The Usefulness of Anxiety

“I am literally freaking out right now.”

How often have you said that this month? This week? Today? Our anxiety can be situational (preparing for a presentation at work, an important date), it can be anticipatory (excitement over an upcoming vacation), or it can be a steady, ever-present buzz throughout your day that leaves you jittery and uncomfortable. The truth is, I think if you’re alive, you have an anxiety disorder.

I mean this to say that we ALL experience anxiety, every day. (And just FYI, by saying this I do not mean to minimize the overwhelming suffering of those who deal with severe, debilitating, relentless anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, and phobias.) But what I do want to point out is that anxiety greatly affects how we perceive ourselves. In sessions, I often sit with clients who speak about ongoing monologues in their minds–the disparaging voices of internalized critics. I imagine these voices, these inner critics, having a committee meeting about my client: pointing out all the ways she is coming up short, reminding him of all the past failures, and signing a review with a “Needs Improvement” box checked off.

This meeting of our Internalized Critic Bigwigs triggers profound anxiety in these clients. This makes sense: if your supervisor and your supervisor’s supervisor had a meeting about your performance at work, wouldn’t you be a little nervous about that? But the Meeting of Internalized Critics activates a second chatterbox in our heads: this new chatterbox spews out catastrophic scenarios and makes us doubt our ability to cope, take in new experiences, and generally handle life. This means that if you ever want to switch jobs, get your doctorate, or sign up for a ceramics class you will immediately counter this idea with a thousand reasons big and small why you shouldn’t try it and why you’re inadequate.

A vicious cycle ensues: Committee Meeting releases chatterbox; chatterbox creates a catastrophic scenario where you can never succeed; your imagined failure reports back to the Committee Meeting, which then says “I told you so,” and schedules the next meeting. In the face of anxiety (even and especially anxiety that we’re not super clear on), we tell ourselves the falsehood that we won’t be able to manage whatever this new challenge is. We pump the breaks on our life, and let fear stop us. The fear grows bigger, the Committee gains new members, our chatterbox gets louder; our inaction and avoidance of our own lives leaves us feeling hopeless and helpless.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Anxiety can be managed, and even (gasp!) made useful. Anxiety, at its heart, can turn our attention to our greatest task in life: becoming who we are. The inaction of anxiety keeps us from important, connected relationships with each other and our highest selves. And this is the root of most anxiety: the despair over not becoming who you are truly meant to be. If we can manage our anxiety, and take action instead of avoiding it or being scared of it, we become agents in our own lives. We move forward–we get that doctorate, ask out the woman at the coffee shop, or book our first solo art exhibit. And every time we take action in spite of our anxiety, our chatterbox lowers its volume and our Committee loses another member. Because, it turns out, they are powerless in the face of courage.

Ready to fire your committee meeting? Silence your chatterbox? Drop me a line; I’d love to help.