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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.

Yoda 1

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…

Yoda 4

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.

Yoda 2

Some words are fuzzy. We use them as if they had precise, clear definitions, but if we look at them a little closer it gets hard sometimes to explain what we mean – or even what something is.

One example might be the word “freedom”. We use the word a lot, but most of us are not clear what freedom precisely means from use to use, from user to user. Freedom could mean a complete lack of rules, boundaries or restrictions.

Or it could mean the capacity to move easily within a framework of restrictions – i.e., parameters that define a certain range of motion or activity. Or it could mean that someone is free BECAUSE they are also responsible for specific outcomes or duties.

Those are some pretty varied meanings – yet we use one word for all those meanings. The same thing could be said of motivation or drive, two words I hear a lot in this work of breaking the power of anxiety in our lives.

I usually hear the word used in a sentence like this: “Erik, I’d love to get serious about digging into my what if anxious thinking and facing down my Flight or Fight reactions, but I’m not really motivated right now. I just don’t have any drive. I think I’ll wait until I have some motivation before I face this work.”

Oops. We need to get clear on the definition of motivation and drive…

Let’s get out the Dictionary

Most of us have the notion that motivation is a mysterious inner force, a fund or well of energy or push that just is, like the sun or the rain. It comes and goes, it waxes and wanes, and it is more than anything else based in how we FEEL.

Motivation 1

Uh, no. That’s not motivation. Let’s go to the Oxford Dictionary. It says that motivation is “the reason or reasons one has for acting in a particular way.” Hmm. Reason. Not feeling. That’s pretty interesting. It implies that feelings don’t have a lot to do with motivation.

That’s a pretty serious reorientation for most of us. We have learned to see thinking like “I just don’t feel like doing this work” as an accurate way to assess our motivation, when how we feel has very little to do with whether we have REASONS to get up and tackle our fears.

This ties in very nicely to the notion that feelings are the result of thinking, and not the other way around. It pulls the curtain back on that illusion that says feelings just come out of nowhere, or that feelings stand independent of what we are experiencing in our thinking. Motivation isn’t emotional – it’s mental.

Which means that to create motivation we have to get clear on reasons to do something. Motivation comes from knowing what we want enough to go get it, regardless of how we feel. Like so much in life (healthy, actually-based-in-how-things-work life) we have to have the cart in FRONT of the horse for the process to work in the first place.

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OK. What about the word “drive”? You hear similar conversations around drive that you hear around motivation. “I’m not driven to do that right now.” “I lack drive.” “Some people seem so driven – I wish I had their drive.”

Driving Miss Daisy

Let’s go to Merriam-Webster for this definition: “to direct the movement of, to move in a specified manner or direction, to travel.” Here’s some more: “to carry on or through energetically, to set or keep in motion or operation.”

Wow. That’s not really what I expected to find when I first looked up the word drive. But isn’t it interesting to see how, again, the word has very little to do with feelings or emotion, and instead has everything to do with DOING and TAKING ACTION.

This made me think of something else we apply drive to – using a car or truck. The car or truck doesn’t drive us (although if Google has its way we could all easily wind up with vehicles that do the driving for us.) Nope, WE drive the car, we drive the truck, we direct the movement of that collection of steel, computer chips and rubber.

Motivation. Drive. These are both things that come from us making a decision to do something and then doing it. They are not based in feeling, they are based in thought that forms to action.

So that begs the question: what reasons would generate motivation and drive in us? Note that I’m not talking about generating any feelings here. I’m talking about reasons that would make it worth our while to lean in and do the hard work of changing thinking, rather than sitting around waiting for something to change on its own…

This is such a crucial thing to understand. Feelings don’t spring from a mysterious inner well. They are not fairies that sprinkle magic dust on us and presto! we’re having a feeling.

Ixnay on the airiesfay! Feelings come from our thinking. (Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve written that here I could get a week in Puerto Vallarta at the beach…)

Motivation 2

In fact drive and motivation are precisely how we can GET the feelings we’re sitting around waiting for, not the other way around.

What is my Motivation?

In younger days I was an actor (high school, some in college.) I loved it. At some level of my soul I’m a ham. One of the questions that an actor learns to ask when they are creating a character is what is that character’s motivation? Why are they doing or not doing in this particular scene of a play?

And doesn’t that make sense of the definition we’ve discussed in this blog post about motivation? Characters in stories take action because they have reasons to do so. They then both take action and have feelings.

You hear it all the time on the stage. “What is my motivation?” “Why is my character doing this thing?” We can use those same questions to help us motivate, drive ourselves to do the work we need to do.

So – what is your motivation? Why push against anxiety? Well, that seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? We don’t want to be afraid anymore! We don’t want to hand away any more of our lives to this stupid and maddening condition called anxiety! We want to feel happy and peaceful and NOT ANXIOUS.

OK. Sounds like a great set of motivations to me. They were my motivations as well when I waded into this battle with anxiety.

But Erik, you don’t seem to Understand – I’m AFRAID!

Ah, but I do understand! I understand that we too easily confuse feeling or lack of feeling, energy or lack of energy, with motivation and drive. They are not the same thing.

Because trust me, I had ZERO energy and ZERO passion for this work when I started. ALL I wanted to do was JUST NOT FEEL ANXIOUS. And this work meant that I had to both face down my anxiety and FEEL a LOT of anxiety to make any real progress.

Motivation 5

I said out loud a 100 times “but I don’t feel like doing this work. I don’t have any drive. Nothing seems important, nothing seems worth the effort.” That was my anxiety and my depression talking, and, combined with my believing that I had to FEEL like doing something before I did it, I stayed frozen, waiting for something to magically change in me so I could take action.

Here’s some big news: I slowly, haltingly, began to learn that nothing was going to change until I DROVE the BEHAVIORS of change in my life, in my daily activities. I began to learn in small baby steps that feelings and energy didn’t change until I DROVE change – in my thinking, in how I treated Flight or Fight, and in deciding that feelings and energy came from sustained action rather than some mysterious place in my soul.

