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

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

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

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

We have the Right to say No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have the Right to ask for what we Want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s THAT for a couple of Rights?

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

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

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In some earlier posts this fall I spent some time covering the basics of fighting anxiety as I see the work. In the next couple of posts I’m going to spend a little time discussing what gets in the way of doing that work, and some suggestions for what we can do about those obstacles.

As you read through these barriers to getting free from anxiety let me encourage you to avoid using these as weapons of self-abuse. Anxiety is one of the most insidious mind games we can play with ourselves. By its very nature it is something that leads us AWAY from the work to get free of it. Everyone who fights anxiety, and I mean everyone, is reluctant to wade into and keep wading into that work. It’s uncomfortable, it’s often scary, it’s exhausting – we just don’t wanna…

So please – cut yourself some slack if you see yourself in one or more of these pitfalls. You are always free to start climbing out again… but it’s more useful if we’re kind to ourselves, patient and even

Alright, here goes –

1) Continuing to Run from Flight or Fight Feelings & Sensations

I have been writing this blog for almost 5 years now. I have been doing anxiety coaching for longer than that. And (as some of my readers can attest to) I have been working with an amazing group of people on Facebook in a sort of group coaching situation around this material for over a year. I can say with a lot of confidence that this first reason to run is probably right up at the top of the list of the reasons people get stalled in this work.

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It is SO easy to do. While not everyone that falls into the vortex of chronic anxiety and depression winds up terrified of one more Flight or Fight sensations or feelings, a huge number of us do – and we wind up letting those scary sensations and feelings wall us away, increasingly, from life and the world.

I have labored in this blog to clarify what Flight or Fight really is – a highly effective means of dealing with real, life-or-death crises that isn’t nearly so useful when it comes to what makes us anxious – problems or issues transmuted into crisis thinking. This amazing emergency response system is just trying to do its job – get us away from danger.

Because when we’re ramped up with anxiety we FEEL like we’re in danger – and that’s all Flight or Fight needs. So it powers up, gets us ready to go, dumps adrenaline into our bloodstreams, makes us hyper-aware of our surroundings, speeds up our heart and breathing, shuts down digestion, starts pulling blood in from the extremities – doing all the things it would do if we were being attacked by a pack of hungry wolves…

But we’re NOT being attacked. We’re scaring ourselves in our thinking, and in so doing we’re firing up Flight or Fight.

We have to turn and face down those sensations. Too many of us, not understanding what was happening, scared ourselves silly with fearful reacting to the reactions of Flight or Fight – and we’ve been running scared ever since. We’ve trained ourselves, without intending to, that those sensations and emotions are just too scary, just too real-feeling to face down – and so we get stuck, or worse still keep retreating from the world, trying to get away from how we feel –

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And anxiety continues to rule our lives. We have to rethink our assumptions about Flight or Fight and how it affects us. We have to turn into the wind, metaphorically, and stay turned long enough to wade through our anxious reactions to Flight or Fight.

It isn’t enough to just endure Flight or Fight’s storm in our bodies and emotions. No, we have to, at the same time, challenge our thinking about it – identify where we have scared ourselves with those sensations and feelings, and CHANGE THAT STORY OR STORIES. Takes time. It is damn uncomfortable to boot. But it is absolutely essential if we want out of anxiety.

I have blog posts HERE and HERE to help you further in this work. And you can always hit me here at the blog if you want to discuss your specific fears. But sooner or later, if we want out, we have to face this tedious crap and move through it.

Next up –

2) Avoiding the “Unpacking” of the Thinking that Made us Anxious in the First Place

Anxiety does not come out of nowhere. It invariably begins in our thinking. Those Flight or Fight sensations I mentioned in the last section? They had to start with thinking that made us anxious first. There really is a chicken-and-egg sequence in this work.

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Where are we turning issues, problems, challenges in our lives into crises in our thinking? This is the heart of the work. We can do therapy, take medications that alleviate some or all of those Flight or Fight reactions (or that help lift the gloom and create some distance from the scary thinking, at least for a while), we can exercise, meditate, work three jobs or seek the cure for cancer – but until we unpack our anxious thinking nothing fundamentally will change about our anxiety.

This is usually a very uncomfortable process! By definition if we had been comfortable identifying and facing down the thinking that made us anxious we most likely wouldn’t be fighting anxiety right now. 🙂 Nope, instead we ran away from that thinking – if we were ever very conscious of that thinking to begin with – and now we reflexively, unconsciously flinch away if we even get close to it…

And, of course, if we get close, Flight or Fight fires up – ugh! We don’t want to do this work! Make it all just go away! I know I said that, and I’ve heard a lot of other people say that.

The bad news is it won’t just go away. We have to identify it and change it – change our crisis thinking to what it really needs to be – problem thinking. It’s uncomfortable, even damn uncomfortable, but that doesn’t change the need to do it.

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The good news is that it is literally the lynch-pin of all this anxiety that plagues us – and in doing this work we can break free, well and truly, from a life crippled by anxiety. It is a steady, often slow, often frustrating and scratchy process, but it is the way out.

Are you doing this unpacking work? I have blog posts HERE and HERE that discuss this work in greater detail/give examples. As I mention in these posts it is often very useful to enlist the help of a good therapist. But whatever you do, it must be DONE…

Those Are the Biggies…

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When it comes to avoidance the two temptations I’ve listed in this blog post are probably the heavy hitters for most of us. That’s OK. It is in the nature of being anxious to want to avoid the stuff that scares us. We don’t need to use these as two more weapons to beat ourselves up with – but we do need to see them clearly and take action on them.

In my next post I’ll move through the rest of the reasons we delay in making this work happen for ourselves. In the meantime, how is the work going for YOU?

Boundaries. There’s a word I literally never heard in my life until I reached college, at least if we’re talking about setting personal boundaries. I had no idea of how little this was allowed in my life in my family, and I had no CLUE how important this skill would be to getting free of chronic anxiety.

The word isn’t something a lot of us are familiar with as a regular practice in our lives. Boundary-drawing is something too many people learn to equate with being selfish, or being cruel, or being way too dangerous a thing to do because it will mean the end of relationships that we really, really NEED (to stay safe, to survive).

The irony of that last assumption is that relationships NEED a certain amount of boundary-drawing in order to be healthy and high-functioning. More about that later. My mission today is to talk about why both our fear of drawing healthy boundaries in our lives is so scary to us, and how at the same time we’re feeding our anxiety by NOT drawing the boundaries we need.

About Boundaries and Bathrooms

Let me start with a weird and uncomfortable example from my own experience. In my family’s house in Las Vegas we grew up with a very specific kind of a missing boundary: we were not allowed to lock our bathroom door. I thought this was standard – didn’t everyone leave the bathroom door unlocked?

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This meant that anyone, anytime, could walk into the bathroom, whoever else was in there and whatever else they were doing! Happened all the time in our house. The worst offender was our Mom, who, I now suspect, was the reason the bathroom door couldn’t be locked in our house in the first place. I learned that I had to constantly be on guard in the bathroom, doing bathroom things, because you never knew when someone was going to charge in the door in, well, mid-activity.

I think about it now as an adult and it makes me shake my head. I think about the lessons it taught me and my siblings about what was OK and not OK to do when it comes to asking for respect around our needs and wants. I think of how often we were embarrassed by one person or another walking in on our bathroom activities.

Perhaps the most powerful metaphor is that we were too often naked (literally) without being ASKED by someone for permission to be seen naked. Get the metaphor? That’s a great one for all kinds of NOT drawing boundaries in our lives – that we are constantly having people barge in our door, one way or another, without our permission, and making us crazy, allowing ourselves to be made vulnerable without people respecting our most basic rights.

We need to start, metaphorically and literally, deciding when and with who we’re going to “lock the bathroom door” – start deciding when it is and isn’t OK for someone to “see us naked”.

Yes, Erik, That Sounds Great – but What if I Make Someone Mad/Upset/Hurt?

One time at the Kieser House I was feeling a little rebellious (I was in early High School, and I was sick of people charging into the damn bathroom!) So, this one time, I heard Mom coming down the hall, and I simply blocked the bathroom door with my foot (I was shaving.)

