I love good story-telling. I’m a big TV and film watcher (a little picky, but the stuff I love, I love.) Yes, I watch Game of Thrones, and Teen Wolf, and Star Trek, and the Night Shift. I have been a fan in the past of Law and Order, and ER, and Friends. The movies I treasure are too numerous to mention…

But as much as I love a good story I’m always reminded that even the best of stories (with the possible exception of Game of Thrones, which almost goes too far in the opposite direction) leaves out a lot of the slow, frustrating, tedious times that also make up any real story.

You know what I mean. A young couple meets, falls in love, goes through some adventures, maybe doubts their relationship once or twice, then it’s the final scene, love triumphs and the credits roll. Ta da!

Not usually how it works in real life. Makes for good, speedy story-telling, but it doesn’t do justice to how a developmental process actually rolls. That young couple will have some fights, some miscommunications, some friends interfering in their new-found relationship. They will have financial challenges, be pulled in different directions, have to reconcile things they don’t like about each other, etc.

The same is true of overcoming anxiety. We read the books, we go to the therapist, we learn some techniques – and then a lot of us expect that we’ll sail a clear path to freedom. (Or, at least, we hope like hell that there will be a relatively painless path to freedom.)

Thank you for playing, but no – that isn’t how this goes. NO question there will be growth, and victories, better days, clearer thinking, better understanding. Fear will diminish and there will be progress.

Setback 4

But there will also be setbacks. There will be times we stall out and can’t seem to make any headway. We will seem to reach plateaus and only see frustrating sameness on the near horizon.

That’s normal. That’s part of this getting smarter/wiser/more skillful process. Let’s talk about it –

Setbacks

Let’s first of all question this word setback. It sounds like something from sports, although it’s actually a word from architecture (of all things.) The primary common definition however is what most of us think it means – “a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely.”

That is certainly what it can feel like when things suddenly seem like we haven’t learned anything! We think we’re making progress and then we wake up one morning and it is like we haven’t learned a damn thing. Skills seem absent, motivation seems in the toilet, we’re scared and confused and it FEELS like we’ve lost something.

We haven’t lost anything. Let me repeat that: we haven’t lost a dang thing. Learning is learning. Skills are skills. Sure, if we sat on our hands for years and didn’t do anything we might see skills atrophy, get rusty from disuse. But just ask anybody who ever learned to ride a bike and then didn’t ride a bike for a long time if they regained their bike-riding skills when they got back up on a bike –

Because they did. Same thing for the skills needed to deal with anxiety. Sure, it isn’t fun. And I’m going to explain in a minute what setbacks actually are. But it isn’t about losing anything.

Setback 2

So, what ARE setbacks?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your Seat Belts

ANYONE who is fighting their way up and out of anxiety runs into several standard “bumps” in the road. I’ve only realized recently that not much has been written about these bumps (at least not that I’ve found) so it’s time to shed some light on the subject.

One thing that will bring on a setback is several of our fears coming at us at once. We’ve been dealing with our fears, we’re getting some skill at unpacking, we’re starting to feel the burn of exercise well-done, and then bam! We get hit by what feels like all of our fears at once.

In other words we get overwhelmed. We were OK with one fear, or maybe two, but here’s eleven – let’s see how you do now! 🙂 Of course we’re going to try, reflexively, to return to old habits of anxiety management. And there’s the rub – we’re just defaulting to old ways of anxiety coping.

Really listen to that last piece: we are reverting to old habits of anxiety management in the presence of temporary overwhelm.

We’re not losing what we’ve learned. We’re not “backsliding.” We’re not stupid, we’re not failing, we’re not fragile creatures made of spun glass – we’re just in a learning curve, just building some skills, and we’re not where we’d like to be just yet. Perhaps most importantly IT ISN’T A CRISIS. It’s just anxiety banging on our doors again.

