Welcome back to overwhelming anxiety and self-talk! How are you doing? Have you been practicing positive self-talk exercises? Were some of the tips helpful for you? I thought I would look at things from the other side today; in other words, what NOT to think / say to yourself when you’re anxious. Here are some of what I feel are the most important.
I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious…what’s wrong with me and why am I so weak?:
Let me stop you right there. This is so very unhelpful to us. We’re already feeling terribly anxious and experiencing the pain of it … it does no good whatsoever to judge our emotion and character on top of what we’re already dealing with. I find this thought stems from my anxiety itself because I get anxious about my anxiety. I’m not alone and it’s a really frustrating effect!
Let’s break this down. “I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious.” Why? Why shouldn’t you be? Do you think that you’re weak and defective because others don’t appear to struggle as you do? Let’s change that thinking. You are NOT weak for experiencing high anxiety. You’re having a really hard time and even if others around you look put together, they don’t have the secret formula either. Also, you’re not alone in dealing with abnormally high anxiety. It has afflicted you, but it could have just as easily afflicted your calm and unshakeable friend. It’s a matter of circumstances, interpretations and biological differences. I’m not saying that everything is out of your control, but it didn’t start because you wanted it too or because your character is flawed. Think about a friend or loved one; would you blame them and tell them what they should and shouldn’t be feeling? On top of that, moving forwards while in the throes of anxiety actually means that you’re really strong! Engaging in cognitive distortions such as should statements (if you missed that article you can read it here), is programming yourself to be highly judgmental / critical towards your own feelings and actions. I ALWAYS judged my anxiety and I still find it hard not to, but I’m learning about acceptance. I’m not accepting that anxiety will always be with me, I’m accepting that it’s my reality in the moment. Why? Because if I spend all my energy worrying and hating myself for feeling anxiety, I’m no closer to calming down and regaining control. I’m only building up a sense of helplessness, desperation and self-directed anger. When faced with high anxiety we want to remove all the stressors we can and simplify to the best of our ability.
I Have to be Perfect:
This ties in well because it goes with the idea of self-criticism and judgment. Striving to be the best you can is healthy, while a painful pressure to be absolutely perfect really isn’t. (I should know.) That’s because there’s a huge pitfall to the idea of reaching perfection: perfection doesn’t exist! Yes…it’s a pretty big roadblock. (One I’ve hit far too many times.) It’s easy to rationally realize that you can’t be ‘perfect’, but it’s not easy to stop yourself from trying. This causes a huge problem because when you never reach perfection, you end up never being happy with something truly great. And even if you do reach a sort of perfection that is possible, from 100% on an exam to being the one to seal a huge, financially prosperous deal in business, you’ll always want more. You’ll always find flaws. From our perspective, this can be intolerable. From a healthy perspective…we learn from our mistakes and even if we’ve done super well we can examine what we could’ve done even better. In other words I would reframe the idea of perfection. Strive to do your best, but keep it within the realm of reality, feasibility and priority. Yep, priority. I found that I tend to want to be ‘perfect’ at pretty much everything. (Maybe not putting away things properly and keeping my bedroom from becoming a mess…but you know what I mean.) Here are some examples through my ‘dark days’ as well as now. I want a 35 r-score to get into McGill and Concordia but I also want my ‘perfect body’ which apparently is not a healthy one anywhere other than in my mind. (If you hear any bitterness, you’d be right.) Then I want to hit the bullseye from 30 ft away even though even though I started archery not too long ago. And climbing? I failed if I couldn’t go from 5.9 to 5.10. (Moderate going into hard level of difficulty.) I wanted to train and push so I could join the competitive team. Must get super great in months…and the thought of not being super great? The world crashes down and I have a ton of anxiety! The same thing with skateboarding, but I didn’t want to compete. Then there was work; I didn’t merely set the standard of doing a great job for the morning team – I developed new tasks that weren’t part of my job and just kept adding them to a list that then became my new minimum. All of this and more goals created a humungous and almost constant anxiety that I would fail and also disappoint everyone I love. (Yeah, I made that leap.) I couldn’t be happy with my successes because they were never enough and I was a walking ball of tension and stress. My psychologist encouraged me to set priorities to manage this. Trying to do extremely well in everything actually makes it 10 times harder to do so in any area. We’re spread too thin! So, priorities. If I need to make money then I’ll do my job well but the pressure of extras makes me unnecessarily tired which in turn makes other goals more challenging. Climbing, skateboarding and archery are passions and breaks from my other stressors but I transformed them into yet more stressors! My ‘perfect body’? It depletes my energy, fogs my mind and makes intellectual pursuits like school much harder than they should be. Oh and there was also exercise. I needed to reach certain activity goals on my Apple watch or else I was downright panicked. (If you have an eating disorder / feel one developing / are trying to recover, these trackers are so so harmful. I’m not blaming the device, but there’s so much opportunity to become unhealthily obsessed if you’re predisposed.) Long story short, pick what you really really need to do well at and don’t phrase things with the word perfect. Delete that from your vocabulary and focus on how effectively you are working towards something. So much easier said than done, but reducing your expectations just a bit can take some weight off your shoulders!
