So I will end on a serendipitous find instead, because when you are not trying to be clever, wisdom appears:

“…And the trees stir in their leaves,

and call out, ‘Stay a while.’

The light flows from their branches.”

(Mary Oliver “When I am among trees:” http://doi.org/10.1353/scs.2006.0042)


About the author: J. Nicole Little, PhD, RCC

Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada. She is passionate about RO DBT, animal assisted therapy and creating through writing and collage.  She remains in remedial Flexible Mind VARIEs but her family loves her anyway.