4. Let Go of the Banana
Have you heard the story about how to catch a monkey? There is a see-through wire fence with a series of holes in it. The holes are just big enough to fit a monkey’s hand and forearm. On the other side of the fence is a banana. The monkey can reach in and grab the banana, but the hole isn’t big enough for the monkey to pull his hand out while still holding on.
The monkey sees the banana and grabs it—and then his captor calmly walks up and grabs him. The monkey could easily escape if he would let go of the banana, free his hand, and run. But because he can’t bring himself to release the banana, he is trapped by his own hand and unable to see the simple solution to his predicament. For we worriers, our worries are our bananas, we are too afraid to release them and see the way to set our own selves free.
Do you chronically sacrifice for others? Are you holding on to worry under the illusion that it is keeping you safe and falsely believe you are minimizing uncertainty because you are always prepared for the worst? Are you holding on to your identity of being anxious, as I clung to the identity of a doctor? Most likely you are fighting your thoughts on their own turf (your mind) and aren’t willing to let them go, as you falsely believe those worries are protecting you—just as I thought that being a doctor was protecting me. Sure, in your adult mind, you know the worries make no sense, but in your child mind, where your deepest beliefs are, you unconsciously believe the worries are keeping you safe, and you are afraid to let them go.
Worrying gives us a sense of control and, in a way, it does actually make us feel better. We receive a small reward “hit” when something we’ve worried about does not come to pass. I will address the five reasons why we worry later, but, essentially, worry does give us something and does serve a purpose; otherwise, we would not do it.
When people tell you, “Well, just stop worrying,” in essence, they are saying, “Just let go of the banana.” We worriers feel that if we let go of the banana, we are giving up something we have come to believe is helpful, just as the monkey believes holding on to the banana is his source of survival when it actually ensures his entrapment.
By 2010, I knew that I was burned out and I needed to leave the medical profession—but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. For me, being a doctor was like holding on to the banana. Some part of me thought it was serving me when in reality it was entrapping me.
Being a doctor is one of those jobs where they brand the title into your identity by making it part of your name. Instantly upon graduating med school, I became “Doctor Russell Kennedy.” I was inDOCtrinated, you might say. For some reason, they don’t do this with other jobs. You don’t become “Plumber Jones” or “Jack Hammer Johnson.” (Actually, I think Jack Hammer Johnson is the name of an adult film actor, but I digress.)
My point is that once you’re holding that banana in the form of a medical degree and title—much like our anxious and worrisome thoughts—it’s very hard to let go of, even though you can clearly see the ways it is hurting you. Sometimes it requires being forced to see it from a different perspective before you can be willing to release it and free yourself.
On February 8, 2013, I fully ruptured my left Achilles tendon because, like the arrogant doctor I was, I injected it (myself) with cortisone and lidocaine. But, as any doctor will tell you, although the relief from Achilles tendinitis is virtually immediate from the anesthetic (and it was), the tendon is weakened by the cortisone part of the shot and there is a serious risk of rupture (which mine did).
That was the shot that broke the doctor’s back. I was out, and I knew it. I haven’t practiced medicine as a traditional allopathic doctor since that day, not because of my Achilles rupture (although it never fully healed), but because I finally let go of the banana and admitted that my mental health couldn’t take practicing medicine anymore. I told myself it was because I was practicing in a broken medical system that relied heavily on treating everything with pharmaceuticals, which was partly true, but I was the one who felt broken. I was trapped in a feedback loop of overthinking in my anxious mind and over-feeling in my alarmed body, each feeding the other in an endless cycle. This is exactly the cycle I will specifically show you how to break as we go through this book.
Have you ever heard the saying “You can’t see the label from inside the bottle”? I was so overwhelmed that I was unable to see I was trapped in my own compulsion to help others as a physician at the expense of looking after myself. If you’d asked me back then, I would have told you I was a good doctor and helping others was my life’s work. But my body was in a constant state of fight-or-flight alarm, and my mind had become very adept at worrying, and each fed the other in a feedback loop. Until I saw the loop I was a helpless victim to its endless cycle.
In short, I had awareness of the pain but no awareness of its true source (consciously, at least), and there was no way to break a cycle I could not see. Once again, I was a mess. As I faced the idea of giving up being a doctor, I had flashbacks to those dismal days where it was a very real possibility I would never get into medical school. I remember thinking I wasn’t a doctor back then and really wanted to be, and now I was a doctor but really didn’t want to be. However, being Dr. Russell Kennedy was so much a part of my identity that I felt I’d be lost without this title I didn’t even want anymore. Remember that concept I brought up earlier of being torn between opposing paths as a cause of anxiety?
I know now my Achilles rupture was a gift because it finally gave me the excuse I needed to look after myself. It was time to find the answer for myself and share that with people. The mandate was clear: “Physician, heal thyself.” (And then help others with that knowledge … See? I can’t stop!)
The first stage of my escape from this vicious cycle involved developing a sense of awareness—a sense that I could witness what was really happening inside of me rather than suppressing and hiding from the painful feelings from my past. Much of relieving anxious thoughts and worry is making the unconscious conscious. It is your unconscious mind that runs your life, and it is the unconscious mind that drives your worry—but you don’t even see it until you develop awareness of the cycle of anxious thoughts of the mind fueling old trauma and alarm in the body in a perpetual feedback loop. Once you can see the cycle in awareness, I can show you exactly how to break this devastating cycle.
In other words, when you can see it, you no longer have to be it.