You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘chronic anxiety’ tag.

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

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

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

The Journey starts in Hell

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

Dante 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dante 4

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey is Hard!

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

I can do it

I can do it

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dante 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dante5

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

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

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

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

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

How did we start thinking this way?

Fragile 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragile 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Party was just beginning…

emotions 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were wrong

Strong 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong 2

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

Time for a New and More Honest story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong 3

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

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

Not Sure what to Do Next?

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

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

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

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

Strong 4

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

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

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

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

Letting go 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go 1

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

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

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

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

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

And presto, we’re anxious.

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

Letting go 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go 5

In my last post I started a conversation about a question that is usually top of mind for those of us who are in the fight to break anxiety’s hold in our lives – how long will it take me to get free of this crap? In that post I listed out two crucial pieces – basic thinking skills needed and getting good information about how anxiety works, and what works in overcoming anxiety.

With this post I’ll discuss two more pieces, then finally answer the question. (No, I’m not trying to tease you – some answers are longer than others…)

Regular Practice

Ugh. Practice. I’m reminded of my days as a piano student (back when I thought piano was a grand waste of time – sigh.) I HATED practice. I didn’t see the point, I got bored, it was hard… you know the story.

Except as I got older I realized that to get some things I wanted I HAD to get comfortable with the notion of practice. Maybe most kids develop a crappy understanding of practice, but, I begin to believe (here in middle age) that it isn’t so much about practice as a thing. I think it is more about the fear of failure.

Practice 1

Practice needs to be understood as inexperience working towards experience, and from experience to better and better performance. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post we’re really not clear on the truth that some things we need take TIME – time and consistent effort.

Even the word “consistent” is too fraught with the feeling of failure to use with some people. Consistent is perfect practice (what the heck would that mean anyway?) as in doing the exact same amount of time, the exact same way, every day. Practice is learning, experimenting, trying this and trying that, as well as giving yourself time to get better, slowly, over time.

Practice is NOT trying it for 3 days, or two weeks, or for 2 minutes a day for 6 months. Practice is NOT moving from triumph to triumph, consistently improving skill in noticeable ways every time we do practice.

So what IS practice? Practice IS leaning into the work in a steady, regular way. Practice is a mix of staying clear on our goal, doing the work, staying clear on WHAT we need to practice and expecting every day to be what it is – more effective, less effective, but all of it building upon itself, making us slowly better over time.

Let’s get more specific. Practice looks something like this:

1) Regular sessions reviewing our what if thinking (on paper, on a laptop, on our phone, someplace where we can keep a real, consistent record of our unpacking work) and in that reviewing getting more and more skillful at seeing our “crises” as problems.

Practice 3

That might be 10-15 minutes, twice a day, three times a day. Maybe before breakfast, after lunch, after dinner. Get a schedule that works for you.

2) Have clear goals and keep working those goals, with those goals centered largely on two things: actual, physical practice confronting your old crisis thinking and replacing it with a problem orientation in the real world – not just on paper, as important as that is – and actively engaging your life.

If your goal is to get to the corner alone then do that, while you’re staying clear on how getting to the corner isn’t a crisis, whatever your what if fears are shouting at you. It’s reminding yourself that the corner is, for the moment, a problem, and you have ways to manage that problem.

You might do this work 3 or 4 or 5 times in a day. I would really encourage you to come back home and record what happened, how your thinking worked this time, what you can do better, where you’re still holding yourself up. Keep a record!

3) Are you doing good self-care? How’s that sleep thing for you? What are you putting in your face in the way of food? Where are those boundaries you keep wanting to draw?

4) Practicing patience – with yourself more than anyone else. Seeing the work as being practice across time, rather than one heroic effort.

So – the speed of our results in breaking anxiety’s hold will depend on the effort we make to practice.

Mistake 5

Expecting a Learning Curve – including the Bumps that come with any Learning Curve

OK. We’ve tackled good thinking skills, good information and practice. ALL of that will lead, naturally, to a learning curve. Although, maybe, I should be called a learning hiking path. 🙂 Over difficult and easy terrain both! Sometimes the path seems unclear or overgrown. Sometimes we hear scary noises in the bushes. And sometimes we get sunburned, and really tired, and grumpy, and we just want a hot shower and a comfortable bed.

