Transforming Anxiety, Transcending Shame
By Rex Briggs, M.S.W.
The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don't like to do. They don't like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.
— E. M. Gray. The Common Denominators of Success
Carla originally came to my anxiety program for help with paralyzing panic attacks that left her feeling frustrated and inadequate, believing she could not even travel across town. She was committed to change and made rapid progress, beginning to try new things and enlarging her world. At one of our last sessions, she told the following story:
Last week I went downhill skiing for the first time. It was terrifying. My husband was busy teaching the kids how to ski, so I was left more or less on my own. I started down the first part of the beginner's slop, and I got so scared I literally couldn't move. I went off to the side and just sat there for probably two hours, feeling angry and scared and terribly ashamed of myself. The only reason I didn't quit was that in order to quit I had to get down the hill.
After a long time, I finally put my skis back on and started to work my way slowly down. I kept falling, and eventually, when I was stuck halfway under a pine tree, my husband came by. He helped me get up, showed me how to control my skis a little and helped me get down the rest of the way. Then he went with me a couple more times, and it still wasn't fun; but I managed to make it down the slope.
A couple weeks later we went back again, and this time I took a lesson. I told the instructor how scared I was, and he was great—he acknowledged my fear, but he was so sure I could do it anyway that somehow I did. By the end of the lesson, I was swooping down the beginner's slopes (which had somehow become much less steep than they had been the first time), doing turns and having fun. It war great. We've gone skiing several times now, and next winter I'm going to buy my own skis.
I asked Carla if she could explain why, when the first experience was so frightening, she decided to go back the second time. She finally said, "I guess going back in spite of the fear was better than thinking of myself as the kind of person I would be if I didn't go back."
Learning to go on in spite of our fear is the bottom line of recovery from excessive anxiety. Recovery isn't not being afraid; it's being afraid but taking action anyway.
Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., discusses this in her provocative book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. She says, "If you knew you could handle anything that would come your way, what would you possibly have to fear? The answer: nothing."
Underneath every one of our fears is simply the fear that we can't handle whatever life may bring us. This fear, based on our belief that we are inadequate and powerless, comes from shame experienced early in life. We become more capable of overcoming our fears as we recover from the effects of shame.
Anxiety - Dealing with our Shame
To recover from excessive anxiety means dealing with our shame.
Carla had some help in getting over her fear of skiing. But neither her husband nor the ski instructor could have forced her to keep on trying. They could offer information, encouragement and support, but she had to do the work. The turning point for her wasn't the lessons. It was the moment when, in spite of her fear and her shame, she got up and started down the hill. The help she got was extremely important, but her willingness to push through her fear and use the help was what made the difference.
Dr. Jeffers says we can change our relationship to our fears by accepting the following five truths:
1. The fear will never go away as long as we continue to grow.
2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.
3. The only way to feel better about ourselves is to go out and do it.
4. Not only are we going to experience fear whenever we are on unfamiliar territory but so is everyone else.
5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
Isaac Marks, M.D., in Living with Fear, suggests five similar truths that help to demystify and conquer anxiety:
1. Anxiety is unpleasant but rarely dangerous.
2. You should avoid escape.
3. You should face the fear.
4. The longer you face your anxiety, the better.
5. The more rapidly you confront the worst, the more quickly your fear will fade.
In order to recover from the excessive anxiety that hampers us, we need three things: the desire to change, the tools to make the changes and the discipline to use those tools. You already have the desire to change, or you wouldn't be reading this book. Therapy, books like this one and support groups can give you some tools to change your behavior. The discipline comes when the long-term goal of becoming a healthy, self-confident person becomes more important than your short-term comfort or your fears.
The shift in thinking that focuses our attention on the long-term goal doesn't just magically happen. We can't be sure exactly what made Carla, sitting in terror on a ski slope, finally get up and start down the hill. Part of it was the foundation of growing confidence she had been building through many smaller steps as she practiced facing situations that were fearful for her. She also explained it as something she had to do in order to respect herself. Her integrity was involved. Her desire to be competent and confident outweighed the pain and discomfort of making the effort to overcome her fear.
