The years of anxiety and fear were never-ending in my mind. My self-confidence was always low. I didn’t know how I would ever get beyond my worries.
That paragraph might describe many times in my life. It could be the two years after college when I lived with my parents and couldn’t fathom a way out of living with them. Or the years I put off moving to some big city where I knew I may thrive but was too intimidated. Or it's the time I declined to admit I wanted something—anything—that might be more than what I felt I “deserved.”
Why had words of encouragement never sunk in? Why had I always doubted myself and my abilities? And how did I overcome these fears?
For most of my life I didn’t believe when people gave me compliments. Much of this has to do with my depression and anxiety—I felt (and very much believed) that I wasn’t good enough. I believed that my mental health issues made me less of a human being. Thus, when someone told me they appreciated what I did or said, I didn’t believe them. I had too many years of experience telling me otherwise. Besides, I knew what I felt, and what I felt seemed real. It was more real than any words from someone who wasn’t living my life.
So I truly believed I wasn’t a good writer or speaker. I doubted that I had anything of importance to share.
But with time comes experience. And confidence. And taking my medications to help calm my anxiety and depression helped a great deal, too.
I began to trust others and their judgments of me. I also had to put into the proper place my perfectionism. I began to understand that I could be a good writer even if I wasn’t the best one ever. When people complimented me on my writing I knew that at least I had touched that one person. And every individual counts.
At some point I realized I detested a life of static unhappiness. I figured out the things I enjoyed (it took me well into my 30s—I hope you have the ability to find out what makes your heart flutter well before that). And things lined up well enough that I felt comfortable quitting my job and taking on many part-time positions. At the same time I am now working toward fulfilling my goal to be a mental health speaker.
There’s never a right time to make your leap to living a life you want to live. I've heard this a hundred times. But you do what you can to find a time that works as well as you imagine it’s going to get. Then you take that leap. It’s scary and I’m still trying to figure how everything shakes out.
But I’m glad I made my move to fulfill my goals. Because 1) I don’t want to live a life where I’m unhappy; 2) you won’t know unless you try; 3) maybe—just maybe—I am better and more worthy of joy and contentment than I thought. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you will see that you are, too.
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I recently had a student approach me after speaking to a mental health group on his college campus. He was a friendly, thoughtful guy who wanted to know how I dealt with my anxiety. I had a few thoughts to share with him—methods that worked for me. He was seeing a therapist and working on cognitive behavioral therapy. It was good to hear that—he wanted to put his mental health first, which is important if one wishes to improve it.
Our conversation reminded me that I haven’t written much about my anxiety, which is ironic since it’s the first mental health issue I dealt with. Going back to my time as a small child, I often got nervous or worried in new situations. I didn’t like being away from my mom or my house. Being in new places on my own scared me.
Over the years, my anxiety morphed as I became nervous about getting good grades and finding friends. Some of the old fears still remained but I began to have a hard time being in social situations. I would often shut people out instead of joining in their gatherings or activities. It wasn’t easy for me to tell others that while I liked them, I worried about finding acceptance in their social setting.
Looking back, I've come up with four things I wish I knew about anxiety. It's possible if someone told these things to me it would have given me a leg up on tackling my fears.
1. You might need meds
This is the biggest one. Without anti-anxiety medication, it was impossible for me to calm down to the point where my mind could address ideas in a rational manner. I knew that certain processes might work to handle anxiety. Yet my mind was racing all the time in those anxiety provoking situations. It did so such that I never got the opportunity to use those methods that might have helped with tackling my anxiety. Once my mind drew back to a more calm level thanks to the meds, I found it was easier to focus on the lessons I was learning in therapy and self-help workbooks.
I know medications aren’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine functioning without one.
2. Panic attacks are ok
I’ve had a few panic attacks in my life. They’re not fun. And they’re always the result of fears running full-steam out of control. In the past I used to think panic attacks were the end of the world and meant there was something damaged in me—maybe even beyond repair. After I had the first one, I felt like a horrible person. But that’s far from the case. They're a part of having anxiety but they don't make me worthless. As we say in the mental health field: it’s okay to not be okay.
3. There are ways to control it
I found cognitive behavioral therapy to do wonders for putting my thoughts in context and understand why I thought what I did. The workbook Mind Over Mood was especially helpful.
4. Everything will be okay – look at past experiences
If nothing else, remind yourself of this simple idea: you’ve had periods when you felt anxious and as though you might not make it through that experience. But you survived. And you can continue to remind yourself of your strength any time you have anxiety.
More than anything, my concern about money has driven me to extreme levels of anxiety in my life. It’s strange to write that because I come from a well-off, upper middle-class white family. I’ve never lacked for anything and my parents are still well to-do.
Anxiety was the first mental illness I recognized in my life. From early childhood I experienced the concern and worry of being away from my mom, especially. Most days in first grade I imagined leaving school and going home to her, even though I wasn’t a mamma’s boy. I wanted to be someplace I thought was secure and safe.
As I grew up my anxieties expanded as well. I worried about the apocalypse and finding myself left behind (I grew up in an evangelical Christian household). I had concerns about going to friends’ houses to spend the night. I was afraid of being away from home for what seemed like a very long time. When I got my first job at 15 I was anxious about doing good work, even after the first few days showed me I was fine.
I know a lot of this comes through genetics, as I see it in relatives. Still, there was something more. Why the specific concern with money?
This is, after all, an absurd fear. I would never be out on the street if I lost my job. I live in an affordable apartment and have a partner to help pay rent. I have savings. I’m sure my parents would support me. I have to remind myself of these things when I get scared about my financial future.
Much of this goes back to two things: 1) My parents grew up without a lot of money and 2) my dad lost his job when I was in elementary school.
When parents become successful they often remind their children how difficult life was in their own youth. Most kids believe their parents about everything, so even though mine meant no ill will, I took to heart their statements of the difficulty of a poor upbringing. I feared we were always one step away from being out on the streets, my comfortable life gone.
Thus when my dad lost his job when I was around 10 years old, it scared me. Would we lose our house? Would we have to get a small apartment and I have to share a bedroom with my sister? Might I have to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor in a roach-infested hotel room? I’d still be alive but could I get lice from staying there? My mind spiraled into worse case scenarios.
Of course things were fine: my dad found a new job, we didn’t lose our house, I didn’t get lice. But since then I’ve been cautious with my money. I rarely buy any extravagances short of traveling here and there (which I realize I am quite fortunate to do). I save and save and save for purposes I don’t even know what for. I’m a minimalist with a sparse amount of possessions I can move at a moment’s notice.
These fears make no sense to me. Still, as I get older they’ve calmed somewhat. I have a better grasp of finances and can put into context what happened in my youth.
Anxieties are so often irrational and mine is especially so given the privileges I have in this life. Yet, it’s taken me a few decades to get comfortable with this irrational thought and take on a correct perspective of it.
My fear about money will on occasion rear its head. But as I get older my past has shown me I am safe. I've learned to be smart with my money and have a great privilege—both with my financial and mental states. I’m doing my best to not take these for granted.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.