This Car won’t Drive Itself (at least not yet)

Motivation and drive are not feelings. They are reasons. What are the reasons you have to break anxiety’s hold?

Would you like a real life?
Would you like to not be anxious all the time?
Would you enjoy getting out of that damn house and seeing the rest of the world?
Would you like to get a job, or volunteer someplace, or just be involved in life again?
Would you like to get more time with your kids, or spouse, or total strangers again?
Would you like to travel, see the planet?

There’s some GREAT motivations right there. Lots of things to drive towards, yes? This work isn’t about feeling like doing it first. It’s about doing the work and then seeing feelings and energy change.

That won’t happen overnight. And it can’t happen if we keep NOT doing the work. That specifically looks like this:

Taking action while still fiercely feeding what if stories
Flinching back from Flight or Fight sensations and emotions
Hanging on to old anger and self-abuse behaviors
Deciding that we must be fighting anything but anxiety – i.e., making our condition into a mystery we can’t solve

Motivation is reasons to act. Drive is moving towards those reasons, making them real in our lives. We don’t have to feel it first. In fact we can’t. Feelings will come later. All we need now is clarity and taking action.

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

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

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

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

Freezing 1

The Temptation to Freeze – and stay Frozen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freezing 2

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

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

Time to Climb out of the Freezer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freezing 4

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

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

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

So then what IS the right bias to action?

The Skinny on Not Freezing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Freezing

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

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

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

Comfort Zone 2

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

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

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

What does it mean to cherish our mistakes?

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Let’s start with the What Ifs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mistake 1

Mistakes are part of the learning curve of our lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mistake 5

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

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

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

Being willing to Look the Fool sets us Free

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

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

Mistake 8

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

Did you know that you’re a model?

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

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

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

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

It’s Time to be more like a Kid

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

Mistake 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect

Look Foolish – It will do you Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy 1

Problem 1: we got set up to be Anxious Thinkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy 4

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

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

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

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

An Anxiety Example

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

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

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

Messy 2

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

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

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

But that isn’t the whole story.

Problem 2: We don’t like being Scared

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

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

Messy 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy 3

Problem 3: We get Damn Tired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depression 3

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

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

This Work is Messy and Not a Straight-line Progression

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

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

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

Messy 5

In my last post I discussed our very real need for good boundary-drawing skills in our fight with anxiety. I wanted to share some examples of good boundary-drawing (and learning to deal with the consequences, good and scary, of that work) in today’s post.

Good Fences make Good Neighbors

As I have said in earlier posts one of the debilitating things about learning to be an anxious thinker is also learning that self-care is selfish, or cruel, or ungodly, or some other untrue thing. Let’s make sure we’re all clear on this: learning to draw healthy boundaries IS self-care. I would argue that good self-care can’t really flourish in the absence of our ability to draw clear, self-respecting boundaries where other people end and where we start…

One of the most common places people walk over our boundaries is the use (and abuse) of our personal time/support. Those people will ask for baby-sitting help, a long-suffering listening ear to stuff you’ve already heard, assistance with a project they want to get done, company for them to an activity they don’t want to do alone, etc.

Here’s the thing: them ASKING isn’t the problem. It is us not thinking we can say NO, thank you that’s the problem. They are actually allowed to ask all they want. We humans don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a community, a culture, a city or neighborhood or town, and we both have the need and the right to ASK.

Boundaries 100

But we also have both the NEED and the RIGHT to say no, I’m sorry, I’m not going to help you with that. I know. That sounds a lot like “I hate you and wish you were dead” to some of us. 🙂 We learned deeply in our younger days that ANY no was risky, selfish, arrogant, mean, or other silly and untrue words.

It was certainly true with me. I can say (with a certain amount of embarrassment these days) that I couldn’t tell anyone in my universe a simple, direct “no, sorry, I’m not willing to do that.” So instead what I did was made stuff up – that was one tool I used to avoid having to say no. Holy crap, I had to build some pretty elaborate stories!

You might know some of these tall tales. I was already committed to helping someone else (makes me sounds pretty great, yes? Can’t help you because someone else got to me first, and I just can’t cancel on them to help you.) I didn’t feel well (like anybody believed me – but I used it a LOT.) There was a crisis at work and I HAD to take care of that. (I wonder what my friends thought of the companies I worked for – clearly they were in crisis a LOT.) And one of my tried and true favorites: a friend of mine was in crisis and had asked me to come over. (Again, I come off sounding anything but selfish, right?)

Go ahead, ask me how often those people found out or figured out that I wasn’t being truthful with them. Ask me how that impacted those friendships. Ask me about the complicated stories I had to remember and maintain – lies, really – and how often I failed to keep them all juggled.

Maybe more to the point ask me how frustrated and angry I was at the people who were asking me for having the sheer audacity TO ask me. Yikes! And all of this because I didn’t feel safe simply saying “no, doesn’t work for me – love you, ask another day, but today, no, I’m not going to help you.”

Boundaries 102

But wait – the story gets better. As I found the tools to get under my what if thinking and challenge the assumptions that had been scaring me for two decades I also began to realize that I needed to start taking into account what I wanted (see my post HERE on this basic human need and right.)

Which meant that if I was really listening to ME then I had to also start RESPECTING me and my needs/wants. Guess what happened? I stalled, I found reasons to not say no, all the while getting more frustrated and more annoyed, both with myself and the people that were asking stuff of me.

Finally, driven by desperation, I started one day saying no. A friend really wanted me to help them move. (Let me tell you, I’ve done a LOT of time as a semi-pro mover for my friends. Sometimes it was great fun and it was something I wanted to do – but sometimes it was the last thing I wanted to do, I did it anyway and then bitterly resented the person I was helping…)

Heart in my hands, voice shaking, I said “uh, listen, I, uh, I don’t have the time to give away right now. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help you move.” I waited for the upset, the shouting, the accusations of how bad a person I was, etc.

