A few years back, a very kind coworker of mine surprisingly blurted out that he thought anxiety was made up. It was pretty shocking, since this person was a great listener and all around pretty understanding guy. But in his experience, he simply “didn’t understand why people did it to themselves.” It got me thinking. I always assumed that those who didn’t understand the physical realities of anxiety were self-centered, unsympathetic jerk-faces. But here was a friend of mine, whom I deeply respected, suddenly saying that he thought worrying was a choice.
That day, it hit me that some people genuinely do not experience the cycle of worry that some of us have faced ever since we found out that we could get lost in the grocery store when we were five. I have spent the better part of my teenage and twenty-somethng years diving into the different approaches to address anxiety. I am happy to say it no longer runs my life, even though it is still very present. The major difference is that I have learned to recognize the funny little battle that goes on in my mind each time I make a decision or face a new experience out in the real world.
I can never speak for anyone else’ experience with anxiety, since we are all such special worrisome snowflakes, so it would be unfair to say that this is everyone’s process. And yet, these are the three characters I have become deeply familiar with over my years.
Please allow me to introduce you to:
The Three Voices of Anxiety
Reality: Sees things the way they are. Reality knows the facts, can see the dangers, but also sees the safety net. It’s mathematical! Practical! Believes in the power of facts!
Worry: Worry is a bit like Chuckie from Rugrats (well now my age is out of the bag). It’s looking around each corner just in case there is something else to be done to make the situation a little safer. Worry is quite active and wants to fix! Fix everything!
Judgment: Judgment is a bit of a jerk. It takes the motivation that Worry is still hanging onto and tells you to get back on the couch, because you probably can’t fix anything anyway. Judgment doesn’t get along with reality at all, which is why they had to be on separate sides of the infographic.
Let me explain how they nag each other during what seem to be normal situations.
1. You are hired for a great position.
Reality: We are starting a new job! Our efforts paid off, and now we are going to be welcomed and praised for our great talents! Hooray!
Worry: Hold it, Reality. There’s a chance that they made a mistake and are still hiring us on a trial period, I bet there’s a chance they’ll change their mind. What if I don’t live up to what they think I am?
Reality: They hired us, we’re good. What we said during the interview was not BS.
Judgment: Are you sure about that?
Reality: Oh Christ, what do you want?
Judgment: I’m just saying that Worry has a point. I mean look at him already griping about this. Clearly he isn’t up to the job. Probably best to just call and give up.
Worry: Well I wouldn’t want to quit because that would leave them in a jam and make me look unprofessional.
Judgment: But at least they can find someone better.
Worry: But what if I’m wrong?
Reality: Both of you, hush. All we know is that we got hired. Go to the job, take it from there. Worry- have some wine.
2. Driving on the highway
Reality: We have 251 miles left to go! No traffic and clear skies!
Worry: I keep feeling this weird bumping feeling…do you feel that? Do you think it’s the tires?
Reality: We checked the tires. They’re good.
Judgment: You know, you aren’t exactly a car mechanic…
Reality: (rolls eyes, takes a seat)
Worry: You’re totally right, Judgey, what if there is something wrong the tires that we couldn’t see? Like a nail!
Judgment: You know, if the tire pops, you’re all the way in the left lane, what do you think will happen?
Reality: Okay, there are no nails in the tires and there is nothing wrong with the car. Please focus on the road. Judgment, hush.
Judgment: Why do you always think you know everything?
Reality: Don’t you question me.
3. Talking to someone you want to impress
Worry: There’s totally something on my nose.
Reality: There’s nothing on your nose.
Worry: I can see it though, I can see something on my nose out of the corner of my eye.
Reality: It’s a freckle, you have always had that freckle.
Worry: Do you think it’s cancer?
Judgment: Wow, you’re really blowing this conversation aren’t you?
Worry: You’re right! I’ve been thinking about my nose.
Reality: They didn’t even notice. This conversation is totally in your head. You’re doing great. Look, they’re smiling!
Judgment: I bet they feel sorry for you.
Worry: You’re right! They feel sorry that I have a cancerous freckle on my nose!
Reality: I can’t take you two today, I’m gonna go take a nap. Good luck!
Befriending your Demons
Tsultrim Allione is a Buddhist teacher and author included in the book Buddha’s Daughters, a collection essays by female buddhists I recently read. In her essay, “Meeting the Demon,” she tells the story of when Gandhi invited a police officer into his home for tea before being arrested. By the end of their conversation, the policemen understood the protests Gandhi had arranged and changed his mind about the arrest. Allione goes on to explain how to “invite your demons” in to sit with you opposed to trying to bury them in the ground.
My biggest breakthrough with the three contrasting voices above came when I finally allowed them to all say what they needed to say. I saw them as a natural presence, like allergies in pollen season or a stomach ache after eating too much. If I have a physical ailment, I rest and respect that I need time to regain my health. Now when I hear these anxieties creeping up, I try to give each their own space and then ask what they all need from me to feel better. Quite often, Reality needs to be recognized, Worry needs to be comforted, and Judgment needs to be supported with tales on self-worth and confidence. When you feed your demons, you are letting them rest.
I hope that if these stories speak to you as someone struggling with anxiety or as someone who has never quite understood it, you feel welcome to share your story below. I am sure that there are millions of variations of “voices”, reactions, and experiences floating around out there that are all helpful to someone else’ understanding.
Thank you for reading and happy Wednesday!