Living each day much muchier
Anxiety is elusive. Sometimes there’s a clear provocation. A thing happens and you can point to it and say ‘ah ha! That very expensive bill or that difficult conversation or that high expectation is making me feel overwhelmed, panicked and foggy. I’ve just gotta work through it or wait it out’. But then sometimes, you just wake up all mussed inside, anxious, and all day your veins are zinging and you’re short of breath and you don’t know why.
They are both as real as each other. One is just easier to explain.
For me, mindfulness, deep breathing, walks and clear space from social media help with the first kind of anxiety, but they barely put a dint the second.
Whatever the provocation, I think the cause is something else. The actual cause, I mean. The reason for anxious feelings is only loosely based in the now. It took root long, long ago, curling itself around your memories and the way you look at the world. It forged deeply held, weirdly wonky, yet incredibly powerful belief systems that don’t respect any attempts to breathe them out.
To get to it, you’ve gotta dig.
I’m just over halfway through a book by Scottish born, Melbourne writer Jill Stark. Happy Never After shares her attempt to loosen the suffocating roots of anxiety curling about her own life. Her story and her triggers are different to mine, as yours will be to anyone else’s, but one similarity made me sit up and take notice. Jill had a reasonably stable childhood and a successful career to date. She has parents and a brother who love her and each other. Overall, hers is a privileged life compared to the rough start that so many get. So, why is she gripped with such crippling anxiety? I can absolutely relate.
A powerful insight she shares, is this. The messages we take on board from childhood aren’t always intentional. We mistakenly take credit for things that aren’t ours to own. You don’t need to have had an adult hit you, touch you or blame you in order for your unformed and uninformed mind to forge beliefs about who you are and what life is.
It’s not always a question of what happened to you. The key could be, what happened around you? What was going on in your early life that you secretly felt was your fault and how might that have coloured what feels true about life, regardless of the objective truth.
It struck me as I sat in the backyard. I had my slippers on, trying to soak up the weak warmth of the Melbourne spring sun. I raced inside to get my journal. When I asked THAT question, a lot of things suddenly made sense.
I came along late in our family as a ‘surprise’, seven years after my older siblings. We didn’t have a lot, but I never went without anything I truly needed. My parents never spoke to me about the financial burden of having another child, but I could see how much they struggled to make ends meet.
There were times when we’d eat dinner and Mum wouldn’t, claiming not to be hungry or on a diet. Dad was at work before sunrise and back after sunset. There were many times when my parents sat at the kitchen table, late at night, poring over bills and talking about how if they took a bit from here, delayed that or cut back there, maybe they could make do. Sometimes the pressure was too much and the cracks appeared.
Financial hardship is not an unusual story. It happens in households all over the world and to far greater degrees than I experienced. In my story though, I took responsibility for their lack. I blamed myself for taking up food and money that they needed to pay for other things. I honestly believed that if I hadn’t come along and messed up their plans, they would’ve been alright.
Of course, I didn’t know that there was an economic depression in the 1980s or how their other decisions factored into our circumstances. All I knew, in my leap of childish logic, was that there wasn’t enough and I was an added burden for existing.
It’s not true, but FML, it FEELS true. Emotional reasoning is not logical, but it’s powerful and it colours everything.
Wouldn’t you feel anxious if you walked around every day, unconsciously worrying that someone will catch you for being there, for taking up resources that rightfully belong to someone else? Everything is only a heartbeat away from going calamitously wrong when you’re a stowaway in your own life. I can never be good enough to warrant being here, taking up space, taking home a pay cheque, using up your time with my natter, being proud of anything, having feelings, even, because I shouldn’t be here anyway.
Who gets to decide what performance is enough to justify being? It’s an endless quest for an unanswerable question. So instead, I try to neutralise situations, as though I am not a factor in them, or at least not one worth considering. I bet it confuses a lot of people.
I have a long journey ahead of learning to stand in my muchness without overcompensation or envy. When I do this, I feel profoundly present. I am real, here, and unafraid. It’s scary. It’s wonderful. I don’t always manage it, though. For almost half my life, I’ve delivered the performance of a normal person, as though I could trick everyone.
Sometimes, I can breathe my way through it but sometimes, I may have to dig and to tell my deepest self a new and better story of belonging, owning and deserving.
My story and triggers will be different to yours, but I want to share the insight of happened to versus happened around because it’s powerful when you ask a different kind of question. I hope it helps you too.
Stark, Jill (2018) Happy Never Ever: why the happiness fairytale is driving us mad (and how I flipped the script), published by Scribe in Melbourne, Australia