Yikes! She insisted that I open the door, demanding to know what I was doing. I shouted back that I was shaving and that I’d be out in a minute. She was PISSED OFF. Which of course, once I wasn’t feeling so rebellious, ramped up my anxiety. Gee Mom, I’m really sorry, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I hope you’ll forgive me…

WHAT? What exactly had I done wrong? But that was my training. If someone else wanted something, even something really as unreasonable as walking into the bathroom I was using without knocking, then that had to be OK, or I’D be the bad guy.

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Sound familiar? Did you also learn that what you wanted didn’t matter if someone else wanted something different? Did you come to believe that it was selfish and wrong to put your needs and wants in any position but LAST when it came to living with, working with and dealing with other people?

And did/does that go double for the important people in your life?

This might not be as big a deal if we were all zebras or lemmings or some other kind of herd animal, creatures that expected to be jostled and crowded and having a minimum of personal space. But we’re not zebras or lemmings. We’re human, and humans have a real need for boundaries.

One of the outcomes of NOT having solid personal boundaries is anxiety. I’ll bet that sounds familiar too…

Boundaries and Territory

There is a really, really important connection between functional, respectful personal boundaries and what is called in the social sciences personal territory. The notion is that each of us has physical, emotional and mental territory that we regard as OURS – belonging to us and important to us.

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The physical territory stuff is easy to understand. Don’t drive my car unless you get permission from me first. Don’t charge into the bathroom unless you knock (assuming there is no lock.) Don’t eat the last of the cookies without asking first. (That’s a BIG rule in my house.)

But that also means things like personal space (how close someone can be to you before it makes you uncomfortable) and when it is OK and NOT OK for someone to touch you. All these physical territory issues can make us feel comfortable/safe OR make us feel vulnerable and anxious.

And of course it is difficult (read: impossible) to talk about physical territory without talking about the boundaries of that territory. And boundaries by definition are things that must be enforced, to some extent, or they are meaningless. Let me say that again: if we don’t enforce boundaries they have NO meaning.

SO, if we’re not comfortable or feel safe alerting people to their crossing of our boundaries (hey, buddy, you’re standing pretty close – can you back up a foot or so?) then people will (as you know!) breeze into your territory whenever they feel like doing so.

Any of this sound familiar?

But it isn’t really the physical boundaries I’m concerned with in this blog post (although they are very important and must be considered – just ask anyone who has dealt with sexual or physical abuse.) It is the mental and emotional boundaries that really interest me in this discussion. It is all the ways we trample our OWN boundaries because of our fears and worries that can massively feed anxiety within us.

Don’t Come In Here – Oh, OK, Come In…

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Let’s say we have a belief that says something like “I must always be happy in front of other people” based on a what if fear like “what if someone thinks less of me or doesn’t like me because I’m not always cheerful?” Then let’s say that we are having a REALLY crappy day but have to go see family or friends that same day.

What do we do? Do we go as we are, dealing with our feelings, just being in the place we happen to be? Do we allow ourselves to be human? I don’t mean we have to dump our feelings all over the place and work to make others miserable! I simply mean allow ourselves to actually have our feelings, respecting where we are as we sort ourselves out?

We DON’T do that with the “what if?” belief I mentioned above. Nope, we go, we struggle to put on a happy face, we let other people dump on US, we pretend to be in a good mood, we give away time and energy we don’t have – all because we’re afraid to draw healthy boundaries for ourselves.

That might be as simple as telling those friends and family “you know what? I’m not in the best frame of mind today. I’m going to take a rain-check on this visit and see you all later.” Or it might be going anyway and not pretending. Like I said that doesn’t have to mean you rain on everyone else’s parade – but it might mean not being Susie Sunshine either, not if that’s not you right now.

That’s just one example of drawing boundaries. Another might be “I can never say no to a request from another person” based on a what if belief like “what if someone rejects me because I say no?” or “what if I’m a bad person if I ever say no?” So when people ask us for what we either don’t want to give (remember, boundaries include the stuff that we believe belongs to US) or can’t give away right now, but we give it away anyway, then we trample our own boundaries by letting others walk across them.

Ugh! Not useful to us! And notice how we permit people to walk across our boundaries BECAUSE WE ARE ANXIOUS ABOUT ENFORCING THOSE BOUNDARIES.

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Good Fences Really Do Make Good Neighbors…

So what I’m really saying is that to become a good self-carer we have to face our anxious thinking. People can blat to us all they want about how we need to respect ourselves and respect our personal boundaries, but we won’t do a damn thing about this until we look for the fears and worries that drive us to let people cross those boundaries in the first place.

In my next blog post I’m going to talk a little about a style of boundary-drawing that I call “boundaried but unguarded.” I’m going to do some examples of what drawing healthy boundaries might look like as well.

If you’re reading this blog then I’m betting, one way or another, that you have issues around safety. Anxiety is, after all, a quest to feel and be safe – we wouldn’t be anxious in the first place if we didn’t feel threatened.

We get in trouble, however, when safety becomes our primary goal. That may sound a little odd, but stay with me while I explain myself. Safety is good, important, something that we should certainly keep in mind. But when it becomes the major (or even only) thing we focus on we, unintentionally, amplify our anxiety. And we set ourselves up to fail, again and again, in our quest to overcome anxiety.

I would argue that this comes from a basic misunderstanding of safety.

Safety – A Packhorse we WAY Overburden…

Let’s just admit a basic truth about our fight with anxiety. The vast majority of us were very, very poorly educated when it comes to understanding where anxiety comes from and what drives it in the first place. If you’ve done much reading in this blog then you now understand anxiety’s origins in our thinking and the body’s Flight or Fight response –

But most of us don’t understand those basic, fundamental truths about anxiety’s causes when we begin our own experience with anxiety. We begin to deal with anxiety (whenever that starts for us) by starting to look for a way to FEEL safe. We’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We just start reacting to Flight or Fight’s reactions to our thinking, our anxious, frightened thinking, and we start retreating towards something we call, vaguely, feeling safe.

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There’s very little thinking in that reaction. That’s not a criticism, by the way. How in the heck could we do useful thinking about it when we were so poorly equipped to even understand what was happening to us? And Flight or Fight as a biological mechanism isn’t about thinking. It evolved WAY before we had the brain to do any thinking about it.

We shouldn’t feel stupid or that we’ve failed because we didn’t understand anxiety and its roots. But it is essential that we start to look more critically and unflinichingly at our unconscious and often manic drive for that safe feeling. We NEED to do that, because the automatic, reflexive push for safety isn’t taking us where we want to go…

A Little Parable About Safety

There is a great story from the original “Twilight Zone” TV show that demonstrates the futility of seeking perfect safety. (It starred William Shatner in case you’re a Star Trek fanatic like myself.) This man and woman are traveling through a small town and stop to get a meal at a diner there. In the diner, at their table, is a small personal fortune-telling machine.

When they ask the machine about their journey they get an ambigious answer. That answer makes them anxious, so they ask again. Every time they ask they don’t get the certain response guaranteeing a positive outcome to their question that they are looking for, so they get more worried, more afraid to even leave the booth at the diner for fear of what might come next.

That’s US when we demand that we have to be perfectly safe/feel perfectly safe! That’s us when we retreat from our Flight or Fight responses because we’ve convinced ourselves that our mission is to stay perfectly safe – i.e., free from anything that might rock our worlds, scare us or make us anxious.

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In other words we see ANXIETY AS THE ENEMY. But anxiety isn’t the enemy. Anxiety is simply, basically our fear of what MIGHT happen, translated into our bodies by Flight or Fight, tempting us to step back, stay safe by freezing in place, hiding from the world, not risking discomfort, upset, anxious feelings or anything that smacks of losing our grip on safety…

No, the enemy is the notion that we can achieve something as elusive and unreal as perfect safety. Maybe more accurately the enemy of our peace of mind is the belief that our mission is to FEEL perfectly safe.

Worse still we’re not even aware that we’re making that assumption. So we keep chasing it down, this feeling of safety, which really means that we keep retreating, further and further back.

