This week, we have a letter from a reader, Mary, who suffers from anxiety. She writes:
Dear Dr Eddie,
I have all my life suffered with anxiety. I want to ask you, is it normal for person with this condition to burn things as a means of relieving anxiety?
Since I was 20 I have been burning my clothes, often brand new expensive things, shoes and other items like curtains, sheets even furniture, as I have found it a way of easing anxiety but only for a short time, maybe a day or two.
Over the past 40 years (I am over 60), I have spent thousands of pounds on clothes and I always end up burning them after a short time.
When I am engaged in the practice I know that it is not right. Sometimes I will buy something beautiful that I love, like white linen or a lace blouse, and burn it even before I have worn it.
I have always been too proud to tell anyone about it. Could you write about this sometime in your column?
Thanks so much for writing your lovely letter. I don’t get many of those, it's mostly emails now.
My first gut reaction was one of sadness, in that this distress you have felt has been around for such a long time without any intervention.
You asked me a straight question — is it normal to burn items to relieve anxiety? It’s particularly unusual.
Your letter has raised more questions for me than answers and in my response I will bring you through some of my thinking.
In psychology, we often say that every behaviour has a communication — that is that it’s trying to say something.
If we break it down, you described being anxious, then you burn something and your anxiety then drops.
This behaviour has been well ingrained for over 40 years.
I want to emphasise that this does not mean that change cannot happen.
It would be interesting to know at what point this anxiety is triggered. What are you thinking then? When and why did this behaviour commence?
For many people, they can’t remember a ‘why’. If this is the case for you, then it’s better to look at the current triggers now.
Essentially, your actions are a poor coping mechanism to stress, anxiety and distress — your challenge is to build a better toolkit for these emotions.
The other concern I would have is that this ‘behaviour’ is associated with traumatic instances.
It’s a act of self-hatred, the communication says 'I don’t deserve this’. Iif this is true, what that might say about you is that 'I am unworthy' and if that was true for you, it would say 'I am worthless'.
In this act/behaviour/ communication, you may be purging yourself of good things because, in an earlier life, someone said you did not deserve them and having internalised this voice, this behaviour acts that out. Then the question emerges, would you burn items that you would buy for a husband, daughter, niece etc?
This is the reason why I might look at this as an act similar to that of self-harm. In self-harm, people report feeling relief when they complete the self -harm behaviour. This is similar, only for the fact that the behaviour is not towards the self but to items.
I would like to know; do you openly burn the items or put them into a stove? What thoughts go through your head at this point? Do you enjoy the flame the burning, the experience of the burning, is there a release, is this a ritualised behaviour, and so on?
There is a positive intervention that’s available, that could turn shame to pride, but what stops you from reaching out?
The intervention is not just a counselling process, but a clinical psychology intervention with a functional analysis of the behaviour, an assessment of trauma, and the replacement of poor coping strategies. This is where I would start.
But the importmant message you need to hear is that you are worthy, you are worthwhile, you are loveable, and you are wonderfully unique. No therapists is going to judge you.
Yes, it’s an unusual behaviour but the psychologist is not voyeuristic. They want to get to the point that they can help you. Please take that step, check out the Psychological Society of Ireland (www.psychologysociety.ie) website for clinical psychologists in your local area.
You have taken a brave step to write to me.
Please take the next step and seek help. Some of the best outcomes I have had have been with clients who have experienced distress for many decades.
Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to www.facebook.com/ dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist