Recently I’ve had a couple of experiences where I’ve been feeling things way more strongly than I usually do. Some of this is in my personal life, some not. Some things shifted at work, and even though my work husband did me a solid and gave me a heads up about it before they announced it(thanks boo), I was still pretty upset. It took me a long time to figure out why, but it basically boils down to this: any time I’m feeling an emotion, I am always feeling that plus anxiety. Always. I’m not quite sure how/when this happened, but it’s definitely happening.
For instance, when I’m angry, I’m not just angry. I’m angry for whatever reason, but I’m also anxious because I start to question my relationship with the person/people, I’m anxious about the change or transition(that sometimes I had no say in), I’m anxious because I know how quickly my temper flares and I really don’t want to be angry in front of anyone. I start taking things personally and getting geared up and wondering if I have a right to be this angry.
When I’m sad, I’m sad but I’m also anxious because even after three plus years I’m afraid and embarrassed to really cry in front of the dude(and anyone who’s not my sister). I’m anxious because it’s very important to me to not only look like I have my shit together, but to actually have my shit together, and crying makes me feel like I don’t. (And yes, I know that crying is cathartic and holding things in is bad. I know this. I’m working on it.) I’m also anxious because part of me wonders if I’m just going to be sad forever. Just like when I’m in the middle of a panic attack, I start thinking Is this my new normal?
Even when I’m happy, I’m anxious. If I’m not careful, I can easily get caught in a thought loop like this one: I’m so happy, this is so awesome. Are they as happy as I am? What if they aren’t? What if I feel/care more than they do? What if something happens? What if I fuck this up somehow? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Basically, anxiety makes me wonder if my emotions are really real. If they’re a proportional response. Sometimes I feel like I’m Bartlet in that scene where his doctor was killed and he’s working through the grief.
That’s not exactly the best thing to wonder about your own emotions. That is crazy-making in the worst way, and it takes things to a whole different level that is much more serious and difficult to work with.
I’m thankful that I did a lot of work around this in therapy and can recognize when the anxiety is rearing its head alongside the hydra that is my emotional state. I’m also thankful that I have a wonderful anchor in the dude: when I’m feeling something really strongly, his response usually lets me know if I’m going a little overboard. If he only validates, then I know I’m not letting the situation run away with me. If he validates and then offers a different perspective, I know there are some things I may not be considering or that I may be taking something a little too personally.
It is extremely hard to do this for someone, and I give him huge props. It’s even harder to do this for yourself: you are feeling your emotions so strongly that they overwhelm you, but you also need to step outside of yourself and figure out what’s really going on. That’s one of the most difficult things to do, and right now, I’m really struggling to do that for myself. I know a big part of why it’s so hard right now is that I’m exhausted from the end of the school year and my resilience and defenses are both low. But it is an inherently difficult thing to do, and I’m trying really hard to get better at it.
The value of a proportional response is that you can address the situation but not escalate it, and that’s basically where I’d like to live my life. I want to be able to say “this isn’t working for me” or whatever it is but not ruin my relationships in the process – and to not feel like I am. I want to be able to speak up for myself but to be ok if I don’t get my way. I want to be able to feel upset but to not be afraid that I’ll lash out at those around me. This is why I am so afraid of my own emotions and why anxiety sucks so much: because when anxiety is involved, my initial response is almost never a proportional response. What I actually express may be one, but nine times out of ten there is a battle raging in my head that’s basically me going I’M SO PISSED/SAD/SCARED. No, stop, backtrack, can’t be this mad/sad/scared in front of people. I think this is also what makes that tenth time so frustrating: usually I’m pretty good about keeping quiet when things bother me and just complaining to the dude or my sister later, but sometimes it’s all I can do to hang on while my emotions go ahead at a full gallop. This week I was so upset that I basically yelled at a coworker in front of a few other colleagues, and then I left the room. Immediately, I was like well, fuck. That was really not cool. So I went back in and apologized in front of everyone, and then again later in private. But now I’m sitting here willing myself to get a tighter grip on my emotions because of that one moment, when really I should be thinking about what to do next time. Because there will be a next time. Next time, I should calmly say “do you mind not teasing me right now? I’m pretty upset” instead of snapping that now is not the time. I should have taken a few minutes for myself before going into that meeting because I knew I was angry and anxious. Should, should, should: every anxiety sufferer’s most commonly used word. I swear that if you tallied my internal thoughts for a week, “should” would come up more times than “the”, “is”, “and”, or “me/I.”
This is really the crux of it. Not only does anxiety heighten and/or taint almost every emotion I feel, it then also makes me feel guilty about what I did do, guilty about what I didn’t do, and keeps me wondering for like a week if I just fucked something up irreparably. It makes me think that I shouldn’t feel the way I feel. It makes me think that I can’t do anything right. It makes me worry that I’ll always snap at people instead of calmly explaining what’s going on with me. It makes me hate parts of myself, and that is not ok.