Yeah, I like hiking trail better than curve. Learning is rarely straight-forward. We have plateaus, slow places, even back-tracking in a learning curve – a lot like hiking. (For my post on plateaus and stalls in our work to overcome anxiety go HERE.)

So what? That’s part of learning. It doesn’t signal failure and if anything it says that we ARE learning.

And – you guessed it – the speed of our getting clear of crappy, anxious thinking will depend in part on our patience and fortitude in the face of the learning curve/hiking trail.

My partner Bob likes to hike. He hikes pretty much every weekend. He likes to hike at a particular park about an hour from our house, up among the redwood trees. The park he hikes in has a couple of easy trails – maybe half a mile or a mile total, mostly flat, very easy to follow. The rest of the park has a variety of trails, some of them miles in length and going over some impressive terrain.

Guess what he notices? Most people who visit this beautiful park stay on the easiest trail, do the shortest walk, and miss 8/10’s of what is available in this location – including the most beautiful views and the most glorious stands of redwood trees. Those people really never see the park – they mostly see the parking lot. 🙂 The good stuff takes a little work.

We can’t get free of anxiety if we won’t make the hike. Learning Curves are rarely nice, linear, steadily-improving experiences. In the case of rewriting our anxious thinking it will involve experiences like this:

Give Up 4

We face down a fearful thought and it overwhelms us the first two, five, ten, twenty times we try.

We have a burst of Flight or Fight reactions “come out of nowhere” (not the case, it’s always a thought, but it feels like it’s out of nowhere)

We have a day when we seem to forget everything we’ve been learning – we’re tired, we’re distracted, we just feel overwhelmed

We get angry and frustrated! We go to a corner and pout, or break some dishes, or just say screw it, I’ll never get this, I suck, etc.

All of that is natural and normal. This is part of being in a learning curve. Don’t forget how eager anxiety thinking is to get you to GIVE UP – after all, why is this so damn hard anyway? – and besides, it’s hopeless for you no matter what you do. 🙂 Recognize any of that crap?

Learning a new skill takes TIME. Learning a small handful of skills (which is what you’re doing) will take longer still. It’s OK. It’s better than OK. These are skills that will be with you the rest of your life.

So how long WILL IT TAKE?

I’m sorry (but only a little) to report that there is no clean, simple answer to this, at least chronologically. That’s true for any attempt to acquire new skills. I’ve seen people see substantial relief in just a couple of months. I’ve seen people take years. I’ve seen people start this work, stop, start again, stop – but they eventually get there.

skill 3

And, hardest of all, I’ve seen people never really wade in, never really start this work. I’m not putting anyone down. I fought this process tooth and claw. But we can’t get anyplace if we don’t get started, despite how we feel, despite how much we wish it was easier, less scary, etc.

Permit me to argue that it will take the time it takes. A better question to ask ourselves is what’s getting in my way in this work? Where can I lean in, face down the next obstacle, get better at being uncomfortable so I can get where I want to go?

Another good question to ask is how easily do I give up? Anxiety is SO GOOD at teaching us to just surrender, just stop trying, when things get scary and difficult. As I mentioned in my last post we live in a time when we expect things to happen FAST – as in RIGHT NOW – not realizing that some things, some processes, some changes take time.

Finally, it will take less time than it’s taking if we’re avoiding if we just get down to it. 🙂

There are few things we’d like to get rid of faster than the habit of anxious thinking. It only makes sense. We are sick of the torment, the flinching back from our lives and the utter drain from our souls in the daily battle with anxiety.

In addition we live in an age when we have come to expect things to move along pretty quickly. We’re not accustomed to having to wait for much these days. Microwaves, online shopping, quick weight-loss programs and 1 billion channels of television make it easy to expect to get what we want NOW.

There is a class of desires, however, that can only come with solid basic thinking skills, good information, regular practice, a learning curve and the bumps that come during that learning curve – in other words, when we are building new skills. Want to, for example, learn to play the banjo? (I think you’re a lunatic if you do, but hey, some people really LIKE a good banjo.)

You’re going to have to practice. And you can’t really practice until you have some basic idea what the hell you’re doing in the first place. That practicing is going to take time. You’re going to learn some things well, and other things not so well – you’ll learn them wrong, make mistakes, and have to go back and learn them differently.

