On learning to deal with Anxiety
Many moons ago, I wrote a list of 12 Principles that were the basis of my understanding, both of my life and of my counselling practice. I’ve been thinking about pulling them together into a small book that I could give to new clients.
I’ve decided that I’d, at least for now, tackle each of the topics here, in the blog. We’ll see how it goes.
2. It is impossible to live life free of anxiety. There is the anxiety that comes when deciding to shift one’s way of being–the anxiety of change, of pain, of growth. And, there is the anxiety of trying to stay the same, in denial, pretending. Shifting, to me, seems the better choice. From there, I can be intimate, and choose to love well.
“Fall down seven times, get up eight.”
One of the things I’m most interested in is the idea that we can shift both our understanding of how life is, and how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world.
But the weird part is that we are fighting against our natures–our egos–which are highly invested in keeping us stuck in society’s view of “normal.”
Anxiety, then, might be seen as the result of what happens when society’s– our ego’s–demands do not match our reality or our experience.
The problem comes when we think our ego view should trump what’s actually happening
Zippity, do dah to you, too!
While I could be accused of exaggerating here, it seems to me that most of my clients have a pretty common view of how life ought to be. I call it the “Bluebird of Happiness” model. I coined this one after thinking about the little cartoon bluebirds that flitted about in cartoons I saw as a kid. My favorite one is shown here: uncle Remus and the bluebirds, from the Disney movie, “Song of the South.”
This particular model elevates happiness to the pinnacle of life.
The odd part, of course, is that it is impossible to define happiness. Happiness is highly subjective, and from personal experience, and working with clients, it’s also something that seems to be always just out of reach. The founders of the United States got it right–they listed unalienable rights, one of which is “… the pursuit of happiness.”
Happiness is something we chase, but never quite catch. It’s “out-of-reach-ness” is what causes our anxiety.
Anyway, here’s a list of the expectations most of my clients implicity or explicitly have:
* I will always get what I want, when I want it.
I will only be in relationship with people that love and respect me.
* If I have children, they will be bright or even exceptional, everyone will love them, and they will succeed in everything they do.
* People will find me interesting, attractive, and will desire me.
* My primary relationship will work on autopilot, because I am with my soul mate, who has nothing better than to do than to be everything for me, to do my bidding, and to make me feel good about myself.
* Money will flow through my fingers like water, but there will always be time to make up for any overspending.
* “The system” is in a never-ending upward spiral, everything I touch turns to gold, and true success is measured in the size of the pile of stuff I’ve accumulated.
* People who love me always agree with me.
* It’s my right: to demand that my feelings take precedence, to blame others for them, to express them harmfully, and to be endlessly forgiven for whatever I’d dump on whomever I choose.
* I’m afraid of my sexuality, deny my interest, and resist feeling the flow of energy in my body, all the while professing complete comfort in matters sexual.
* I do not think that I should have to put any effort into communication, because if I am misunderstood it’s the fault of the other person.
* I go through my life wishing that someone would “get me,” yet my experience is that I am unloved, judged, and rejected, even by my nearest and dearest.
* I know that happiness is just around the corner, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, as I wait, breathlessly, for everything to “work out.”
Now, you may be thinking that this very long paragraph doesn’t apply to you at all.
And I’m not really saying that every person believes all of these things. What I am saying is that most people that I’ve met over my five plus decades are pretty much stuck in this general belief system.
It’s one or more of these themes that bring clients in for therapy. Initially, almost all of them come with the agenda of fixing others.
So I hear a lot about things that happened 20, 30, or 40 years earlier–how abuse they were, how their parents did them wrong, what a struggle it’s been, and how, even to this moment, no one will co-operate with them.
They’re so caught in the drama that they miss the pattern.
One person I know, for example, gets into a “blaming cycle” about every six weeks. She tells me of the latest affront–and it always has something to do with others not agreeing with her perspective, or demanding that she change–and how she’s not going to put up with it. What changes is the specific “unfairness” she is presently mad about.
What she misses is the pattern of being affronted every six weeks.
Until she can step back and see the pattern that she is creating, she is doomed to repeat her dissatisfaction. Her approach, 100% of the time, is to literally or figuratively leave the relationship. And then she gets to do it all over again, with someone new, or she creates a new situation with someone old.
To restate the key point of this section, the anxiety she creates regarding her dissatisfaction with others is more appealing than the anxiety she imagines she would feel if she dropped this approach and did something different.
It seems to me that the work of adulthood is to challenge our presuppositions.
In other words, to examine what we believe in the cold light of reality.
- Is it really possible to have a healthy relationship by demanding, endlessly, that our partner change–judging that everything is his or her fault?
- Is it really possible to motivate ourselves to change through endless self-criticism and judgment?
- Is it really possible to expect that all of our wishes will be granted, just because we want something, and without ever considering how our wishes clash with the wishes of our nearest and dearest?
Now, this is not to suggest that you do life the way others want you to. That’s what got you into this mess in the first place.
This is a prescription for direct personal observation, and clearheaded evaluation of the results you are getting regarding the choices you are making.
Being an adult, then, is demonstrated in our willingness to drop behaviors that don’t work — I think that is only possible when we are willing to drop our invalid beliefs. I call this “The courage not to be yourself” model, because it takes great courage to drop what we always do in favor of what works.
And the only way you discover what works is to do it.
Our approach, then, is twofold.
- First, you must be willing to explore each and every one of your beliefs, in order to gain perspective on how you stay stuck–repeating the same old stuff. As I noted in the long paragraph on silly cultural thinking, these weird beliefs are hooked into happiness, as in, “If only people understood this rule, and changed their behavior, and gave me what I wanted then I would be happy.”
- Second, you must be willing to face the anxiety of change. I want to be clear here. You are changing your behavior, not your essence. What I mean is your beliefs are as old as you are, and are going to be there until you die. There is no way to get rid of them. There is a way to make peace with them. As they arise, we hear them, we acknowledge them, and we let them pass without enacting them. This is hard, hard work. Anxiety provoking work. Most people would rather remain stuck.
As I wrote in my booklet, “The Watcher,” your goal is to create an alternative voice, another perspective, a clearer, more direct, and elegant approach to life. With time and with practice, this voice becomes the dominant voice in your head, and the process of choosing efficient behavior becomes simpler.
But as with any new learning, the learning curve is the steepest at the beginning.
Therapy gives us the opportunity to look at our beliefs through the eyes of another–someone who is not invested in defending those errant beliefs. There is also the opportunity to explore other ways to enact our lives. This sort of work gives us the tools we need to deal with the anxiety that change creates. We move from expecting endless happiness to understanding that life is really about acceptance.
We start from a place of accepting where things are, drop the endless bitching, accept ourselves as we are, and then make better choices.
There’s nothing particularly complicated about this view. It just requires persistence. Once you understand that “the way it is, is the way it is,” once you fully land in this moment, you are suddenly aware that without preconceived notions your options are endless. It is the one and only way out of the labyrinth. Labyrinths require courage, creativity, and making friends with your anxiety, so that you can discover the way out.
And having a guide that has conquered a labyrinth doesn’t hurt, either!