Anxiety is Not Your Destiny

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“I’m just an anxious person,” I often hear my clients and program members say. The statement underlines a common globalization belief intrinsic to many who struggle with anxiety, which is: I’m anxious, I’ve always been anxious and I’ll always be anxious. In other words, anxiety is just in my wiring and it’s here to stay.

Let’s talk a bit about wiring. We are born with certain predispositions: Some people are introverts, others are extroverts. Some love airplanes and others love art. Some excel at reading and others excel at math. Some like broccoli and others like carrots. Some babies roll with the punches and others are affected by the ups and downs of daily life. Where do these predispositions come from? We can that they’re hard-wired into our genetic code, but research shows that we can actually change our genetic code. So let’s take out the hard-wiring and say that we’re born with certain preferences, gifts, temperaments, and ways of being, but that these predispositions aren’t set in stone.

What happens next is that, as others reinforce our predispositions, we learn to define ourselves according to these natural-born ways. One of the clearest places to see this is with siblings. Well-meaning parents notice early on how one child excels at science while another one excels at sports, and the next thing you know the parents are referring to their kids as “the scientist” and “the athlete.” This doesn’t seem harmful until you realize that when kids develop an identity wrapped around a role, they start to define themselves according to that one role, and then they believe that since the other role is already taken why bother trying. In other words, the child who excels at science may also learn to love sports if she’s given enough encouragement. It may not come naturally to her, but if she’s only defined by her love and gift for science and her parents reinforce that identity, she’ll never stay with sports long enough to develop skill and confidence. This is one way that we limit our kids.

The same is true with anxiety. Just because you were born a highly sensitive child whose sensitivities likely weren’t honored so the natural sensitivities morphed into anxiety, that doesn’t mean you have to stay that way for the rest of your life. Yes, you may come from a long line of chronic worriers. One or both of your parents may struggle with anxiety or depression. While this information can help you understand where you come from, it doesn’t have to determine where you’re going. Yet so often it does. One of the tentacles of the anxious mind is the belief that you’ll always struggle with anxiety; that you’ll never feel good and clear. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the anxious mind is its black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. When you’re speaking with words like never and always you know you’re caught in its stronghold.

Along these lines, my brother excitedly shared a book with me last weekend called The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How by Daniel Coyle. I haven’t read it yet, but from talking to my brother and reading a bit on Amazon I’ve gleaned the basic premise of the book, which is that you can do anything with enough of a certain kind of practice, which he says is practice that learns from mistakes. In other words, it’s learning from the mistakes and continuing to practice that builds the skill-set, whether we’re talking about playing tennis, painting, or dealing with anxiety.

This is why I talk about anxiety as a gift. When you see it as an aberration, as something to barrel through or medicate, as evidence of something wrong or broken inside of you, you miss the opportunity to learn and grow. Anxiety is a messenger communicating deep wells of information about your inner world that need attention, but you can only decipher the code when you approach the anxiety with the curiosity that comes from the mindset that it’s a beautiful mistake. Yes, it’s a beautiful mistake, the type of mistake that, when learned from, helps you grow. When approached this way you realize that your anxiety doesn’t have to define you and it doesn’t have to remain with you for the rest of your life.

But the leap from struggle to health doesn’t happen on its own. Just as a great violinist doesn’t become great by osmosis or good genes – even if she comes from generations of great violists – so we don’t overcome the challenges of the mind and discover its fruits by doing nothing. We have to practice, which means committing to whatever practices help you attend to your anxiety and connect to your goodness and equanimity.

We’re not destined for limitation; we’re destined for greatness. We’re not destined for anxiety; we’re destined for equanimity. We’re not destined to be feel lost, empty, and alone; we’re destined to feel purposeful and connected. We’re not destined to define ourselves by our challenges; we’re destined to grow through these challenges and become a more balanced version of ourselves, where our weaknesses become our strengths and the places where we’ve struggled most become our greatest gifts.

