I was meditating on anxiety today. Practising meditation and yoga isn’t a miracle cure all and, just like everyone else, my life throws up things that trigger my emotions. Anxiety is one of those, especially when it comes to putting myself out there in terms of my work.
A familiar thought pattern often arises, which counsellors often referred to as imposter syndrome:
“Am I good enough? do I know what I’m talking about? what if a ‘real expert’ hears what I’m saying and outs me as a fraud?”
I know that these stories aren’t true, otherwise my clients wouldn’t keep coming back, and choosing me over other therapists and teachers. Clearly then, this anxiety is rooted in shame – a fear of being humiliated. Shame commonly manifests in one of two ways (or a combination):
Everything has to be absolutely perfect so I am beyond criticism. This causes massive stress as we overwork to go way beyond good enough. The slightest inevitable imperfection creates feelings of failure and inadequacy.
Avoiding doing the task, as it can never be good enough. Just the thought of it instils a feeling of failure, so far better to distract myself with pictures of fluffy cats (other forms of distraction are available). The task is then usually either done at the last minute with the massive stress that entails, or not at all; a complete failure often leading to feelings of depression.
My lifetime tendency is to procrastinate; although I can use perfectionism within that: paying far too much attention to getting one small aspect perfect, as a way of avoiding the rest.
So having recognised my procrastination around the task I was putting off, I sat down and meditated; simply allowing myself to feel the anxiety that was coming up – a cold sensation at the bottom of my breastbone.
Suddenly a thought appeared (if you think that meditation is about stopping yourself from thinking, then please listen to mindfulness made easy)
“It’s amazing that I’ve made it this far with all this anxiety”
Here I am, I’ve managed to survive for over 41 years, and I’m still going. I’m eating and warm; I’ve got shelter; I’ve got many friends and interests; and despite my anxiety, I’ve been running my own business for over 10 years – finding a way to put myself out there; helping people and enjoying the results. I recognised the resilience I have to be able to keep going; to keep finding a way to overcome the anxiety, even if it does involve procrastination and the associated stress.
I started to feel the strength of that resilience, a warm, solid feeling. The feeling of anxiety was still there as well and I wasn’t trying to get rid of it, or replace it with this feeling of resilience. I was noticing both of them co-existing.
As I felt this strength, I realised that it was a response to the anxiety. I had developed this strength and resilience as a response to the anxiety. I am growing as a result of the anxiety. The anxiety has given me a gift.
What came next was an even more profound realisation.
This fight going on within me, between the resilience and the anxiety, was actually contributing to the anxiety.
My need to be strong, and to overcome this anxiety was feeding more anxious thoughts:
“but what if I can’t? What if I don’t manage it this time?”
Having the strength to put myself out there work-wise means continuing with this line of work. So I have to continue to put myself out there more, and find new ways of doing that, which brings new challenges.
So the anxiety is feeding the resilience, and the resilience is feeding the anxiety.
There’s a Taoist saying – “Your Strengths are your weaknesses, and your weakness your strengths.” Applied Yin and Yang. The dots in the yin yang symbol represent the seed of one within the other.
So my strength and anxiety are in fact two sides of the same coin.
This realisation changed the state of my meditation. I am now outside of this internal battle between strength and anxiety – my desire to do my work and my desire to procrastinate. They are in fact one and the same, and I don’t need to get involved in the fight – trying to win it makes the anxiety stronger. After all its Ok not to be OK.
Now I am outside: I am bigger than the anxiety; I am bigger than my resilience. They are simply feelings within me. They do not define me. It’s my choice now how I respond to them, and I can simply choose not to. I don’t need to act as someone who is anxious. I don’t need to act as someone trying to be strong enough to overcome the anxiety. I can simply choose to act as me, and I choose to get on with my task.
I am experienced enough to know that I haven’t fixed this. I will procrastinate again, and that’s OK. I will try to use strength to overcome anxiety again, and that’s OK too. It’s all a part of being human.
But I also now know that there is a me that is bigger. I now know that when I’m able to connect with this place, that I don’t need to fight. I can also use this in future meditations to heal the underlying causes of my procrastination, making my journey through life that bit easier.