You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Comfort Zone’ category.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been much of a reader of “classic” literature. I read the stuff I had to in high school and college – and liked some of it – but never developed a passion for stuff like Jane Eyre or Moby Dick or the Canterbury Tales.

Why confess all this to you? Because there is one classic story that I have read, and it is just about the perfect metaphor for what it means to fight our way out of serious anxiety. It is called Dante’s Inferno, and it is about a man’s journey, literally, through Hell, and what he learned along the way.

Today’s post is a review of what he learned, why it’s relevant in our fight to get clear of anxiety, and what we need to ‘gird our loins” for in this work. Loins girded? Let’s go –

The Journey starts in Hell

Let me say first that this isn’t an easy blog post to write, and it probably won’t be an easy blog post to read. What I want to do (and have often tried to do in this blog) is encourage people as much as possible. Anxiety is hard enough most of the time.

Dante 1

But I’ve come to re-realize in the last few months that there is an essential quality to this work that way, way too many of us don’t grasp sufficiently – it is very challenging work. Not so challenging that we can’t do it – but it is not easy, it is not comfortable, and it will most definitely take us way out of our Comfort Zones.

Let’s start with a basic truth about dealing with chronic anxiety. By the time we realize we are in the grip of anxious thinking and reacting we have already been fighting anxiety for years and years. Metaphorically, when we wake up to the battle, we’re already in hell – a hell of anxious thinking and dealing with Flight or Fight.

That can look like agoraphobia, or almost agoraphobia. That can look like repeated panic attacks that seem to come from nowhere and that plague our days. That can look like chronic, unrelieved depression. Or it can look like all those things at once.

Of course we didn’t just realize one day we were deep in the hold of anxiety. We’ve known at some level for a long time. But when it becomes something we can’t avoid looking at any more we are, in a sense, in Hell.

Hey, I don’t like saying it, and I don’t mean to imply that we can’t get OUT of Hell. But it doesn’t help to pretend that something isn’t what it is. Chronic anxiety sucks. It is life-draining, soul-smashing, terrifying and an utter burden. It FEELS like Hell.

We want to go up – but we have to go down first

Dante, at the start of the book called Inferno, finds himself in Hell. He has a guide (a guy named Virgil), and Virgil tells him that he’s going to have to walk through Hell to get out. Dante isn’t very excited about this news, but if he wants out it is what he has to do, so off they go –

Dante 4

Down. In Dante’s Hell everything heads down, with the nicest parts of Hell (if such a thing can be said) at the top, and conditions worsening as you go further down. Here’s the catch: the exit is at the bottom.

That’s a perfect description of the work to get free of anxiety. We want to go up – of course we do. We just want anxiety to STOP! Holy crap, who wouldn’t? But we can’t. In the Inferno there are monsters blocking the way – scary things that prevent us from moving to freedom. With anxiety there are scary monsters too – scary monsters of thinking that force us to try NEW thinking.

Permit me to remind you that anxiety is a thinking problem, a thinking disorder, and we won’t “just” get over it. We have to (as I’ve said over and over in this blog) change our thinking – hard work and slow all by itself.

But it’s also SCARY thinking – thinking we’ve been avoiding for years and years, running away from as hard as we could – and that makes it harder still. See where I’m going? We have to, in a sense, move deeper into that thinking, face it down – be willing to be scared, and tired, and mad, and reactive, and dealing with Flight or Fight – for a period of time before it starts to get better.

Kinda like heading down through Hell to get out. Again, at the very least it FEELS like Hell, and we can find ourselves saying things like “why am I putting myself through this hell?” The answer is simple: to get OUT.

The Journey is Hard!

If you’ve ever read The Inferno you know that Dante saw some pretty awful things in his journey down through the Circles of Hell. The souls in Hell were subjected to a series of terrible punishments based on their sins, but we who fight anxiety are not paying for sin – we’re paying for learning to treat problems, issues, LIFE as a crisis.

I can do it

I can do it

It would be wonderful (comparatively speaking) if we only had to change one thought, one what if fear in our heads. But part of the reason the journey through our personal Hell is such a struggle is that we didn’t just learn ONE what if. Nope, we’ve learned to think a number of what if fears, multiple habits of turning problems into crises, and so we’re facing down multiple scary thoughts and regular bouts of Flight or Fight reacting to that thinking.

This gets very tiring, very tedious, and often very scary. Yes, we’re reacting to thoughts, not real danger. But it feels like real danger.

This might be the hardest part of the journey for us as we address and rethink our thinking, because for a while it is very punishing – we are still reacting to those thoughts as crisis thoughts, Flight or Fight is still beating at our door, and we are having to endure those reactions until we begin to clearly establish that new thinking approach, the treating of problems AS problems.

I often call this work “cleaning out the basement.” (Which, for some of us, is very much like having to go through Hell.) Think of a big, dark, cluttered basement. It’s hard to see in (the light has burned out), you keep banging your shins into hard edges, the place is full of dust and spiderwebs and you’re on edge because you don’t really know what’s down there!

What are we cleaning out? We’re cleaning out old assumptions about who we should be, what we should be able to do, what we must NEVER do, how we should ALWAYS act. We are assessing and rethinking rules, beliefs and personal standards (which are usually insanely, impossibly high and self-punishing.)

What can make this particularly “hellish” is how we keep flinching back, keep wanting to run every time that our fears fire up Flight or Fight. This is why I drive SO diligently the practice of seeing Flight or Fight for what it is –an automatic alarm system trying to “get us to safety” when there in fact is no danger.

Dante 2

The problem is that Flight or Fight becomes our own personal demon (or demons), constantly trying to scare us, poke at us, freak us out, make us RUN. Again, it feels like hell –

This is a Hard Journey – but it is a Journey anyone can take

This work won’t get done overnight. It will take weeks and weeks, months of work to rework our thinking into healthy tracks. It will very much feel like moving down through Hell, many days. But at the end of the day the only way out is through.

And perhaps more importantly it is a journey that anyone can finish. There really is a door in the bottom of hell, both in Dante’s fictional story and in our very real fight, and it leads out into a life beyond incessant anxiety and worry.

And there is more than just an ending to chronic anxiety. There is a powerful new set of thinking skills that we’ll possess, and we’ll never look at anxiety the same way again. There is a huge new sense of freedom, a freedom to tackle life in comfort and confidence. There are new adventures, whole new people to meet, new ways to live our life.

All of that is waiting outside this hell we’ve come to live in. All that’s left for us to do is start the journey down – and out. It feels like hell, it sure seems like hell sometimes, but it’s really just us facing down our fears.


You know who’s brilliant at looking backwards in time? Anxiety fighters. We are remarkable in our ability to get lost in grief, regret and pointless review of earlier days, earlier self-perceived failings and mistakes and not “getting it right.”

We who battle anxiety by definition are lost in the future too much of the time, no doubt. That’s the heart and soul of anxiety. But we can get lost in the future by getting consumed by the past and what did or didn’t happen. (What? How does that work? Stay with me – I’ll explain myself in a bit.)

To wage this battle against anxiety effectively we have to do something that always makes me laugh (and shake my head, remembering my own long history of doing this regret thing) when I hear my friend Sam say the following truth: “We have to give up hope for a better past.”

That’s the mission of today’s blog post: getting our heads out of the past is essential to getting free of anxiety. We can’t fight anxiety in the future OR the past (although, in truth, it is always and only EVER about the future.) We can only fight it here in the present.

Letting go 4

Looking over our Shoulder all the Time gives you a Stiff Neck…

One of the gifts of being human is that we remember stuff. We remember our names, where we live, what we did 4 weeks ago that was fun, why we shouldn’t touch a hot stove, cool stuff like that. It is sometimes great that we remember things.

Remembering things is essential to learning. There have been people who have taken brain injuries of one kind or another who literally cannot remember anything long enough to retain it – and as a result they cannot learn. Remembering is good because it can lead to learning. (Note that I said CAN – other things come into play, which we’ll get to in a minute – but it doesn’t have to drive learning.)

On the other hand one of the big challenges of being human is that we remember stuff – stuff we would rather not remember. We remember mistakes, failings, angry conversations, hurts, abuses, dangerous situations, scary situations. If we are not careful we can get lost in remembering, over and over.

We can get stuck in the past. This can in turn feed issues like lingering regret, on-going grief, sustained anger, the fear of loss, and yes, anxiety. We can get stuck in a feedback loop of, at least in part, our own creating. We review the past, we pore over our mistakes and stumbles, we do mea culpa (or rage against the injustice, or whatever we’re thinking about the past), and that in turn makes us feel all the feelings I just listed – and we start the merry-go-round up again.

All of this getting stuck in the past can be summarized by saying we are scared of what that past means for our future. We are scared of what it meant then, no doubt – but more importantly we’re scared of what it means for the future. Yeah – the future.

Letting go 1

All anxiety is about avoiding danger – real, or imagined. If we think that something in our past means something for our future, and that thing is scary, then we’re going to start treating it as a crisis.

Examples of how we can let the Past Scare us about the Future

Let’s say we went through, in the past, a really crappy relationship. We fell for the wrong person, or that person went off the rails, or whatever the problem was the relationship ended badly. We were pretty hurt, pretty damaged by the whole experience.

More importantly, it scared us. We were left doubting our ability to DO relationship in healthy ways. We began to speculate, using those two, terrible words: what if. What if I’m unable to have a healthy relationship? What if it is ME that makes it so hard? What if I just can’t find someone who I can make a life with EVER?

It feels like we’re stuck in the past. And we are. But we’re not really worrying about the past. We’re worrying about the future. And in our worry we’re treating that hypothetical, always-alone, never-find-love-again as a crisis – and that of course is firing up Flight or Fight, which feeds the anxiety and creates a wonderful feedback loop…

And presto, we’re anxious.