And no, you won’t be able to play “Smokey Mountain Breakdown” in 10 days. Or even 20. It’s going to take some time to master the ancient art of banjo playing. Now this is where the metaphor of learning a musical instrument stops being comparable to overcoming anxiety, because it doesn’t have to take near as much time to break the hold of anxiety as it does to learn to play the banjo. More about that later in this post.

Let’s apply this thinking to the work of breaking free of chronic anxiety –

How Fast 1

Solid, basic Thinking Skills

Thinking is a skill. I know, that sounds crazy. Can’t everybody just think, the way they just breathe? No. Thanks for asking. Thinking is actually a fairly complex set of skills. Most of us learn some (but not all) of those skills in two ways: watching/modeling other people and formal training.

This just in: most of us don’t get the full complement of useful thinking skills from either of these sources. I’m not, by the way, trashing your esteemed parents or your K-12 teachers. I am, however, accusing ALL of us of missing vital components in good, adept thinking. What are those skills?

1) Questioning our assumptions/being careful of assuming we know the final word.
2) Running good experiments – i.e., trying things out and giving them the time and attention they need to really tell us if we’re finding results or not.
3) Noticing and being aware of our bias – i.e., being wary of gathering information /vetting information with the intent of only already proving our current thinking, rather than letting what we’re learning tell us what it is trying to tell us.

How Fast 2

It can be useful to ask yourself which skills are you good at, and which ones do you need to strengthen?

These skills are doubly important for anxiety fighters who want OFF the merry-go-round of anxious thinking. Anxiety makes it so easy to just throw up our hands, assume that we’re screwed. It takes us extra effort to keep working to keep our thinking as clear as we can in the face of that tendency.

There’s another issue anxiety brings on: when we’re in Flight or Fight it’s harder (not impossible, but harder) to keep our thinking clear. That, by itself, is a small skill – and one that only comes with practice and time.

So – the speed that you’ll finish this work will depend in part on how effectively you’re doing your thinking. This is work ANYONE can do – but it has to be done. We can’t take short-cuts and we can’t skimp on doing at least some careful thinking.

Good Information

For the love of all that’s holy there is a LOT of bad information and thinking about the nature of anxiety, as well as what we can do about it, floating around out there. Take this pill. Do this breathing technique. Assume that you’re screwed – you’re just an “anxious person.” And a lot more besides…

How Fast 3

Lots of anxiety fighters float from theory to theory, teacher to teacher, book to book, technique to technique, flailing for the thing that will give them relief FAST. Sure we do. We’re not bad people for doing that – but we are often not doing much to help our efforts to break anxiety’s hold if we’re doing this.

We need to ask questions in our search for good information, good resources. Is this person someone who has actually dealt with anxiety – lived the dream, as it were? Do they seem to actually understand what it means to wrestle with anxiety over time? Have they seen good results from the tools and techniques and framework they are advocating?

Good information (and vetting/evaluating that information) isn’t as easy as looking at someone’s credentials or title. Yes, doctors and therapists are in theory supposed to be great resources for getting information about anxiety. Sadly there are too many doctors or therapists who don’t even stop to take a full history of our experience, or listen to our specific experiences. They hear the word “anxiety” and they are already reaching for a prescription pad or recommending desensitization exercises.

Part of the problem is they don’t really understand anxiety and how it works – conceptually or personally. Don’t get me wrong – meds and desensitization exercises both have a place in this work! But they can’t by themselves get us free of anxiety. They have to be applied with a strong, solid understanding of how anxiety works and how those tools can best serve that understanding for us.

We can’t just defer to doctors – much as that would be great or easy to do. We can’t just see one or two therapists and then assume that we’re screwed because they couldn’t help us effectively.

How Fast 4

Maybe the best summary of this point is this: are we gathering information, looking at it carefully, looking at who is saying it and asking the questions we need to ask? Or are we assuming that someone claims to have a way to manage and overcome anxiety MUST know what they’re talking about, then getting frustrated by our lack of progress?

(And, btw, I hope you’re doing this exact process with ME and ANYONE who says they have something useful to say about anxiety.)

Not all information is equal! At this point in the blog post I’m hearing some of you say (in my head) “man, this seems like a lot of work. Isn’t this tough enough already without having to do this careful research?” Well, in some respects it is a serious hassle. It would be brilliant if we didn’t have to work this hard.

On the other hand it is what it is. We don’t always get to pick our battles – but, once we’ve identified that we have a battle to fight, it is up to us to get the best information we can, mostly so we can do the best thinking and work we can do to win that battle.

