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(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

It would be nice to believe that we’ve all arrived at the same clear, simple, rational understanding of anxiety – why it happens, why it does what it does to us, and what we can do about it. But the truth is that for some people (lots and lots of people) the jury is still out. And that jury being out leaves way too many of us flailing in the dark when it comes to what we can and should do about anxiety.

I work with some wonderful people via Facebook on the subject of anxiety. Through them I have had access to a large (and I mean BIG) group of people who are all battling anxiety. As in hundreds of people. It’s great, even brilliant that we have the capacity these days to make contact with other anxiety fighters and find support – I sure as hell didn’t have any of that “back in the day.”

But what isn’t brilliant is the troubling amount of misinformation that is floating around out there, and perhaps especially in the world of the internet. Today’s post is about identifying and debunking some of the worst of that misinformation.

Why do this? Because anxiety is particularly good at making us give up, just stop trying, if we think that we are dealing with something that we can’t change. The inaccurate beliefs/assumptions I’m tackling today are especially insidious when it comes to getting us to give up – and that isn’t useful.

So, let’s tackle some less-than-useful thinking around what anxiety is…

Theory 1

Anxiety is Genetic

There are some people, doctors included, who are fond of the notion that anxiety is a genetic disorder or problem. I’m not 100% certain why they have come to this conclusion, but it’s wrong.

This isn’t to say that certain tendencies that can be influenced by genetics don’t potentially increase the possibility that we may wrestle with anxiety, under some conditions. It has been argued in some theories of anxiety that anxiety fighters have two specific traits – we’re smart and we’re a little more sensitive to stimuli that perhaps other people.

(Yeah, I said smart. As in intelligent. So far, in my experience, I have no evidence that contradicts this notion. I’ve never met a dumb anxiety fighter. In fact the opposite seems to be true – we are the ones who OVERTHINK things.)

Certainly both of those traits are influenced by genetics! But neither of these issues decides whether or not we’ll be anxious thinkers. No, it’s learned thinking that brings us to a place of chronic/ongoing anxiety.

Let me say that again: anxiety is a thinking problem. We are not BORN with our thinking tendencies. We learn them as we go along. We have the hardware – our brains. We have to acquire the software – our thinking patterns/assumptions/beliefs.

Theory 2

I drive this discussion so hard because some of us find it very easy to say “oh, well, I’m just an anxious person”, as if anxiety was a personality trait that we are given at birth. Not so. Also not useful. It’s too easy to default to giving up if you think you’re naturally doomed to anxiety.

Anxiety is mainly Biochemical – i.e, it’s a brain disorder

Another theory of anxiety is that there is something fundamentally wrong with one or more of our neurotransmitters, with the usual suspect being Serotonin. Certainly Serotonin is impacted by a number of variables, and there is definitely evidence that says that reduced Serotonin levels are found in people who are dealing with chronic anxiety.

But this only begs the question: which comes first – reduced Serotonin levels or anxious thinking? I am no neurologist. But I can say with a lot of confidence that there is good evidence that chronic anxious thinking (and the resulting Flight or Fight reactions in our bodies and brains) can impact Serotonin levels – specifically, slowly reducing them over time, leaving us with lowered thresholds to stimuli – and thus more prone to Flight or Fight firing up.

This means that if we begin to tackle that anxious thinking, reducing the tendencies to generate “what if” thoughts and the resulting fright responses, we can take Serotonin levels in the opposite direction. Once anxious, always anxious (i.e., we can manage anxiety, but we can never be free of chronic anxiety) simply isn’t true.

Theory 3

I’m not saying it doesn’t FEEL that way. Part of this belief, I suspect, stems from how little we understand our anxious thinking – how dense and quick it can be in the background of our thinking. We’ve been fighting it for years and decades, we’ve tried different things – desensitization, medications, meditation, etc. – but because we didn’t understand this fundamental truth of anxiety – that it is based in anxious thinking – nothing changed for us.

Don’t take my word for ANY of this, btw. Everything I advocate in this work of breaking the hold of anxious thinking is MEANT to be road-tested.