Or let’s say we suffered some terrible trauma in our earlier days. Maybe it was a bad car accident. Maybe somebody attacked us physically. Maybe we were physically abused. Maybe we got sick, or had a scary hospital experience. (Ugh. All terrible things to have to endure.) No question that anybody would have to do some recovering and healing from such experiences.

Letting go 3

It feels like we’re pinned by those bad experiences. We keep reliving them, or running away from them, or both. But there’s a problem with that thinking: the event is already behind us. Regardless of the trauma experienced, regardless of what happened, it is DONE.

I am not, in a thousand years, trying to say that we should “just get over it” or pretend somehow that it didn’t happen. Far from it. I’m saying that in the normal course of mental, physical and emotional healing we would normally grieve, process and then move on.

But when we start making it a crisis that we hang onto we are really worrying about the future. And that’s where we get in trouble. Having a bad experience in the PAST doesn’t mean that we’re forever chained to that past!

Were we emotionally and mentally hit (and scarred) by that experience? That’s not a small thing. I’m not saying that we didn’t experience trauma. But it is what we DO with that trauma moving forward that is crucial to breaking anxiety’s hold. Something that is done is DONE. It is only a burden to us if we carry it forward.

And the way we carry it forward is being afraid of it as if it was going to happen again. We don’t have to be conscious of that fear/assumption to have it rule (and ruin) our lives in the present. We can simply flinch away from the terrible memories, feelings, experiences to have them wreak havoc in our current life.

I’m not claiming that this is easy work. Any “what if?” thought can grow to giant proportions if we feed it over time.

So what do we DO about past trauma that is making a mess of our present?

My first recommendation is to find a good therapist. I’m not talking about an MD here. I’m talking about someone who is trained to deal with trauma and even PTSD. Yes, past trauma, even for people that have never been to war or caught in a firefight can be labeled PTSD.

It is in fact my argument that PTSD is just a very extreme form of what if thinking linked to a past traumatic event that we’re projecting into our future. Therapy, effective therapy, is often vital to that work. Get somebody who will both listen to you and help you see that the past is in fact the past, whatever happened – and that your mission moving forward is to get into the present, working to build the kind of life you want.

Letting go 2

My second recommendation is to get clean on precisely what you are what if thinking about. Depending on the intensity of the issue (a bad accident or hospital experience, for example, or a physical assault) it might be better to identify those what if assumptions WITH a therapist.

It is also however work that may be possible to do with journaling, a coach or a close friend/family member that we can drop our shields with and do some working through about. All anxiety comes down to what if thinking (anxiety that isn’t induced by, say, 4 café grandes from Starbucks.) Certainly doing both can only advance our cause.

My third recommendation (and related to number two) is to get clear what our expectations were and are about our life – what SHOULD have happened, what we SHOULD have experienced, what we SHOULD be able to do, etc. We can get stuck in what if thinking in part when we are holding onto old expectations, old rules, old assumptions about how life should or shouldn’t work…

This is emotional and difficult work. It will, for a while, ramp up Flight or Fight in our bodies and feelings. It will ruffle our feathers and make us scratchy as hell. We won’t do it all at once. We will flinch back some more and get mad and sad and frustrated.

But letting go of the past is one of the most healthy things we can do for ourselves, and especially a past that we are carrying with us into our present. The past is done, however much we regret it, however much we were hurt in it.

Today is today. And the future, as long as we’re here, stretches before us. Isn’t it time to stop paying rent on the past?

Letting go 5

It would be nice to believe that we’ve all arrived at the same clear, simple, rational understanding of anxiety – why it happens, why it does what it does to us, and what we can do about it. But the truth is that for some people (lots and lots of people) the jury is still out. And that jury being out leaves way too many of us flailing in the dark when it comes to what we can and should do about anxiety.

I work with some wonderful people via Facebook on the subject of anxiety. Through them I have had access to a large (and I mean BIG) group of people who are all battling anxiety. As in hundreds of people. It’s great, even brilliant that we have the capacity these days to make contact with other anxiety fighters and find support – I sure as hell didn’t have any of that “back in the day.”

But what isn’t brilliant is the troubling amount of misinformation that is floating around out there, and perhaps especially in the world of the internet. Today’s post is about identifying and debunking some of the worst of that misinformation.

Why do this? Because anxiety is particularly good at making us give up, just stop trying, if we think that we are dealing with something that we can’t change. The inaccurate beliefs/assumptions I’m tackling today are especially insidious when it comes to getting us to give up – and that isn’t useful.

So, let’s tackle some less-than-useful thinking around what anxiety is…

Theory 1

Anxiety is Genetic

There are some people, doctors included, who are fond of the notion that anxiety is a genetic disorder or problem. I’m not 100% certain why they have come to this conclusion, but it’s wrong.

This isn’t to say that certain tendencies that can be influenced by genetics don’t potentially increase the possibility that we may wrestle with anxiety, under some conditions. It has been argued in some theories of anxiety that anxiety fighters have two specific traits – we’re smart and we’re a little more sensitive to stimuli that perhaps other people.

(Yeah, I said smart. As in intelligent. So far, in my experience, I have no evidence that contradicts this notion. I’ve never met a dumb anxiety fighter. In fact the opposite seems to be true – we are the ones who OVERTHINK things.)

Certainly both of those traits are influenced by genetics! But neither of these issues decides whether or not we’ll be anxious thinkers. No, it’s learned thinking that brings us to a place of chronic/ongoing anxiety.

Let me say that again: anxiety is a thinking problem. We are not BORN with our thinking tendencies. We learn them as we go along. We have the hardware – our brains. We have to acquire the software – our thinking patterns/assumptions/beliefs.

Theory 2

I drive this discussion so hard because some of us find it very easy to say “oh, well, I’m just an anxious person”, as if anxiety was a personality trait that we are given at birth. Not so. Also not useful. It’s too easy to default to giving up if you think you’re naturally doomed to anxiety.

Anxiety is mainly Biochemical – i.e, it’s a brain disorder

Another theory of anxiety is that there is something fundamentally wrong with one or more of our neurotransmitters, with the usual suspect being Serotonin. Certainly Serotonin is impacted by a number of variables, and there is definitely evidence that says that reduced Serotonin levels are found in people who are dealing with chronic anxiety.

But this only begs the question: which comes first – reduced Serotonin levels or anxious thinking? I am no neurologist. But I can say with a lot of confidence that there is good evidence that chronic anxious thinking (and the resulting Flight or Fight reactions in our bodies and brains) can impact Serotonin levels – specifically, slowly reducing them over time, leaving us with lowered thresholds to stimuli – and thus more prone to Flight or Fight firing up.

This means that if we begin to tackle that anxious thinking, reducing the tendencies to generate “what if” thoughts and the resulting fright responses, we can take Serotonin levels in the opposite direction. Once anxious, always anxious (i.e., we can manage anxiety, but we can never be free of chronic anxiety) simply isn’t true.

Theory 3

I’m not saying it doesn’t FEEL that way. Part of this belief, I suspect, stems from how little we understand our anxious thinking – how dense and quick it can be in the background of our thinking. We’ve been fighting it for years and decades, we’ve tried different things – desensitization, medications, meditation, etc. – but because we didn’t understand this fundamental truth of anxiety – that it is based in anxious thinking – nothing changed for us.

Don’t take my word for ANY of this, btw. Everything I advocate in this work of breaking the hold of anxious thinking is MEANT to be road-tested.

Medication is the only real/workable way to Manage Anxiety

This is a whole conversation by itself, this discussion of the role of meds in dealing with anxiety (see my blog post HERE for some more on this subject.) There’s no question that meds can be, used correctly, a tool that can assist us in this fight.

Meds can, for some people, ease the impact of Flight or Fight reactions to our anxious thinking. Flight or Fight is so scary for the vast majority of us, and in easing that roar of sensations and feelings we can get some better clarity in our thinking.

Theory 4

Unfortunately many of us stop there. And it makes perfect sense. We think “hey, I feel better, why should I keep wrestling with this crap? I just want my life back anyway.” So we don’t do the hard and messy work of cleaning up our thinking –

Which leaves us managing our anxiety with medication. Of course we’re not really managing anything – we’re just keeping the worst of the symptoms at bay. That’s legal – but it isn’t taking us out of chronic anxious thinking.

It isn’t a long journey from this behavior to “I’ve GOT to have meds to manage my anxiety.” Worse, too many people, not understanding the real source of anxiety in the first place, stop at whatever relief they get from their meds – and then live in terror of the day when their meds don’t work, or they are cut off from those meds. Ugh.

Medications CAN’T end anxiety for us. They can give us breathing space. They can help us think a little more clearly to do the work of sorting out and ending chronic anxious thinking. But they can’t, by themselves, change that thinking.

It’s all in our Heads…

No, that doesn’t mean we’re making up anxiety because we’re crazy, lazy or just sad little people. Anxiety is a thinking disorder. And that’s actually a pretty great way to put it – thinking disorder. Because our thinking is out of order when it comes to how we’re framing our world and how we roll in that world.

We’re not “anxious people.” This isn’t a character trait – or flaw. We’re not neurologically damaged, thank you very much. Yeah, neuro-transmitters are impacted by chronic anxious thinking – and we are still free to clean up that thinking. And while it would be great if there really was a pill to take that would make anxious thinking stop, at the moment no such creature exists.

Anxiety is learned. And as I’ve written here before, anything we can learn, we can unlearn – and more importantly, learn differently.

Keep It Simple sign with a beach on background

We are created beings. When I say that I don’t mean in the way most of us might think of creation – i.e., that we are the products of a Master Craftsman. That’s not what I’m talking about in today’s post.

Nope, when I say this I mean we are, mentally (and as a result also largely emotionally) the products of our environment – what we learned and how we come to think about our world.

This isn’t to say that genetics doesn’t play a role. It does, in big ways. But that can only, and only to some extent, set the stage for who we become. Humans are thinking creatures, and our thinking governs an enormous amount of how we deal with the lives we live (and create – too often unconsciously.)

