I came across an expression the other day which I absolutely loved. It was this: “white knuckling your way through an exposure” (found in this post by Angie)
It summed up something that I’d been thinking about in relation to exposures but I’d never heard mentioned in great detail. Having said that I think it could be the key to why a lot of treatment doesn’t work as adequately as it could.
So what is “whiteknuckling” your way through an exposure?
I became aware of it through a friend who is also undertaking ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) for her OCD. She was describing doing exposures but explaining that it all felt rather perfunctory. Whilst I heard her talk about the imagery scripting she was having to do it sounded as if she had very little anxiety from it. It was like she was doing it as a rather academic exercise but not really connecting with it. Once she described this I began to honestly reflect on some of my exposures and I remembered that I’d “whiteknuckled” my way through some of them too.
In my experience I didn’t always fully commit to the uncertainty and the exercise (sorry CBT therapist). In fairness to myself I did become aware of this but I never had a word to describe what I’d been doing.
Now I do. And it’s “whiteknuckling”. Whiteknuckling in my mind is doing your exposure but not really “being there” either. It’s doing an exposure but detaching yourself from what is going on. My friend spoke of not really believing it’s OCD so half heartedly doing the exercise fully expecting to have to “figure it all out” later. It’s gritting your teeth and kind of telling yourself that maybe you’ll believe that you’re contaminated/a paeodphile all the while telling yourself that you’ll keep checking later.
So now we’re aware that we all whiteknuckle our way through some of our exposures (we all do right?) what can we do to address this.
The first one is showing up wholeheartedly to whatever exposure it is. Really connect to whatever it is you’re doing; if it’s writing an imaginal script really embody the words that you’re writing. It’s no good writing it as if you were writing your times tables. You have to really step inside the script.
If you’re having to contaminate yourself with dirt then really smear it on and commit to the belief that you might be really truly dirty and so on.
Secondly, check your breathing. If you’re holding your breath then it might be a clue that you’re whiteknuckling through an exposure. When we hold our breath tightly then we’re often not really allowing ourselves to feel whatever sensations may arise (usually terrifying anxiety). I can remember having to look at pictures in magazines of children and kind of holding my breath and crossing my legs whilst I did it. I was doing my exposure right? Wrong, I was squinting at a picture but with one eye on the exposure whilst the other part of me looked in the other direction (metaphorically speaking).
Thirdly, be honest with your therapist if this is what you are doing. They may have some things they want to try to help you truly commit to the task at hand.
And remember it’s not about getting an exposure 100% right but it is about being honest with ourselves and getting down and dirty with exposure.
Any thoughts? Anyone else identify with whiteknuckling?