Medication is the only real/workable way to Manage Anxiety

This is a whole conversation by itself, this discussion of the role of meds in dealing with anxiety (see my blog post HERE for some more on this subject.) There’s no question that meds can be, used correctly, a tool that can assist us in this fight.

Meds can, for some people, ease the impact of Flight or Fight reactions to our anxious thinking. Flight or Fight is so scary for the vast majority of us, and in easing that roar of sensations and feelings we can get some better clarity in our thinking.

Theory 4

Unfortunately many of us stop there. And it makes perfect sense. We think “hey, I feel better, why should I keep wrestling with this crap? I just want my life back anyway.” So we don’t do the hard and messy work of cleaning up our thinking –

Which leaves us managing our anxiety with medication. Of course we’re not really managing anything – we’re just keeping the worst of the symptoms at bay. That’s legal – but it isn’t taking us out of chronic anxious thinking.

It isn’t a long journey from this behavior to “I’ve GOT to have meds to manage my anxiety.” Worse, too many people, not understanding the real source of anxiety in the first place, stop at whatever relief they get from their meds – and then live in terror of the day when their meds don’t work, or they are cut off from those meds. Ugh.

Medications CAN’T end anxiety for us. They can give us breathing space. They can help us think a little more clearly to do the work of sorting out and ending chronic anxious thinking. But they can’t, by themselves, change that thinking.

It’s all in our Heads…

No, that doesn’t mean we’re making up anxiety because we’re crazy, lazy or just sad little people. Anxiety is a thinking disorder. And that’s actually a pretty great way to put it – thinking disorder. Because our thinking is out of order when it comes to how we’re framing our world and how we roll in that world.

We’re not “anxious people.” This isn’t a character trait – or flaw. We’re not neurologically damaged, thank you very much. Yeah, neuro-transmitters are impacted by chronic anxious thinking – and we are still free to clean up that thinking. And while it would be great if there really was a pill to take that would make anxious thinking stop, at the moment no such creature exists.

Anxiety is learned. And as I’ve written here before, anything we can learn, we can unlearn – and more importantly, learn differently.

Keep It Simple sign with a beach on background

Although it is nowhere near Halloween I thought I’d tell you a scary story today. Well, not really scary, but a wanna-be scary story. I had an old ghost come visit me last night. He drops by every now and then, and every time he shows up I find myself irritated and grateful, all at the same time. I’ve known him since the middle of the 8th grade, and he used to scare the crap out of me. Now the best he can do is wake me up (sometimes), and occasionally startle me for a few moments.

The ghost I’m talking about is the memory of my days battling anxiety. It is probably more accurate to say it is a small handful of ghosts – a group of ghosts, if you will – that rise from memory when I’m tired, or not feeling well, or just out of sorts with the day and with my life at that moment.

At the heart of those ghosts of anxiety is old thinking, thinking that used to dominate my life and mess with my health and happiness. And as I said, those ghosts can both piss me off and make me glad they came by. Why make me glad?

Ghost Conversations

Ghost 1

We think a LOT of thoughts as we make our way through our day. We’re not conscious of a significant number of them, which seems weird, but is true. Some of those thoughts are no big deal – hey, it’s raining, I wonder what that dog is looking at, did I put the milk in the fridge? Nothing earth-shaking. Some thoughts make us laugh – memories of a conversation, reactions to a TV show, thinking about the Halloween costume you want to wear this year.

Some thoughts bring stronger reactions – remembering an argument with a co-worker, thinking on a friendship that took damage from both sides and that you miss, regret for a missed opportunity. And some of THOSE kinds of thoughts have the potential to make us anxious if they get us worrying about what might happen to us at some point in the future.

I’ve said a number of times in this blog that we don’t have to be conscious of our thinking for our thinking to impact us. And that’s exactly what happens in the dead of the night when I wake up and find my old ghost “friends” visiting me.

The ghosts have a pretty repetitive routine when they come to visit. They like to start with a general sense of unease and annoyance. I spent so many years being afraid to wake up in the middle of the night (for fear that I would feel anxious and not be able to go back to sleep) that just them dropping by is enough to, even now, start that first few thoughts of worry. What if I can’t go back to sleep? What if this goes on for a couple of nights in a row?

