Authenticity as an Answer to Anxiety
Many of the people I work with in my practice self-identify as “ruminators” or “anxious,” and many people come to me to get help working with rising levels of anxiety, worry, and fatigue.
One of the ways I work with this in my own life, and in the lives of my clients, is by teaching people to lean-in to how they feel, and by teaching them how authenticity can function as a solution to anxiety.
A client was recently expressing fear, anxiety, and worry about her default reaction of feeling like a “fraud” whenever she tried to connect with other people. Struggling with this was costing her a lot of energy and effort.
She was constantly feeling anxious that someone would find out that she wasn’t as “successful” or “interesting” as she might portray herself to be.
“What does it mean to be successful?” I asked her.
“I don’t even know!” she replied. She then expressed that she tried to talk about “interesting” topics when she was with other people.
She also noted that this strategy almost never worked. If she talked about living in Europe, someone else could share about their even “more interesting” time living in Argentina or Thailand or Prague.
These conversations basically became empty because they weren’t connected to anything authentic or meaningful for the speaker. They were designed to declare, when she was actually craving connection, which I believe is a basic need for all of us.
When we enter a conversation by being honest about how we’re really feeling, or when we talk about something we truly care about, even if it’s completely mundane, it allows us to light up from the inside out and shine a light for other people to lean into. I originally connected with one of my dear friends, who I ended up living with for one fabulous year, by talking a lot about cats and plying her with cat photos while standing in line at the food co-op. (meow!)
Before you start thinking about what other people might be thinking about you, or before you start censoring yourself around what you “should” be thinking or doing, you can start to go with what actually interests you, with what feels most “alive” for you in that moment.
This process of going with what’s actually present for you will keep you truly enlivened and engaged.
The next time you get lost in feeling anxious or uncertain about how you’re feeling or about what to do next, try the following exercise which I blended together and adapted from my learnings in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Sufism, and Buddhism.
1. Start by sitting quietly with yourself and taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes if you’re ok with that.
(Deep breathe in, deep breathe out. Repeat. Try opening your mouth wide like a yawn and sighing on the out-breath to let your nervous system know that it’s ok to relax. Continue breathing and plugging into your own experience in the moment.)
2. Bringing one hand to your heart or to your belly, or one hand to your heart and the other hand to your belly, start to tune in to any sensations happening in your body.
(Hmm. I notice that my breathing is shallow and it’s hard to catch my breath. My heart feels fast and my throat feel tight and locked.)
3. Let yourself stay with this discomfort, not trying to fix or change anything but sticking with it as you would stick with a friend in need. Keep tuning in to your body and let yourself be curious about what’s happening for you right now.
(Yep, I still feel anxious. I’m noticing though that it’s a tiny bit easier to breathe now, but my throat still feels stuck and my heart is racing so fast.)
4. Start to bring your attention to any feelings that you’re having, which may be connected with your bodily sensations.
(I’m noticing that I feel sad and worried and a little bit afraid.)
5. Now that you know how you’re feeling, start to identify what qualities you’re craving right now.
(I really want to feel connected. I feel separate and lonely. I want to be accepted for who I am and feel like I’m a part of the world.)
6. Now that you know what you’re needing, how can you take care of yourself?
(I think I would like to sit quietly with myself for 5-10 more minutes and keep opening up to how I feel, offering myself some compassion, then check in with how I’m feeling again.
Or, now that I know I’m needing connection and acceptance, I want to lie down and hang out with my kitty for a little bit then I want to check back in with myself and maybe call a friend and see if she’s willing to listen to me talk about what’s weighing heavy on my heart.)
Anxiety, to me, sometimes feels like having my car tires stuck in the mud. The gas pedal is grinding, and I’m not getting anywhere. In knowing how you feel, you can hit the pause button on the “spinning wheels” in your brain and open up to find space for yourself and for what you’re needing next.
The short version of this exercise is:
Pause, tune in. How am I feeling right now? (sad, scared, shallow breathing, tight throat)
What qualities am I needing? (connection, acceptance)
How can I take care of myself? (pet my kitty, maybe call a friend and ask if she has time to connect)
If your body is struggling and you don’t feel your best, it’s hard to have enough energy to direct towards yourself. If you start to let this practice become a habit, in happy times and in harder times, your life will start to transform.
As you keep working with this, it will become faster and more intuitive. You’ll start to tune in to how you feel and open up to what you need, then you can get curious and creative about different ways you could get your needs met in that moment.
As we move from the season of “vision” and “growth” in Chinese Medicine (Spring), into Summer, which is all about connection and relationships and the heart, I invite you to really start tuning in to how you’re feeling so that you can start to befriend yourself and begin attending to your needs moment by moment.