Photo by Katy Morikawa
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I had a small breakdown this week, not a big one, provoked by fatigue laced with a pinch of indignity. My brother and I renovated a farmhouse bathroom, a job I took because I needed the money, I love old farmhouses, and this one is owned by a dear friend. I thought of it as messy but satisfying work. But the project expanded last minute and by mid-week I was thoroughly exhausted and wondering what I was doing with my life. By the last day, I had sunk into a cloud of fears and insecurities, not to mention reflection on how pointless were all my lovely mindset stratgies in the face of this kind of grueling manual labor. Very humbling to contemplate what life must be like for people who do this kind of work all the time (and I don’t mean just renovations)! Could I find something, anything, in my bag of tricks that a person in a similar situation could use to cope, much less thrive?
For starters, I could recognize that my gloomy outlook was probably greatly exaggerated by my tiredness and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After that, I turned to a commonly employed strategy in war and business: turning a breakdown into an opportunity. In my case, I realized that this was a great time to look more closely at the negative patterns that had risen so strongly to the surface, something that inevitably happens when we’re fatigued or under stress. That alone perked me up a little. I chose my anxiety, which was up again and thrumming like a ragged motor. Over the years, anxiety has haunted me more than it ever did as a younger person, and I have hated it at times. The older anxious woman is such an unflattering stereotype. I saw it as weakness (which I’m sure didn’t help matters), particularly since one of the strategies I’ve learned for countering it includes identifying and eliminating toxic thoughts and beliefs. But all of my various strategies take more time than I had at present.
That morning, as I showered quickly and packed my lunch and supplies, I peered into my anxiety and noticed a particular dynamic structure to it, something I’d always vaguely sensed without really understanding. Mind you, I was able to do this on the fly because I’ve developed mindfulness skills through years of meditation. But I think that you, even without these, could do it with enough time. If you pick a pattern that isn’t fleeting, but fairly persistent, you could do the same with some journaling and time to reflect. My anxiety, I noticed, felt like a fast agitating vibration, as though two opposing forces beat against each other rattling my composure and preventing me from moving forward with ease. As I focused on these and remembered other particularly anxious patches over the past few days, I sensed two distinct impulses battering against each other, opposing each other: bold certainty and fear.
Anxiety makes me feel more anxious (one of the vicious cycles with which psychology contends), and I tend to be afraid of it anyway, so I hadn’t recognized the pulse of my own bold certainty caught within the clatter of the anxiety and fear. But it was there, together with the fear, holding its own, both impulses present in equal measure like clashing swords. In that moment I understood that anxiety isn’t actually fear, it’s indecision! And I realized that I could make a choice here. I could choose between bold certainty and fear. Unless I’m running from a sharp-toothed predator, I tend to mistrust fear as a motivator, so I chose the bold certainty. It leaped inside of me, already alive, requiring no work for me to generate it, but coming clear with my choice. The anxiety quickly began to dissipate, fanned by the realization that this mini-breakdown had indeed provided an opportunity to understand anxiety in a whole new way and to defuse it! I went on to have a great day–a tiring one, but one highlighted by another gem of insight my brother and I shared while installing the bathroom sink. I’ll share it in a future post. Spoiler alert: it’s got gremlins in it, in a good way!
I suspect that each person’s anxiety will represent a specific set of warring impulses, not necessarily identical to the ones I discovered this week. I could imagine other pairings in which a person might choose the quieter side of the warring pair: resentment vs. patience, anger vs. sorrow, judgment vs. love. When seeking to defuse the anxiety, it seems essential to find the true components or ingredients of your particular anxiety, with the understanding these components will change from situation to situation. Choosing to end the impasse by making a decision may also represent unique challenges. For example, there may not be a clear right choice. If your anxiety resolves into a conflict between anger and the patient witness, you may find it impossible to stand in the patient witness and instead need to give full voice to your anger. And indeed, after venting the anger, you might wind your way back around to patience. Making a choice doesn’t mean staying on that road forever. The dynamics of both organic and psychological processes involve divergences that can then re-converge just as often as they remain divergent and distinct.
Before I share a simple How To Process for working with your anxiety, which I’ll do in a separate post to make it easier to find, I wanted to acknowledge that despite a pattern of publishing helpful how-to posts of late, I have no desire to promote myself as a guru-type teacher. It’s a popular model, but I’ve always shrunk back from it. Not only am I all too aware of my faults and personal struggles, but my best teachers have always been deeply human and have struggled with their own challenges. In fact, the ones who seem so perfect have always proven to be hiding deep dark demons. Every time. That’s a topic for another post–the shadow of Gurus. Anyway, if I’ve developed more mindfulness tools and disciplines than you, it’s probably because I’ve had more motivation: pain, sorrow, loss, character flaws leading to an obstinacy of unwise choices, plus a perpetually confused sense of purpose! But, as with this week’s lesson, breakdowns can be turned into opportunities.
Find the step-by-step method for unlocking and defusing your anxiety in the next post, and Episode 22 on this podcast: How to Unlock and Defuse Your Anxiety. See photos from the bathroom renovation below.