Anxiety. Three days of hard work and I overcame the unhealthy hold it had on my life.
It sounds like a television testimonial that will ask you to buy their product, doesn’t it?
From one perspective, it took only a few days of focused attention and emotional tumult to knock down anxiety and improve my self-worth. There was much prep work, however, and attention to detail afterwards to make sure these gains were not lost. I made gains against anxiety in the past – but had never been able to hold onto them. Anxiety always came back.
Nine years ago, I made permanent progress, but laying the groundwork took two years and consolidating gains took another two. Monitoring continues today and anxiety remains in a healthy place.
Two events gave me a strong push to action: a near death experience leaving me with third degree burns on my left leg and a journal entry from 25 years earlier showing how little progress I had made with anxiety.
I already knew the difficult stuff…
I over-thought everything. Second-guessing myself was second nature. Second-guessing my second-guessing could go on indefinitely. I lived more in my mind than the real world. When I made a decision, I could not enjoy it because I kept thinking about the alternatives. I dismissed “outside the box” thinking because I could not act on those thoughts. Thinking became narrower, circular. There were fewer choices.
I also needed perfection. If I was not able to be perfect, why act in the first place? Guilt grew from lack of action, frustration from wondering what might have been. I alternated between 1) placing myself below others; 2) thinking “I am better than you”; 3) self-criticism for not meeting my own standards. I did not let others get to know me. I blamed others for aspects of myself I did not like. My self-esteem stunk. Others did not respect me. I did not respect myself. I was hyper-aware of my ‘deficiencies’. I was tired of it. It was time for a breakthrough.
At the time, I was on vacation in South Dakota. There was an actual fork in the road. I had planned to go south to Jewel Cave, but second-guessed that I should first go north to Deadwood. I did not over-think this seemingly simple choice. I acted quickly on my first thought. This limited second-guessing and eliminated continual over-thinking. It was nice. I told myself I should make a decision again sometime to remind myself what it felt like. It was a tangible act I could learn from.
Going to Jewel Cave first led me to the mountaintop. Harney Peak, South Dakota to be exact, and not the meaning of life, but another learning experience. Coming down from my hike, I met two people asking about the trail. I gave them information that I did not possess hours earlier. It wasn’t much, but through action, I knew something that I could share with others. It felt good.
About the same time, I recognized everyone has anxiety. I began to stop judging those who dealt with theirs differently from me. I recognized it was not selfish to have my own needs and to work towards meeting them. Caring about and for others was good. Neglecting my own interests, however, led to so much dysfunction.
I needed more out of my relationships. This would happen only by opening up. Vulnerability, though, is scary because it gives power to others. It had to be balanced by asking others to open up to me. If they could not, relationships would have to change or end. It was about loving myself and loving others. Acknowledging the validity of my voice, honoring and respecting myself. Honoring others at the same time. Accepting my past, the present, and the growth I hoped for.
Small steps led to big change. Coaching myself continues today: do not get scared off when there is hurt; do not beat myself up when not attaining a goal; remember, it is a process; be gentle with myself when needed; acknowledge accomplishments.
Vulnerability provokes anxiety, but it can be fun. Going outside my comfort zone, I had to force myself to do things that felt unnatural – like talking. I look at it as a learning experience. My goal: slowly improve while expecting positive and negative spikes. Pay attention to where difficulties may be.
Reggie E., MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor. Reggie has a master’s degree in Social Work as well as bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to a career change to social work, he worked in a variety of fields including banking, trucking and metal fabrication.