So many of the anxieties that we face are rooted in events and circumstances that we’ve experienced in the past. Childhood traumas, challenges as a teenager and bad relationships in our adult years can all leave emotional scars that remain for years if not a lifetime. As long as they’re allowed to hang around, these old war wounds will continue to block your growth and success.
But rather than using those hurts as excuses or justifications for the anxieties and limitations you suffer now, recognizing and purging them can liberate you to move on and continue the growth that is your intention and your right.
The first step in leaving your worries behind is to establish an accurate assessment of exactly what it is you’re anxious about and how this worry routine began. When reflecting on my own life and the worry habits that I wanted to leave behind, I discovered a number of origins and reinforcements that needed to be addressed.
For example I did not grow up with anything even approaching financial wealth. We were wealthy in many non-financial ways, but dollars were scarce. One of the ways that my parents dealt with the situation was that my mother would sew many of our clothes herself. While it was a tremendous amount of work, not to mention a tremendous talent, as an adolescent I was always conscious of and embarrassed about wearing home-made clothes instead of fancy store-bought ones like the other kids wore. This was one of the many situations that reinforced for me that money didn’t grow on trees and required constant worry.
As I turned these and other origins of fear and worry over and over in my mind, that’s all that seemed to happen – I turned them over and over in my mind. I never made progress with my thinking. I never came up with any solutions. I simply regurgitated the same mental contents of yesterday, last week, last month, last year again and again.
Painful, boring and not the least bit useful.
One day, though, I was somehow inspired to take the constantly recurring thoughts out of my brain and put them down on paper.
And that’s when everything began to change.
All of a sudden, as I reread the notes I’d made, the worries were no longer in my head, they had somehow moved outside of me. I had gained an objectivity about them that hadn’t existed when they were simply swirling around in my brain. Suddenly, my worried thoughts no longer owned me. I owned them. And now that I owned them, they were mine to do with, to control and to dispose of as I pleased.
A major success strategy in conquering your own anxieties and worries is to get them outside of you, to externalize and objectify those feelings. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to write your feelings, and the origins of those feelings down on paper.
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility. In an article for The Cut she wrote about the benefits of writing as a means to emotional processing. She cited research done by James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas that showed how people who write about experiences that have been emotionally intense show improvements in both physical and mental well-being.
The process also allowed them to discover and benefit from the life lessons that are always buried deep in otherwise traumatic events. They were able to understand the experience and its consequences in a much clearer and more objective way.
I encourage you to start a personal journal.
Susan David suggests setting aside 20 minutes each day and using a notebook or a computer to write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. My personal experience is that, while it might be slower, it’s far more effective to write by hand than it is to type into a computer.
There’s something about the slower, more deliberate and kinesthetic act of writing that helps you objectify and externalize these negative emotions, which is an important part of the letting-go process. As you write, imagine the anxieties flowing out through your arm, your hand and your fingers, into the pen and onto the paper.
As you write, fully expect your self-censor to spring into action and try to shut you down or at least minimize your efforts. You’ll find your self-talk saying things such as, “This really isn’t a problem for me.” “It’s not that bad.” “I should be able to stop worrying on my own.” “What would my (mother) (husband) (rabbi) (children) say if they knew I was struggling with this?” “This is just silly! I’ve got more important things to do.” “My anxieties aren’t worth this much attention. Think about the starving children…”
Recognize these thoughts as they arise and smile as you recall that we predicted them right here. Don’t fight them, but let them gently pass through and then out of your mind. Imagine these thoughts as wisps of mist that drift into your brain and then drift right back out again. No need to pay them any attention.
The fact is that you do deserve to live a worry-free life. You are worthy of the time and attention it takes to let your anxieties melt away. You have as much right to a joyful, fear-free life as anyone and it’s time to be kind and gentle with yourself. So let all the “should’s,” “ought-to’s” and “you’re doing what’s?!” that come your way roll right off your back. This is your Me Time and you deserve it.
