The Gift of Anxiety

The Gift of Anxiety

One Christmas, when I was much younger — perhaps just into my teenage years — my grandparents gave me a very special gift.  Although I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I still very clearly recall feeling terrifically excited one moment, terribly confused and disappointed the next.  When I pried open the large cardboard box, after tearing through the wrapping paper and enough Scotch tape to make a clear, adhesive straitjacket for one of my younger brothers, what did I find?  A heavy wool blanket for my bed!

Obviously, I did not initially regard this blanket as a very special a special gift.  This shift in perspective did not occur for years, really, until I was away at college, and living on my own.  During my junior and senior years of college, I lived in an off-campus apartment that had a single source of heat — a very small electric wall-unit in one of the corners of the living room.  On cold winter nights in that apartment, I would have been freezing in my futon bed without that wonderful wool blanket to keep me warm!  I still think of that blanket, which became so worn over time that I finally had to give it up, let it go.  I remember how painful my experiences of that blanket were at first (what kind of Christmas gift is a wool blanket for a teenage boy?), but also how I learned to value it, even treasure it, in later years.

Those among us who struggle with experiences of anxiety know all too well how intensely painful these experiences can be, and how easily the pain can begin to blanket our sense of anything positive in our lives.  As if the emotional anguish of anxiety weren’t enough, it often comes with physical discomfort — muscle tension, upset stomachs, and headaches, just to name a few common examples.  The emotional and physical distress combine to take a toll on our confidence, then, convincing us that something must be wrong with us, and that withdrawing or giving up are the only options that make sense for us, or are even the only options that are possible.  With such feelings of limitation and compromised self-esteem, we frequently experience increased emotional pain — a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, even what we could call depression.  No wonder those of us who struggle with experiences of anxiety tend to see anxiety as a curse, a way in which we’re broken, a wound that doesn’t heal.  Who wouldn’t feel this way, given what we go through?

As valid as this view is — and it is completely valid, given our profoundly and repeatedly painful experiences of anxiety — it seems to me to have the very unfortunate effect of perpetuating the very affliction from which we seek relief.  Seeing anxiety as a curse or a wound sets up a relationship between us and anxiety that is dominated by our sense of antipathy, resentment, and fear.  In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as our enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we often generate an even higher degree of tension for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm, courage, confidence that we desire.  Personally, I wonder how our experiences might be different if we were able to see our anxiety in another light, not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing or a source of healing, as odd as those ideas may sound.  What if, in keeping with the holiday season, we were able to see our anxiety as a gift?  What kind of relationship with anxiety would be possible for us if we were able to adopt this perspective?  What might the benefits be?

For me, the key to seeing anxiety differently — as a gift, for instance — lies in exploring those ways in which I can say that I am thankful for my experiences of it.  Sure, on the one hand, the very idea of being thankful for anxiety sounds absurd — even offensive, perhaps — given all the pain that we associate with feeling anxious; however, the frame of mind in which such an idea is absurd or offensive is the same frame of mind that is dominated by anxious, fearful, tense, and defensive thinking.  I am not intimating that we consider experiences of anxiety pleasant — I have already mentioned the myriad ways in which they are profoundly painful, in fact; what I am suggesting is that these very unpleasant, painful experiences call our attention to certain habits of thinking, associated feelings, and ways of responding in behavior that are not helpful to us — that limit, constrain, even debilitate us.

Anxiety, then, provides a doorway to healing, a prompt to us to examine our thoughts about ourselves, others, and our experiences, and to evaluate how well these thoughts are working for us.  If we don’t like the way that our thoughts are working for us, if we determine that they are exacerbating our anguish rather than helping us to feel more calm, courageous, and confident, we can decide to exchange them for thoughts that support us in having the different experiences that we want.  The curse, the wound of anxiety, becomes a source of healing, a gift for growth.

When I think about this idea — the gift of anxiety — I think back to the wool blanket that my grandparents gave me for Christmas when I was in my teenage years, and how, eventually, I grew to feel so thankful for it.  At first, of course, I felt only confused, disappointed, and frustrated — even a bit hurt and upset, to be honest.  I hadn’t asked for the blanket.  I didn’t want the blanket.  I even hated the way the blanket felt.  Who would ever be glad to have such a thing?  The very notion seemed preposterous to me.  Now, as I reflect on my experience, I know that I couldn’t have reacted any other way, given how I was thinking about the blanket at the time.  In the years that followed, as I learned to see ways in which the blanket was helpful to me, I began to think differently about the blanket itself, and my relationship to it changed, eased, became much less dominated by tension and aggravation.  Finally, I stopped thinking about the blanket as the heavy, scratchy burden on my bed that I had received instead of a new bike, music player, or something else that I had really wanted; instead, I thought about how the blanket served me well in ways that I had not expected, but came to value very much.

What are some of the ways in which you can say that anxiety has been a gift to you?  What welcome differences in your experiences of anxiety, and of life more generally, might experimenting with a perspective like this one might make possible for you?

With my very best wishes to you for increased calm, courage confidence during this holiday season, and in the coming year!



