How your anxiety is trying to help you, and why you need to make friends with it

When anxiety is crashing around in your life, making everything so much more difficult – if not impossible – and leaving you gasping for air and feeling like a steamroller has flattened you, it can be difficult to think of it as being in any way helpful.

How can it be helpful to have something in your life that’s constantly stopping you from doing what you want to do, making you doubt yourself, making you feel bad about yourself, making you settle for less than what you really want?

If you had a friend or a loved one that did that to you repeatedly you’d cut them adrift, wouldn’t you.

Wouldn’t you?

When you were a child, your parents probably often said and did lots of things to make you behave in the way they wanted and to stop you doing things you wanted to do – because they loved you and wanted to keep you safe (and also, let’s be fair, sometimes because they had just HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR NONSENSE FOR ONE DAY!) At the time though, you might not have realised their reasons and it probably made you feel frustrated, upset, angry, rebellious, sad – any and all of those negative feelings. This is what lies beneath a lot of the conflict we experience with our parents as teenagers – it’s a time when we appreciate their love and support less and less and feel increasingly stifled, put-upon and mistreated. Sometimes we find it hard to feel any love for them at all, and can’t wait to escape from them.  But even then, deep inside, even if we have the worst relationship in the world with our parents, our need to be loved and protected by them still remains. People who grew up without loving, protective parents experience an aching emptiness deep inside – so even if you hated your parents’ attempts to keep you safe, as an adult you can understand that it was done from a place of love (even while having had enough of your nonsense for one day).

As you grew up, you took on your parents’ role and started learning to keep yourself safe. You will have used some of their methods on yourself and you will also have internalised a lot of their messages and methods for how to keep yourself safe. You will also have internalised the things they did to (apparently) keep themselves safe from you – “Go away, you’re giving me a headache”, “Don’t argue with me”, “Because I said so”, “I don’t care what you want, you’re having this”. If you didn’t do what they wanted, you learned that you put yourself in dangerous territory, and so you complied.

When you think back you’ll realise that over the years people have said and done various things to try to keep you and themselves safe – your wider family, teachers, friends, partners – all will have had an impact on what you now believe it is “safe” for you to do.

And so the way you live your life now is boundaried by all these internalised messages about how to behave in a way that keeps you safe. You are walking around every day with your hazard detection suit on and it does a very good job of stopping you from running out in front of cars, walking barefoot on broken glass, getting into cars with strangers, eating rotten food, sharing your bank details with the world and so on. You don’t have to think about any of that stuff, it just happens because it’s hardwired into you.

And other safety precautions are hardwired in as well, precautions that are definitely trying to keep you safe but are maybe less helpful these days. I’ve come up with a list of things we tell ourselves, and some suggestions for how they may have come about. How many of these ring true for you?

  • Don’t speak up in meetings because you might be wrong and then everyone will know you’re an idiot (ever got the answer wrong in class and been ridiculed by the teacher or your peers?)
  • Don’t challenge your manager’s bullying behaviour because you might get into trouble for it (ever got punished for answering back by a domineering parent?)
  • Don’t ask for a pay rise because you shouldn’t really have been promoted this far so you shouldn’t rock the boat (ever been told you’re not as clever as you think you are by someone that was threatened by your intellect?)
  • Don’t play to win because if everyone finds out how clever you really are they won’t like you (ever been called a wierdo/nerd by people who want you to dumb down to thier level?)
  • Don’t tell people how you feel because your feelings aren’t important (ever been told to stop showing off when upset about something as a child?)
  • Don’t ask for what you want because you don’t deserve to have it (ever been repeatedly told you have to have the cheapest version available as a child, or just had everything you want point-blank refused?)

I could go on, and I’m sure you could add to my list but I think I’ve made my point.

Every safety precaution on my list has developed as a result of lessons we learned in childhood. Here’s an example.

It only takes a couple of times of being ridiculed for getting an answer wrong for you to start feeling anxious the next time a question is asked, and then second-guessing yourself about whether or not you do really know the answer. And then that develops into not wanting to answer any questions at all, and then moves on to not wanting to say anything at all, and so it develops into feeling anxious in any situation when you might be called upon to say something in front of other people. And all the while, your anxiety is going round and round in your head, clamping your jaws shut in case you say something and make a fool of yourself in front of the class.

Your anxiety is basically a much smaller, younger, more frightened version of the adult you. What it needs is love and support from the adult you to help it learn which of its safety precautions are helpful and which ones are actually stopping you from enjoying a properly fruitful adult life. Getting to know and love the anxious child inside you is a key part of dealing with your anxiety and my free resource, Listen To Yourself, is one way of getting started.

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