Don’t try to make the writing perfect, coherent or legible. The point is to let your mind flow where it will. Don’t try to justify, explain or judge yourself in any way. Just write. As you write about each anxiety and its origins, allow yourself to again feel fully the emotions that you felt way back then as you were told or witnessed or experienced something that caused you to be anxious. Feel, also, the emotions you experience every time a present-day trigger reinforces that anxiety. Let your thoughts flow into words on the paper as you freely describe your feelings.
So now it’s your turn. Pick up your pen and your journal and start writing now. When you get it out on paper it’s much harder for it to go back into your mind.
One of the hardest things in life is to think for yourself.
We all claim to be, and take pride in the independence of being, our own person. For the most part, however, the majority of our thoughts and beliefs are the result of what we’ve been trained, told and often coerced into thinking and believing.
𝗪𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗱𝗶𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗮𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗯𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗲 𝗶𝗻, 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘃𝗮𝗹𝘂𝗲𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗵𝗼𝗹𝗱 𝗱𝗲𝗮𝗿 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗳𝗿𝗼𝗺?
We were all born into and brought up in families, social circles, religions and societies that hold common beliefs, which they passed on to us. The values we hold, our preferences, our ideas about right and wrong, are generally those of our parents, our parents’ parents, our friends and the societies in which we live.
The values and beliefs that inform our lives and our decision-making include everything from whether you’re a Yankees or a Red Sox fan, to whether you prefer rock-and-roll or opera, to how you vote and your ideas about God.
Even in our rebellious youth, we didn’t really rebel. We just switched our allegiance from one group of taste- and belief-influencers to another whose opinion about us mattered more at the time.
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝗹 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝘀 𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸
In spite of the fact that most of our beliefs, preferences, values and anxieties have come to us second-hand, we rarely question them. Why? Because thinking for yourself requires a great deal of effort.
The normal, everyday kind of mental activity is easy. “Why did I get passed over for a raise?” “What’s for dinner?” “I’m not enjoying this date and certainly won’t be going out an another with him!”
But this isn’t really thinking. It’s simply lazily drifting down a thought river, and ending up wherever the current takes us.
Real thinking first requires that you take the time to conduct the introspection and discover what it is that you really believe. What are the values by which you make your important decisions? How do you behave when nobody’s watching?
Once you’ve isolated them, the next step is to determine the origins of these beliefs and values. Are they in your mind like a pre-programmed factory setting? Were they put there by your parents? By your teachers, your coaches or your religious leaders? Or are they there because they’re required if you’re to get along with the people you’re currently associating with?
When you’ve assembled your inventory of beliefs, you then need to question each one in turn. Based on your experience, your own unique interaction with the world and your own inner voice, does this belief make sense to you? Does it serve you as you pursue your purpose in life?
If it doesn’t, or doesn’t any longer, you’re obliged to either live a lie or change your belief. But to what?
See? Hard work.
𝗧𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝗳 𝗶𝘀𝗻’𝘁 𝗷𝘂𝘀𝘁 𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸. 𝗜𝘁’𝘀 𝗮𝗹𝘀𝗼 𝗿𝗶𝘀𝗸𝘆.
When you question your beliefs and decide to think for yourself you risk the good opinion of others. You risk being unfashionable, shunned or even punished. You also risk the conclusion that your parents weren’t infallible. That your religious leaders might not have all the answers. That the teachers and coaches you so admired were just following the instructions they’d been given by THEIR teachers and coaches.
Now there’s nothing wrong with holding on to the values that your parents taught you. As long as they genuinely serve the authentic you. But very few of the values we’ve incorporated into our personal ‘truth’ have been developed from our own unique experiences and thoughtful interpretations of them.
For example, as I’m writing this, an email has just popped, completely uninvited, into my inbox – “Who’s getting the most love on Pinterest right now?” If I want to be viewed as ‘in the know,’ if I want others to think of me as current (or at least current with what Pinterest deems to be of value) then I’d better shift my attention (and my priorities) away from writing this blog post.