30 comments to Anxiety is Not Your Destiny

  • M

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thanks for this post. It sort of relates to something that has come up in my therapy sessions, which is my attachment style. What I have learned is that as a child I was an anxious-attached child. In kindergarten, I got out of school early one day and the bus dropped me off in front of my house and my mom was in the house but didn’t hear the door bell ring. She didn’t come out until about 5 minutes later and she always tells me that I was “traumatized” from that experience. I would cry everyday in kindergarten, anticipating that when I went home my mom/dad would not be there. I would also make my parents sleep in my bedroom as a child and if they left without me knowing it would trigger anxiety. I would need reassurance every night before I went to bed that “everything would be okay” (all lights off, everything unplugged, alarm on). When my grandmother passed away (whom I was extremely close with) I felt that anxiety start all over again. What I am realizing is that I also (prior to my anxiety about engagement) I have had anxiety in my relationships in relation to “attachment” and a fear of abandonment. I find this very interesting and although I know it doesn’t define my, I find it comforting that this is how I have been. Do you talk about any of the attachment styles in your therapy sessions? Do you think this has stayed with me into adult hood?

    Thanks again!

    • Yes, I do a lot of work with attachment styles as most people who find me start out anxiously attached. But the key phrase in reference to this post is “start out”: we are wired a certain way, but with enough time learning how to attach securely with a securely attached person (partner, therapist, friend), we can become securely attached.

  • I honestly love all your posts and have transformed tremendously since finding your blog Summer of 2013. But yet, every day I still become anxious and have a panic attack. I’ve put off going back to school for five months after I broke up with my boyfriend and have decided I need to start my life again to figure out who I am. But I am now beginning to mourn being so close to my family and having the comfort of them around me. I will be going to a strange place at the end of December and will be leaving behind yet another boyfriend. But this time I know I’ll have to ask remain friends so I can focus on what I want and stop traumatizing myself with a relationship that may or may not work out. I have to come first and right now I may love but I don’t want another long distance relationship and I am not willing to give up the opportunity to see myself grow into the amazing person I know I can become.

    Thank You so much for writing and please continue to do so! In my low moments like these I read your new blogs and pour my soul out.

    • Hi Chrissy: This work takes TIME. There isn’t a two-week quick fix or even a two months quick fix. And while reading a blog can help put some pieces into place, it’s the daily actions, the practice, that transforms insight into real change. Insight + action = change. What are your practices?

      • Stella

        It’s the action part that confuses me! Sometimes I have a aha moment of what my fear may be but then to take the projection of my fear off my boyfriend and dealing with it is so difficult to understand…

  • Stella

    Dear Sheryl,
    Thank you for this post. The thought of having to deal with the anxiety beter my mind often. It just feels like the fear and depression won’t go away. The past two weeks I’ve felt like myself again for the first time in 5 months. I’ve been reading a lot of your work and it has helped me loads. All of a sudden two weeks ago my heart started to open up again a little towards my boyfriend and it got better and better the days after. The thing is that I can feel it getting anxious and closing again out of the blue, I knew this would happen as every time it goes better I fall back after a while but this time it felt like I took the negative projection off my boyfriend for good. Now i can feel myself slip back and start doubting again and closing off. It just feels so unfair cause I know in those clear days that I had the past weeks our love felt so real and I was so terribly afraid of losing him. Why do I fall back and can’t I seem to figure out what is triggering my fear and axiety which creates the projection? Also, he’s leaving for Iran with uni next week and especially when he is away my anxiety gets way worse. I get all in my head and can feel the negative projection created by my thought grow every day. I thought it would happen this time but now I’m pretty sure i will lose myself again. It is just so frustrating especially as I can see it happen and knowing that I’m doing this myself and had nothing to do with him.

    • Pamela

      Stella, you took the words away from my fingertips! In my current time of anxiety (fighting off that depression!), it ends up being focused on my boyfriend, too. I can think back a few weeks ago loving him so much and just open, happy excited, then BOOM! And the anxiety isn’t FROM the anxiety, but targets

      “I knew this would happen as every time it goes better I fall back after a while but this time it felt like I took the negative projection off my boyfriend for good.” – YES!! Isn’t that relief nice? This reply isn’t to offer a “it gets better” (because we both know it does), but right now more of a …I GET YOU!

      • Stella

        Thank you Pamela for your kind words. It’s so great to finally feel like someone gets you, espescially because I hardly get myself. I get so incredibly frustrated and sad as soon as that projection and fear comes back because I don’t understand why it does if I know that everything can be amazing between me and my boyfriend. Happy to hear I’m not the only one struggling with this. Those loving periods are the only thing that keep me from giving up. It’s as if you see your boyfriend for who he is when you are in a loving and open-hearted state and know why you fell in love with him at first. But then, when all of a sudden anxiety kicks in again, everything just fades and all that’s left over is projection. In my projection I see him as a man I can not be with forever. It triggers my fear of settling down, becoming a house wife somewhere on the countryside and leading a life that I don’t want. I have had that fear of the future for so long as I can remember, not really knowing why, as the future for me and my boyfriend is not certain at all. It scares me so much, and probably because I saw how my mom hated her position in life as she raised us (with a lot of love). Thank you Pamela!

  • Tracy

    Hi Sheryl,
    I’ve noticed a lot of your blogs re: relationship anxiety have to do with people who are thinking about leaving or are afraid they don’t love their partner enough. I think I have the opposite problem with my boyfriend. I’m afraid I love him too much and I am afraid of losing him. I’m afraid he might grow bored with me or something bad might happen that will tear us apart. The fear of loss is at the root of all of my anxiety. As today’s blog suggests, I’ve been this way for most of my life, but this relationship just intensifies everything.
    This fear of loss feels so debilitating. Do you think your blogs are for people who fear abandonment like me? The reason I ask is because I have no doubts that I love my boyfriend.

    • It’s the flip side of the same coin, Tracey, and the coin is called the fear of loss. For many people, the fear of losing their partner flips into the fear of leaving their partner once the relationship becomes official (i.e. engagement). It’s all the same work, though, which is dealing with your fear of loss and your other anxious tendencies which likely pre-date your relationship.

  • Rhiana

    Sheryl,

    This is one of your posts that I will print out and read often because you so capture the hope (that you often instill in your work) that there is another way. Your words never make me feel like I have been wrong or that anxiety is my fault and I “should” change… You just simply open up the possibility that yes, maybe I have been anxious quite often in my life, and why wouldn’t I have been considering things I went through, but that is old and today is new and my synapses are malleable and why not practice something a new and different and joyful way.
    Thank you Sheryl, for being you and always sharing your wise insights. I feel lighter just knowing that change/freedom from anxiety is mine with some added attention. Choose love. Not fear.

  • Milla

    Thank you Sheryl. At a time of year when I always struggle emotionally you give me hope and remind me that if I remain attentive to my anxiety and embrace in order to find the underlying messages I can develop further growth and strength. Albeit, those last words of mine still scare me. How do I continue to find the courage to be brave?

    • That’s a great question, Milla. You deep dig for courage. You pray for it. You listen and read and watch people who inspire you. You ask for a dream that can guide you. You seek out support from living, breathing people (as opposed to online). You look to nature.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thank you, thank you. You have said many times the same thing and what’s refreshing is your Happy to say it again and again. Growing up I remember in primary school the teachers would say. I already told you once and I’m not happy to say it again. Children are then taught you need to pick it up pronto. We are not stupid we are just wired differently. As a child I did pick things up quickly but not all the time. How are we going to learn if we don’t hear it as many times as it takes. Practice, practice and practice and it will come naturally. This is why we have a routine because all human beings forget even the prime minister. President Obama has to learn from his mistakes.We are beautiful just the way we are. When I was young I had lazy writing then the teacher ripped my book in front of the class and I felt, horrible, and embarrassed. I had to copy another students book from the beginning and the teacher then said to me well done Angela .. Beautiful writing. Continue with it. I got certificate and I was proud of myself. Interest and practice does it.

  • Jo Spillane

    Hi Sheryl,

    Another post that is timed so perfectly!

    I took a road trip with my sons, niece and mother to the country on Sunday. I had prepared plenty of snacks and water for the kids and a movie for them to watch on the iPad for the trip. I envisaged having a great conversation with my mum and bringing up the subject of Xmas with her. Xmas is a difficult time for me, I don’t cope well with the ‘silly season’. I wanted to talk about that with her and suggest a quiet Xmas this year.

    My mum is a ball of anxiety and unfortunately over the last two years it has escalated into panic attacks. I coach her through them and have suggested a therapist and some different options she could look at. She refuses to believe she has a problem and says it will all be better when she is dead! This all or nothing thinking is very frustrating to watch.

    On our road trip she shook the whole way and criticised my driving. I was driving too slow, too fast, not taking enough care, not concentrating, not being safe. I pulled over at one point and asked her calmly if she would like to drive? No she did not, I was doing fine apparently. I returned to the wheel and continued our journey.

