Saturday, May 17, 2008


Let me be a little vulnerable here.

I've had a lifelong relationship with slightly-higher-anxiety-than-the-average-bear. Bear in mind, I am going to put a spotlight on that here, so please don't take this as a truly objective or wholistic perspective. I cannot be objective, nor does the spotlight allow for a wholistic perspective.

In my second year at university, I finally had my first no-doubt-this-is-what-is-going-on-here panic attack. I experienced it as something rather debilitating, and it has taken a lot of work on my part not to live in that space perpetually.

It's been interesting to observe myself during this cross-country move, to watch how I've responded to the inevitable anxieties of such major change.

I'm realizing now that my anxiety is somewhat cyclical in nature. When under stress of most types, I will go through periods of feeling clear and being able to respond to my anxiety without getting swept in. These are productive periods, happy times, and periods when I am able to empower others effectively while maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries. I am able to take a compliment, and generally process negative and positive feedback in the healthiest way I can (though I tend to do best with small, informal doses at one time, dispensed in loving, gentle, and personal formats). I go into "planning" mode. I am decisive. I am able to see my own vision-- for anything I'm working on-- and map out a way to get there. I communicate lovingly and effectively overall. I am in touch with my "better self."

Then, something will happen, and the anxiety will sweep over me again. All stress feels too much to bear. I cry and am irritable. I feel unclear. I can map out a way to get somewhere, but I feel doubtful about where I am headed and the steps feel so shaky that I can't tell if I am on the right footpath. I become frightened of my own inadequacies, and I can't thus empower others because it is too scary to give up control. And yet, I am too paralyzed by my own fears to do anything. I procrastinate. Negative feedback, even in loving, gentle, small, and personal doses, throws me off kilter. I can't find my footing. I lose my voice. I become out of step with my community.

On the outside, I can sometimes go through an anxious phase and even manage to maintain some semblance of normalcy. But as soon as I am "caught," I feel trapped and even more afraid. I don't like being vulnerable like that, so I push others away. I am ungracious, unforgiving, defensive, and restless.

I resort to coping skills that serve me in some ways, diminish me in others. I use my sense of humor. I put off my biggest tasks and do only very small bits. I sleep. I vent to my wife. I avoid human contact.

Again, I've worked a lot on this over the years. I go to therapy weekly. I attend to my prayer life, to the extent that I can manage at this time. I have taken herbal supplements like Saint Johns Wort and also used Rescue Remedy as a homeopathic treatment. I've taken courses in meditation, and I practice little skills when I don't have time or energy for something more intensive.

I am most conscious that I need to be careful to role model healthy rather than unhealthy coping skills to my children, that I need to be careful that they aren't exposed to the full extent of my anxiety, and that sometimes I just need to "get over" something and do it (like actually talk to a server at a restaurant rather than having my wife do it because I am feeling socially anxious) so that I am more comfortable and so are those folks around me (especially the kids).

But because of the immensity of change in my life this year, I find that just as soon as I start to catch my breath, something pushes me back under water and I can't quite find the strength to pull myself out as easily as years when I've had a little less going on (hah! when was that?).

I am learning, through this experience, those things that help me find success:


  • My prayer practice. If I can't attend to my prayer life in full, I ought to at least find time to do a very small amount each day.
  • Recognizing that most folks struggle with their own perceived inadequacies, anxieties, and so forth. That is, normalizing my challenges rather than using them as further tools for my own isolation. This also helps me in the sense of ministering to others.
  • God. My therapist told me a little while back that when I get into "what if" thinking, I should have a word that I can use to finish that sentence to help me keep out of my own spiral of anxious thoughts. So now when I hear myself starting to say, "what if," and getting catastrophic in my thoughts, I say "what if God?" It instantly helps to soothe me. **Note: I've never shared this with anyone before, so you can imagine what a private practice it is for me. Not sure I would take too kindly to someone else trying to say it for me LOL.
  • Empowering others and being gracious, even when I don't feel like I can. I've found that this can start another type of spiral. A much more positive, healthy one.
  • Being clear about ownership. I own my power, and my therapist has helped me understand that my cycle of anxiety involves a point (usually very early on) when I decide to let others define my worth, the worth of what I do, and the power of my contributions. I inevitably not only give away my power, but I also choose to "hear" only the negative, only those non-affirming things. Even when I am arguing against them in my mind, they eat away at me because I don't own anything positive. And so ultimately, I am not just giving my power to others, but also giving my power to those things that don't affirm my worth. I do this because it is familiar-- it's a long-time pattern of thought for me-- and what is familiar is always less scary than what is unfamiliar. When I do this, I get so scared. I am not able to affirm other folks in their goodness or in their power. How can I possibly affirm goodness and power in others when I can't even find it in myself? I find it really helpful to own in myself a sense of competence and worth, and then to use that sense of self-worth to help light the candles of others (remember that when one candle lights another, it does not diminish that first light). When I do this, and I feel others reaching out to me in diminishing ways, I can set my self apart from that behavior, often without setting myself apart from the person.
  • Assuming competence. Placing trust in my self, my intuition, and the value of my contributions is critical. When I am in a place of self-trust, I don't need to worry. I know that one way or another, a wave can rush over me without pulling me under. I can trust that I know where I am headed. I can trust my own instinct and tools to get me there. AND, even better, I find myself assuming that about others too. I can let the birds fly without trying to control where they are going and how they get there.


