Fooling Yourself Into Failing Yourself: The Trap of Anxiety and Avoidance

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“But I just don’t like to do that.”

That is what she told me — the young woman who said she didn’t want to go to a restaurant alone. “Why should I do that? I’d much rather eat with someone and be able to talk at dinner. Eating alone wouldn’t be any fun.”

True. Most of us would prefer a dinner companion. It probably would be more enjoyable to dine with a friend. But there is an important distinction here. It is between being able to do something that you might prefer not to do, and being unable to do the thing because it is uncomfortable for you; maybe even frightening. And, it is between deluding yourself into thinking that the activity might be boring or stupid when the truth is that you are afraid to do it.

Deluding and denying. We do it all the time. “I don’t like to do that. Why would I want to do that? Why do I have to do that?” And so we persuade ourselves that we can live without certain experiences, side-stepping the things we don’t know about or haven’t done — the small and large challenges of life.

But what are we really doing here?

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For the young woman in question, her repeated need to be accompanied to places — her fear to act alone — caused her to be dependent upon people, especially boyfriends. As a result, she found it difficult to be without a male companion for very long and, when she did find one, discovered that she wanted (and needed) to be with her lover more than he wanted and needed to be with her. Thus, her insecurity about being alone and her avoidance of doing things alone made her dependent upon others.

Eventually, the “clinging” drove her boyfriends away. Then she really was alone. Finding herself abandoned and rejected, she turned her reliance on family or friends; if she had those friends, that is, because she had spent so much time with her boyfriends that she’d neglected making platonic friends, along with the work required to keep them.

Some people who are avoidant don’t realize how anxious they are — how much fear dominates their lives. After all, if you turn down invitations to parties because of underlying social anxiety, you manage to avoid getting nervous as you think about the party, dress for the party, drive to the party, walk in the door, and then try to fit in.

The fact that you don’t feel anxious doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have anxiety problems. In fact, sometimes a better way to determine whether you have a life-compromising form of anxiety is to make a list of the things you will not do unless forced to at gun point.

  • Things like giving a public speech, raising your hand in class, traveling to the downtown area of a big city, driving on the expressway, making a phone call, going to a party where you know few people, and eating at a fancy restaurant or any place where you are not familiar with the cuisine.
  • Things like going to a movie, play, lecture, or concert alone; flying, sending a poorly prepared dish back to a restaurant’s kitchen, saying “no,” returning an item at the store, etc.
  • Things like trying some new activity on your own or voicing a strong opinion that just might be criticized by someone else; and not looking for a new job for fear of the interviewing process.

Please notice that I’m not talking about some of the very commonly experienced fears such as spiders, high places, and confined places: the phobias we call arachnophobia, acrophobia, or claustrophobia and the like. Rather, my focus is on the anxieties that make for daily difficulties — that make a life so narrow that it begins to look a little bit like this:

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To the avoidant, anxious person, the narrowly confined life seems safer. It is fraught with fewer frustrations and failures. It demands less. It feels less foreboding.

If you are heavily invested in social media, you can even persuade yourself that your electronic social life of texting, instant messages, blogging, tweeting, role-playing games, and hundreds of Facebook friends is better than the real thing. And what might the real thing be? Dedicated time unmediated and uninterrupted by technology spent with a person who is right in front of you and within the reach of an outstretched hand.

Can you approach social situations without a preliminary drink or joint? Are you certain that the alcohol or marijuana you use to unwind is recreational rather than an effort to self-medicate your anxiety? Yes, we are pretty good at talking ourselves into just about anything rather than seeing ourselves as we really are.

But if we are avoidant, there is a price:

  • The same things done over and over and that can be done only in the same places and in the same way; and sometimes only in the realm of electronically achieved distance and safety.
  • The need to rely on others who provide an emotional security blanket, or substance use upon which one is also reliant.
  • The self-doubt and the worry that accompanies thoughts of leaving our “comfort zone.”
  • Too much time spent looking at a television or a Smart Phone or a computer screen.

