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.
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?
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.