Updated: 01/13/2019

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

This month, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. We will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote — in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences; it helps us shift our perspective. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence — one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming weeks — or on Thanksgiving — but throughout the whole year. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?


Updated: 01/13/2019

Featured image: Photo by Kendall Lane on Unsplash

Worries Dancing with the Wind

Worries Dancing with the Wind

I think of the trees and how simply they let go.


May Sarton

For many of us, our worrying parts work very hard. If asked, these parts might contend that they are helping us — protecting us, even — by keeping us thinking ahead and preparing us for what could happen.  Unfortunately, what our worrying parts do for us, and the intensity with which they do it, both frequently come at a cost — to our physical well-being, and to our peace of mind

Imagine if these parts had their own sense of performing more extreme roles in our lives than they actually wanted to play.  They would be glad to give up some of their responsibilities, if only they felt that they could.  To feel free to relax, even just a little, they would want to believe that we no longer needed them to behave in the same old, exhausting ways.  And in all honesty, wouldn’t this assessment be absolutely accurate?  We really would do fine without all that worry; we might even find ourselves thriving!

Just think: With this understanding, this new perspective, we could negotiate new roles for these long-suffering, worrying parts.  They could always return to their old jobs — temporarily — if an experience of anxiety ever really seemed necessary; otherwise, however, they could support us in ways that would leave us with a much greater sense of calm, courage, and confidence.  Perhaps they would want to serve as trusted advisors or consultants, helping us simply to notice what’s around us, and then to consider — rather than fret about — how we want to respond.  Freed at last from chronic overwork, liberated from their extreme worrying roles, these parts might celebrate!  Wouldn’t you?

What worrying parts of yourself would you like to release?  How will you know when you’re ready?  How will you proceed?

When she was ready, she let her worries go like falling leaves; released at last from their long obligation, they danced with the wind as they went.


Scott Kahler

Updated: 01/13/2019

Photo by Nine Köpfer on Unsplash

What Do You Choose to See?

What Do You Choose to See?

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.

— Barry Neil Kaufman
duck-rabbit_illusion

What do you see when you look at the image to the right?  A duck?  A rabbit? Both?  If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”?  If multiple ways of seeing the image are possible, which one of them do you prefer?  Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

What We Choose to See Makes a Difference

While these kinds of questions may seem a bit silly when we’re talking about an image (You may be asking yourself, “Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), I contend that the considerations they represent have significant implications in our day-to-day lives.  To quote Barry Neil Kaufman, “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.”  In my own experience, I’ve noticed over and over again that what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact.  Seeing multiple possibilities for meaning in any given experience gives me a wider range of possible responses; I’m often able to choose one of the more helpful options, then.

An Example of Choice

Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase.  The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business.  In this situation, I could see the cashier as “rude” or “disrespectful,” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong.  With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again.  I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.

Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked.  Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries.  If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her.  Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment.  If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “disrespectful,” I might be able to wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfying service the next time that I experience it, if I experience it again.

The Difference a Choice Makes

From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others.  If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I responded, with a sense of calm and confidence — happier all around!  Although I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.

What Do You Choose to See?

There is always more than one way to look at things.  In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us, given the kind of experience that we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more.

In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that aren’t working?  What would a different way of seeing be?  If you saw differently, what would the benefits be?  What would support you in making this shift in perception?  Why are you waiting?


Updated: 02/14/2019

Featured Image: Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Embedded Image: File:Duck-Rabbit illusion.jpg (Wikimedia Commons)

"It's Not Easy Bein' Green"

“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”

I have seen a cartoon recently that gives me a chuckle, and prompts reflection, every time I think of it.  In the foreground, the cartoon features a male physician sitting at his desk, looking at an X-ray.  On the other side of the desk, we see the patient whose X-ray the physician has in hand.  Although the physician addresses his patient as “señor Gustavo” (the cartoon is in Spanish), I can hardly imagine a reader in the U.S. who wouldn’t recognize the patient. The patient is one of Jim Henson’s most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog, who croons the song, “Bein’ Green,” with its well-known line, “It’s not easy bein’ green.”

In the X-ray that the physician is holding, we can see the bones of a human forearm inside the outline of the patient’s body. The wrist is at neck level, and the hand is occupying the head, the thumb beneath the lower jaw and … well, you know how a puppet works.  Loosely translated, the physician is saying to Kermit, who has been known as “la rana Gustavo” — Gustavo the Frog — in Spain, “Have a seat, Mr. Gustavo … what I have to tell you may come as a complete shock.”  There is another version of this cartoon that I’ve seen on Facebook in which the physician’s words to Kermit are rendered, “What I’m about to tell you is gonna change your life forever. Are you really sure you want to know it?