Ghost 2

99% of the time these days, I can shut that thinking down pretty quickly. (I’ll describe how a little later on in this post.) But some nights (maybe 4-5 in the last 10 years) the ghosts don’t give up so easily…

Memories of Fear

Because some nights the ghosts get a little more traction in my thinking. Maybe it’s a winter night (when I was most anxious, back in the day – hated the dark and the cold combined.) Maybe it’s after a long day and I’m a little stressed over a presentation or work the next day.

Whatever the reason my future worries get a little stronger. What if anxiety gets ahold of my life again? What if I can’t manage the physical reactions to Flight or Fight the way I have been, and I’m constantly twitching in response to those reactions (in my case, dizziness and numbness in my hands and fingers, and sometimes nausea in some form – hated that too, back in the day.)

Because I remember how it used to be, even though my last panic attack was in the summer of 1995, and my last real struggle of any duration with the fear of that stuff returning was the winter of 2001 – no panic, no chronic worry, just some sleepless nights and some tedious Flight or Fight harassment. When it is 3 in the morning the ghosts start that nonsense with me, and at 3 in the morning I’m sometimes vulnerable to their whispers…

Ghost 4

Why? Because in remembering how it used to be, at 3 in the morning, my shields are down, my brain isn’t working very well at that hour, and the old reflexes (trained by years, decades of anxiety) try to fire up once again.

And what tries to get lodged in my thinking (aided by the whispers of those ghostly memories) is that this won’t stop. The numbness, the sadness, the dizziness, the worry, will somehow go on forever. It won’t ever stop, my life will be miserable, won’t that be terrible…

You know the litany, don’t you?

In case you’re worried this ghost story has a scary ending, don’t worry – it doesn’t. I know how to get rid of ghosts.

Begone Old Ghosts!

Isn’t it interesting in all the ghost stories how ghosts are afraid of light? Something that is supposed to be so scary at 3 in the morning can be threatened by the coming of morning? It is the same with our fearful thinking and our fearful reactions to the Flight or Fight responses to that thinking. Those ghosts can be banished by the light of clear, useful thinking…

Fear only comes in the night when I start to think that something awful or terrible will happen to me. Anxiety starts to gain ground in my thinking when I start projecting this anxious moment into the future, imagining it going on and on, never getting better, always being like it feels right now.

Except of course it never did that – even back in the difficult, exhausting days of my chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Nothing lasts forever, and that’s good news in this conversation. Let me say it again: NOTHING lasts forever – including anxiety, fear and worry.

Ghost 5

It gets better: ALL that can sustain even recurring anxiety is our feeding our anxious thinking, constantly moving into the future, worrying about what could be, how bad things could turn out. If we are steadily, patiently working to get out of crisis thinking, if we practice refusing to live in the future (and it takes practice, practice and time) then it is impossible to sustain anxiety.

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind in this conversation about anxiety. The first is that we NEED to capacity to be anxious. That’s part of that Flight or Fight Mechanism that keeps us safe in the presence of actual, real danger. So the potential for regular, healthy anxiety is a tool that we actually want in our toolbelts.

In other words yes, anxiety is actually good for us – in the proper context. And, really, it isn’t anxiety in this case – it’s simple fear in the presence of real danger, along with the capacity to DEAL with that danger to the best of our ability when we’re confronted with real, physical, right-now danger.

The second thing to keep in mind is that sometimes anxiety (fear of the future) can trigger good, thoughtful, useful action in the face of things seeming overwhelming or too much in the moment we’re anxious. Yeah – sometimes anxiety is a stimulus to action, useful, needed action.

In a sense anxiety can be a guardian, a watcher on the walls, reminding us that we might need to do some preparing, or some thinking, or take some action in the near future. Both of these contexts are anxiety doing the job is supposed to do.