I Can’t do This:
I know I don’t have to explain why this is bad, but I’m sure it would take A LOT for me to convince you that you CAN do it. I understand. No matter how much my family told me I could do it, I never believed it. Our thoughts impact everything; our attitude determines our reality. Telling yourself that you can’t do something over and over again is absolutely going to confirm your belief the more you say it. I know I know. You may be thinking that you in particular really can’t do it. Again, I’ve been there and still am sometimes so I get it. But let me clue you in to my secret. You ready? You should sit down. Here it is: LIE TO YOURSELF! Were you expecting that? Are you questioning my sanity? (That’s ok – that ship has sailed.) This is something that helps me but if you’re learning a different approach with a therapist or something, don’t listen to me. This is just my experience. I could not stop telling myself this. It made me more and more distressed and stressed. How can you not be anxious when you never feel capable?! My suggestion, as in other articles, is to deprogram that negative thinking. Repeat to yourself, even if you don’t believe it, that you are capable. That you’ve had to pull off many difficult things in your life but you’re still here and moving forwards. Instead of I can’t, try to replace it with: I can. I will. It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to take it one step at a time. My anxiety says I can’t do this, but the inner truth says that I can.
One more thing: Do you remember some tests you took where you knew you waited too long to study? Now what about a time when you had a test but you studied super effectively and felt like you knew what you were doing? How did your anxiety level compare? Now maybe you were so anxious that in either case you were the same. Then it comes down to talking to yourself again. I am prepared. I have done my best. What happens happens but I will know that it wasn’t due to a lack of character.
It Would be a Disaster if…:
Anxiety and if’s are two peas in a pod, am I right? What if this happens? What if I fail my semester? What if I did this wrong and my boss fires me? What if I don’t get accepted into University? What if I don’t get this job? What if my new business never works? What if I don’t have enough money for my bills and mortgage? You get the idea. Here’s something I’ve learned: If’s are endless, and accidentally concentrating on every possible negative outcome only removes energy that could otherwise be directed into making sure those if’s remain hypothetical! (Sorry for the long sentence, but it’s true.) Imagining negative consequences is good when it reminds us to stay on track and plan properly. Predicting disasters however just causes panic which can lead to fear and avoidance. On another note, let’s change the word ‘disaster’, shall we? It’s a bit harsh, and some may call it ‘catastrophizing’, as we dealt with in the article mentioned earlier. At first ask yourself what exactly would happen if you didn’t succeed. Stay calm and perhaps write a list about what could happen. In many cases you may find that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. (Like flubbing up a bit on an oral presentation.) If the outcome really could be very bad, move your energy from panic to actively working towards a solution.
All of this is, as always, is far easier said than done and there’s always so much more to cover. We’ll end here though, and get back to it another time. If there’s only one takeaway from this article, remember to use kinder words with yourself and make note of when you put additional anxiety on top of your anxiety!