There are certain negative stigmas and stereotypes that some assume are true of anxiety sufferers. If we cannot work we are lazy. If we do not go to college we are goalless. If we have panic attacks we are crazy. We hear things like “Just get over it” or “It's not that bad!” and we are left feeling misunderstood and incapable of relating to others.
These hurt us. They slow our recovery. They reinforce our anxiety and phobias. I have always felt most unmotivated when being criticized.
And yet I have also found that, in the face of criticism, I have the best opportunity to reach out to others and bring them into an understanding of what I go through and what I'm doing to recover.
I have always been a self-conscious person, but I am most self-conscious of my anxiety. For years I looked to defend myself. I knew people were thinking I wasn't good enough, laughing at me behind my back. These projections were part of a pattern of distorted thinking. Even when someone complimented or encouraged me, I was irritated and offended because they seemed not to see my pain.
When I was eighteen I moved back in with my mom for the first time in six years.
My mother understood what it took to get over anxiety. She had gone through it and had recovered. At one time in her life she did not work or drive, and had regular panic attacks. When I moved back home with her at eighteen, she played hardball with me, pushing me to step outside my comfort zone, and I reacted very poorly to this because I didn't understand what I was going through, what it would take to get better.
My problem was that I was more comfortable in my state of anxiety than I was in growing as a human being. I was complacent and lacked motivation. Without motivation, getting over anxiety is almost impossible.
My mom didn't begin to grow until her life circumstances required her to (this worked for her, but shouldn't be thought of as a generalization; some find it easier to recover when they have help and support of family and friends, others do better when they're absolutely forced to, but most are somewhere between). When she found herself divorced, single, with no one else to rely on but herself, relying on herself became the easier thing to do.
I was in a completely different set of circumstances. I felt relatively safe. I was prepared to dig in and fight tooth and nail anyone who tried to make me grow up.
I was not ready because I had others to rely on, and when I was ready, I wanted to take things slow, to ease into exposure therapy, but my mother's idea was that the longer I took, the harder it would be.
There was a balancing act there. I had a need to do things slowly, safely, or not at all, and my mother had her need to have me recover as fast as possible. Her needs versus mine created a conflict that many people with anxiety face with their parents, lovers, spouses, doctors and friends.
Today I can peruse anxiety forums and groups on the internet and see the exact same pattern of behavior unfolding. I read people criticizing friends and loved ones, all for the same type of behavior I once criticized my mom for. Encouragement might as well be a slap in the face for many of us. The difference for me now is that I realize my mom wasn't out to get me. She was trying to help me the best she knew how, using what worked best for her.
I was looking to defend myself. That was who I was at the time, the role I was playing. And so I saw conflict in places it didn't exist.
I cried for help, then would tell the rescuer to go to hell.
And the more I fought people for looking down on me, the more they looked down on me. By using conflict, I could make stigma grow. If my mom ever thought I was lazy, I enforced that idea by acting like an inconsiderate jerk to her when she suggested I do something.
In the end lashing out wasn't working, and I had to find another way. In my early twenties I was studying anxiety and absorbing the information like a sponge, and I was studying Taoism, which promotes a balanced lifestyle, and an understanding that all things are connected. I realized that my actions could influence others in ways I didn't want or expect them to.
I also knew, from studying psychology, that people behaved the way they did because of inner motivations, fear being a prime factor. I looked at my behavior and discovered how my hostility toward their words caused them to intensify their hostility toward me, and if they had given me a compliment or encouragement, how my anger toward them could easily teach them not to give me support again.
Ignorance was where stigmas came from. If I knew I wasn't really lazy, but others were saying or insinuating that I was, then it was their ignorance. How could I work through this?
I put myself in their shoes. I sought to understand where their criticism came from.
My maternal grandmother's side of the family is a large one. And they grew up surviving. They started working young just to get by. They worked as if their very lives depended on it. My grandmother and her brothers and sisters worked themselves to the bone because it was all they knew to do.
Seeing that, it was easier to understand why they would look at me and not trust my “emotional” reasons for not holding a job. They had problems too, everyone does, but they buried them and went headlong into their work. Some even buried anxiety and depression, so they weren't unaware or immune to my experiences. They weren't necessarily stronger than me, they just had no one else to rely on but themselves, whereas I had them and others.
Once I thought about their feelings and motivations for what they did in life, I found I could draw strength from their struggle.
People like to see results and there was one thing I was not doing. I was not showing others what I was accomplishing. Being introverted, I work best alone and that was what I was doing with my anxiety, but I was missing out on the help I could get from my family, even if that help only came in the form of understanding and an end to criticism.
Much of what I do to heal isn't visible to the outside world. I primarily work with meditation, coping statements, deep breathing, and positive self talk, all things I can do on my own. No one is inside my head, and it's important not to assume people know what I'm thinking. The only way people would see that I was working hard was to show them, to talk about what I was doing, how I was doing it, and invite them to help me.
Some days I spent hours in my room meditating or visualizing overcoming a phobic situation only to be condemned by a family member for spending all day in my room. It was rough when I tried so hard and got no positive feedback for my effort. Sometimes it was easier to just give up and stop trying, but I couldn't rely on staying in my room, not interacting with my own family, and expect my situation to improve.
Obviously for any of this to have worked I had to be productive. In order to show others I was working hard I had to work hard. There have definitely been times where I wasn't motivated, and I had nothing to show.
And it was important that I kept the lines of communication open, not resting on my laurels, but staying proactive, especially when I felt I was going in the right direction. If communication stops, people will eventually drift back into their old habits, and the cycle will begin anew.
In the end it is hard to call someone lazy when you know how hard they're working. It is hard to call someone a coward when you see how many risks they are taking. And most people can and will appreciate being involved in the recovery process, especially family and friends who want nothing more than for the anxiety to go away.
Tao of Anxiety: Series
Tao of Anxiety: Series