As I’ve more than happily sang a few times, I recently suffered from an anxiety disorder and am working on changing my behavior. Changing my behavior is tough and slow and painful, but I’m trying. Anxiety is a normal physiological response that everyone experiences, however, I consider mine a disorder because my anxiety has had negative physical, mental, and financial effects on my life. I made myself unemployed and homeless, okay! My anxiety is what makes me think I’m doing something wrong, when really I’m doing everything right.
One of the ways my anxiety affects my life is the way that I deal with uncertainty. Uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of life. It’s impossible to know what will happen or how someone will react to something that hasn’t even been said yet. Or, my version… to know that if you follow your plan for the next ten years you will be happy and successful and get everything you want in life and you will never get hurt or angry or disappointed and everyone will love you and respect you and care about you and want what’s best for you even if it’s not what’s best for them and happily ever after. LOL. Sadly, Conflict, rejection, and disappointment are also a natural and unavoidable part of life. I’d tried to avoid them – hence the coping mechanism of running away, but sadly it didn’t work. I had to experience the bitter and the sweet. There are healthy ways to deal with these challenging life experiences, and there are unhealthy ways.
Here’s some unhealthy ways I’ve dealt with uncertainty that I’m trying not to do anymore, and also why I’m trying to stop: personalizing, mind reading, and ruminating.
Personalizing is when, when you don’t know why someone is acting a certain way, instead of accepting the fact that you don’t know why, you will make it about yourself.
On Monday, I went went to a new urgent care that my mom recommended. I asked the receptionist, “Hi, I forgot my purse, but wanted to check when I could see the doctor and how soon I could get the TB test done. I’m applying to be a teacher, and have to have the certificate for November 1st.”
She barely looked me in the eye, and said, “Just come back later, after lunch – Doctor has a dentist app so come back this afternoon.” She looked at me, “Okay?” She seemed agitated.
“Okay,” I said, while thinking to myself, “Gosh, that’s rude. I don’t think she likes me. I don’t want to come back here.” Then I left the office and began to worry about where I would go instead of this office as I didn’t feel valued or respected by this woman.
I had some lunch and three hours later, with my purse, I returned to the urgent care.
“Ahh, you’re back!” she said with a warm, welcoming smile. Dammit. I’d done it again. Personalizing!
I began to think about what actually happened during our interaction this morning. It was 20 minutes before they closed for lunch. The Doctor had a dentist appointment during his lunch break so she was worried he would run over and be late. There were three people still in the waiting room. Of course she was agitated! She was busy with a tight deadline. It wasn’t me! Anxiety Sam at it again.
Mind reading is when you don’t know how someone will respond, you imagine all the different ways they could and, usually, assume the worst. Often after mind reading, you will be too afraid to even ask the question you want to ask and thus never find out the actual response and never actually get what you wanted or needed.
I was dating this guy, and things were going really well. He was so funny and kind and genuine! I really thought that there was something there. After about a month and a half, my friend was having a Halloween Party and I had the idea to invite him. I thought it would be a nice way to introduce him to my friends and welcome him into my life without the intensity of a double date. He’s also new to Los Angeles, so I thought it might be nice for him to make new friends. He’d taken me to meet some of his friends and his extended family, and that was nice.
And then I began to imagine what he would think when I asked him. Oh no she loves me! Gosh, she is so clingy and thinks I want to be her boyfriend, when I don’t. This is just casual. That’s what she said on her Bumble profile, and now she’s trying to boyfriend me. I don’t want to go and meet your friends, it’s too far away. I have a competition in the morning so I can’t make it, anyway. And that party is like 2 weeks away. What if we’re no longer dating by then! Or get in a fight. I don’t want to plan that far in the future. I hate expectations. I began to think about the times that he’d said that he doesn’t like planning in advance, and that he’s pretty busy on the weekend and has other priorities he wants to focus on. I began to imagine how hurt and rejected I would feel, and that I might feel the need to stop seeing him because of the pain. So I never even invited him.
I ended up sending a message the day before the party saying that he made me feel anxious and that I thought we’d been miscommunicating, and our expectations were not the same, and that we should meet in the next two weeks to have a pint.
At the party, I thought about how nice it would have been if he was there and how he would have loved my friends. A memory from our second date came into my mind. Us dunking ourselves in a water fountain at 2am outside our hotel in San Diego. How he encouraged me when I was afraid and how supported I felt! His big, warm smile. And now, it was basically over.
I’d let my anxiety get the best of me and had pushed him away when really I wanted the opposite. Plus, maybe he did want to go to the party. Since I didn’t actually ask him, I don’t know how he would have responded. Anxiety Sam strikes again!
Ruminating is when you think about something to the point that it hurts you instead of helps you. Some people just like to think a lot, the psychological phrase is ‘need for cognition’ – I’m one of those people. I enjoy effortful thinking and feel motivated and proud when I try to understand and make sense of things. But there comes a point where it becomes unhealthy. A few examples include: replaying difficult conversations, failures, or small errors; thinking about what you should have done or what you should be like; and thinking about where you should be in your life.
After the text, he responded by saying that he’s been busy and that his Grandpa is in the hospital. (Fuck me! Personalizing again.) I responded by apologizing about his Grandpa and that I understood that his mind needed to be on that. I said that I felt we had a unique connection, but that we had been miscommunicating and that I would like to meet and talk in the next two weeks. I also said that if he wanted to talk about his feelings about his Grandpa, I’d be happy to listen. He hasn’t responded or texted or anything. It’s been five days!