Avoidance offers no growth and no “life,” only the illusion of safety and the temporary relief that we all know from our school days when the teacher was sick and the test was postponed. I suppose that you can try to postpone the “tests” that life offers until the end of your days. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. I’m talking about a life of challenges unmet, mastery unachieved — the narrow life that Thoreau described when he said:

The  mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

And, in a companion quote often misattributed to Thoreau:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

But he also wrote:

Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf

Than that I may not disappoint myself,

That in my action I may soar as high

As I can now discern with this clear eye.

We live in “The Age of Anxiety” according to W.H. Auden. In any life there is a first time — a clumsy, unsure time — for everyone and every thing. We fear the judgment of others, the embarrassment, and the mortification of taking a chance and stumbling in public. We compare how we feel inside to the apparent (but not always real) serenity, calm, and self-confidence of others as we look at them from the outside. We condemn ourselves for lost time and opportunity, say to ourselves that we are “too late” or “too old” to take on a new challenge, and thereby guarantee that even more time will be lost; perhaps all the time we will ever have.

We tell ourselves that we can’t try a thing until we first feel better, calmer, and more confident; not realizing that “trying” is just what we need to do in order to feel better about the thing; failing to grasp that anxiety is not the biggest part of the problem, but that a failure to act in spite of the anxiety is.

If you are anxious enough or avoidant enough you might well avoid counseling, too. That is a shame, because there are very good treatments available in the realm of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). For a discussion of therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder, for example, you can look at this: Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.

Only if you fully realize that your avoidant coping strategies are costing you something of value will you call a therapist. Are you afraid to call? Is it less distressing to email? Did I hear you say, “Maybe tomorrow?” You may not detect the sound, but the clock is ticking.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Now.

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The top image is described as Fear of a blank planet, cover by Lasse Hoile Porcupine Tree Band 2005: http://www.porcupinetree.com/ “OTRS Ticket 2006082110002647.” The Illustration of a Shocked or Frightened Woman has been altered by AdamBMorgan from the original that appeared in Wierd Tales (September 1941, Volume 36, Number 1). The next image is One of the narrow streets in the old part of Toledo, Spain by Allessio Damato. Finally, An old style alarm clock captured by Jorge Barrios. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

To Your Good (Mental) Health: One Hundred Resolutions for the New Year

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Just a few random thoughts on what you might choose to resolve (begin, stop, or continue) in 2012:

I

  • raise your hand
  • take a chance
  • diversify both your economic and emotional life: resist putting all your eggs in one basket, financial or human
  • learn to say “no”
  • there will always be someone better, someone smarter, and someone better looking; get used to it
  • exercise
  • don’t text or tweet the day away
  • give up on TV news soundbites and actually read something in-depth on the state of the world from a relatively unbiased source
  • look in the mirror at what is underneath the surface
  • make friends

II

  • when upset, imagine how you will feel in a week, a month, or a year; in other words, know that most turmoil is passing
  • don’t be a doormat
  • deal with your childhood
  • be honest, not just when it is convenient
  • work hard (don’t learn the tricks of the trade before you learn the trade)
  • sometimes the rain won’t stop, so discover how to dance in the rain
  • be grateful and express it
  • learn to apologize without excuses
  • pay it forward
  • pay it back

III

  • before sending an angry email, write down 40 ways your missive can be misunderstood or ruin your life; then wait some more before sending
  • find some hobbies
  • eat right
  • beware of hopelessness, but do not became a slave to hope’s capacity for illusion
  • avoid too much self distraction
  • remind yourself that there is no such thing as “must-see TV”
  • don’t abuse substances
  • laugh
  • you have a shadow; best that you get to know it since you most certainly can’t outrun it
  • stand for yourself, but also for something bigger