Sometimes that retreat stalls because, for a time, we don’t feel as anxious, or think we’ve found safety. Maybe we find a great person who comforts us when we’re anxious, and that seems to be a safe place. Maybe we move to a new house, or get a new job, or come into some money, and that makes us feel safe. Maybe the anxiety/Flight or Fight symptoms subside and THAT brings us some comfort.

And then we tell ourselves PHEW, that’s behind us, I was anxious for a while but now I’m not. Except that we are still anxious – we’ve just managed to find a temporary truce in the fight. All that’s changed for the present is that we don’t FEEL anxious.

But, maddeningly, anxiety is still there, still lurking in our thinking about the world and what we deem to be safety. So when that delicate balance is upset, when our safe person suddenly doesn’t seem so safe or our safe haven of a house or apartment develops the taint of anxious thinking, then we panic, desperate again to STOP feeling anxious and START feeling safe again.

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This is one of the basic reasons we want so much to find a fast, right-now answer to our anxiety. We’re treating our anxiety like it’s a crisis – except that it isn’t. It’s a thinking problem, and we’re going to have to treat it like a problem to make it stop.

This is why so many people begin to find ways to medicate, in all the ways we do medicating – because they are focused on the wrong problem. Worse, medicating does bring, a lot of the time, some temporary abatement of Flight or Fight, so we keep at it, just wanting to not FEEL anxious.

Let’s Talk Turkey About Safety

So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Our desperate search for the feeling of safety, the way we’ve been doing it, is only getting us in trouble. We need another approach to finding our way free of anxiety.

That approach consists very simply (as most of you reading understand) of both identifying the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place (what I call unpacking our fearful thinking) and at the same time develop new responses to what Flight or Fight means to us – i.e., not danger, just an alarm system about our anxious thinking.

At the heart of that new approach is a fundamental truth: safety is a dynamic state rather than a static end goal. Safety is a creature of the moment AND a thing we create in our thinking, not some absolute physical condition we achieve and then can put down and forget.

That may be pretty uncomfortable to hear, and I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. But here’s the good news – the moment we can begin to get our heads around this idea the faster we can begin to break free of the obsessive need to achieve “safety” as an end goal.

Safety is NOT the absence of any anxious feelings or sensations. Safety is not perfect. Safety is not striving for an absence of anxiety, because anxiety is, when we’re healthy thinkers, one of the alert systems we have to tell us there are issues/problems/challenges that need our attention.

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So what IS safety? Safety is the self-confidence to meet whatever comes our way head-on, secure that we’ll do the best we can, ride the storm (if storm it is) and take care of ourselves in the process. Safety is treating the world’s ups and downs as problems, not crises.

It is a terrible illusion to believe we can create some zone of perfect safety. The world is the world. It changes. People come and go, lives begin and end, jobs start and stop. We have to contend with the facts of illness, ignorance, accidents and yes, other people’s fears. We and other people make mistakes, mess things up, act on imperfect information.

If that makes you anxious reading that then you’re not alone – I know this thinking sure as hell made me uncomfortable when it first began to become clear to me. But it isn’t all darkness! Because with all that I listed above there is the other side of things. Good things happen to us too.

Yeah, I know, when you’re in the grip of anxiety the good things seem to get valued to zero and the bad things get extra credit. I get it. But that doesn’t mean we’re seeing things clearly or realistically. And it is past time for each of us to start looking at our thinking more critically (not as in criticizing – but as in questioning, evaluating, reassessing) about our assumptions.

Because the truth is life is much more complex than just risks and failures. Gifts get scattered in our lives. People love and care for us. Opportunities present themselves. Things go right, we learn things, we try and succeed. We celebrate victories, or at least we have victories, even if we discount them. We survive crises and grow stronger, smarter, more capable.

Yeah – More Capable…

And that might be the perfect word to set opposite the word safety – capability. We have to start getting clear just how capable we are, and have already demonstrated ourselves to be in our life.

What, you say? Me, capable? Well, yes. You’ve managed to get here, wherever you, and you’re still standing. You still have some sort of roof over your head. You’re still eating (unless you’re now somehow running on batteries.) You’re getting out of bed, most days, and still taking care of basics. You’re still managing a host of things, however much you trash and abuse yourself.

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And you’ve done that for years and decades in the face of some period of chronic anxiety and depression. I’m sorry – what’s NOT capable about that, exactly?

Oh, of course. It wasn’t perfect. You didn’t do it completely free of fear and the need for safety. But you DID IT. Capable. Not perfect. In fact incredibly capable.

Nobody is ever completely safe. That’s a fantasy. And we don’t need to be perfectly safe. We need to embrace the vagaries, variations and vipers of life. It’s our capability to meet what comes – whatever we’re FEELING in the midst of our anxiety – NOT achieving perfect safety – that will take us through and give us our life back.

The Pursuit of Perfect Safety Means We Stop Living

We can’t live, really live, if we’re running from what makes us anxious. The single-minded pursuit of safety means we give up engaging in life. (Any chronic anxiety fighter I know completely understands THAT truth.)

Flight or Fight isn’t trying to mess up our lives. It isn’t malicious. It is just doing what it evolved to do – get us away from real, actual, physical danger. The problem isn’t Flight or Fight. It’s our thinking – and our ignorance. We don’t have to stay ignorant. And we sure as hell don’t have to stay the prisoners of our thinking.

REAL safety – a real, life-living map of safety – starts with understanding that safety isn’t static. It’s evolving, it is variable, and it is dynamic. YOU are capable.

Real safety comes from looking our fears directly, facing them, unpacking them, and beginning to deal with them as the problems they are, not the crises our single-minded pursuit of safety would have them to be.

In some of the blog posts over the last several months I’ve talked about how thinking is the cause and the cure of chronic anxiety. Any discussion of how thinking drives anxiety is incomplete without talking about the language we use with ourselves in that thinking.

Language, like thinking, is a largely unconscious process for most of us. We don’t usually spend any time thinking “do I really want to use this word?” when we are talking to ourselves or to other people. We just talk. We use the words that “come naturally” to us.

A lot of the time that is a useful thing. It is nice to be able to ask for your burger and fries without having to ponder the words you’ll need to make that request. And a lot of the time it doesn’t really matter which exact words you use in your conversation, as long as those words get the meaning across to the other person (or to you.)

But sometimes the words matter tremendously. The words matter because words are how we shape our thinking. The words matter because we assign meaning to words, and that meaning travels with those words (for each of us.)

Words can be amazing tools. They can build us up, strengthen us, clarify our thinking, give us insight into our own motivations. Words can communicate very complicated meanings very quickly. They can encourage us and other people. They can bring comfort and they can make people (including ourselves) laugh.

But words can also be terrible, destructive things. They can be a kind of whip in our lives, driving us towards anxiety and away from the work we need to do to overcome anxiety. They can damage our self-esteem, trash our self-confidence, and fan the flames of negative, frightened feelings.

So it’s worth the time to examine some of the ways language can feed anxiety, and to start to examine the language choices we make in our thinking and conversation…

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Hey – You SURE You Want to Say THAT word?

First things first: words only have the meaning(s) we assign to them. There is nothing magical about words, except the magic we give them. Words can’t hurt us physically.

But that isn’t to say that words can’t hurt us. They can. They can savagely hit our thinking and, as a result, our feelings. They can precisely because of the meanings we assign to them. And the power of words can be an amazing thing IF we don’t develop some awareness of the meanings we’re assigning to those words.

Secondly: it take some effort to get conscious of the words we use. It can be irritating, annoying, frustrating to even practice that awareness. It will throw us off and make us awkward in conversation for a while. That’s OK. It’s OK because there is a LOT of power and healing in coming to understand how the words we use affect us.

Here’s an example I hear all the time from people I know, including my coaching clients: “That’s really stupid.” Or “I’m an idiot for thinking/doing/feeling that.” Or “I am so slow!” When I call people on the use of the words stupid or idiot or even slow they do one of two things – they either laugh and say they didn’t mean it, or they defend the word because it is in their thinking an accurate statement about themselves.

