What Are You Making This Mean About You?
Anxiety is at the base, and sometimes the forefront, of most peoples' struggles. What causes most anxiety is how a person is thinking or feeling about something that is happening (or not happening). We've all heard about the flight-or-fight fear response which helps us when there is real danger. This evolutionary survival tactic used to help us a lot when there was a tiger in our cave. The reason many people go to therapy these days is because they feel the anxiety as though they are standing face-to-face with the tiger, but the tiger isn't there. People feel anxiety when they think about their latest fight with their boyfriend, the promotion they want, catching that plane, that thing their friend said that is still bothering them, what their parents will think of them, etc. When I ask clients when they feel the most anxiety, they tell me it's when they are alone with their thoughts, especially waking up, or trying to go to sleep. These are times when we are tuned into our thoughts with little distraction. There is a specific pattern that takes place that leads us right to anxiety. If you know about it, you can do a whole lot to feel better and less anxious.
1. First, we have a thought or memory about something.
2. Then, we make it mean something about us.
3. Then, we have the feeling. The feeling is usually anxiety, sadness, or anger. This tends to open the flood gates to more anxiety, sadness, or anger (and sometimes all three!)
What spirals us into anxious thinking is that we make the thought, memory, feeling, or event mean something about us. We are so used to doing this that we don't even notice it happening. We take whatever it is personally by way of creating a meaning around it with our thoughts and feelings. Most of the time, what we decide in our minds is negative and not in our favor. This is why we struggle so much with anxiety.
Here is a common type of exchange I witness with clients. See if you can identity the steps of the pattern.
Client: I noticed that she stopped texting me at work like she used to.
Therapist: She did? What do you think about that?
Client: Well, I don't understand it. She used to text me everyday to tell me about her day, what she ate...you know, regular stuff. Now, nothing. I don't want to text her first because then I know she will respond just because I texted her.
Therapist: So, what are you making her not texting you mean about you?
Client: Well, she doesn't care anymore. Maybe she's over me. She can't just expect me to not be hurt by this. I don't even want to talk to her about it because she won't understand and it's a stupid thing to be upset about.
Therapist: Ok. That's what you are making it mean about her. That she doesn't love you and thinks your feelings are not valid. What does it mean about you?
Client: It means I'm not a good partner. I just can't seem to keep a girlfriend no matter what. I always want too much or am too needy. I have been slacking around the house lately. And she hates when I come home so late.
You can see that, with some introspection, we find out that the client is feeling guilty and upset because the client made the lack of texts mean that they are not a good partner and that they are needy. Then, with more curiosity, we realize that the client is not doing things as well as they would like to around the house. This is such good information because it gives us guidance for the next step. Knowing what to do alleviates anxiety. Now we know that the client can start working on picking up slack at home and coming in earlier. We can also heal some of the hurt the client has around needing to connect. The client can also decide if they want to practice how they might ask the girlfriend if she is happy with the relationship. Imagine if the client would have wound themself up so much from anxiety that they confronted the girlfriend about texting without doing the work first! The real issues and opportunities would have been missed and the anxiety would not have been resolved.
The real opportunity to take responsibility for ourselves and guide ourselves to feeling better and less anxious comes when we find out what we have made something mean. So, get curious about yourself. When you start to feel the anxiety, sadness, or anger, ask yourself, "What have I made this mean about me?"