What I got, however, was “Oh, OK. No worries. I’ll find someone else.” I felt like I had just been let off with a not-guilty plea after murdering someone! 🙂

It wasn’t always that easy. People got upset with me too. And some of THAT was on me too. After all I had been the guy who always said yes, yes? They had counted on me to be the Yes Man again. THAT DIDN’T MEAN I HAD TO OBLIGE THEM.

I was in a real sense changing the rules on the people in my life. And that was MORE than OK. It was time for new rules – for how I managed my own time and energy. It was more than legal – it was vital to my health and the health of the relationships in my life. It took some practice. I wasn’t great at it for a while. I sometimes gave in to fear and said yes when I needed to say no.

Boundaries 101

This is an art, way more than a science, and we can only get better if we’re willing to practice.

It isn’t Just about Doing or Not Doing

And of course boundaries are not just about what we can DO. Boundaries are also about what we think, what matters to us, what our opinions are, etc. These are also places that healthy boundaries help us maintain good self-care.

Liberal? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Conservative? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Don’t like shrimp? Legal – totally legal. Hate shrimp? (Man, I HATE shrimp. It’s like serving erasers for dinner!) It’s legal to hate shrimp too. Want to be a professional Alpine Skier? Knock yourself out. Want to build a child-care center, or be an art critic, or get a 20-hour-a-week job because the kids are gone and you want to make some cash for YOU? Go for it.

The challenge with this is that almost everyone in our lives has THEIR opinion, expert as they are, about what you should think, want, feel or believe.  And while that’s nice it is still up to YOU, dear reader, to make your own evaluations, your own decisions about what you think, want, feel or believe.

Here’s some weird news: if what someone else thinks or feels or wants makes you upset guess what? You’re what iffing about their stuff. Same thing is true about other people’s reactions to you. Here’s some more weird news: just because other people don’t like what you think or believe or want or feel doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have those thoughts, beliefs or feelings.

I’m not saying that all thoughts, beliefs or feelings are equal! Far from it. The validity or accuracy of a thought or belief is very much something that can be weighed and measured and evaluated. But guess what? You STILL get to have it. You STILL get to decide what to do about it. And as far as feelings are concerned, well, NOBODY gets to decide how you feel. That doesn’t make all your (or my) feelings true or useful – but they are still things that belong to us, and we still get to have them.

Will people get upset with us for having thoughts, beliefs or feelings different from the ones they have? You already know the answer to that. Just look at Fox News, MSNBC or any of the daytime shows like Maury to see what happens when frightened people disagree. Ugh. Not useful.

Boundaries 103

Here’s an example: my partner loves to go to parties and gatherings of people he only barely knows, or doesn’t know at all. He’s got that never-met-a-stranger thing in his soul, and he’s great at meeting with and chatting people up. He loves it.

Me? Not so much. I can do it when necessary, and now and again I enjoy it, but I’m much more the hang-with-my-peeps kinda guy. My partner thinks I’m a crazy person for not wanting to meet lots of new people. I think he’s overextending himself and missing opportunities to get to know a few folks well.

Guess what? That’s what we think! Who says we have to agree? And more importantly we have the need to respect our own boundaries. He might change his mind one day. He might not. Same for me. But we each get to think what we think.

That doesn’t mean I can’t sometimes make an effort to change his mind. (I don’t when it comes to this topic, but there are so many other things he’s thinking wrong about I HAVE to try on others…) 🙂 Same thing for him with me. It’s utterly OK that we sometimes work to get people over to our point of view.

That doesn’t mean we have an obligation to take anyone else’s perspective! We can also choose to listen or not listen when they try to change our minds. NEVER listening probably isn’t useful, all the time. On the other hand you may decide that some people DO need to get tuned out, at least for a long, long time. That’s legal too.

Boundaries 104

Putting up fences – drawing healthy boundaries – will trouble some people. They get over it. That might mean they move on to other folks that don’t have healthy boundaries (adios, I say – better for them and for us if they make that choice.) They will more likely go hey, that’s cool, once they get over the news that you’re no longer a doormat.

Yes, but it’s SCARY to say no…

Sure it is. We learned to literally think we were at risk for injury when we first learned that we shouldn’t or couldn’t say no. Lots and lots of people have trouble with boundaries – either enforcing their own, respecting other people’s or both.

Maybe we’re afraid we’ll wind up alone if we say no, sorry, not going to do or think the thing that someone is asking of us. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll have to look after ourselves, take care of ourselves – and we’re afraid that we can’t. Maybe we’re STILL afraid, consciously or unconsciously, that we’ll be hurt, beat up or otherwise threatened with harm if we say no.

The real question is what do we need to do to respect ourselves, take care of ourselves? If, God forbid, we’re actually physically at risk, well, that’s one thing, and we need to think through and take steps to get clear of that context. But even THAT is an example of boundary-drawing. Nobody should have the right to physically abuse us, trap us, control us.

And that’s an interesting thing to extend to our personal boundaries. Because if we’re NOT at risk for physical injury then it’s time we started drawing the boundaries that work for us.

Some of that will be a negotiation process. Sometimes, because of how we live, who we live with, the obligations that we have taken on, etc., we may not always get to, 100% of the time, have the boundaries we’d like. That’s OK too, because we’re still the ones in the driver’s seat. And nobody says we can’t go back to the negotiation table and reopen discussions, yes?

You’ll feel MUCH Better – and you’ll BE Healthier too

Self-care 1

Let me close this discussion by recommending a brilliant book: Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. Don’t let the title stop you (in case you think it applies only to people who wrestle with co-dependency.) This is a book about drawing boundaries, big, medium and small. She’s a great, straight-ahead writer and she won’t pull any punches. It’s a great instruction manual for the understanding and practice of drawing healthy boundaries.

Expect this work to make you uncomfortable. Expect to find yourself reverting to old behaviors rather than holding these new boundaries you want to hold. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself mad, or frustrated, or just pissed off, and maybe not even being sure why in that moment. This is scratchy work – anxiety-creating, in a great way, work, for awhile.

This is a skill (just like overcoming anxiety is a set of skills) and you’ll come to be very, very glad you have it.

