Checking: One, Two, Three...
by Lesli Musicar, M.Ed., R.P.

Marcy had a problem. She was always worried about the heater in her office. Her biggest fear was that one day, she’d forget to turn it off and the whole building would burn down. So, every evening when it was time to go home, she’d check and then recheck to be sure the heater was off. But even then, sometimes she’d get halfway home and have to turn around and come back, because she just couldn’t remember. Did she turn that heater off?

How is it that some of us have to check and recheck? Like checking the stove to be sure it’s off, or checking the door to be sure it’s locked. And even then, being haunted by an uneasiness that drives us to check yet again. This is an embarrassing problem. Most who suffer from excessive checking, or some other compulsive behaviour, do their best to hide it. After all, it’s humiliating to admit you don’t have control over your own body.

What causes this problem?
When checking is a part of day-to-day life (and not related to a medical condition such as Alzheimer’s), it is because we are not present in our body. This might come from being caught up in anxious thinking, like being overly concerned with how others see us. Or it may come from being on constant lookout for danger. In either case, the result is the same: we fail to notice what is going on in our own body. If you are not present in your body when doing something, it can be difficult to recall having done it.

Being so caught up in anxious thinking and/or external monitoring is a huge distraction. Internal cues that let us know, for example, when a task has been completed, will get missed. Similarly, sensations such as hunger or thirst may not register when they should. And then, there are the subtle emotions, like mild annoyance or disappointment. These are likely to go unnoticed entirely. Anxiety effectively cuts us off from the natural wisdom of the body. And this leaves us feeling more vulnerable rather than less.

How did this profound insecurity develop?
Generally, these types of conditions have their roots in childhood. While they may not surface until adolescence or adulthood, the seed is planted when we are young. In most cases, it is the aftereffect of not having been seen or valued for oneself. In the most extreme cases, abuse, abandonment or neglect may be involved. But it also develops in what would appear to be more benign situations. Like in a home where the child is treated well, but is seen as an extension of the parent.

What can be done?
In order to stop checking, we must feel safe enough to live in our bodies. This means feeling secure within ourselves and in the world around us. Ideally, a secure self is developed in childhood. But given adequate emotional support, it can also be established when we’re adults. Support circles may consist of a loving partner, close friends, trusted family members, an experienced counsellor, and other health care professionals.

We need to be seen and cared for as unique individuals. This involves having our emotions validated and our thoughts acknowledged. In this way, we learn to trust our feelings and intuitions. We also need to have our perceptions affirmed. This is how confidence in our judgment is developed. And finally, in receiving an accurate reflection of ourselves in the eyes of those we trust most, a positive sense of self-worth begins to evolve.

Being able to trust ourselves and feel positive about who we are, helps us to feel safe in the world. This, in turn, allows us to be mindfully present in our bodies. So that when we’ve turned off the heater or locked the door, we know it has been done.