A Puppet to Unhelpful Perspectives

When I think about this cartoon, I find myself reflecting on what Kermit hasn’t seemed to realize on his own, and is about to learn from his physician. In spite of any sense of freedom that Kermit has experienced and thought of himself as having in his life, he has been a puppet. He has not been in nearly as much control of himself as he may have imagined. For me, this idea parallels a realization I’ve often experienced whenever I’ve been feeling stymied or stuck. In these moments — though usually only when my perspective has already begin to shift, unfortunately — I realize that I’ve been subjecting myself to limiting ways of thinking and talking. I realize that, in feeling stymied and stuck, I’ve been a puppet to perspectives that haven’t been working for me, and that I didn’t even notice!

Cutting the Strings

Take, as just one example, the reaction that I had last fall to the arrival of colder temperatures in the area where I live. I had been working since mid-summer to develop a new, healthy habit of running outside. I had been excited about my achievements, and enjoying the process.  When cold weather came sooner than I was expecting, I began to complain. I was reluctant to hit the trail in my t-shirt and shorts, but also resistant to the idea of moving my running inside — to a treadmill at the gym — or investing in warmer running gear.  I found myself oscillating between an emotional state of “Woe is me!” and feeling mad at the weather. I let this experience grind my routine to a sulky halt for almost a week.  In my pouting, I was a puppet to my feelings of disappointment, fear, frustration, and loss.

Finally, I acknowledged to myself that I had actually learned to love running outside over the past few months, that I didn’t want to run in the cold, and that I would really miss running outside when there was snow and ice on the ground. At that point, I decided that, as much sense as my sulking might make under the circumstances, I wanted to have a different experience.  Approaching the situation from the perspective of asking myself, “What’s the opportunity here?” I identified at least a two options of response. As one way of responding, I could learn about and purchase warmer running gear, and tackle the trail in the colder temperatures with this added insulation. Alternatively, or even simultaneously, I could get a head start on moving my running indoors for the winter. After all, I knew that there would likely be days at a stretch when I wouldn’t want to run outside, even with warmer clothes, because of the snow and ice on the ground. I ended up choosing to take my running indoors, and although I was looking forward to warmer weather so that I could be more comfortable outside again, I was still running in the meantime, which is really what I wanted to be doing.

How Do You Cut the Strings?

How do you deal with “bein’ green” — finding yourself a puppet to perspectives that harm or hinder you, rather than help you?  If you took to heart the idea that you can choose to think about things in ways that work for you, and for others, that you don’t have to be a puppet to the less helpful ways, how would this change you — your life — forever?


Updated: 02/13/2019

Featured image credit: alptraum / 123RF Stock Photo

Beauty in the Cracks

Seeing Beauty in the Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in  — Leonard Cohen

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.  — Confucius

Feeling the Pinch of Anxiety

One evening recently, I took a two-hour class at a local art center. In the class, each of us made a pinch pot — which could take the form of a mug, bowl, or vase — from a ball of clay. To make a pinch pot, I learned, one pushes one’s thumb into the center of a ball of clay to start the opening. One then pinches (hence, the name) and turns the ball of clay between the thumb and fingers to form and thin the walls of the pot, and finally to shape the rim.

As I followed this process, I found myself feeling anxious about what I was deeming to be imperfections in my pot — cracks that had started to form in the clay, a lop side, an errant undulation in the rim. I was not the only person in the room to have this kind of response. Other members of the class were nervous, too, about the imperfections they saw in their own creations. The instructor was very kind and reassuring to all of us, offering pointers for addressing issues that may have really been serious — structurally speaking, I suppose — but also complimenting some of the other characteristics that seemed to worry us the most.

A Kintsukuroi Perspective

As I left the class that night, reflecting on the process of making my pinch pot, and on the anxiety I had experienced in the process, I found my thoughts turning over an image and its accompanying text that I had seen on Facebook and Twitter a while ago, and that had recently resurfaced in my feeds.

If you recognize the word, “kintsukuroi,” you may well know it, as I do, from the very image and text that I’m talking about; for an example of the image, click here. The image is one of a gray pottery bowl, veined with gold to dramatic effect, which illustrates the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, or kintsugi. In this art, broken pottery is mended with a lacquer resin to which powdered gold has been added. In the text accompanying the image that I had seen, kintsukuroi is described as demonstrating the perspective that “the piece [of pottery] is more beautiful for having been broken.”

As I had fretted in my pottery class over aspects of my pinch pot that I was perceiving as imperfect, parts that I was judging as “not good enough,” I was struggling to hold onto an idea that I associate with the Japanese art of  kintsukuroi, or kintsugi: We can, in fact, choose to see beauty in the very cracks and errant undulations that we so frequently want to “correct,” cover up, distract attention from, or otherwise disavow.

What if We Saw More Beauty in the Cracks?

I wonder how different our lives would be if we saw beauty, rather than imperfection and brokenness, in more of the “cracks” around us, in those aspects of ourselves, others, and our experiences to which we tend to respond with judgment and worry, fear, and sometimes animosity. Wouldn’t we feel more calm, compassionate, content, or even confident? If we imagine that we would, and these feelings interest us, what new ways of thinking and behaving would support this shift in perspective? If we are already able to experience “a kintsukuroi perspective” at times in our lives, what do we identify as contributing to it?


Updated: 01/26/2019

Featured image: Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash