We Are All Wrong About Anxiety
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW
Most of my clients are anxious, whether they have dysregulated eating or not. They fret incessantly about how they’re doing in life compared to others, whether they’re making enough “right” decisions, and how they’ll manage if life doesn’t go exactly as they’ve planned. They’re so used to believing that it’s their worries and fears that keep the sky from crashing down upon them, that they never stop and think that anxiety is no more powerful than the Wizard of Oz or protective than the Emperor’s new clothes.
This realization dawned up on me while talking with a client one day. She grew up very anxious with a strict mother who brooked little dissent and made my client think there was a right way—and, of course, a wrong way—to do everything. Hence, my client’s worry about whether she should leave a job that she (more or less) hated or stick around because it produced a pretty decent paycheck. The way she figured it, her anxiety kept her constantly thinking about what was right and wrong and that’s what had contributed to her success at her job. Therefore, she was having a deuce of a time giving it up, even when it made her miserable.
However, when we delved into whether or not her anxiety was the real power behind her success at work, my client was surprised to realize that this was hardly the case. Without much prodding, she recognized that she was conscientious and tried to do her best, not just for approval, but because she valued how it felt when she did. She acknowledged that she was an excellent planner and, in spite of not liking her job, a superb problem solver. She had a gift of being tuned into others (she had learned to be, in order to not rile her mother’s ire) and turned out to be an award-winning salesperson.
She had no idea that it was these attributes, not her constant anxiety, that made her successful in her career. Here, all along she’d thought it was because she thought so carefully about what was “right” and “wrong.” She’d attributed her success to her constant hypervigilance, when it turns out that she had some stellar life and work skills.
Do you credit anxiety for things going well in your life? Do you fear that if you give it up, you stop succeeding? Anxiety might have been useful long ago, and it may have actually made you do as well as you do, but its teaching days are long over. If it taught you to plan well and consider consequences, good for it. If it made you have a bit of self-doubt and the ability to see two sides of an issue, bravo. If it pushed you to go slowly and assess your options, hurray. Now that you’ve honed these qualities, it’s time to enjoy what they do for you and let your useless anxiety go.
Having compassion for others is a positive, humane quality, but it must be balanced out with compassion for self: I don’t want you to hurt and I don’t want to hurt either. It also must be balanced out with good judgment. I can’t tell you how many times clients tell me they’ve done inappropriate things for others all because “I felt badly for them.” What is missing in this reasoning is what any particular act will do to you. Sometimes it will harm you outwardly and sometimes it will take its toll inwardly, making you feel like a fool when you think you should have known better.
So, yes, show those who are suffering compassion, but watch that you don’t go overboard and end up hurting yourself.
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, is an international, award-winning author of seven books on eating, weight and body image, a psychotherapist with 30 years of experience, a health educator, and a popular blogger. Her expertise is in eating psychology and helping over-eaters and binge-eaters improve their self-care and become “normal” eaters. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida.
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