I’ve had a slow-growing understanding creeping up on me over the last five years of writing this blog. I’m beginning to see the conjunction of anxiety and immature, childish thinking. Those are fighting words – but give me a chance to explain what I mean when I say immature and childish.

All I’m saying is that anxious “what if?” thinking at the core is thinking we acquired in our youth, thinking that was done from a child’s perspective, an immature perspective, and then frozen in place as we moved into adulthood. Because make no mistake – we ALL become grown-ups, living grown-up lives and doing grown-up things.

But in the midst of that grown-up life is lodged some unhealthy and life-draining childish thinking – anxious thinking. Today’s post starts a review of that child-like thinking, the major fears that grow out of that thinking and some discussion about what we can do to help “grow up” that thinking into healthy, adult ways of dealing with our world.

How Children Think

Kids are great. One of the things that will always make me grin or laugh is seeing children out in the world learning about the world. Kids are curious creatures – as in they are very curious about the world around them. They tend to explore, to ask a lot of questions, try things and make mistakes, fall down and get up again (sometimes after some tears.)

Childish Thinking 1

Part of what it means to be a child is to NOT KNOW EVERYTHING YET. Sure, that seems obvious, but as adults we forget that we didn’t always think the way we think now. We forget that we had to LEARN to understand the world, make sense of how things worked. We also forget that it was often other people that were telling us this information.

Oops. There’s a little bit of a problem with that sometimes. Sometimes other people (parents, siblings, teachers, neighbors, peers) don’t always have the best take or information on the world around us. Sometimes they lead us astray. It doesn’t have to be deliberate. They themselves learned what they know from other people – who themselves didn’t really have the best information.

There’s another little problem with learning about the world. Sometimes, based on less-than-useful information, we take away the wrong lessons about the world. We draw the wrong conclusions, laying down in our thinking incorrect or crippling assumptions about the world based on those experiences.

Combine these two issues – not the best information/understanding about the world, and then basing our experiences in the world to some extent on that not great information, and guess what? We can develop a distorted view of ourselves and the world around us. And so anxiety is born…

One Example of Childish Thinking

(Notice that I use the world “childish” in the above sentence. I do that because I want to be clear that not all child-like thinking is necessarily bad or dysfunctional. I’ll use the phrase “child-like” to describe thinking that is young, hopeful, inquisitive – the best of childhood. I’ll use the phrase “childish” to describe the not-so-useful kind of thinking.)

Childish Thinking 2

So how does childish thinking connect to anxious thinking? One example is the fear of being alone. There’s no way I can do justice to this topic in a single blog post, but in my experience one of the great chronic anxiety fighter fears is this one.

The what if questions around this fear are legion: what if I grow old alone? What if I never find love? What if my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend die or leave me? What if other people think I’m pathetic for being alone? What if my being alone means there is something wrong with me? What if I’m fundamentally unlikeable, or even unlovable?

Isn’t it interesting to hear these questions as if a child is asking them? Children are naturally worried about being left alone. We are social creatures. We want to feel needed, loved, wanted. We also to some extent build our understanding of ourselves, how we see ourselves, through the eyes of other people.

If we learn that love is provisional – i.e., that love is based on being “good enough”, or following a host of rules, or even just managing some adult’s mood and temper to stay safe – then we can become very anxious about our ability to find and keep love, friendship, family.

We can also learn to be afraid of how we FEEL when we’re alone – whether we’re fighting anxiety responses like Flight or Fight, or just feeling sad or lost without other people around us. The bottom line is that we’ve made a CRISIS out of being alone, turning alone into terrible, and forever.

Childish Thinking 3

Here’s the thing: alone isn’t a crisis. It isn’t always fun, but it isn’t the end and death. It is one condition, during times in our lives, of being human. Sometimes we have more people in our lives, and sometimes less. Sometimes friends leave, move away, die. Sometimes relationships come to an end. People change, situations change. All of that is just part of being alive.

But by the same token NEW people show up in our lives. We build new relationships. We go on to the next part of our lives.

And it isn’t just about having people around. There is a very adult need to learn to be comfortable with ourselves, by ourselves, in our own skin. We, as we grow mentally and emotionally, that we NEED time alone, time away from other people. We need time to think our thoughts, have our feelings, and NOT have to account for other people now and again.

Lots of people that will never be diagnosed as fighting chronic anxiety are petrified of being alone – because they, too, learned to be afraid of alone early in their experience. This is a pretty common fear.

Childish Thinking 4

In a very real way our fear of being alone is the fear of a child, afraid that the parents are not coming back from the store, or from the trip away from home. It is thinking frozen in time from a much earlier time in our lives. It is however thinking that we can change, update, and in so doing stop scaring ourselves with bogey-man stories of the terror of being alone…

What if I can’t take care of myself?

Here’s another classic anxiety fighter fear, and one that is related to the fear of being alone. You’ll recognize the what ifs that show up in this thinking –

What if I can’t support myself? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t find more work? What if I get sick and never get better? What if I run into a situation I can’t handle? What if I fail at self-care?

There’s a LOT of solid psychological thinking around the issues that connect with children being left on their own too soon, or even if they are not abandoned but develop a sense that they can’t trust their caregivers – can’t depend on them for stable and consistent care.

As kids we NEED to have the sense that we can depend on those wacky adults to take care of us – we’re not ready yet. But here’s the rub: we’re not little kids anymore. We’re grown-ups. I didn’t say we’re perfectly competent or without concerns. At the same time we’re ALREADY managing our lives as grown-ups…

Because again and again I see people who are very quick to talk about their fears of winding up alone, being abandoned or unloved or afraid, or that they can’t manage their lives without help, who are at the same time raising children of their own, managing their own finances, working at part or full-time jobs, dealing with aging or sick parents, being the primary bread-winner, etc.

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What happened? I don’t think it’s complicated. We, at some point, learned that we couldn’t really trust ourselves to take care of ourselves. Ideally our parents and caregivers, teachers and mentors would have helped us to develop that trust by doing two things:

1) demonstrating that they were THERE when we needed them, so we had a solid foundation of trust in them. This is called attachment theory, and it seems to have an enormous impact on our self-trust. 2) letting us try things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, all in an atmosphere of encouragement and growing self-reliance.

Happily we don’t have to throw up our hands and surrender if we didn’t get that kind of growing up experience. We can learn to do that for ourselves! We can start taking small risks, encouraging ourselves, getting support from other people as we face down our fears of being inadequate to the task of supporting ourselves.

In other words we can start mapping self-care, self-support as a problem, a set of skills to master, rather than as a scary monster crisis that we should run away from…

See the pattern here? This is a different, and very specific way, of seeing the crisis of anxiety in our thinking for what it is – fearful, less-than-lucid thinking that we can change into more mature and more problem-focused thinking. We won’t do it overnight – but we can begin, in small ways, from wherever we’re standing, and fight our way into healthier mental frameworks.

That’s enough Childish Fear for the day –

And I’ll come back in my next blog post with the rest of the list. In the meantime consider how you might best begin to see your fears as the voices of a young, frightened child – and how you can begin to comfort, support and encourage that child to see that there is no crisis. Start looking at the ways you fear alone, or fear your supposed inability to care for yourself. You may be fighting old, childish thinking – but you are not a child, and you are not alone, and you are more capable than your fears tell you.

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