And I learned a whole load of things, but the idea that I want to share with you today is what I came to think of as custard traps, unhelpful mental habits which were causing my anxiety or making it worse. And I think of them as traps because, at times, I’d be going along quite happily and then, suddenly, I’m having a panic attack, I’ve fallen into a custard trap.
At other points, it was more like a vast sea of custard, and I was trudging exhausted for months, before finally getting to somewhere. I could rest. Some people have told me that this image resonates with them, but for them, the custard doesn’t fell like anxiety; it feels like shame, or depression, or some other emotion. But whatever it feels like, and whether it’s a temporary custard trap or a vast sea of custard, these custard traps, these mental habits, share a number of features.
Firstly, they appear invisible. Everything we do becomes normal. Our brains are amazing at normalizing things. There’s this guy, George Stratton – that’s not a real photo, by the way. He wore glasses that flipped his vision upside down, and after a few days, it made everything start to look the right way up again.
Then, a few days later, when he took the glasses off, things appeared upside down when he wasn’t wearing them. His brain had adapted to the new information. And we do this all the time. If we change something in our homes, paint it, move it around, adopt a vicious angry bear to come live in the hall, then, after a few days, we don’t even notice anymore. It just fades into the background and becomes normal.
We’re like, “Don’t worry about it. That’s just Steve.” And we do this with our mental habits too. The number-one reason I didn’t do anything about my anxiety for so long is that I wasn’t aware of all the habits I was doing internally that fed it. They were invisible to me.
And the solution to this was observation, self-observation, getting to know ourselves. Now, this idea annoyed and offended me the first hundred times I heard it “You’ve got to get to know yourself.” It’s so patronizing and irritating, but it’s unfortunately true. Self-knowledge doesn’t just magically appear.
There’s no process that’s monitoring our mental habits and letting us know that, “Maybe you could change those around a little bit and you’d be happier.” We have to do the work ourselves to understand what’s going on inside us. I’m going to give you an example.
Imagine I’m walking away from a group of my friends, and maybe a thought pops into my head, something proportional, rational and reasonable like, “Oh, Neil, you said goodbye a little bit awkwardly there. Maybe all of your friends now hate you.”
If I’m not paying attention and that thought pops up, then I’ll have an emotional reaction. I’m going to feel bad, I’m going to be thinking, “Oh, that was a bit awkward, now I think about it. And all my friends think I’m super cool, of course. But what if this is the moment they realize I’m not? This could be the end, I’m going to die alone!” And I’m on the custard, having a bad time over nothing. If I’m paying attention when that thought pops up, I can choose my reaction to it; I’ll notice it and can choose.
Maybe I’ll choose to have an emotional freak-out, but maybe, instead, I’ll choose to react to it more rationally, recognizing what’s going on inside. This self-observation is crucial to making these custard traps visible, so we can deal with them in the first place.
The second key feature of custard traps is that they’re self-reinforcing. The traps themselves remove our ability to escape the trap. They’re quite devious like that.
Incidentally, “Devious Custard” is the name of my rapper alter ego, but that’s not actually important right now. Yes, they’re self-reinforcing. Anxiety, for example, it protects itself by tiring us out. It is exhausting being anxious. It sucks up all of our energy and leaves very little energy to deal with the root of the problem.
It’s self-reinforcing, and this self-reinforcing aspect of the custard traps often appears in the form of a cycle. Sorry, my apologies. It often appears in the form of a cycle.
So, for example, again, sticking with anxiety is a broad example. Being anxious takes a toll on our bodies, which can make us feel ill, and then we can be anxious about being ill, which feeds itself, and the cycle gets stronger. Or perfectionism. I have perfectionist tendencies, so I beat myself up for every mistake. Then, I beat myself up for beating myself up because a perfect person wouldn’t do that either.
And again, the cycle continues. It’s so easy to get stuck in these loops, and the solution is to do something different oh, hello… to do something different. Lots of previews are coming up here. This is based on the very simple idea that clearly whatever I’m doing isn’t working.
My natural impulse is to do the next step in this cycle. I’m stuck in. That’s what makes it a cycle. So, if my instinct is to sit and dwell on some mental movie of something terrible I’m convinced is about to happen, instead, maybe I should stand up and sing the Danish national anthem. I mean, it won’t help, not least because I don’t know the Danish national anthem, but it’ll break me out of the loop. I’m in, it’s something different, it’s not me resisting the urge to continue this unpleasant cycle. And if whatever I choose to do isn’t helpful, that’s fine.