So – our speed at overcoming anxiety will depend in part on the quality of information we’re using to deal with anxiety.

I haven’t finished Answering the Question yet…

In fact I’m only half-way! I’ll finish next post. In the meantime consider how this applies to YOU, dear anxiety fighter, as you ponder how long this work will take for you. Are you seeing the nature of the fight clearly, i.e., thinking about it clearly? Or is your theory of anxiety getting in the way? (See my post HERE about dysfunctional ways to see anxiety, just to double-check.)

And what about the information you’re operating from? Who are you using as your source material for dealing with anxiety? Can you apply what you’re learning? Are there tools you can use effectively?

Anxiety is a thinking issue. (How often do you read THAT here?) If we’re not doing good thinking and using good information we’re just getting in our own way.

How Fast 5

Video

With today’s writing I’ve created 255 blog posts about overcoming anxiety. I’ve put a lot of words on “paper” about how anxiety works and what we can do about it.

I have realized in the last few weeks that, in the middle of all that writing (and lots more writing at a Facebook Group I’ve had the good fortune to participate in over the last 3-1/2 years, and lots of conversations with those Facebook friends and my anxiety coaching clients) it is easy for me to lose sight of the basic nature of this work.

Today I want to review those basics, reset the stage, clarify precisely what overcoming anxiety looks like and how we get there. Here are the basics: What if thinking (problem to crisis thinking, the thing that makes us anxious in the first place), the reactions of Flight or Fight to that what if thinking that come to scare us so badly, unpacking that thinking back into problem thinking, and functional self-care.

Making Crises out of Problems – the heart and soul of Anxiety

I suspect you’ve heard stories about people that are afraid of what seems to you to be silly things – rabbit’s feet, or clowns, or moths, or having the peas touch the carrots. You say to yourself “how could a clown scare anybody?” (Of course it is possible those fears don’t seem silly at all to you – maybe one of those things scares YOU.)

Basics 1

A better question to ask ourselves is WHY anything scares anyone when it isn’t actually an immediate, physical danger. In a sense we could say that when we are presented with real, immediate, physical danger we’re not being scared at all. We are simply reacting to that danger. If I’m being attacked by an angry polar bear I’m not being simply scared – I’m dealing with a life-or-death issue RIGHT NOW.

But if I’m afraid of a rabbit’s foot or a clown then I’m being scared – without actually being in danger of being hurt in this present moment. This is anxiety, pure and simple.

How does it work? That’s simple too. To have something make us anxious we have to anticipate a bad, dangerous thing happening to us, sometime in the future. That’s it. That’s all we have to do. Some anxiety thinkers call this what if thinking, and it’s a perfectly descriptive phrase in my opinion.

Let’s say this a different way: to be anxious we have to have a thought, or multiple thoughts, about something that isn’t actually dangerous in the here and now, but which we’re anticipating BEING dangerous in the future. That’s what if thinking.

There are a couple of things that make this SEEM more complicated. One is the truth that we don’t have to be conscious of what if thoughts to have them scare us. Often we are completely unaware of the anxious thought that is rocking our worlds (or, more likely anxious thoughts, plural.)

Basics 4

That doesn’t mean we can’t BECOME aware of those thoughts, with some effort and practice – but we sure as heck don’t have consciously think a scary thought for that thought to freak us out. Lots of our thinking is habitual thinking. And habitual thinking is rarely conscious thinking.

Another issue that makes this seem more complicated than it is concerns the safety mechanism that we humans have to deal with REAL danger – the Flight or Fight Response. When it goes to Red Alert it makes things FEEL like we’re in real danger –

How did we get here? Why do we do this? We learned to do this. This is a much longer conversation (you can see more HERE if you like) but for the purposes of this conversation anxiety starts and grows here – in the learned, habitual pattern of treating one more issues as a crisis.

Flight or Fight – the second part of the Equation of Anxiety

When we have an anxious thought – when we anticipate danger in the future, do this what if thinking thing – then we activate Flight or Fight. Everyone knows Flight or Fight – that rush of adrenaline, the burst of nervous energy, the natural mechanism that evolved to help us get to safety, one way or another, in the face of real, physical danger.