What WE, us chronic anxiety fighters, fight or have fought, is anxiety RULING our lives – because our what if thinking is ruling our lives. Not so useful. The ghosts of what if rattling chains and moaning at us about the terrible future are just that – ghosts, haunting thoughts. And ghosts are not very fond of the light. We are no more a prisoner of them than we are of any insubstantial thing – if we develop the skills of turning crisis in our thinking back into problems. Begone, old ghosts…

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We don’t have to fear the Night

Or, really, any other time. The heart and soul of anxiety is fearful thinking about the future, thinking that’s been habituated and put on a loop in our brains. However scared we feel, however hard it seems, we are always able to start building and strengthening skills to take control of that thinking and, over time, diminish and finally shut it down.

And that’s when we start smiling at the ghosts – when we stop being afraid of them, and instead start shaking our heads at their chains and moaning.

There are a LOT of people offering counsel and advice on how to overcome anxiety these days. Hardly a surprise – there are a LOT of people dealing with anxiety in the world.

Just look at the ads on TV for anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications! Holy crap! Then cruise through Facebook or on the web in general for all the groups that people can join to talk about anxiety and depression.

When you get enough of that wander into your local bookstore. Dozens of books on this anxiety stuff there. When you get done with that go on Amazon and see how many MORE books there are for you to read and study.

Of course there are scads of therapists (such a good idea in our fight to break anxiety’s hold.) And your doctor stands ready to prescribe some of those medications I mentioned above. Books, doctors, medications, therapists, groups – there is a lot in the anti-anxiety arsenal these days – more than any other time in human history.

The quality of that advice and help varies of course, and there are some goofy/less-than-useful notions about anxiety’s origins and permanence that can get in the way, but in general we have some good stuff floating around. One thing, however, sometimes goes missing in our thinking about how to get free of chronic anxiety and depression.

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We have to do the work. We have to wade into our fears (more specifically our fearful thinking) and pin them down. We have to identify the thinking that is scaring us, see it for what it is – crisis thinking about something that is not an immediate crisis – and start wrenching it out of crisis status in our thinking.

We get to do all that while we deal with the firestorm of Flight or Fight activating as our fears get tackled. UGH. It’s a kind of one-two punch – not only do we have to get down and dirty with our fears, we have to deal with our reactions to our fears.

This is work any of us can do. I say that over and over again in this blog. And while the information, advice, counsel and support is vitally important, at the end of the day we have to get down to the work. Today’s post is about getting as clear as possible on what is required of us to make this work WORK.

Step 1: Wade in

Anxiety is a crafty son-of-a-gun. It doesn’t usually care if you’re talking about doing something about your fears – as long as it just STAYS talk. Yak all you like, anxiety says, as long as you don’t actually start doing anything serious about your fears.

That’s a metaphor, of course. Our anxiety isn’t a living creature inside of us. 🙂 A more accurate description is that we’ve walled our fears away, and we can hear the growling and howling of our fears over that wall – and it scares us.

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It FEELS safer to leave those fears locked up behind that wall in our minds. The howling and growling never really go away, of course, but if we make enough noise, stay busy enough, we come to believe that we can live with the racket.

In fact we do what we can to run away from our fears. It isn’t because we are weak or chicken – it’s because our fears seem so huge, so impossible to deal with, that it just makes sense to run as far as we can from them.

This works – often for a long time. It works in the sense that we succeed in mostly keeping our fears out of our daily lives – or at least we don’t see significant impact from our fears. If we find a medication that helps shut down Flight or Fight – as most of the anti-anxiety drugs do – then it’s even easier to keep away from our fearful thoughts, stay away from that wall and the howling.

But for most of us, sooner or later, we find our fears getting bigger and our capacity to run shrinking. It’s (again with a metaphor) almost like those fears are breeding there, behind the wall – making more and more things for us to fear.

We often try to keep running. It’s worked before, right? We might increase our meds – and that can work for a while too. We get busier. We do whatever we can to keep our fears at arm’s length (preferably further.) But if you’re reading this blog it’s pretty likely that your capacity for running or avoiding has reached a limit.

Here’s the weird news: that’s good. It doesn’t feel good – it feels terrible – but it is still good news. It means it is time to wade in, bust a hole in that wall between you and your fears. It comes down to either dealing decisively with our fearful thinking or continuing to live with what has become, over time, chronic anxiety.