To get free of anxiety we, literally and in significant ways, have to reinvent ourselves – specifically, recreate portions of our thinking, dumping some stuff and creating a new map of our world.

How we think when we develop anxiety

It might seem weird to you when I say that we are, mentally and emotionally, largely the creatures of our environment. That’s because most of us think, at some level, that we “just are”. We were not conscious of a creation process of any kind, or at least most of the time.

Reinvent 4

We are not old enough, for example, to remember all the conversations that happened around us while we were gurgling and cooing in our cribs or on that cute blanket grandma made for us. We were listening, however – listening pretty closely as we began to grow and develop.

We heard, for instance, what good and bad meant to our parents, our older siblings, our grandparents, and maybe our, in that fine British term, “minders” – babysitters. Never do this, always do that, this means this, that means that.

We heard things like don’t be selfish, always think of other people first, don’t make that noise, pick up your toys, aren’t those Republicans (or Democrats, or Catholics, or Mormons, or Baptists, or black people, or white people, or poor people, or rich people…) terrible… we heard a lot of stuff, a lot of ways to think about and see the world.

In fact we absorbed a LOT of thinking. Holy crap! And like the little sponges that we were we took it all in, filing it away, building a map of the world. We also had our own experiences, and thankfully also had a hand in building our universe.

But a great deal of that building took place against the backdrop of our training – our learning at the feet of the people in our world. Our thinking and experience was often in the context of their thinking, beliefs, attitudes – and fears.

Yeah, I just said fears. We absorbed a lot of fears as well (or you wouldn’t be here reading this blog.) As I’ve said before in this writing it wasn’t like our family, minders, etc. set OUT to make us anxious. Hell no. They just, by their words and deeds, trained us to absorb those fears, those worries they were carting around.

Did we add to that list? Almost certainly. Did we absorb EVERY fear they had? Probably not. But we had the groundwork laid for us, and too often we built upon that groundwork.

Reinvent 3

How that thinking derails us

This blog post isn’t about assigning blame. It doesn’t matter at this point who did what. What matters now is how it happened – because how it happened is also how we can CHANGE that thinking. We’ve covered how it happened. Let’s talk about how we get changed.

Specifically for this conversation we get derailed because we usually have very little idea that we were TRAINED to think anxiously. We persist in the thinking that we are “anxious people” or that “we just think the way we think.” That’s not true, but it is very easy to stop there.

(Worse still there are a cluster of people running around in the world that are convinced that anxiety is something that “just is” – part of us, native to us – and that we can’t ever really get free of anxiety. I use this word a lot in my writing here, I know, but – bullshit.)

To break the hold of anxiety in our lives we have to see and come to understand that we are seeing portions of our lives through a very specific lens of thinking. We learn to tell the story of our lives in very specific ways – unaware, largely, there are other ways to tell that story, experience what we experience.

Example: we learn to evaluate conflict (people verbally fighting, not physical fighting) from the training we received from the people in our lives (by and large.) We learn both from what they SAY about what it means when people fight verbally and from how they REACT to those fights.

Reinvent 1

So if we hear that saying cross words to other people is terrible, wrong, bad – if we see people fight and then be reduced to tears of rage and grief – if we see people reacting to verbal fights with long periods of sullen silence and distance – we are likely to take away the lesson that ALL relational fighting is evil and must be avoided at ALL COSTS.

So we can grow up doing anything to avoid conflict – saying yes to things we don’t really want to do, or worse, attempting to do things (like make everyone happy, never have anyone ever be upset) that are literally impossible. Not so helpful. Often a prime source of anxious thinking.

Let me repeat that last sentence: this is often a prime source of anxious thinking, and it is dysfunctional as crap.

Because of course EVERYBODY knows that ANY conflict is destructive, terrible, the very evidence of Satan on Earth – right? Conflict destroys relationships, poisons them, leaves nothing but hurt and damage in its wake.

Or does it? Maybe a better question is does it have to?

You see, we could have learned a different story about personal conflict. Some people (not many, sadly, but some) learn that fighting is often a way to get to difficult subjects, subjects that are scary or hard to talk about. They learn that it’s OK to be uncomfortable for a period of time while people are wrestling with these conversations.

They learn that sometimes the best thing we can do is just listen to the other person if they’re angry, reflect back what they’ve heard and let that person have their say.

Reinvent 6

Wow. That’s a pretty different story. So different for some of us that it seems almost impossible. But either story could be true, depending on how we think about conflict, how we come to learn to manage conflict – both of those things.

In other words they learned to see people fighting in a relationship as at MOST a problem – and even a thing that can be useful to make relationships even healthier. We anxiety fighters, on the other hand, usually learn to see it as a crisis – and presto – it makes us anxious.

We’re forced to rethink how we think

What am I saying? I’m saying that anxiety is the result of specific programming in our thinking. If you’re a computer person you understand that programs are distinct from the computer – i.e., what the computer is (the hardware, the wires and chips and such) differs from the programs that run on that computer.

That’s our brains vs. our thinking. We’re not hardwired to think anxiously. We learn to think anxiously, about some collection of issues, and we can learn to see those issues differently/much less anxiously.

This isn’t to say that we are not hardwired to REACT with anxiety once we’re thinking anxiously. 🙂 Flight or Fight is very much hardwired into our systems, our brains and bodies. It better be! Real danger won’t give us time to ponder what to do.

But anxiety isn’t real danger, despite how it feels. And when Flight or Fight fires up in response to our anxious thinking it just makes things worse – it isn’t helping anything.

Thankfully we are not going to have to wait around for Flight or Fight to calm down. Flight or Fight isn’t the problem. Our thinking is the problem. Our mission becomes rewriting the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place.

Reinvent 2

(And yes, I know, you’re thinking to yourself hey Erik, Flight or Fight IS the problem! I hate how I feel when I’m all revved up and fighting nausea or dry mouth or feeling panic or about to barf or feeling dizzy or whatever we’re dealing with when Flight or Fight gets going. But it is not the problem – it is a result of our anxious thinking. And of course we start whole trains of anxious thinking ABOUT Flight or Fight – but that’s still, simply, anxious thinking.)

To do that we have to dig into our thinking. We have to in a sense map how we think – identify where in our beliefs, attitudes and habits we treat whatever we treat as a crisis. This is WEIRD for most of us! We are rarely taught to sit down and sort out how we think about the world.

But think about the example I had above, the example about how to react to conflict. How do YOU think? What did your parents do? What did your church teach you about conflict? What did you learn in school? What did your friends think of conflict?

How does conflict make you feel? Because those feelings will point back, with practice on your part, to the thoughts that stand behind them, even if right now you’re not sure precisely why you dislike or even like conflict.

What words come out of your mouth when you think about engaging in a conflict with someone in your life? Even if you knew, for instance, that in this conflict you were the person in the right? That it was important, even very important, to have that conversation, let it turn into a fight, so you could get the issue out in the open and dealt with in a useful way?

That’s a simple, beginning example of mapping our thinking.

We are compelled to recreate/reinvent ourselves

What happens to us when we engage in this work and begin to get our arms around our anxious thinking. That sounds great and rational and pretty straightforward…

Reinvent 7

Except it is often anything but. We tend to resist change, we wacky humans, and we really seem to resist changing how we see the world. That includes how we see ourselves and our place in that world. We like things to stay pretty stable/familiar when it comes to our “mental map.”

So if we learned, early and hard, that conflict is dangerous and bad and selfish and destructive, then we’re going to resist changing that map we have of conflict. We can know intellectually that it’s a good idea to rethink conflict, we can nod knowingly when we read or hear people say this –

And then the moment we start thinking about maybe, just maybe, risking someone else’s displeasure or annoyance or actual, outright anger – we flinch back like a hand from a hot skillet. It’s SCARY to think about someone getting upset, we say to ourselves.

We find reasons to avoid it because it just feels so damn uncomfortable. We may rationalize away WHY we are resisting, in this example, risking conflict with another person – it isn’t kind, it isn’t Christian to get angry, it will just cause problems – but at the heart of things we’re AFRAID.

So when we do get down to it – when we do bring up the difficult topic, risk another person’s displeasure – we will have to do a little reinventing of ourselves. We’ll have to try new things, take a chance or seven on making mistakes. We’ll have to experiment with how we do this new thing, approach things this new way.

Fear of Conflict is Just one Example

There are a LOT of other things we learn to think that come from our training. I’m going to discuss some more in future blog posts. All I’m asking you to do in THIS post is get your arms around the notion that your thinking didn’t come from nowhere, or that you are somehow “just” anxious.

You learned to think anxiously. You can learn to not think anxiously. It takes sweat, labor and some reinventing of who we are – but those are all things any of us can do. Scary? You bet? Life-changing? You have no idea…

I wrote a post back in August about the Surrender Reflex (HERE). In it I talked about how we get TRAINED by anxiety into giving up. It’s a terrible training, but one that we can reverse and kick out of our lives.

Today’s post is a follow-up to that August post. I am going to talk about how that trained giving up that anxiety sets us up for takes shape – i.e., the ways we explain to ourselves why it’s OK to give up.

News flash: giving up takes us nowhere. Nowhere. It is SO tempting, so alluring to just throw in the towel and say things like “I’m never going to get free of anxiety” or “this is too hard for me.” But none of those things are true and none of those things are useful.

Let’s start the list:

It’s Hard

Hey, this is hard work. I’m not going to contest that. Hell yes this is hard work. It’s tedious, it’s exhausting, it often sucks and it would be nice if someone could just make this stop. I’ve heard all these things and I SAID all these things myself when I was slogging through this work.

Surrender 7

But it is easy to make hard a reason to give up. Anything new we learn will challenge us. Any new set of skills will require some sweat and toil. Certainly changing the habit patterns of anxious thinking is harder than learning to ride a bike or play the guitar.

