Anxiety sucks. I’m guessing that isn’t news to most of my readers. 🙂 This is on my mind today because of some reading I’m doing in a completely brilliant book that I wish someone had given me 30 years ago. The title is “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow”, by Marsha Sinetar. And no, this book isn’t about how to make a zillion dollars by weaving baskets or creating your own start-up company. It is however very much about a little thing called self-confidence…

And that’s why I say that anxiety sucks. Because nothing is quite so self-confidence draining as anxiety. I don’t have many things I’m angry about in my past anymore (after a lot of work over a lot of time), but I can still conjure some real frustration at how much of my life was spent second-guessing and doubting myself. And most of that self-doubt came from my fiercely anxious thinking.

It is my conviction that as we work to overcome anxiety’s grip in our lives we have to learn to start trusting ourselves. That’s very much easier said than done, but it is an essential part of the work. We have to start learning to listen to ourselves, care for ourselves, take some thoughtful risks about living our lives and begin to take ourselves and our abilities/capacities seriously.

The Corrosive Nature of Anxiety on Our Self-Confidence

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Ms. Sinetar, the author of the book I mentioned above, talks about some very interesting things around this notion of self-confidence. One thing that strikes me is how one element of self-confidence is the ability to take smart, measured risks in the direction of our self-care/chasing down what we want from our lives.

If I had read that sentence 18 years ago I would have laughed out loud! I can tell you that back when I was 35 the LAST thing I was going to do was take any risks. The world seemed scary enough already. I was all but house-bound, trapped (I thought) in a double-wide trailer in one of the less-than-attractive parts of Reno, Nevada, cut off from most of my friends (again, my doing), making just enough to make ends meet, convinced my world would never be any bigger than it was and terrified of even that much of a world shrinking further still…

But one of the first lessons I HAD to learn in those early days of facing into my fears was that I had to do precisely what my Comfort Zone was screaming at me NOT to do – namely, take some small risks. I had to learn to push back on the walls of my safety if I was to have any hope of breaking free of them. I had to start taking some chances on ME –

More about that in a minute. What I didn’t get at the time was that I was profoundly self-doubting, profoundly unsure of myself or my abilities, and that self-doubt only fed my anxiety further. How do we get to such an ugly place?

That’s simple. We learned, early on (we who fight anxiety) to step back rather than step forward. We learned to flinch away from anything that seemed risky or scary to us, instead of taking a breath, looking clearly at the issue in front of us, and then exploring ways to face it down and deal with it. I know I had learned to automatically aim for safety, the known and the secure, and to steer like mad away from doing anything uncomfortable or new.

So, oddly enough, my self-confidence withered, and I found myself back against the wall of a double-wide trailer in one of the less-than-attractive parts of Reno, Nevada…

I Was Stronger, Smarter and More Capable Than I Knew

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So there I was, 35, terrified, flinching away from anything that would make me dizzy, or induce numbness in my hands and arms, or make me the least bit uncomfortable. And I was ANGRY – mad as hell for the walls I had erected around myself. (By this point I had done just enough work to know that it was my own damn fault, these walls.) I KNEW I had to make a move, but I was scared to death to make any moves…

Finally I decided I didn’t have much to lose. Life couldn’t get a whole lot smaller, and I was deeply afraid of my life staying stuck. So I started with some small moves (which, by the way, Ms. Sinetar loves – the taking of small steps in the direction of strengthening self-confidence.) I started taking walks down by the river I lived near and worked near, even though I HATED the tightness in my chest that started (brand-new symptom, thank you Flight or Fight!) from the very first day of those walks.

I kept at those walks, partly because I started to learn that for brief moments I would get distracted and the tightness in my chest would EASE… hmmm. It was infuriating that it didn’t just go away, but I was learning something from my risky river walks. I also liked how I felt physically at the end of those walks, even though I still just wanted to go back to my tiny trailer and sit in my safe chair.

I didn’t get better fast enough (for me). Let’s say that for the official record. It seemed to take forever. I had bad days, terrible days where I second and third-guessed myself. I FELT like I was a failure, and that all my work was just a waste of time.

But that wasn’t the whole truth. Because as I continued slogging down to the river, and began to take other small risks (like going back to the store where I had my big shopping panic attack, or back to the gym where I had a panic attack in the middle of a workout) I began to also have better days. Not the whole day, mind you – but parts of the day were better.

I was beginning to realize that I HAD to take some small chances – and I was beginning to realize that I was slowly building my self-confidence.

The Comfort Zone is WRONG

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I also learned that I couldn’t tackle everything at once. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post, but the summary statement here is that I wanted ALL of my fears to go away right now. I wanted my life back RIGHT NOW. I wanted to not feel like a failure all the time, like everyone else was getting to live interesting lives and happy lives that I was incapable of having…

Except that I was wrong. More importantly my fearful thinking, the Comfort Zone walls I had built across decades (all unknowing) were wrong. I wasn’t a failure all the time. I was actually a pretty capable, smart, caring, hard-working guy. I wasn’t living a terrible life, even though anxiety was trying to suck the life out of me. I had good friends (people who, once I came clean with them, really did want to help and support me.) I had skills, and abilities, and stubbornness, and a will of iron when I wanted to…

In other words, my fears (and the attendant Flight or Fight reactions that helped amplify those fears) were bullshit. I wasn’t trapped, I was able to get up and make my life happen, and although it wasn’t easy or instant, it was within my reach.

And that begin to do a LOT for building my self-confidence.

One of the risks of listening too much to our Comfort Zone is that we’ll find ourselves assuming that it is always telling us the truth. And while our evolutionary capacity to deal with danger, Flight or Fight, is a GREAT system when it comes to actual real danger, it is a terrible guide, teacher and advisor when it comes to anything else.

The Comfort Zone really doesn’t know what to do with problems. It evolved for crises. Which means that when we make a problem into a crisis in our thinking we’re actively under-cutting our ability to deal with it well.

Self-Confidence is a Muscle We Can All Make Bigger

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When I look back across the years since my overcoming chronic anxiety (now 1995, still amazing to me) I see how long I, ever after getting free of panic attacks and depression, still lived my life tentatively, nervously, was still afraid of pushing back too hard on my Comfort Zone/fears.

I wish someone had said “hey Erik: you are more capable than you let yourself believe. You have demonstrated how tough and determined you are. You have torn a hole in the old belief that anxiety is something to run away from. So lean in a little harder. Take some chances. Try new things. Go do some things that are somewhat scary to you. Keep expanding those Comfort Zone walls. You are not trapped, whatever your fears tell you.”

Nobody did. But I can say it to myself now – and I can say it to you. All that traps us the belief that we are trapped (with a little help from our Flight or Fight responses.) So please, reread that last paragraph. Your self-confidence is something YOU can build up and strengthen. And that in turn will help you do more, be less afraid, get more of your life back.