If I jump on Twitter I’m instantly brought up to date on what’s trending now. Not what I’m interested in, but what Twitter tells me I’m supposed to be interested in. If I switch on CNN or Fox News I’m instantly brought up to date on that particular organization’s version of ‘facts’ and told what I ought to fear and what I ought to cheer. If I don’t cooperate, then, by implication, there’s something wrong with me.
𝗟𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗾𝘂𝗶𝗲𝘁 𝗶𝗻𝗻𝗲𝗿 𝘃𝗼𝗶𝗰𝗲
We all possess a very quiet, but very insistent, inner voice that can always provide an accurate and reliable report on what we value and believe. But we have to learn how to hear it and decide to listen to it.
Begin by being still. Find a quiet place where the outer world can’t intrude and give yourself ten or fifteen minutes. Every day. It’ll take practice because the outer world loves nothing more than to invade and occupy your inner one too. But persist and you’ll hear it before long.
And when you do, it’s unmistakable. That voice is so soothing, so refreshing, and so truthful. It’s the real you speaking and it wants nothing more than for you to show up authentically in the world.
Yes, thinking for yourself can be risky and hard. But it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do. Because when you hand off your thinking and show up in life pretending or attempting to be someone or something else, you’ve got nothing to give. But when you show up as the authentic, genuine YOU, you’ve got more than you ever imagined.
Who are you showing up as?
Have you ever had a ride in one of those old clunker taxis that seems to be held together by duct tape and hope? A favorite trick of those drivers is to put a piece of black tape over the glowing ‘check engine’ light on the dashboard so it doesn’t shine in their eyes. I’ve yet to figure out the logic behind that tactic…
Anxiety is like a warning light on the dashboard of your life. It’s trying to tell you there’s something wrong that needs to be fixed.
During this incredibly goofy time we’re hearing endless advice about how to deal with the anxiety that so many people are suffering. But to be completely honest, I’m getting a little tired of reading and hearing the suggestions: Deep breathing, aromatherapy, long walks, meditation, enough sleep, baking banana bread…
These are all great ideas and each one will help you lead a healthier, more balanced life. (Although you might want to go easy on the banana bread.) The problem, though, is that most of them are nothing more than distractions to take your mind off your anxious thoughts for a while. None of them go deep to get at the root of your anxiety and remove it permanently.
Unlike our friendly, if self-deceiving cab driver, if I discover a problem that’s interfering with the quality of my life, I want to eliminate, not simply mask it.
Anxiety does not lie in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They’re merely circumstances, facts, situations. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about them. They just are.
No, our anxiety lies in our responses and reactions to those circumstances. And when your mental warning light comes on, it’s trying to tell you that something needs to change.
The first step to permanently freeing yourself from worry and anxiety is to take 100 percent responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to you and in your life. This principle is fundamental to ridding yourself of worry and creating a joyful life.
Worry and anxiety are thoughts that we entertain within our minds. Those thoughts are always in response to circumstances, events and people that are external to our minds. The current boogeyman is COVID-19 but there’s always something – partisan politics, terrorism, global warming...
Because the things we worry about are always out there in the physical world, external to our minds, it’s easy to think, “If only those circumstances would change, I wouldn’t have to worry so much.” So we search for culprits, pass judgment and place blame for the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And nothing changes. As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we will never be able to stop worrying and create the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone or something, you surrender all your power. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you have handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions or an external event resulted in your circumstances. After all, you didn’t cause COVID-19. Expecting or insisting that the circumstances change in order to please you is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
The anxiety-producing event has happened or is happening. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
In our current situation we have very little ability to control or change the external circumstances. But we can control and change our thoughts and our emotional responses.
Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Austria in the years leading up to WW2. As with millions of his faith, he ended up in a concentration camp in the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Conditions that make our current shelter-in-place conditions seem luxurious in comparison.
Trapped in unspeakably hideous conditions, Frankl made a decision. He decided that no one would own his spirit. As he later wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Regardless of the external circumstances, no one can tell you what to think, what to imagine or what to feel. You always have a choice. And in that fact lies your power. We’re all waiting for the medical experts to rescue us from this virus. But only you can make the choice to rescue yourself from anxiety.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Emotions are, well, emotional and there’s a lot of them swirling around these days. Some of them feel wonderful and we love it when they’re around. Others (like fear and anxiety) just feel like crap.
