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In my last post I began a discussion about how anxiety is deeply linked to what I call childish thinking. (Read that post HERE if you missed it – you’ll want that conversation for this post.) In this post I’m going to tackle three more insidious pieces of anxious, childish, “what if?” thinking that hold us back and feed our fears.

Remember that when I say “childish” I’m NOT talking about a child’s bright-eyed wonder of the world, their willingness to explore that world or their often simple, hopeful view of the world. That’s child-LIKE thinking, and it is something adults can develop and practice as well. When I say childish I mean the frightened, defensive, nervous thinking that children can do – and which anxiety fighters, unintentionally, begin to build their fears around and take with them in adulthood.

What if I can’t find success/happiness/a wonderful life?

One of the challenges of being a little kid is that they have so little experience in the world. What they know stretches across a handful of years – not the dozens that adults have under their belt. This means that they have very little to compare to when they don’t figure something out, don’t succeed at an attempt, or go through a period of being unhappy.

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Unfortunately kids also don’t know that it isn’t JUST what we go through – it’s also the story of what we tell ourselves about that experience that sets the tone for our future thinking. (See this post HERE about the story we tell ourselves about our experience.) Little kids don’t start out interpreting their experience in a good or bad way. They just experience life. They try, they experiment, they find things that work and off they toddle to the next effort.

But they can learn as they get older to become afraid of failure. They can learn to worry about succeeding or failing (usually in the eyes of others first, then later in their own eyes.) They can get caught up in how they feel, monitoring their own and other people’s emotional states, worrying about “bad” feelings and making them go away.

If they don’t learn to see a failed attempt as just that – one attempt, one of many – then they can get stuck in worrying about failure in general – as well as learn to avoid trying in the first place. They don’t have enough experience or good training, some of them, to see that life hands us challenges and successes, obstacles and easy paths – so they learn to veer clear of anything that might smack of failure.

They can have traumatic early experiences, or periods of time, and come to conclude that life could ALWAYS be like that – not knowing enough, not learning enough to take a larger and longer view. They don’t see the variation, the changes that life brings and keeps bringing – and they can even learn to view all change as bad.

But that’s all childish thinking. No feeling lasts forever – unless we give over a lot of energy to worrying about it and making it linger. No experience is forever. Failures are things have to experience to get smarter, more skillful and less likely to fail next time. A wonderful life is a life full of both ups and downs, victories and defeats, periods of winter and periods of summer. That’s life.

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This fear of failure, and this fear of unhappy or uncomfortable feelings, is very, very childish – and we don’t have to stay pinned to that childish thinking. It can reduce us to hiding from the world, running away from what makes us uncomfortable – and in so doing make ourselves very, very anxious.

What if I’m fundamentally flawed, or damaged, or different from other people?

Wow. This is a classic piece of childish, anxious thinking. Remember that childish thinking is based on very limited experience and what kids have gleaned so far from the adults in their lives. One of the messages we can pick up WAY early, from misunderstood experience or what we’ve been told, is that there is something wrong with us in our NATURE.

“Why can’t you behave like your sister?” “Why are you so much trouble?” “What’s wrong with you anyway?” These messages can feed a terrible story of difference, of basic disconnect between us and the rest of the world – that we’re not “normal.”

Anxiety only feeds these stories and magnifies them. We can come to see ourselves as less than, crippled, broken beyond repair. We develop a story that becomes the backdrop of our lives if we’ve not careful. And of course we’re NOT careful – we’re trapped in childish thinking, charging through the world, constantly comparing ourselves to other people, measuring, judging, and usually failing in those comparisons in our own eyes…

We start telling ourselves that we’re weak, or unable to have a “normal” life. We tell ourselves and other people about all the things we CAN’T do, how unfair it is, how terrible it is to be so different, to be so cut off from the human race…

But the adult, non-childish truth is that WE’RE JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. Sure, there are differences. We have different histories, different training, even some different genes. But we’re still human. We still belong to the human race, whatever our fears are telling us.