Step 1: wading in. That’s where it all begins. It may be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And it is the absolutely vital step in the right direction. What does wading look like? It is turning to identify and unpack our fearful thinking, seeing it for what it is, and keeping at that unpacking until our fears become what they really are – problems.

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes - moving concept

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes – moving concept

Step 2: Unpack our Fears

Here’s the core of the work. We have to identify how we’re scaring ourselves in our thinking. We have to get specific and we have to muck around in here long enough to get those specifics.

There’s no way around this – it’s scary. It’s scary for two reasons. The first is that we are treating these fears as crises. We think they are REALLY DANGEROUS, death-risky, literally, and it rocks our world to look at our fears face-on. The second reason is that we fire up Flight or Fight in our bodies when we confront these fears (hell, when we even seriously consider confronting these fears we can do that.)

I’ll get to Flight or Fight in a minute. But step 2 is as much as anything about sitting with our fears while recognizing that, however we feel and whatever we’re worried about, it’s all based in “what if” fears about what this COULD mean.

Let’s repeat that: our fearful thinking is all about what COULD happen. It might be 10 minutes from now in our thinking, or it might be next year, but it’s all about being afraid of the future. Flight or Fight reactions can muddy the water for us – it FEELS like it is about right now, this second – but being anxious by definition means we are afraid of something that COULD happen at some point in the future.

That’s it. That’s the heart of it. I’m NOT saying it’s easy! That’s the principal reason I’m writing this post today. It’s scary and it’s hard.

It’s also the way we start to get free of our fears. As long as they stay in the shadows, behind the walls of our Comfort Zone, there isn’t much we can about them – and they will continue to scare us.

Part of what makes this so hard to start is that running WORKED – probably for a long time, longer than we are conscious of in our daily lives. We’ve gotten used to running as a way to deal with fear. But our fears have a way, sooner or later, of catching up with us.

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So let me encourage you to expect to be tempted to run – and to actually run – even if you want to stay and get your fears sorted out. It’s natural and normal.

The scariness of facing our fears (and what they seem to say about our future) often leads people to start this work again and again, only to back away. That can go on for years. That’s legal too. Sure, you’re not getting anyplace – but you’re also not a freak for not leaning in and finishing this in one titanic fight. 🙂

Lots of other people pump up their meds and manage their fears a while longer that way. NO shame in that. It’s easier, frankly. Doesn’t mean we’re actually dealing with and overcoming our fears, but we’re not bad people for taking this route!

To turn and deal with anxiety is to, for a while, actively disrupt and make something of a mess in our worlds. That can range from some mild disruption of schedules and activities to having to temporarily pulling back from most our lives to deal with these fears. That’s tedious, messy and brings its own fears of failure.

But this is the route that will get us actually over our fears. There are posts HERE, HERE and HERE that describe the basics of unpacking. The work isn’t complicated – just scary. (Sure, Erik, JUST scary. Easy for you to say! Don’t think I don’t remember how scared I was when I started this work, and for the first months after that start.)

There’s another reason this freaks us out – we have to

3) Contend with Flight or Fight yelling at us

The nano-second we get serious about facing down our fears Flight or Fight jumps up and starts getting in our face. We’ve been telling it for most of our lives that this or that fear is too terrible to examine, and now suddenly we’re wading in.

Flight or Fight is a big piece of why facing our fears is scary. It’s bad enough that our fearful thinking has us up in the hypothetical future contemplating disaster – Flight or Fight then begins screaming at us, making our bodies and emotions seemingly freak out. It is of course just doing its job – trying to get us to safety – but we’re not running from actual, right-now danger – so it isn’t helping much. Or at all.

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We come to link all kinds of theories to that freaking out. We are having a heart attack. We are going crazy. This feels awful. We’re going to die from these sensations and feelings. We must be defective or damaged or just weird. We build a whole second layer of fears around these sensations and feelings being generated by our frightened thinking.

So wading in means two things: facing down our scary thinking AND facing down our reactions to our reactions (to Flight or Fight.) It isn’t easy. It can be very challenging some days, and especially at the start of this work. We’re having to identify our fears and sort them out while riding this wave of feelings and sensations.

