(I’ve had some friends and clients feeling the stress of doing this work, and I wanted today to help cheer them on. I originally put this post up at the start of the year, and thought it be might useful to have a mid-year reminder…)

Too many of us anxiety fighters learned a crazy lesson over the years of living in fear: we learned that we were fragile. We’re wrong, but we don’t know we’re wrong. This post is a follow-up to my post HERE on not flinching back from this anxiety work – as well as a discussion of how much agency/strength we have in our lives. HOWEVER it seems or feels to us for the moment…

You might be thinking at the moment hey Erik, I AM fragile. I feel overwhelmed by my life, my stress, my fears and my inadequacies. You might also be saying that there is a lot of evidence that you ARE fragile, and that seems hard to refute from where you’re sitting.

I understand that thinking, that feeling. I thought and felt the same way for decades – really, I thought and felt that way before I even KNEW I did. But I was wrong – and so are you.

We’re not made of glass. We won’t shatter in the face of troubles. We just don’t get it yet. So let’s talk about just how not fragile – and about how TOUGH we actually are. Because it’s time you knew that you’re a fighter, and that you’re tougher than you know.

How did we start thinking this way?

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As much as I talk about the origins of anxiety in this blog I don’t think I have written enough about the early days of our acquiring the foundations of our anxious thinking. Because, you see, we don’t show up anxious. We learn to think anxiously, and that’s where we get in trouble.

There are some folks running around in the world that have a conviction that at least some of us are born anxious. There’s nothing in the research that’s been done to date that says there is any convincing evidence of this, but it can be a tempting theory. One of the reasons it’s tempting is that we don’t remember, most of us, some clear demarcation in our lives when anxiety began.

In fact (speaking both from my own personal experience and my experience working with chronic anxiety fighters) it seems to sneak up on us, to just “come out of nowhere.” It might seem to come in the form of a sudden traumatic moment where we have our first panic attack. It might be simply that we become aware one day of just how frightened and nervous and anxious we feel one overwhelming afternoon.

But most of us don’t really parse out how this got started. It isn’t complex. It started with us learning to see the world through anxious eyes – more specifically, through the lens of anxious thinking. We picked up, to a significant extent, in the way we learned to think from the people around us – family, friends, even school and church can contribute.

There is much more to say on this subject, but the point here is that we understood SO LITTLE of what was going on. This lack of good information/understanding left us floundering when chronic anxiety made its first obvious appearance in our lives.

When that ugly/scary first anxiety experience happened we had Flight or Fight fire up. And man, it scared us. It FELT like something terrible was happening – something too terrible for us to manage. We succumbed to the warnings of Flight or Fight – we ran away. And, because we ran away, Flight or Fight calmed down to some extent.

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That set us up two ways: 1) running away is a good idea, and 2) we couldn’t handle what scared us. In other words We learned early that we were NOT equal to our lives, in some or in many areas – i.e., we learned to think that we couldn’t manage our own lives, that we weren’t smart enough, strong enough, capable enough, you name it.

UGH. Not so useful. But all we knew was we were “safe” from those terrible feelings of panic and anxiety, and so we counted our blessings and tried to forget it.

What we didn’t understand then was we were NOT anxious “out of the blue” We were anxious because we had spent years and years looking at things in our lives as crises – i.e., things that would be too awful to endure if they turned out the way our fears had us thinking about them.

We were trying desperately to avoid offending other people. Or making anyone mad at us. Or failing in our role as wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, dad, friend, co-worker, etc. Or failing in our career. Or not being holy enough. Or in some way treating multiple issues that were only WERE issues as if they were life-and-death crises.

We were trying to follow a LOT of rules, shoulds, must bes, etc. – and it proved overwhelming to us – and so we ran away, not understanding the real reasons we were anxious, and now terrified of this panic and fierce anxiety thing.

And, in running away, we confirmed with ourselves that we were not able to endure all we were supposed to endure/manage/deal with in our lives.

And the Party was just beginning…

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This pattern of thinking and feeling anxiously, then running away and in our running finding some relief from that anxious thinking and feeling, got reinforced every time we ran. We developed the habit of running away – in our minds and in our lives. We could feel our lives getting smaller – but we really didn’t see an alternative.

Not so great for self-confidence and the sense that we can take care of ourselves, yes? We felt unsure of ourselves, fragile, weak and other nice words we might have used to describe how we felt then (and maybe now.)

Worse, we looked at other people and THEY seemed to be managing their lives – what the hell was wrong with us? (Appearances are deceiving, we’re not seeing into their lives or thinking, etc., but again, we didn’t or don’t see that when we’re busy beating ourselves up because we feel so weak/fragile/unable to cope.)