A host of things happen to us physically and emotionally when Flight or Fight goes to work, but the crucial thing to understand what it is attempting to do: get us ready to RUN – RIGHT NOW. Running is always better than fighting in the natural world, because running, if successful, gets us to safety AND avoids the risk of injury that might impede survival later. We only fight if we are cornered.

Basics 3

That host of things includes a dry mouth, sweating, dizziness, various heart reactions like skipping and racing, shallow breathing, tingling and numbness, nausea, flushed skin, terror, rage, embarrassment, despair, hopelessness and depression. This is a longer conversation (see my post HERE on this topic) but the bottom line is that most of these sensations and feelings are just Flight or Fight gearing us up to run (or fight if we must) – and the rest are the result of anxiety being sustained for long periods of time without relief – and us becoming convinced that nothing can change for us.

We very easily get caught in a loop that has us believing that there MUST be something terribly wrong with us – after all, why would our bodies react and feel this way if there wasn’t? The answer is that we’re shouting OH MY GOSH I’M IN DANGER – and our body, obligingly, is standing to alert again and again, trying to help us get to safety.

The only problem is that we’re not in real, immediate danger. There’s nothing to run from. Which means Flight or Fight gets us all dressed up without nowhere to go. We’re coursing with energy, seething with adrenaline – but there’s nothing really to do with it.

There’s one more aggravating factor with Flight or Fight reacting to our anxious, fearful thinking. We start doing what if thinking about Flight or Fight! We start asking questions like what if this never stops, what if this means I’m crazy, what if I have a brain tumor… and so in a sense we set up a second level of what if fearful thinking, based on our Flight or Fight reactions, which originally began in response to our earlier what if thinking about stuff in the future. Ugh!

What if thinking activating Flight or Fight – this is anxiety. So what do we DO about it?

Unpacking – Cleaning up our Thinking so we stop Scaring ourselves

Anxiety is based on us taking an issue, problem or situation and blowing up that issue or problem into crisis in our thinking. To get free of chronic anxiety we have to convert that crisis in our thinking back into what it really is – an issue, problem or situation.

Basics 6

Please don’t think that I don’t understand that it FEELS like a hell of a lot more serious than “just” a problem or issue when we’re in the grip of anxiety. I get it, down in my bones. I spent the majority of two decades running hard from my own anxiety. I was in the grip of terror both over what I was afraid might happen to me (my original what if thinking) and I was scared to death about what Flight or Fight might mean for me (in my case, I was going to go crazy.)

How do we escape this merry-go-round of thinking and reacting? We have to clean up our thinking. We have to stop running, turn around and look our what if thinking in the eye.

We have to do that because we’re treating problems or issues as crises – which means we’re both scaring ourselves silly AND not dealing effectively with the issue or problem. I’m not saying it might not be a BIG problem. I’m saying that if you’re not immediately at risk for death or serious injury then it is not a crisis – and will be MUCH better managed if you will start treating it as a problem. (Not to mention that you won’t be scaring yourself silly over it.)

(See my post HERE on what it means to treat a problem as a problem.)

This is intense, often challenging work. This takes energy, time, patience and a willingness to be, sometimes, damn uncomfortable. Of course that’s the case. We’ve learned to run from our fears – now we’re facing them and seeing them for WHAT THEY ACTUALLY ARE.

That requires the fourth component of mastering anxiety – good self-care.

Self-Care

I have lots to say HERE about the basics of good self-care, but it all comes down to providing yourself with the energy and reserves to do this work as effectively as possible. It isn’t complicated – but it is essential.

Basics 2

It looks like this:

Some sort of regular physical movement (yes, the dreaded exercise)
Eating decently (not perfectly, but decently)
Getting the best sleep you can
Making your needs at LEAST as important as the people around you – i.e., learning to draw healthy boundaries

This is more challenging than it might first appear for most anxiety fighters. Anxiety is such an energy suck over time. It tempts us to inactivity and motionless – “freezing” in place. It often leads to various forms of self-medication – including eating junk and overeating. It can wreak havoc on sleep – after all, we’re very busy trying to solve problems as if they were life-and-death crises – how the hell are we supposed to sleep?

And perhaps most insidious of all is what 99% of anxiety fighters learned to do – put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. We don’t know how to draw healthy boundaries in our life. We don’t know how to ask for (and, in some cases, insist on) what we need, even if someone else might be annoyed or a little put out by us getting what we need.

