Avoiding our emotion is an American past time. We pass this down from one generation to another, adding on layers of fear and shame as we go until not only are we afraid to cry or be nervous, but also afraid of the way others will judge us for feeling these ways. I learned the other day that other countries don’t have the same desperation to escape even mild sadness the way Americans do. There is much more complexity and grey area to the range of emotion overseas. Many countries have words about feelings that cannot even be accurately translated into English. The nuance simply doesn’t exist here.
It’s also interesting to consider the wise advice from centuries ago in the east, such as the idea that trying to avoid our suffering only causes us to suffer longer, is just now being proven by science. Unsurprisingly studies show that people that view most of the emotions besides happiness negatively are more likely to end up being unhappy. In other countries there is room in the language, in the culture, for happiness to reside alongside things like grief, sadness, anger, anxiety. We have convinced ourselves in this country that all these emotions are mutually exclusive.
One of my blog notes was listed as “writing about anxiety as a friend” for months now. After initially writing the idea down, each time I read it I was perplexed. What on earth could I have possibly meant by that? I find it humorous now that I remember my intention. It’s hard for me to even hold this perspective in my mind for too long. I have spent my whole life viewing my anxiety as the enemy, my kryptonite.
I’ve just started to give myself permission to look at it another way. If I imagine my anxiety as a separate entity, I am able to look at it more objectively, to offer it compassion instead of impatience and disdain. When I start to feel that tension building in my chest, pulling at me. I imagine instead a small child, maybe even myself as a child, tugging at me instead. “I’m scared,” she says. And instead of shaking her off roughly and pressing on or running away from her, my response is now to crouch down, to take her hands, to tell her it’s okay, we’re safe. It feels so good to just offer your emotions acknowledgement. To say to them: I see you. I hear you. Thank you. We’ll be alright.
For most of my life, my anxiety was a cue that it was time to start thinking about all the ways things could go wrong or all the reasons I am a broken person. I took it as a signal that something is wrong out in the world as well, that I should hide myself away. I’ve realized though that there are many other ways to interpret these uncomfortable emotions. Here’s a recent example of what I mean:
Yesterday my office was putting on a Halloween fundraiser. I was to attend to help out with selling raffle tickets and to stay afterward to clean up. Although I was excited, I was also anxious about this all week. I was worried about having such a busy Saturday, about whether or not I’d even be able to stay awake all night after waking up at 6AM. Now, while these were valid concerns, they weren’t things I could run away from or avoid. They were things I had to face. My anxiety wasn’t telling me that I would fail or that things would go badly, it was just saying “I’m scared.”
And it’s okay to be scared. Being scared doesn’t always mean that we should run away. Sometimes it is just a signal from our bodies that we need some extra love and reassurance. Let yourself know that you’ll be there, that’s you’ll be okay, no matter what the outcome. When I try to avoid my anxiety that dense little ball of tightness in my chest seems to become bigger and bigger until I can hardly breathe. It demands my attention, but I am doing everything in my power to look away. What a miraculous difference I feel when instead I turn toward that feeling. Just holding our emotions in awareness seems to let them relax.
It’s time for us to do the work to change our response to unpleasant emotions. Some day I hope that we can all see our emotions as an opportunity to offer ourselves kindness, instead of reasons to run away from ourselves. You don’t have to do anything in particular to offer kindness either. It’s whatever kindness looks like to you. How would you comfort that small girl on your sleeve? Maybe she needs a hug or a hot drink and some time to sit and breathe. Maybe she needs rest or a reward. There are countless ways for us to give ourselves loving kindness. In my experience, just having the intention of kindness is enough to make a world of difference. Even if that just looks like saying to yourself, “I don’t know how to make you feel better, but I want to. I love you. I’m here for you.”
Anxiety is not our enemy. Anxiety is a small friend, asking for support. Let’s practice offering it that support instead of neglect or displeasure. Anxiety is just a feeling, just a message from our bodies. We are the ones who have the power to interpret that message. We’ve been mistranslating it for so long, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to see it for what it really is. Anxiety is not a cue that you are in danger or damaged. It’s a cue that you are in need of tenderness and love in order to keep going. Things that we all need. Things that we can all easily learn to give to ourselves. Things that can help us associate anxiety with self care instead of fear. Tend to that little child inside of you today. Don’t turn away. She’s a friend.