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Today marks the end of a remarkable personal journey for me, your humble anxiety blog writer. I’ve been coming to the conclusion for the last few months that this blog was reaching the end of its natural lifespan, and I finally surrendered to this truth this week.

I began this blog way back on January 11, 2010 – over 6-1/2 years ago. In that time period I posted 258 blog posts, with only a handful being “reprints” – which is a LOT of writing. 🙂 I had two simple goals when I started writing here: to articulate a basic model of how anxiety works, something clean, simple and possible for anyone to get their arms around, and clarify a simple toolbox to deal with that fearful thinking.

I’ve written everything I have to say (for the most part) about this subject, and I’ve been threatening to finish a book on this subject for almost the entire tenure of this blog. The book has been a work in progress that entire time, and it’s time that I concentrate on finishing and publishing that book. I’ve promised here at least three times that the book was “coming soon” – my apologies for the delays, and I promise that the work gets done before 2016 draws to a close.

I’ve learned a lot in these last 6-1/2 years. I’ve learned that there are some wonderful people in the world, and I’m grateful for all of them – all of you that have followed this blog. Thanks for your support – and believe me, every time you clicked through to my blog you were offering real support.

I’ve learned, again, that the best thinking comes when you allow your ideas/thoughts/mental frameworks to be challenged, questioned and examined by other thoughtful people. (Every one of your questions, comments and critiques, both here at the blog and privately to me in email, have been hugely supportive and helpful. Thank you!)

I will of course leave the blog up here while I’m finishing the book, and probably for a little while after that. I will gladly still answer questions you post here or send by email –

Again, thank you all – I can’t say thank you enough. Every blessing and encouragement to you as you continue your own journey!

Grief 7

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

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

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

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

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

How did we start thinking this way?

Fragile 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragile 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Party was just beginning…

emotions 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were wrong

Strong 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong 2

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

Time for a New and More Honest story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong 3

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

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

Not Sure what to Do Next?

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

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

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

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

Strong 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setback 4

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

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

Setbacks

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

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

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

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

Setback 2

So, what ARE setbacks?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your Seat Belts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setback 1

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

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

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

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

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

Setback 6

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

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

Stalls/Plateaus

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

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

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

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

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

Setback 7

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

Setbacks, Stalls and Plateaus – part of the Work

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

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

What would a day look like for someone who was practicing recognizing self-hate, and once realizing it, made a move towards self-compassion? Hmm. What would that look like…

Let’s see how I do in painting this picture for you –

A Self-compassionate Morning

When we’re in the fight to break anxiety’s hold mornings are often the hardest time of the day. We are running with shields down, given that our brains are in some respects not at full power – we don’t have our full mental abilities instantly at our command.

And that’s a time when our fears can really pounce on us. The self-doubts, the what if thinking, the worry about Flight or Fight reactions, can all bubble to the surface and start pounding on our brains before we’re prepared to do battle with them.

This is a great, great time to start in with some self-compassion practice. The first and possibly most effective thing we can do is simply recognize that we’re doing all this in the first place.

I don’t mean get lost in our fears. I don’t mean a self-abuse party where we berate ourselves for being so weak, or so dumb, or so whatever we’re using to abuse ourselves, BECAUSE we’re fighting fear or wrestling with self-doubt.

Self-Kindness 7

No, I mean take a moment (or 10) and see where we’re losing ourselves in what if thinking. I mean take a moment and see that we’re up in the future, or see that we’re abusing ourselves with self-hatred, or both. An act of compassion towards ourselves is as basic as seeing that we’re failing ourselves with fears of failure and loss – just that much is self-compassion.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But in fact it’s huge. Remember that anxious thinking is a habit – and just seeing the habits as they start their tired, tedious routine is a step in the right direction. Even when we don’t feel like we have much strength or ability to do much about the habit in that moment (which can be especially true in the first minutes of waking up for the day) means that we’re starting to disrupt and see through that habit.

Of course we can do more. We can not only call out self-abusive behavior, what if behavior – we can also unpack it. We can identify where we are in the future and actively move away from that thinking, not only seeing it for what it is, useless worry and conjecture, useless speculation about our fears, and practice making it back into what it is – a problem, at most.

Sure, it scares us. Of course it does, given how much energy and focus we’ve poured into it. And what’s a great act of self-compassion? Shutting down that pouring, to whatever extent we’re able to in that moment.

One great way to help that process is to just GET UP. Get our happy feet on the floor and get moving. Yeah, I know how tempting it is to just lie there and pour over our failures, or how unhappy we are, or how happy everyone else seems to be, or how unfair it is that we have to do battle with our fears, or whatever we’re caught up in there in our beds.

Self-Kindness 9

Get up. Engage the day. Remember that fear is a mental process, however much it freaks out Flight or Fight and starts physical and emotional reactions. Just the act of engaging our world – taking a shower, making some breakfast, walking the dog, walking ourselves, engaging in some small piece of work – is an act of compassion towards ourselves.

A Compassionate Day

OK. We’re up, we’re semi-clean, we have had our Wheaties – what else can we do to disrupt self-hate, what if thinking, and practice compassion towards ourselves? How about some active blocking of self-hate habit thinking?

One habit we can develop, overwriting older habits of self-reproach, self-anger, self-hurt, is to practice stopping self-hating behaviors. (See the last several posts for the specifics.) Are we calling ourselves idiots as we drive to work? Are we berating ourselves for yesterday’s failures, mistakes or flubs? Are we anticipating all the ways we’ll screw up the day?

Stop. Practicing stopping. This is active self-compassion. Of course it isn’t that easy at the start, and we’ll make it hard for ourselves more often than not. That’s alright. Practice anyway. You don’t need to be whipped, verbally or any other way. You need to figure out what is actually useful in addressing those past failures or potential future mistakes.

And self-abuse isn’t useful. Something that might be useful is to start looking at what is working – where we’re doing productive things, doing things with some skill and ability. We can also start giving ourselves some credit for effort, knowing that skill takes time to develop and strengthen.

Are we bringing in some income? Hey, nice work. Are we getting some tasks done? Excellent. Have we assisted another person today? Well done. Have we stopped, even for a few moments, the stream of angry, frightened self-talk that too often fills our thinking? Kudos – you’re moving in the right direction.

