Last week, I spent the day with one of my nieces. Over lunch, she asked me if I had any advice for her, going into high school, or any advice when it came to dating. To the second question, I told her to just stay away from boys until the hormones calm down (HA HA), but at the very least, if you’re going to date, find someone who makes you laugh, is kind and honest, and who treats you well. Also, smart.
To the first question, my best advice was to focus on things that are important to her and make her feel good about life, and to do her best to let go of the need to be perfect. There is the potential for being paralyzed by fear of not being good at something on the first try, and so you just dismiss it as being “stupid” or whatever so you don’t have to risk looking foolish or not being perfect at it. I think this maybe runs in the family, or at the very least it’s just normal human behavior, and it’s taken me this long to get to a point where I place more value on having fun and living with abandon than I do on what others see or think of me.
I am still very much driven by a need to be seen as competent, having value, etc., and that certainly does get in the way of just trying things, or just DOING things that I want to try or do. I hold myself to impossibly high standards sometimes, which means I end up feeling like I have to do everything perfectly, I have to respond to work emails immediately or else people will feel like I’m failing them, and I judge my own behavior a whole lot more harshly than I think anyone else does – unless, of course they’re looking for things to judge me for. And in that case, who actually cares?
Anyway… that led me to thinking about anxiety. I’ve had my share of bouts with it, although thankfully the major occurrences have been relatively few and far between. The first time it was ever diagnosed was about 15 or so years ago, in the form of constant butterflies and feeling as though I had 7 different television channels – including some static – going on in my head at once, making it virtually impossible to focus. As best we could tell (we = my doctor and me), it was in direct response to the depression I’d been battling for several months. According to that particular doctor, sometimes your brain will try to “right” itself out of a depressed state by overcompensating which then turns into anxiety. So that’s nice.
During a recent appointment with Noelle TWT, I was telling her about all of the “project managing” I’d been doing in my head lately. And by that, I mean I was feeling the need to control EVERYTHING: perceptions, outcomes, behaviors, and managing everyone’s feelings, whether I actually knew what those feelings were or not. She had, as usual, a lot of great insight into that. First and foremost, that it’s what anxiety can look like. (Say what?) When your brain is on overdrive, ruminating or thinking about ALL THE THINGS, or causing you to feel as though you need to control other people… that’s anxiety. Of course, there are those other ways anxiety manifests: butterflies in the belly; inability to focus or concentrate; rapid heart rate; racing thoughts; and the inability to function normally or rationally until the panic subsides, because your amygdala has been activated and the rest of your brain has shut down. You know, fun stuff like that.
In thinking about all of that, I came to the very UN-scientific conclusion that there are, perhaps, two types of anxiety. One is the kind mentioned above, not necessarily caused by anything other than an imbalance in the brain; maybe exacerbated by external causes or conditions, but at some point your brain just decides to go off the rails and you’re left with the anxious feelings and thoughts and behaviors that seem completely inappropriate in response to the situations at hand. That’s the anxiety that sucks, and it lies to you about impending dangers, doom, your abilities as a human, the truth of situations… all of it.
But then, there’s another kind of anxiety: the kind that tells you the truth. It’s the kind that knows you’re in a bad situation, or you’re compromising yourself in some way, forcing an issue, trying to make something work that shouldn’t… you get the idea. The anxiety that comes from being and staying in that kind of bad situation is the GOOD kind of anxiety, if there is such a thing, because it’s telling you there’s something wrong, that something needs to change.
I get anxiety from eating too much sugar. My body is trying to tell me something when that happens: DON’T EAT SUGAR, DING DONG. Sadly, it also happens when I have cocktails, but it doesn’t show up until 3am (like, on the dot – it’s weird). But again, that’s just from my body having to process all the sugar, and the physiological response to that. Note to self: if a food or “spice” – in my case, excessive sugar or salt – makes your heart pound out of your chest, maybe DON’T EAT IT.
I also had significant relationship anxiety in the not too distant past. As it turns out, for good reason: when everything that comes out of a person’s mouth is a lie, an attempt to manipulate and/or gas-lighting in some form or fashion; when you can’t trust a thing they say or your place in their life; when the infidelity is so pervasive that they can’t even go to the bathroom without texting or messaging another woman; when controlling and managing everyone’s perceptions was like a full time job… it’s no wonder anxiety showed up to camp out on my doorstep. It wasn’t until it was over, and enough time and distance was inserted and I’d recovered that the anxiety went away. But that anxiety was trying to tell me something, you know?
SOMETHING IS WRONG HERE; GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.
There were other relationships, too, ones that didn’t last as long but that still brought about the belly butterflies, and I think a lot of that was just me pursuing people who weren’t good fits. Anxiety tried to tell me that, too. That I was with the wrong person, that I was compromising myself, that I wasn’t having any of my needs met. I just generally refused to listen, and wound up paying the price.
Notable and telling, then, that I haven’t had one moment of anxiety since meeting my future husband. (OMG, HUSBAND. Heehee!) So this is what it means to feel safe and cared for!
Back to Noelle. She posited that my need to project manage and control things was likely born of a life of having no reliable consistency. I think that makes sense. It’s safe to say that any of my overreactive behaviors are as a direct result of having little or no consistency or reliability growing up, and so I’m trying to exact that control over everything now. I’ve been a control freak for as long as I can remember, at least as it pertains to my own life, but I always chalked that up to being a perfectionist and not wanting to be responsible for anyone else’s poor showing. I realize now that it’s that, still, but a whole lot deeper, too.
I think feeling like you have to be perfect means you don’t feel like you’re good enough.
The other thing she mentioned was that she’d listened to a podcast where someone was talking about anxiety and how it helped to determine if the threat was external or internal. If the threat is external – oncoming car, being chased by lions, significant other with a personality disorder, etc. – then you know there is (hopefully) something to be done about the situation, whether by managing it or removing yourself from it, and the anxiety is a legit response to a legit threat that will (hopefully) go away. But if the threat is internal… there’s some work to do, and it starts with realizing you’re not in danger and that your feelings can’t hurt you, and then learning to sit with it while you attempt to pinpoint the trigger and where it’s all coming from.
She totally speaks my language. One of my biggest lessons over the last few years has been to just sit with discomfort rather than knee-jerk reacting to it, so I can get to the bottom of it all. Sitting through secondary reactive emotions to determine primary ones.
All of that to say, it was eye-opening for me to realize that what felt like “crazy” behavior was really just anxiety rearing its head. Understandable, too. Between the full time job that was the equivalent of three jobs while my boss was on maternity leave, starting graduate school and trying to keep up a successful pace, finally meeting someone good and having it be so important to me that everyone love him and see the good in him that I do (while letting down 40 years of defenses and choosing to be vulnerable to real love)… it was a lot. And it was no wonder I felt like I had to control things – I didn’t want to fail, because I didn’t want to lose any of it.
I think I’m finally relinquishing my kung-fu grip on stuff. School (at least, this rendition) is officially over, my promotion has me moved into ONE job which is the one I want, and things with the fella are just perfection. I still need to exercise and quit eating so much sugar. But at the end of it all, I’m grateful for ALL of the anxiety, because it’s shown, taught, and illustrated things that I might not have seen or learned otherwise.
Doesn’t mean I want it to come back or stick around, though. And that perfectionism can go screw, too.