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We are still endowed with brains, however much we tell ourselves that we’re “not as bright” as other people. We’re still endowed with the human stubbornness to endure and even overcome, even as we’re ranting about how hard everything is and how we wish we were stronger.

And, if we’re chronic anxiety fighters, we’re all but oblivious to HOW MUCH WE’VE ALREADY ENDURED in our fight to deal with anxiety – and we’re still here.

We’re not different. We’re human, like everyone else. We’re not beyond hope. We’re not freaks. We’re people with pieces of childish thinking that got stuck in our brains, and with good information and practice we can clean up and fix that thinking.

We’re tougher, smarter, more stubborn and WAY more able than we give ourselves credit for in this fight with anxiety. Our chief problem isn’t our freakishness or difference. Our chief problems are ignorance and habit – both of which are correctable.

What if I’ve made the wrong choices in my life?

Ugh. Talk about a plague of locusts. We are born experimenters! We come into the world fascinated by all the stuff around us, utterly baffled but utterly committed to figuring things out. We try, and fail, and fall down, and cry, and get back up again.

For a while our family and friends cheer us on. Keep going! You’re doing great! Don’t worry about it, you’ll get better! But sadly, for too many of us, that changes over time. Suddenly we are worried about getting bad grades, worried about looking stupid in front of those friends, afraid that we’ll say the wrong thing, wear the wrong clothes, not understand the in joke, or worst of all, talked about or ridiculed when we are not around…

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That morphs into a fear of trying anything new, or anything risky. We guard our words, we avoid certain conversations, we refuse to go new places or try new foods. We become critical of people who don’t conform, even as we secretly envy their courage and their freedom.

What if I pick the wrong career? What if I marry the wrong person? What if I head in the wrong direction and WRECK THE REST OF MY LIFE? Holy crap.

Susan Jeffers, that brilliant writer about overcoming anxiety, makes the amazing (and true) declaration that there are no wrong decisions. I used to think this was crazy talk. I KNEW that it was possible to totally screw up your life with one misstep – one small mistake – and it sounded stupid to say you couldn’t.

But in fact 99% of the decisions we make are transient/temporary. Decisions are not usually of the Solomon-cutting-the-baby-in-half level of importance. 🙂 Who cares what you wear today, as long as it’s reasonably clean and covers the essentials? Who cares whether you went to Harvard or not? Why does it matter than you’re driving an older car, or don’t know the latest pop stars, or missed “Real Housewives of New Jersey” last night?

Who cares if you’re in a dead-end job? If you’re still alive you can start work to change that. Who cares if your marriage is a mess? There are a lot of things you can do to either improve it or get out of it! Sure, it’s scary. But that’s different from DON’T MAKE THE WRONG DECISION.

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I know – it sounds wacky. But it sounds wacky to our frightened, childish thinking. We’re not children any more. We’re grown-ups, however much we feel like children, and we’re capable of much, much more useful thinking and reacting. We have choices. We can make decisions, test them, and then change our minds if that decision doesn’t seem as useful as we’d like to ourselves.

Only childish thinking says if we say NO to this moment that we can never, ever have another chance again. Only childish thinking says the world will come to an end if we make the wrong decision. (Well, unless you’re talking about nuclear weapons – but then most of us are not making that level of decision, yes?) 🙂

Time to Talk to our Childish Thinking

In these last two blog posts my ONLY mission has been to help clarify and call to consciousness how much anxious thinking is, basically, childish thinking. We learned to be scared, early and hard, and we didn’t have the tools or self-awareness to see that such thinking had gotten stuck in our brains, traveling with us into adulthood.

We don’t have to keep that thinking. That’s why all the work around identifying “what if?” thinking is so important in the battle to break the hold of chronic anxiety – or any anxiety. (See the post HERE for the basics about identifying “what if?” thinking.)

