When Mr Sengupta came in, he appeared perfectly healthy. A gentleman of average built in his mid- 40s, he was polite and pleasant. Mr Sengupta was embarrassed to talk about his problem and occasionally burst out laughing during our interaction. He had a fear of elevators and could never get into one. Because of this peculiar problem, he said that he occasionally missed appointments, got late and lost out on opportunities as he needed to climb staircases which would delay him or tire him out before important meetings when they were held in multi- storeyed office buildings. Part of our first- day conversation went like this...
Therapist: So you cannot get into an elevator.
Client: No, never. I clearly remember visiting a relative's apartment in Delhi, when I was in Class IV. It had a small, dingy old elevator. I refused to get in and my father had to climb up the stairs. ( Bursts out in an awkward laugh)
Therapist: You seem to be embarrassed about this?
Client: I am! Isn't it funny? How weird and irrational is this? I am a grown man and I have a team of people who depend on me and my decisions, and yet I am scared of this thing which is a part of everyday urban life. I am laughing right now but at times I feel angry at myself.
Therapist: You feel angry at yourself that you have this irrational fear…
Client: Yes! I am so embarrassed that in spite of suffering so much I avoided talking about it for so many years and seeking professional help, but finally I made up my mind and though it is difficult for me to talk about it I am willing to work on it.
Luckily for Mr Sengupta, his frustration nudged him to finally address his problem and he came out of his avoidance strategies. Many of us however are not so lucky. We keep denying a problem for as long as we can. We are embarrassed to admit it, even to ourselves, that there is something within us which perhaps needs attention and a little fixing.
The admission of our problem entails facing our own ' imperfect' self, of which we are so critical about. The sense of shame that nudged Mr Sengupta to finally seek help was also the reason why he avoided the issue for so long. He was aware of his problem all his life but it took him years before he was ready to acknowledge it.
We gave him one experimental assignment. In the coming week he had to try and stand in front of an elevator and pretend to get in, and then observe his emotions, feelings, body sensations and what actually happens to him when he tries doing that. Mr Sengupta diligently went through the motions, twice as instructed, and came back next week.
Excerpts from the session...
Client: I did your exercise twice, once it was during office time. I called the elevator telling myself that I would get in to go to the 10th floor. The very idea was freaking me out though I knew very well that I was not actually going to get in. As soon as I pressed the button, I could hear screaming noises inside my head telling me that I was a fool to try this. That I was going to make a fool of myself. I could visualise myself inside the elevator. I was panicking and throwing a fit like a six- year- old, I was going crazy and everyone around was looking helplessly at me. I also felt palpitation.
The second time it was in an empty elevator in my apartment at night.
This time the feelings of discomfort were there but the intensity was much less.
Therapist: That's great. Well done! So now would you agree that may be your fear is actually coming from a preconceived notion that getting into an elevator would make you very uncomfortable and you might not tolerate that experience? And that this fear is more about ' making a fool of yourself'?
Client: Yes, I realise that. I somehow believe that the moment the elevator door is shut, I will start panicking even though it has never actually happened as I never got into an elevator. And my fear is actually an extreme anxiety of how I will be perceived. During the second round of exercise, a small part of me was very tempted to actually get into that elevator and see if I could go through with the experience.
Therapist: Very good! Then shall we put this belief to test? Do you have a trusted friend or family member with whom you can test this belief? Maybe you can try the apartment elevator at night with a friend and start with just one floor movement. And if you hear the voice again which tells you that you are going to make a fool of yourself, humour it by saying that that is exactly what you are trying to do!
Mr Sengupta could take the leap of faith with his wife. He found that the first few attempts in the elevator did make him uncomfortable and anxious but was much more bearable than what he had anticipated. He was so relieved that on the first day itself he practiced a few times and found the uncomfortable feeling easing away. Eventually he was able to increase his tolerance level and use the elevator even with people in it.
As in the case of Mr Sengupta, many times our own demand for a ' perfect' self becomes a hindrance to learning and growth. Perhaps his initial childhood fear got reinforced and became more complex as a result of his self- judgement and selfcriticism.
To change something within, we often need to let go of our inner judgements and address the issue with compassion for ourselves.
Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at
dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com