This is by itself a set of skills and we won’t get there overnight. But even baby steps in this direction can make a significant difference in our ability to take on and unpack our fearful what if thinking. Walking every day can be a game changer. Cutting out the extra dessert we think we need to stay rational can have an immediate impact on how we feel (and sleep.) Slowing down at night, setting a regular bedtime, reading or practicing breathing exercises before bedtime, these things can begin to improve the quality of our sleeptime.

Think of this as the most basic self-support we c an do to have the energy and focus we need to take on and break the hold of anxiety.

Simple isn’t the same thing as Easy – but this is work any of us can do

Basics 5

This is, in a nutshell, how we get anxious, and what we can do about anxiety. We can (and usually do) make it more complicated, unfortunately. 🙂 We fight to avoid the sensations and emotions that Flight or Fight generate – they’ve scared us for so long we have a hard time letting them come and practicing seeing them for what they are.

We fall back into the habit of treating this or that problem as a great hairy crisis. Sure we do – we’ve been doing it a long time. We continue to take crappy care of ourselves – including not treating ourselves with respect when it comes to our limits and boundaries. Sure we do. It’s scary to draw boundaries when you’re fighting chronic anxiety.

But the work is the work. The way out is the way out. It is work any of us can do. It isn’t like falling off a log easy – but it is completely within our reach.

Basics 7

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

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

What we need to shut down Self-Hate

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

Recognition
Blocking
Surrendering Special Status

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

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

Self-Kindness 2

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Kindness 3

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

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

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

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

(Any of these people sound familiar?)

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

Blocking

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

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

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

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

Self-Kindness 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Special Status isn’t so Special

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

Self-Kindness 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Kindness 6

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

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

We need to have Compassion for Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my last post I outlined some but not all of the ways we can bring anxiety and pain into our lives by practicing what T.I. Rubin calls self-hate. We bounced through self-derision, vindictive self-criticism and even depression all being forms of direct self-hate. Today’s post will finish that discussion of direct self-hate.

Please remember that the primary goal of that last post and today’s effort as being the raising of our self-awareness that we are practicing these destructive, anything-but-useful behaviors and kinds of thinking – so we can take action to disrupt them, stop doing them to ourselves.

Psychosomatic Illness

This is a tough one, and it’s tough for multiple reasons. At the same time it sheds some pretty interesting light on the whole experience of self-hating.

Self-Hate 20

One reason this is challenging is that we live in a culture that has almost completely divorced the influence of the brain over the body. We carry a belief that says bodies are these wacky automatic machines that charge through the day, merrily doing whatever they are going to do, while the brain is sort of a helpless passenger on this wild ride, largely just trying to grab the steering wheel and semi-direct our course.

But this belief has a lot of holes. One piece of evidence for the power of the brain with the body is the Placebo Effect. A shipload of studies have shown just how amazing our thinking can be in regards to our body. Told that we are taking aspirin, for example, we will experience a decrease in pain – even if we have only taken a sugar pill.

And is there a person walking the planet who hasn’t started worrying about this pain or that ache and things have gotten worse, more painful – until we’re distracted by something else and realize later our pain has faded or vanished? Hmmm. Isn’t THAT interesting…

The brain has enormous influence over our physical and emotional reactions. We can and do inflict ourselves with a range of conditions, and we do it very often as a way to punish ourselves – i.e., to hate ourselves. That sounds weird to a lot of people. Why would we do that?

Well, for one reason it’s legal to have a PHYSICAL problem, right? If we’re having a real illness then we can’t be held responsible for having to live our lives, face our deepest fears, or even be held accountable for being honest about what we want and how we feel, right?

Self-Hate 21

Psychosomatic conditions are not to be treated lightly. They also often shield us from ourselves – i.e., from our own energetic self-hate. If we confront them carelessly we risk a pretty fierce backlash. We need to understand (often with a little therapist assistance) that it is self-hate that is the problem – and that we have to address and deal with that self-hate, not run away from it, dismiss it or pretend it isn’t an issue in our thinking.

Destructive self-medication practices (i.e., alcoholism, drug abuse, over-eating, etc.)

I’ve written a whole post HERE on this topic, but for the purposes of this blog post let’s simply say this: if we’re drinking enough to get hammered every day, or desperately struggling to find the next fix in our drug habit, or eating ourselves into a size 40, or spending all our free cash buying stuff we don’t need, we’re in the grip of chronic self-hate.