IV

  • have humility
  • be careful about judging
  • have new experiences and learn from them
  • don’t wait until your feelings change to act (act and your feelings are likely to change)
  • recognize that luck plays a part in life
  • be flexible — don’t inflexibly resist change
  • grieve when necessary, lest things build up
  • make eye contact
  • if you are anxious, learn to be less concerned about others’ opinions
  • realize that money isn’t everything and that the American Dream is a fraud

V

  • know that your kids aren’t all the same and that each one needs something different from you
  • sample things — try them before you say you have no interest in them
  • don’t wait for your savior, save yourself
  • choose your battles, but don’t permanently lay down your arms
  • treat your body as if you might just need it for a while
  • recognize that you are not as important as you think (unless you are the President, a brain surgeon, or the second coming of  Shakespeare)
  • spend less time worrying and accept that most bad things are survivable
  • be an informed citizen, learn about history and vote
  • make haste slowly
  • don’t accept easy answers

VI

  • embrace the opportunity to perform
  • every committee has work horses and show horses; choose the first role lest you look like an ass
  • stay out-of-the-way of people who are bulldozers; it’s only a matter of time before they run you over
  • get out of the city into nature and be dazzled
  • spend time with a few members of a different faith, color, religious group, or political party and get a new perspective
  • As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do”
  • do your best to ignore Ashton, Britney, “The Donald,” Kim, Lindsay, Snooki, and “The Real Housewives;” emptier lives are not to be found unless it is among their fans
  • keep your cell phone off the dinner table and make public cell phone conversations as private and rare as possible
  • don’t text while driving — ever
  • remind yourself every day that (with luck) you are going to get old, wrinkled, and die

VII

  • practice, practice, practice
  • remember that this is not the rehearsal, this is the performance
  • don’t be self-righteous
  • get some rest
  • consider whether those guys carrying signs that say “Repent, the end is near!” might be on to something
  • ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” before you foreclose on someone’s house or stiff your waiter
  • realize that being confused might be an opportunity to learn
  • ask questions
  • when you say you are going to do something, do it
  • keep secrets when asked to do so

VIII

  • don’t be a gossip
  • recognize that a life of logic (without a counterbalance of feeling) is the equivalent of becoming a mathematical formula or a computer
  • learn to be direct
  • don’t have sex while chewing gum; and, for sure, don’t make it as unremarkable as chewing gum
  • do one thing at a time, with all your attention
  • don’t talk over others; listen when spoken to; be polite
  • get over yourself
  • trust, but verify
  • find the poetry in the prosaic and the cool in the quotidian
  • earn your life

IX

  • have a good time
  • meditate
  • live with intensity
  • be kind
  • surrender to intimacy
  • make your life matter
  • live by the “golden rule”
  • study all your life
  • be an enemy of routine
  • love someone or something

X

  • make new mistakes
  • test yourself
  • swing for the fences; shoot for something big
  • try to figure out where you are headed; it’s harder to get there unless you know
  • learn to tell a joke
  • take time to smell the roses
  • keep a lid on the number of complaints you utter and the number of excuses you make
  • get off the cross, we need the wood
  • whether you are a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, be sure you learn to swim
  • and, to quote Studs Terkel: “Take it easy, but take it”

The above photo of a New Year Streamer is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Only Thing We Have to Fear is…”

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, given in the terrifying midst of the Great Depression, is quite well-known for the line: “The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself.” With 25% of the work force unemployed, there was much of which to be afraid.

Less well known, but no less eloquent and telling a comment on fear came from his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, when she was asked late in her life to give a radio audience some guidance based on her own life experience. Recall that Mrs. Roosevelt was a timid, unattractive, and lonely child, afraid of many things; left by her widowed father to be raised largely by her severe grandmother. She eventually became world famous, not only because of her husband, but because she became a champion of the rights of disadvantaged groups and a spokesperson for the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt was a public woman known for her actions and her voice when most women stood in the shadow of a husband.

The quote? “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Good advice for just about everybody.