What else can trigger a “setback”? In my experience physical debilitation – i.e., getting sick, dealing with a physical injury, either one – can put us off our game. We forget that our minds and our bodies are tied together – and weakness in one can bring challenges in the other, either direction. So we’re not at our best when we’re sick or injured – and it will be easier to again go back to old habits.

Setback 1

This can also be set up by simply a period of sustained lack of decent sleep. Most people here in the 21st century have a very skewed view of sleep and our bodies’ needs. We act as if we were machines that can be driven hard, day after day, and not need to take ourselves off the highway for a rest stop. Anxiety can also impact our sleep quality. In any event we NEED to gear back and get quality rest, to the extent we can.

And if we don’t we can lose track of our developing skills. When I say lose track I don’t mean lose completely. I simply mean that we are still solidifying our skills, and with the drains of illness, injury or lack of sleep, at this point in the learning curve, we get distracted and default, again, to old anxiety habits of thought and reaction.

The third way I’ve noticed that we get a little sideways in our skill-building is falling back into the habit of self-abuse and self-criticism – self-hating behaviors. (See the posts that start HERE around a detailed discussion of the impact of learned self-hatred on our anxious thinking and what to do about it.)

We, the solid majority of us, learned that the way to make progress or measure up was to hammer on ourselves as a form of self-motivation. I don’t know that it ever works well for most of us, but it sure as hell doesn’t do much for sustained motivation, and it’s terrible when it comes to self-confidence, self-encouragement and self-care.

The worst part is most of us have no idea we’ve defaulted back to that crappy, self-abusive recrimination that we learned to do so well in an earlier time in our lives. Before we know it we’re yelling at ourselves, cursing our weakness, treating ourselves like wayward children. And none of that does much for our skill-building at converting anxious thinking to problem thinking.

Setback 6

This is again, simply, time to practice getting our thinking clear – in this case, recognizing and shutting down the self-critical voice that ISN’T helping, getting our thinking clean and getting back to framing problems as problems, not failures or character flaws.

Need to be focused on changing thinking – but succumb to the temptation to trying, futilely, to controlling Flight or Fight by force of will.

Stalls/Plateaus

Where I grew up (Las Vegas) there are these interesting features in the desert landscape called mesas. They are these flat-topped little hills or mountains. I don’t understand all the geology behind them, but they are pretty great if you like to hike. You laboring up this steep hillside and then suddenly you’re on this flat, elevated place where you can see for miles around. And you can REST from the climb too.

Mesas are not a bad metaphor for what happens to us sometimes in our journey up and out of anxiety. There’s no question that we want to climb and be DONE with this work. It can get so urgent for us that ANY delay in our progress MUST mean we are doing something wrong, we’re screwing up, oh my gosh what am I going to do, etc.

But every ascent, every journey, is going to have slow times and plateaus. Every hiker knows that you can’t ALWAYS be heading uphill, ALWAYS making the steep ascent. Sometimes you have to walk level ground, or even go downhill a little ways, to continue the climb.

Same thing applies to any skill acquisition we’re doing. Skills need time to settle into our brains and bodies. Skills are, in some respects, collections of habits, and habits take time to acquire/get fixed in our behavior. And, as I’ve just discussed, old habits sometimes try to assert themselves. There’s practice time in dealing with securing new skills over old skills.

There’s also learning capacity too. Sometimes we just need some time given all we’re learning AND what’s happening in the rest of our lives.

Setback 7

Sure, we’d like things to move faster. No question. But some processes can’t be rushed. Skill-building can be focused on and helped along, but for the most part it will take time, along with all that effort, to get where we want to go.

Setbacks, Stalls and Plateaus – part of the Work

Maybe the most important thing to take away from this blog post is that there is nothing to be afraid of when we find ourselves not making the forward progress we’re so impatient for every minute of the day. This, too, is not a crisis. It’s just part of the learning curve.

And these periods of less-than-rapid growth ARE helping us grow. You might even say these times are essential to help us really get this work in our bones.

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