Alrighty! I promised we’d tackle closet monsters in my last post, and so we shall, starting today. Let’s start with a little discussion about those brains we have –

People are complicated! More specifically the human brain is complicated. (I natter on more about that brain in THIS post, talking about human thinking and the largely unconscious nature of that thinking. Please read this post if you haven’t already – it’s really useful for the next few blog post discussions here.)

In today’s writing I am expanding on how that unconscious thinking, specifically our core beliefs and assumptions, becomes the primary seed bed of our anxious thinking, and that we need to examine those beliefs and assumptions if we’re going to win this fight with anxiety…

It is my experience that most of us don’t get a really good picture of how our brains work as we move through school and grow up. Too many of us have the mistaken idea that our brains are like backyard wading pools on a summer day – bright, clear, and not very deep. We tend to treat our thoughts as consisting entirely of what we’re conscious of at the moment – whatever thoughts are in the spotlight of our attention.

We don’t understand that we have been busier than we know, from the moment we’re born, developing basic assumptions and beliefs about the world, how it works, and what we’re supposed to be doing from day to day. Those assumptions and beliefs get established and then literally fade into the background of our thinking.

Let me say that again: we have an enormous amount of thinking going on that we almost never consciously review or even notice in our day-to-day lives. And from that background that thinking drives an impressive amount of our reactions and behavior – way more than most people ever stop to seriously consider.

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Why do we care? If we’re fighting anxiety it is usually the case that a LOT of our anxiety is being driven by the assumptions and beliefs running in the background of our thinking. I’ll make that stronger: if we’re going to effectively combat this crap called anxiety we’re probably going to have to wade into at least a partial review of our assumptions and beliefs about the world and ourselves.

You Have a LOT of Unwritten Rules!

Here are some questions to get this conversation really started:

How are you supposed to act around other people?
How should other people act around you?
What makes a person a good spouse?
What must you do for and around your parents?
What do “good kids” do?
What should you never do?
What should you always do?
Who comes first – you, or other people?
What would make you a success?
What do you think of failure?
What is unforgivable?
What is universally true – in your opinion?
What constitutes “selfish?”
What constitutes “lazy?”
What do “normal” people do?

And these are just starter questions – I could go on for pages and pages asking questions like this. How we answer these kind of questions can tell us a remarkable amount what drives anxiety.

For lots and lots of people (heck, maybe even you!) the answers to these questions are supposed to be obvious to EVERYONE. Everyone knows what “lazy” looks like, right? Or what “normal” is supposed to be? And of course there’s only one standard for success – right? Or is that right?

Let’s try that first question I put up – how are you supposed to act around other people? Let’s include in that question issues like what should you always remember to ask, or what is never OK around other people, or how they MUST see you/think of you. What do you assume must be true when you’re around other people?

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Here’s one silly but VERY relevant example: I know two people, right now, who are terrified of farting around other people. I don’t mean just embarrassed or troubled – I mean SCARED TO DEATH that they might pass gas around someone else. It is unthinkable, it is unforgivable, it is so WRONG that they have even assumed that such a mistake would end a relationship/friendship permanently.

And, as you might guess, this simple, rigid, what some might think is a rather minor issue can generate a lot of anxiety for these two people. Here’s the kicker: neither one of them had, as adults, even consciously known that this rule was so strong for them. It was literally in the background of their thinking, operating as a base assumption.

But that base assumption was driving a lot of behavior, and as I said a lot of anxiety. For one of them eating anything that might remotely generate gas for them was off-limits. (And be clear that this person hadn’t actually verified for themselves whether or not a food in question was for SURE a gas generator for them – they just kept adding to their list out of fear that a specific food MIGHT make them gassy.)

For the other person they began eating out with friends or family less and less, mostly for fear that they wouldn’t be able to get to a bathroom in time in case they felt the need to pass gas. Let me remind you that neither one of these poor folk were conscious of the decisions they were making to avoid breaking this rule for themselves – and they were equally unaware of this assumption generating the amount of anxiety it was doing for both of them.

Your Thoughts are NOT Your Own…

Well, actually, your thoughts ARE your own – but you are not the master of entirely too many of your thoughts. Witness the two people I just discussed – how much their behavior was being decided by unconscious assumptions of what they should or shouldn’t do.

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What this means for those of us who fight anxiety is that we need to get clear on where our unconscious rules are getting us in trouble in respect to anxiety. This is where a lot of us – maybe most of us – get ourselves deeply frustrated in our fight with anxiety and depression.

Let’s take our fart-avoiders. They started with a problem EVERYONE ON THE PLANET experiences – passing gas now and again, very human function, really, trust me – and turned it into a crisis. Let’s make that stronger: they started with what some other people might regard as a minor issue, an annoyance, and turned it into a fear that got so big it severely hampered their interactions with other people.

Now I’m not saying it is good form to just pass gas anytime and anyplace. There is a time and season, yes? 🙂 But a little common sense and perhaps some idea of what makes us individually gassy is probably all we need to cope with this issue. We DON’T need to make it into a potential, looming disaster, stalking our days, shutting down our lives.