This is why doing a journal of some kind, to record and track that thinking, becomes so vital. This is why chasing down a great therapist or coach can be so stinkin’ useful in thinking past the old thinking to new, healthy, adult thinking. This is why confronting our Flight or Fight reactions is so important – because those reactions are really trapped in time along with our childish thinking, and can’t really change until we see past them to the childish thinking that drives them.

This is why we have to learn to turn and face our fears, stop automatically reacting to that thinking, mindlessly letting decades-old thinking drive how we react to our lives. As adults we can learn to BE adults – and regain a child-like sense of wonder, and a willingness to experiment, touch and taste the world, and risk falling down and skinning our knee.

We don’t have to live in old fears.

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I’ve had a slow-growing understanding creeping up on me over the last five years of writing this blog. I’m beginning to see the conjunction of anxiety and immature, childish thinking. Those are fighting words – but give me a chance to explain what I mean when I say immature and childish.

All I’m saying is that anxious “what if?” thinking at the core is thinking we acquired in our youth, thinking that was done from a child’s perspective, an immature perspective, and then frozen in place as we moved into adulthood. Because make no mistake – we ALL become grown-ups, living grown-up lives and doing grown-up things.

But in the midst of that grown-up life is lodged some unhealthy and life-draining childish thinking – anxious thinking. Today’s post starts a review of that child-like thinking, the major fears that grow out of that thinking and some discussion about what we can do to help “grow up” that thinking into healthy, adult ways of dealing with our world.

How Children Think

Kids are great. One of the things that will always make me grin or laugh is seeing children out in the world learning about the world. Kids are curious creatures – as in they are very curious about the world around them. They tend to explore, to ask a lot of questions, try things and make mistakes, fall down and get up again (sometimes after some tears.)

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Part of what it means to be a child is to NOT KNOW EVERYTHING YET. Sure, that seems obvious, but as adults we forget that we didn’t always think the way we think now. We forget that we had to LEARN to understand the world, make sense of how things worked. We also forget that it was often other people that were telling us this information.

Oops. There’s a little bit of a problem with that sometimes. Sometimes other people (parents, siblings, teachers, neighbors, peers) don’t always have the best take or information on the world around us. Sometimes they lead us astray. It doesn’t have to be deliberate. They themselves learned what they know from other people – who themselves didn’t really have the best information.

There’s another little problem with learning about the world. Sometimes, based on less-than-useful information, we take away the wrong lessons about the world. We draw the wrong conclusions, laying down in our thinking incorrect or crippling assumptions about the world based on those experiences.

Combine these two issues – not the best information/understanding about the world, and then basing our experiences in the world to some extent on that not great information, and guess what? We can develop a distorted view of ourselves and the world around us. And so anxiety is born…

One Example of Childish Thinking

(Notice that I use the world “childish” in the above sentence. I do that because I want to be clear that not all child-like thinking is necessarily bad or dysfunctional. I’ll use the phrase “child-like” to describe thinking that is young, hopeful, inquisitive – the best of childhood. I’ll use the phrase “childish” to describe the not-so-useful kind of thinking.)

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So how does childish thinking connect to anxious thinking? One example is the fear of being alone. There’s no way I can do justice to this topic in a single blog post, but in my experience one of the great chronic anxiety fighter fears is this one.

The what if questions around this fear are legion: what if I grow old alone? What if I never find love? What if my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend die or leave me? What if other people think I’m pathetic for being alone? What if my being alone means there is something wrong with me? What if I’m fundamentally unlikeable, or even unlovable?

Isn’t it interesting to hear these questions as if a child is asking them? Children are naturally worried about being left alone. We are social creatures. We want to feel needed, loved, wanted. We also to some extent build our understanding of ourselves, how we see ourselves, through the eyes of other people.

If we learn that love is provisional – i.e., that love is based on being “good enough”, or following a host of rules, or even just managing some adult’s mood and temper to stay safe – then we can become very anxious about our ability to find and keep love, friendship, family.

