Thriving Through Anxiety
I think I often talk about thriving through anxiety because I understand its weight. I know the opposite first hand. It can be all consuming, painful and overwhelming. Buried under the idea that having anxiety indicates that there is something wrong with me, I feel alone, worried (ironic, I know), and defeated. Add some physiological components and I know there is something wrong. My chest tightens, I feel hot and I start to clench my jaw. Tension builds and climbs my neck until my head begins to pound. My breathing changes. Then everything feels dangerous. Defeated and tense; perfect start. Finally, there is this thing my mind does all by itself. Once there is one problem, my mind seems to forge ahead into everything else I can possibly imagine being a problem. My mind races into all sorts of potential issues, my body reacts and I suffer. As the meme says: I stress about stress causing me to stress.
Where is the thriving piece?
A few years ago I was introduced to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I started my research in ACT under the pretence of expanding my toolkit for work. I left having found the opportunity for healing created through a shift in things like perspective, awareness and willingness. ACT’s perspective on thriving is as follows: It’s hard to be human. Given that I have what I have, am I willing to have it? Here and now, in this time and place? And given those, still do what’s important to me? ACT calls these the three ideas pillars: Open, Aware and Engaged.
For me, the ironic part is that I went to my first ACT workshop in hopes of getting better at my job (and I did), but I keep going back again and again because these pillars, tenets, or ideas have given me the space to be me with some compassion for what it means to be human. It’s hard. They have also given me a place to fight for the life I want, one choice at a time. Here they are in my understanding….
Open. Am I willing to have what I have?
It’s hard to be human. This is an earth shattering and understated notion I was oblivious to. For so long, I bought into the idea that my experience was indicative that there was something inherently wrong with me. I was the problem. The feelings I had, the struggles, the experience, they were not only unique to me, but also a result of something that was wrong with me. Me; I was (am) the problem.
This left me in a fight against my own experience. When I felt sad, I assumed others didn’t. When I struggled, I assumed others didn’t. I began to fight to suppress my own thoughts and feelings. Anxiety would spike and I would work quickly to numb the feelings or escape the situations that created them. Slowly I ate (quite literally) many of my own feelings and experiences. And it worked.
It was a miraculous short term gain with grave long term loss. Still, in the moment, it gave me the power to control how I felt, so I mindlessly ate. When I was eating I felt good. Standing on the scale or putting on jeans was a different story.
Openness and Acceptance.
ACT’s idea of openness is around the idea of acceptance. Are you willing to have what you have (all those difficult thoughts and feelings) since you already do, and learn to hold them a little lighter – with some measure of compassion – rather than getting entangled in them? By not allowing my difficult emotions and thoughts to dictate my actions. And not trying to fight to not feel or think something. It means being kind to myself in the presence of my own struggle. ‘Held lighter’ means sitting in the middle between the desire to drown my emotions in a bag of cheesies or bottle of wine or run away. Sitting in the middle means allowing my emotions to come and go without judging them. I approach my own experience with a little more curiosity. In that place something brilliant happens.
I learn a little more about me.
I’ve learned the most amazing things about me sitting in the middle with a little openness and curiosity. I have learned what makes me me. When I am sad and don’t drown the feeling or run, there is a small nugget of truth revealed. I can tie my sadness to something that’s important to me. Anxiety pops up in the middle too. Anxiety screams, “STOP we have been here before, and we are here again.” It grabs our attention yelling, “You’re about to act like you did last time and that didn’t work out so well for us. Choose. Be careful.” See, we struggle where we value. If something causes pain, anxiety or hurts, it’s a measure of something deeply connected to who we are and what we want our lives to be about. That’s not what’s wrong with me. That’s what’s right about me. This belief requires a shift in perspective.
In the presence of these emotions, I shift into a place of openness. I want to feel. I want to learn. This feeling is my ammunition for tomorrow. If I am aware, feeling empowers me to know more about who I am and what I want my life to be about. If I am open, I begin to understand the things that are most uniquely me. They are measured in glimpses of happiness, pain, sorrow, regret and richness. They feed little nuances of unique information about who I am and how I want to act in the future. They empower me.
Awareness is twofold. One, it’s the ability to see ourselves as we actually are, rather than some construct or perception we have of ourselves. This is a major shift. We hold tightly to rules from our history. Rules formed to explain difficult situations become the reasons why we can’t or why we have to. We hold tight to these rules and they motivate us to behave. These actions usually exacerbate our own struggle and feed the rules. I call them tapes.
They tend to pop up in difficult moments and explain why what happened happened. “Nate, if you weren’t so stupid. Nate, that’s how fat people act. Nate, you need to realize that’s just the way you are.” NO! These tapes are echoes of my history; even measures of difficult moments, but I want to be careful not to let my perception of who I am become me.
This requires a little more willingness to examine the rules and explanations without acting on them. It requires me to be a little more engaged in being aware of what’s happening in the outside world rather than allowing an inside world to explain everything.
The second piece of awareness is really about where I am living. Anxiety drags the pain of the past into the present in anticipation of some horrible future. So much of this is who we are. We are either living in the past – regretting things we have done – or dreading what will happen in the future. In both measures we are failing to live. The past is done and the future is never attainable. The only place we can live is in the now. One single second at a time. I can’t tell you how freeing this has been for me. I am responsible for now. That’s it, that’s all. If there are measures of pain of the past or dread of the future, I tie them to what’s important and do the next thing I can in the service of those. Here and now.
So much of the previous two – openness and awareness – can, when we are off (i.e. closed and unaware,) leave us flailing endlessly in life without meaning and purpose. Engaged is about understanding what your values are and committing to goals in the service of those values.
Values aren’t achievable to completion, but rather more reflect qualities that we want our life to be about. Like authenticity, for example. Authenticity isn’t something I can buy, but rather something that is built. I am more authentic when I am honest. My goal then becomes building a more authentic life through action. The freeing thing I alluded to in the past paragraph is that this doesn’t have to be this huge or overwhelming thing. If authenticity, my value and my goal, is being honest; I’m obligated to take the next opportunity to be honest. That’s it. One choice at a time, being deliberate about my goalsI begin to build what I want.
The most empowering thing about these pillars is they give me a template to understand my own existence and take a practical approach to changing who I am.
YOUR TURN. Are you ready to thrive? Start here.
Open. Are you willing to have the emotions you have, while not fighting them and be curious enough to learn from them? They are directly tied to what your values are. They feed the understanding of what your life would be like if you got to choose it (and you can, if you are careful.) What are your strongest emotions? What are they tied to? Can you see the relationship between how you feel and what’s important?
Aware. Are you willing to measure what’s actually going on here and now with some awareness and curiosity rather than listening to old tapes of why you feel or think things are happening? Can you live in this moment, rather than in the past or the future, one choice at a time?
Engaged. Are you willing to act deliberately to build the life you want one choice at a time? Engaged means being aware of our values, attaching those values to actions that are doable and finding the next moment to build that into our life. Each deliberate choices builds until change begins to cascade around us.
What freedom exists when you understand that your emotions indicate your values are in play and can – if we are careful- enable us to build – one action at a time – the life we want. This is about us.
C.S. Lewis wrote: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
Here, in this moment, I choose to be aware of the beginning and allow it to educate me about myself. That understanding means that what I do in the next moment is something in service of the end I want. That’s thriving. That’s freedom. That’s epic.
If you want to hear more, please register for ‘Thriving Through Anxiety’ now rescheduled for April 14th, 2018. Registration information to come!