And certainly Flight or Fight doesn’t make it any easier. This work demands that we learn new thinking skills and face down the crap we’re getting in our body and feelings. That work won’t come easy, and we will fight that work. Change is hard!

But so what? Do we want lives that are free of chronic anxiety or not? Hard is a quality, not an impassible barrier. It’s hard being pregnant and giving birth (or at least so I’m told – I’ve never had a baby and baby, that seems MUCH harder than overcoming anxiety, at least as far as this boy is concerned.) 🙂

Hard gets a bad rap. Hard makes us stronger. Hard means that we have to lean in and really dig for this work. Hard makes us smarter. Hard is largely based in the NEWNESS of this work for us – the often alien way this is making us rethink our thinking, the task of actually changing and challenging thinking (which most of us never learned to do, and which seems freaky and alien.)

Hard – but not impossible. Hard – but totally within reach. And it definitely gets easier and faster AS we learn to treat problems as problems, and as we learn to stop making Flight or Fight reactions into a crisis.

Surrender 2

It’s Lonely Work

Holy crap, yes, this is lonely work. I’m not going to fight you there. It seems like nobody really understands what we’re going through. People look at us like we’re mutants, they get impatient with our fears, they get frustrated when we won’t do what they want to do or when we just want to stay home and hide under the covers.

Yeah it’s often lonely. And? Does that mean we shouldn’t do this work, or that it isn’t worth doing? Of course not. Lonely is a quality, not an impassable barrier.

Of course we’re not truly alone. Not these days. There are lots of people talking to each other in places like Facebook and other online communities who are there to support us in our fight against anxiety. We can find people to talk to, people who understand and have been where we are in this fight.

(I would offer a suggestion that we, as we find and get involved in such groups, be leery of lots and lots of discussions about symptoms of Flight or Fight reactions, or how terrible the day is, beyond some focused sympathy and getting good information about the commonality of this fight for all of us. It can get easy to get lost in too much comparing of miseries – and that isn’t going to help us. It can in fact add to our anxiety, and we sure as hell don’t need THAT when we’re breaking the habit of anxious thinking.)

That isn’t counting the therapists, doctors and coaches who actually get this work and are there to help us as well. We can and should avail ourselves of that help as much as we can! (See my post HERE for more about finding a therapist.) And we’re of course usually not utterly alone even within our own communities and families.

It might mean having to get clean with people we care about – explaining to them, making them listen, teaching them how they can support and help you. Yeah, that might be challenging. But then we’ve developed a nasty habit of running away from the things that scare us – and that hasn’t worked out so well, right?

Surrender 3

I’m not strong enough

Forgive this next word, but, well, bullshit. If you’re here, on the planet, and you’re still breathing, you’re strong enough to do this work. No, you’re not the Man (or Woman) of Steel that you’d like to be, but you have the strength you need.

Hey, you’ve been anxious for years and decades, and you’re still here, yes? You’ve had terrible panic attacks or fought chronic unrelieved anxiety or fought ongoing depression (or all three) and you’re still breathing the air, yes? Then you’re strong enough to do this work.

When we say we’re not strong enough we’re really saying we don’t FEEL strong enough – and right away we’re talking the results of our anxious thinking, not any accurate measure of our actual strength. Don’t fool yourself that you’re not strong enough.

It is SO tempting to default to how we feel! Holy crap! But feeling not strong enough is just that – a feeling. Anxiety fighters are usually blind to their own strength. Any of us can do this work – if we begin to develop the habit of not letting feelings and sensations decide for us what we can and can’t do.

Other people don’t have to fight so hard

OK – it can feel that way. It can sure as hell look that way. People seem to breeze through the world, smiles on their faces, clothes clean, heads held high – it looks SO much easier for them.

Surrender 6

Except we have no idea what they’re dealing with in their lives – do we? This judging of other people’s lives and challenges based on how they LOOK – it’s a classic behavior of anxiety fighters. It’s an easy, nasty and useless habit to fall into if we’re not careful.

EVERYBODY has challenges. EVERYBODY is missing pieces of the puzzle and is having to make their way. So they have perfect teeth? So they get to ride around in Porches? So what? You don’t know what battles they are engaged in, there in the marches of the night, by themselves, with no-one to impress and no image to maintain.

And speaking of images, most of us anxiety fighters are doing a damn fine job of portraying a life of calm and zen peacefulness to the people around us. Most folks in our lives have no idea the battles we are engaged in, EVEN WHEN WE TELL THEM. They may hear it – but they don’t really GET IT until they have to deal with it themselves.

Kvetching about other people having it easier than us won’t take is anyplace. Doesn’t mean we can’t once in a while mutter to ourselves about how WE’D like to have a Porsche or perfect teeth – but we are then better served to get on with where WE are, not where someone else appears to be…

Action 6

It’s unfair

Damn right it’s unfair. Nobody should have to fight this fight. Just like nobody should have to fight cancer, or diabetes, or high blood pressure, or get in a car accident, or ever lose a child, or be poor, or deal with political debates. 🙂

So what? Fairness conversations are best left to the sports and the courtroom. Life is what it is, for each of us. Getting lost in debating the fairness of our situations when it comes to issues like anxiety or physical challenges is largely a waste of time and will produce little that is useful for us.

By all means draw boundaries. Fairness is part of living in the human community. Don’t be a doormat. But if you really think anxiety is unfair then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Wade in, attack the thinking that scares you, unlearn your learned flinching back from Flight or Fight, and CHANGE YOUR CRISIS TO PROBLEM THINKING.

Then you won’t care nearly so much if it’s fair or not. 🙂 By all means, get mad. Get frustrated that you feel weak. Be sad for yourself. Cover yourself in sackcloth and ashes. 🙂 It’s LEGAL! We fighters of anxiety are so quick to beat ourselves up for “being weak” or other unkind things we think about ourselves. This is hard work! Pity parties are part of the journey and we’re not losers if we succumb to frustration and fury over the struggle some days.

The problem isn’t getting upset or feeling sorry for ourselves. The problem is not taking action despite feeling that way.

Avoiding the thinking that makes us surrender

I hope that today’s list of ways we talk ourselves out of doing the necessary work to overcome anxiety is useful to you. This kind of thinking derailed me for way too long in my own fight, and I hope this discussion helps you lessens your own tendencies to get lost in less-than-useful thinking.

We are strong – stronger than we know, even with as hard as this work can feel. We are not freaks living with weird problems. Yes, it’s lonely work – but we’re not really alone. Yes, we are dealing with an unfair burden – but we can deal with it and get RID of that burden.

Monster 6

Flight or Fight is a sneaky thing. The name we give to this ancient self-protection mechanism sounds like it might focused on getting us moving – and indeed, if we’re faced down with real danger, that’s exactly what it often does.

But Flight or Fight might be sometimes more accurately labeled Flight or Fight… or Freeze. You know about baby deer when they feel danger, right? They freeze in place, hoping their little white spots keep them from whatever predator is hunting them. Well, it happens to us humans too. We can freeze in place.

That might not be a big deal if we didn’t STAY frozen. But as anxiety creeps into and begins to take over our lives we can stay more and more frozen – and that’s a problem if we want to get free of anxiety. We need to develop a focus for taking action – in multiple directions.

And I’m not just talking to chronic anxiety fighters. ANY area of our lives where we’ve developed the habit of freezing/hiding from what scares us will stay frozen – if we don’t shake free of that habit, that tendency to not make a move and deal with our fears.

Freezing 1

The Temptation to Freeze – and stay Frozen

It really comes down to this: we FEEL safer, too often, if we flinch back from our fears. We feel safer for two reasons and at two levels. First, if we flinch away and hide from the thinking that scares us (by avoiding the situation, by avoiding the conversation, by refusing to examine our own assumptions/beliefs/training, etc.)

Then we can, for a while, avoid the discomfort of challenging that anxious thinking. Second, if we run away from what Flight or Fight is doing in our bodies and feelings, then again, for a while, we feel less anxious – or even not anxious at all.

If the human race really, really understood this we’d be all but invincible! So much of what we run from isn’t dangerous, can’t hurt us – not unless we keep running. Worse, the damage that running does is SLOW – taking years and even decades to accumulate in our lives. We don’t see that we’re trading away our lives in the long term by running away from anxiety and discomfort in the short term.

This is the reason people’s lives get so small when they fight anxiety. Not seeing the answer is to face down the scary thinking and the reactive twitches of Flight or Fight they retreat, and keep retreating.

For a lot of people that means they don’t take on the challenges they need to get the lives they want. They explain it away. They say they didn’t really want the better job, the place they really wanted to live, the romance they had always hoped for, the LIFE they wanted to live. Maybe they only lock off that fear, and their lives are still decent, even good a lot of ways.

But they don’t get where they want to go. Worse, when the next thing that comes up that scares them, they run again. And again. Ever notice how often older people seem to be more and more anxious, more and more frightened, more and more unwilling to try new things or even risk discomfort?

Freezing 2

With those of us who fight chronic anxiety it’s simply more global, consuming more of our lives – and it probably started earlier for us. It isn’t one thing for us, it’s a lot of things, and we’ve turned running away into a lifestyle. More accurately we’ve turned FREEZING into a lifestyle. Rather than risk feeling anxiety we freeze.

If we freeze long enough guess what? We become agoraphobic. Agoraphobia is just an end-stage condition of chronic, unaddressed anxiety. This is GOOD news. Why the hell is this good news? Because it isn’t a permanent condition. No way Jose – this is a temporary situation brought on by – freezing. Running. Hiding.

Time to Climb out of the Freezer

If you’re fighting anxiety, whatever stage of anxiety you’re in (you’ve locked off one area of life, you’re avoiding just a couple of things, you’re fighting chronic anxiety, you’re utterly housebound and can’t even go into the garage) you can change your game. You have to develop a bias for action.