A little while ago I talked about our “Emotional Bill of Rights” – the rights we have as human beings to take care of ourselves in multiple ways that promote great mental and emotional health (see the first of those posts HERE.) In an earlier post HERE I reviewed the need for each of us to learn to draw boundaries for ourselves with the people in our lives (and even with ourselves.)

All the rights I listed in those three posts on our fundamental self-care rights are essentially impossible to acquire and maintain if we lack good boundary-drawing skills. NOT supporting our rights as an adult, healthy human is a prime source of anxiety in our lives, and we need the capacity to draw healthy boundaries if we’re going to be healthy adults.

In today’s blog post I am talking about a model of boundary-drawing that I hope might be useful to some of you. Speaking as a recovering Lack-of-Boundaries Guy I can say that it has taken some work and time to create this to any extent in my life – but to the extent it has been done so far it has helped bring some remarkable qualities into my work, self-care and thinking.

Qualities like a sense of personal space. Qualities like self-confidence as I practice gently but firmly saying yes to some things, no to others, based on what I want as well as what might work for other people. Qualities like unplugging anxious thinking before it can start taking root in my brain.

Boundary 20

So I came up with a term, a goal for myself. I am striving to be boundaried but unguarded. (WordPress spell check does NOT like “boundaried” – and I’m not certain it is a word – but hey, how often does a guy get to invent a word anyway?)

Let me explain myself a little –

What Life is like when we don’t draw Boundaries

As I’ve said in earlier posts I didn’t learn great take-care-of-Erik skills when it came to my interactions with other people. I did learn early and hard that my needs, my feelings and my goals came second to just about everyone else around me.

I learned to shut down the expression of my thinking and feelings unless it was “safe” – i.e., it wasn’t going to upset or offend anyone. I learned to internalize my frustration, my hurt and even my anger. I learned that safety lay, at least for me, in going stealth about large parts of me – keeping them from view – in some respects even from myself.

What this created was a life where I didn’t have any boundaries around issues like my time and how I spent it (people could hijack my schedule pretty much when they wanted), my feelings and what I did with them (other people could tell me how to feel, and how I should manage my feelings), or even my personal goals (other people could and did tell me what to do.)

I walled portions of myself off as a result – creating a person who essentially didn’t have much in the way of personal boundaries, but who kept big pieces of himself shielded and guarded from the people in his life. I was unboundaried but guarded…

That’s Nice Erik – but why is that a bad thing?

Well, for one thing, it created a remarkable resentment in my life. I didn’t like that I didn’t feel like I was in control of my life. If anyone could ask of me pretty much anything, anytime, then I was handing control over to them.

Boundary 21

Never mind that it was a choice I was making – I was too afraid to NOT let people trample through the house of my life (metaphorically), too afraid of them being upset, or me being labeled a bad guy, to draw any boundaries. But that didn’t stop my sense of resentment!

I resented the crap out of the people in my life that could ask of me whatever they wanted – time, energy, emotional support, etc. – but were more than happy (and apparently able) to say no to me when I asked. It wasn’t fair, damn-it!

Except, of course, that they weren’t the problem. I was. Yeah, I was scared. Yeah, I had learned that it wasn’t safe (at least in my thinking) to draw boundaries. I was still the guy at the wheel in my own life.

For another thing it led to a significant degree of dishonesty on my part, with myself and with those same people. “How are you feeling today Erik?” somebody might ask – and I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell them, not honestly. I got pretty good at the veiled answer, the “well, I’m OK”, or “I guess I’m doing alright”, hoping against hope that they would break the code and make a real effort to find out about me –

But of course they didn’t. BECAUSE I WAS SPEAKING IN CODE. Ugh. But that wasn’t the worst of it. My dishonesty with other people and where or how I was paled in comparison to my dishonesty with ME. I wasn’t talking to me about me, and it created a disconnect with myself. I couldn’t even be straight with myself about how I felt, what I wanted, what was going on with me.

And in case it isn’t clear that’s not the healthiest way to live a life. A great deal of therapy, in my opinion, comes down to the therapist helping the client just get bone-honest with themselves. Self-honesty is critical to good mental health.

Boundary 22

Still another result was a sense that I couldn’t and didn’t trust other people in significant ways. That stemmed from the first two outcomes, and created problems in its own right. It was a problem because I developed this ugly habit of testing other people to see if they were safe for me – i.e., did they make a “real” effort to reach out to me? Did they really want to be my friend? Did they really care?

Of course they kept failing the test because they were not telepaths – they couldn’t know what I was thinking or feeling unless I told them, I wasn’t telling them, so they got down-checked and were not trusted. Doesn’t that sound healthy?

Perhaps the outcome that I noticed the most some days was how angry I felt. I was carrying around a big ball of hurt and rage and was often unaware of it until someone added to that ball – pre-empted my plans, failed to pass my test of sufficient interest or care for Erik, dumped their crap on me without asking permission, etc.

Which takes me back to Boundaries…

When I began to break the spell of anxious thinking in my life I learned at the same time that I was in desperate need of boundary-drawing skills. I don’t think I have to tell you that I was terrified of this subject. All of my training and thinking told me I was a crazy person for even thinking about practicing this ability on another human being.

Like so much of anxious thinking I was trapped in habitual patterns of thought – i.e., I was convinced down below my conscious thinking that telling no to anyone, telling anyone what I actually wanted, being straight with another person about how I felt, was a recipe for disaster. I was already running away in my head the moment my therapist said “hey Erik, you have some boundaries to draw.”

Boundary 23

At that time (spring/summer of 1995) I was in a pretty unhealthy relationship. I knew I had to get out of it. I writhed at the thought, until it became clear that if I was serious about getting free of anxiety I had to address a primary source of my anxiety –all my what if fears about disaster erupting from me simply saying what I wanted, saying no when I needed to, my insisting on privacy when I needed it – all the rights outlined in the last three posts.