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When we are caught up in self-hating habits ANY kindness to ourselves is a good move, a brilliant move. It’s remarkable what even a few efforts of recognizing and blocking self-hating routines can do for our energy and self-esteem.

Of course the habits push back. It’s useful to remember that we started these habits because we thought they were helping us – keeping us safe, helping us toe the line, not get in trouble or bring down disaster on ourselves in the worlds we learned them in the first place. They won’t just go quietly. They will fight, and we will fight to keep them.

A Compassionate Evening

The end of the day can be a prime time for self-hate to come out and dance around our heads. We’re tired, we’re probably facing down some challenges or what if fears that have been lurking to pounce on us when we dropped our guard – it can easily be a time of self-hating habit routines to power up.

One effective question we can ask is how can we practice some self-care, right now, for ourselves? We who wrestle with self-hate and anxiety can be prone to “never standing down” – never really ending the work day, never really punching our mental timecard and calling it enough for now.

Recognition and blocking are both tools we can employ. And we can up our self-compassion game by also surrendering our special status view of ourselves – i.e., that we can work 20 hours a day, that we must make sure everyone else around us is happy before we can even think of taking a break, or that serious people would work until they couldn’t keep their eyes open.

We can practice self-compassion by actively practicing allowing ourselves to be HUMAN. Humans rest when they are tired. They take time off. They yak with friends, watch silly TV shows, take a bubble-bath, harass the dog, make cookies.

Self-Kindness 10

Self-hating, as I keep saying, is a mental habit. I use the word disruption a lot in this anxiety work. Too often we’re racing down mental grooves we established (with help) long years ago. Part of this work is bumping up out of those grooves, deliberately messing up the old routines so we can establish new ones.

Self-hate is a kind of internal slave-driver. We’re never enough. We never do enough. We are never good enough. Self-hate is at the most basic level the voice of our fears, telling us to try harder, fix everything, make sure we never make mistakes, so we can avoid the terrible futures we predict in our fearful thinking.

Anything that gets us off that hamster wheel is a good move if it disrupts, disputes, moves away from and/or shuts down that thinking. It’s legal, it’s healthy, it’s self-caring, it is active self-compassion.

We won’t stop Self-hatred by Wishing

This dismantling self-hatred work I’ve been addressing these last seven blog posts doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of work. It means getting feisty with our own thinking, not just rolling over and playing dead when it yells at us, but standing up and demanding different thinking, different ways of treating ourselves and thinking about our world.

To fight anxiety is to, by definition, deal with self-hatred in some flavor or flavors. Truly self-compassionate people are not lost in anxiety. (That isn’t your cue, by the way, to then beat yourself up because you SUCK, because YOU are such a loser that you fight self-hatred and anxiety.) 🙂

I recommend T.I. Rubin’s book “Compassion and Self-hatred.” And if you’re more of a conversation person you can reach out to me – I’m always happy to have a discussion about the work of breaking the nasty habit of self-hatred.

Kindness vs. Love 3

Self-compassion. That’s been the goal of the last 5 blog posts – a discussion of what a life lived in self-hate looks like, and how self-compassion might look. To do that effectively we have to understand first where we’re practicing self-hate – see the shape and size of that practice.

With that understanding let’s get our arms around what compassion towards ourselves means in a daily way.

What we need to shut down Self-Hate

TI Rubin (I’ve been referencing him and his book Compassion and Self-Hate as the primary source for these last few blog posts) says we have three weapons we need to employ in the diminishing of self-hate and the encouragement of self-love:

Recognition
Blocking
Surrendering Special Status

As I mentioned in my last post step one is seeing that we are doing self-hate in the first place. Self-hate doesn’t carry a sign around that says “hey, notice me! I’m self-hate!” Self-hate runs in the background of our thinking and behavior.

Worse, it comes to seem and feel like it’s vital, crucial, the only thing that’s keeping us from disaster (self-hating self-regulation. So step one is just identifying where and how we’re doing self-hating behavior- recognition.

Self-Kindness 2

Here’s an example of self-hating behavior: invariably defaulting to what anyone and everyone else wants, rather than actually checking with ourselves first to see what we need and want. I know, it sounds like what a saint would do. (More about sainthood later.) But it isn’t.

How could it be? Do your wants and needs really NEVER matter? Are you never entitled to want something or need something that runs counter to what someone else wants or even needs? Of course your needs and wants matter. And of course you’re entitled to express them and even ask for them.

But you’re not there yet. It’s too scary! So start by at least seeing that by shutting those down you’re practicing self-hatred – that’s a great first step.

Don’t want to watch the grandkids this weekend? Really just want to stay home and make salad? Don’t feel like visiting your tedious in-laws? Do really want to spend time at the beach? Guess what? You can at least see that you’re shutting those down automatically, disregarding what you want, rather than pretend that you DON’T want those things. That’s recognition.

And when that self-critical internal voice starts shouting about how selfish and how cruel and how uncaring you are then you’re experiencing self-hate. BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ONE THING THAT’S SELFISH OR CRUEL OR UNCARING ABOUT YOUR WANTS OR NEEDS. (Unless you’re planning to sell guns in Africa – then I have concerns.) 🙂

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When we see that we are free to, at the very least, have our own wants and needs (and the freedom to listen to them, at least take them into account!) then we’re recognizing self-hate as the voice that says we’re selfish pigs to even consider what we want.

Here’s another example: when we encourage and nurture relationships that are less than healthy ones we are practicing self-hate. You know the relationships I’m talking about – the people that suck us dry, put us down, put us last on their priority list, constantly criticize us, take advantage of us and then cheerfully make us feel bad when we try to push back.

You know these people! This is the sister who can’t find anything good to say about you. (Yes – I said sister. Family who we allow to treat us poorly don’t get special status because they are family.) This is the boyfriend or girlfriend (or husband or wife) that refuses to negotiate and has to have everything their way.

This is the co-worker who takes shameless advantage of you. This is the friend who only calls when they need something, and otherwise has no time for us. This is the teenager who eats your food, makes a mess of the house, refuses to get a job and then tells you what a terrible parent you are because you won’t let them do whatever they want.

(Any of these people sound familiar?)

That’s self-hate too. SEEING that for what it is, just doing that one small thing, is a big first step towards a practice of compassion for ourselves. Being able to be honest with ourselves about doing self-hating behavior is fiercely useful in disrupting the habit of self-hate.