For most people, emotions are like the weather: sunny days are great but you have no control over when it decides to rain. Wouldn’t it be great if you could choose your emotional state, rather than having it dumped on you?
Turns out, you can.
We feel, experience and occasionally even become our emotions, rather than merely observing and understanding them. Which, when your emotions begin to take control of you, makes it tricky to make intelligent and beneficial choices that lead to the dreams and goals you’ve set for yourself.
The Art of War was written more than 2,500 years ago by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu. It’s long been studied and lauded for its advice on success in battle. Lately it’s been used by countless entrepreneurs and business people looking for an edge in the corporate world.
His advice to know your enemy can also be enormously valuable as we work to overcome anxiety and leave negative emotions behind. If we don’t understand how our emotions work, how can we ever possibly hope to achieve mastery over them?
Now I’m in no way suggesting that your emotions are, in some way, your ‘enemy’ and must be defeated. A life without emotion would be robotic and empty. Likewise, a life ruled exclusively by our feelings is like a cork, bobbing in the ocean, tossed around by whatever wave knocks it next. A life that takes full, conscious advantage of its rich emotional range while not becoming hostage to it is a life well-lived.
Since reason and logic are the antithesis of emotion, we can use these opposites to gain valuable insight into our emotional life as we study this enigmatic creature – ourselves.
In my workshops and signature online course, Unsubscribe from Anxiety, students are taught to imagine themselves as detached, objective scientists in a laboratory. You’re wearing a white lab coat and you’re about to conduct an academic study of this subject of yours called ‘Emotion.’ There’s a big blob of it sitting on your laboratory bench and you’re going to measure it, probe it, take its temperature, weigh it and learn everything there is to know about this mysterious creature.
Only then will you be able to decide what you want to do with it.
A good first step on the way to emotional self-knowledge is to take inventory. What are the actual emotions that we’re experiencing? On the one hand, it’s useful (if a little too easy) to simply divide emotions into two groups – ones that feel good and ones that feel bad. But we want to get a little more fine-grained than that.
In the wonderful book, ‘Ask and It is Given,’ by Abraham Hicks, there’s a useful ‘emotional scale’ that lists 22 of our most common emotions in sequence from our highest feelings to our lowest.
The further up the scale your emotion, the more that feeling can serve you. For example, if you’re feeling discouraged and angry, you’re less in control than if you’re feeling frustrated and impatient. Impatience can lead to action, which can lead to hope, positive expectation and eventually empowerment.
But even anger is a more positive and proactive feeling than insecurity or fear. Anger contains an energy that can be channeled into decisive action.
By knowing where our current emotions are on the scale, we can begin to make decisions about where we’d like to go from there. You might be feeling overwhelmed in these days of isolation and uncertainty. But when you decide to upgrade your emotion from overwhelment to impatience, things start to happen.
The truth is that you CAN decide which emotion you’d prefer to feel and then launch that one.
One of my favorite characters in the iconic Rob Reiner film, The Princess Bride, is Miracle Max, played by the great Billy Crystal. When he’s presented with the apparently dead body of our hero Westley, he says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”
And so it is with our emotions. There’s a big difference between feeling worried about the situation and feeling completely powerless. And there’s never a point in your emotional life when you’re “all dead.” No matter how much like crap you feel, no matter how frightened or threatened, you’re still slightly alive. You can step back, put on the white lab coat, and decide to move – just one step – up the emotional scale.
In these days of pandemic-induced anxiety there’s a real benefit to being precise when referring to the various flavors of fear that we’re all coping with. That kind of detached, almost scientific accuracy helps us step back from our emotions and our fears, see them objectively and deal with them in healthy and constructive ways.
We all know what joy feels like.
