Issue #28: Being with Anxiety
As part of our new practice to amplify our voices, we’ve recorded this issue! For those of you who prefer audio versions of our essays, here it is:
“Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength—carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” ~ Corrie ten Boom
We took a slightly longer break from our last issue, and return with a new series on exploring our human condition. We want to discover and articulate what it means to be human, and in doing that, we aim to bring the hidden aspects of the human condition to the fore in our essays.
In this series of “Being with…”, we invite you to explore and reflect on how it is for you to be with and in your own humanness. Here, we kick off with anxiety because, frankly, it’s something all of us deal with all the time without ever realizing how insidious it is until it gets out of hand.
Anxiety. An expert at lurking just beneath the surface of our consciousness. It’s necessary for us to better ourselves but when it takes on a life of its own, it’s debilitating. We hope this issue can help shed some light on our shared humanity.
Here are our explorations:
Essay // When Will I Be Good Enough? // by Daryl
Essay // Clearing the fog // by Rosslyn
May you uncover your desire beneath your anxiety.
Rosslyn & Daryl
ESSAY // by Daryl
When Will I Be Good Enough?
Anxiety. That creeping miasma lurking at the edges of our consciousness, never fully debilitating yet we’re made chronically aware of the fog it hangs over us. And its effects extend from the psychological to the physiological. I, for one, am intimately acquainted with that dull ache having a firm grasp on the base of my spine, robbing me of any stability I might have. In turn, it causes my core to contract unknowingly, leading to shallower breaths. Only after I make an effort to be present to my own bodily sensations do I feel the slight breathlessness coupled with the ache from the tension that was held in.
Being with anxiety is not easy. Physically, it requires me to check in with myself so I can release myself from anxiety’s grip. And even then, it’s not always sufficient. Often, the ache lingers persistently, refusing to dissipate. At this point, I find myself having to stop whatever I’m doing to breathe into the ache itself. It means having to close my eyes, clear my thoughts before focusing my mind’s eye on the specific part that aches—in my case, the base of my spine—and breathing in deeply. I imagine air rushing into that area via the fullness of my lungs with each breath I take while hoping for the sudden dissipation of the heavy fog hanging over my head. Sometimes it works on the first attempt, many times it doesn’t, which means repeating this exercise at least a few more times.
But this only treats the symptoms, not the cause. Being with anxiety also means knowing what leads to my anxiety. Currently, I only know that a major cause of my anxiety is my relation with competence, that my competence defines me: without competence, I am nothing. As anxiety looks into the future while referencing the present self, I can’t help but be triggered whenever I feel incapable of addressing my future concerns with my present (in)ability. As such, it appears that rewriting my relationship with my own identity is necessary if I am to sit more comfortably with anxiety.
I suppose this is where self-knowledge and a certain degree of willpower are needed. If I know what my current limitations are, I can also see how I might increase the limits of my abilities to meet the future apparent shortcomings. Alternatively, if it’s not possible to actually meet the future with my current limited self, perhaps I can reframe the issue such that I can address it creatively beyond the boundaries of my current abilities. This way, the anxiety arising from my shortcomings can be mitigated.
Nevertheless, these are all still stopgap measures to be with anxiety. They don’t get to the heart of the issue because it just means the same old pattern will recur. A more sustainable strategy is required. Let’s look at how anxiety arises once more: I get anxious when I feel incapable of meeting a future apparent challenge with my present abilities. My feelings of helplessness scream at me that I must improve immediately if I am to overcome the seeming disaster looming on the horizon; simultaneously, while focusing on my apparent helplessness, I am led to believe there’s nothing I can do to turn the situation around, giving rise to frustration and inertia, exacerbating the anxiety.
What if I could simply be more patient with myself? Yes, something needs to be done but does it need to be done immediately? Is it entirely on me to do it? Is it possible that the problem is blown out of proportion in my anxiety? These questions open up space within me—psychologically and physiologically—to reduce the magnitude of my anxiety to manageable levels that do not rely exclusively on being competent enough because, let’s face it, there will come a time when some problems are insoluble regardless of how capable I am.
Till next time, may you breathe deeply into that deep ache within you.
ESSAY // by Rosslyn
Clearing the fog
This is my third attempt at writing this piece on anxiety. Our newsletter has been delayed because I wasn’t ready to release my previous completed attempts, and I had been too occupied by work to set time aside for this. Now, I’m back here at my writing pad again.