As you are reading this book, you may very well be in the same state Carla was in when she sat, afraid and ashamed, on the ski slope. You may be tired of living in fear, tired of feeling "less than," tired of not feeling comfortable in the world. You have narrowed your world more and more, making choices intended to keep you safe, but you don't feel safe-you just feel stuck. You have come to believe you just can't handle it.
In the same way that Carla reached a point of being able to get up and move on, you will begin to change when the time is right for you. The balance will shift, and your integrity will become more important than your discomfort. You will find your own motivation to change.
Some people say that you have to like yourself before you can like others. I think that idea has merit, but you don't know yourself, if you don't control yourself, if you don't have mastery over yourself, it's very hard to like yourself...Real self-respect comes from dominion over self, from true independence.
— Stephen Covey, The 7 habits of Highly Effective People
Finding Your Motivation to Change
Many of us are motivated to change only when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the fear of doing something different. As long as we can keep our lives narrow and manageable, as long as we are comfortable, we aren't likely to grow.
Those who suffer with excessive anxiety put way too high a priority on being comfortable. They attain comfort by avoiding whatever is difficult or frightening; but as they avoid, their lives slowly become more and more limited. As they avoid, their integrity suffers and their shame increases.
I remember a client who suffered with all types of fears. Rich was afraid of traveling, public presentation and a host of other things. He had worked for a long time for a man who did not force him to do anything in his job that he was not comfortable with but who in exchange expected him to work unreasonable hours and participate in unethical business practices. Unhappy but in a familiar and undemanding situation, Rich made little progress in therapy.
One day he called me to say that he had finally quit his job and wanted my help as he looked for another one. Losing his financial security gave him a strong motivation to consider changes. For a short period, he made tremendous progress. Then he found a job and told his new boss about all of his fears and concerns. His new boss assured him he wouldn't be expected to travel or make presentations. He felt safe again. And soon his growth came to a standstill.
Motivation for many of us comes at a time of crisis or change in our lives. Maybe the death of a parent makes us aware of our own mortality. We sense that we have become the "older generation: and that it's time to grow up. Mile stone birthdays, when we turn thirty, forty or fifty, can urge us to make the most of our lives. Children being born or leaving home, divorces, serious illnesses, or other significant events often make us stop and evaluate our lives.
But it isn't necessary to wait for a crisis in order to motivate yourself to change. One important motivator is to consciously establish your "mission" in life.
What do you see as your purpose in life? What kind of person do you want to be? These are important questions, yet I find many of my clients have never thought about them in a meaningful way. If we have no sense of a larger purpose, no goal to work toward, then we find it harder to motivate ourselves to make the effort to push through our fears and discomfort.
If you haven't thought about your life's goals and purposes, try this simple exercise.
Imagine yourself as a spectator at your own funeral. What would you want people to be saying and thinking about you as they grieve and remember your life? If you life ended right now, what would people say about you? How would you be remembered? Would you have accomplished what you wanted to do? Would you have been the kind of person you wanted to be?
This exercise can help you establish your own definition of "success." It's helpful to write it down. Create your own "mission statement" about the kind of person you want to be. Then you can evaluate whether the way you are living now is helping you work toward success as you define it.
If it isn't, what would you need to do differently in order to be remembered the way you would like to be? And when would you need to begin doing it? Someday? Next year? Or Today?
I think it was the awareness of her "mission" that made the difference for Carla. It gave her the motivation to come back and master the challenge of learning to ski instead of creeping down the slope and running away. It helped her to face her shame-based belief that she was inadequate. In facing her demons, she felt empowered. In the same way, an awareness of your larger goal and purpose can help motivate you to maintain the discipline necessary for recovery.
Ships in a harbor are safe, but that's not what ships are built for.