Whole organizations have grown up around the effort to help people break free of chemical or other forms of dependency (and thank goodness – they have helped a lot of people find their way out of the most destructive effects of dependency.) In some respects it might be said that it’s easier to see self-hate when it is this apparent/obvious.

At the same time it isn’t like we’re simply trying to self-destruct. We are desperately trying to GET AWAY from our fears – and the medications we are drawn to give us some relief, some shielding from those fears. Never mind that those medications are also wreaking havoc in our lives – and that those medications are, whatever their relief, terribly self-hating.

And, like tackling psychosomatic illnesses, we can’t just rip away our self-medication – not without some tools and support to help us get to the real issues. And of course we’ll fight like hell to KEEP our medications close at hand, often only looking for help when things become so obviously destructive that we can’t hide from ourselves, our fears and our self-hatred any longer.

Self-Hate 23

The bottom-line is we need to SEE that self-medicating like this is a signal of self-hate. We are comforting our fears – no question – but in that comforting we’re also destroying ourselves.

Constant review of Personal Failures/Mistakes, excessive Self-guilt

There’s no question that it’s useful to look at the errors, mistakes and failures we’ve experienced. Learning is spotty if we don’t gather any information or lessons from such experiences. But this isn’t what Rubin is talking about when he discusses constantly reviewing and rehashing those experiences.

This is really self-punishment. This is the internalized voice of the people who, with mostly the best intentions, tried to teach us to toe the line, get it right, make it work.

In this case however they over-shot the mark! The result is that we developed this massive internal self-critic, a voice that never seems to sleep, but which is always berating us, beating us up for this flub or that mistake.

As in other forms of self-hate/self-abuse we often don’t even see this AS bad. We think we NEED this angry, stern internal critic to keep us on track, getting to the standards that we think are absolutely vital for our self-preservation. We don’t.

We don’t need to revisit and review our past errors and mistakes over and over again. If we’ve taken a little time to glean from those experiences whatever might be useful moving forward – that’s great. If we’ve had a moment or two to shake our heads, ruefully grin at the heavens and promise ourselves we’ll do better/be smarter next time, wonderful.

But an obsessive focus with past failures, not measuring up to our insane standards and then kicking ourselves again and again, only leaves us trapped IN the past – not living in the present. And to live in the present is a crucial component of compassion to ourselves.

Self-Hate 24

Let’s say that again: compassion is practiced in part by living in the present. As a very wise friend of mine is fond of saying, “we have to give up hope for a better yesterday.” That line always makes me smile because it, at least for me, points out the absurdity of trying to make the past any better by reviewing, rehashing and regretting what has come before today.

And there is another reason we need to get our head out of the past. I say this in a lot in various ways in this blog, but there is a basic truth in the notion that the things we say to ourselves, including the things we say about ourselves to ourselves, has a profound influence on how we then BELIEVE what and who we are.

If I call myself a failure often enough I’ll start believing that I’m a failure. If I call myself a fool for missed opportunities or mistakes then guess what? I’ll have a story running in the background of my thinking that will whisper (or shout) fool to me.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, is an unqualified failure or fool. Nobody is just one ANYTHING. We are a mix of successes and failures, mistakes and glorious triumphs.

But anxiety, if we’re not careful, will have us reviewing and reliving our errors and our low spots, and we wind up seeing ONLY those times in our lives. Flag on the field! The only real way we can actually wind up failing in our lives is if we don’t get our head out of the past and into the present – as well as what we want to craft for our future.

Self-Hate 25

Creation of Destructive Relationships

This really warrants an entire blog post of its own. As a bona fide creator of destructive relationships in the past I can say with authority that it is fiercely self-hating to summon and sustain relationships that bring us down, make us feel like crap about ourselves or are involved with people that take shameless advantage of us – our resources, including time, and which damage our perception of ourselves.

We of course need healthy feedback from the people that matter to us – the people closest to us, who see us and know us. That’s also a part of learning and growth. But healthy feedback is a very different thing from people that trash us, constantly criticize us, dismiss our successes and play up our failures, make us doubt ourselves, question our motives and dismiss the things we want and need in our lives.

You don’t have any experience with people like that, right? 🙂 Here’s an interesting thought: these people are often (usually?) a manifestation of the things we’re already telling ourselves. In other words these people are just saying the things we’re already saying to ourselves.

