I want to start this post with a thank you to everyone who reads. Even if we don’t talk about it – or maybe we do – knowing that you’re out there reading and understanding is great. And maybe even this is helpful for you, I don’t know. But just being heard is great.
And in the spirit of that, I feel like there are some things that I really need to confront here that I haven’t written about yet. The thing about anxiety is that it is at once so universal and so personal: many people share the same symptoms, but our triggers and underlying causes can be so, so different. And each struggle with anxiety is unique; there are no two of us who have the same constellation of symptoms, triggers, and challenges in treatment.
I’ve spoken a lot about my symptoms and my triggers, but today it’s time to address the particular challenges that I face when dealing with this. I’ve made some lifestyle changes that have been really helpful, but there are also some personality traits that can make progress feel slow or sometimes even backwards. I want to talk about those things because I think that, while talking about them in therapy has been helpful, it will also be useful for me to see it written out so that I can identify thinking errors and places where I want to put in more work.
Three things that continue to be difficult for me to deal with are my pride, my stubbornness, and my independence. For me, these three things are all intensely intertwined, and I have trouble separating them. This poses a particular challenge because this combination actively keeps me from seeking help. I want to try here to talk about each individually, then about how they interact with each other. (This is totally just a way for me to impose order and control, but you never know what may come out of that.)
I couldn’t be dependent on anyone if I tried. Seriously. My parents are both incredibly independent in their own ways: my dad because he left the way of life that was expected of him and did his own thing, my mom because she is the most responsible person in the world, is unfailingly dependable, and raised two children on her own. Each of these examples has helped shape me and how I enact my own independence. I see myself in my dad because, like him, I left behind some of the way I grew up in search of something different and bigger. Like him, it stemmed from a sense of not belonging. My sister is five years older, and once she left for college, the only person who even remotely made me feel like I belonged was my mom. Though we disagreed about some things, she was the only relationship I had during my high school years where I felt like I didn’t have to actively pretend to be something I wasn’t. My mom let me share some things with her that she probably didn’t really want to know, and in doing so, she made me feel accepted and belonged. When I left for college, she practiced these same values: letting me stretch my world and explore my own independence. Her example taught me to rely on myself and to take responsibility and ownership, because no one else would. If I wanted something, I needed to put in the work myself and not expect it to be handed to me. I needed to face challenges head on and work through things in my own way. Like my mom, it’s important to me to be autonomous and to have the freedom and the ability to take care of myself and the people I care about. I need to know that I can support them and be there for them, and that means being protective of myself and my time.
Being adamant about my autonomy has brought me some really great things. It’s deepened my relationship with each of my parents, as we’ve discovered similarities and had some difficult conversations. We’ve come to understand each other better. It’s pushed me to do things I may not have done otherwise, and given me people and experiences that I wouldn’t have had were I not so fiercely dedicated to being independent. Anyone who has spent significant time with me will tell you that I prefer to do my own thing, but this too has been helpful: the people that I turn to for help know that I really trust them and that I really need them help, precisely because I so rarely ask for it.
And I rarely ask for it because not only am I independent, but I’m stubborn and have a LOT of pride. I do not like asking for help. I can do everything myself. I will do everything myself. I do not like depending on other people. When I ask people to help me or to do something for me, it makes me feel like I’m putting my autonomy, my control – the very things that I value above almost anything else – in their hands. It makes me feel so vulnerable, and so afraid. What if they don’t do the thing? What if they disappoint me? What if I’ve made a mistake and trusted a person who can’t be depended on? What if what if what if? I don’t like asking people for to help or to do things for me because I don’t like to be disappointed, so I don’t want to give people the chance. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to be wrong. And if I made the choice to trust them, then it’s my mistake. I don’t want to let people in for this very reason, and I tend to keep them at arms length and make them prove themselves over and over.
This works in the opposite way, too. What if someone trusts me to do something and I don’t follow through? Or I get it wrong? I never, ever want to slip up. I want to be solid as a rock. Always dependable. Always there. Always on. top. of. my. shit. I have worked really hard since I started teaching to be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know”, because those are two of the most important things that you can say to a student. And I feel like I’ve done a really good job of incorporating that into my personal life as well. But every time I need to say “can you help me?” or “I can’t do this alone” or “I need you” my pride is like Hey! What’s up! You want to ask for help? Well you’re not gonna, SUCKER! You’re going to suffer through this shit alone because you have made a big stink about being independent and being treated like an adult. You can’t go back now and ask for help! This rears its head again and again, and I cannot tell you how many times I told my sister or the dude that I was fine while also crying/throwing up/ whatever. It took me a very, very long time to feel comfortable reaching out to either of them and asking for help, and I still sometimes struggle with it because I don’t want want them to think I can’t handle it. It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to reach out to the bird, even though she, more than anyone, knows what this is like.