It’s hard to stay clear on the work when we get in this place. It’s one reason to do it in pieces, small bites, at the start, or anytime we’re getting overwhelmed. It’s like learning any skill, only this skill (more accurately, set of skills) is also SCARY.

Our thinking tends to degrade to some degree when we’re in this place. Flight or Fight isn’t big on lucid thinking – it’s only got one mission, get everyone to the life boats – and so it will take practice and patience to stay in our skins when we’re doing this work.

But that’s also part of what gets us smarter and stronger in dealing with our fears. When we can spend even a little time in that place, staring our fears in the eye and keeping Flight or Fight semi-clear in our thinking, we begin to see how much we’ve been running from thoughts, rather than actual danger.

BOTH skills are necessary – unpacking our fearful thinking back to problem thinking AND learning to see Flight or Fight for what it is.

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Let me be clear: this is hard work. Not impossible, not dangerous – but hard. A lifetime of training to RUN AWAY in one form or another is a hard habit to break when we’re as anxious and keyed up as we get when we wade into this work – or even seriously think about it.

What gets in the way?

Well, one thing that makes this work hard and frustrating is that it is slow going, at least some of the time. We start to identify and unpack fears, we start to get our arms around the smoke screen of reactions that is Flight or Fight – and then we seem to lose it all. It seems to all go right out the window.

Call those setbacks, or bumps in the road, or whatever you like, they are part of the learning curve. (More about those in my next blog post.) They are part of ANY learning curve, whether it’s a sport, a dance move, a course at school or learning to cook. They are part of us learning skills and mastering those skills.

The only difference is… we make those bumps into a crisis. 🙂 Oops. Oh well – we’re fighting anxiety, nothing very surprising there. We’ll learn from these times too. As I’ve argued in other places these are essential, actually, in our deeply learning our skills.

It isn’t particularly speedy work either. It takes TIME, and practice, and steady effort. None of us like that fact either – we’re SICK to death of anxiety and we want it gone NOW. Been there, did that. Doesn’t change that it takes the time it takes.

Something else that trips some of us up is how untroubled and carefree the rest of the world seems – at least from our viewpoint. It sucks that we’re fighting so hard and every else seems to be at recess – at least mentally and emotionally.

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Of course we don’t know where they are. We don’t know their struggles. And it doesn’t matter anyway! We are where WE are. We have the work we have in front of us. As I’ve said other places it’s perfectly OK to whine, bitch, kvetch, have a tantrum – do what works for you. But then get back to the work.

One Foot in front of the Other…

There are lots of famous quotes about how nothing of worth is free. I don’t know about that. If I won the lottery I’m pretty sure I’d be holding something of worth, at least financially. 🙂 But learning a skill, or set of skills (in this case, learning to think clearly and quickly and well about what’s a problem, what’s actually a crisis, how to manage Flight or Fight and how to dismantle the crap of anxious thinking) takes time and practice.

And the payoff is enormous. Take it from a guy who had all but shut out the world, living in an OK double-wide trailer in the crappy part of town, terrified to go outside, convinced he would never, ever have the life he wanted, enduring constant panic attacks and certain it would never get better.

I was wrong. These are skills I learned – and so can you. So take up the help, learn the information, get the therapist you need, retain that coach, rally your support in family and friends and folks online, join the group, whatever you need to make this work. And then lean in. Want some help from a veteran? Hit me here – happy to assist.

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

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

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

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

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

Compassion really means practicing love towards ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can feel scary to actually practice compassion for ourselves…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-love is harder than it Sounds

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

In my last post I started a discussion of Self-Love, a topic that most of us are in need of better information and skills. I reviewed there that while we are all born to be naturally self-loving we, too often, learn to instead practice terrible self-hating behaviors, all in the mistaken belief that it makes us better people.

It doesn’t. In fact it is really, really hard to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, in-the-present-moment human being if we are busily engaged in practicing self-hating behaviors. But what the heck does it actually mean to be self-hating?