— John Shedd
From False Safety to Genuine Safety
Keeping a low profile may have provided temporary safety for a child in a stressful situation, but continuing to do so is limiting for adults. Ironically, while staying trapped in the false security of a constricted life may feel safe, getting out there in the world is the only way to genuinely be safe. Just ask Carla which felt safer: sitting paralyzed with fear on the ski slope or swooping down it with confidence?
Authentic safety is a genuine sense of empowerment that comes from solid self-confidence and feeling comfortable with ourselves and others. It includes such things as knowing what is reasonable to expect from ourselves and others, knowing our rights, setting healthy boundaries, facing conflict with reasonable assurance, involving ourselves in healthy intimate relationships, meeting life's sadness and loss head-on, and being willing to accept responsibility for the decisions and choices inherent in managing our own lives. The only way we develop that confidence is by interacting with other people. We can't learn it by withdrawing, hiding or sitting on the sidelines. Those ways of coping may have helped us to survive as children, but they stifle us as adults.
Excessive-anxiety sufferers confuse being safe with feeling safe. Since our feelings were shamed in growing up, we don't feel comfortable with many of our emotions or the situations that evoke them. So we live our lives on the principle that "If I'm really careful, nothing bad will happen to me. Unfortunately, that translates into "If I'm really careful, nothing bad-or good-will happen to me.
Shutting Out Parts of Life Doesn't Work
We may think it would be nice if we could just shut out the so-called bad things, such as sadness, anger, tragedy, hurt and disappointment. Many of us learned to do this as children, and we still live life that way. But what happens is that we shut out all the good things as well. Our bodies don't know how to screen out painful feelings without screening out the enjoyable feelings as well. We end up unintentionally throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As one of my clients put it, "I think I've shut out all the difficult things in life so well to protect myself that I really can't feel life's joy, love and enthusiasm, either.
We must learn to face both extremes in life, or else we risk losing both. Life is a series of contrasts, and it's our ability to allow ourselves the experience of hate and grief that enables us to fully savor the ecstasy of love and joy.
Rationally, that makes sense. If we don't have the experience of conflict, we can't very well appreciate the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from participation in a win-win resolution. If we've never experienced both the pain and relief that come from utter grief we can't value the contrast with some of life's exquisite joys.
Many of us have tried to walk a narrow path through our lives, hoping not to suffer any really "low" lows, but paying the price of not enjoying any really "high" highs. After a while we begin to feel like observers of our lives instead of participants, gradually coming to believe more and more "I can't."
For many years I had fallen into a pattern of thinking, If something is uncomfortable, then don 't do it. As a result, my life had slowly become smaller and smaller. I felt relatively comfortable as long as I avoided this, that and the other. When I began therapy, I became temporarily more uncomfortable as I began to face these situations, emotions and people that I had previously been dodging. In time, as I faced these different circumstances, my confidence grew. My comfort level also increased somewhat, but I still encountered discomfort as I continued to grow.
Recovery is about long-term effectiveness, not short-term comfort.
Remember, recovery is not about being comfortable. Recovery is hard work. It is sometimes frightening. It is about learning to do something different. Living a robust, vigorous and fertile life means being confident, not necessarily comfortable.
I have learned to look at discomfort differently. I used to believe, "If I'm uncomfortable about something, that's a good reason not to do it." But as I explored the implications of this approach, I realized my integrity and self-confidence eroded every time I opted for short-term comfort. Now I have a new attitude: "If the situation causes me this much anxiety, it's a clear indication of just how important it is for me to face."
Sometimes, of course, I still respond to discomfort with a first impulse to run or to avoid. However, I need to keep in mind my bigger goal in life, which is to feel adequate, self-confident and effective. Having such a goal helps me overcome the fear and become willing to make myself uncomfortable. I know it will be rewarding in the long run.
Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
from little things;
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
— Amelia Earhart Putnam, "Courage"