Let me float a notion here: we usually don’t use words we don’t mean to use. Thinking moves very quickly, and we are pulling the words we want when we want them. When we call something “stupid” or say the word “idiot” it is pretty likely that’s the exact word we wanted to use. We of course may not be conscious of the choice – in fact we are probably NOT conscious of that choice – but that doesn’t change our intention.

Because we sure as heck don’t have to be conscious of all of our intentions! The funny thing is that we would probably rarely accuse someone else of being an idiot, or say that someone else (that we cared about, anyway) had done something stupid. It would sound harsh and even cruel. We’d feel badly for doing that.

Yet we make a mistake, mess something up, don’t do something as well as we think we should, and out come idiot and stupid and other words we wouldn’t use on our friends and family. Not useful. Certainly not helping our thinking about ourselves…

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Words Matter

Here’s another example: once it was pointed out to me I was surprised to hear people say, when they said something that wasn’t accurate (and they were then either corrected or they realized they had made a mistake) “oh, I lied.” Really? You lied? You deliberately set out to fool the people around you with an untruth?

Nah, you just made a mistake. You didn’t lie! The word “lie” is a pretty powerful word. Sure, we said “I lied” to cover for the embarrassing mistake we made. But mistakes and lying are worlds apart.

Yet another example, and one I hear all the time in my coaching work, is when someone is describing a Flight or Fight reaction, physical or emotional, and they say something like “it was terrible”, or “it was awful.” Terrible – that’s pretty bad.

Terrible is when someone is hit and killed by a car. Terrible is when a bomb goes off in a crowded room. Terrible is when you get bit by a dog with rabies! Those are truly terrible things. A feeling is NOT, repeat not, terrible. A Flight or Fight response is not terrible.

Uncomfortable, yes – no doubt. Very frustrating. Energy-draining. Tedious. All words that easily apply to the debilitating (another good word) effects of on-going Flight or Fight reacting. Terrible? Not so useful. Terrible is monsters in the closet, scary dogs off leashes lunging at us, something on the verge of disaster.

See what I mean? Words matter. It might be useful to think of words as tools. There are tools that make sense for a particular job, and tools that are less useful, or even not useful at all for a particular job. You can help or hurt a project depending on the tools you use.

The same goes for words. We start slinging words around like terrible or awful and we’re going to conjure very specific reactions in our thinking and feelings. Terrible is very different from tedious. One is verging on something that can’t be endured. One is freakin’ frustrating, but that’s all it is.

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And make no mistake – that difference can generate very different responses. Because, as I mentioned earlier, words shape our thinking. And, as you who read this blog understand, thinking in turn drives our feelings.

How would you rather feel – like you’re facing down monsters, or just having to walk a few extra miles? 🙂 Sounds minor, maybe – until you’ve been facing down monsters all day, constantly flinching back from those feelings, drained from the endless generating of adrenaline and cortisol in your body… and in large part because of the story you’ve been telling yourself about what this Flight or Fight response MEANS.

Words Have Meaning – and Words Create Stories we Tell Ourselves

One of the ways to think about this is that using a particular word becomes a habit after a while. And that word, in its constant use, in turn creates a particular story we repeat to ourselves. In my case it was the story I told myself about feeling dizzy/lightheaded – a very common Flight or Fight reaction to anxious thinking.

I started having the fight with dizzy in junior high school. The first night I experienced it, lying in bed, it was pretty intense. I was floating, then falling, then floating, then spinning, etc. I didn’t understand what was happening, and immediately assigned it words like scary, awful, horrible.

That was bad enough. But then it came back the next night. And now I was sleepy and upset that I wasn’t getting to sleep and scaring myself about what the dizzy might MEAN, and so I began to say words like it isn’t stopping, what if this goes on forever, etc.

Now I’ve REALLY started scaring myself (recognize any of this from your own experience?) I began to tell myself that story every time I even THOUGHT about dizziness. I would scare myself when other people talked about being dizzy or lightheaded. I told myself it was bad, terrible, unendurable. And of course I believed myself, because I was scaring myself pretty good with the meanings I was attaching to dizzy.

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Then, just to make sure I’d driven the nail well into the coffin, I started calling myself weak, and stupid, and messed up because I couldn’t sleep or find a way to make the dizzy stop. I told myself that dizzy would NEVER stop – then grieved and cried over the horror of a life consumed by lack of sleep and dizziness.

Words have meaning. Words create feelings. Words drive behavior. And all of it is within our control, if we’ll (among other things) start taking those word choices seriously. We are creating stories all the time in our thinking, in our out-loud conversations. What stories do we want to create instead of the stories we’re telling ourselves right now?

Spread the Word!

It wouldn’t be a Fear Mastery Blog Post without some recommendations for next steps, so:

1) Start listening to the words you use, especially around your anxiety thinking and conversations. It isn’t nit-picking and it is awkward/uncomfortable – but it is also worth the effort. Where are you telling yourself terrible, awful, horrible stories about your experience?

I’m not saying that you are not scared. I’m not saying you’re weak or just making things up in your head. I’m saying that you have the power to decide to change the story. Yes, it feels terrible. And a lot of that feeling terrible is because we’ve learned to tell ourselves that it feels terrible. That’s under way more of our control than we normally learn.

2) Start changing the story you’re telling yourself. What if that racing heart isn’t really all that scary? What if it is just the reaction of a physical organ to a push of adrenaline? Maybe it is just frustrating, annoying, tedious? Is this a story that gets a different ending when you change how you describe it to yourself?

That takes practice. It won’t be something you can just flip a switch about. You’ve been using specific words for a long time, telling yourself a specific scary story for a long time. You’ll push back on your own efforts to challenge that story. Feelings will insist that they are real to you.

But feelings are the slaves of words. And YOU have control over the words – with practice and patience.

3) And speaking of words, what words are you using about YOU? How do you talk about YOU, to yourself and to other people? There’s some useful thinking and self-review right there.

Maybe you could start being a little (or a lot) kinder to yourself? Maybe you could start cutting yourself a break? Maybe you’re not a failure, however you feel about yourself? Maybe you’re not a loser, or pathetic, or stupid, or whatever less-than-useful words you’re using to talk about yourself?

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4) How would people that love and care about you describe you? Where are you skillful and competent and wise? What makes you feel, or has made you feel in the past, happy, peaceful and content? Are there other stories you could be telling yourself about your life? It might make for some interesting contrast with some of things you habitually tell yourself…

This isn’t an exercise in self-deception or “positive thinking.” This is real, hard, even challenging work. This is, maybe for the first time in your life, taking some of the control of your thinking back from the flood of things you just picked up automatically, without thinking (through no fault of yours!), and making it more about what is truly you.

Words matter. Words make meaning. Words create stories. Stories are how we see our world. Maybe it’s time for some new stories – more accurate, more useful stories. Maybe it’s time to take the words you use more seriously…

So how goes your work to master your anxiety? I know that a number of people who follow this blog are feeling some real progress in their efforts to dethrone anxiety as the master of their lives. That’s pretty exciting news to me, since that’s the reason I’m doing this work. And of course it isn’t just me – it is all the people who are working to clarify and understand what anxiety is, and what the best practices might be for overcoming anxiety.

If you’re making progress, congratulations to you – I know it feels good. (And if you DON’T feel like you’re making any headway, well, send me an email – let’s see where you’re stuck and what you might be able to do about it.) At the same time I also know that if you’re like the standard-issue anxiety fighter then you’re also not seeing progress fast enough. You are impatient to break free of the chains of anxiety, stop feeling and being afraid, get your life back (or maybe get it for the first time.)

That goes double for the folks that are feeling stuck, yes?!?

I understand that. I gave away 20+ years to the life-suck that is anxiety, and I was already mad about that when I finally found some tools and started my climb. Things definitely did NOT happen fast enough to suit me, and sometimes my impatience threatened to overwhelm my work.

Why Is This Taking So Long???