Why was I uncomfortable with what I had written previously? What concerns did I have? My perpetual discomfort with judgment got ahead of me.
I have an ideal for my works: to convey messages both experientially and insightfully. I hope that through sharing my stories, readers might better understand or empathise with themselves and others. Like our objective for our newsletter, I hope to stretch minds and open hearts. Yet, it’s challenging to meet this ideal (since when does any ideal not meet a challenge?) It is not something I can fulfill alone, since I have no control over my readers’ experiences and I’m not always going to know how my writings have landed.
Whenever there is uncertainty and doubt, anxiety arises. In simple terms, anxiety is a fear of the unknown, arising from doubt in our current capability to meet the future heavily pregnant with expectations and dreams. When we lose confidence in our ability to meet our perceived needs from the future, anxiety keeps us awake even in the ungodly hours.
The meadow in my heart shrinks to an alley as my mind pays attention to the gap between reality and perception. As the illusion of the gap grows enormous, my alley narrows, and I find myself treading a tightrope with bubbling geothermal pools below me. I hold my breath, feeling far from ground—ground seems like a scary place—I’m afraid to fall.
The experience of anxiety is real and present in each of us. It is the result of a safety program running in our unconscious and cues us to danger. The variables input into our program differ depending on our individual experiences of our environments, which means we can rewire and rewrite our relationship to our past experiences of what we perceive as threats. Anxiety doesn’t have to consume us. We are larger than our experiences and we can bring our presence to meet them.
First, am I aware I’m feeling anxious? Can I be aware and name it without feeding it? When we give all our attention to anxiety, we fuel it to grow and consume us. What’s the difference between presencing anxiety and giving it all our attention?
Imagine holding a camera against the scene of a buttercup field. I can choose to capture it with full clarity; focus on the buttercups and blur the background; focus on the background and blur the buttercups; capture a macro-shot of a petal; frame just the background. Our consciousness is similar, we can decide how we allow things to come into view and what to focus on. When an uncomfortable or unpleasant experience arises, some of us might give it all our attention (a macro-shot) and get overwhelmed. But if we were to take a moment to pause and center, we can remind ourselves to adjust our depth of field. When we presence something, we are consciously adjusting our proverbial camera lens. We can still zoom in on the flower to examine it, but we do it gently, and when we find that we are too close to it that we start to waver, zoom out again and admire the background. Notice there is the flower, and other flowers and grass and bees and the sky.
Naturally, there might be some people who choose to ignore or suppress the discomfort, but it doesn’t go away. The flower is still in the scene; pretending it’s not there is self-deluding and dishonoring one’s experience. Over time, the message sent to one’s self is that “my experience doesn’t matter.”
Anxiety needs space and support to reveal itself to us. When we can allow ourselves to be with anxiety and not resist it, it begins to loosen its grip a little, providing us with an opening to inquire and uncover more. Often, the form of anxiety is an unclear fog; we aren’t sure what exactly we are afraid or concerned about. When we give it breath and space, we might be able to slow down the frames slightly to give it some definition.
There is the present, and there is the future. Living in the present does not mean we cannot plan for the future. The invitation is to build a bridge into the future brick by brick. We are never the same each day. We can grow, and in growing, we are building that bridge into the future we desire.
In being with our anxiety, it affords us an opportunity to uncover the lack we perceive. When my self-preservation instinct kicks in, I am overwhelmed with fear that I don’t have what it takes to respond to life. My future remains uncertain as I traverse this territory of coaching and writing. Success remains up in the air. Here, I gather new clues about my expectations of the future. I have a node on success which is a world in itself to explore. My current state seems small and inadequate when measured against my vision of the future.
How might I grow then? How might I support myself in building my bridge? Are my current practices sufficient or do I need new perspectives? Who can I turn to for advice? Yes, it’s my bridge, but I can still ask for help in sourcing materials and knowledge of how best to build it. When I’m exhausted, I can put down the brick I’m carrying today. And rest. Or I can call for help, borrowing strength from another to carry the brick.
A healthy dose of anxiety keeps us alert and awake to impending dangers, such as walking in a foreign place. It also reminds us to treasure what we have in the fleeting present. But when our lives are run by it, we lose the ability to smell the roses and appreciate the little things in life. It’s not tight rope walking; it’s titration—building our capacity and stretching our edges inch by inch. Nature grows, but not overnight. It’s through the little rituals we practice that we live, into and as, our commitment.
May you discover more of what you’re truly made of.
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