It feels like we’ve been wrapped in a sense of calmness and bliss that’s a world beyond the giddy pleasure of mere happiness. It’s as if we’ve been injected with a potion made from equal parts warm bath, fresh snowfall and puppies that’s now glowing from the inside, out. It’s the ultimate in mindfulness because it holds us fully in that moment in which all is right with the world.
And damn, it feels good!
Then it’s gone.
Most of us only experience joy when the circumstances around us are just right. Everyone is cooperating, the sun is shining, there’s no pandemic and the planets have aligned. But our hold on joy is tenuous. Change the circumstances, let someone say a wrong word or have the rain begin and joy runs down the drain.
Now, we’re all smart enough to know that real joy comes from the inside, out. But knowing it and living it are two different things. Despite the timeless wisdom of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and every other great teacher who’s ever walked the earth, the world keeps insisting that joy, happiness and serenity migrate from the outside, in.
Wear these clothes. Drive this car. Travel to this place. Be like these people. Most often, we put the responsibility for our joy in the hands of everyone else and the world around us. If and when that crowd chooses to cooperate, your day’s going to be great. If not, you’re screwed.
Reclaiming responsibility for your own joy takes practice. Just like piano lessons, the more you work at it, the better you get.
How do you practice for joy? It begins with basic brain training.
Most of our thoughts are reactive. In other words, we re-act the same thoughts and the same actions that we’ve adopted as habits. Traffic gets snarled (again) and, without giving any thought to our thoughts, we get snarly right along with it (again). Instead, we need to retrain our minds to think again, to think differently.
For example, you’ve been enjoying your regular Wednesday lunches with that old friend for years. Now the city is in lockdown and the restaurants are closed. Our habitual thought is to be disappointed, upset, even angry. Certainly not joyful. But since disappointment and anger neither feel good nor help the situation we’d be better served with different thoughts and different emotions. This is an opportunity to practice those differences. An opportunity to re-train your mind.
The moment you feel the pivot from delightful anticipation to disappointment and anger, recognize the switch in your thoughts and your feelings. Then decide to take control.
First, accept and honor the current feelings. After all, you are disappointed. But only for a moment. You don’t want to let it ruin your afternoon.
Then decide that you’d rather choose a better feeling thought. You might choose to spend a few moments re-living some of the delightful lunches you’ve shared with your friend in the past. Recall the joyful experience and re-feel the positive emotions you felt at the time. Don’t simply remember the event, allow yourself to go inside and deeply feel the friendship, the delight and the happiness you felt in the moments you were together. Then watch as your mood swings back to the bright side of the dial in response.
We all have deep mental grooves that have been worn in our thought apparatus over the decades of our lives. It’s way too easy to fall back into them without being aware.
It’s vital to begin forming new mental habits. But rather than waiting for a stressful situation, start training your brain with daily practice. When you first wake up, develop the habit of listing five things for which you’re grateful in the coming day. Alternatively, you could list five of your favorite things or five accomplishments of which you’re particularly proud. The point is, begin your day by insisting that your mind focus on things that feel good. That gets it off on the right foot. Repeat the exercise several times throughout the day.
Of course this won’t be easy at first. But neither is playing the piano. Work at it diligently, though, and it will soon be second nature.
Does it serve you to have your mood and mental state in the hands of others? Is it useful to have your emotional strings pulled by the outside world? Are you pleased to be put off your game whenever you’re thrown a curve ball? If not, you can choose to reinvent the way you think. After all, the joy belongs to you. Shouldn’t you be the one who gets to control it?
When you grant other people and outside conditions the power to annoy you whenever they want, you give up the ability to experience joy whenever you want.
You don’t need a reason or excuse to be joyful. Nor do you have to justify your joy to anyone else. You can choose to experience it any time you’d like simply because it feels good. You also don’t need to wait around, hoping for the right circumstances that will allow you to feel that emotional high.
It will take practice to overcome this habit of re-acting in tired old ways to outside events, people and circumstances. But slowly, then more quickly, you’ll get better and better at it. Eventually, you’ll be completely in charge of your own joy, which you can then call up whenever it pleases you.