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

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

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

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

How we think when we develop anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How that thinking derails us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re forced to rethink how we think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are compelled to recreate/reinvent ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of Conflict is Just one Example

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

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

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