    What the trip highlighted to me was in 2004 I was this anxious, worried person. I am not that person now. I have worked so hard over the last 10 years to improve myself, sit with my comfortable feelings and work through them. I am a happy person and a wiser, more peaceful person for working on this.

    I would dearly love my mum to recognise the anxiety she has. I would dearly love for her to start doing some work, even small baby steps. Unfortunately I have realised that unless she admits that this anxiety is a challenge for her, all I can do is be there for her, but also equip myself with the tools to recognise my boundaries and how I choose to live my life and parent my sons.

    • What a beautiful and inspiring story, Jo! To have your mother sitting next to you embodying the anxiety with which you could be living your life had you not done your work is quite poignant. And I can hear what a powerless feeling it is to see your mother in pain and not taking any ownership of it. I wish we could help others make that choice but, as you said, it can only happen if she recognizes that there’s a problem.

  • Pamela

    Sheryl,

    Even your personal message included in the email with the article hit me. “But the more we step right into the heart of what scares us, we send fear the message: I hear you but I’m not listening to you. And that’s how we shrink fear’s power.”

    The fear of love, commitment, being loved too much, leaving…it’s all in there whether all at once or hitting one after the other like ping pong balls.

    My boyfriend and I are taking our first big trip together this week (Las Vegas) and the timing of my on/off anxiety/blaming the relationship couldn’t be worse. I’m breathing through it, talking to my counselor, going to yoga, but just want to “come to me” physical feeling back…it’s in there!

  • Diane

    Hi Sheryl,
    I too came to your site at a poignant time, as I have struggled with being engaged to my partner, who proposed after 10 years. Ironically I pushed quite a lot for the engagement, I think as a way to try to understand his intentions and feelings. He often would joke that he wouldn’t want to get married until he’s 40-sort of implying that it then wouldn’t be to me, so I think that perhaps fuelled my insecurities about the relationship. Although we love each other so much I recognise that things weren’t right and although comfortable perhaps a little unhealthy and over the course of 10 years our intimacy has waned. I have been doing a lot of work on myself over the past 8 months and have had many shifts in awareness and recognise areas that I need to improve on, namely self worth, assertiveness and taking responsibility for my life, as appose to pouring them into my partner and having him feel responsible for me. I have had a difficult childhood with quite absent parents and so being taken care of was an amazing feeling. I worry that although I have recognised my failings and the relationship has been a mirror to my soul showing me what I need to work on, I do also worry that I might not actually be with someone who truly loves and encourages my growth as a person and has some controlling behaviours-not scary ones just subtle and I wonder if I am trying to fix and hold into something that doesn’t serve me, or with applying what I now know to the relationship I will see positive changes. He is pushing for setting a date and wont agree to a longer engagement and feels that we either love each other and move forward together or not. This is making my fear and anxiety even stronger as I feel totally confused by what’s best to do and I don’t want to be sabotaging my chances of happiness because I’m scared and need more time. I think my wanting more time only fuels his insecurities, and he’s seeking to regain control and move forward positively. Have you any guidance or courses that would be helpful to me at this time? I have found so many of your posts so amazing and comforting!

    • “Have you any guidance or courses that would be helpful to me at this time?” Yes, the Conscious Weddings E-Course! The course is designed to address exactly what you’re describing and will help you find your clarity regarding how much of your anxiety is caused by projection and how much is a result of issues in the relationship that may need further attention.

  • Jaimie

    The anxiety had gotten so bad where I even wonder and ask myself if I even like him , I know that I like to talk to him and I like his company and we laugh and talk , and I do feel comfortable around him and I don’t feel like I shouldn’t be there and my anxiety isn’t that I want to leave or I have to leave this relationship because we do get along well but in every day life I wonder if we have enough fun ….
    We do live together now and I feel that in everyday life just living together we work well together but we Also get into arguments but I feel normal around him , I don’t get excited anymore seeing him or I don’t get the enjoyment cuddling together or watching a movie it’s just nice it’s not that. I don’t want it , it’s just feels normal ( if that makes sense) nothing special or over the top but also I don’t feel uncomfortable or uneasy …
    Also I do realize that sometimes I think to like someone are the same feelings of loving someone
    Because I know I don’t hate him and I I know that I do want him in my life
    I’m just anxies because I feel soo normal in my relationship
    I guess my main questions is , am I doing something wrong ? Is that alright for a long term relationship ??is there something I should be changing ?