How long have you been fighting anxiety in your life? I know one guy who fell into the vortex of regular, chronic anxiety less than a year ago. (He’s 33, btw.) I know one woman who is coming up on 51 years in this struggle. I’ve heard every number in between, and I’m sure I haven’t heard the record length…

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But then ANY time lost to anxiety is too much, right? And although the majority of people that I have communicated with that follow this blog are long-term, big-time anxiety fighters (i.e., either suffer from regular panic attacks and/or depression) literally hundreds of millions of people on the planet fight serious anxiety in one or more areas of their life, even though it doesn’t wreck their whole day. Even those folks resent the opportunities, peace of mind and TIME lost to anxiety…

That’s a LOT of anxiety floating around. (Is it any wonder people go postal or drive drunk or spend all their money on the Home Shopping Network?) And every last one of us dreams of a FAST, RIGHT NOW fix to this issue called anxiety.

I have some difficult (notice I didn’t say “bad”) news before I deliver the good news. No such creature exists. There are definitely, for some of us, quick temporary aids to quell the yelling of anxiety in our skulls – those of us who respond favorably to the various anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds that are out there.

And of course meditation, deep breathing routines, determined exercise and distraction can help most of us get some temporary relief. But none of those tools can just turn anxiety off like a switch.

WHY?

It’s In Your Operating System

The basic premise of this blog is that anxiety starts and ends in our thinking. It gets a lot of help along the way from our Flight or Fight Response, but the origin and the cure lie in our thinking. That sounds fairly straightforward, but the truth is our thinking isn’t just one thought at a time running through our neurons. We think a LOT – way more than most of us know.

As you sit here your brain is taking care of your body without having to bother you. Heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, muscles, eyeballs, fingers, etc., all working away while you take in this blog post. That’s one layer of thinking your brain is doing. (Can you imagine managing all of that consciously?)

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Another layer of activity is what your brain is doing with the information it is reading here – understanding the words grouped into sentences, linking up what you’re seeing here with other information about anxiety that you’ve learned, deciding what you think about this information (like it, don’t like it, not sure yet, etc.) It feels easy and natural, and it is – for us humans – but it take some thinking to do. And you’re almost always unaware of that processing while it is happening.

Those two layers of activity are happening at the same time, btw! But wait, there’s more. You’re also actively thinking – i.e., you’re consciously thinking about things (what will you have for dinner tonight, what did your husband or wife tell you they wanted from the store this afternoon, where should you go on vacation this fall, stuff like that.) Think of that as a kind of spotlight on the stage of your mind – it is where your focus is right now in your thinking.

And it seems that your brain is also able to in essence think about things out of the spotlight of your direct, conscious thinking – “back-burner” issues you’re trying to resolve or figure out, until it reaches some conclusion and then coughs politely to get your attention. (You know, that thing where you’re sitting there minding your own business and suddenly you know the answer to that test question from this morning, or what you wanted to say to your boss yesterday but couldn’t summon the words?)

So, although this is very much an artificial breaking out of your brain’s functioning, it is safe to say that you do a LOT of different kinds of thinking, and only a portion of it is going on in your conscious awareness. In fact 3 of the 4 layers of thinking I just described usually happen without you being in the least conscious of them.

Which is kind of wacky, when you think about it (no pun intended.) 🙂 We are thinking ALL THE TIME, and a lot of our thinking is just charging along whether we’re making any effort to think or not.

So what’s all this mean for our anxious thinking and getting that crap out of our brains? It means that you and I and everyone can very easily accumulate all kinds of thinking that starts running automatically in our skulls, and which can loop in our thinking again and again if we’re not doing anything about it.

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Worse still we can start acting and reacting to that thinking without even being conscious that we’re doing it, and, even after we start becoming aware that we’re thinking these thoughts, we’re STILL not necessarily going to just shut them down right away. We have literally written those thoughts into the software running in our computer-like brains, and it is going to take some re-writing to get a new program running…

Getting a Handle on Anxious Thinking

The tedious part of anxiety is that it isn’t really thinking that gets us in trouble. It is thinking about the future, worrying about the future, that’s the real problem. It becomes a problem when we start scaring ourselves with the possible negative outcomes in those futures we are imagining, those “dark scenarios” (as I like to call them these days) or what, when I’m feeling more technical, “indefinite negative futures.”

At the beginning of this work with anxiety most of us are not even aware of just how much we’re frightening ourselves with our thinking. We just know we’re scared and anxious and depressed and tired and feeling trapped. Then, as we start trying to figure out what thinking we’re scaring ourselves with, we begin to realize that we DO scare ourselves a LOT, and it has, for the most part, very little to do with where we are in the present moment, but instead the future and our fears about that future.

Then we have to live in the gap between KNOWING that we’re doing that and rewriting our thinking – learning to challenge, sort out, unpack and develop new thinking habits. That takes time and practice (I know, I say that a lot here.)

And it isn’t like we’re usually just dealing with one fear, one dysfunctional anxious thinking pattern in our thinking. Nope, we have a nice little collection running around in there, and worse, we’ve so conditioned ourselves to run away from them that it takes time to even get half-way tolerant of facing them down for any length of time – right? It is definitely going to take some time, effort and sweat – and definitely some living with being uncomfortable…

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Example: Let’s say I’ve been scaring myself for a long time with the fear “what if I run out of money?” This is a very, very common fear – billions of people I suspect run with this fear in their skulls.

This fear has bred some other fears – what if I lose my job, what if my bank account gets hacked, what if I’m robbed, what if they shut off my credit, what if I get sick and have big medical bills… on and on they go.

And, of COURSE, we’ve been activating Flight or Fight in our bodies for a while now (maybe a LONG while) and we’ve learned to be scared of even getting close to that set of anxious thoughts because it will mean dealing with the scary mess of our Flight or Fight responses (and the meaning we’ve attached to those) as well.

Ugh. Who in the heck WANTS to do that? 🙂 Well, truthfully, YOU. Because the way out is through.

It’s Not Exactly No Pain, No Gain – But It’s Close

It’s scary. There’s no question. We’ve spent years or decades running away from our fearful thinking and Flight or Fight reactions, and now some yokel (me) is telling you to face into them, stare them down, challenge them, and live with the discomfort and real fearful feelings while you convert those frightened crisis thoughts back to problem thoughts.

That’s going to take some work. It’s going to mean getting a journal of some kind, electronic or paper, and starting some deliberate thinking about your fears – how they are crisis thoughts, what your worst-case fears are, what you’re frightened of in Flight or Fight, and then converting those thoughts back into problems. It can feel overwhelming. You’re so used to running away that the reflex/habit is STRONG.

And Flight or Fight is saying “hey, you sure seem scared! Let’s get away from these thoughts! This is terrible! 🙂 Except of course that it isn’t really terrible – it is just how it feels to us from long years of running from the dark, horrible scenarios we’ve been creating for ourselves in our thinking IF all of our darkest fears came true…

And that’s crap. It is crap that has been draining the life out of us.

You’ll have to do this again and again, this challenging, confronting, converting and rewriting. This isn’t a miracle cure. It is the acquisition of a set of skills, and baby, that takes time. But it won’t take any MORE energy or time from you than the time you’re giving away right now to running away and hiding from your scary thoughts and reactions. And it holds out the promise that you don’t have to KEEP feeling anxious/scared/terrified, if you’ll face into this work…

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But Back to Impatience

So of course you’re going to be and feel impatient, right? That’s OK. Impatience can be a great motivator. Just don’t let impatience take you away from the work. Let impatience be what boosts you to doing something about all that anxiety you’re carting around. You’ve tried wishing it away, running away, hiding from your thoughts, maybe done some medicating of various kinds, but you’re still thinking the thinking that makes you anxious.

It’s time to let impatience make us ready to take on those thoughts and take our lives back.

Need help getting started? Go back to the blog post dated 11/20/11 – that’s a great place to begin to learn this information and skills. Or hit me at my email – erik.kieser@yahoo.com. I’ll help you get moving.

Grace. Pretty interesting word. We don’t hear it much these days, except maybe in the way the word means to act or move with a certain style, ease and class. And while that’s one meaning of the word there is another that is something crucial to our fight with anxiety.

