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In a world filled with unrest and uncertainty, who needs unnecessary anxiety? What is it anyway?
Unnecessary anxiety is the anxiety we create unnecessarily for ourselves. We do it habitually, without being aware that we are doing it. We do things like worry, obsess, judge ourselves harshly, and spend an excessive amount of time in our heads instead of living life.
How do we begin the work of becoming free from unnecessary anxiety? We start by taking a challenging look at its origins.
First, a personal question: do you find yourself not liking you? It’s okay to be honest. Turns out, not liking yourself is a very frequent emotional complaint. It’s the prime source of unnecessary anxiety.
Another question: how do you describe yourself? Take a moment. It’s important to examine your answer. We all have an ongoing internal dialogue, so I want you to discover how you talk to you. You may find you would not live with anyone who would talk to you the way you talk to you!
We need to realize that this activity of disparaging ourselves generates anxiety and emotional dissatisfaction. Surprisingly, people who are otherwise quite accomplished in life often disparage themselves privately. This is the origin of unnecessary anxiety.
Our mistaken tendency to be self-centered
We all have the mistaken tendency to make ourselves the center of what’s happening. We believe we should be able to control our lives and manage events. We believe our awareness comes from inside us—from our brains, neurons, and hearts. We believe what we experience is what is “real.”
Believing all this, however, is a mistake. After all, the least reliable form of scientific evidence is eyewitness testimony, but we insist on using it as the primary basis for how we understand ourselves.
We are fundamentally social beings, always in social settings. Nevertheless, we experience ourselves as distinct and separate from others. For example, imagine you’re in a long line at the post office. The clerk seems to be going ever so slowly. Suddenly, you say to yourself, “He’s making me late!” But you don’t consider or care about the others in line with you, much less what the clerk is confronting. He’s making you late!
This self-centered way of experiencing life unnecessarily separates and alienates you from others, producing unnecessary anxiety. It sets you up to believe that what is affecting you is what’s most important.
In my example, the complexity of life just happened to put a bunch of people in line that day — not just you. The fact that the post office was understaffed, that you didn’t anticipate waiting, and the clerk was overworked had no bearing on your story. Your distorted story, with you at the center of the narrative—he’s making me late!—becomes what really happened.
We are a story-making species. We construct stories about what’s happening and usually store them privately. We experience the moments of life through the lens of our narrative. Unfortunately, our stories are often significantly distorted.
We believe we know ourselves best; we don’t
Think of the way you describe you to you. You accept these descriptions as who you are. Psychologists call this “self-concept” or “identity.” You believe your identity is fixed, permanent. You’ve heard people say, “This is just how I am. I’ve always been this way.” Privately, they want to change, but can’t conceive of being or experiencing life differently.
To be clear: our identities are not fixed. We can change how we are. Besides, if you ask the people closest to you, quite often they will differ with how you describe yourself. So, whose description is more valid? Well, the answer is a measure of your willingness to transform, your disposition to grow and develop. Accepting how others view you can help you discover who you are. It can help you discover how you can grow in ways that you desire.
There is an enormous resistance to accepting this principle. But if you keep insisting you know yourself best, you will continue to be stuck and dissatisfied with yourself. It keeps you from investigating what others know about you.
The seduction of experience
A major element of our identities is how we experience life. How we experience it is revealed in how we talk, especially in what we say to ourselves. It is here where we can uncover the naked narrative of our stories. It is here where we find our unforgiving judgments and evaluations.
Everyone is continuously writing his or her autobiography. Although mostly done in private, everyone is checking off the key people and moments in their lives. But these stories expose our passionate commitment to our identities; this is where you hear things like “I’m a failure,” “I’m a bad parent,” “I’m ugly,” “I’ll never meet someone special,” or “Everything always happens to me.” We believe these self-judgments, and have a validating story for them.
These stories are a “lens” through which our life events are distorted. The narratives make us feel bad about ourselves. A patient says: “I went to the cinema last night to see the movie I’ve been waiting for. But, the entire time, I couldn’t enjoy it because I was there by myself. I didn’t have anyone to go with me. This is why my life sucks. I don’t have any friends. I must be a horrible person.”
In this particular story, the narrative reveals how the person couldn’t be present in the moment. She was stuck in her head, in her internal dialogue. It’s an example of how our stories become the “lens” through which we distort what’s going on and how we come to believe our judgments so strongly. It’s a damaging cycle. Stories twist our experience and validate our fault-finding narrative. It’s how we come to feel so badly about ourselves. Stories are unnecessary.
The power of generating negative feelings
Our negative narratives invariably lead us to believe we are falling short—if not failing—in life. Habitually, these stories create anxiety and dissatisfaction. They lead us to do what we shouldn’t: compare ourselves to others. When we do, we create feelings of profound dissatisfaction like
-Shame (the wish to hide your sense of inferiority)
-Guilt (the wish to fix something you did wrong)
-Envy (the wish to diminish someone else believing you can never have what they have)
-Jealousy (the wish to compete with someone else to have what they have)
-Self-pity (feeling sorry for yourself and wanting others to pity you)
-Embarrassment (feeling exposed in front of others)
Our beliefs about who we are come from these feelings, feelings that are self-generated. We’re the ones who produce these profoundly adverse feelings and they sabotage our lives.
When we compare ourselves with others, we set ourselves up to feel bad, further validating our stories and narrative in a perpetual cycle of defeat. How do we stop this cycle? By recognizing that we are the authors of our stories. We made them up. All we have to do is stop believing them. After all, they are just stories.
We are not our feelings
Radical as this may seem, we are not our identity and we are not our feelings. We suppose feelings are some kind of extraordinary “reality detection device.” We make an artificial distinction between our thoughts, actions, and feelings. They are, in fact, inseparable. When we are thinking negatively, we are simultaneously doing and feeling negatively. How we think and what we do corresponds with our long-established narratives producing those feelings.
Just because we feel negatively about ourselves doesn’t mean that’s who we are. It’s vital to accept that our thoughts and feelings are nothing more than long-established habits.
Of course, we don’t view our thoughts and feelings as habits. We like to believe we are independent thinkers. We like to believe our feelings are authentic. We never think of them as habits, like biting our nails or tapping our fingers. They feel natural because they are so very familiar.
We mistakenly believe things like, “I’m feeling shame, guilt, or envy. It must mean I’m not a good person. If I don’t feel good about myself, there must be something wrong with me, right?” Wrong! We make the mistake of believing that our feelings are a measure of what is real. They are not.
We are not our habits
In my therapy practice, I help people discover their habits and patterns of being. We often forget that we’re animals and, like other mammals, we are creatures of habit. Habits can be valuable when they allow us to be efficient and effective without thinking. However, many of them are not. When you repeat the same mistakes every day it can be painful. We might not consider our mistakes as habits, but they can be.
Take how we talk, for example. The phrases we use are like a script from a previous play. In the same way, many of our patterns of thinking and feeling are habits. But habits can be broken. We can quit smoking; curb our overeating; and stop being late, cursing, and procrastinating.
Looking at your habitual tendencies allows you to see yourself as a creature of habit. More importantly, it enables you to discover yourself as a decision maker. You can choose to do things differently. Choosing differently allows us to discover how we emotionally respond and how we can make new decisions. We can decide to do something different.
When we do what we want we produce feelings of joy rather than unnecessary anxiety. We can choose who we are and who we would like to become.