Anxiety comes up frequently for people in recovery and moms. When I imagine anxiety, it looks like this:
It is rigid, red and rapidly moving. Usually, we want anxiety to go away. We want to just get rid of it. But when we ask what anxiety has to say, and respond with curiosity or tenderness to the scared-self, a new relationship can emerge. Below are some examples of what the anxiety part of the self might say.
Here’s What Anxiety Says:
- I’ve made a bullet-point list for you. You should do everything on the list and then I will go away.
- (After list is complete): “OK, that was the first one. I now have several more.”
- Other people have it all figured out, so you should pretend like you do. One way to do this is to look good. I will help you with that. Try to look perfect.
- You are the only one that struggles with this anxiety. It makes you isolated, and you don’t belong because of it. Therefore, you should hide it.
- Be very busy. If you’re not busy, doing things, I can help keep your mind be very busy. I can even make your thoughts race.“
- I will always be your friend, but especially from 1:00-4:00am. At that time, I will remind you of the ways you are incompetent, the world is falling apart, and you can’t do anything about it. If you go on social media during this time, I will find lots of evidence for you.
- Other moms are doing it better. You are not qualified to be a good parent. You should read parenting books to illuminate all the ways you are f*cking up.
- Your body is the wrong size/shape. You can (and should) fix that. If you do, I may go away (but I will probably stick around because you will need me to manage you, since you can’t be trusted).
- Not eating, bingeing, purging, drinking, or smoking pot are good ways to get me to go away. (Oh, and you will need to maintain that. And you should hide that you do that, because it is shameful).
- The world is not safe. I have found lots of evidence of this for you.
As you can see, it is not a kind voice, this anxiety. It is relentlessly hypervigilant to the ways that you are inadequate. Strangely enough, this part of the self is often trying to protect you: from vulnerability, from the unknown. In my training as an Imaginal Psychologist, one way we worked with different parts of the self – and integrating them back into wholeness – was to bring fiercely compassionately objective voice into the dialogue. Compassionate awareness can take several different forms: it can be humourous, fierce, gentle. It can be rational and empirical. In my experience, this compassionate part is much more flowing and less rigid than anxiety. It feels like a deep breath down into the cooling water under the anxiety. It might look like this:
Here are some examples of what this voice of might say to anxiety. What the Voice of Compassionate Objectivity Might Say:
- Isn’t it interesting to notice the associations between anxiety and accomplishing or not accomplishing things? So interesting to notice…
- I bet you could choose to do some, all, or none of the items on the list, and your value as a human would remain fully intact and whole. How about you try and I will be the witness observing?
- Is “figured out” an equation? If “it” is figured out, does that mean fear or suffering disappears?
- Who are those “perfect,” and “busy” people? If they exist, might they be struggling with the same fear of inadequacy you are?
- If there are 7.5 billion people (roughly) on the planet, do you really think you are the only one who struggles with these thoughts and feelings? Might it not be the very thing that connects your heart, mind, and body with humanity?
- I wonder what would happen to your thought-speed if I help you breathe. Does it change if you breathe all the way into your abdomen? It doesn’t need to change. But if you are in discomfort from the racing, bringing attention to your breath can help your body shift into parasympathetic (rest) mode. Would you like to try?
- I will do everything I can to help you get a good night’s sleep, honey. I’m going to help you with loving limits: no social media at night. Not helpful.
- We can take stock of your strengths and weaknesses during the day and/or with someone who can add compassion and objectivity to the assessment. When you’re feeling weak, that’s not the time to assess your weaknesses.
- If you can’t sleep, I won’t abandon you. I’ll stay with you and the anxiety. I’ll be right there with you, surrounding you with care and tenderness.
- Body size and shape have nothing to do with your worth, honey. I know you keep really wanting it to be about that. But I’m going to keep reminding you the answers you seek are not there.
- Did you show up to the best of your ability as a Mom today? Your best can be different on different days. That is ok. Mistakes are how we learn. Oh, and put the parenting books down.
- You can tolerate anxiety. It won’t kill you. You can ride the wave of this fear without medicating it.
These are just some examples. The goal is not to get rid of anxiety. The goal is to develop a different relationship with it. Perhaps it might look like this?
Obviously, you will have to see what your own voice of Compassionate Objectivity has to say.
For now, I will leave you with a summary that I and some of the people I work with find helpful:
There is nothing wrong with you.
Nobody has it all figured out.
You are safe right now.
You are not alone.
I just bought myself a book light. Yes, I still read actual books. Every night, while lying next to my child (resorted to this- see Confessions of a Failed Sleep Trainer) I read. I have been using a flashlight that is slowly wearing its batteries down and I have to shake it to get it back on. My eyes have begun to strain. Every night, before going to sleep, I have had the thought “I should get a book light.”
Why is it so difficult for Moms to take care of themselves? It is a given that I bring my child to all of his doctor visits, dentist visits, haircuts. I make sure he gets plenty of playtime, fresh air, exercise, organic food, sleep, baths. We have special time during which he gets to decide whatever he wants to do. We play games and make up stories for all of the themes that he is encountering in growth opportunities. The cars learn how to say goodbye and then come back together, share racetrack time, use their words to say when they feel MAD or SAD. The part of me that is just-trying-to-survive-as-a-Mom, however, has no time for being playful, kind, or patient with my own feelings and needs. This part wishes they would “just go away” because I don’t have time! And yet they don’t. We all know what happens when you try to rush a young child to get through feelings quickly because we don’t have time: they get bigger! Time doesn’t exist in the emotional world. Grown-ups need to care for their feelings, too. Or they get bigger. (Or turn into depression, resentment, eating disorders, alcoholism, etc)
I am in a moms-who-are-therapists group in which we spoke about aggressive self-care recently. We shared about our “ideal, but realistic” days as moms. What would we do? The answers weren’t huge changes. They were little shifts internally and externally that made a big difference: getting up ½ hour early in order to write, enjoying cooking instead of trying to just-get-everybody-fed, going OUT to dinner to have a night off from cooking, going for a family hike on the weekend instead of spending so much time on laundry, getting a haircut or a pedicure.
Why the term “aggressive”? I like this because it expresses how much it truly is an opposite action to take care of one’s self first (or at all) for many moms. As moms, we often defend and protect our child/dren’s well-being. How often do we turn this energy toward our own care? It requires attention, intention, and yes, some level of aggression. Because the cultural messages for moms are often about martyrdom and loss of self. And so turning toward, back to the self, honoring and tending to one’s self, requires fierceness. In case you didn’t notice the quote that my new book light is illuminating:
…every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!
And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart, and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
PS By the way, just to name the obvious, you don’t have to be a Mom to practice aggressive self-care. It absolutely applies to eating disorder, codependency, and recovery general good self-care as well. Put on your own oxygen mask first.