Stopping a Cycle of Obsessive Self-Doubt


James was depressed. A few months ago, coming to see me, he had been forced to sell his vacation home in Mexico. He really liked this flat but because of financial problems he was obliged to sell it. After ‘giving away’ his cherished flat full of so many fantastic vacation memories, James became depressed and obsessively regretful.

“I had to close my retail store because of the financial crisis. This made me very anxious because I had so much debt. Then I had to sacrifice my vacation flat in Mexico. That was supposed to be my retirement. Every night I cry myself to sleep. I know I had no choice and that the money from the sale helped me to repay my debts, but I also lost a huge investment opportunity in Mexico for my future.”

James went on to explain that this dilemma had caused him chest pains, a feeling of emptiness and insomnia among other symptoms. He was under medications for anxiety and depression. He knew that he had no choice under the dire circumstances but he couldn’t help regretting his decision. He had become obsessed with the idea and couldn’t stop thinking about his loss. He had tried to convince himself that his action was the correct one but the more he tried to convince himself with rational and convincing arguments, the stronger his obsessive thoughts and doubts became. His partner also tried, without any success, to reassure him that he had no choice and that the only way out was to sell that apartment.

Other than logical arguments, James tried to forget his obsession and calm his doubts by distracting himself with other thoughts or with an activity he enjoyed. But none of the strategies seemed to work. This is the typical obsession and compulsion pattern. The more you try to forget your obsession, the stronger it becomes. The more you try to distract yourself and to divert your attention to other thoughts; the doubts return with greater intensity.

I explained to James that I was going to give him a task that would most probably surprise him greatly.

“I also suspect that you probably won’t want to do it. However, we both know that your current strategies to solve your problem aren’t helping you at all. You are depressed and you have anxiety. You are taking medication for both conditions. You have an obsessive thought about whether you made the right decision or not. You know it is an illogical doubt but you can’t help it. You try to banish these doubts by rational arguments but they come back even stronger. You cry every night and don’t know what to do. James agreed with my summary of the situation.

“So I have an experiment to suggest to you. For the next seven days, I want you to write down on paper, in meticulous detail all of these thoughts. Write about all the beautiful details of your lost flat, its charm and beauty. You can cry as much as you want. Let go of your emotions, thoughts and doubts, and write them down.”

James accepted to carry out the task. We scheduled a follow-up session in two weeks. When he came back, James said that he had cried a lot and had written many pages during the first four days. But on the fifth day, the doubts that usually assaulted him all day long had lost their intensity and frequency.

“During the second week”, James explained, “I had to make an effort to write. I had difficulty in forcing myself to think about the dilemma; about my mistake and my doubts. On the tenth day I had totally put it out of my mind. Yesterday I went to see my medical doctor and he agreed to take me off my medication.”

I told him that he was lucky. Since he had been taking drugs for depression and anxiety just for few months, he was able get off them relatively quickly. I then went on to explain to him how he had overcome his doubts, his depression and anxiety. He understood that when we try to forget something, without realizing it, we make it more memorable in our mind. Even though it may sound paradoxical and strange, when we dedicate our undivided attention to a thought, exploring all its details, we begin to lose interest in it. But when we answer those nagging self-doubts and silly questions we are actually feeding them.

I ended the second and the last session with a reminder to James: “I leave you with a quote from Sherlock Holmes: ‘No stupid doubt deserves to be honored with intelligent answers’.”