“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.