Let me be clear: a bias for action doesn’t look like the following things:

1) Running from treatment to treatment, doctor to doctor, program to program: Flight or Fight is a very all-or-nothing kinda creature. The opposite of freezing isn’t frenetic, frantic, flailing action. The opposite of freezing is turning to face our fears, developing some skill at it and learning that we are NOT in danger – however we feel.

But Flight or Fight says solve this fear NOW. And this opens the door to a lot of people racing from potential answer to potential answer, not finding what they want quickly enough, and then racing on to the next hopeful cure.

This is also why so many people find meds that work, to one degree or another, and then don’t do anything except keep taking those meds. No blame and no fault to them! It is SO much more interesting and much less scary to have a med that takes away our anxiety and our discomfort than it is to wade in and engage the work of correcting our anxious thinking in the first place.

This leads us to say things like “I’ve tried everything, but nothing works. My anxiety must be different, or special, or unique.” Ugh. Not true. But it FEELS true – it SEEMS true. But it isn’t. It’s just that we’re creating the right, useful bias for action that we need to beat this thing called anxiety.

Freezing 4

2) Bursts of anxious action, then running away again. Plenty of us get sick of anxiety, pick up the bat and start swinging, then decide that we “can’t do this” and put that bat right back down.

I know people that have been doing this for years and years. They are deeply frustrated, angry and shut down, and they just want it to be DONE. This is a nasty route because it can lead to despair, the conviction that there is no more fight left in us. Ugh again. Not good.

Because in fact there is fight left in us, any of us, if we’re still on the planet. Life wants us to LIVE.

So then what IS the right bias to action?

The Skinny on Not Freezing

1) Get clean and clear on the what if thinking that you’re freezing about/hiding from. Until you do you’re the prisoner of your reactive running away. This means that you have to stand still long enough to write, discuss and think about your specific fears.

No fun. Tedious as crap. Likely to drive you crazy for a while. But it is utterly essential in the work of breaking the habit of freezing. You need a clear, bullet-point statement of your specific fear(s).

It can’t be “I’m afraid of failure.” All anxiety is fear of failure, as Susan Jeffers pointed out decades ago. Too vague. It can’t be “I’m just scared all the time.” Thanks for playing, but when we say that we’re describing a symptom of our fearful thinking (Flight or Fight’s reactions) not the fearful thought itself.

Freezing 5

As you begin this work it might start with “I’m scared of being alone.” Good start. Then it might get clarified further into “I’m scared of being such a bad/selfish/evil person that nobody COULD love me.” And that might sharpen further into “I’m scared of ever saying no to anyone because they will hate me and I will wind up alone.”

2) The MOMENT we start to get some clarity on our specific fears we can begin to wrench them out of the habit of treating them like crises and start treating them as problems. (For examples see this post HERE.) Yeah, that’s scary too. That means that we have to continue to look at our fears long enough to see past the habit of freaking over them –

And instead see them as an issue to address, rather than a crisis to hide from. The fear of rejection is not solved by treating all rejection as the kiss of death. The fear of rejection is solved when we see rejection as, at worst, a problem to deal with, an experience that might be difficult, even hard, but not life or death.

Yes, Erik, you might say, but what about diabetes and cancer and car wrecks and housefires and charging elephants and economic problems and somebody stealing my car? Here’s my answer: did it kill you? Not does it FEEL like it’s killing, not maybe one day it MIGHT kill you – but did it kill you?

If the answer is no then it’s a problem. It might be a scary ass-problem, but it’s a problem. And here’s the really important part: if you keep treating this problem like a crisis then you’re going to keep running, keep freezing, and you’re going to get exactly nowhere in the mission of getting free of anxiety.

I often hear people who are wrestling with anxiety marvel at seeing people with chronic illness or injury or huge economic problems COPING with their situations. “How do they do that???” they ask in amazement, seeing such handling as nothing short of miraculous in the face of their own huge fears.

Tigers 7

The answer is those people are seeing their situations as problems, and they are treating them as problems. That doesn’t mean they are not afraid, not worried, not having doubts, not having bad days. But their fundamental orientation is one of problem-solving, not crisis fleeing/freezing.

3) We have to start aggressively discounting the frightened reactions of Flight or Fight, twitching in response to our fearful thinking. It’s very easy to treat those weird physical reactions and emotional storms as something serious. They are not.

This is the second nasty habit we have to break, and again, it means standing our ground in the face of those sensations and feelings. YES IT IS HARD. YES IT DOESN’T ALL GET DONE IN ONE PUSH. And yes, we’ll be more afraid one day and less afraid another. It’s a bumpy, anything-but-smooth-progression process.

Stop Freezing

Anxiety really, really tempts us to inaction. We need a bias for action. We need a HABIT of taking action. Not JUST action – thoughtful, fear-facing, standing our ground action, action that involves both mental work and physical work.

Feel free to break some dishes, or shout at the computer, or be mad and pout for a while. That’s OK too. None of this work means we shouldn’t feel things. We will feel – a lot, and sometimes overwhelmingly. That’s all legal. Those are just feelings.

Stop freezing. You can stop today. Your life, whatever you’ve locked away from yourself because of your what if thinking, is waiting just beyond your Comfort Zone.

Comfort Zone 2

Ugh! We are so afraid of making mistakes! And this is such a mistake! If we are going to break free of the grip of anxiety we must, MUST come to embrace, respect and even cherish our mistakes. When we are afraid to make mistakes we are fiercely crippling ourselves in this work.

Yeah, I know. This is crazy talk. So much of our life training is about avoiding mistakes, presenting ourselves as capable, even super-capable. We have to be seen as grown-up, in control, having it all together. We relegate mistakes to the realm of childhood or idiocy – the former being forgivable IF you’re still a child, the latter being the worst of all sins for an adult –

But learning MUST include mistakes. Nothing of any value is acquired by avoiding mistakes. No skill, no wisdom, no real accomplishment comes from treating mistakes as a mistake to make.

What does it mean to cherish our mistakes?

Mistake 3

Let’s start with the What Ifs…

Someplace on the road to adulthood we learn that mistakes are BAD. They are bad because other people will think less of us (more about that later in this post.) They are bad because it means that we’re stupid, or careless, or not paying attention, or some mix and match of all three.

We can build a whole “what if” portfolio out of this fear of making mistakes. Let’s list some of them here:

What if people see me make a mistake and think less of me?
What if people trust me less because they see me making mistakes?
What if that person is my boss, or co-worker, or customer, or husband, or a total stranger, or…?
What if I KEEP making mistakes? (as if mistakes were some kind of slippery slope to HELL)
What if THIS mistake is THE mistake – the mistake that utterly ruins (whatever we’re doing)?

I’m sure you can add to this list… I do a lot of business consulting these days (it’s how I’m making money until somebody discovers me as a country singer and puts me on “Nashville” for a season or two.) One of the things that working this much in corporate America has taught me is how many people spend enormous amounts of energy and time worrying about making a mistake.

You can’t blame them! Our culture is SO much about success, perfectly executed performance, competition, etc., that it would be odd if people were NOT stressed over the fear of making a mistake. As I mentioned earlier we learn quickly that mistakes are not to be displayed or betrayed to other people.

We learn it in school when our peers start laughing at us for saying a word wrong, or when a teacher is sharply critical of our pronunciation. We learn it in high school under the relentless pressure of other teenagers, our parents or those teachers I mentioned earlier. We learn it at work. We even learn it from our romantic partners!

It’s way past time for most of us to rethink this whole mistake thing.

Mistake 1

Mistakes are part of the learning curve of our lives

Thinking that mistakes are something to avoid is dangerous thinking. Mistakes are CRUCIAL to the learning curve in anything more complex than learning to dry yourself off with a towel. Mistakes are at least as important as teachers to us as doing whatever we’re trying to do right – and some people think MORE important.

As a teacher (and student) I can testify to this truth. One mistake can do more to help correct process, thinking or execution that five efforts where I make no mistakes. (Weird, yes?) Mistakes can teach multiple lessons in one effort.

In fact it is accurate to say that mistakes make us more skillful. Mistakes are a kind of course correction. Speaking of course corrections there is a brilliant example of this from the field of aviation. Airplanes (as in those big 747/767 type planes carrying hundreds of people) are only rarely ever actually on the precise course they need to get where they’re going.

Isn’t that wacky to think about? This modern technological marvel, flying as far sometimes as halfway around the world, is almost never on course. The pilots and the plane’s computer are constantly making adjustments, modifying and correcting that course. It’s off-course much of the time, yet it still gets where it has to go.

That’s not a bad metaphor for our lives. And we don’t even have an onboard computer… we can’t get where we’re going if we’re not willing to risk some, make some mistakes.

Mistake 6

What are some of the mistakes we’re afraid of making?

Making a speaking mistake in public – in front of an audience (even if it’s just at dinner with our family or friends)
Not knowing something we think we SHOULD know
Not remembering something we think we SHOULD have remembered
Confusing two things
Trying something and completely messing it up – or even partially messing it up
Looking clumsy, awkward or not skillful at something
Asking for clarification when we think we SHOULD already understand

I’m sure you can add to this list too. My argument here is that when we become reflexively afraid and twitchy about making mistakes then we shut down a huge and vital source of learning and growth.

A willingness to risk mistakes, take some thoughtful chances, try something and suck at it the first 1-2-10-15-25-100 times is a STRENGTH, an asset, a real skill that makes us stronger, smarter and more agile than most of our fellow travelers on this life journey.

Let’s not forget one of the principal reasons we’re so freaked out about making mistakes

That reason is what other people might think of us. Gulp. Holy crap. This is easily the biggest reason (maybe the only real reason?) we’re so afraid of making a mess, screwing something up, not executing the activity like we’re professionals who have been doing this thing for years.

What makes this fear so dangerous to us as learners is that it develops a terrible habit of retreating from taking chances. When we equate making mistakes with being dangerous we will do what seems safe, and safety when we’re afraid making mistakes is too often to not try in the first place.

