Befriending the Fearful Parts

Today is barrels of fun as I’m dealing with the potential for severe weather as well as the ongoing pandemic. Right after learning about the upcoming weather events, someone posted “tips” for dealing with anxiety on a social media site I visited. What they wrote immediately irritated me as their message was basically “think positive” and “distract yourself.” That approach may work for some people, but, to me, it dishonors the role that parts of myself–the ones with strong emotions–play.

Anxiety is often relegated to the role of a deceptive betrayer, a cowardly enemy or a feminized hysteric in modern culture and modern psychotherapy. I find it unfunny but ironic that many of the exposure and response prevention tasks that people with contamination OCD have had to endure, such as touching a doorknob and not washing one’s hands, fly directly in the face of declarations from the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. in terms of dealing with the pandemic. We have been told to fight our fears, to quell the whispers of obsessive thoughts and to “calm the f*ck” down” when, in reality, the world presents dangers. I find myself deeply questioning the years of training I received in graduate school, wondering how much the “treatment” of anxiety is really a tutelage in social norming in order to not disturb the sheltered peace of the privileged optimists among us.

What relationship can we have, then, with our anxiety that does not trade fighting for subservience and terror? I view it as one of acknowledgment, honorance and the formation of an alliance. If this framing doesn’t work for you, ignore it! I first encountered in during Buddhist practice and immediately knew it was for me, but it may not be the story you need to tell.

To me, getting to know the scared parts of myself is first a practice in realizing there have been and continue to be things that are frightening in the world. I’m not “stupid” or “over-reacting” when I worry. I concentrate on the process of how I worry and thank the parts of self that bring worries to my mind for their care for me. There is a way to worry well or at least to negotiate with worry. I take action based on my fears, action aimed at reducing the likelihood that they will come true as well as methods of building resources if they do. Sometimes, my fears fuel panic-buying, but I’ve grown to trust myself more deeply than I did in the past, so this happens here and there, not with consistency. In short, I prepare for danger, and, in doing so, often fear it less.

I also check in with myself and with my fear to watch the extent to which it is based on concrete reality and the extent to which it is a physical reaction to stress. I find that I actually have the most difficulty with anxiety after a stressor has occurred, when I’ve taken all the practical steps possible and simply am in a state of waiting for resolution. For me, behaviors such as not sleeping or eating poorly can create their own spin-offs of fear that have to be managed by self-care.

Perhaps because I’ve been invalidated for my fears on a non-stop basis, told not to worry, that my worries are unreasonable or that they don’t deserve attention, I’m not good at remembering that, even if the worst happens, I’m not alone. There may or may not be people willing to help or sufficient resources to recover, but, even if safeguards fail me, we are interconnected and each of our lives, in my worldview, are more than a beginning and an end. What would it mean to tell the next person you hear panicking that you will be there for them in whatever way you can if their worries come to fruition, rather than telling them not worry? To have that said to you? I try to do this for my anxious parts, to let them know they aren’t going to be abandoned to fear, that the rest of me will consolidate and bring the resources I have to bear to manage the situation.

Anxiety, even at the “pathological” level I possess of it, isn’t my enemy. It does not deceive me. It isn’t hysterical. It is a biological response that has been preserved in pretty much all animals by the process of evolution to warn us of danger. Humans have the gift of foresight, of anticipating threats before they occur. We can rage against this capacity, deny its presence, numb it or attempt to silence it through invented worlds of positivity, or we can come to know the inner monsters we hold and realize they are frightened children who need love. We can come to know it as a part of us, steady in its reliable angst, and, like all parts, only made whole when it is welcomed into the family of our being.

Answering the “What Ifs” (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

After several days of non-stop work, today has been a bit slower. And, predictably, my mind now has a few seconds to spare to race towards “what if” scenarios. The area where I live is already in a state where bars, restaurants and schools are closed, and I’m afraid that even more stringent requirements may be enacted. My primary concern is about whether I’ll be able to keep my job and keep my house in functioning order. I’m mentally (not in reality) racing to the place on the path where I’m at the end of myself and have no idea how to proceed.

About a decade ago, when I began my current job, I moved across several states and had barely settled in when my then supervisor (thankfully not working at my job anymore) threatened to try to get me fired. I honestly believe her motivation was jealousy more than anything else; it is a long story. That experience was the closest I’ve come to “I’m lost without direction.” I dissociated to the point where I kept thinking I was dreaming and would snap in and out of glimpses of reality. I worked the way I’ve worked the past few days for months on end, doing everything I could to prove myself worthy (I also kindled a flame of burning hatred I carry to this day towards her). The experience scarred and traumatized me; the feeling of having put in decades of work and finally “arriving” and then being told it could all be taken from me without cause hasn’t left me. I didn’t learn anything from it because I did truly lose myself when the crisis hit; I became suicidal and a workaholic rather than comforting or being with myself through it.