    • Yes, it’s normal to feel normal. In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship: to experience what Robert Johnson called “oatmeal love.” What I’m hearing in your comment is your expectation that it’s your partner’s job to make you feel alive and whole. That’s not his job; it’s yours. Until you learn to fill your will, you won’t experience the warm feelings in the relationship that it sounds like you’re seeking. This article may help:

      http://conscious-transitions.com/love-is-a-bowl-of-oatmeal/

      • Jaimie

        Thank you very much <3 this just made me feel 100% better and I do depend on him a lot for my happiness and that isn't fair … It's time for a change and start realizing that' everything' okay just needs some work on my self

  • Charlotte

    Sheryl, I would just like to take my time to thank you. In fact, I cannot thank you enough. I came across your website a few months ago during when I was wallowing in self pity regarding my relationship anxiety. I felt stuck, I was back and forth the hospital because of my mental state. I wasn’t able to take everything in at that time, and eventually dug myself a deeper hole. Until a few weeks ago, I really hit rock bottom and found the courage to read your blog again. Slowly I am learning that my childhood experiences have had a major impact on the way I view my relationship, but I am now realising that the fault isn’t in the relationship. It’s my fears. Even though I am only 17, I believe that I really could have many amazing experiences with my partner, and my therapist agrees too. I always thought that because of my age I would have to have numerous of partners before ‘settling down’ and that is another reason to why I experience such worry and anxiety. However, I am now starting to accept that maybe me and my partner will have a future, and maybe we won’t. Although it gives me such anxiety to say that, I’m starting to believe that it is ok because no relationship is certain to last. But if I want it to last, then I will do all it takes. It’s early days, and I have been feeling empty whilst I have accepted my thoughts, but I will work through that. This comment may be slightly irrelevant to what you have posted here but I really just felt the need to show my appreciation. Reading this blog has also given me vague idea of what I wish to do when I am older, and that is to help others accept their fears, in any way possible. Thank you so much.

  • Carrie LaFay

    Hello Sheryl!
    I just wanted to thank you for this post, and all of your posts. They are so important to so many, and have been very formative and helpful to me. I am happy to report that I feel so much love in my marriage now, and am so thankful that I did not let anxiety override the true love that existed with the fear. We are having our first baby in the next few weeks! I have been feeling fearful again, and just reading through your posts has been so helpful in reminding me that this is another BIG transition. And that there will be fear right along side the love, and I don’t have to let it become anxiety. I’m so grateful that your work is here to remind me 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Thank you for sharing this, Carrie. A big yes to this: “And that there will be fear right along side the love, and I don’t have to let it become anxiety.” That’s my work in a nutshell, and it sounds like you’ve metabolized it beautifully.

  • Lucy Oldfield

    Sheryl,

    I’m currently going through a really tough time and don’t even know where to begin. It all started with an instructive thought of me harming my boyfriend. I know I wouldn’t and just the thought of it made me feel sick to the pit of my stomach and I haven’t been the same since. Sometimes I feel guilty when we are together because I know underneath all this I love him like I always have but the intrusive thought caused me to question the whole relationship. I find myself asking whether he will leave me and it scares me I can love someone so much and potentially lose them one day. I can’t get over this fear of losing him and this all stems back from the intrusive thought I had. I wish I could feel like me again and go back to how things were because this feeling is making me physically ill. I can’t sleep, eat and all I do is think. I feel helpless.

    • Yes, it’s the fear of loss that is at the root of most relationship anxiety. The e-course would be enormously beneficial for you so that you can start to deconstruct your intrusive thoughts and deal with the root cause, which has nothing to do with your relationship.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I see myself to be half introvert and half extrovert.I believe that my personality Trait is friendly, I like people who are open to their feelings and are sociable. But on the other hand I can be shy and private..where I need to be alone. I’m mainly a people person where I feel I need contact with them to feel valued and loved. I like to be around friends who like to have a laugh and not constantly negative.

  • Sheryl, I’ve just found your website and it’s been a dream come true! First – I came across your article on Mind Body Green about “How Highly Sensitive People can deal with Anxiety”. Thank you so much for existing and I do believe, NOW, that my anxiety was a weakness that happens to be my biggest strength, motivator and gift. I believe this is happening to me to create an impecable human being, one who will overcome this and lead others in the way you’re leading us. As a humble student of this experience, I’m glad to connect with others who are anxiety sufferers – as I know we all we rid the negative effects of this soon 🙂