Mistake 5

(Caveat: there are of course things we should struggle mightily to not make mistakes at doing… If you don’t know how to drive skillfully yet stay off the freeway when it’s raining, OK? If you’re not a certified brain surgeon don’t do skull surgery, right? On the other hand you’ll NEVER get good enough for the freeway if you never ever drive for fear of not doing it perfectly. Same thing for brain surgery.)

Earlier I mentioned it was OK in our culture to make mistakes if we’re little kids. Little kids are not expected to get it right the first time – at least not for a while. And thank goodness, because little kids have so much to learn… how to crawl, how to walk, how to talk (imagine if little kids were afraid to try when we laughed, as we do, at the mistakes they make?), how to eat, how to follow the hundreds of rules of living in the world with other people, how to read…

We trade away enormous potential for growth, learning and healthy expansion of our strengths and skills when we run from the fear of looking stupid in the eyes of other people. Everybody, EVERYBODY screws up at the start. Everybody, EVERYBODY experiences a learning curve. What could we learn if we were less afraid of looking the fool?

Being willing to Look the Fool sets us Free

Anxiety starts because we treat a problem like a crisis. Breaking anxiety’s hold is learning to see that problems are just problems – and need to be treated as problems.

If we’re terrified of making a mistake we’re treating mistakes like a crisis. They are not. If I make a speaking mistake in front of my peers it’s JUST A MISTAKE. If I mis-remember something, or if I tried something and I made a mess of it on the first or second or third go, well, I was in a learning curve. It isn’t a disaster and the world will not end because of it.

Mistake 8

It might be said that to overcome the fear of making mistakes we need to be somewhat comfortable with looking the fool. Maybe a better way to say it is that we have to allow enough humility in our lives to be comfortable with looking less than suave and perfectly capable while we’re learning to BE suave and perfectly capable.

Did you know that you’re a model?

Don’t think we’re not modeling behavior for the people around us – and helping to support and reinforce the (mostly) unspoken rule to not make mistakes where others can see them – or at all. People are watching us. Our kids are watching us. Our co-workers and subordinates are watching us. Our friends are watching us.

But maybe the most important person that is watching us is US. One of the things I’m learning these days is how we are demonstrating to ourselves all the time if we can trust ourselves or not. Isn’t this an interesting notion?

If we tell ourselves that we want to lose weight, but then we continue to eat donuts every day (not that I’ve EVER been guilty of this) then guess what? We’re not being honest with ourselves, and we are in essence teaching ourselves that we can’t trust us.

Same thing if we’re constantly modeling for ourselves that risking looking the fool is dangerous. We reinforce that habit and that belief every time we back away, every time we wave off on chancing some good learning by risking a mistake.

It’s Time to be more like a Kid

Nobody who is fighting anxiety, about ANYTHING, wants to keep being stuck in anxious reacting and feeling. One of the ways, one of the principal ways we’ll get free of anxiety, is to learn to get comfortable with the risk of mistake-making again.

Mistake 7

Why? Because overcoming anxiety, as I’ve written here many times, is a small handful of skills. And we can only build skill if we’re willing to not be very skillful at the start.

I have told numerous coaching clients that one of the key pieces in my recovery from life-consuming anxiety was focusing REALLY HARD on the work to change my thinking. That meant I had to put other things on hold, or at least put them lower on the priority scale, than this work.

That meant that I had to go out to the store (food shopping, etc.) even though I had had panic attacks in stores and was scared to death to go back. Which meant I would look terrified, and would be forgetful or distracted when I was in the store, looking (I thought) like a crazy person.

It meant that I had to talk to myself, out loud, with my unpacking and challenging what if stories. Sure, it was uncomfortable as hell. But it was either that or succumb to old frightened thinking and run screaming out of the store. (OK, I wouldn’t have probably screamed – I would just knocked over old ladies, children and in-my-way store clerks on my way to supposed safety.) 🙂

Of course I didn’t get it right the first time. I got obsessed over my what ifs again and again, at home and out in public. Of course I started this work and then got caught up in my dizziness, or my numbness in my hands, or a sense that I was doomed and I should just give up. Sometimes I had to walk in and out of the store and call that much a victory.

And I couldn’t do it just once. I had to get utterly focused on doing it again and again and again on my way to getting some skill at challenging, disrupting and changing my thinking. And it wasn’t just at the store. It was just about everywhere. And it took time. And I had a tendency to really slam myself for looking the fool (because of course I was convinced I was looking the fool.)

But surprise – I learned to change my thinking. I learned to not give a damn about what other people thought of me. (And really – what terrible thing was I doing to them anyway? Embarrassing them? I wonder now if anybody actually noticed – or, if they did, if they didn’t just shake their heads in pity and sympathy and send me good vibrations before they want back to buying cabbage or whatever.)


Look Foolish – It will do you Good

Don’t think I’m kidding. We NEED to get comfortable with the risk of making mistakes (well, OK, the total certainty that we will make mistakes.) Hell, we’re making them anyway – if we’re being honest with ourselves.

Consider today where your fear of mistake-making, your refusal to risk looking the fool, is holding you back. Because there is nothing quite so freeing as learning to not give a damn in this direction.

Today’s post is about one of the things that makes most anxiety fighters pretty pissed off in their journey out of chronic anxiety (as well as just plain folk who are wrestling with a serious fear.) Here’s the thing: this journey to freedom from anxiety is anything but clean, neat and easy.

I’m not trying to scare you off or anything. 🙂 Seriously. One of the reasons I began this thinking and writing around overcoming anxiety was a half-formed notion that, by compiling the best and the most lucid thinking and tools around breaking anxiety’s hold, I might also find a less struggle-filled, less challenging road out.

Because it was me too! I wanted it to be easier, simpler, not nearly so frustrating! I think most of us want it to be neat and tidy, a linear progression at the very minimum, and, ideally, hell to heaven with a couple of motel stops.

I think in fact that we can make it significantly easier. But here’s something I’ve relearned in the last couple of years: it isn’t just the road. It’s also the people traveling on that road. Most of us we are going to make it messy for ourselves – because of our training, because of our unwillingness to steadily fight through the battles with Flight or Fight, because we just get bloody tired and want a damn break.

In other words our training and our own inclinations slow this process down and make it messier. We can, however, make it less tedious, less crazy-making if we can get a little clarity on why it’s messy, slow and hard, and with that knowledge in our pockets take some steps to diminish some of the tedium, some of the frustration, and make things happen a little faster.

Messy 1

Problem 1: we got set up to be Anxious Thinkers

I’m never comfortable with this conversation, but it has to be said – we learned to be anxious thinkers. (Standard disclaimer here: I’m not setting out to malign, trash or call nasty names when it comes to anyone’s family, school experience, church experience, etc.

t however remains true that this is a thinking problem. Given that this is a thinking issue, and that we have to LEARN how to think, it then follows that we learned to think anxiously.)

Be clear: nobody said to themselves “gee, I know, I’ll make this kid anxious as hell.” Of course they didn’t. But then it might be said that’s true for lots of our learning. Sure, some of what we learn is very consciously applied to us – how we should act in public, how we should use language, what we should care about, etc.

But then there’s some of the problem right there – we are learning all those things through the lens, the focus of the people that are trying to teach us these things. And those souls are themselves carrying thinking that has the potential to make us anxious. In fact a lot of THEM are thinking anxiously – and with the best of intentions (at least most of the time) they are passing that thinking on to us.

Why is this so important to stress in this blog post? Because we have to see, really have to get under, the truth that part of what holds us up, slows us down is deeply trained, old, out-of-conscious-thinking thinking.

Which means that we won’t just breeze into our brains and whisk away that tedious old anxious thinking. Nope, we’re going to have to get in there and do some work, face down what we consider fundamental, basic assumptions about the world if we’re going to unseat anxiety from its throne in our lives.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: brains are lazy. They want to expend the least energy possible to get the job done. (See my post HERE about the nature of habits and how that applies to thinking.) We develop a thinking routine, whatever it might be, and then we just set it running in our skulls, ready to pop up when we’ve told it to pop up.

Here’s an ugly example: stereotypes. We all do them. We have an experience or two and then, with our lazy brains, we categorize something or some kind of situation or some kind of person as this or that. Another name for this is prejudice (under some circumstances.)

All women are emotional. All black people are natural dancers. All Asian people are smart. All guys named Erik are nice guys. (Well, maybe that’s just me…)

Messy 4

Prejudice seems easy to think around when it’s somebody else, doesn’t it? But when WE have prejudices it doesn’t always seem quite so easy. We find ourselves rationalizing, defending our stereotypes. “Yes” we say, “but I’m not being prejudiced. In MY case I’m just telling you my experience…” prejudice, stereotyping, is one of the dark sides of the brain’s habit to make assumptions (another way in some respects to describe thinking habits.)

Little kids don’t just magically have prejudices, right? They learn them.

Sure, they might learn them from direct experience (and the assumptions they might make in those experiences) but way more often they learn them from the people around them.

Same thing for us anxiety fighters. So what does this mean for making the journey somewhat easier? We HAVE to get serious and build a little basic skill around a practice of introspection – i.e., examining our thinking, questioning our thinking, calling it out into the light and asking ourselves if this is useful, accurate or healthy thinking.

An Anxiety Example

Let’s say I assume that only people that are in a relationship with someone romantically are truly happy. Translation for the cheap seats: people who are alone CANNOT be happy. Too bad, so sad.

Wow. That has some potential to make us anxious, yes? Worse still, it’s running in the background. So let’s say further that at the moment I’m alone – not in a serious romantic relationship.