Before I launch into this discussion let me give credit where it is due. I’m lifting this idea from a great thinker around fear/anxiety, a guy named T.I. (Theodore Isaac) Rubin. Dr. Rubin wrote a brilliant book called “Compassion and Self-Hate”, and I can’t recommend it enough to you my blog readers.

The idea is this: to find health, peace and the power to overcome anxiety in our thinking we MUST establish a state of grace with ourselves in our own thinking. In other words we have to allow for our own humanness, our own limits, capacities, strengths and weaknesses, or risk continuing to feed and strengthen anxiety in our lives. We have to learn to forgive ourselves for our failings, respect our very real abilities and be willing accept ourselves AS ourselves.

(In case you’re wondering, yes, this post continues the discussion I’ve been having here about the power of words and thinking to strengthen or weaken our fight with anxiety…)

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What We Think We SHOULD be Able to Be/Do…

I have said it before here in the blog – anxiety fighters are very, very hard on themselves. We are stern, unforgiving parents to our own soul, and we have incredibly high, even impossible standards that we hold ourselves to in our lives.

Much of that sternness comes from the sense that we HAVE to be hard on ourselves in order to live right, or be good enough, or however we frame it in our thinking. We learn to think along the way that if we’re not constantly evaluating ourselves in that harsh, unforgiving light we learn to cast on our thinking and actions that we’ll make terrible mistakes, or worse, other people will evaluate us and find us less than perfect…

This doesn’t occur in a vacuum – we learn to be this way for specific reasons. We learn this from our family, from our friends, from our community, from our church (I’m sorry to say), from our co-workers, and eventually we learn to enforce this all by ourselves in ourselves.

I was no exception to this rule. I have written before in this blog about some of the rules I acquired for myself and how hard I drove myself to meet all of those rules. And somewhere along the way I developed the crazy notion that it was right and good to forgive anyone and everyone for their various failings (including towards me) but that I should never, ever forgive myself…

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Standards Are One Thing – Self Abuse is Another

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that having standards for ourselves is necessarily a bad thing. It can be a GREAT thing to hold ourselves to what we believe in. But that is worlds away from 1) literally impossible standards that no real person can maintain forever and 2) trashing ourselves when we fail at meeting those impossible standards.

Here’s a classic you might recognize: I developed the belief in my thinking that I was supposed to read other people’s moods and needs perfectly, and that I should do my very, very best to accommodate those needs and moods. If I somehow failed to do that then I was the bad guy, I was the one who had failed, and I was savagely hard on myself for that failure. And when I say hard I mean MEAN. I would yell at myself, get very grumpy with myself and other people, berate myself, punish myself with accusations and put-downs –

All in some effort to get myself to “fly right”, somehow get better at reading people’s feelings and needs, do it perfectly next time. What in the hell? I wasn’t just shooting for “right” – I was shooting for impossible. And my efforts were doomed from the start.

Nobody is perfect. Nobody gets it right all the time. Nobody NEVER fails. Nobody has the capacity to follow ALL the rules we stack up in our heads ALL the time. To make matters worse we burn tons and tons of energy trying, on top of the energy we’re burning fight back anxiety, and just making it through the day – is it any wonder that we’re so tired and frustrated?

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Give Yourself A Break

Recommendations:

1) For the love of Mike, examine the language you use when you talk to yourself. You probably work pretty hard to be kind, caring, compassionate towards other people most of the time. That should apply to YOU too. That’s easier said than done, because, as I mentioned earlier, most of us learned the mistaken belief that being hard on ourselves would somehow make us better at being perfect…

So – no more trashing yourself, no more calling yourself names, no more self-berating for your mistakes. Forgive yourself. I KNOW this isn’t easy. This is really part of the skill I call out as self-care in the fight to overcome anxiety. It takes practice, self-awareness and time.

2) Start seeing yourself as HUMAN. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t master the small handful of skills you need to be free of anxiety in one session either. You can’t do everything at once. You won’t always deliver the perfect meal or be the perfect wife or husband or parent of friend. You will have tired, grumpy, crappy days.

The more we can embrace our normal humanness the more we can start to get away from that perfection thinking, and start really caring for ourselves. It is OK, more than OK, essential, to allow ourselves to be human. Better and worse, up and down, strong and weak, decisive and waffling, hopeful and despairing, full of feelings, slow to learn sometimes – all part of the game.

3) Self-care as one of the four skills to overcome anxiety isn’t in there because I it made a nice round number – self-care is ESSENTIAL if we’re going to overcome anxiety. And that means you have to start taking care of yourself! Take breaks, do things that interest you, actually consider your own interests and desires as LEAST as important as the folks around you…

That’s all self-care. So is facing into our fears of body and mind even when it is easier or less scary to not do so. So is asking for help when we need it. Doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed to get it, but we can still ask! We don’t have to do all of this alone –

Finally, self-care is also just HAVING FUN. Do something you ENJOY. Anxiety is such a joy-sucker. We need, maybe harder than almost anyone else, to go out of our way to be entertained, diverted, amused, distracted sometimes. It’s legal! So sometimes you just need to lie on that couch and be a slug! Sometimes trashy romance novels or watching Castle or making cookies (save some for me!) is exactly the right thing to do.

Not every moment has to be productive. Not every moment has to be work driving towards a goal.

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Grace – It Starts With Us

So if you’re busy yelling at yourself for being less than perfect, knock it off! 🙂 It’s time to show yourself a little grace, a little (or a LOT) of compassion, a little kindness. You (and all anxiety-fighters) are terribly hard workers (I can already hear you dismissing that!) and it’s time you turned some of that energy, in a gracious, kind way, towards yourself.

Next up – more about the language we use to talk to ourselves…

Human beings have pretty impressive brains. (The elephants and dolphins might have something to say about that, but until we can chat with them I’m pretty comfortable making this claim.) You don’t have to take my word for it – if you’re reading this you have your own experience with how cool your brain is.

Think of all the things we can do with these brains! We can create art, manage complicated relationships, solve problems (more about THAT particular skill in my last blog post), juggle multiple priorities, master complex physical skills, remember stuff that happened years and years ago, build remarkable pieces of technology – lots of cool things. Perhaps, most importantly, we can make cookies – surely one of the highest expressions of human genius…

There are, however, some challenges with having these mighty brains. The one I want to talk about today is the risk we run of assuming that if we think it, well, then it must be true. In other words we tend to take our thinking way too often at face value, without calling into question the thinking we’re doing.

I’m going to talk a LOT more about this in upcoming blog posts, but all I want to do today is to get you started thinking about this: what are you taking for granted in your thinking? Do you question your assumptions, beliefs, attitudes even a little bit?

I Wouldn’t Think it if it Wasn’t True – Right?

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I know, that sounds silly. Most of us are able to acknowledge that just because we think something doesn’t mean it is automatically true. But the way we ACT is another thing altogether. We charge along, interacting with our world, making decisions, taking action (or avoiding taking action), evaluating information, trusting or distrusting situations or people, and doing most of it without really considering what we’re basing those decisions and actions on.

Why is this important? Because, as I find a way to say here almost every blog post, anxiety starts in our thinking. That includes in a giant way our expectations and assumptions about the world, our behavior, what is useful or not useful.

So if we’re going to be effective in our work to overcome and master our anxiety we’re going to have to become somewhat skillful at examining and questioning our thinking. We have to become skeptics – skeptics about what we take for granted in our thinking. We can’t really afford to continue just taking our thinking/assumptions at face value…

I Believe…

Two little words – so much power to control our thinking and behavior. Let’s see how I do coming up with examples –

Let’s say that you believe that being a good friend (or spouse, or parent, or you name it) means you can never, ever be angry with someone you love. You might have a host of reasons for believing that. You might have grown up in a house with a lot of shouting and fighting – or you might have grown up in a house where anger was strongly punished. Whatever the origins of that thinking you think any display or expression of anger is BAD.

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But while there are certainly less useful ways of expressing our anger (like attacking someone physically or kicking your small fuzzy dog) that doesn’t mean that anger is categorically evil. In fact (as I’ve argued before in this blog) we HAVE to be able to acknowledge and admit our feelings to ourselves – and that includes being angry.

