I have always struggled with anxiety. As a child, I remember asking to hold onto my Mom’s purse while she was in the fitting room at Macy’s. It was a tactic to ensure she would come back … for her purse, not me. I have always been told that I am too sensitive. On the flip side, I’ve been called, “cold,” “a bitch,” and “closed off.” But what I have come to learn, even as my anxiety grew with me through my teens, twenties and thirties, is that my anxiety is who I am. It is not something to be cured, and it is definitely not something that I can turn on and off like a light switch. It is me.
We all have fears, but anxiety is different than fear. Psychology Today states that, “fear is seen as a reaction to a specific, observable danger, while anxiety is seen as a diffuse, a kind of unfocused, objectless, future-oriented fear.” Everyone fears something – heights, bears, a new job interview. Fear spreads; anxiety is internal. I don’t have many fears, in fact none that immediately come to mind. But, anxiety is an undercurrent in my life everyday. It keeps me up at night worrying about the stupid stuff I said in middle school. It creeps into my thoughts during a meeting taking me to an argument with my husband which has long since been resolved. It smacks me upside the head during dinner, and I shut down focused on a horrible thought I had about my stepson so many years ago. Anxiety is not a response to a stimulus, it is a nuanced sentiment that is always present.
I grew up thinking my sensitivity was a bad thing, which triggered the “cold, bitchy” responses that I relied on in my 20’s and 30’s. But, my sensitivity (my anxiety) is actually good because it has given me empathy, which allows me to see things from 100 different perspectives. Overwhelming? Yes. But once I stopped trying to change this feature about me, I became better at managing it. I spent years in therapy trying to cure my anxiety, when I should have been trying to work with it. (NOTE: I am not a psychologist. This is my story and what worked for me. Your story may be different.) My flaw of hypersensitivity and nervousness has given me the gift of interpreting the world differently. The current trendy word is “empath.” My sensitivity has allowed me to build bridges in my workplace. A single mother unable to work overtime for fear of losing her government benefits felt comfortable coming to me with another solution to help the business.
Where it has not helped is with a broken bridge in my family. My anxiety has built a wall virtually impossible to bring down. My stepkids struggled when their mom was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. My stepdaughter and youngest stepson moved into our home when my daughter was around 9 years old. It was hard. The hardest thing any of us have ever done. There were blow out fights, they got into trouble at school, had run ins with the law and issues at school. My husband and I did the best we could, and looking back now, I don’t think there is anything we could have or would have done differently. But, their words then and their actions now still hurt. Yes, I said and did some things as well, many things that I am not proud of at all. I know all of the multiple sides to this story. But, my anxiety about allowing them to hurt me and my husband again will not allow me to mend the bond. I can’t just “get over it.” I understand it. I can see it. But, I cannot move past it.
The story of my anxiety it is not unusual. Roughly 40 million people suffer with anxiety. But, how I have grown to appreciate my anxiety is a bit unusual. My suffering is no longer an agonizing desire to change. It is now an experience I have learned to capitalize on, acknowledge and use when needed. My anxiety is not something I wish to change. It is a part of who I am. It is something I want others to know is ok. It is my biggest flaw and my greatest strength. It is my identity. It is my gift.