  • A mentor. I am considering paying to see a spiritual guide. I know those unfamiliar with such a practice will wonder why one might get paid for it. But like therapy, I think it can compliment my other work. I realize now that I had a spiritual guide (of the kind I didn't pay)-- someone who had the skills I am learning to develop-- back in my old state, but I don't here. A mentor would help me in life's constant discernment that I feel is critical to growing in healthy ways, both personally and professionally.
  • Compliments. The other day my assistant told me I was "one of the highlights" of her year. As I debate about whether regularly praising my kids will slow their development of internal rather than external motivation, I am realizing how much I benefit myself from praise. Because I am prone to anxiety, and I easily get into distorted internal thinking, it helps to have benchmarks...affirmations...that help restore me to clearer thinking and yank me out of my distorted internal dialogue.
  • Recognition of my best self. I am realizing how much I benefit from living in an environment where others see the self that I am not always able to see, and are able to help me hold that understanding constantly through all the trials and tribulations of the life's work I have taken on: my marriage, my vocational call, and my call to parent. I am really missing my friends and colleagues and all the folks at the foster care department back in my old state because this is exactly how they related to me. Some people are motivated by constant feedback, both positive and negative. That's how they learn. Because the negative becomes so amplified for me, I benefit more from the motivation of an understanding of how good I am. I benefit from regular reminders that accessing that self is not as hard as I work it up to be. One of the things that has sustained me through this trying and exhausting year was one of my last conversations with my former supervising minister. He, who had become a beloved friend and colleague, as much as a supervisor, looked me straight in the eyes and said "Just remember how good you are." I truly could not have made it this year if I couldn't hear those words in my head, affirming my best self. And I know he believed it because there was not a moment when I didn't feel that way with him, even in the handful of times he gave me directions or corrections or even constructive criticism (which he only gave when absolutely necessary...he knew that I was critical enough of my self for the both of us). And he spoke always highly of me among our shared and separate colleagues. I try to take this approach with those I supervise now. It is a basic part of learning theory that we learn best when we feel safe. I assume that we will all be growing in our lives and that we can grow best when others see the people we are becoming.
  • Knowing where I stand. When my wife comes to me and affirms my place in our family, and then gives me some gentle, loving, constructive criticism, but is direct with me, I avoid the spiraling inventions in my head that grow out of my anxiousness. "Is she going to lose it someday and not be able to tolerate this any longer? What then?" "How long was this bothering her before she ever told me?" "Is this worse than it seems?" "Does this represent some greater ill in her perception of our marriage?" "Is this a bottom line thing for her?" "Does she feel like we can make it through this?" I was always the kid who physically felt like she had to vomit when called to the teacher's desk. In my mind, I was going to be caught in something awful I didn't even know I did. Tears would well up in my eyes before I even arrived at the desk. That's why for me, (1) spontaneous feedback helps-- because then I don't start cycling into the anxiety before I even have heard what needs to be said-- I don't cry my way to the desk, (2) gentle, loving feedback helps because I don't start questioning my place and worth as I am prone to do, and (3) direct feedback in small doses helps because it requires less interpretation and leaves less room for distorted thinking. Back when my former supervising minister and I began working together (and he knows this because I later shared it with him), his quiet-nature often brought out my anxiousness. He would be completely still and silent as I spoke, and I would start going a million miles a minute in my mind: "I wonder if he is mad. What if he didn't like what I just said. What if his silence is a sign of dismissal." etc. I quickly began to learn the way my internal dialogue was distorting reality to a point of paralyzing anxiety, and it was completely unnecessary because he had a great respect for me and my work.
  • Contact with others. I am finding the more social contact I have with others, as much as it sometimes *gives* me anxiety to have it, ironically makes me less likely to get into my out-of-control, spiraling cycle of anxiety. I think moving into a more walker-friendly area of this city, and into more of a neighborhood will be *tremendously* beneficial to my mental health. Even my house-warming party I think will be helpful. Next year I am also going to keep tighter office hours with my assistant, so I can spend less time alone in my office. Additionally, I am going to try to spend more of my lunches at the staff lunch (folks generally eat at the dining table together at noon), since being on a different level of the building than all but my assistant contributes to my feelings of isolation and lack of coordination with others here.
  • And beyond just contact with others, I do best in an environment of routine and activity. Nothing hugely fast paced (I am finding myself having a very hard time adjusting to the pace of the east coast...and even my wife, who grew up out here, is saying the same thing about herself), but for example, when I went to water aerobics twice a week with one of my wife's co-workers, it really did me a lot of good. I've got to find that sense in my new life here as much as possible because that is how I thrive.

I am finding that when I assume others have fairly similar needs, the quality of all my relationships, both personal and professsional, is deeper, more sustaining for everyone, more loving, more compassionate, more joyful, more powerful, and more healthy. And it makes me more effective in my ministry to boot. Interesting stuff.

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