How to make yourself nervous

(Bert speaking:)

I am one nervous monkey.

Not full-blown panic-attack nervous (though there have been times when I came 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’s taken me a while to figure it out.

What I finally discovered (mainly by eavesdropping on sessions while Steve was teaching clients about control addiction)  is that I have three ways to keep myself nervous.

The first is to 

(1) Try to control the future.

I do this the same way you do it — by thinking about it. 

I anticipate.  Plan.  Worry.  Obsess.  Form expectations.  Insist that my expectations be met.     

In other words, I allow my thoughts to be dominated by monkey mind.

This is a highly efficient system: it keeps anxieties growing like weeds.  The more I worry about the future, the more anxious I get.  The more anxious I get, the more I worry about the future.  And so on.

The second way of staying nervous is to

(2) Try to 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.

I actually convince myself that I really need them to behave that way, that it will be intolerable if they don’t.

That’s bullshit, of course.  But it’s not hard to convince myself it’s true.  All I have to do is check in with my Top Dog, who’s always happy to remind me how inadequate I am.  Then monkey mind does the rest.  Sort of  like tag-team wrestling.

How do I control other people?  Mainly by editing myself — hiding the parts I’m afraid they won’t like. 

Which brings me to the third way of making myself nervous:

(3) Bury feelings. 

This one’s sure-fire. 

As Steve explains it, feelings are like shit: waste products meant to be expelled from the body, not hidden or stored up.  Bodies that holds in shit feel constipated.  People that holds in feelings feels anxious.

This, too, is a self-perpetuating method.  The more feelings I bury, the more anxious I get.  The more anxious I get, the more I try to hide my feelings. 

Thus the main symptom of my control 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?

 Two practices 

Some background anxiety is simply the cost of being human — of having oversized brains that worry endlessly, and of fearing rejections which make us feel insecure.

But you can turn down the volume.

I find the two practices that work best for me both involve (surprise) giving up control.

The first practice is taming monkey mind: meditation.   Twice a day I sit at my desk for twenty minutes and try to count breaths.  I rarely get beyond three or four before anxious thoughts interrupt and run amuck.  I push the thoughts aside and go back to counting.  I do this over and over and over.

Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it gets easier with practice.  Yes, it works.

The other practice is emotional honesty.  This has two steps.  The first is to  notice how often I feel the urge to lie, even in small ways.  (Pleased to meet you.  Ha ha, funny.  No, that dress doesn’t make your butt look big.) 

I face this choice maybe a hundred times a day.  The second step is to try to increase the frequency with which I tell the truth, show myself as I am. 

This too is difficult.  Often, scary.  

This too gets easier with practice.

And when I can do it, this — more than anything else — makes me a less nervous monkey.


5 responses to “How to make yourself nervous

  • Clare Flourish

    Um. Feelings may be like shit in that they are bad if stored up, but are like a perception of the world, a reaction to it- Bad! Good! Like! Love! You may decide what to do with anger after feeling it. Sometimes, controlled release at something safe to be angry at- those pesky Pro-Choice campaigners, rather than a domineering “Christian” husband.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Yes, that’s the function of feelings — to help us perceive and interpret current experience. The problem is, if we store them up we find ourselves experiencing outdated perceptions that have less to do with here/now and more to do with there/then. Thus people who never adequately processed their hurt and anger over past wounds may wind up displacing those shitty feelings onto current persons and situations. It’s a recipe for emotional stuckness.

  • charlie067

    I know you focus on relationship issues, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on following these rules in a work setting.

    I feel anxious at work quite often, and I’d like to stop doing those three things you listed, but that’s difficult for the following reasons (and I’m sure I’m not unique here):

    (1) Control the future – I often work on projects with predetermined goals that need to be met before a given deadline. And I am doing everything I can to obtain that goal (which is in the future).

    (2) Control other people – Well in order to achieve that project goal, I need to get my team motivated and producing. So I must control them, right?

    (3) Bury my feelings – This one I can probably stop doing, but when it’s your boss you sometimes have to bite your tongue, right?

    So I guess it’s no surprise that lots of us are anxious at work. But do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks for your posts, I really enjoy them.

  • Steve Hauptman

    Good question.

    In a perfect world, our work would serve our life, instead of making us anxious, depressed, frustrated, desperate, angry, addicted, cynical or spiritually bankrupt.

    It is not a perfect world.

    Given that, intelligent and courageous self-care is the best antidote I know to the world of work.

    “Intelligent” means based on our real needs, especially the physical (e.g., adequate rest, nutrition and exercise) and the emotional (like adequate transition between work and home, emotional release via venting about all the crap we can’t control, and recreation, like family time, a social life or a hobby). Unfortunately too many people I know equate self-care with junk food, increased alcohol consumption and hours of mind-numbing tv.

    “Courageous” means willing to make oneself a priority. The great danger of most jobs is that they pull us away from ourselves, replacing our needs and priorities with those of others. Very hard to resist this, since most of us need to work to survive. We also live in a culture which undermines simple self-acceptance and rewards workaholic behavior.

    Then too, some of us love our work (I’m such a person), so it’s easy to get lost in it and not even notice. As David Whyte says, “It is very hard to say no to work.”

    So it takes both brains and guts to practice what I call healthy selfishness — a life organized around an approach to working which serves our best selves, not the other way around.

    How to do that?

    It starts with a conscious choice to pay attention, to take work seriously as a problem.

    Then I think we need to make a sort of declaration of independence — to find some way to say to work “You’re important, but you’re not everything. You’re not me, you’re not my life, and I won’t live as if you are.”

    Finally, we need the company of someone else — a spouse, partner, colleague, even a therapist — who shares this view. Or at least doesn’t think we’re crazy for holding it.

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