Blocking

No, I don’t mean a body tackle – although it might be helpful sometimes if somebody showed up and hip-checked us in mid-self-hate. I mean that we, having recognized self-hating behavior, make an immediate move to stop it, shut it down.

Let’s go back to not acknowledging that we have any needs or wants. Want to block that self-hating practice? Acknowledge those needs and wants. Just that simple step is giant. Notice I haven’t even said yet ACT on those needs and wants. I’m just saying tip your hat to those needs and wants – treat them as important, something to respect.

Hey, you can go a step further. You can SAY OUT LOUD those needs and wants. (I know, crazy, right?) I’m STILL not insisting that you have to demand your way. I’m saying allow your own thinking to get out into the world, gently affirming your right to HAVE needs and wants.

(And, of course, if you’re in a situation where such verbalizing and boundary-drawing puts you at physical risk, well, that’s self-hate too, isn’t it? You may not be able to safely say and feel what you want. Which just means you get to practice scary self-care by getting the hell out of that situation – thoughtfully, strategically, keeping yourself safe but slowly moving towards compassion towards yourself by making a way to get free.)

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Or let’s say we’re talking about those life leeches I was talking about earlier, those people who take shameless advantage of us? Seeing them for what they are is step 1. Step 2 is disengaging those people from our daily routines.

Of course anxiety will rear its ugly head the moment we start even thinking about doing that. We will have thoughts surface like if I get away from this person I’ll be totally alone, or they’ll hate me, or maybe I deserve to have people like this in my life. Ugh.

7 billion people in the world – you’ll find other friends. It may not FEEL that way right now, but trust me – there’s a lot of humans running around on the planet at the moment. The real problem isn’t that you won’t be able to find new people in your life. The real issue is that we’re scared of actually standing up to self-hate, risking another’s anger and frustration.

And as far as them hating you – well, you don’t know that, do you? Maybe you’ll push back and they’ll wake up. Maybe you’ll push back and they’ll take off. But their reaction doesn’t really matter at the moment, does it? This is about you – and doesn’t that sound crazy? Something actually being about you? 🙂

Quick note: using self-hate to try to block self-hating behavior isn’t so useful. You know what I mean. This is when we say “what the hell is wrong with you! You’re an idiot for hating yourself! Cut that crap out right now! Don’t be so stupid!” And useful words like that…

Don’t use self-hate to block self-hate. In this case fighting fire with fire isn’t cool. By all means get a little impatient. Don’t be afraid to use some gentle sarcasm to poke fun at the rules and iron bars of self-hatred. But keep compassion for self at the front of your thinking.

Practicing very basic self-love on YOU is really as simple as first recognizing when we do self-hate, and then stopping that self-hate in its tracks. Recognition, then blocking. The third immediate tool we have in our arsenal is surrendering our special status in our own thinking. What in the hell does that mean?

Our Special Status isn’t so Special

It’s simple, really: when we accord ourselves special status we are, usually unconsciously, working to see ourselves as more than human. This is back to those impossible standards and sainthood status issues I’ve mentioned earlier in these posts.

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It might be said that all self-hatred comes down to expecting ourselves to have special status, more than human or even superhuman status in our own thinking. What are some examples of special status thinking?

Anything that demands in our thinking or behavior that we NOT be human is special status. That includes anything that demands perfection of us. If we believe that we can never, ever be angry with anyone we are according special status to ourselves.

Because, you see, humans get angry. That doesn’t mean they pull out an Uzi and hose the room down – yikes. (Weirdly enough we CAN’T get to that situation, that terribly over-reactive, destructive reaction to anger, if we ALLOW ourselves to be human enough to BE ANGRY in the first place.)

No, it simply means that anger is part of being human, being alive. If we think we can never, ever be angry with anyone then we are fooling ourselves, according ourselves special status, and we’re tilling the ground for self-hate.

Here’s another one: we must be everybody’s friend. We’re friendly people, right? Well, not just friendly people – we’re ALWAYS friendly. We’re never NOT friendly. Yup, that’s us, the world’s friendliest person. NOBODY can say that we are not friendly!

Except that’s not human. It’s utterly unreal. It is an expectation that we cannot meet! Oh, I know some of you are squirming in your chairs as you read this special status stuff. I get it. Self-hate generates a lot of anxiety around this discussion. There is risk, we believe, in actually allowing ourselves to be just human, just an ordinary person, capable of not being friendly all the time…

But we’re NOT friend all the time. Of course we’re not. Sometimes we’re really tired, or very hungry, or we’re just on people overload – we need to be left alone. That’s being human.

Again, I’m not saying we have to be jerks when we don’t feel particularly friendly. I’m saying that we’re allowed to not be Friendly Sam all the time. I’m saying it’s legal to 1) see that we’re being self-hating by insisting that we must be friendly all the time, 2) actually acknowledging that we don’t feel particularly friendly at the moment and 3) disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are somehow above the rest of the human race with our amazing, perfect friendliness. 🙂

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We are not saints. We may call someone a saint, but nobody is a saint – not all the time. Maybe that’s a better way to apply this badly-abused term – that we have saintly moments in our lives. But we don’t live our lives as saints.

Even the notion that we’re according to ourselves special status might come as a shock to some of us. We wouldn’t label, consciously, ourselves as striving for sainthood. But if we’re practicing self-hate then it’s a given that we’re striving for a special, unreal, inhuman status in our lives.

We need to have Compassion for Ourselves

Sometimes when I have this discussion with folks I get back a thoughtful “well, yeah, sure, that makes sense. But you know, Erik, I really do never get angry/really don’t have any preferences about what to do with my day/always am friendly/you name it.”

And many times those lovely, well-intentioned people believe what they are saying – at least on the surface. But the truth is they are deceiving themselves. Sure they are. They are terrified of actually having normal, human reactions, emotions, thoughts. It feels very, very dangerous to them, and was trained into them very early in their lives.

We are human. Any really, any step we take towards disrupting self-hating thinking and behavior is a dang good one – starting with being honest about our own humanity.

The world will not end if we have an honest, human emotional reaction to it. The universe will not implode if we decide we don’t really want to make dinner tonight, or we really do want to watch that sappy romantic comedy (over the protests of our spouse or partner), or we feel a little blue and just want to sit in a chair and watch the world go by for a few minutes.