I would argue that most of us would never describe ourselves as practicing self-hate. Even the phrase may come off as ridiculous or over the top, conjuring pictures of some poor soul whipping themselves with a cat-o-nine tails, or maybe wrapped up in a straight-jacket and howling in a padded room someplace…

But self-hate is much more subtle than these pictures conjure. Self-hate isn’t always (or even often) a screaming monster, coming at us with claws and fangs. Self-hate is death by a thousand cuts, the slow bleed that leaves us tired, defeated, hurt and wondering what the hell is wrong with us…

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Worst of all, self-hate is very fertile soil for chronic anxiety thinking and living.

It’s equally important to understand that the vast majority of this self-hating behavior is running automatically – out of our conscious thinking or awareness. This work is very much about getting conscious in the first place that we are involved in self-hating, self-downing practices, then doing something about those practices.

With that in mind let’s get clear on the range, nature and specifics of self-hate –

There are a Couple of Flavors of Self-Hate

Self-hate has really obvious ways of coming at us – what T.I. Rubin in his brilliant book “Compassion and Self-Hate” calls Direct Self-hate. Rubin defines self-hate in a general sense as “attacks on self, whatever form they take.”

He goes on to identify two broad categories of self-hating behavior – direct and indirect. Let’s start with direct, obvious self-hate. (And in fact that’s all we’ll get to today – there’s a lot to review just in direct self-hating habits.) Examples of direct self-hate include but are not limited to:

Self-Vindictive Criticism
On-going Depression
Being “accident prone”
Psychosomatic Illness
Destructive self-medication practices (i.e., alcoholism, drug abuse, over-eating, etc.)
Constant reviewing lists of personal failures/mistakes
Creation of destructive relationships
Excessive self-guilt
Self-hating because we are self-hating!

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If you’re anything like me and you’re reading the list I just created here then you’re probably both feeling your skin crawl (who wants to think that they’re doing any of this stuff?) and identifying where in the past you’ve gotten your self-hate on with one or more of these behaviors.

Maybe the most insidious, dangerous thing about self-hating habits is how COMMON it is, how ordinary and even OK it seems to many of us. We think of it as normal or even useful when all it’s actually doing is tearing us down, sapping our energy and hope and wreaking havoc on how we think, act and move through the world.

Take self-derision (the tendency to identify out loud or to ourselves qualities like stupidity, uselessness, inherent selfishness, etc.) We don’t even hear ourselves when we say “I’m such an idiot” or “I can’t get anything right” in talking about ourselves.

We wouldn’t talk this way (for the most part!) about someone we loved with language like this – and if we did we’d be skirting the edges of abuse with that person. Of course that doesn’t mean we didn’t grow up hearing things like this, both from people in our lives talking about themselves and/or directed towards us…

Humans make mistakes. Humans are on some occasions not as crafty, informed, educated or experienced as the situation might demand. That doesn’t equate to stupidity, uselessness or selfishness. But if we persist in such self-attacks we begin to create a belief that we ARE stupid, useless, etc. And that’s classic self-hating behavior.

Worse, it becomes part of the background roar of our thinking – semi-unconscious or unconscious assumptions of truth about who we are and what we’re capable of doing. And so the drumbeat of self-hatred beats on in our souls, but we don’t hear it, any more than we hear the fridge clicking on or the air conditioner running in the background…

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Self-Vindictive Criticism

Akin to self-derision is self-vindictive criticism. This is the voice of endless not measuring up to our own impossible, perfect standards, with the supposed goal of making us better or helping us perform to those standards. This is more about the specific thing we failed at than discussing something as an inherent quality we possess –

So, for instance, we have dinner for friends and we forget that someone at dinner doesn’t like peas. When they mention this by way of apology for not eating our carefully prepared peas we freak out on ourselves. “How could I have forgotten this?” we shout at ourselves in the kitchen (or even at the dinner table.) “How could I have made such a terrible mistake? I’ve really screwed this up! I’ve ruined dinner for all of us!”