Yet we can’t get to that place if we don’t first understand the rules we’re holding ourselves to, and then make some conscious decisions to modify them/make them more human. Because, permit me to say, EVERYONE farts now and again. (The measure of how many people are affected by this one rather minor issue-turned-to-crisis is how many of you, dear readers, are even faintly troubled by the use of the word “fart” in this blog post…)

If Only Our Fears Were Limited to Passing Gas…

Sadly, they are not. We have much bigger monsters (in our thinking, anyway) stalking us in the nighttime hours, trashing our morning waking up, crippling our progress through the day. We have fears around money and money management, relationships, career, aging, physical health, mental health, performance anxiety, you name it.

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And given the nature of anxiety and Flight or Fight we are NOT prone to deliberately, doggedly looking at the thinking that we’re doing to scare ourselves. Nope, we run away. Do it long enough and that scary thinking fades into the background, lost in the automatic routines that dominate our day.

Then, one terrible day, anxiety comes to bite us HARD. And we tell ourselves “gee, I wonder why I’m so anxious? I can’t think of anything that’s really wrong.” Well, of course we can’t – because the thinking that is scaring us is way in the back of our minds, just part of the fabric of our unconscious beliefs and rules.

Maybe the belief is something like this: “I can’t trust myself to take care of myself.” That single, simple belief can generate a ton of different behaviors. We retreat from the world into some safe place – a marriage, stay home with our parents, hide behind a very, very safe job, look to our children to take care of us, etc. We stay away from anything new or risky. We assume that we’re not competent to manage change and disruption in our lives. We throw up our hands the moment we’re challenged by something.

ALL because we’ve got this powerful basic belief calling the shots in our thinking. We’re prisoners of our thinking and we don’t even know it, not consciously.

So what to do? Well, that’s simple to answer. It’s a fair amount of work, and it won’t happen overnight, but it is completely within our reach.

Somebody Hand Me a Flashlight –

1) Start with your anxious moments. What feelings are you experiencing? And what do those feelings point to you in your thinking? It is very common for the first thoughts we can identify to not necessarily be the most fundamental belief that is freaking us out – but it is usually several steps in that direction.

And yes, this is yet another example of what I call “unpacking” – identifying the anxious thinking that generates our anxiety in the first place, the problems we’ve turned to crises in our brains. But this is in some respects the ultimate unpacking – getting down to the essential assumptions that are driving our anxiety, the very bottom of the barrel.

This may come quickly – or this may take some time. I know for myself I have identified a base belief in one session of journaling or discussion – and I have taken over a year in some instances to do that same thing. Some of it is how much it scares us, as well as our belief in our capacity to deal with that scary belief/assumption. Some of it is simply the practice of doing this kind of internal examination. Many of us have very little practice sitting with, identifying, dialoguing with and attempting to change/rewrite our basic beliefs. It takes practice…

(and I’m sure many of you are sick of me using THAT word again…)

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2) Speaking of reframing, that’s every bit as important as identifying that scaring thinking in the first place. Just because you HAVE a belief doesn’t mean you’re doomed to keep it! Talk about a base belief – too many of us don’t even understand that we don’t have to STAY the prisoner of our thinking. We LEARNED that thinking in the first place – anything we learn we can learn differently.

Let’s go back to farting again. Let’s say we believe that farting in public is the worst thing EVER. Beyond words horrible. OK. But we don’t have to keep thinking that. We can change that belief (with deliberate effort and some time) to something more human, like “well, I’d prefer not to pass gas here on this crowded bus, but if I do I won’t be the first person to do so, and most everyone will survive the experience. Yes, I’ll be embarrassed, but I don’t know these good people, and people pass gas all the time and seem to not get attacked by an angry mob. I’ll probably be OK.”

3) Speaking of angry mobs this work will almost always make us aware of other base beliefs/assumptions that are there in the back of our thinking. So I start with figuring out my fears around farting, only to realize that I’m really more scared of what other people might think of me. And I realize that this fear is even more insidious, drives even more anxious thinking and behavior on my part. So I add that to my list and begin some work around changing/diminishing/rethinking my worries about the perceptions and reactions of other people.

Maybe that terror of other people not liking me/treating me with contempt/being angry with me can begin to take a more relaxed stance. Maybe I just would PREFER to not have people be dismissive or judgmental of me – but I can deal with the folks that are, because I start reminding myself that I can’t control what everyone else thinks of me. And I also get clear that no matter how hard I work someone in the world won’t like something about me. Just how things are.

(which rocks some of your worlds, yes? Maybe a good place for you to start this work?)

4) KEEP A RECORD. Do a journal. Do a computer Word file. Do something to create a record of your self-discussion around this thinking and learning about yourself. Add to it. Review it. Start a real concrete record of your assumptions and beliefs. You’re be creating a map of how you think – and giving yourself the power to challenge, change or leave alone those patterns of thinking – in the ways that work best to diminish anxiety and give you (maybe for the first time in your life) some control over your thinking.

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Get Your Waders On –

It’s time to start taking charge of your thinking. You are much smarter and stronger than your thinking habits and training, and you are very capable of being the boss of your brain. It can get pretty uncomfortable (but no more uncomfortable than the tyranny of our anxiety), and it can be frustrating and slow-going at times – but it is infinitely worth the work.

Next up – some more examples of identifying base beliefs and changing them to healthier, more rational ways of thinking.