There is an enormous power, strength and healing in this allowing ourselves to be human. We will discover that we have been expending GIGANTIC amounts of energy in the direction of self-hate, and that energy starts to get freed up, starts coming back to us. It is a remarkable experience.

Every time we decide that we matter, that other people can for the most part take care of themselves, that our wants and needs are at least as important as the people around us and that we are allowed to be human we are practicing compassion towards ourselves. And it is very, very good for us and for the world we live in.

Next up, the last blog post (for a while) about Compassion and Self-Hate.

In the last three blog posts I have discussed the role of self-hate in the creation of anxiety, and the various forms that self-hate can take in us. This isn’t some small thing. Self-hate is a kind of mental and emotional cancer, and we ignore it at our peril…

Today’s post is all about, as T.I. Rubin puts it, the “antidote” to self-hate – compassion, specifically self-compassion. Let me quote Dr. Rubin here:

“(Self) Compassion is, ultimately, a state of mind in which benevolence reigns supreme, and in which a state of grace is established with ourselves. This state of grace undermines the promotion of self-hate. In this state of grace loyalty to self, in all circumstances whatsoever, is of prime importance…”

This is HUGE. What that maniac Dr. Rubin is proposing is that we MUST take first position in our own lives, making conscious choices that promote care for us, respect for us, love for us, compassion for us. I love his use of the phrase “state of grace.” Having done a LOT of time in the conservative church I can say that grace POPS for me as a word.

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Because grace implies that I don’t have to WORK for the thing for which I’m seeking grace. Grace is already granted, already present, and is already mine. Grace means no checklist, no set of accomplishments needed before I’m allowed to have grace.

Compassion really means practicing love towards ourselves.

OK, sure, but wait a minute – this sounds selfish and self-absorbed to me…

Yeah, I get that. It sounded that way to me too. The phrase “loyalty to self” sounds like we are always the person in the center of the room, caring ONLY for ourselves, ignoring the needs of others and breezing through life with a careless disregard for anybody but us.

That’s not what we’re talking about here. Not even remotely. That we have to have this conversation with ourselves says just how much we’ve gotten “off-beacon” from what healthy living is all about.

Think of this discussion as a significant “reset” of how we think about ourselves, and what self-care/self-compassion really is. Rubin isn’t saying forget everyone else, it’s all about ME. Here is what Rubin is saying:

1) That our needs, our wants and our desires are at least as important as anyone else’s.
2) That we have both a right and an obligation to ourselves to CONSIDER those wants, needs and desires WHILE we consider other people’s wants, needs and desires. We don’t just default automatically to “sure, you want it, I’m giving it, we’re done.”
3) We are WORTHY of HAVING wants, needs and desires. Just by virtue of being on the planet, walking around breathing the morning air, we get to have those things, and nobody gets to decide otherwise.
4) That if we don’t practice deliberate, conscious and on-going compassion and love for ourselves we are encouraging, actively, the growth and feeding of self-hate.

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There is a WORLD of difference between compassion towards ourselves (what do I want? What works for me? These are my desires and there is nothing inherently wrong with them…) and hey world, forget you! It’s all about me! I don’t care about anyone else and I’m only going to take care of ME! 🙂

Just the need to even have to clarify this says something about how far from real self-care and self-compassion many of us live our lives.

Human, Party of One – Human, Party of One please

Let’s come at the subject another way: all Rubin is asking is that we begin treating ourselves AS human beings. True self-compassion means, well, being compassionate with ourselves for all we are, not just the parts that we think other people will like, or the parts that we think are good enough.

It’s how you would expect a healthy adult to respond to one of his or her own kids. That parent would treat that child AS their child, regardless of whether they were always in a good mood, always had clean clothes on, always said please and thank you, always behaved like a perfect angel.

That parent would hold that kid when he or she cried, comfort them when they were afraid, play with them when they were silly, encourage them when they felt tentative.

THAT’S what I’m talking about when I talk about compassion and love for oneself. Does that sound so crazy? Don’t we wish our parents had been exactly that way? Well, guess what? We can do that to ourselves! Yeah, it’s legal – you don’t need a permit or a license or anything. 🙂

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Compassion forgives mistakes (while working to see what could be done better next time), allows for human frailty (we get tired, we are not always cheerful, sometimes full of self-doubt), permits variation in ability from day to day (i.e., nobody gives 110% all the time.) These are all just different ways of saying that compassion allows us to be human.

It can feel scary to actually practice compassion for ourselves…

As crazy as it sounds (and it should sound crazy) lots of us are afraid to practice self-compassion. We’re willing as heck (lots of the time anyway) to be compassionate to other people. (Although we can also be pretty judgmental, can’t we, about other people’s failings and imperfections? Anxiety/self-hate can do that to us as well.)

The fear we have is that if we “let up” on ourselves our lives will go to hell. It’s like we’re attending a military boot camp that never ends. Don’t think it is some easy thing to back off! Lots of us carry real fear that if we slack off on our vicious, angry self-correction (self-hate) that disaster will follow.

This extends beyond our conscious thinking. We can have nightmares, sudden anxious moments that seem to come from nowhere, and a nameless dread when we begin to try and relax our self-vigil.

Some of us call that angry, punishing voice our conscience. Nothing wrong with having a conscience. That’s the whole point of learning to live with other people in the first place. We need to understand the rules and make an effort to live by them.

But, as Rubin says, most of our consciences are way, way too busy, way too strong. We don’t need a police officer in our soul yelling at us because we’ve broken some rules. We need a compassionate guide that helps us course-correct – when it’s really necessary – and we need a better discrimination about when enough is enough when it comes to our internal critic.

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And that’s really what this is, isn’t it? It’s much more about a voice in our head that tells us we’ve never good enough, never smart enough, never caring enough, never good-looking enough, never… you name it.

Rules. Internal critics. The voices of failure and fear. That’s the stuff from which self-hate and fierce anxiety start and breed. There’s nothing wrong with rules. But rules are guidelines for living, not prisons we need to build for ourselves so we never, ever make a mistake. That’s not human.