I want to say to the terrified small parts of self who chorus their “what ifs” to me: I’ll be here with you in it if it comes again. I may lose my job, my house, my pup and my health (my four biggest worries), but I do not have to discard who I am if any of those losses occur. I have resources and I have coping skills that I did not have in the past. What do the little or young parts of self need to hear from you today? To which events in your life does your mind unconsciously cycle if you are feeling anxious, helpless or hopeless? What’s different about your life now than it was then?

Unbridled Joy (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

My poor pup has been cooped up more than usual as of late, between the winter weather and my attempt to avoid unnecessary trips during the health crisis. I had a few housekeeping items crop up unexpectedly today, so I decided it was worth it to head to a local home improvement store that allows dogs in. His incessant whining the entire trip there let me know he was very excited about the trip.

As soon as we arrived at the store, my dog started leaping for joy as his feet hit the ground. He found the nearest human and tugged me in their direction. There was a family with several small children, who did not quite know what to make of such a small dog (he’s a Yorkie) enthusiastically sniffing their shoes and looking up at them in bliss.

I found the light bulbs I was looking for and headed off to another area of the store. We ended up behind another family, and my pup joined right in with them, ignoring their personal space and acting as though they obviously wanted him to tag along. I normally keep very close tabs on him, but, between trying to locate and carry several items, he kept sneaking closer to people than I realized he was.

He met the first family again at the cash register. The young boy who had at first drawn back from him didn’t reach to pet him, but did give him more attention as he stood facing him. My dog was in heaven, surrounded by new humans who might, just might, let him sniff them and perhaps even pet them.

I am in love with the innocence and earnestness with which my dog approaches people. Me in dog form would totally be bearing teeth and foaming at the mouth at anyone who approached; thankfully, he is not me. The fact that he seems to believe he owns the entire warehouse, barking loudly at any other dogs who dare to enter, and prancing around as though it’s been too long since he took stock of his playground, never ceases to bring a smile to my face. I’m reminded of what seems to be my grounding statement this year–there is more beauty than pain in the world. I am so happy to have witnessed it today.

Potential for Thriving (In the Cards)

Today’s card centers on naming inner passions and contemplating how to ignite them into flames of creative power. In giving voice to my desires, what rises up is a wish for living a life that is founded on the possible rather than the absent. What I mean by this that I want to welcome into my life love, beauty and sacred connection, not simply to banish hatred, distrust and suffering.

If I’m honest with myself, most days I wake up thinking “when will the shit I have to deal with today be over?” It is as if the innocent, caring and hopeful parts of me stay in slumber until any potentially threatening situations have ended. I can go weeks or even months without feeling like the red alarm blaring danger stops trilling.

I am thrown totally off-kilter by events like the one I had today, where I woke up in joy, believing that I had nothing stressful with which I was going to have to deal (an extremely rare occasion), and could therefore touch with my fingertips the edges of the positive and the happy. I soon discovered my dog was having an allergic reaction to the heartworm preventative injection he got yesterday, and had to rush him, covered in hives and itching, to the vet. My day now feels like it is lying in ruins, my mind reiterating “threat is likely over…threat is likely over” in an attempt to coax from hiding the scared parts of self I possess.

I so desperately desire a life in which I can stay connected to all the parts of myself, including the upbeat and positive ones, even in the face of hardship and difficulty. I have occasionally spent time notating the events of each day for which I am grateful, but this has often turned into “at least this horrible thing that happened wasn’t even more horrible.” I wonder what a question like “what magic will the world hold for me today?” would do to my psyche if it was the first and truest note playing in my mind as I awoke.

The image I see in my mind to represent my dilemma is that of a person wearing every conceivable bad-weather gear every day, with little regard for the forecast. I am like someone who is convinced that a storm could be lurking or ice could be built up at any spot on their travels. Sure, this person has everything needed the moment bad weather strikes, but they also lug around heavy, hot and uncomfortable material through every other situation. What I also know to be true is that umbrellas and raincoats aren’t the only ways to stay dry; I could and do improvise if something unexpected happened.

In this analogy, I only glance at the rainbow or the blue sky or feel the gentle breeze for a second, and then detach from my joy as I remind myself of all the times I thought it was going to be a nice day and it wasn’t. One raindrop spoils the whole picnic. And, yet, there is beauty to be found even in a ruined outing.

I am not sure how to walk with confidence knowing that, although there will be mud puddles into which I could step, fixing my eyes primarily onto the colors and shapes in the vast sky above grants me a much fuller, more healing and more marvelous view than staring at my shoes will ever provide. What is the first question on your mind most mornings? How does asking it shape the rest of your day? Where do you cast your gaze (or other senses), and how much magic does it allow you to see and experience?