Honor your anxiety? Sounds crazy, right? Anxiety symptoms make you feel terrible. Why in the world would anxiety be worthy of honor?
One thing I have repeatedly observed over the years is that most anxiety symptoms served a purpose at some point in life. Trouble arises when the symptoms outlive their usefulness. They become problematic when the distress they cause outweighs the benefit they formerly provided.
Take a close look at your anxiety symptoms. No, really. I realize I’m asking you to peer into a dark hole you work very, very hard to avoid at all costs. But the symptoms are there, and they don’t appear to be spontaneously abating, so go ahead and haul ’em out and take a look. At some point, an earlier version of those symptoms or behaviors probably helped you get through something difficult.
A few examples might help here.
A little girl becomes an anxious child, worrying a lot about perfectly performing her school work or music or sport. Her focus and worry leads to success, and she gleans a sense of power and control over that one corner of her life. This is helpful for her because the rest of her life feels out of control due to a parent with addiction problems. She is powerless to improve the troubled home life the parent’s addiction creates, but she can find some relief in perfectly controlling her flute solo, science grade or volleyball serve. Later, her perfectionism makes her feel anxious and inadequate and begins to be a stumbling block in her career and relationships. Seeking control through perfection helped her get through a difficult time when she had limited or no power. Now, it’s not so helpful.
It’s important to recognize when anxiety symptoms have overstayed their welcome. It is equally important to honor the symptoms for what they did for you in the past.
Recognize it. Honor it. Release it from duty.
A man struggles with social anxiety to the point that it is difficult for him to attend important social events with his loving wife. As a teenager, he always felt like he didn’t measure up. His father berated him every time he made a mistake and his mother was too involved in his sisters’ activities to take much notice. His parents seemed pretty normal and no one from county services was banging down the door to intervene, so the boy thought this was normal. He could never discern the magic formula, though, to please his father. The only thing that really made sense was that there was something wrong with him. The boy must be the problem. He wasn’t good enough. The best way he could figure out how to deal with it was to watch his every step, always consider his next move, worry about how it might look and assume that people would be critically watching and evaluating him negatively. If he worried about it and focused on it enough, he might sometimes get it right or at least avoid criticism.
This thought process helped him make sense of the world around him when it was controlled by an overbearing father. Dad made him feel inadequate so therefore he must be inadequate. He couldn’t change his father, but there was solace in making meaning of the situation. Now that he is a successful adult with a job and a family, he has trouble shaking that negative self-image and seeing himself more clearly. In reality, it was never about the boy. The problem was about his flawed father who was making parenting mistakes. Assuming he wasn’t good enough was the boy’s best effort at understanding a situation that made no sense.
Recognize it. Honor it. Release it from duty.
When you look at the ways anxiety rears its head in your life, can you find echoes of what may have been your best effort at handling a difficult situation? If you’re still having trouble seeing this in your own anxiety symptoms, look for the times and places where you had limited or no power to improve your situation. The mind does funny things when we feel like we have no control. It will cast about for power and control in whatever ways it can grasp, or try to find meaning in inexplicable circumstances.
Honoring your anxiety symptoms for the ways they served you well in the past may not eliminate your anxiety. Here’s what it can do. It allows you to see yourself as a creative problem solver who was doing the best they could in a difficult time. It gives you room to feel some gratitude for what your brain did to protect you. It can help you have a little compassion toward yourself when you see that anxiety is often a problem in the present that started out as a solution in the past. It is worthy of honor. It is also no longer useful. Release it from duty.