One of the most annihilating feelings is to be misunderstood. For people with anxiety, who already feel alienated and afraid of so much, being perceived as negative is especially confounding and isolating. In all my years of being a human being, there has never been a girl or woman to ever–to my face, at least–call me negative.
Men, not all--obviously, seem to register anxiety as negativity or complaining. My guess is that their inclination is to fix problems by offering solutions and when the anxious person remains anxious, even after the solutions are proposed, men can’t help but mistake the continued ruminating for complaining, which to them feels negative. This is totally valid, but it’s not what’s going on.
It’s not difficult to identify anxious thinking once you know what to look for. When someone repeats the same worries on a loop, and the solutions you offer are tossed aside, you are dealing with an anxious person. Ask yourself if they’re in a time of stress. Do they have a book coming out? Then they’re fucking anxious. Are they moving, having to take a plane, starting a new job, going on a first date? ANXIOUS ANXIOUS ANXIOUS. Yes, it can be annoying to be around an anxious person. But, instead of doing what you’ve always done, why not try a different tactic. Next time, say: “You know what? I just realized you might be anxious, and it’s not solutions you need, but reassurance.” If you say that, you will be the most ideal human anyone has ever met.
Anxious people are constantly scanning for danger, and in so doing, train their brains to pay attention to possible threats. Because we fear uncertainty, anything ambiguous reads to an anxious brain as dangerous. Something positive is understood as positive, but we’re on the lookout for danger, and that’s where we get stuck. Anything that an anxious person finds anxiety-producing is something they’re afraid will hurt them. All human beings are hard-wired with a negative bias, but anxious people seem to have gotten a larger dose. This doesn’t mean we’re negative (just as non-anxious people aren’t instantly negative because they too have a negativity bias) it just means that our hypervigilance to things we fear is our loudest channel.
While many understand that people get anxious when outside expectations are placed upon them, anxiety has other expressions. Something happens when an anxious person has–against a lot of odds–met or exceeded their expectations and the world overlooks their achievements. This type of anxiety manifests as a focus on absence, on not being included. For instance, when LITTLE PANIC came out, I was hyper-aware of all the other memoirs about mental health and illness that were getting the attention I wanted for my book. When literary blogs would list the 50 summer books they were most excited for and mine wasn’t on any of those lists, I didn’t simply feel excluded, I honestly worried that no one saw my book, or even knew that it came out. Anxiety makes us believe that being ignored is akin to not existing. Often people with anxiety disorders grow up feeling invisible because they suffer from an invisible illness, and the core of their true suffering is often ignored. Anxiety gets attached to this reaction pattern, and so we treat the world as though it’s ignoring us also.
When I was left off of lists I felt invalidated and ignored. It’s not that I felt entitled to be on any lists, it’s that the absence of recognition confirmed my deep-rooted fears that I wasn’t a person to ever take seriously, that no one would ever actually SEE me. The frustrating thing for those who suffer from anxiety, and for the people around them, is that an anxious person is often unable to take in the positive things, and focuses instead of the negative things, which, in turn, is construed as negativity, but it’s not. It’s a reliance on a deeply developed pattern of receiving information and protecting the self from being exposed as a failure. People are deeper and more complicated than you realize. Just because you think a person is complaining and negative doesn’t mean that they are.
Anxiety in action is an obsessive rumination. When you are having an anxiety attack, you get trapped within a closed spiral of thinking, and you have a tremendously hard, if not impossible, time focusing on anything else. In certain circumstances, all we really need is reassurance that we are seen, heard, visible and valued.
So, next time you think someone is being negative, take a second and ask yourself if there’s a chance you might be wrong. Ask yourself if this person has a reason to be anxious. Most likely, the answer is yes.