These last couple of months, I’ve been on this wonderful, eye-opening journey of understanding and growth. I’ve been having insights and learning things about myself and why I do the things I do. I’ve been able to step back from myself and observe with a little more clarity and I’m loving every minute of it.
It’s hard to say when it began; I look at the entirety of my life and it’s just one long line of dominoes stretching into infinity. Everything that came before affects this moment. But I do think that the fact that I’ve been going to therapy for well over six months now has been causing little shifts in my life. Not because of the therapy in and of itself, but because I think that a large pocket of willingness suddenly cracked open inside of me and I started making a different kind of effort than the kind I had been making before.
I resisted going to therapy for a long, long time. Not necessarily because I doubted that therapy had the ability to help, but a part of me looked down my nose at the whole idea. I hate to say it, but I can be a little bit closed-minded about giving someone or something a second chance (so to speak) when I’ve been tainted by past experiences. There is definitely resistance within me to stepping back and saying, “okay, maybe that experience is separate and this one can be different. I will give it my best.” Nevertheless, after being prodded and poked to death by Brandon I finally relented and went through the process of finding myself a therapist to help me work on my social anxiety.
Overall, she’s been good. I think it took her several sessions before she realized that all she had to do was let me talk about things and I would naturally find my way to the conclusions I needed with just a few carefully posed questions at the right time. Or maybe she just gave up after the time I brought back a crumpled worksheet she had given me that I completed (half-assed, mind you) and told her I thought the exercises were stupid and the person who wrote the paper had no understanding of how social anxiety works. Yes, I can be a pain in the butt.
Her best suggestion that she had for me was to push me to write in a journal more often. I had already started doing it again earlier in the year (after a 9 year hiatus) but with her encouragement I started using my journal as my “go to” for processing all of the thoughts and emotions swimming through my bloodstream. I think after spending so many years trying and trying and trying to overcome my social anxiety, I was in this empty place of defeat. I stopped trying to process and work on things as much as I used to because it felt pointless. I was tired of never making what I felt like was real progress.
By going to therapy and writing in a journal more often I discovered a renewed sense of willingness; and perhaps at the most important time in my life so far. I have always been introspective, so I think I was the horse that finally let myself be led to water and once I got there I was like, “oh yeah! I know how to drink!” GULP.
She never pushed me. And maybe some people need to be pushed, but I am stubborn as hell and when I get pushed I jump into fighting stance, so she was exactly what I needed. I went to countless sessions before I had a big breakthrough that has brought my anxiety down further than I can ever remember it being for an extended period of time (usually I resemble more of a pulse monitor.)
But let me back up a little and give a little backstory so you can understand why this was such a huge “ah-ha” for me. I have always been a people-pleaser and an approval addict. Thus, my extreme social anxiety. Somewhere along the line (so far back I can’t even remember a time before it) some deep part of me took on the belief that I was “less than” everyone else and that other people’s displeasure or anger meant extreme danger. My reaction to things was completely out of proportion to the situation. So I’ve spent my entire life running around doing my best to make other people happy. Between that and my empathic nature, I have always been a dedicated chameleon, able to fit in with a wide variety of people — even though it has always caused me extreme discomfort. That discomfort has made me miserable due to the strength and force with which it often hits me. The only thing that makes it any better is when other people approve of me and tell me positive things about myself, giving me a life raft of hope to hold on to in a sea of self-condemnation. So I’ve always chased after making others happy or making them like me with a fervor. So long as I think I am liked and approved of, I feel okay.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one to be pushed around. I have never ever been one to follow the crowd (just ask my mom) and I’ve always been pretty good about putting my foot down on the important things. But the not-so-important things and everything in between, when I can contort myself a little and make you praise me? Let me be a pretzel. I make a great pretzel.
Therefore when people close to me would tell me I needed to live my life a certain way, or do certain things, I’ve always felt a certain obligation to do them — regardless of whether I actually think they are a good idea or even want to. It was sitting in my therapist’s office one sunny day when one of her pointed questions hit me deep like an arrow, and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin. I felt like I had to do certain things and I couldn’t do certain other things because the people in my life had their ideas about how I should be living it and I felt so incredibly guilty for simply EXISTING that the only way I could find any validation was to continually attempt to do things I didn’t want to do so that other people could tell me I was doing good. (Now yes, I am glad that I listened to Brandon and decided to go to a therapist because he was totally right; it ended up helping me tremendously. But there are a number of other things that I was trying to do that were making me completely miserable and yet I felt like I HAD TO do them. Not necessarily even from him or the people closest to me now, either; I have critical, cruel voices from my past that ring in my head constantly and as pathetic as I often feel it is, they still have kept their hold on me for a long time.)
