Whenever something feels off in my body, it’s cancer.
Whenever someone says they “have to talk to me,” they’re going to end our friendship.
Whenever something even slightly out of the ordinary occurs, I respond the same way–with an automatic over-reaction. This is anxiety. It’s the most reliable feature of my personality and if you have anxiety, it’s familiar to you, also.
Last week, I gave a big talk and was interrupted from the audience, by the woman running the show, telling me to hurry up and finish because people were walking out (actually, two women were just going to the bathroom). When the event ended, I was rushed out of the hall by another woman and into a smaller room to record a podcast. No one said thank you. No one emailed me the next day or the day after that. Obviously, they hated my talk and they hated me and I should just impale myself on something so that I am unable to ever travel and give talks again.
Not once did it occur to me that their behavior was unprofessional, or even–the horror–rude! Nor did it occur to me that not everyone is gracious, or even good at what they do. Nope, it was me. It’s always me. ME ME ME ME ME. I’m the worst. I’m the ugliest. I’m the dumbest. I’m the most pathetic. These are my first reactions always, and they are not healthy or good for me, and they are never correct (but they sure are narcissistic!)
Anxiety is all about the first reaction, and that first reaction is often never right. And that’s why creating a second response to every situation is important, because most likely the second response is the one that’s more accurate.
Here’s an example: have you ever run into someone you know who has to hurry away, or can’t stop and say hi, or just waves and keeps going and you think: shit, what have I done? Then you worry all day that this person is mad at you for reasons you cannot guess, but you know MUST exist? And then you get an email a day later from the person apologizing, and explaining that they had just left therapy, or had been broken up with, or got rejected from law school or were withdrawing from meds or a hundred other things that happen to us on any given day.
Think about all the times you went to a fantastic party, sang its praises to everyone for weeks after, but for some reason never emailed the host. You didn’t hate the party. You were so caught up in the post-party reverie, it slipped your mind. There are so many things that we let slip that hurt other people and we don’t even know. Just how we become gripped by anxiety at other people’s foibles, so too are we causing others to feel anxious. We just don’t know about it.
Building a second response is fairly easy, and here’s how it’s done: Start writing down all the times you thought something was your fault and it ended up not being your fault (they weren’t mad at me, they were heartsick!) Write down every time you were wrong about why someone was late (they didn’t die! They were just on a stalled subway!) After a while, you’ll see that your reasons and the actual reasons don’t line up, and you’ll come to accept that there are tons of reasons why things happen and you are almost always wasting your time guessing.
Next time someone snubs you, or turns up late, or calls at you from the audience to tell you that people are leaving, you’ll have an arsenal of options for what might ACTUALLY be going on. First responders may be heroes, but for people with anxiety, second responders are who we want to be.