The other difficult thing about it is that nobody sees that part. I’d be willing to bet that my coworker was probably a little like “well that sucked” for most of the day, but that they’re basically over it and so are the other people who were there. But me? Ha. That’s funny. It’s funny that anyone thinks I could ever possibly let anything go within 48 hours. No one sees that I’m still angry about the initial thing. No one sees me thinking over and over that I “should have” this and I “shouldn’t have” that. No one sees how often I’ve been wondering if my coworker and everyone else who was in the room hates me now and thinks that I’m a hot head. I’m literally sitting here thinking, as I type this, that I’ve ruined my working relationships. That people who have known me for anywhere from 2-7 years have totally changed their idea of who I am based on this one thing. That is fucked up. Anxiety please leave me alone.
I know they haven’t. One of the things I love most about my closest colleagues is that they all have an extremely strong sense of integrity. When I came back and apologized, my coworker was like “yeah, that was rude”. And I was like, yep. They called me out but they weren’t an asshole about it and I love that. And as amazing as that is, that’s not the point. The point is that anxiety tricks my brain into thinking the people around me are fickle; that they can completely change their opinion of me at the drop of a hat. And I KNOW that’s not the case. But anxiety makes me wonder. Anxiety makes me attach all kinds of meaning where there isn’t any. Anxiety makes me gaslight myself. WTF.
I try really hard not to think of it as “fighting” or “struggling” with anxiety. I don’t like using verbs that give anxiety power. I don’t like using verbs that imply or create tension. Verbs that make anxiety into its own entity that is only ever my antagonist. Because anxiety is not my antagonist and thinking about it that way creates the very tension that leads to anxiety. If the mental model I have of my anxiety is one of warfare, I’m never going to be able to live with it. I’m always going to be angry and disappointed in myself when it comes too close. I’m always going to have my shields up. I’m always going to be on the defensive, ready for action. And that’s not going to make me better at responding to anxiety; it’s going to create the anxiety. It’s going to keep me wound up, in a state of ready alert, which is mostly what anxiety is(at varying levels, obviously). I don’t need to help the part of my brain that senses fear and danger by giving it opportunities to practice because it’s already way too good at its job. I don’t want to live like that, always watching my own back. One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned through this whole journey – and the thing that still remains the most difficult – is how transformative vulnerability can be. My sister and I would never have the kind of relationship we do if we didn’t make conscious, consistent efforts to be vulnerable with each other. There’s no way the dude and I could have a partnership without vulnerability – not a true one, anyway. I don’t want to live with my shields up. I don’t want it to be me against the world. I want to trust other people to watch my back. I want to set my weapons down.
I want to live with anxiety the way your brain lives with your nose: you can always see it, but most of the time you just ignore it. Sometimes it gets stuffed up or painful and then all of your attention is focused on it, but for the most part it’s not really bothering you and, while you’re aware of it, you don’t really care. This is the goal.
Most of the time these days, this feels totally doable. Tracking helps me to see how infrequent bad days are and I’m grateful for that and proud of the work I do to keep it that way. Sometimes, though, anxiety makes me question everything: my people, my choices, myself. I’m not really into that and kind of just want to tell anxiety to fuck off, but I also understand that’s part of the gig. I’m grateful I have people who can see the anxiety if and when I can’t. I’m grateful I can see it most times. I’ve worked really hard to get there.
I don’t know if it’ll keep underscoring my emotions from here on out, or if this is happening mostly because I’m depleted and need a break. I don’t know if maybe my path is twisting back around to where I was a few years ago, and if it is, I hope I can view it as a good opportunity to sharpen my Dealing With Anxiety skills. I don’t know if it’ll get worse or better or stay the same. I just know that it’s not going anywhere, so if I always have to feel anxiety + something, then I better figure out how to deal with anxiety like I deal with my students: make eye contact, say I see you, and keep doing what I was doing before they tried to derail me with an unrelated question. So then I guess my new thought model is that anxiety is like a teenager who makes impulsive decisions and whose brain isn’t fully developed so it doesn’t really understand consequences and everything is the end of the world.
Actually, that sounds about right. There’s a lot to love about teenagers, but sometimes they do something and you’re just like
Anxiety is the same way. Sometimes it’s awesome and it helps me have my shit together. Sometimes I just have to sit back and let it rail for a little while before I can step in because nothing I say or do is getting through – anxiety thinks it knows best and is stubborn AF.
Maybe the best course of action is to tackle the anxiety first – because I know how to do that – and the other emotion(s) second. Maybe I need to figure out a way to be able to sit with it for a minute and answer the following questions: what am I anxious about? Why does this make me anxious? What’s the worst case scenario? How likely is that to happen? What’s the best case scenario? How likely is that to happen? Maybe I should add those to my anxiety checklist. Actually, standby. Adding them to my checklist.
How do you think about your anxiety? When you picture it, what does it look like? I’m always interested to see how other people think of their anxiety; sometimes something clicks and I’m like yes! and then we both have this wonderful moment where we know exactly what they other is feeling and we don’t feel quite so alone. And really, isn’t that the goal?