Sunday, February 27, 2011
Like so many, I have grappled with the dark shadows of anxiety and depression. Mine has been a conscious struggle for nearly ten years now, but if I look back into my childhood, I can see it there, too. The over-thinking, the desperate grabs for approval, the belittling self-talk... It has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.
Transitions have always been my weak spot. One of my most difficult times, and the first time that I really began to have any awareness of my own tendencies towards anxiety, was when I graduated from high school and entered first year university. Everything was going well. I was a good student, and had made one or two friends. I lived comfortably at home with my parents and siblings, had a good relationship with my boyfriend, held down a part-time job... On the surface, everything was functional and fine, and yet I experienced rib-cage-crushing chest pain every time the bus I was riding pulled up to the university campus.
Change. That was all it was.
I struggled significantly again when I got married, and again when my son was born. Always appearing to be fine, to have it together, and yet, I was frozen with worry, exhausting myself with circular thoughts, and berating myself for any and all failure to adhere to my own set of rules of how things should be. Desperately trying to organize my life back under control.
During my last round of counseling, I was taken aback when I realized that I was comfortable making myself miserable. It is not that I enjoy being worried, self-critical and defensive, but these things are so familiar to me. They are patterns that have become so much a part of who I am that when we talked about leaving them behind, I got quite emotional. Feelings of fear and grief swelled up inside of me. Change these things? How could I? It would be like letting a part of myself die! And who would I be without them?
Who, indeed. When therapists ask me to describe myself, I usually tell them whatever my mother or sister or grade school teacher has told me about myself. Somehow, borrowing other people's words feels more accurate than anything I could come up with myself. But I don't report everything I have been told, rather, I will sort through my memories for those descriptions that I feel are most accurate. Loud? Yes, that seems right. Difficult to get along with? I can buy that. Over-dramatic? Sure. But say someone describes me as reliable? I will immediately remind myself of all the times in which I have been unreliable, and 'reliable' doesn't make the cut.
I recently started seeing a therapist again, to help me through the transition from 'working mom of one' to 'at-home mom of two'. This therapist is truly a woman after my own heart; always giving me new things to read. The book, 'What Happy People Know' by Dan Baker, has been my favourite suggestion so far, but I have also learned much from 'The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem' and a chapter of 'Change your Brain, Change your Life'. The writers of these books have given me new insight into my own messy head.
Calling up every negative thing anyone has ever said about me, along with evidence to support their statements, comes ridiculously easy to me. It is a very established thought pattern, and my brain is very good at it after a near lifetime of practice. Remembering positive descriptors is harder, and any that I do recall, are so easy to discount. I am beginning to understand that it all comes down to my self-concept; the way I write my own story. It works like this: If I believe I am 'bad', then descriptions in line with that belief seem correct. Descriptions to the contrary are incorrect, clearly the result of someone else's generosity, or not knowing me well enough. Evidence supporting the 'truth' is remembered. Any evidence contradicting it is dismissed as being a rare exception.
In actual fact, I may be reliable far more often than I am unreliable. I may be even-tempered far more often than I am overly dramatic. But what I believe about myself has not been based on facts, or numbers, or really anything rational. It has only been based on an old, bad story of me.
I am feeling more open to change, these days. It would not be so awful to drop 'neurotic' from my own self-concept. I am ready to give up my old habits, and pave some new roads. And I am trying to let go of the old stories of 'bad' me, even though I don't know who I will be without them.
Today is where my book begins. The rest is still unwritten.