That means I CAN’T be happy. Worse still I don’t even really know, consciously, that I’m carrying this crock of you-know-what around with me like a stinky sock – nope, I’m just moving through my world, feeling anything from a nagging sense of discomfort and sadness all the way through swirling grief that my life is so damn miserable, obviously, because I’m alone…

Messy 2

And of course there are triggers all around us. Couples holding hands, commercials during our favorite TV show for diamond engagement rings, invitations to other people’s weddings or anniversaries, you name it. We feel sad, depressed, flawed, unlovable, you name it. And guess where all those feelings are coming from?

Our brain’s thinking that happiness is impossible solo. This isn’t limited to discussions about happiness. We could also decide at some point, based on our thinking, that we’re not capable of taking care of ourselves. So forget happiness – now we’re talking about SURVIVAL being threatened if we’re alone.

Oops. There’s some room for anxious thinking there, yes? This is one of the reasons our fight with anxiety isn’t the smooth sailing we’d like it to be. Our thinking won’t just go quietly when confronted by our need to change. It’s become a habit, and habits need energy, clarity and practice to change.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Problem 2: We don’t like being Scared

I know, that’s huge news, right? 🙂 It’s all very well and good for someone to talk about the process for confronting our anxious thoughts, for dealing with the reactions of Flight or Fight, but when we start having those anxious feelings, having our body do weird things that scare us (racing heart, sweaty all over, feeling cold, mouths going dry, knees knocking, vision getting blurry, etc.) then it’s a different story…

It’s tedious as crap, but this is easily one of the biggest reasons we run from this work with our anxiety. (See the posts HERE and HERE for the most common reasons we avoid this work.) But it isn’t that we just avoid the work. We make it HARDER to get the work done because we’re so tempted to flinch back from the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight.

Messy 6

We learned to do that too – only mostly in this case because we had no flippin’ idea what in the hell was going on when it first starting happening to us. We have to start writing new habits, and those begin with new habits of thought.

Your heart is racing. OK. Crisis or problem? Yes, yes, it FEELS like a crisis – I get it. Been there did that. Or maybe it’s that terrible nausea sensation – like you’re going to hurl right now – accompanied by a profound sense of despair. Or it could be that numb feeling in your hands or all over your body and a sense of being trapped. Lots of combinations here.

NONE OF THEM ARE DANGEROUS. We can’t just tell ourselves that and expect it to stop feeling scary. We have to confront the thinking and confront the Flight or Fight reactions that will come along when we start pushing back on our fear.

Those sensations and feelings are going to surface again and again, both because we’re confronting scary thinking AND we’ve learned to see those sensations and feelings AS dangerous. I know I’ve written about this a lot in this blog. It bears repeating.

There are an enormous number of people charging through the world right now who are significantly slowed down because they just don’t want to confront Flight or Fight’s warning signals. (I’m not even talking about the millions and millions of people who have never STARTED the work to get free of anxiety for the exact same reason.)

They want SO MUCH to be free – but it’s just so stinkin’ frustrating, scary and tedious to have to experience Flight or Fight pushing back on us SO HARD. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t do this forever. It does ease off. Why?

It eases off when we start changing our thinking – both converting our old crisis thinking to problem thinking (which stops Flight or Fight from firing off in the first place) and when we stop making Flight or Fight a crisis. We go from “oh my God not that sensation/feeling!” to “oh yeah, those tiresome sensations/feelings again.” Practice, time and steady work takes us there – but only if we’re changing our thinking, doing the work.

Messy 3

Problem 3: We get Damn Tired

There’s one more reason that this work slows down/stalls for us. It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. We forget that our brains use a lot of energy – as much as 20% or more of the body’s total energy output – and brain work is real work. Do enough of it and you are going to be TIRED.

We’re doing multiple things when we face down our fears. We are confronting old, scary thinking. We are learning a habit of self-reflection and a comfort with asking ourselves hard questions.

We are fighting the temptation to flinch back from our body’s reactions to our what if thinking. We are having to remind ourselves again and again that we’re OK, that we’re not in crisis, that we’re not going to die.

And we’re still trying to have some kind of life – i.e., get stuff done, eat sometimes, go the store, hassle with the bank, maybe get work done, etc. We give away a lot when we fight anxiety! It’s not a picnic energy-wise! 🙂

Lots of us have a funny story about this energy cost. Anxiety fighters in general wrestle with insanely high standards of personal performance (one of the prime sources of anxious thinking.) REAL work should be something like making dinner for 20 people, remodel the extra room and cure cancer, all while hardly breaking a sweat.

THIS can’t be real work, can it? We don’t really produce or create anything when we’re doing this work, right? WRONG. We are literally rebuilding our thinking from the ground up. We are facing down tigers (even if only conjured in our thinking) again and again and again. We’re learning whole new ways of living and thinking and reacting.

Not small stuff. Energy-draining stuff. And of course life keeps coming at us. (Not very nice of life sometimes, but such is life.) Most of us don’t get to go to Aruba to overcome anxiety. (Hey, there’s an idea – I should get someone to fund a Fear Mastery Center in Aruba… any takers?) 🙂

Depression 3

So we are going to get tired, and being tired we’re going to slow down some days.

Finally we NEED to take breaks in this work. We can’t do it 24/7. We have to step back, regroup, catch our breath. Nobody does anything all day every day. Taking breaks (a, day, a few days, a week) can sometimes be when what we’re learning solidifies, becomes the new thinking that blots out the old thinking, the new habit that replaces the old habit.

This Work is Messy and Not a Straight-line Progression

We can stop anxiety from ruling our lives. To do that we have to be clear-eyed about how the process works and give it the time it takes. As I’ve said here before it took us years and years, decades for most of us, to get where we are, bogged down in chronic anxiety. It will take a little time to get out.

Not years and decades – but months of steady work. Well, when I say steady, I mean more or less steady. With lots of bumps, and some setbacks, and some relearning what we think we already know, and some self-doubt, and some victories, and some more bumps… you get it. 🙂

Embrace the mess, my friends. It’s a mess worthy of making. At the end of all this work is a life that isn’t ruled by anxiety. And that’s worth all the hassle and mess.

Messy 5

When I was in college (way back before the invention of the wheel, but after we humans had discovered fire) I read some pretty interesting stuff by a guy named C.S. Lewis. Old C.S. was a professor in the United Kingdom, a smarty-pants thinker and one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

What he wrote changed my whole perspective on what the words kindness and love mean. Up to that point I had used the words interchangeably – love was kindness, and kindness was love. But I was wrong, and C.S. Lewis helped me understand why.

I think this distinction – understanding this crucial difference in the two words – has a lot of use to those of us who fight anxiety, and especially in reference to a couple of blog posts I’m going to put up right after this one this month about the need for all of us to be much, much better at drawing boundaries in our lives.

Let’s see how I do explaining the difference between kindness and love to you.


C.S. Lewis uses the example of a gracious, sweet grandmother when he starts his discussion of kindness vs. love. Picture a lovely lady in an apron, the smell of freshly-baked cookies in her kitchen, and hungry grandkids clamoring for some of those cookies – just before dinner-time.

Kindness vs. Love 2

What does grandma do? Well, if she’s a kind grandma she says oh, OK, of course you can have some cookies. The kids scream YAHHHH and devour those cookies. And why shouldn’t they? Those kids are hungry, the cookies are tasty, and kindness demands that we give those kids some cookies.

But is that necessarily the best thing we can do? Be kind? Because there are consequences to eating those cookies before dinner. Those kids will fill up on sugar and chocolate, they won’t really have much room for serious food, so they won’t eat much dinner. And we’re not even talking about the carb rush and crash they’ll get to ride, or how grumpy and irritable they’ll be as a result of this nutritional mayhem they’ll get to experience.

Yes, we might say – but if we say no cookies the kids will be upset, mad, frustrated, and we’ll be the bad guy! (Or, in Grandma’s case, the bad gal.) Who wants to be the person who makes kids mad and frustrated?

The answer surprised me when I first read this thinking. The answer is someone who loves those kids.


Love, C.S. Lewis insists, is the Grandma that can say no kids, you can have a couple of cookies after dinner – but for the moment, given that it is almost dinner-time, the answer is no to cookies. And this gets wackier: love continues to say no even when those same kids cry and say that’s not fair and we’re really hungry and how can you be so mean to us?

Kindness vs. Love 4

Now if you’re a grandma, or even simply a parent, you might be thinking “well, hell, sure, it isn’t a good idea to give those kids cookies before dinner. Everyone knows that.” Well, sure – except do we? Really understand this difference between kindness and love?

Because this discussion isn’t just about grandmas and kids who want cookies. Let’s get clearer first on why kindness says yes to those cookies and love says no, sorry kids, you can have cookies later.

Kindness doesn’t like the notion that other people might be unhappy – and especially with itself. I.e., if our focus is “everyone should be happy and nobody should be uncomfortable” then of course we’ll hand over the cookies – it’s the only sensible answer. We then look like the good guy, the one that people like and want to be around, because we don’t rock the boat or make any trouble.

Here’s the kicker that blew me out of the water in this distinction: kindness is in a sense being terribly, terribly selfish. Kindness says nobody can be upset or angry with me, nobody can feel uncomfortable, and I must NEVER be seen as a point of friction or the source of another’s discomfort.

Love, on the other hand, says to itself “what’s best for the other person and what’s best for me?” Both questions matter in Love’s thinking. What’s best for the kids AND for Grandma is that those hungry little ankle-biters hang tough in the cookie department – wait for cookies until after dinner. Everybody wins in that scenario – the kids and Grandma.

In other words love is looking at a larger context, and in that context is willing to suffer some discomfort, for themselves and for other people, in order to reach what’s best in that larger context. Yikes. Love sounds kinda, in this situation, like a hard-ass sometimes… but a hard ass with a clear mission of CARING for others AND for themselves.

Kindness vs. Love 5

We say Love – but we mean Kindness – way too often…

As I said earlier, this conversation isn’t limited to grandmas and cookies. It has all kinds of applications to our lives – and especially to us anxiety fighters.

