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Where My Anxiety Begins

What is anxiety? What is fear? What is passivity?

What do all these things actually mean? I do not ask this question in regards to what a psychological definition would be, but as a way to suggest that those terms, while relevant to countless people’s daily experiences, may be an easily slapped on “diagnosis” for an individual’s life-coping troubles – which are unique to him or her and involve more than feeling anxious.
I’ve been said to be passive. I became angry about that claim long before I began to accept that I act passively. Once I began to see those passive ways, I wondered why I wasn’t being assertive or steadfast when faced with difficult decisions, concepts or conversations – or worse, even when confronted with normal, day-to-day activities or interactions with close friends.
After oftentimes responding with, “I’m not passive!” or “You don’t understand me!” – then, the almost complete switch: “You’re right, I’m being so passive I don’t know who I am anymore.” – I eventually landed in the area of: “I’m passive because I’m anxious. And this has to change.” Something seemed to snap into place with this reasoning.

By the time I had that thought, I had already known that I have tendencies to be anxious. I had been recording when I felt anxious, whether it was simply not being able to speak my mind or even think aloud when uncertain about a controversial topic or having nausea and not being able to eat because my work environment was causing severe stress and worse. I began to find ways to help myself when anxiety was affecting my ability to focus, eat or sleep, or be around other people. I’d write about it, drink tea, or go on a walk around the block. But, I sensed, these things were a Band-Aid.

So, I began to connect the dots between feeling anxious and being passive. I still have more to learn about this connection. While I explore this each day, I am aware that my anxiety isn’t happening in the same way that I happen to be breathing or I happen to get sleepy at night and must give my body its required rest.

I remember the first time that I heard that “people pleasers” are actually exhibiting narcissistic or codependent behaviors. I had always thought of narcissism as something about people who take from others, not as people who give to others. As much as it may appear that they find pleasure by pleasing, the people pleaser is not serving others because it gives him or her peace or joy but rather because it satiates a desire to control or the need to unproblematic.

We all know people pleasers. How often are we really aware of what they’re doing? We tend to let them do “nice” things for us – even when we have that nagging feeling that something is not right.

Passivity doesn’t have as “nice” of a facade, mostly because we don’t like passivity in our society whereas we like being served and pampered. I can attest to the challenge of seeming to be cool and collected when I treat even the most basic of decisions like a hot potato.

People become experts at shrouding the truth with a jolly-looking lie, to themselves as well as to others. I might find myself trying to compliment others so that I don’t have to make a decision. Here’s an example of something I might say while visiting a new place with a friend: “You know so much more than I do about this city, and you’re really good at finding the coolest spots.”

That might sound fine to you. But here’s the problem. In this moment, I’m not giving any suggestion of what I want to do. Do I like to visit museums, go on hikes, try mom-and-pop restaurants, or find cool flea markets? I could be giving my friend a few ideas of what interests me by saying something like, “What’s the best local brewery in town? I’d love a fresh, cold hefeweizen!”
Here’s where it becomes even more troublesome. This conduct affects the friendship, especially in regards to trust and respect. Even with my (insincere, deficient) flattery coming out in a cheerful, positive tone, my friend may become disheartened that the burden of the decision has been placed on him or her. Anyone paying closer attention, and who isn’t an emotional dud, might recognize furthermore that I’m exhibiting passive, anxiety-induced behavior.

Without taking control myself and by having a friend who accepts the role I’ve just forced them into (tour guide and decision maker), I release the panic while the anxiety sits idly by – until something else comes up. Sadly, too often people will go along with me in a scenario like this one. They could be stuck in their own cycle of people pleasing, avoidance, utter lack of being present or something else.

That said, until I become stronger, I might become even more anxious if my friend pointed out my passivity in a moment like this one! And in the beginning stages of exploring my passive responses, as I mentioned before, I couldn’t hear it for a long time. People have to learn on their own.

And this is where I discovered that my anxiety isn’t a general, occasional feeling. I can feel sad or feel happy or feel angry. I can even feel anxious about a typical nerve-wracking scenario like going into a job interview or approaching a wild animal on a safari. But I’m in a state of anxiety, and something is causing it.

I’m not a victim to anxiety and I am not who I want to be because of the anxiety. Where does it come from? What do I do about it?

I’ve looked at my childhood and family dynamics, my adolescent and young adult development, and my adult relationships that were messy, or tragic failures, and always losses. I’ve contemplated the other grief and trauma from my past (and present). When anxiety rubs up next to my recognized core beliefs, coping mechanisms, emotional responses and life traps1, I question what started it.

Here are a few findings of why I may behave this way, to investigate more closely:

  • Not wanting to disappoint others or come across as untrustworthy – especially in terms of providing knowledge or assistance.
  • Believing that there is a “right way” and “wrong way” to go about resolving life’s trials and activities – yet they aren’t clear much of the time, so they are unknown.
  • Fear of not properly abiding by rules that I’ve been told make me a “good person” – much of this has to do with growing up in a Christian environment but also includes a mixture of Midwestern-American ideals and family expectations.

I dealt with anxiety as a kid and didn’t understand it well, though I was aware of it at times. I’ve done some things I’m proud of during my life, but there are far more things I have avoided doing or even refused to do, because I imagined that they would harm me or that I wouldn’t be acceptable with respect to what I perceived people needed from me. Excuses for avoiding doing one thing or another have piled up. Ultimately, I have wrapped myself very tightly around fears of, in one word, failing.2

My challenge to myself every day is to be aware of when I begin to act passively or show other signs of anxiety. I want to live a life that I’m in charge of. I want to be a person who takes care of myself, takes care of others in need, enjoys life and is proactive about relationships and goals. I don’t expect perfection or amazing things to happen. I don’t expect anxiety or other emotional troubles to never creep in. I do expect change.

Recommended reading:
1 Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again by Jeffrey E. Young & Janet S. Klosko. I have recommended this to a few friends and would recommend it to anyone else who is wondering why they are having a hard time emotionally, relationally, even generally and want more self-understanding. This book is for everyone, as long as they’re willing to do some work. Young and Klosko are cognitive/schema therapists in New York.
2 The Gentle Self: How to Overcome Your Difficulties with Depression, Anxiety, Shyness and Low Self-esteem by Gerti Schoen. I have suggested to friends who have revealed to me that they encounter social anxiety, people pleasing, difficulty with decision-making, fear of admitting flaws, loss of drive or doing things they love, letting others take advantage of them, or the inability to be vulnerable and open in close relationships – that they should read this book. It’s short and easy to read and relate to. It also has a chapter that I think would be helpful for ex-pats in the U.S. Schoen is a German psychotherapist who now lives and practices in New York.