Remember the discussion at the beginning of this blog post about developing a practice with ourselves of establishing a state of grace in our lives and minds? Grace says that yeah, we make mistakes. Yeah, we don’t know everything. Yeah, sometimes we don’t perform perfectly, or always know what to say, or sometimes miss a cue or a clue, and that’s OK, even healthy.

This whole fight might be summarized as a battle with perfectionism. We are NOT perfect, and we will never be perfect. I argue that a second element of this perfectionism battle is the misunderstanding that perfect is a STATIC state – i.e., when something is perfect it will freeze in place and always be perfect.

But that flies in the face of our experience in the real world! Nothing, nothing in the real world is in a permanent state of perfection. NOTHING! Snowflakes are perfect – until they touch the ground or our hand. A perfect moment with friends or family is just that – a moment. It comes, and then it goes.

Perfection is one experience, one kind of experience, in the daily flow of life. Heck, if we only got our arms around this notion we’d find a whole new kind of freedom in our thinking and lives.

Rubin talks a great deal about the embracing of the ordinary, human life. We anxiety fighters, we who learned to do an enormous amount of self-hate (all unawares, of course) learned to also try for some ideal, perfect, holy, never-make-a-mistake kind of life, and it’s killing us. We have a fierce, urgent need to allow life to be just life, with its ups and down, triumphs and defeats, and just plain ordinary days.

Because there is an ENORMOUS amount to savor in the ordinary! Afraid of making a mistake, afraid of screwing up, we strive for this postcard-perfect life, and miss the joy and real life that is here, right now, right around us. Anxiety, trying desperately to conjure crisis from problems, also works to block our capacity to just BE in the day.

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You know the list. We have family to treasure. We have friends to enjoy. We have interests we can pursue. We have the work of the day in front of us to accomplish and respect and be proud of. We have goals we can work on – without making it into doing it perfectly, on the first try, to the cheering of enormous crowds. 🙂

Some of us have enormous challenges – physical, financial, relational, emotional. But there’s still, even in the midst of those challenges, LIFE, ordinary life, to savor. There’s still lots of room to practice self-compassion, self-love, and the work of finding real relief from the litany of angry self-hatred and self-punishment that we’ve learned to pour onto ourselves.

Self-love is harder than it Sounds

Ain’t that the truth? We’re born to love ourselves, care for ourselves, respect ourselves, and allow ourselves to be human. And that’s great news, because it leaves us with one elegant truth: we have a natural, inborn drive to love ourselves.

You know it’s true! Some part of each of us is struggling mightily to send love and compassion our way. And that gives us some other good news – self-love, the natural drive to care for ourselves, is stronger than the self-hate we’ve learned to practice on ourselves.

It may not feel that way. That’s where anxiety can make it hard to see clearly. It FEELS so hard to just cut ourselves a break, allow ourselves to be human, fallible and mortal and also capable of success and happiness.

But it is true. With even a little practice on compassion towards ourselves we can begin to strengthen those long-disused muscles. Next up – some examples of living a self-compassionate life.

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The last couple of posts have not been made of fairy dust and rainbows. We’re talking about pretty serious stuff – this stuff called self-hate. When I first read Rubin’s book Compassion and Self-Hate it largely freaked me out.

It freaked me out because it was very, very close to home. I recognized a terrible number of self-hating behaviors I was doing, all unawares, to myself. It freaked me out because I didn’t realize just how wide-spread self-hating was IN ME – in my thinking, in how I treated myself, in how I reacted to other people.

But it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, on this road to breaking the power of anxiety, we HAVE to get freaked out. Facing down fear, identifying the thinking that made us sick with anxiety in the first place, can mean that we have to look squarely at our fears – sit with our fears – before we can do much about them.

That isn’t easy. Lots of people don’t do it. It FEELS safer to run away, hide from our fears. And it FEELS very dangerous sometimes to turn and face our fears.

These blog posts – all the ones with the title “The Vital Importance of Self-Love” are about tools to help identify the primary cause of anxiety – one form or another of self-hatred.

I’ve been talking about what Rubin calls direct forms of self-hatred – chronic self-abuse (mental, physical, emotional), destructive relationships, savage self-criticism, etc. Today’s post is a brief (and by no means comprehensive) discussion of the indirect ways we practice self-hatred.

Understanding both is necessary in our quest to get clear on the thinking that scares us, the behaviors that keep us locked in anxiety, and in changing that thinking and those behaviors. Let’s wade in…

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Indirect self-hate

Indirect Self-Hate can be summarized with 2 basic elements:

Illusions (of one kind or another)
Impossible Standards

Illusions. Illusions, when they are part of story-telling or movie-making, can be brilliant things. They can add reality and dimension, making unreal things look real. That’s outstanding if you’re watching a Star Wars classic. It isn’t, however, so useful when it comes to living life in a healthy and nurturing fashion…

To talk in a helpful way about illusion we first have to get clear WHY in the first place we started generating illusions about life. Illusions serve as self-comforting, self-protective shields in the face of a life or set of experiences that are punishing, even intolerable (especially when we are young, and first learning to deal with the world.)

Illusions buffer us from our world. In the learning about how to cope with the world and other people in the world – the reason self-hate comes into existence in the first place – we can learn that the world is confusing, irrational, unsafe, dangerous, very, very risky. Illusion can give us some breathing room to cope with that pressure and fear.

From that perspective it might be argued that illusion can serve a useful purpose. I won’t argue with that – at least at the beginning. The problem comes when we get to adulthood, get away (hopefully) from that terrible context/situation, and go live in the world ourselves.

So understand that we didn’t set OUT to generate and live in illusions – we did it because we needed some mental and emotional distance from the situation we were in at the time.

Kinds of Illusion

What kind of illusions are we talking about? Let’s start with the illusions we weave around ourselves. One illusion is that we are dependent people – that we can’t take care of ourselves. Weirdly enough this illusion can provide a feeling of safety. We default to other people in the having to manage the world thing, while we retreat behind our helplessness and supposed inability to cope.

This keeps us from taking responsibility for facing our fears – and embracing our dreams. Another illusion that we create for ourselves is that we only exist to make other people happy. Our whole mission in life is to take care of parents, children, husbands or wives, sick friends, our patients, our fellow church attenders – whatever we’ve decided is our sole life focus.

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And this illusion can lead to other illusions. Illusions like we’re nobody, really, except humble helpers, mere servants. And this can quickly turn into being a martyr, a kind of saint, always kind, always happy, never angry… etc.