I ended that relationship. I agonized over the call, decided to call from work so I would have to make the call short, dithered at the start and then finally blurted out that I was done. Holy crap! All of my fears came running into the room, screaming at me. The person I was breaking up with was screaming at me too. There was a lot of screaming for a little while in that humble office…

And guess what? Three things happened.

1) I got yelled at, called a terrible person, had the phone slammed down in my ear – and then it was done. Wow. It was scary for about 45 seconds – and I sure had some anxiety when the phone went dead – and then it was OVER. Gee – I was still alive. And even cooler –

2) I FELT BETTER. Yikes! I felt free of what I had ALREADY KNOWN was a crappy situation/relationship, and from this side of the effort it didn’t seem nearly as hard as I was expecting. Sure, my heart was racing, I was sweaty head to toe, I was sure I was going to hell for actually telling someone what I needed, risking them thinking I was the most selfish person in the world EVER – but man, I was already feeling like I had lifted 50 pounds off of my head.

3) I felt guilty later – over and over again – but I also KNEW that I had made the right move. I had respected myself, treated myself as someone worthy of self-care and better treatment than I had been getting, and I had demonstrated to myself that I had the ability TO draw necessary boundaries.

Boundary 5

And guess what? The guilt subsided as I got further away from that unhealthy situation and saw it more and more clearly. What the hell had I been thinking, to let myself be pinned in a situation like that? The answer was that I had terrible boundary-drawing skills, being terrified of anyone being upset or hurt by me.

Well, OK, there was one more Result…

I also found myself less guarded, just a small amount, because I had demonstrated to myself that I could in fact draw a boundary and take care of myself. I was calmer, slightly more confident, and beginning to understand that I was the guy who needed to take care of ME – and stop waiting for other people.

In my next post I’ll have more examples of boundary-drawing. In the meantime I encourage you, faithful reader, to consider where your life is in need of boundary-drawing. I consider this, as I’ve said, a crucial component of self-care. How can you practice, in some small way, starting to draw healthy boundaries in your life this week?

And yeah, I know that sounds scary. It feels scary. But it isn’t a crisis – it’s only another problem, and one that we need to solve if we’re going to break anxiety’s hold in our life.

Courage 3

We who fight anxiety (and who have become aware of the fearful thinking that lies at the core of anxiety) find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. (Why do dilemmas have horns? Are there any pictures of horned dilemmas?) The dilemma is this: we FEEL very anxious, very afraid, and we have learned/taught ourselves over time that we should RUN from how this crap feels.

BUT if we run we only retreat more and more from our lives, more and more from everything that scares us – and at the end of that run lies a wall. So we KNOW we need to push back on our fears, but when we do it is SO SCARY…

If we’re not careful we can slide into a pattern of pushing on our fears, then running away, pushing on our fears, then running away – but neglecting to deal with the source of all that anxiety, our what if thinking. In other words all the pushing in the WORLD won’t do most of us much good unless we get to the heart of the problem. We have to shut down what if thinking.

Let’s talk about how.

We are NOT obligated to think about our Worries – even though it feels like we are…

Action 1

Let’s understand something fundamental about Anxiety – it’s only composed of two elements. Yes, that’s right, just two things. 1. What if thinking, 2. Flight or Fight. That’s it. Yup, nothing more complicated than that.

Here’s the rub: Flight or Fight, once it is fired up, has one mission – GET US OUT OF DANGER. One of the ways it is trying desperately to do that is to find a SOLUTION to our current “crisis.” It won’t stop by itself. It hears you screaming “Oh My Gosh I’m scared of (fill in the blank)” and it says “Sir Yes Sir! Looking for a solution now Sir!”

And off it charges, frantically trying to “solve” whatever thing we’ve blown up into a crisis in our thinking. THIS is the reason we chew over our fears over and over again, reviewing and rehashing and rehearsing and replaying our frightened thinking scenarios in our busy skulls… for nothing, 99.9% of the time.

What does this mean? It means that we have to put the brakes on all that frantic Flight or Fight Solving Stuff. Because (as you know, as a reader of this fine blog) YOU CAN’T SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE A CRISIS. It doesn’t matter how much it FEELS like you’re doing something, or how much it FEELS like you SHOULD worry about whatever it is you’ve got locked in your jaws at the moment.

You can’t get there from here. So the practice we have to engage is shutting down that thinking.

When I say shut down I mean acknowledge that this litany, this mad babbling mental effort is happening, then work to move our thinking to other things. Sounds like I’m saying this is easy?

It isn’t. It is damn hard at the start. We become very, very habituated to just defaulting to our thinking, especially our anxious thinking. Worse, Flight or Fight is screaming NO, let me solve this, we’re clearly about to get eaten alive, I can handle this! Except it can’t. It didn’t develop for this kind of problem at all. It developed for lions, and rockslides, and guys with spears coming at us – stuff like that.

Action 5

Nope, we’re best served by beginning the hard but necessary practice of shutting down that thinking. That doesn’t mean we can turn it off like a faucet, or if we practice for 5 days and nothing happens we suck and we should give up. It means that we start and begin to grow a practice of seeing the anxious thinking, then focusing on something else.

We won’t do this well right away. We’ll be tempted back again and again by F or F and the sheer momentum of our anxious thinking histories. We’ll get mad and scared and start obsessing over all our fears again and again. We’ll be pissed off because we’re failing. Etc. Etc. Etc. Doesn’t change the fact that over time, with steady practice, we can begin to divert our thinking away.

It doesn’t have to be anything huge. Focus on making a meal, or planning the week (even when your brain is saying holy crap we can’t plan the week, our lives our doomed, we have to DO SOMETHING about our anxious thinking, etc.) Focus on finishing a project you started a long time ago. Practice doing something you haven’t done before. Help a friend, even if just over the phone. Read a new book, practicing on letting the words pull you away from your anxious thoughts. It is much more the slow, halting, not-so-good-at-the-start practice that is important here.

You WILL feel scared while you’re doing this. No way around that. The habits of years of obsessing over your fears won’t just blow away in the wind because you want them too. But the will begin to erode and change over time, under pressure from your practice.

In other words you’re REALLY, REALLY practicing shaking loose of crisis thinking.

