Thursday, May 18, 2017

I Have Anxiety, And The Death Of My Inner Critic

Mental Health Awareness Week was a little while ago, and since then I've been sitting on some thoughts.  I wasn't ready to share then, but I want to share now.  Here's why I want to share:

  • It seems to me that the culture I live in has a hard time dealing healthfully with negative emotion.  We avoid it or we fix it, both in ourselves or in others.  This is incredibly frustrating to me, and I know that I'm not alone.  I'm sharing in hopes that this can be my small contribution to fostering awareness and understanding.
  • I believe that what I have to share may resonate with a few people and they will feel encouraged by reading.

So here it is, a series of anecdotes where I reflect on what I've been learning about myself and my anxiety lately. Settle in with some popcorn, this one's long. ;)


I struggle with anxiety.  In daily life what this often means for me is that it takes longer for me to feel better after having an uncomfortable emotion or thought.  My thoughts want to spiral into negativity.  But they are also instrumental to having healthy responses to uncomfortable emotions.  They can act like a lifeboat to help me ride the wave of emotions, or they can be like the squirmy, writhing sea plants that pull me under the waters and keep me stuck in the wave for way longer than I need to be.


A part of me is gently pushing up against the tightness in my chest, holding me here, urging me gently to speak.  If my anxiety were a physical thing, it would be a wall that has formed around my heart.  On that wall is scribbled in ugly, broad strokes:  "Stop talking.  Stop feeling. Be better."  Guards pace back and forth on that wall watching, waiting to put my heart back in its place when its strong beating bumps against the barrier.  They sting me with arrows when I talk.  They bash me down when I feel, turning sadness into anger and guilt into despair.  When I strive, they remind me of what I can't do.  They remind me of who I am not.

Waves of sadness churn up and break against the wall.

I long to be free.


I'm working through an online class [link] on positive thinking and processing through the concept of reframing thoughts.  Something is hooking me emotionally about this.  I feel like my inner critic is telling me, "You don't need to reframe your thoughts.  You talk too much.  You just need to stop feeling bad and focus on the positive."  

If I listen too much to that guy's half-truths, he digs in deeper: "You are so overwhelming.  What a drag.  No one wants to listen to you."  It spirals from there.  These thoughts can trigger depression and increased anxiety as I analyze every little thing, down to this aggravating belief that for some reason is so hard to shake:  "You are so unlikable."  It digs down deeper, and an emptiness is revealed:  "It is not okay if others don't like me.  I am only okay if I am likable." 


I see myself in the past: A bulldozer.  I listened to others only to plan the next thing that I would say.  I was loud, opinionated.  I still see this threatening conversations with loved ones every once in awhile, although I believe I have gotten better.

I'm stopping to take stock of what is peeking through the pressed down soil.  As I take stock of my feelings I realize that when I am pressed down, I often see red and explode from the dirt like I'm rising from the dead.  Words, excuses, feelings can pour out of me.  Why am I fighting? Perhaps we each simply long to be heard, and we don't know how to express this but to fight about it.  Rather than sending my own bulldozer back over, I can let the tiny green sapling lift its small leaf at the sun that's shining on the dirt pressed down in the bulldozer's wake.  It's less tempting to bulldoze over that planted hope than the thorny bushes of my anger rising fervently from the wreckage, isn't it? 


In my first teaching job, I had a conflict with my department head because, she would tell me, whenever she explained a problem that she saw in my teaching, I would talk around that problem - rationalize it, make excuses, etc.  I remember standing in front of her desk in the small office right around the corner from the in-school suspension room with teary eyes, fighting back that bubble of anxiety and confusion as I listened to her confront me about her concerns with my teaching.  "You keep making the same mistakes," she told me.  No matter how many times she told me, I kept making them.  I so desperately wanted to change and to be a better teacher.  Why wasn't I getting better?  

Looking back, I can see why she thought that I was unwilling to grow. If I could go back and redo those conversations now, I would talk less, listen more, and think more before the few words I did decide to speak.