Ugh! This isn’t human! We’re not dependent children. We don’t only exist to make other people happy. We are not martyrs or saints. We’re HUMAN. We care for other people – but we must also care for ourselves. We are selfless sometimes – and self-caring (at least we need to be) other times. We need help, sometimes – and other times we’re just fine and can manage ourselves, thank you.

When we feed and buy into these illusions of self we’re setting ourselves up and we’re deceiving ourselves. We’re hiding from the world, when what we desperately need (and secretly want) is to engage the world, be in the world.

We do this with other people as well. We make people in our lives perfect – perfectly wise, perfectly innocent, perfectly capable, perfectly intelligent, etc. We put people on pedestals, make them larger than life, generate illusions about them. We make them into saints, make them our safe person, make them our savior.

The Dangers of Illusion

Illusions about ourselves and illusions about other people are, strangely enough, indirect forms of self-hatred. Anything, ANYTHING that gets in the way of honest, clean thinking about ourselves and life is an effort to avoid LIVING life as it actually is – and shuts down the paths to the way CAN BE if we’re engaging in our lives instead of running away from them.

What are some of YOUR illusions? Walk carefully here – these can be world-shaking. You might want to edge up on these, and expect some real Comfort Zone push-back. Our illusions are very dear to us, and they often make us feel safe…

It can be very troubling to start to see the world clearly. I had a moment back in the throes of my climbing out of anxiety (and it was a moment that pivotal in my getting free) when I was taking a shower one morning, and realized (after some conversations in the same direct as this blog post with my therapist) that I had been harboring an illusion.

Here was the illusion: I had told myself for a very long time that other people had great, happy, interesting lives, but it was my lot to live a boring, ordinary, sad little life. Other people got to do interesting work, other people had great weekends filled with friends and adventures – but not me.

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As the shower ran I suddenly had the notion that maybe, just maybe, that was crap. Maybe I had been telling myself this story to protect myself from a life I didn’t want but couldn’t see a way out of, starting as a very young teenager. I had woven this story to keep me from this simple truth: it was up to me to make the life I wanted.

That was scary as hell to me, in that moment. I think that notion had scared me for a long, long time. But on the chilly April morning in Reno in 1995 I found myself frozen in place, my illusion gone. It was up to me. I didn’t know how I’d do it – not then – but that was what was real. I was so shaken, and the thought was so new, that I stood in that shower until the water ran cold.

(I HATE cold showers, btw.)

I finally got out of the shower, but my world was larger and much more connected to reality. And understanding that I had been spinning a story to myself about why I couldn’t get to what I wanted helped me start moving in the direction of the life I wanted. I was scared – but I had also shut down an important piece of self-hating.

Impossible Standards/Unrealistic Expectations

Don’t get me started on this… one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life was when my therapist confronted me on my personal rules for living. When I faced into this exercise and discovered to my horror that I was neck-deep in rules I also learned something else: an enormous number of my life rules were set to impossible standards.

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One rule I had was “never put myself before other people’s needs.” It was bad enough that I didn’t even I was carting this rule around, but it was even more crazy-making to begin to understand that it was literally impossible to fulfill. Never put myself before other people? What if those other people are taking shameless advantage of me? What if what they are doing is damaging or hurting me in some obvious way?

Make no mistake – I tried to meet this standard. And while trying I had the life sucked out of me. I was famous for my giving, caring attitude – and I was in private angry, bitter and exhausted. Erik the Giver was also Erik the Angry – and more importantly, Erik the Afraid. I was afraid of failing that standard, even as I berated myself and beat myself up for not meeting my own standards.

And perhaps most importantly of all, what kind of self-love, self-care, self-compassion can I exercise if I’m ALWAYS putting my needs behind everyone else? Yeah, this is self-hate too. To care for other people, go out of our way for other people, go the extra mile for someone else, that’s all legal – sometimes. But always? Every time? No.

And yes, I know there are people who are reading this exact post and getting scratchy at the notion that they might actually come first sometimes. Sure that makes us scratchy. We learned these rules in an effort to get along in our worlds – literally, for the most part, to keep us safe. This doesn’t feel safe.

Sure, that makes sense. But the feeling doesn’t make it so. And if we were actually at risk for once in a while considering our needs first, maybe it’s time for a change of scenery?

Any standard that sets the bar too high is doomed to fail. And dooming ourselves to fail is an act of self-hatred. No, we didn’t (for the most part) set out to hurt ourselves. But hurting ourselves is something we’re doing if we’re trying to sustain impossible standards.

Maybe the place to firmly plant our flag is the word “impossible.” None of us are idiots. We know when something is merely hard, or challenging, as opposed to when something is impossible to achieve. Let’s agree that when we set impossible standards for ourselves we are setting ourselves up to fail.

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Self-care demands that we moderate our standards to human levels, things that we can actually achieve. To (yes, I know, this sounds crazy) lower our standards into the realm of humanity is to perform an act of self-love.

What are some of YOUR impossible standards? Where are you not meeting your own out-of-control expectations?

Enough with the Self-Hate Stuff!

OK. In the last 3 blog posts I’ve listed out what Dr. Rubin calls direct and indirect forms of self-hate. It isn’t a lot of fun, this discussion of self-hate, but it’s very useful in helping us get some clarity on where in our lives we’re running these automatic programs of thinking and behavior that are in truth hurting us.

As I did at the end of my last post I strongly encourage you to look at the places in your life where you are engaged in self-hating behaviors. I encourage you to do that in pieces. I encourage you to seek out help – a coach or therapist. This self-hating stuff can rock our worlds. I encourage you to journal what you discover, and use that journal to help you figure out where you’re shutting yourself down in an effort to be safe, get it right, not get in trouble – where you are practicing self-hate.

Next up – we’re finally on to the good stuff – compassion.

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Do you love yourself? Does that question sound weird or self-absorbed to you? What do you think of when you think of self-love? Shakespeare, that Master of the Words, had a great quote for this topic: “self-love, my lord, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.”

Self-love doesn’t mean being selfish. Self-love doesn’t mean you’re always staring in the mirror telling yourself how good-looking or amazing you are. Self-love means rediscovering (for most of us, anyway) the real need we have to care for, respect and honor who we are, in multiple ways.