That’s nice and all, but you might be reading this and going “sure, that’s fine for other people Erik, but I KNOW that anger is always wrong, or dangerous, or scary, or…” whatever you’re thinking to yourself. Here’s the rub: you’re wrong. It isn’t. Very few things in the natural world are right or wrong by themselves or in all circumstances. It is mistaken thinking – not useful to us.

Yet if we don’t call into question such a fundamental belief it will continue to drive all kinds of thinking and behavior that is also not useful to us. This is the kind of thinking, for example, that leads someone to endure selfish or ignorant behavior with a forced smile and silence until that ugly hour comes when we blow up at something tiny – because we’ve had ENOUGH and we’re PISSED AS HELL!

(You’ve never had that happen, right?) 🙂

So where are your beliefs getting YOU in trouble? What “bedrock truths” are in need of at least a pulling-off-the-shelf-and-dusting experience in your thinking? What do you believe that needs some review? They might be family articles of faith, or lessons you learned at work that you’ve taken too much to heart, or just the voices of your fears, steering you away (or towards) behaviors and thinking that promise safety…

Speaking of which, here’s another one –

Unconscious 4

Good Work Means Perfection

This is a pretty insidious thought for us anxiety fighters. Good isn’t good enough – no sir. Nope, good is only good when it’s exactly right, or perfect, or completely free from errors or risk… like THAT ever happens! Again, there are a variety of possible origins for such a wacky thought, but that isn’t my interest here – my interest is in getting you to challenge that crazy thinking and get skeptical about the truth of such an assumption.

Sure, there are times and places where something akin to perfection is feasible and desirable. I like my brain surgeons to be pretty close to perfect, for instance. I like my pilots to be all but error-free when they land and take off.

But that’s not the same thing as saying EVERYTHING we attempt has to come off perfectly, or that we shouldn’t make mistakes with whatever we’re doing. I think this is one of the most dangerous thoughts a person can carry around in their skull.

So many smart risks, so many chances to face down fear and anxiety, so many opportunities to learn something new or shake free of old and destructive habits are shut down and passed by with this little virus of a thought. We HAVE to risk and even make mistakes to learn. We have to try experiments that we’re not certain of the outcome. I know, that’s crazy talk, right? Who in their right mind would take chances that they can’t control?

Anxiety fighters – that’s who. One of the life-sucking results of anxiety is that we get more and more risk-adverse. We become addicts to safety, listening to the siren song of our Flight or Fight reactions and the Comfort Zone those reactions are building. To win our freedom we have to be willing to push past our Comfort Zone walls, challenge our fears and take chances that might succeed or fail – THIS time.

And that’s another thing about seeking perfection or perfect safety – we need to take a longer view. We need to see that learning takes time, that getting skillful takes time – that we can only even hope for superior or close to error-free IF we’re willing to make mistakes, mess up, have good days and bad days (or even good hours and bad hours) if we’ll roll up our sleeves, be willing to get dirty and risk getting our knees skinned, metaphorically speaking…

Unconscious 2

We All Need a Little More Science in Our Lives

One of the gifts that scientific thinking brought the world is the notion that it is GOOD to question our assumptions. Scientists make their living in large part by questioning why and how things happen. They look for clear root causes. They build theories about the world (or some small piece of it) and then, if they’re doing their jobs right, test those theories again and again to see how accurate those theories really are.

We need to do more of that with our thinking. We need to be better, skeptical thinkers. Here are some samples:

“I can’t do this.” Really? Why? Is that fear talking or is that something you already know? Are you basing that on past experience that may or may not be valid anymore? Were the circumstances under which you tried this the last time the same as this time? Do you know more now? Could you try it several times before you decide you really can’t do it?

“I’m going to fail.” So now you’re able to see the future? HOW do you know you’ll fail? You MIGHT fail – I’m not saying you’re guaranteed success by virtue of trying – but on the other hand, how the heck can you really know if you DON’T try? Probably some basing this on past experience, when you knew less or were not as capable as you are now…

“I know someone will feel this or that way if I do this or that.” Not only are we pretending to be fortune tellers, but we also act as if we were telepaths. Yes, history might tell us that a person could have a particular reaction. Again, are we basing our assumption on repeated experience or one ugly response? Has that person gotten any older or wiser? And just how dangerous IS that person’s response anyway – what makes it so scary in the first place? Heck, maybe it’s time to risk a less-than-super-happy-response anyway – maybe you BOTH need a little honesty and shaking up of your thinking…

We’re going to do a lot more of this kind of thinking here at the blog in the months to come. For now, just consider this notion: we all need to question our assumptions. It is difficult to do, especially when we’re just starting out. It is tiring. It is sometimes world-shaking. But it is also vitally important in the fight to beat anxiety.

Unconscious 6

This post is a follow-up to my last post on practicing a little thing called The Compound Effect. Today’s discussion is one of the specific reasons we need to see our work sorting out anxiety as a marathon rather than as a sprint…

So there you are, working hard on your Fear Mastery skills, and you’ve experienced some solid success in challenging one of your fears. Let’s say that you have been anxious about driving over a bridge or on the highway (a pretty common fear, let me tell you.) You’ve spent years being scared to do this, but you decided a few weeks ago that enough was enough.

You’ve done all the right things. You’ve identified the problem (driving on busy highways and/or over bridges) as something you historically turned into a crisis (this is really dangerous, it will kill you, you’ll fall off the bridge, etc.) You did both some time writing in a journal about this particular fear, and you’ve done some talking with your significant other or best friend as well.

You’ve also figured out that those scary feelings and physical responses you have when you are either actually driving these places or even just thinking about it are really nothing more than the Flight or Fight Response, trying hard to help you get away from your scary thinking.

You’re pretty proud of yourself! You’re learning to be less fearful thinking about it, you’re less startled and scared when Flight or Fight does power up with you, and you’ve even taken the amazing step of driving, briefly, on the highway (chanting the whole time “this isn’t a crisis, this isn’t a crisis…)

Back in the Day 6

You lived to tell the tale, and now you’re feeling pretty good about this work. And why shouldn’t you? You’ve faced down one of your big fears and you’re starting to feel a little breathing room there in the cramped confines of your Comfort Zone.

Then Your Anxiety Gets Uppity With You…

Maybe it’s the evening of your infamous drive/bridge transit. Maybe you’re just sitting home minding your own business, quietly reveling in your victory. Suddenly your heart leaps in your chest, you get short of breath, your stomach clenches, you feel terrible and frightened, and all you can think of is HOW SCARY IT IS TO DRIVE ON A HIGHWAY OR OVER A BRIDGE. It’s like you never did any work in the first place!

What the hell is going on? You were doing so well! Why are you so scared now? Well, that’s easy. You did a brave and strong thing, taking on your Comfort Zone. It was an excellent start. But you’re not done just yet.

Our Comfort Zones need a little persuading. In fact some of our Comfort Zone boundaries need a SERIOUS amount of persuading. That, combined with our REAL desire to get the crap of anxiety out of our lives, can make us freak out/get worried that we’re failing somehow when the Comfort Zone throws our fears back in our face.

Aftershock 1

You might almost say that your Comfort Zone has had a kind of spasm, a reactive twitch or surge in the aftermath of your brave effort. Yes, you pushed out past your fearful boundaries. Yes, it went well. Yes you demonstrated that you actually can do that scary thing and not have it kill you. That doesn’t mean that you’re over your fears with that single stroke –

Sometimes this is referred to as an “aftershock.” It’s a great metaphor, this reference to what happens after a major earthquake. The Earth will rattle for hours or days afterwards, and it makes sense that it would – there has been a major adjustment to the lay of the land. Same thing with this brave pushing on your Comfort Zone – things are, metaphorically at least, readjusting in your thinking.

We need to entertain the notion that one effort is probably not going to be enough to convince your Comfort Zone. Or, more accurately, it probably won’t be enough to convince your years or decades of fearful thinking to just stop from this one pushback. No, you’re going to have to keep pushing to really reprogram your thinking/convince yourself that your fears have been just that – fears.

Years of Personal Fear Nurturing Don’t Just Go Away!