We can also learn to be afraid of how we FEEL when we’re alone – whether we’re fighting anxiety responses like Flight or Fight, or just feeling sad or lost without other people around us. The bottom line is that we’ve made a CRISIS out of being alone, turning alone into terrible, and forever.

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Here’s the thing: alone isn’t a crisis. It isn’t always fun, but it isn’t the end and death. It is one condition, during times in our lives, of being human. Sometimes we have more people in our lives, and sometimes less. Sometimes friends leave, move away, die. Sometimes relationships come to an end. People change, situations change. All of that is just part of being alive.

But by the same token NEW people show up in our lives. We build new relationships. We go on to the next part of our lives.

And it isn’t just about having people around. There is a very adult need to learn to be comfortable with ourselves, by ourselves, in our own skin. We, as we grow mentally and emotionally, that we NEED time alone, time away from other people. We need time to think our thoughts, have our feelings, and NOT have to account for other people now and again.

Lots of people that will never be diagnosed as fighting chronic anxiety are petrified of being alone – because they, too, learned to be afraid of alone early in their experience. This is a pretty common fear.

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In a very real way our fear of being alone is the fear of a child, afraid that the parents are not coming back from the store, or from the trip away from home. It is thinking frozen in time from a much earlier time in our lives. It is however thinking that we can change, update, and in so doing stop scaring ourselves with bogey-man stories of the terror of being alone…

What if I can’t take care of myself?

Here’s another classic anxiety fighter fear, and one that is related to the fear of being alone. You’ll recognize the what ifs that show up in this thinking –

What if I can’t support myself? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t find more work? What if I get sick and never get better? What if I run into a situation I can’t handle? What if I fail at self-care?

There’s a LOT of solid psychological thinking around the issues that connect with children being left on their own too soon, or even if they are not abandoned but develop a sense that they can’t trust their caregivers – can’t depend on them for stable and consistent care.

As kids we NEED to have the sense that we can depend on those wacky adults to take care of us – we’re not ready yet. But here’s the rub: we’re not little kids anymore. We’re grown-ups. I didn’t say we’re perfectly competent or without concerns. At the same time we’re ALREADY managing our lives as grown-ups…

Because again and again I see people who are very quick to talk about their fears of winding up alone, being abandoned or unloved or afraid, or that they can’t manage their lives without help, who are at the same time raising children of their own, managing their own finances, working at part or full-time jobs, dealing with aging or sick parents, being the primary bread-winner, etc.

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What happened? I don’t think it’s complicated. We, at some point, learned that we couldn’t really trust ourselves to take care of ourselves. Ideally our parents and caregivers, teachers and mentors would have helped us to develop that trust by doing two things:

1) demonstrating that they were THERE when we needed them, so we had a solid foundation of trust in them. This is called attachment theory, and it seems to have an enormous impact on our self-trust. 2) letting us try things, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, all in an atmosphere of encouragement and growing self-reliance.

Happily we don’t have to throw up our hands and surrender if we didn’t get that kind of growing up experience. We can learn to do that for ourselves! We can start taking small risks, encouraging ourselves, getting support from other people as we face down our fears of being inadequate to the task of supporting ourselves.

In other words we can start mapping self-care, self-support as a problem, a set of skills to master, rather than as a scary monster crisis that we should run away from…

See the pattern here? This is a different, and very specific way, of seeing the crisis of anxiety in our thinking for what it is – fearful, less-than-lucid thinking that we can change into more mature and more problem-focused thinking. We won’t do it overnight – but we can begin, in small ways, from wherever we’re standing, and fight our way into healthier mental frameworks.

That’s enough Childish Fear for the day –

And I’ll come back in my next blog post with the rest of the list. In the meantime consider how you might best begin to see your fears as the voices of a young, frightened child – and how you can begin to comfort, support and encourage that child to see that there is no crisis. Start looking at the ways you fear alone, or fear your supposed inability to care for yourself. You may be fighting old, childish thinking – but you are not a child, and you are not alone, and you are more capable than your fears tell you.

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