And this is likely the reason we’re keeping them around! We already think we’re crap, failures, awful people – and these people are only too happy to support that terrible, self-hating story about us. Yeah, I’m saying that we at some level seek these people out because they feed that ugly (and untrue) story about us.

Self-Hate 22

That’s self-hate. Nothing else to call it. Not useful. In fact it’s pretty destructive (as I’m guessing you already know.) Compassion for ourselves means shutting these relationships DOWN. Scary, I know. Often we think that we don’t deserve any better than the people we already have in our lives – or that if we ditch these life leeches we’ll never find other people that are willing to hang with us.

That’s crap too. By clearing the decks of the people that would bring us down and feed our self-hating stories we take an immediate and self-caring step in the right direction – several steps, in fact. Yes, anxiety and self-hating stories will power up and shout oh my Gosh don’t do this! You’ll be alone! Nobody will ever want to be around you! And besides, they’re just telling you the truth!

No. None of that is true. We’re not terrible people. We’re not failures. We’re people feeding ourselves an old and damaging story about how much we suck. Time to change the music – and get some new musicians.

Self-hating because we are self-hating!

I hope I don’t have to say much here – I hope that it’s obvious that abusing ourselves because we’re self-abusive is clearly less than useful. 🙂 Except I know from my own experience that self-hate and fear can make this possible.

Calling ourselves and idiot for “being an idiot” is a bad idea. Cursing at ourselves for cursing – not so helpful. Despising ourselves for being self-hating only feeds the hamster wheel of self-rage and self-abuse.

So what to do? Time to start fighting our way off that hamster wheel. That isn’t a bad metaphor, by the way. Hamsters on wheels FEEL like they’re doing something – going someplace. But they’re going exactly nowhere – and they’re in a cage to boot.

Self-hate is a classic hamster wheel. It FEELS like we’re being self-corrective, self-disciplining, but all we’re doing is giving ourselves fresh, painful bruises – or worse, open wounds.

Get clear on this: ANY move towards self-compassion is a good one. Small moves are good, bigger moves are better, but any movement is the right thing to do. So, for instance, if you catch yourself in a tirade that you’re directing at yourself, STOP. Don’t apologize to your little internal critic. Don’t start a new tirade about how stupid you are for doing self-abuse. Just, simply, practice stopping.

It won’t be that easy, of course. 5 minutes (or 1 minute) later you’ll be at it again, trashing yourself for being so stupid, or so stubborn, or so ugly, or so weak, or whatever you’re weapon of choice is in that moment.

Self-Hate 26

So stop again. And again. And while you’re stopping you can do something else. You can start a new and scary thought – that you’re alright. You’re in fact just an ordinary mortal, just regular human being, a mix of weaknesses and strengths, a blend of failures and successes.

Oh, of course, self-hate will just LOVE that, and start summoning all kinds of examples about what a true and utter loser you are. And when you see that happening, stop again. And again. Quietly and steadily demand that you’re not going to listen to that bullshit (pardon my French) any longer.

It will not go quietly. We started this junk because we were trying to get along, follow the rules, BE SAFE. It will stir up anxiety, no question. But we’ve been running long enough, yes?

As I’ve said in my last post we will need to summon the help and support we can – online support groups and friends, local family and loved ones, therapists, anyone and everyone we can muster to our cause.

Because stop this we must. In my next post I’m going to discuss a little about indirect forms of self-hate – the ways we trash ourselves, hurt ourselves, but which are not as obvious or immediately clear as the forms of direct self-hate I’ve been discussing.

In the meantime, try practicing some compassion towards yourself. Expect a lot of pushback. That’s OK. It’s about time somebody was very, very kind to you.

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Hate 1

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

We start out loving ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Hate 2

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

The Monkeywrench in the Works

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

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

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

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

Self-Hate 5

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

An Example based on Chocolate Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Hate 4

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

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

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

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

What Starts to Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Hate 6

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

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

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

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

How we think when we develop anxiety

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

Reinvent 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinvent 3

How that thinking derails us

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

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

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

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

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

Reinvent 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinvent 6

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

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

We’re forced to rethink how we think

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

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

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

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

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

Reinvent 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are compelled to recreate/reinvent ourselves

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

Reinvent 7

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of Conflict is Just one Example

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

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

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

Join 601 other followers

Archives

Categories