That’s Bert at left, having a bad day.
I’m a nervous monkey.
Not full-blown, panic-attack nervous (though there have been times, like my first day of kindergarten, when I came pretty close).
No, my anxiety is more of the garden-variety, chronic type. You know, where you go around tense or uneasy, unable to fully relax or enjoy yourself because it feels like something bad’s going to happen, only you’re not sure what. You know.
I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. Anxiety has followed me around throughout most of my life, wherever I go, whatever I do, like background music.
It took me a while to figure it out.
How to keep yourself nervous
What I finally discovered — mainly by sitting in on sessions where Steve was teaching clients about control addiction — is that I have two favorite ways to keep myself nervous.
One way is to
(1) Control the future.
I do this mainly by thinking about it. Anticipating it. Planning it. Worrying about it. Obsessing about it. Forming expectations. In other word, by letting my thoughts be dominated by monkey mind.
This is a highly efficient system that keeps anxieties growing like weeds. Because the more I worry about the future, the more anxious I get. And the more anxious I get, the more I worry about the future. And so on.
My other favorite way of staying nervous is to
(2) Control other people.
I do this by insisting — secretly, I mean, in the privacy of my own mind — that other people always like me, and approve of me, and admire me, and agree with me, and laugh at my jokes. That I really need them to behave that way, and that I’ll find it intolerably painful when they don’t.
(That second part is an exaggeration, of course. But it’s not hard to convince myself that it’s true. All I have to do is check in with Top Dog, who reminds me how inadequate I am. Then monkey mind does the rest. Like tag-team wrestling.)
I try to control other people mainly by editing myself — hiding the parts I think they won’t like. For example, I bury feelings instead of expressing them. The more feelings I bury, the more anxious I get. The more anxious I get….
No doubt you’ve noticed a pattern here. The main symptom of my addiction is an endlessly repeating cycle: anxiety leads to controlling, which leads to more anxiety, which leads to more controlling, around and around and around.
So. What to do?
Stop the music
Well, you can’t stop it; not entirely. Some background anxiety is simply the cost of being human — of having a big brain that worries endlessly, and of needing relationships to feel secure.
But you can turn down the volume.
I find the two ways — two practices, actually — that work best both involve (surprise) giving up control.
The first practice is not controlling the future. I do this (even though I hate it) by meditating. This involves sitting for twenty minutes a day in one place, watching my own anxious thoughts run amuck, pushing them gently aside and counting breaths instead. And doing this over and over. It’s difficult. It gets easier with practice. It works.
The other practice is coming out of hiding with people. I do this by noticing the urge to go into hiding, even in small ways. (No, that dress doesn’t make your butt look big at all.) I face this choice between fifty and a hundred times a day. My practice is to gradually increase the percentage of times I tell the truth, show myself as I am. To exercise the honesty muscle.
This, too, is difficult. This, too, gets easier with practice.
And this, too — probably more than anything else — helps turn down the volume of the music in the background.