It can’t happen fast. It will be hard. But it is essential, and you can do it.

Action 3

One essential piece of this work is, in the acknowledging that you’re doing anxious thinking, that you practice staying clear that however scary this thinking is it is only a problem. Maybe a big problem, maybe something that will need your attention AS a problem – but still, not a crisis.

Diversions are LEGAL

In the section you just read I discussed the practicing of pulling our thinking to other thinking. A variation of that is allowing ourselves to be diverted by something that consumes our attention, or at least a big part of our attention. It can be almost anything.

It can be as simple as a big, involved cleaning project around the house. It can be getting lost in preparing for an event of some kind. It can be a consuming video game – one that requires some thought and effort and attention. It can be an engrossing TV show or movie. It can be, weirdly enough, working to help other people. It can be mindless physical exercise.

The mission here is to simply 1) allow ourselves to get pulled into other, attention-demanding activities that require a significant part of our focus and 2) come to realize that, because we do get distracted, that our thinking really is the problem with our anxiety.

Yes, this means that you’ll have a hard time staying in the diverting activity. Yes, it means that old habits will still be screaming at you to notice the CRISIS and give ALL YOUR ENERGY to solving this faux disaster in the making. And you’ll get caught up in that – which is when you dive back into the diversion.

Action 4

More practice. That’s what all this is doing. It doesn’t mean that you need to have diversions 24/7. This is not an effort to avoid feeling afraid, or even avoid in some ongoing way your anxious thinking. Avoiding our fearful thinking and allowing it to grow and take over our lives is how we got in the mess in the first place!

No, we’re not avoiding. We’re practicing taking charge of our thinking.

This will mean we will have anxiety. It means that your brain and Flight or Fight will FREAK that you’re NOT focusing on your anxious thinking all the time. Don’t you understand, they will scream at you! You HAVE to worry! That’s how you’ll “solve” your crises, that’s how you’ll avoid the terrible fate that awaits you…

Forgive my directness, but bullshit. We can’t solve a damn thing by obsessing over our what if thinking, or running away from Flight or Fight when it scares us trying so hard to make us obsess over it.

So far we have

1) Deliberate refocusing
2) Diversions that work to pull our attention

What else can we do in this work to NOT avoid, but to instead take control of our thinking?

See this Work as small steps, daily

Nobody who fights anxiety wants the fight to take much time. Most of us want this crap done YESTERDAY. Which makes sense. As I’ve said before in this blog we’ve been battling this junk for years and decades – to think of it going on for more weeks and months before it’s truly shut down seems terrible and unfair.

Control thinking 4

But (as I’ve also pointed out here before) this is a set of skills, not a single massive effort done in an afternoon. We have to get clear in our thinking that we’re rebuilding our thinking, doing thinking in a new way. We’re not going to instantly master these skills.

Think on this hard for a moment: we learned, at the feet of our parents, siblings, community, to see big pieces of our world as potential CRISIS. We learned that early and hard, and we learned that to see the world in this way was to be SAFE.

We (and they) were wrong. Or, more accurately, while it may have kept us “safe” in the sense that we didn’t get in as much trouble with those people, or they approved of us more, or (terribly) even kept us from physical or emotional abuse to some degree, none of that applies now, here in our present. Seeing big swathes of our experience as being potentially crisis – something that is terrible, will destroy us, etc. – is both fundamentally wrong and fundamentally distorted.

This deeply trained set of thinking habits won’t just shift on a dime. Holy crap, how could it? But it will move across time, with practice, steady effort, setbacks, frustration and getting up again after we’ve “fallen.” Small moves, daily practice, challenging the crisis in our thinking, seeing through it to the problems (at most) that are really there – that’s the way we’ll build new habits of thought.

Changing Thinking while taking Action – that’s the way out

I’ve discussed 3 things we need to do in our thinking while pushing back on our fears that are essential to shaking loose from the burden of anxiety. Deliberate practice at changing the focus of our thinking, diversion to help pull our thinking away from obsessive crisis thinking and remembering that we do this work in small pieces, daily – all of these will, across time, with practice, disrupt and rewrite the anxious thinking that consumes us.

Action 6

Here’s a metaphor for you: when we’re pinned by anxiety in our lives we’re like people in a cage. We can throw ourselves against the bars, again and again, screaming to be let out – but the bars don’t care, and they won’t move just because we’re fighting like hell to get out. Nope, our mission is to pick the damn lock on the door. 🙂

Picking the lock will take time. But we have the lockpicks, we have hands, we just have to practice until we get good at lockpicking. We will be frustrated, we will even weep for sheer annoyance at the slowness of our journey out – but every day, every effort at changing our thinking AND pushing our Comfort Zone boundaries, is building skill, reorienting our focus and getting us closer to breaking the hold of anxiety in our lives.

ACtion 7

I’ve been busy shouting about some very basic human rights that I think are essential to good health and self-care in the last couple of blog posts. Today will be no exception – I have two more rights to establish in the work of overcoming anxiety.

The Right to care for Ourselves with at LEAST as much Energy as we care for those around us

What? What am I saying? That we are at least as important as the other people in our lives, hell, in the world in general? Yes. That’s precisely what I’m saying. In fact this right in some respects sums up the other rights I’ve already advocated here – the right to say NO, the right to ask for what we want, the right to make mistakes and the right to have and express our own thinking and feelings.

In fact I might say that we are practicing NON-self-care when we refuse to practice these basic rights. Way, way too many of us learned, one way or another, that caring for ourselves ALWAYS came second to caring for the people around us. We came to believe that our support and our self-care was never as important as the support and care of others.

Self-care 1

Guess what? We’re wrong. We’re utterly, totally wrong. Terrible things begin to happen, over time, when we think and act this way. You already know the consequences of this non-self-care, even if you’re not necessarily very conscious of it all the time –

One consequence is that we get angry. Oh yeah. We may not be in a towering rage all the time (although that happens too) but we store it up, bottle it up, and it begins to leak out on us and the people around us. As I mentioned in my last post there’s some innately healthy, wise part of us that KNOWS we can’t live strong, capable, smart lives and not also take care of ourselves.

