I have struggled with anxiety long before I knew what to call it. As a child anxiety haunted me often, like when I knew some happy time was about to end, and the return of that lost, lonely feeling loomed around the corner.
As an adolescent, it came in the form of anxious thoughts & feelings about my body and my appearance that were really just projections of a deep sense of insecurity.
As an adult, anxiety can come for me in the form of worrying about to-do lists, burning the candle at both ends or wrestling with my internal critic – all in an effort to escape from feeling ungrounded, not good enough or out of control.
And now there is this pandemic, which triggers anxiety in all of us. On top of whatever else you deal with personally, there is this new fear of the illness, of loved ones dying, of loneliness, or the fear of lack in the form of a vulnerable personal economy or a vulnerable global economy.
What are we to do with all of this?
What I have learned over the years to do with anxiety is to quit treating it like that friend you are embarrassed by. Quit thinking that anxiety is the enemy. Quit misunderstanding the purpose of anxiety. Learn that anxiety is not the problem. In fact, anxiety is actually an introduction to the solution.
As a counselor, I teach people that anxiety is a protective coping mechanism. Its purpose is to protect us from some more vulnerable overwhelming emotion that we have experienced in our lives and never learned how to process or heal.
Rather than ignore or run away from our anxiety, we need to befriend it. That’s right! Treat it like a friend. Invite it to come into the home of your psyche. Sit down with Anxiety and have a conversation with it. Ask it to show you what it is anxious about. Listen to what is it afraid of.
Typical emotions that Anxiety protects us from are rejection, abandonment, loneliness, shame, feeling less than or not good enough, powerlessness and feeling out of control. Out of fear, we exile these emotions, leaving Anxiety in the role of chronic distractor working to shield us from that which lies underneath.
As a culture, we have long misunderstood the purpose of Anxiety. Anxiety does not have to be a distractor. Its true purpose is it to be a way-shower. When treated like a friend, Anxiety points us toward what really needs attention in our psyche. Like a protective older sibling, Anxiety calls for mom or dad to come help and points them toward the vulnerable little brother or sister who is hurting and needs some help.
Our job is to listen to Anxiety. Let it show us where the vulnerable places are so that we can give them the help and attention they need. Once you identify what the real issue is, the solution requires a few easy tools –
a little quiet time,
some internal listening skills,
a whole bunch of love
and a willingness to lean into a slightly higher thought pattern and feeling pattern
For me, the feeling that Anxiety is often trying to get help for is a sense of not being good enough. When I know this is what is being triggered, I slow down and have an internal conversation with the feeling of not good enough. I ask it to show me all about feeling that way and listen to the story, whatever it is - without judgement and without an agenda to shut it down or make it better.
It doesn’t matter what comes up when you listen. The goal is to just listen with compassion and allow room for the story to be heard and felt, like a parent listens to a child when they are hurting. The story of our feelings needs to come up and out to be processed. If we are always trying to shut down our feelings, we can't process them. Thus, we never truly heal.
Often, we find that our story has some string of untruth running through it. By listening, we are able to sort out the truth from the untruth embedded within our feelings.
For example, when I do this for myself, I listen to all the ways I feel not good enough. I ask how I came to believe those things and hear the story of those experiences. Then, I gently question the feelings inside to see if the belief I hold is really true. Most of the time, it is easy to see that the belief I hold is not a complete picture. The truth is, while I may not be perfect, I absolutely have good in me – and that good is good enough for love, good enough for continued growth and change, and good enough to thrive. The final step is to reflect back with compassion a more accurate picture of myself. Slowly, hopefully, the afraid parts inside begin seeing the ways I am good enough.
But maybe you can’t make the leap from not good enough to “I am absolutely good!” That’s ok. The goal is to negotiate small changes toward a higher, more positive thought pattern. As we shift our thoughts and perceptions along a more positive continuum, our emotions follow in a similar direction.
So - Anxiety is your friend. It is the internal way-shower that will not let you ignore the brokenness inside that longs for attention, connection and often correction. Once you know more about what needs attention, you can listen to the story and surrender to your feelings without judgement. Once understood, the vulnerabilities can fall into the healing arms of the Big Love inside you and around you and let a new, more accurate sense of self emerge.
With Big Love for you and your friend, Anxiety,