Self-love utterly vital in this work of breaking the habit of chronic anxiety and depression. Every creature on the planet has a healthy interest in self-care – except for us wacky humans. We’re the only species that seems to go out of its way to NOT do good self-care, love ourselves the way we need to be loved.

Self-love isn’t for the wimpy. Self-love isn’t a book of affirmations and a long weekend in Aruba (although those things could be excellent ways to practice some self-love.) Self-love isn’t eating a box of Chips Ahoy or drinking 11 glasses of wine. Self-love is true compassion and gentleness towards ourselves – treasuring our true humanity.

And yes, I said our true humanity. We are human. We are not perfect, we are not limitless, we can’t always be at the top of our game. We will be up and we will be down. We will have successes and failures and more successes. We will have different abilities to “do our best” from day to day. Understanding this is also self-love.

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Today’s post begins a series about self-love, it’s evil twin self-have, and some discussion about why the hell we ever wind up NOT loving ourselves in the first place. Today’s post is more about laying the groundwork for a larger conversation – we have a lot of ground to cover…

We start out loving ourselves

We don’t get born into the world not knowing how to love ourselves. We already know how. We are born self-loving, and we have to learn to not treat ourselves with love and compassion.

Isn’t that strange news? And troubling? It’s true. We are born with a healthy self-interest and a tendency to take care of ourselves. It just makes sense. Any creature on Earth that shows up naturally not showing a healthy self-care is going to have some challenges…

Think about babies. You know, new humans, the tiny ones who can’t do much except make silly noises and wave their arms and legs around, looking cute as heck? Are babies self-loving? You bet! If they are happy they amuse themselves (and often us in the process.) They smile, they stick their foot in their mouths, they look around at the world –

And when they are not happy that isn’t a secret either! They cry if they’re hungry or if they need a new diaper or if they get too tired.

Think about your pet for a second – your cat or dog or horse. They don’t have any problem drawing a boundary or expressing a need, right? Just try taking away their food or petting them too roughly – you’ll know in a hurry if it isn’t working for them. 🙂

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And it’s the same for people too. Well, it’s the same for people UNTIL they start learning about getting along with other people in the world… I’ll go there in a minute. To review: we are born self-caring, self-loving. We are naturally compelled to do self-care. We have to LEARN to not do it.

The Monkeywrench in the Works

We get into trouble when we begin navigating human relationships in our world (what we might call the socialization process – learning to get along with other people.) To live in the world we have to learn some give-and-take, some capacity for negotiating how our world works in relation to those other people.

Part of that learning to get along is learning when we can have our way, do what we want, and when we have to allow for other people’s wants and needs. Nothing strange or terribly difficult about this, at least in theory.

Here’s the thing: too many of us, in that learning process, develop a habit of seriously shutting down what we want in favor of what other people want. You might be thinking at this point hey, what’s wrong with putting other people first? Isn’t that moral, or Christian, or kind, or something like that?

The problem isn’t the putting other people first – although that also gets terribly out of hand, and we’ll get to that later. The problem is learning that SELF-CARE IS WRONG. The problem lies in coming to dismiss, discount and shut down the natural impulse to treat ourselves at LEAST as well as we’re treating other people.

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How do we get there? We get there because we (and those who teach us how to get along with other people, how to live in the world) confuse what we want with wanting it as good or bad.

An Example based on Chocolate Cake

Suppose you want some chocolate cake. Let’s say further that you’re 5 years old. Your visions of heaven include an infinite supply of chocolate cake, and Dad just brought some home. Sadly you also have a 7-year-old sister, and SHE wants some chocolate cake too.

(I’m stealing this example, with some changes, from Issac Rubin’s book “Compassion and Self-Hate”, along with most of the basic thinking of this blog post. It’s a great book – I REALLY encourage you to read it.)

Dad says, in this example, hey, you, you can have half the cake. You’re seriously experiencing Nirvana as you happily gobble your half, and as you’re approaching the last bite you say impulsively “hey, Dad, can I have the rest of the cake?”

Of course you do! What crazy person DOESN’T want the rest of the cake? There is nothing wrong with wanting more. It’s an utterly natural reaction to the yumminess of chocolate cake. Here’s the question: what does Dad do when we ask for more?

Dad has two roads he can travel in this scenario, and what we learn to think about the impulse to want more cake will depend heavily on which one he takes. The first response would sound something like this:

“Hey, I can understand wanting more cake. Only a lunatic wouldn’t want more cake. The problem is that your sister also gets some of the cake, and that’s why I divided it in half. You’ve had your half, and now your sister gets her half.”

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This is that whole socialization thing I mentioned earlier in this post. This is us learning to live with other people in the world. The beauty of this particular answer is that it affirms that we are healthy, normal and natural to want more cake.

If only most parents DID respond this way… because the other road Dad can take sounds like this: “what? You selfish little person! It’s wrong to want more cake! You should think of your sister! How can you be so thoughtless! Can you imagine how hurt she’d feel if she didn’t get some cake? What’s wrong with you anyway???!!!”

Yikes. THIS is also socialization – but the message is very, very different, and the beginning of learning that there is something fundamentally wrong with us wanting to want, need, desire what we want. We begin to second-guess ourselves, distrust what we want, or even what we are…

And of course we have no idea what’s happening to us – just like the people who are telling us that what we are, what we want is wrong had no idea when THEY were told the same thing.

What Starts to Happen

If this only happened once in a while it might not be such a big deal. But way, way too many of us grow up hearing that fundamental parts of ourselves are damaged, wrong, bad – and we, like the little sponges we are, absorb that message as Gospel.

We become fiercely self-critical as those external voices become internal voices. We become our own parent (sound familiar to anyone?), relentlessly correcting ourselves, relentlessly criticizing ourselves for being such terrible people…

There are a LOT of ways this can shake out. The points to take away from this blog post are

1) We are born self-loving, self-caring – like everything else that lives on Earth
2) We have to LEARN to override that self-caring, self-loving nature.
3) We learn that from people who themselves learned that – and internalized that thinking

None of this is, as I’ve said, an indictment of those people who raised us. They were doing the best they knew how. But sometimes the best we know how is still not useful.