The next day, I thought about sending him a text to check in and see how his Grandpa was doing, but decided against it. I’d already said that, and it’s not like it was my Grandpa! Yes, I’d met him and he was delightful, but it wasn’t my responsibility to check in on Nathan or his Grandpa. I’m not his Mom! I’m not even his girlfriend, though I’d had some thoughts about becoming that person. I did consider myself his spiritual partner, but again, I already said that I was happy to listen! When I began to reminisce at the party, I began to feel bad for myself that I had communicated so poorly and that my anxiety had prevented me from getting what I wanted.
Around day three I started to feel guilty. I had this book that I’d bought for him as a gift that I kept forgetting to give him. I had the idea to write him a thoughtful letter and drop it at his house. I wrote the letter, made a bookmark, and bought some watermelon jerky (Watermelons are his favorite! And jerky- how unique!). I put it all in a package and wrote his name in big letters. I went all the way to putting it in the front seat of my car, before I thought, “What is my intention in doing this?”
AHHHHHHHHHH! I began to play out different scenarios of his response, as well as what I hoped would happen after I dropped the package off. I began to imagine driving up to his house. What if I ran into him? What if his light was on? How would I feel! What if there was another girl there! (It had happened before to me – and boy did that hurt!) Was I trying to be manipulative and guilt him into meeting with me? Was this in response to all those that had denied me the closure that I had sought, and I thought, maybe if I said nice things and gave him a gift he would respect my request? But didn’t I want him to meet with me because he respected me and wanted to see me, not because I gave him a thoughtful present and he could benefit from dating me? Had I given gifts before? How did those experiences pan out? AHHHHHHHHHHH!
I decided to wait until my therapy session the next day before deciding what I would do.
My therapist wisely said, “Do whatever will bring you peace. There are many things that you could do, but the thing that makes you feel calm and quiets your thoughts – that is your true self.” She also suggested that perhaps this was a dysfunctional behavior cycle, and asked if I had responded in similar ways to triggers before. Oh no, it was. I had given gifts in response to guilt after vocalizing my wants and needs and receiving an unsatisfying response. Oh noo… it was happening again!
I went to Dough Girl, where I go every Tuesday for my post-therapy pizza and reflection time, and began to map out cycles from my past. Ohh boy, there was a pattern alright. I then reread the chapter in The Anxiety Toolkit on Hesitancy, and did one of the exercises.
Alice suggests writing the outcome that you fear will happen, and then brainstorming alternative positive outcomes. She also suggested writing what will happen if you don’t act.
Feared outcome: He gets mad, thinks I’m manipulating him and that I’m desperate and weak and that I am super in love and letting him walk all over me and take advantage of my kindness and caring nature.
Alternative outcome: He likes the gift, it makes him feel better, and he texts me to go for a drink where we clarify and both leave with our needs met.
Alternative outcome: I wait and give the gift when we meet for a drink after he has texted me when he is ready and say that I didn’t want him to feel pressured to meet me and to text me out of guilt and tell the whole story of all the overthinking I did. It will be pretty clear since I sealed the package, then opened it to add a sentence to the letter I wrote, and then taped it up again. Also because I wrote the date on the letter, and so it’s already pretty clear of the mental roller coaster I went on. Then he either accepts me for the anxiety I have and better understands my anxiety disorder and can better support me in overcoming this, or he stops dating me, and I find someone that does.
If I don’t:
Option 1: He will think I don’t like him or care and that I don’t want to date him romantically.
Option 2: He will reflect on what I have said and how he feels and message me when he is ready to have an open conversation where I can better communicate how I feel about him.
And, after all that reflection – I decided to give him the package when we meet for drinks because I trust that he will respect my request and take my thoughts and feelings seriously. I also trust that he will communicate appropriately if he wants to talk about his Grandpa or if things have gotten worse and that he cannot meet me within the 2 week period that I have asked to meet within.
I also accidentally began writing this blog post which basically divulges my entire thinking process in regard to the triggers that he unintentionally set off, which I will probably let him read before I publish / read out loud to him at our drinks, which kinda makes me feel at peace because I know that I have fully been able to express in words all the thoughts and feelings I have been having.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming.
Yeah, it’s very detailed and specific and a lot of overthinking.
Yeah, I’m a highly-sensitive person and feel most comfortable expressing myself in writing.
Yeah, I suffer from anxiety and have some intense communication issues that I need to change my behavior around. I’m very aware and working on it. #meta #ruminating
But, I’m being my true self and that makes me feel at peace, so if you don’t like it – go date someone else.
Now if only it didn’t take me five days of rumination to come to this conclusion.
Don’t feel guilty about expressing your wants and needs, especially when they are not being met. Your thoughts and feelings are valid and deserve to be responded to appropriately. It is the responsibility of the other person to communicate effectively and take action if they would like to continue to be trusted and respected by you.
If they don’t value your relationship then they will invalidate your thoughts and feelings, but then you know that this is not a relationship worth investing in and will save yourself much pain and heartbreak in the future.
Information read from Dr. Alice Boyes – The Anxiety Toolkit.