We get passive-aggressive. We burn with resentment. We sabatoge our joy. We find ourselves focusing on how unfair life is, how much we’re missing out on, how selfish other people are. And that makes sense, because somehow we learned that we didn’t have the right to take care of ourselves, to treat ourselves with the same respect that we give to other people, even as that wise, innate part of us is saying “hey, what about US?”

Self-care 2

Time to start listening to that wise internal voice. We MATTER. Our needs, our hopes, our dreams, and yes, even our fears MATTER. It’s time to open up to all of those needs, hopes, dreams and fears – drag them out into the light, give them an audience, LISTEN to ourselves, and start treating ourselves as at least as important as everyone around us.

What’s important to you? What would you like to see in your life? What would you like to stop doing? What do you want to do more of? Notice I’m not promising you can have all those things right away. Having a right isn’t the same as a guarantee that everything will go your way just because you want it. 🙂

On the other hand there’s no way in the Cold Hells that we CAN have we want if we don’t make ourselves a priority. I’m not saying you become your ONLY priority, but it sure would be nice if you WERE a priority in your own life, wouldn’t it?

I know. Scary. Who the hell are you to want something anyway? Sit down. Stop making a fuss. You shouldn’t make other people uncomfortable. You should always make other people happy, feel safe, never make waves. Right? WRONG.

Healthy living sometimes demands some discomfort. Heck, sometimes healthy living demands that we get VERY uncomfortable, for periods of time, to get healthier. Sometimes we need to rock our worlds in order to grow.

I know. Dang uncomfortable even to think about, maybe, right now. But it’s still true. You have a right to set your own priorities. You have a right to care for yourself at least as much as the people around you. And you can’t really care for other people until you learn to care for yourself. You may be going through the motions, doing all the right things, but you seething with resentment, you feeling hurt and shut down and isolated because you won’t care for yourself like you care for others isn’t really caring for others – and sooner or later will wreak havoc in those relationships.

Self-care 3

Time to care for yourself. Time to start treating yourself as important, vital, worthy of respect, worthy of self-care.

The Right to Privacy

This is an interesting right to talk about from the perspective of my own history. I grew up in a household with a Mom who didn’t really believe in the right to privacy – at least when it came to her children.

That meant weird stuff like no lock on the bathroom door! That meant that she would search through our dresser drawers whenever she felt the need. It meant interrogations about where we had been, what we had been doing, whenever she had doubts about what we had been up to that day. It meant we had little or no privacy.

That lack of privacy had some interesting effects on young Erik. It left me without a sense that it was legal for me to draw boundaries. I had no “no” to give because a parent felt they had unlimited privilege to do as they would when they would with my world.

Privacy 2

It also taught me that there was something inherently sneaky, underhanded and selfish in WANTING to have some privacy. It was like I was guilty for a crime I didn’t commit simply by wanting to keep some sense of personal territory and space. Ugh!

Privacy is another essential human right. We NEED some room in our lives to have stuff that belongs just to us, to be shared or not shared as WE decide. We need to have space to ourselves, even if it is only a drawer, or a closet, or a shoebox – something that is just ours, and that requires our permission to open or close.

This is, in some respects, the opposite of the right to have and express our own thinking and feelings. We also have the right to NOT express those things. And it is also the right, as I just said, to some personal space. That’s both possessions and physical space – how much room we need to feel comfortable in the world, the distance between us and the people around us.

Privacy might be seen as symbolic of our power – our power to say yes or no, our power to keep or express our opinions and feelings, our power to practice self-care and self-love even if it might for the moment inconvenience another person, etc.

Privacy 1

Privacy means we have a place to retreat to, our own inner sanctum, a place where we can be alone with US BY OURSELVES. Doesn’t have to be a mansion! Might be a shoe closet. Ever seen little kids hide in the closet? Even at that age we feel the need to sometimes just be with just us, left alone by the world, someplace out of sight and away from prying eyes and people telling us what to do.

That’s just being human. It’s a right.

And, of course, other people are you are entitled to some privacy too. We can’t demand privacy for ourselves and not allow other people to keep their thoughts or feelings or dreams to themselves, to share when they wish and with whom.

Hey! You’ve got Rights!

And I hope you see those rights more clearly after these last three blog posts. I hope you see them AS rights – rights to fight for, rights to work for, rights that help make us healthy and less anxious. You have rights, I have rights, we all have these rights.

So what are your next opportunities to work on your rights as a healthy human being? What fears get in your way in your thinking when you consider claiming your rights? What “what if” routines start running? What self-care would get you moving in the right direction today?

Safety First 7

After my last two posts on anxious thinking really being fossilized childish thinking I thought it might be useful to review the basics of treating problems AS problems. So many of us don’t ever get a good primer on something that might seem as intuitive as problem-solving –

But in fact we LEARN to treat problems as problems. And we learn to do it skillfully as well. So here goes – my discussion from 7/16/13 on the basic elements of problem-solving, or put another way, what we should be doing with the issues in our life (including our fears) since unless they are about to bite our heads off (literally!) they are NOT crises – just problems. Maybe serious problems – every very serious problems – but still problems.

And we’ll solve them best by treating them AS problems…

This blog spends a lot of time talking about not treating problems/issues/challenges in our lives as crises. And if you read this blog at all I’m pretty sure you have a good idea about what the definition of a crisis is to our brains and bodies – the threat of immediate physical danger that will likely result in injury or death.

That at least is the definition of a crisis as evolution defined it for us – the kind of thing that Flight or Fight evolved to deal with in the natural world. But how does that compare in detail to what a PROBLEM is – i.e., what most of us are afraid of and escalate to a crisis in our thinking? (And which is the primary cause of the fight with anxiety.)