And of course we’ve KEPT backing up, kept running away from what is making us so freakin’ scared.

We may have turned to medication, which can in some cases be a real help/relief to how we FEEL, and even help give our thinking some room to maneuver. But it also, at some level, gave way too many of us further proof that we weren’t strong or capable enough to manage life on our own ability. It made us feel dependent and even more fragile.

(Worse, unless those meds were accompanied by the work necessary to challenge and change those old habits of anxious thinking, nothing really changed about our anxiety. It was still there, still in the background, and that, too, was a gnawing concern for us.)

As the days and months and years rolled on our worlds got smaller, our fears didn’t really go anyplace and we wound up with the conviction that we were NOT capable of dealing with life.

We were wrong

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The therapy people talk about how we create stories about our experience and lives – a narrative of what is our truth, what is real for us. The bad news is that story, that narrative doesn’t necessarily reflect what IS really going on or what we have experienced.

But the good news is that we are free to examine and even change that narrative to something that is closer to the truth. Dang good thing too, because we are much, much more capable than we allow ourselves to think, and we have been much tougher than we have ever believed.

Look at what you HAVE done for a minute. If you’re a chronic anxiety fighter than you have

put up with chronic anxiety and fear for years or decades,

managed to still get along, by hook or crook, even as we told ourselves we couldn’t go on,

have often kept on dealing with anxiety AND feeding and raising kids, holding down a job,

taken care of elderly parents or disabled kids, dealing with other people’s problems, etc.,

have had to endure a terrible amount of negative feedback – intentional or unintentional – from the people in our lives that don’t understand chronic anxiety.

Holy crap. That’s a lot of stuff to manage for people who are supposedly fragile and weak and unable to deal with life. We are much stronger, much tougher than we see, because our stories of failure, weakness, inability cloud our ability to see what we’ve really been able to do. Weak people, fragile people couldn’t do all that I’ve listed here.

We need to understand that we are much stronger, much more able than we have been understanding about ourselves, and we need to learn to exploit that strength, use it to can help us climb out of anxious thinking and build new habits of thought.

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Pardon my French, but we have been telling ourselves a bullshit story, and it’s time we got honest about what we can do in this fight to beat anxiety.

Time for a New and More Honest story

So much of this comes down to FEELING. We don’t FEEL like we’re strong enough. We don’t FEEL like we can take care of ourselves. We don’t FEEL like we’ll ever get free of anxiety.

That makes sense. Flight or Fight is a strong mechanism, designed to get us moving in the face of real, actual danger. (How often do I say THAT in this blog?) But we are much more than Flight or Fight. And we are much more than our feelings.

Because our feelings are only a weathervane for our thoughts. If the wind picks up we don’t attempt to manage the wind by gluing the weathervane in one direction, do we? No. The weathervane just indicates what the wind is doing. Our feelings just indicate what our thoughts are doing.

Which means we need to review and rewrite this story of weakness and fragility. Here are some starting points:
We have endured anxious for years and years. If we have the strength to do that we have the strength to turn and face it down, deal with it and change our thinking.

We have endured the symptoms of anxious thinking – Flight or Fight’s sensations and feelings – for years and years. We have the capacity to face down those sensations and feelings and stop letting them scare us so much.

We have raised kids, managed houses and marriages, dealt with other people’s problems, suffered loss and grief and still pressed on, however much we told ourselves that we couldn’t manage all of that. If we can do that stuff we have the ability, energy and endurance to face down anxiety.

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We REALLY want to live a healthy, happy life. That by itself is a great focus to drive towards, even when our fears insist that there is no way, we can never have that, etc. This redirecting of our thinking to what we DO want is exactly the kind of practice we need to begin to develop the ability to redirect our thinking and take control of our thinking.

One last thing: as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog anxiety fighters are STUBBORN. Holy crap we are stubborn. We have tenacity and stubbornness in abundance. (You know it’s true.) Let’s come out of the closet as stubborn people and use that stubbornness to go get what we want – a different story about our thinking, our fears and our lives.

Not Sure what to Do Next?

1) Consider writing out both your current story, all that fear and junk in your head, and writing out the actual things you’ve had to move through, manage and deal with. Get help from family and friends if you find yourself unsure about the second story details – you’ll be surprised at what you hear. 🙂

2) Read “Compassion and Self-Hate” by T.I. Rubin (cheap on Amazon.) Read JUST the Compassion part (the second half of the book) FIRST – and begin to see how you are both telling yourself a faulty story AND see some examples of what a more healthy, more realistic story would look like.

3) Hit me here at the blog. I’ll be happy to help you start clarifying the real story of your ability and strength.

We are much, much stronger and more capable than we are being honest about with ourselves. Time to claim our real strength and ability…

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