It feels like the climax of an western movie. High noon, haunting music by Ennio Morricone, two figures facing each other in the dusty, deserted street. The tension mounts. The camera zooms in to the eyes, who’s going to blink first?
I’m staring blankly at my annual tax return form. It stares back at me, coldly, unforgivingly, without flinching. I can feel that same tension. I’ve been here before but it doesn’t diminish the feeling of drama, of challenge, of threat.
I feel helpless, alone. Desperately, I call out for help. I dial the ‘help-line’, Iisten to IR information I don’t want and am directed to push number after number on the keypad, only to be cut off. Feelings of painful isolation intensify.
What makes this experience so bad? Why does it evoke such desolation, panic, stress? How is it I can cope with normal demands of life and yet, suddenly, something so small like this can feel overwhelming? What's this all about?
The first challenge is known in psychotherapy as transference. The tax form is like a trigger, evoking memories from my earliest childhood of struggling with maths. That familiar, 'I’m never going to be able to do this’ feeling.
I’m transferring those feelings into this current situation. Every time I’ve faced a maths challenge, every time I’ve felt unable to do it, every time I’ve felt this pain and frustration. It’s all being transferred into the here and now.
At a subconscious level I’m not just dealing with this tax form. I’m dealing with every tax form, every budget at work, every till receipt, every bank statement, every maths test where I’ve struggled. It all gets added together, multiplied.
This creates the next challenge, known in human givens therapy as emotional arousal. When emotions are amplified to a high degree, it switches the brain from ordinary rational thinking to emergency fight, flight or freeze mode.
When I feel this stressed, I quite literally can’t think straight. My heart pounds, my pulse races, I just want to scream, tear up the papers, swear at the IR or run away. I feel cornered, trapped with no escape. The feelings escalate.
This creates the next challenge, known in cognitive behavioural therapy as cognitive distortion. I’m unable to think straight, to keep things in perspective. I speak wild unfounded assumptions to myself and that reinforce the feelings.
‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ ‘I’m never going to understand the form.’ ‘I’m never going to be able to find all the information I need.’ ‘I’m hopeless at maths.’ ‘The IR deliberately makes these forms difficult!’
At this point, I’m not open to reasoning, to rational persuasion. I need to reduce the emotional arousal first in order to allow the brain to flick back into normal rational thinking mode. I need to allow the emotional dust to settle.
So I breathe deeply, go outside into the open space and fresh air, go for a walk, a run, do something physical that distracts me from the tax form. As I do so, I can feel my stress levels lowering, can feel my head gradually clearing.
Now I’m in a better place to challenge my cognitive distortions. ‘I did manage to complete last year's form.’ ‘I can find the information I need because it’s around here somewhere.’ ‘I can do maths when I take it slowly, one step at a time.’
I can also step back, notice what triggered the emotional panic in the first place, the way I’m transferring feelings from the past. It’s a kind of self-help therapy. And now back to the tax form - with a smile. (ok, the last bit's exaggerated!)
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.