My mission today is to lay out a clear definition and set of steps for what a problem looks like, in hopes of showing just how different it is from a crisis –

What Solving a Problem Looks Like

I wish someone had defined how a problem is actually managed and how we normally go about solving it a long time ago. It could have been stinkin’ useful at some points in my checkered past…

Problems 2

Here’s a start: a problem is anything that isn’t a crisis. Not so helpful? 🙂 Think of it this way: a crisis, a real-world crisis, does NOT allow time for anything but instant action, and what thinking we do we do in crisis mode – i.e., rapid assessment of danger, plotting routes of escape (or plans of attack if we must fight), whatever it takes to end the crisis NOW and get away from danger. This is usually taking place in seconds or at most minutes.

Problems, on the other hand, are anything else – any other issue, concern, challenge, etc. that isn’t going to hurt or kill us this second, but which present some need for us to resolve at some point. Problems are, relative to real-world crises, issues that will take time and thinking to resolve. It might BE a crisis in 10 minutes, or next week, or next year, if we don’t take action now, but right now it is still only a problem.

That of course doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t go about solving problems as crises – as I said earlier that’s the very heart of our fight with anxiety. That also however doesn’t mean that solving problems like crises is usually very effective, or even effective at all.

Let’s get specific about what solving a problem looks like operationally –

The Classic Steps to Problem-Solving

1. Identify the Problem. What is the challenge/issue/concern, precisely? What will not solving the problem potentially do to us? What WILL solving the problem look like?

2) What are some potential solutions to this problem? Which seem more or less likely to be helpful/effective?

Problems 3

3) What do I need to know to implement these solutions? I.e., what information do I need to gather, what research do I need to do, what resources will be necessary, who can help me with these solutions, etc.

4) Pick a solution.

5) Implement your solution.

6) Did it work? Great. Problem solved.

7) It didn’t work? OK. Let’s dance this dance again. That may be as simple as picking the next option on your list, or it may involve going back to the drawing board/ideas for solutions step.

As you have probably already considered this process could take 2 minutes (where are we going to lunch today?) to literally years (how will I afford to both eat bon-bons all day AND live at the beach?)

The thing to focus on here is that this is a PROCESS. It is a very different orientation to thinking about things than the mode that we get into when we’re dealing with Flight or Fight, i.e., when we’re treating a problem like a crisis.

There isn’t really a process when we’re under attack by danger. We first consider (at light speed) how to get away from danger or, if we can’t see a way to escape, how we can best take on this danger. Our brains have narrowed their focus, our bodies are geared to run or fight, and we need to do something NOW.

On the other hand problems have a much more analytical sense about them. Problem-solving is a very intellectual, abstract process, and it usually requires a cooler head and a calmer body. It takes time to follow the process, even if it is something as simple as deciding where to go to lunch.

Problems 4

Great, Erik, Thanks for Sharing – How Does This Help Me Fight Anxiety?

Glad you asked:

1) Flight or Fight can (and usually does) make it damn difficult to think rationally or clearly – i.e., be in problem-solving mode rather than crisis mode. So one thing to keep in mind is that when we’re in the middle of a firefight with anxiety – heart racing, emotions boiling over, panic in temporary command – we can practice reminding ourselves that we’re not, in fact, in any danger at the moment, however it feels. IF we were in actual danger we’d either be running or fighting right now.

Nope, we’re dealing with a problem that FEELS like a crisis. And FEELINGS are trying hard to rule the moment when we’re anxious. But the truth is our feelings are wrong – completely wrong – and they really CAN’T help us solve this problem.

Yes, the problem we’ve converted into a crisis may be important – even critically important. Yes, we need to take steps to solve it. But that’s going to require a different kind of thinking than the one we experience when we’re in Flight or Fight.

So our mission becomes FIRST calming down, to any degree – powering down Flight or Fight to the extent that we can in those moments – THEN start reframing this little dilemma we’re frightened about as a problem, not a crisis.

That can sound very detached and rational, and we’re usually anything but detached and rational when we’re in an anxiety fight. So just hang on to these two thoughts – I’m NOT in a crisis (or I’d be doing something about it!) and my mission is to gear down my Flight or Fight reactions, THEN start problem-solving, to the degree I can.

2) Focusing on problems AS problems takes practice, especially for us anxiety fighters. So one GREAT way to combat our anxiety is to very deliberately take one thing that frightens us (after we do a little prep, get as cool as possible, have some breathing techniques and distraction tools handy to help us de-escalate if we get rattled doing this next step) and then –

Problems 1

Treat that scary thing as a problem. Pull out a piece of paper or your laptop and follow the steps I listed in this blog post. YOU DON’T HAVE TO SOLVE IT IN ONE SITTING!  That’s part of the practice, after all – treating the problem as a problem, giving it some time, gathering some data, doing some research, considering your options, etc.

The first couple of times will be scary, I’m betting. I know they were for me! By the same token this is right in line with the four skills I argue are essential to mastering our fears – identifying where we’re treating problems as crises, actively discounting our Flight or Fight responses when we’re anxious, converting those problems-turned-crises (in our thinking) BACK into problems, and learning the art of good self-care.

Practice really does change how we think, and how we approach problems as well…

3) We can use this (as we get more skillful with our anxiety tools) to even stop thinking from escalating to crisis mode in the first place. Doesn’t that sound good? As we develop the habit of pulling problems apart as problems we can begin to approach with greater confidence problems in general, and treat them as problems before we start to make ourselves crazy with anxiety.

Start Small

You don’t need to pick your biggest fear to get this practice going. I recommend a smaller fear or worry first. 🙂 Maybe we save world peace or resolving the problems with your in-laws once you’re feeling a little skillful.

Last note: the irony of this conversation is that most of us already have some decent problem-solving skills in one or more areas of our lives – work, dealing with kids, managing money, etc. We’re all different, but 99.9% of us already DO this treating problems as problems in one or more arenas of our lives.

So – what problems are you dealing with as crises? And where will you practice first? Problems are problems. You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for – and you have access to a lot of good information and thinking via the Web, your friends and/or family, your local library, etc.

And feel free to post a problem you’re treating as a crisis here at the blog! I and the other fear fighters will be happy to help…

Problems 6

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