I was accused by this boss of making excuses.  I realize now that she was right. But I'm only now realizing that there is a difference between rationalization and reframing (shifting to a true, but more positive perspective). One of them would have helped my own negative thoughts at the time, but the other just kept me in denial.

Rationalization is an unhealthy response to true guilt. It means not taking responsibility for what I did wrong. Reframing on the other hand is a way to interact with negative thoughts that are unproductive. This requires, and in fact makes it easier, taking responsibility where I need to so that I can move forward.


As teenager I became aware that the path I was walking down was not one of well-balanced, healthy emotions.  Reflecting on my childhood I had very high highs and very low lows and I would say, "Maybe I'm bipolar."  As an adult, I was told by one psychiatrist that I had generalized anxiety disorder, by a family doctor that I had OCD and anxiety, and by a different psychiatrist that I had something that was probably like OCD or anxiety (I don't really remember, it was quite vague).  To this day my own self-diagnosis varies by the day.

I hate when other people label me.


All I saw was blackness.  Hours of blackness as I sobbed on my bed, sobs that tore the energy out of me for days.  I felt alone, powerless, misunderstood, guilty, still angry.  I had seen red, then I saw black, then I saw red again as I realized I was having a miscarriage a few days later.  On New Year's Day, of all things.  I blamed myself and my big emotions for causing the miscarriage.  I also fostered resentment towards my loved ones by blaming them.

If what I needed to do to be okay was to stop having deep emotions, then my life seemed pretty hopeless.


The hard part of being me is that sometimes tiny things can have a huge impact.

"Nice way to say that  you overreact," Lumpy says.  Lumpy's my Inner Critic.  I just decided to call him that.  His name's Lumpy because he makes me feel like all I am is a mess of lumpy knots.

Lumpy's kind of a jerk, but there's a part of him that means well.

"Lumpy.  Yeah.  Sometimes I do," I admit curtly.  "But it's okay to have big emotions, and I'm learning how to handle them better."  I stare him down and he slinks back into the shadows.  


My anxiety is somewhat social, but not in the typical way that you'd imagine.  I seek out social time rather than avoid it most of the time, but if an uncomfortable social interaction happens, then my anxiety can take hold of me for a long time at home, once I'm alone.  And that leaves me feeling ... empty, unsatisfied, and lonely.

"You are so embarrassing," Lumpy likes to remind me after these uncomfortable situations.  "No one really likes you.  They are just pretending."  If Lumpy doesn't have success controlling what I think about how others see me, he goes for manipulating how I see myself.  "You're a fake," he'll hiss.  "You're really not good at anything, and you're just tricking people into thinking that you're good at things like teaching or writing or being a mom."

Wow, Lumpy, way to go for the gut.

So one day when I was feeling particularly down and didn't see any helpful hands reaching into my pit to lift me out, I reached out to a good friend and shared some of the things that Lumpy's been telling me.  She follows up with some really good advice, but I don't hear it right away because her first words to me are, "It sounds like you are seeking fulfillment in people, not in Jesus."

Lumpy has a FIT.  He's jumping up at down waving his arms in the air and screaming in my ear, "SEE!  I've been telling this to you for YEARS!  You are such a bad Christian.  You love people more than God.  Man, you really gotta get it together."

I feel like I've been punched in the gut as Lumpy's tirade rains down on me as I clutch the phone and fix my steely gaze at the wall.


A voice from my past.  There is a firmness to it.  A somehow pleasing and yet uncomfortable calmness.  And perhaps, a sigh of resignation.  "An apology doesn't mean anything if you keep doing the thing that you said you were sorry for," it says.


Lumpy is quiet sometimes.  In moments of true guilt, where I recognize that I've done something wrong, and either can't or don't want to fix it, he'll let my guilt slip into despair.  He likes despair because it keeps me from taking responsibility for my actions and making positive change.

In moments of selfish anger he'll let me simmer and bubble.  The loved ones in front of me will fade from my sight as my view narrows to the tiny thing I want to control or change about them.  I am asking Jesus to widen my view.