Sound excessive or a little dramatic? It is both – and all in the service of self-punishment for making a perfectly normal, human mistake. Remember our discussion in the last blog post that we learn these behaviors in the service of learning to get along with other people? This internalized, savage self-critic didn’t start out abusing us because it was fun to do. It started because we learned (from other people) that this was necessary in order to get us to perform to crazy high standards of behavior –

So we could be acceptable, good enough in the eyes of those other people. Except that self-review with an eye to self-improvement is worlds away from savage self-criticism and self-derision.

Self-abuse like this tears us down, makes us doubt ourselves, saps vital energy in the fight to break anxiety’s hold in our thinking.

On-going Depression

It may seem weird, at first glance, to see on-going or long-term depression in a list of direct self-hating behaviors. I know it seemed that way to me. Rubin explains this in the following manner:

Depression is, in some respects, an effort to numb ourselves from ongoing pain and fear. That numbness is meant to protect us. But numbness is also a signal that we are running from long-term anxious thinking that is scaring us over and over again.

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And numbness also signals that we are NOT taking care of ourselves long-term. Short term numbness may be exactly what we need when we’re dealing with recent loss – the death of a loved one or the end of relationship. Nothing strange or dysfunctional about that.

But continuing to run from our world and the issues in it – that signals that we are in fact not taking care of ourselves. Of course depression is an extreme state – we really don’t FEEL like taking care of ourselves.

Yet that doesn’t take away from the truth that whether or not we FEEL like doing self-care, self-care is an act of self-love, and self-preservation. Which raises another issue: the notion that our feelings are somehow the arbiters of whether or not we should take action in taking care of ourselves! More about that later.

Depression isn’t just about not feeling like doing anything. Depression also always seems to be accompanied by terrible self-regard, almost a self-loathing. We’re not just bad, we’re terrible, we’re useless, there’s no point in us even walking the Earth anymore. We’re not just lonely – we deserve to be lonely, why would anyone love us anyway, etc.

If this kind of self-loathing, self-abuse isn’t self-hate, well, I don’t know what else it could be called.

OK. Enough with the list for now…

So how is this Horrible List of Self-Hating Behavior Supposed to help Me?

I’m glad you asked. 🙂 This list and detailed discussion of just SOME of the ways we practice self-hatred/self-abuse is all about helping us SEE what we’re doing to ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier a lot of us have come to believe that these self-hating behaviors are normal, even useful in keeping us “in the straight and narrow.” We’re wrong. It doesn’t help. It hurts, it does a lot of damage, and it is an enormous energy drain in the face of the already-impressive energy suck of ongoing anxiety. It’s getting in the way and actively slowing us down, even crippling us.

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We need to understand that we’re aggressively involved in our own self-hurt when we are caught up in any of the behavior listed in this blog post. That DOESN’T mean we should start a litany of how awful or stupid we are because we are doing these things. We didn’t set out to treat ourselves this way, and we won’t just stop on a dime.

Here’s what we can start doing (and we’ll discuss this more next blog post):

1) Start catching ourselves when we do verbal self-abuse – externally or internally. Even just becoming aware of this habit is a great first step.

2) STOP doing it when we catch ourselves doing it. This is harder than it sounds. Habits tend to be stubborn and persistent unless we practice new behaviors over time. We need to make an effort – really call into question the automatic tendency to harshly criticize ourselves, or even just default to depression’s logic when we understand that even baby steps towards self-care can make a difference.

3) GET HELP. So much of what self-hate and self-abuse are about is making sure we “get it right” or “measure up.” One of the most effective ways to disrupt that pattern of thinking and reacting is to, in a very real sense, come out of the closet – start acknowledging in a real and personal way your own humanity, your own less-than-perfectness. Scary, I know…

What kind of help? A therapist is a good place to start. Oh, yeah, and while you’re there, get really honest about some of this behavior. They can’t help what they don’t know about.

Next post – more about the nature of self-hate – and what we can do about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We start out loving ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monkeywrench in the Works

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

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

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

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

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

An Example based on Chocolate Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Starts to Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Temptation to Freeze – and stay Frozen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Climb out of the Freezer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So then what IS the right bias to action?

The Skinny on Not Freezing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Freezing

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

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

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

Comfort Zone 2

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