When I awoke this morning, I had an epiphany. Could the cause of anxiety be about not meeting expectations? Or about your expectations not being met? I recently read an article that talks about the damage unmet expectations in marriage can do to a relationship. I have also seen it discussed in some of the books I’ve read over the last couple of months (in particular, Unfuck Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life by Gary John Bishop – a quick and interesting read. I highly recommend it). It got me thinking about how this applies to the increasing number of people who suffer from anxiety. I believe it is a driver of mine from very early on in my life (both feeling like I’m not meeting expectations, and that my expectations are not being met). In my case, I think it started with feeling as though I wasn’t living up to the expectations of my father. And then later in life, of my friends and family. We put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves to conform to what we feel society expects us to be (good students; good friends; good at sports, music, chess, whatever it is you do that turns you on). I’m a people pleaser by nature. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to be the best I can be at everything I do. And that’s a lot to live up to.
My anxiety kicked in full force when I was 24 years old, although, I was probably experiencing anxiety before then without really realizing it (I grew up in a relatively anxious household). I was in Jamaica. I vividly remember going to bed, my head hitting the pillow and then whoosh! A feeling I had never experienced before overcame me, and I jumped up out of bed. My heart was pounding, my face was numb, and I could barely get a word out of my mouth. I didn’t know it then, but I was having my first panic attack. I paced the hallway of the hotel the entire night, debating whether to go to the hospital. Was I having a heart attack? Did someone put something in my drink? I finally crashed from exhaustion at about 8 in the morning. We had to cancel our day trip because I was completely wiped out from wondering what the hell was happening to me all night. That trip didn’t go so well from there, and I came back to Toronto and started what would be a number of years of medical and psychological testing and treatments. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have done various therapies over the years. I’ll share more on those later.
Back to the unmet expectations. I like to set goals for myself. And I expect that I will meet them. So what happens when I don’t necessarily have control over a situation? What happens when I start to realize that I may not meet those goals? I feel anxious. I start to think “what if I can’t do it, what if I fail, what if, what if, what if, what if!). OMG! Could you feel the panic starting to develop? I bet if you paid close attention, you probably say it to yourself more than you think. Self-talk has a massive impact on your emotions, and it is deadly for those with anxiety. Through talk therapy, I have learned to identify and re-frame those negative thoughts. Listen, I’m not perfect, I still have “what if” moments, but I’m now able to short circuit them before they get so out of hand that I’m in full blown panic mode. There are situations that arise every single day where I wonder if I’m going to be able to live up to expectations (mine, and others), but I’m learning to tame them, to not let them be a guiding force.
In his book, Unfuck Yourself, Gary John Bishop outlines seven personal assertions to live your life by. At this point in my life this one seems to be having the biggest impact – ” I expect nothing, and accept everything.” This doesn’t mean to say you should accept bad behavior, lack of respect, etc. but rather understand how to let go when you realize you can’t change the unchangeable. I also think it’s about how we react to situations that are out of our control, and the importance of knowing when to let it go.
That’s a lot of deep shit to digest. It’s all new to me, 25 years and many, many panic attacks later, it just seems to be making sense.