First let’s be clear: you’re not doomed to be forever afraid of highways or bridges or whatever is scaring you right now. It can FEEL that way, but that doesn’t make it so. Remember, our feelings are the brain’s ancient way of telling you to GET THE HELL AWAY from whatever is scaring you. Not so useful when you’re working to overcome a fear of highways or bridges…

Anticipatory Anxiety 3

Secondly, practice resisting the temptation of having a 2-hour FearFest party in your brain, i.e., dwelling on JUST how scary that whole bridge/highway thing COULD be for you. You know what I’m talking about, right? The “aftershock” begins, you’re sitting in your chair in your living room, and now you’re pouring over the sheer terror, the madness, the fear… etc.

Not so useful. In fact “aftershocks” can be a great time to practice that whole unpacking thing – i.e., driving on a highway isn’t a crisis, it is at most a problem, and one that millions of people do every day without a hitch. It is also a great time to practice unplugging your fears of your Flight or Fight reactions – i.e., yes, my heart is racing here in my chair, but it is JUST reacting to my fearful thinking, nothing more. No special message, I’m not in danger, etc.

You’ve watered and cared for your fears for a long, long time. Just because you’re now spraying weed-killer on those fears and shutting down the water supply doesn’t mean they’ll just meekly curl up and die…

Aftershocks Stop Over Time

There is some good news in this discussion of aftershocks and Comfort Zone pushback. It doesn’t go on forever. In fact you’d be surprised how quickly, with continued work and patient effort, your thinking will begin to reframe what is scary and what is merely a problem.

Some more good news: aftershocks mean you’re DOING THE WORK. All of us who fight or have fought anxiety have lost a lot of lifespan avoiding the fight with our fears. Aftershocks and the accompanying discomfort are good indications of the serious work you’re doing.

Expect your Comfort Zone to push back. It is only doing its job, trying to get you away from danger – real or only perceived. You’ve trained your brain with a long history of being afraid of certain situations, problems or challenges. It will take some time to retrain that brain of yours. Stand your ground. Stay with the work.

Because as you do the work you’ll gain momentum. You will find the work less scary, less exhausting. Your range of motion, physically and emotionally, will increase. The aftershocks and discomfort will begin to decrease around the fears you’re working on, and your self-confidence will increase.

One effort on pushing back your fears is pretty unlikely to banish those fears. But the steady work, even with the pushback you’ll get from your Comfort Zone thinking, will be way, way worth the energy cost and the discomfort…

Tough Girl 1

I have to admit – I’m a little impatient. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t really like waiting the requisite 4-1/2 minutes for my Lean Cuisine dinner. I get scratchy when Netflix takes “too long” to load my movie order. And I definitely don’t want to wait for the cookies to cool when they come out of the oven…

So it is easy to understand that I was never really good with the whole slow-and-steady approach to life. I’m usually impatient to see the results of whatever I’m doing, and taking the long view does NOT come naturally to me. This was one of the reasons that I made it harder than I needed to when I was learning to deal with my chronic anxiety and panic attacks.

That might surprise some of you reading this blog, since (if you’ve done much reading here) you’ve heard me say multiple times that overcoming and mastering anxiety is NOT, for the vast majority of us, a quick process. But believe me, my knowledge is hard-earned and slow in coming. And I know from the emails I’ve received and the coaching work I’ve done that a lot of YOU are a little impatient too…

So today’s blog post is about a simple concept I learned several years ago, and it is one I wish somebody had told me about back in my anxiety-fighting days. It is something called The Compound Effect.

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This Just In – 1 and 1 Make Two…

The Compound Effect is both a concept and a title of a book by a guy named Darrin Hardy. The notion is simple: most of us don’t really understand how it isn’t the things we can do quickly, in short bursts, that make the difference in our life. It is instead the daily, persistent practice of consistent effort that pays off in the things that can really build up (or tear down) our lives.

Weight loss is a classic example. Despite the bombardment of weight-loss commercials and people with incredible bodies writing “lose a million pounds in 10 days” self-help books, the brutal truth is nobody loses (or gains!) that belly we hate to admit we have quickly. Nope, we got that belly with years of steady eating of bags of Ruffles Potato Chips (YUM) and (I hate to admit) more than a couple of cookies after dinner.

No, if we want to lose that belly we’re going to have to get serious about daily, steady work, not a lettuce-and-water diet that will wash the pounds away in two weeks. I have mentioned before in this blog that I was a pretty hefty boy back during the fight with anxiety, as high as 235 pounds. That may not sound like much to you, but I was easily 80 pounds over my standard/healthy body weight, and man, I felt it.

I hated being overweight (and really, who likes it?) I tried a number of things to lose that weight quickly, but the bottom-line is I lost that weight with consistent, steady, daily effort. I lost that weight over years of work, and it has taken work to keep it off.

(Not boasting, btw – it took a LOT longer than it needed to, and I didn’t make it easy, believe me.)

But this blog post isn’t about weight loss! It is about applying the same idea to our fight with anxiety. We need to understand that sorting out our anxious thinking, diminishing our frightened responses to our Flight or Fight reactions and learning to take real, decent care of ourselves will come with steady practice and time, not with “stop being anxious in one lesson” efforts.

(And, btw, it doesn’t have to take YEARS to get rid of anxiety – don’t start thinking that, please. 🙂 It won’t go away quickly, but any of us can see significant progress with steady work even within a few weeks. Still, not instant!)

Construction 3

It’s All About Acquiring Interest

That isn’t a reference to how much money you have in your savings account. It is about the slow building of skill and competence in the fight against anxiety.

When we start this work most of us are pretty badly beaten up by our fears. We stumble across something like this Fear Mastery framework and we think “OK, maybe this will help me get rid of this crap called anxiety.” Most of us don’t see it as a starting point – we see it as a Lean Cuisine in the microwave. 4 & ½ minutes and, hopefully, anxiety will STOP making our lives miserable…

This is the mistake that too many people bring to the use of anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications. We start taking them expecting to feel better RIGHT NOW. More accurately we expect the anxiety to GO AWAY when we take meds. We often settle for some relief (and, too often, tedious or even debilitating side effects), but our mission in our thinking is to stop feeling anxious NOW…

This is also why we get in trouble when we do ANYTHING to avoid feeling anxious, i.e., avoid situations where we have been anxious in the past, avoid seeing certain people for the same reason, stop engaging in activities where we might get anxious, etc.

It is the very nature of anxiety to get us away from our fears. We want relief instantly. That’s biological. But our poor Flight or Fight response didn’t evolve to deal with the problems we transmute into crises in our thinking. Only healthy thinking can fix that. And that takes time.

So our efforts need to focus on changing our thinking – both changing our fears about the future into problems to solve (if they are even that) and changing our thinking about what Flight or Fight actually means to us.

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Hammer and Saw, Hammer and Saw

The mission we have before us is simple: to sort out what is scaring us, making us anxious. If we can embrace the notion that we both dismantling old thinking, anxious thinking, as well as building new thinking, problem-solving thinking, then we can approach our work with different expectations.

That takes a little practice and patience in the face of our anxious responses to our crisis thinking. We will NOT be good at this right away! I hate to say it, but we will have better and worse days in this work, especially at the start, but also all the way through.

We have to remember that we are WIRED to run from danger. It doesn’t make us weak, or chicken, or anything except human. We are literally rebuilding some very basic thinking we acquired over the years, thinking that is deeply engrained in us. It will take TIME. It will take steady effort.

It will take what the notion of the Compound Effect can give us – regular, consistent effort across time.

One last note: we who wrestle with anxiety have a terrible habit of looking for proof that we’ve failed – yes? When you read the word “consistent” please don’t translate that as “perfect” or “never missing a day of work”. Consistent isn’t flawless. Consistent is getting up and trying again. Consistent is pushing on even we really don’t feel like it – as well as, if we flinched back or avoided the work one day, we don’t have a self-abuse orgy the next day, but instead we get up and try again.

So – you ready? 🙂 Maybe today is a great day to add another little bit of work to your growing effort at building new thinking, non-anxious thinking. What fear will you hammer on today?

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