Lumpy will also take true sadness or anger and twist them.  True sadness tells me that I've lost something.  True anger tells me that something is wrong, that a boundary has been violated.  Sadness can lead me to seek comfort from friends or family, and anger can lead me to be protective.  But Lumpy is the little general that leads all the soldiers that pace back and forth on the wall of anxiety that blocks my heart in.  Stop feeling, they yell.  

Lumpy wants me to cook with anger, and then shrivel with despair.  He would have me not recognize the information that my emotions are giving me.  He would have me hide, distract, even fix.  When I succumb to believing that my emotions are bad, Lumpy wins.


I hear my inner critic come out with my kids and I feel scared.  The worst that I feel is when my three year old is crying and I can't figure what is upsetting him.  I try and I try to figure out what is wrong. I try to guess what he is saying, but he's crying so hard that I can't understand him, and he yells "No!" at me and cries harder.  

The red starts to seep out of me.  I'm trying so hard, and there are other things I'd rather be doing right now, and why can't you just listen.  My worst self comes out.  


Maybe the worst thing that I've ever said, because it's accompanied by this steely gaze that reduces my child to an obnoxious object, and a tone that's dripping with irritation.  A look and a tone that are all coalescing into what could one day be my child's own inner critic:  "You are such a crybaby.  You need to stop.  You need to be better. Stop feeling.  You'll never be good enough.  You'll never be good enough for me."  I look away from my child.  I want to withhold my affection until he behaves better.  I want to hide from my own shame.  I am dirty on the inside, but I am so mad that I don't care.

And then when his tone turns cheery as only a child's can so soon after such an awful parental display, but his eyes are still red from crying, I wonder, how much time do I have to fix this before he comes to believe that he's only worthy in my eyes when he is quiet, calm and manageable?


If I were a plant, my thick trunk would have a whole mess of thorny vines growing from it, that get tangled with other trees so much so that you can't tell where one begins and another ends.  I was and to a large degree still am so emotionally reliant on what others think of me.  Sometimes I feel like I'm in a season of systematically de-barbing my vines from others.  Letting go of needing to be likable and lovable in others' eyes ... wow, what a challenge.  It's hard.  And I miss my vines, even as I'm starting to taste little bits of freedom as I see what's free to grow when they are all cleared.


I enjoy attending Spanish-speaking church services because they resonate with me emotionally in a way that English-speaking services usually don't.  It's as if the people there are more comfortable with emotion. The last time I visited a particular one, the pastor read Luke 17:1-6 and spoke on living a life of faith.  The message sunk into my skin and wrapped around my bones.  A life of faith is a life of forgiveness, he said.  They passed out a red paper and a blue paper.  On the red paper we were to write down the name of someone we needed to forgive, and on the blue paper, someone of whom we needed to ask forgiveness.  

The one to forgive was obvious for me.  I scribbled the name and cried and dropped it in the basket at the foot of the cross.  

I struggled over the one of whom to ask forgiveness, because he's only three and he can't understand my request.  The voice from my past echoes.  "Why do you keep saying you're sorry, but then do the thing you said you were sorry for?"  My son understands my actions more than my words.  My heart speaks to him through my tone, my facial expression.  What kind of heart am I showing him?  I write his name on the blue paper.  I want to live a life of forgiveness.

For his sake, and admittedly a little bit for my sake too, I hope that he will grow into an adult that is quick to forgive.  But mostly for his sake.


Someone recently shared a quote with me that resonated:  "You never get ahead by looking at the rear-view mirror of your life."  I like that.  It's a reminder to me to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead.  And yet, the rear-view mirror does serve a purpose.  It gives you a view of the traffic that's around you so you can be safe.  How can I know where I'm going unless I know where I've been?


In the wake of these emotions,  I'm aware of something new.  An emptiness.  Not a blackness like despair.  Not heated air in the space where an angry outburst left its mark.  Just ... an emptiness.  Something that in the past would have been filled up with unhealthy expressions of my emotion - agitation, jumpiness, words, actions, snacking, crying, etc. 

Lumpy's ghost.

In the quiet, I sit and I feel the sadness.  I'm sad for who I could have been if I learned to manage my anxiety earlier in life.  And yet, God is using me.  I may not see how, but I know it is true because I have faith.

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