I have moved through 3 skills (in the last few weeks) that are essential to effectively ending the reign of anxiety and fear in our lives. The last skill I’m going to discuss in this series is very simple – self-care.

One of what might almost be called a defining characteristic of those of us who wrestle with anxiety is a remarkable lack of self-care. We are SO HARD on ourselves – we don’t work hard enough, we are not smart enough, or ambitious enough, or successful enough, or wealthy enough, or credentialed enough, or you name it. We MUST try harder – and harder – and harder –

I think it’s also important to add one more place we squeeze ourselves very, very hard. Nothing seems to ever happen fast enough when we’re dealing with anxiety. We want the solutions to happen NOW, not later, not with a little time and work.

So the end result of all this self-demanding and make-it-happen-now thinking in our all-but-manic striving to be somehow good enough is real self-care. And this is a skill that is crucial, vital in our work to unpack our fears and disconnect/unplug our fearful reactions to our Flight or Fight responses.

The cold hard truth is we run the risk of sabotaging our efforts to get free of the grip of anxiety if we won’t learn the basic skill of self-care.

Emphasis on the SELF Word

Our modern civilization has a hard time with the word self. We can get pretty scratchy with words like selfish, self-love, self-respect, self-esteem. Sometimes those things sound good to us. Often these ideas sound like, well, self-indulgence.

We set pretty high standards for ourselves, we who wrestle with anxiety. The vast majority of us are holding ourselves to impressive (read: superhuman) criteria for who we should be and what we should be able to do.

I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. We should be able to work a regular job (or, these days, a 50- or 60-hour a week job), raise a family, save a zillion dollars for retirement, hit the gym every day, keep in perfect and flawless contact with family and friends, keep our houses spic and span, never be angry, always be willing to help other people, unfailingly cheerful, always get 8 hours sleep, never get impatient with anyone…

Yeah – THAT’S going to happen. We know in our brains (somewhat) that we’re setting crazy standards, but our guts tell us NO, we HAVE to meet all these expectations, all these standards, or we’re failing, and that makes us bad people.

The Woman Who Couldn’t Let Go

One of the most difficult experiences I have had since I began this work with anxiety and fear was a phone session with a brand-new coaching client. She had reported by email that she was feeling very trapped and scared by her anxiety.

She was staying with friends, didn’t want to go home to her family, was very upset and sad that she had derailed (for the moment) her work as a creative artist, and wanted desperately to get some relief from her anxiety.

As we began talking it became very clear that she was dealing with incredibly high self-expectations. She resented her parent’s expectations of her, but was terrified to imagine setting her own course in her life. She craved her freedom but also felt she had to get started on a family. She was already behind in her own timeline for “success” and was berating herself for that.

And, of course, like so many of us, she was deeply worried about what other people thought of her, and was certain most of them saw her as a failure. NO WONDER SHE WAS ANXIOUS…

Yet when we began to pull apart her specific anxieties she told me repeatedly that her self-expectations and conflicting standards (parents, self, friends) were no big deal, and she should be able to meet all of them!

She was somehow a failure if she couldn’t meet ALL the expectations she had of herself (and other people had of her.) It should just be a matter of turning off the anxiety somehow – it couldn’t be that all of her shoulds and musts and have-to-bes were the problem.

It Really Is All About You

Here’s the thing: we’re human. We have a finite amount of energy, of capacity, of stamina. We need a certain amount of sleep, we need to change our focus now and again, we need to exert ourselves a little physically on a regular basis, we need to get some food in us, etc.

The bad part is that we ACT as if we were machines. We’re somehow supposed to run 24/7/365. We are not very skillful at assessing what we can reasonably expect from ourselves, and we tend to run until we’re exhausted and have no choice but to stop/crash for a while.

And that insane expectation is made worse by all the rules and shoulds and have-tos we’re carrying around in our thinking.

Now mix in anxiety and we’re a mess! šŸ™‚ We HAVE to learn to actually take care of ourselves.

But what does that mean practically? It means, obviously, challenging the problems (and expectations) that we’ve turned into crises. But more to the point for this conversation it means taking some time to think through what self-care is about.

In particular, for this discussion, it means that we need to be patient and self-supporting as we work to sort out the problems we’ve turned into crises in our thinking.

Let’s start with one simple premise: YOU have to take care of you. Nobody else can do it. Other folks can help you – no doubt about that. But you have to take charge of your own self-care. We each have to take the care and feeding of ourselves seriously, and we have to put it first in our priorities.

That sounds crazy to some of us. That sounds selfish, and self-consumed, and even heartless. We’ve learned (a great number of us) that truly good people put other people first. We’ve learned that truly successful people put work first, or ambition first, or accomplishment first, or…

But what’s really crazy is the expectation that we can be successful and NOT take care of ourselves!

Let’s Start Slow

The focus of these blog posts is to communicate the basic skills that can make us successful anxiety and fear-busters. One of the essential skills we need is the skill of self-care.

The first example of that is learning to see the fear work as a process. It (for the vast majority of us) won’t happen overnight. It will take time, and practice, and steady effort.

And that means we can’t just put our shoulder to the grindstone and get it all done in one massive effort. The likely result of that mono-focus is making ourselves more stressed and anxious, not less…

We need to do this work in pieces, in steps. We need to plan a session of identifying what problems we’re converting to crises, and practice “discounting” the Flight or Fight physical and emotional responses that rock our world. THEN WE NEED TO TAKE A BREAK.

We need to take some time with our problems-to-crisis list and work to reverse the process – get that thinking back to problem from crisis. We need to practice coming out of the Indefinite Negative Future, that horrible fear of failure that leads to anxiety in the first place, still “discounting” the shouting of Flight or Fight. THEN WE NEED TO TAKE A BREAK.

Stages. Practice. A piece at a time. That’s one essential component of self-care.

Next up – more about taking care of ourselves. In the meantime – go show yourself some love, for Pete’s sake. šŸ™‚ Maybe today is a good day to take an hour and read a book, or watch that movie you love to relax to, or just lie on the bed and listen to the music you love. Here’s the kicker – it will be GOOD for you…