My anxiety was at an all-time high because I kept pushing myself and pushing myself and pushing myself to be and do all of these things that I DIDN’T EVEN WANT TO FUCKING DO. I felt this intense pressure to perform, and perform well. What if I stopped trying to do all of those things? What if I actually made space to ask myself what I want? What if, instead of spending all of my energy trying desperately to be someone I am not, I simply let myself be who I am?
After all, I know fear. She and I have a deep, close bond. But I also know that I am an incredibly brave person. I have pushed myself through that fear again and again. And the most amazing part is, for so many years I have pushed through my fears with very little reward other than the praises of other people. That sounds counter-intuitive, right? Everyone always tells us that the more you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and do things that scare you, the easier it gets and the better you feel. But it wasn’t working for me — and I finally know why.
There’s an element missing: inner purpose. If the desire to do it doesn’t come from within you, it doesn’t matter how much you do it. It won’t get easier because you are silently (or maybe not so silently) miserable. The reward isn’t there.
I was spending so much time trying to make other people happy that when I would sit down and try to do the things that would make me happy, I was already worn out, exhausted, and had nothing left inside of me to push forward with. I felt drained, resentful, guilty, miserable, frustrated. My anxiety was at such a high because I kept doing things over and over that perpetuated it, but for all the wrong reasons, and wondering why I was left feeling empty.
One step at a time, I started saying no to many of the things I really wanted to say no to, and yes to some of the things I’ve been wanting for a long time but held back on because I knew other people would judge me for it. No, I’m not perfect at it. But even just shifting the things I have has been life changing for me. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to really realize that even doing something with good intentions doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing it for the right reasons. This isn’t me judging myself for taking this long, even though it sounds like it, I’m just surprised it’s taken me this long because I started doing inner work when I was 13 years old.
It is so liberating to learn to have healthy boundaries. I’ve noticed that sometimes people tend to get matter-of-fact when it comes to boundaries — “Well of course you need boundaries, duh!” But when you’ve lived your entire life trying to cope with social anxiety and always coming from a place of “others first” it takes a long time to really learn how to have those boundaries.
But I can’t tell you how much more peace I have felt in my life every time I make the choice “me, not you”. It’s so liberating and empowering. And also it becomes a much more conscious decision when I do think about it and say, “okay, you this time.”
Simply removing some of the things I was doing purely because I thought I was “supposed to” has cut my anxiety down to 1/3 of what it was. I have no idea if this will last, but I sure as hell hope it does. At the very least, I’m taking advantage of it for the time being. The best part is that now I have the ENERGY to tunnel through the anxiety that is left. Instead of being exhausted and bogged down from dealing with anxiety ALL the time, I’m not living from only my reserves. I can look at the things I want to do and make the conscious choice to be uncomfortable and do it anyway — because I have a real reason to. Because I have purpose. Because I’m making the decision to face my anxiety FOR ME, not because I’m “supposed to”, or because I’m tired of other people judging me (or even just thinking people are judging me.) Before, making the conscious decision to do something felt a lot more like trying to climb Mt. Everest with a bag full of bricks. Now I’m still climbing Mt. Everest but at least I’ve put those stupid bricks down. I have more energy for the task at hand.
Overall, it’s been a great lesson for me, just recognizing how powerful baby steps are. Everyone wants to be Evel Knievel and conquer things in one great leap, but in reality that almost never happens. When discomfort is extreme, it’s so much easier to turn our backs and find covers to quiver underneath. But if we can reduce the discomfort so it’s not quite so extreme, it becomes manageable. And when it’s manageable, a little discomfort can even be fun — because you know that you’re facing it for the right reasons. That’s when one little step at a time turns into finally getting to be the person you’ve always wanted to be (at least some of the time, anyway.)
And let me tell you — it feels fucking great.