Anxiety is a shapeless storm. It’s powerful precisely because it’s so hard to put a finger on what’s wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to understand.
The ways in which anxiety suddenly appears might feel mysterious, but our brains formed from shared roots. With each passing year, I find that it’s exceedingly common for someone else to relate to even my strangest thoughts. The older I get, the more I know that sharing my experiences, as unique as they might seem to my bizarre and individual existence, can produce a deep sense of knowing in others.
We all approach the world through our own lens, a unique perspective that is formed by the accumulation of our experiences, memories, and relationships. Still, despite the infinite number of paths that our lives will lead, we can find meaning in our shared experiences.
What follows is true for me, and perhaps it will also be true for you.
(1) You’re anxious because you don’t know what you want.
In my life, I start to get anxious when I haven’t gotten clarity on where I’m going. With a dizzying array of potential roads to tread upon, it’s hard to even know where to begin.
My mind zooms and falsely thinks that it needs to explore each and every road—but that is impossible. There will never be enough time to explore every nook and crevice of our cavernous existence. For me, my life becomes easier when I commit to one or two areas that I want to focus on at any given time. Once I’ve committed to one or two buckets of interest, it’s much easier to explore within their respective—and much more manageable—containers.
(2) You’re anxious because you’re looking to others for validation.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn. Growing up, I played somewhat of a mediator role in my family. I was able to acutely observe the body language and actions of my family members, carefully attune to how they were feeling, and adroitly navigate any conflicts that came up. It’s a useful skill, but the process itself of balancing the competing interests and emotions of other human beings is extremely draining.
What I didn’t realize at that time was that it was not my responsibility to make sure all of my family members got along. This behavior within my family system carried over to my relationships with friends and, when I eventually entered the workforce, to my colleagues as well. I thought that being a successful, well-adjusted person meant that I could get everyone to like me all of the time.
This worked out well for a while in my youth, but the delicate dance became harder to maintain the older I got. This was especially the case as I started to develop my own interests and beliefs about how the world should work. My increasing sense of self clashed with others’ personalities and egos.
In college, I struggled to maintain the belief that everyone liked me even when I was faced with cold, hard evidence that that was certainly not the case. I compartmentalized different parts of my identity and made rationalizations why certain people acted the way they did.
By splitting my identity into parts, I convinced myself that the people who didn’t like me just hadn’t gotten to know the right me, under the right conditions. It was on emotionally taxing thing to do, and it led to exorbitant amounts of anxiety.
(3) You’re anxious because you don’t feel “good enough.”
My futile effort to get everyone to like me was much like the famous story of Sisyphus pushing the stone up the hill only to have it roll back down as soon as he got to the top. With so much evidence that not everyone liked me, I came face to face with a question. Do I like myself? In high school and college, that answer was, more and more frequently, coming back to me as a “no.”
Why I didn’t I like myself? There’s no easy answer to that.
I was starting to realize that my brain didn’t operate like a normal person’s brain. I was an overthinker—something that provided a lot of benefit in academic settings, but was proving to be disastrous in settings of the interpersonal sort. Rather than simply accepting things for what they were, I thought about them endlessly. I rotated words and actions—others and my own—interminably in my mind.
My brain drifted from its original purpose—to keep me alive and pursue useful, human tasks— to what amounted to a somewhat heavy waste of space. It wasn’t serving its intended purposes. Instead, it was stuck in over-analysis mode. Anything done to its extreme can quickly become a tremendous burden. I also think I didn’t like myself for several years because I was so hard on myself. I always thought I could do more—that I could be more.
This line of thinking got me nowhere. It wasn’t thinking driven by clarity; it was a recursive process that became more toxic the more it evolved/devolved. How I got out of these mental machinations, these grinding and mechanistic cogs of endless thought, is a story for another day.
What I now know to be true is that these manifestations of my anxiety are incredibly common. If you, the reader, have ever felt the way I’ve felt, you can be certain that millions of others have felt the same. There is great truth in sharing our experiences—if not to rid ourselves of the ways our brains and bodies operate, but to join the inner world our minds with the outer world of our behavior.
In doing so, we collectively announce that we are not alone.
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