Maybe we have a teenager or young adult in our lives that is, well, not taking responsibility for their own life. And maybe we’re part of the problem – i.e., we practicing kindness (as defined in this discussion) instead of love with them. Maybe they need to get out of the house, get a regular job, pay their own bills, learn to manage their own money…

In other words, make some mistakes and grow up some as a result. Except they don’t want to – and why should they? We, afraid to say hey, you need to go grow up and learn some life skills on your own time, afraid that they’ll be mad and upset with us, hesitate to tell them this, fearful that we’ll be seen as the bad guy (or gal).

So we let them stay home, let them continue to not manage their money, or pay their own way We let them stay out late, do whatever they please because of… our fear. Kindness trumps love because kindness (in this definition) doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Yikes. Pretty tough stuff, yes?

Because love says what’s best for everyone in this discussion? What’s best for this teen/young adult, and what’s best for me? What will help this young person in the long run, and what will (believe it or not) be best for this relationship?

Make no mistake – kindness gets resentful over time, resentful of always saying yes, of always doing what other people want. Kindness sees that always saying yes leads to kids with upset stomachs and young adults who can’t effectively manage their own lives. Maybe worst of all kindness comes to understand at some level that constantly saying “yes” actually damages the quality and strength of the relationships in our lives.

Ah, but the rub is that somebody will be upset for a while! Love risks discomfort, and upset, and even anger, for the sake of focusing on what’s most useful to everyone in the room. Holy crap. And love is willing to wait out the discomfort, even if it stretches on, even if it means pouting and foot-stomping – or long silences and unreturned phone calls.

Better imperfect Love than perfect Kindness

This doesn’t have to be kids still living at home when they need to get on with growing up. (And btw don’t think that I’m saying EVERY kid living at home needs to get kicked out on his or her butt. What I’m saying is that we have to be honest with ourselves about what is needed in this situation, whatever the situation is, and be clear when we’re practicing kindness – and avoiding discomfort – and when we need to practice love, for them and for ourselves.)

Kindness vs. Love 1

No, this also applies to abusive and crappy relationships with parents, or the friend who is constantly taking advantage of us, or the co-worker that can’t seem to get their own work done and finds ways to pass it to us.

Love makes us honest. Who would have guessed that? 🙂 Love insists that we tell ourselves and other people the truth. Because love really is interested in EVERYONE’s best interests, and is willing to fight for those best interests.

Of course we’re only human. We won’t do perfect love – not going to happen. In some respects kindness (in this definition) is easy, and love is hard. Kindness doesn’t need much practice – but love takes effort, has a learning curve, and will make mistakes as it develops some skill at being loving.

I have another challenging notion in this discussion of kindness vs. love: kindness is a control freak. Kindness says I, myself, must manage other people’s feelings and reactions. It’s my responsibility, my fault if I don’t, and I’m the only one who can do it.

(Of course kindness also gets pissed as hell about this burden – see more about this in my next couple of blog posts on drawing boundaries.)

Love says hey, I can only really manage myself, but I can behave in loving ways towards other people, trusting that they have to find their own way. I can help them, for sure, I can support and encourage and stand with them, but I can’t do it for them, I can’t live their lives for them.

This love stuff is kinda challenging… and absolutely essential.

Remember the Serenity Prayer? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Guess what? When we say this little prayer we are in a very real sense asking for a greater capacity to love – ourselves and other people.

Are you ready to practice being more loving? 🙂

Love is not easy, a lot of the time. Stepping back enough to be honest about what is really loving takes courage and patience and practice. Staying in love this way takes more courage and love and practice. It’s easy to be kind (even if it becomes, sooner or later, life-sucking and life-corroding) but love is a skill learned over time.

Next post – learning to draw boundaries – in my view, one way of practicing love.

Safety First 7

One of the tools I used to fight my way clear from anxiety (now 20 years ago – doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed) was a program called CHAANGE. I’ve mentioned this program before here in my blog – it is a series of notes and cassette tapes created by two women, Anne Seagrave and Faison Covington, with the assistance of their therapist at the time.

One of the useful pieces I took away from that work was two sheets of statements about our rights as human beings. It was, at least for me at the time, fairly radical (and new) thinking – these rights they were proposing as common to all of us.

I’ve wanted for a long time to take the best of those two lists and talk about them briefly here, primarily because I feel very strongly that they represent what I might call advanced self-care. Self-care, if you recall, is one of the four basic skills I advocate as essential in overcoming anxiety. It is in some respects the platform upon which we can build much, much healthier thinking.

Rights 1

So here we go – let’s talk about some basic human rights we need to champion in our own lives.

We have the Right to say No

One of the things that struck me as I gained some distance from my long years of chronic anxiety was how willing I had been, during those years, to abandon something as fundamental as my control over my time and energy. More accurately I saw that in some ways I had NEVER LEARNED to check in with myself about whether or not I wanted to say yes or no to someone else’s demands on me…

I had a LOT of fear around saying no. (Sound familiar to you?) My justifications were many. Saying no was selfish. Saying no would hurt or upset other people. Saying no meant I didn’t care about other people. Saying no would stamp me as self-centered, mean, uncaring.

But 90% of that was me explaining away the truth that I was SCARED to say no. I had learned, from family and other sources, that I didn’t have the right to say no. Yeah, that sounds crazy – it is kinda crazy. And it is also one of the things that plagues way too many chronic anxiety fighters. Hell, it plagues lots of people that never slide into the struggle with chronic anxiety.

Rights 3

I could spend a fair amount of time describing how and why I learned to say no, but if this is one of the things you’re afraid of then you already have your own histories that can explain to you how you got to this place. The point of this section is to argue that we have the RIGHT to say no.

That’s what I said – a right. Every living creature on the planet has a right to draw this basic boundary with the other living creatures around it. Our very mental health and sanity need it. We have to learn to first begin to make contact with what we want, what we think, what we’re willing to do (by itself a whole process that we have to learn – we get very good at hiding those desires and needs even from ourselves if we learn that saying no isn’t something we are free to do) –

And then we have to start practicing actually saying no. That’s going to fire up Flight or Fight. That’s going to sound VERY scary to some of my fellow anxiety fighters. Holy crap, what if we say no and SOMEONE GETS UPSET AT US? That may have been a fear we acquired early and hard in our lives.

Yeah, this self-care/self-respect thing also has the power to rock our worlds. But it is also a GREAT way to address our fears, and a great way to start really listening to ourselves – something too many anxiety fighters are lacking in skill.

And for most of us it will mean some pushback from the other people in our lives – especially the ones that have gotten very comfortable with our lack of ability to say no.

Rights 5

Of course this doesn’t mean we turn into utter selfish blobs. It means we finally START at least addressing our own boundaries. It really isn’t a sin to say no, thanks, I don’t want to do that, or no, sorry, I don’t have the capacity or energy to do that for you right now.

And it’s amazing, seriously, what starts surfacing when we finally have permission in our own thinking to say yes or no depending on what WE want. It’s like we’ve been waiting our whole lives to listen, really listen to, OURSELVES – to treat ourselves at least as well as we’ve been treating other people, to start respecting ourselves at least as much as we respect other people.

Of course, this means that also have to start being OK with other people saying no as well. 🙂 That by itself is often a whole new gig for us people with no boundaries –we can expect other people to also not have boundaries.

It sounds odd to us, but good fences (i.e., the right to say no) do actually make good neighbors – and wives, and husbands, and sons, and friends, and co-workers…

We have the Right to ask for what we Want

In the last section I mentioned that, in order to be able to say no, we have to practice ourselves in the first place what the heck we want. In truth this is another right that too many of us don’t know we possess. We learn instead that we should ONLY want what other people want – and/or that we should be suspicious of anything we want as bad/selfish/wrong.

Rights 7

Yikes. What a terrible thing to have a person believe. Why the hell CAN’T we want something? Probably for the same reason that we learned we couldn’t say no. It was risky in our family or situation to have an opinion, have a real desire that opposed or contradicted another’s desire – a parent, a sibling, a spouse, you name it.

But we’re not, I argue, fully healthy or even human if we can’t be straight with ourselves about what WE want.

This has a lot of potential to shake our foundations. We can and sometimes do build a story about ourselves as selfless, other-centered, not really caring about the small stuff. Some of that might be true. But some of it is decidedly NOT true. Nobody walking the planet is without opinion, desire or need, and healthy, in-their-skin adults need to be able to identify, if only for themselves, what they truly want and don’t want, need and don’t need, deeply desire and really don’t care about.

Rights 8

And as I mentioned when it came to saying no, being honest about what we want and then actually asking for it can generate fierce anxious responses. It can also generate pushback from the people that are used to us always saying “it doesn’t matter – let’s do/eat/go to whatever you want.”

We’re best to start with baby steps. What do YOU really want for lunch? Is THIS the movie YOU wanted to see? Prefer to spend the afternoon cleaning the bathroom? It’s amazing what we find ourselves feeling and doing when we have the self-developed privilege of speaking up about on what want.

Let’s not forget that this right also comes with the truth that we need to allow other people to say what they want. Healthy living is largely a matter of negotiation. That doesn’t mean that if something deeply matters to us that we can’t wrestle for it and champion our cause! 🙂 It does mean that we need to get comfortable with other people wanting what they want, and sometimes living with the tension of the differences between you and them. That’s human – and healthy – too.

How’s THAT for a couple of Rights?

In case I haven’t made it clear so far in this post we have some very basic, human rights in our lives. We have the right to say no, and we have the right to ask for what we want. In case I haven’t made this clear either summoning the courage and the conviction to actually make these rights real in our lives is not always easy. Others may find it uncomfortable (and let you know loudly how terrible, selfish, inconsiderate it is of you to insist on those rights) –

And you yourself will probably kick up quite a fuss as you walk into this largely-unfamiliar territory that is self-care/self-respect.

Rights 6

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 602 other subscribers