My independence tells me that I can do everything myself, my pride tells me that I should do everything myself, and my stubbornness keeps me from asking for help when it becomes clear that I need it. On mornings like this morning, (I didn’t go into work today because I was feeling very anxious and also had a migraine and felt like I needed a day to recharge), when I’m trying to listen to myself and do what I need, these parts of my personality speak up.They make me feel disappointed in myself, because you’re not supposed to avoid the things that cause you anxiety, and they convince me that that’s what I’m doing by not going in to work. (There may be some truth to that. I honestly have no idea which side of the argument is right.) They convince me that I should be ashamed of myself because the dude has barely been gone for a day and already I’m not at work because of anxiety. They convince me that all of the changes I’ve made, the progress I’ve made, are for naught. My pride tells me that I have failed because I stayed home; my stubbornness tells me that I’m weak because I didn’t power through and go to work; my independence tells me that I’m a disappointment because I couldn’t do this simple thing that I do every day.
I know that this isn’t right. I know that we haven’t had a break since February and that I really needed a mental day off; I’ve felt increasingly anxious and short-tempered for the last week. I know that I’m allowed to practice self-care and that I don’t need to feel guilty about it. I know that, while some of my anxiety is connected to the dude leaving town and thus being more responsible for the dog than I usually am, that’s really just a trigger and I’m still dealing with the bigger, underlying issues. I know that I have a really supportive community that has never, ever made me feel bad for taking care of myself or for being vulnerable. I know all of these things, and yet.
Putting myself before others makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel like I’ve let people down. It makes me feel, in a twisted way, like I’ve lost control; because I can’t control my own body, my own emotions, because I’m powerless over those things. And I know that I’m not; I know that I’ve made a lot of progress and that I DO have power over the anxiety. I know that letting people take care of me once in a while is a good thing, that giving up control can actually be the best choice, especially when dealing with anxiety.
But that’s my struggle. As much as I want to say to my anxiety I accept you. I welcome you. Thank your for this opportunity to practice., that’s really hard. The thing about effectively managing anxiety is that you have to work to actively ignore your instincts. And in someone like me, who does not like to mess up or get things wrong or have to depend on anyone, it’s hard to forgive myself if and when I can’t do that. I know that I need to speak to myself the way I speak to my students, that I need to say It’s ok. I don’t expect you to get it right right away. It takes practice. It’s ok to mess up and it’s ok to be wrong and it’s ok to ask for help. But this, for me, is the most difficult part. It’s hard for me to cut myself slack, to allow myself to need other people. I have spent most of my life fighting for my independence and my autonomy, and, rationally, I know that it will take me a long time to break down those habits. But it’s a different thing when you feel physical symptoms that are uncomfortable and that seem to take over everything; you just want them to be over, and you will do anything to end them. That makes it hard to sit with the anxiety and to practice being uncomfortable. Your goal becomes the immediate relief of the physical, and a lot of times that can work against you in the long term. I know that the work that lies ahead of me is two-fold: I need to practice sitting with the anxiety, including the physical symptoms, and I need to continue with the lifestyle changes I’ve made.
But honestly, there are some days where I wish I was a different person. Where I wish I wasn’t as sensitive or as stubborn. Where I just want this to be over. It is really and truly a struggle. I know that this whole experience has brought me a lot of wonderful things that I wouldn’t have otherwise: an unshakeable trust in my friends and family; a sense of really, truly belonging when I’m with the dude, my sister, or the bird. I am so thankful for those things and I know that I wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for all of this. But some days those things are really hard to see, and I need to learn to be ok with that. I need to practice asking for help, depending on people, and trusting them. And I need to practice trusting myself; I listened to my instincts and stayed home today, and did things that I know helped my anxiety: I wrote, I went for a long walk with the dog, I exercised, I meditated. I need to help myself know that it’s ok to do those things. That it’s better to do those things than to try to tough it out.
I know that this will be an on-going practice, and I know that it will get better. It already is. I think I just need to give myself permission to not be better sometimes.