Self-criticism, self-punishment, self-hatred is very, very fertile soil for anxious thinking and living. In my next post I will review some of the ways that a lack of self-love can wreak havoc in our lives, as well as some beginning ways to counteract self-hatred – and begin to return to the self-caring creatures we were born to be.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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…

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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.

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OK, yes, I confess, I’m a Star Wars Nerd. Guilty as charged. There is a magic and a joy in these stories that sings to the Geek in me. 🙂 And one of the things that makes these stories especially interesting is a little green man named Yoda.

Yoda has some great things to say, both to his young apprentice Luke Skywalker and to the audience watching Luke’s adventures. I’m going to riff in this post on some of those pearls of wisdom because they pertain directly to our fight with anxiety. We’re going to go to Jedi Boot Camp today, so dig out your lightsaber and fire up your X-wing Fighter – we’re making time with Master Yoda.

The Biography of One Master Yoda

I’m assuming that most of you already know this wise green soul, but here’s a quick summary of this character’s life and credentials. Yoda is a smallish creature belonging to a race that’s never identified in the stories. He is simply Yoda or Master Yoda. He is 800 years old, more or less, and he is a true Jedi Knight – a master of the Force, a mysterious energy that gives him great power and strength.

But that isn’t the most interesting thing about Yoda, interestingly enough. He is also the very definition of Zen Calm. Now don’t get me wrong. Just because he’s so Zen-like doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry. Baby, he gets angry. But he’s very clear about the limits of anger, or indeed any emotion. He has mastered his emotions because he understands that emotions come from thought, and his emotions are his servant, not his master.

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In fact, Yoda contends, that to be a Master of the Force it is vital to be in control of your emotions, and not the other way around. Which sets me up for my second Yoda quote (the first is the title of this blog post):

Fear is the Path to the Dark Side

In the Star Wars universe there are two kinds of Force Masters – the Jedi, and those that have turned to the Dark Side. Why do we care? Because those Dark Side Force people have one thing in common: they have let fear and anger take control of their lives.

Yikes. Sounds a lot like being an anxiety fighter, yes? We become an unwilling prisoner of our feelings and anxiety’s physical reactions, then flail around, trying to get free of those feelings and sensations, and knocking over a few lamps, people and other things in the process.

We don’t have to go to the Dark Side. And, in the Star Wars universe, even if you DO go to the Dark Side you can always come back out again. You are NOT doomed to stay there – unless you let your fear and anger continue to control you.

That’s a big thing in Star Wars – fear being the path to the Dark Side. It also spends some time talking about how easy it can to fear run away with us – unless we’re paying attention.

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Named Must your Fear be before Banish it you can!

HOW do we escape the Dark Side? We have to name our fears. We can’t fight what we can’t clearly see or get our arms around. (For some recommendations on how to name your fears see the posts HERE and HERE.) This is how the evil Emperor, himself a victim of the Dark Side, controls Luke’s father, another Force Master and the character we know as Darth Vader.

Darth doesn’t realize that he is even being controlled, at least not for a long time. He thinks he is in charge of his life, until events make it clear that in fact his life is out of control. He thinks he has good reasons to be angry and afraid, but only late in the stories does he come to understand that in letting his fear control his thinking and his life he has wreaked havoc in his life.

In Fear Mastery language naming our fears is identifying as clearly as we can the what if thinking that is making us anxious in the first place. What if someone doesn’t like me? What if my life is slipping away? What if I can’t find success? What if I never find true love? What if I’m not attractive enough?

All of these call us to the Dark Side – the place of endless analysis, endless telling over of our fears, endless futile attempts to “solve” crises that are not crises at all.

Identify what we’re running from and see it for what it is – a problem, a set of problems, even a set of urgent problems – but not a crisis. See through Flight or Fight’s reactions to our fearful thinking. Break the cycle of worry and fear and anger. Thus we begin to escape the Dark Side…

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Do, or Do Not. There is no Try.

How do we do this? We just lean in and start doing it. We suck at it in the beginning. We fight it like hell. We fall down and get up again. And again. And again. We flee and we come back. We yell and cry and shout at the heavens that we can’t do this work – then we get up and do some more.

One of Yoda’s most famous lines is the heading of this blog post section. Yoda is dismissive of trying. “I’m trying!” Luke cries, and Yoda doesn’t buy it. Either we’re doing or we’re not doing.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t take self-care breaks. Sometimes we have pity parties. Sometimes we stomp our feet and pout. That’s OK too. All part of the work. The point is we COME BACK TO THE WORK.

We expect frustration. We expect days where nothing seems to be happening. We anticipate that it will sometimes feel we’re even back to square one. This is the case for every skill anyone learns.

And it is so tempting, some days, to just want to give up, to go back to the familiar pattern of running away from our fears and how they make us feel. The answer? Keep doing. Either we’re doing or we’re not doing. There is no try.

Strong in the Force you Are…

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I have written before in this blog just how strong and stubborn anxiety fighters are – much stronger and much more stubborn than most of us consciously understand. We are all, in Star Wars terms, Jedi-Knights-in-training, and we each have the power to break anxiety’s hold in our lives.

That can be hard to believe sometimes. Anxiety is so good at undermining our self-confidence, our thinking, making us doubt ourselves and our abilities. But here’s some good news: we don’t have to believe it right now.

All we have to do is drive the practice and the regular work getting clear on our fears and shifting that thinking from crisis to problem. Like any Jedi we won’t master the skills we need overnight. Long will the days of training be (at least they will feel long to us) and we will wrestle with self-doubt and the convulsions of Flight or Fight as we face our fears and prove to ourselves that we are the master of them.

Believe, increasing self-confidence and better and better skill at not making problems/issues into crisis thinking will come with time and practice. So gird up your loins, Jedi-to-be! The Force is strong with you – and with all of us.

One Last Yoda Quote before I go –

Yoda says to his young apprentice this thing: “you must unlearn what you have learned.” YES. We have to, HAVE to see anxiety as a set of thinking responses we LEARNED early and deeply. But as the Master Jedi points out anything we learn we can unlearn, and learn differently.

Anxious thinking is a learned thing. We can learn new ways to think, new ways to map what makes us anxious and take back our thinking.

So – are you ready to come out of the Dark Side? Dust off that lightsaber, gas up the X-wing fighter and get ready to face down your fears? This is work each of us can do – for we are all Jedi, if we will do the work.

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