Oh, the anxiety!

I’m thinking about anxiety today, after reading a little doodle comic aimed at explaining the experience of the anxious person to the unafflicted. It’s an Imgur series, linked in an article from relationshipsurgery.com, but it’s not clear to me who made it in the first place. (If anyone understands these things better than I do, please let me know and I will edit this to credit the illustrator.) In any case, as a life-long anxiety sufferer who has actually made progress learning how to live with anxiety, I have some thoughts I’d like to share on the matter.

While I think the weather analogy is a great explanation to help people who don’t have anxiety understand how it feels, I find the rest of the advice in this set of doodles a bit problematic, because I think it misses something key that might actually help people recontextualize their anxiety and see a way through it.

I certainly agree that it is not helpful to have people around you who don’t understand what you’re going through get tired of humoring you and say tone-deaf things that send you into a downward spiral of self doubt. And I think it’s good to point that out. But I also don’t think it’s helpful to set up a privilege framework of sorts where someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety can never make observations about it without being categorized as insensitive or harmful. The author wants others to offer constant reassurance and patience, and leave it at that. It’s essentially saying, “You can never understand what I’m going through but please sit and pat me on the head while I talk about it over and over again but don’t try to understand or offer suggestions because you don’t know my experience.”

To me, the point of forming relationships with other humans is to grow better together in the pursuit of mutual understanding. If you set up a framework in which you believe that no one else can possibly understand your experience and become insulted or hurt when they try to, you are setting up a framework in which your ideal relationship will tend toward codependency: each person in the relationship exists to support and validate the other person in a way that enables both to continue their respective unhealthy behaviors. It diminishes both parties, keeping them mired and comfortable in miserable ruts.

For me, having a loved one constructively tell me how my anxiety appeared to function from an outside perspective helped me to think about it differently. I began to see how I was projecting my own self-judgements onto others, and how that would spin into a cycle of awkwardness and self-consciousness and lead to more anxiety. Because this person cared enough to engage me in a conversation about my social problems and share his own unencumbered extrovert experience with me, I was able to step back and look at my social life from a third-person perspective, and understand on an intellectual level that, at the end of the day, most people I encounter don’t fucking care about any of the things I worry about. They don’t care if I use the wrong word or pause too long in conversation or have a piece of hair sticking up at a funny angle. They’re too consumed with their own shit to notice. And if they do care about those things, they aren’t worth my time.

Coming to terms with the idea that other people’s worlds don’t actually revolve around me was magical. I’ve started taking myself a lot less seriously in social situations – laughing at myself when I say the wrong word; getting out of my own head and just watching other people socialize without worrying about why no one is talking to me. That shift of focus off of myself is an incredibly powerful tool. These days, I catch myself talking and laughing with strangers like some kind of extrovert. It still feels really weird sometimes, but it’s wonderful.

I used to think my anxiety was just part of who I am, and that nothing could change it. That seems to be the view of the author of this comic. While I don’t think I will ever be rid of the raw, emotional reactions at the root of my anxiety, I now know it is possible to change the way those reactions influence my behavior. Instead of letting myself get sucked into those feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness and turn into a neurotic mess (which actually does influence others’ willingness and ability to engage with me), I can take a deep breath and move on, accepting myself where I’m at and allowing the people around me to do the same.

I think that asking people who love people with anxiety to treat it as an immutable condition and never offer thoughtful, constructive criticism does a disservice to people with anxiety. I also think that reinforcing the idea that people with anxiety should expect unquestioning support and validation from those around them is bullshit. Often, being truly supportive means challenging someone to see their way clear of a self-imposed roadblock.

You know what? My anxiety absolutely is all in my head. That doesn’t make it an imaginary problem, but it does empower me to do something about it, instead of resigning myself to cowering in corners at parties for the rest of my life. I can recognize it for what it is and move past it. That is a profound gift, and I will be forever grateful that someone cared enough about me to help me find it.

Send out the clowns

There’s a meme making the rounds this week, making the case for the superiority of liberal media pundits over their conservative counterparts, based on their relative levels of education. It’s the worst kind of “like”-baiting, uncritical, ad hominem bullshit that passes for political engagement these days.

clowns

The truth is that all of the most successful political pundits are clowns. They exist to rile up their respective bases with sensationalist rhetoric and empty invective. They’re very good at what they do, and I think most of them know exactly what they’re doing. To me, the real message in this particular meme is circular: Liberals value education, therefore they require of their clowns a certain level of collegiate achievement. The credential has become an important shorthand for progressive credibility. Liberals might want to tell themselves that a degree symbolizes an increased aptitude for critical thinking, but I would argue that it actually represents a different flavor of conformity. It shows how able a person is to afford higher education, and how willing they are to follow the college catalogue’s prescriptions to participate in their chosen career field.

A large number of conservative political pundits in this country hold very advanced academic credentials. The person who made this meme just cherry-picked the only three they could find who lack them. College degrees nowadays are a dime a dozen. Despite the fact that they cost more and more every year and most people go deep into debt in their pursuit, getting a college degree of some sort has become part of the status quo. It is becoming more and more difficult for people to enter most career fields without one. All three of the conservative “dropouts” pictured above are primarily media guys. None of them set out to enter a field of study. All were interested in becoming radio and television personalities, and all three succeeded in turning their respective brands of apopleptic charisma into lucrative careers. They’re very good at appealing to a certain segment of the common people in the United States, and the audience they talk to doesn’t care that they lack credentials.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He's got degrees from both.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He’s got degrees from both.

The really odd thing, to me, is the fact that there are no liberal pundits without a degree of some kind. Even Ed Schultz, who went to school on a football scholarship and is not exactly an intellectual, has one. It would seem that a college degree is the price of admission for being taken seriously in liberal company. As a “college dropout” who leans left, I find this rather disturbing.

It is tempting for liberals with degrees to feel like they belong to some sort of enlightened class and assume that the very act of becoming credentialed imbues them with an objective kind of knowledge that leads naturally to a certain political bias. While I think it is true that the bent of today’s liberal arts education tends to attract and foster a particular kind of postmodernist thinking which predisposes people toward liberal thought, I don’t think that higher education necessarily leads individuals to more progressive thinking. I also think it is deeply fallacious to regard conservative thought as somehow philosophically inferior and unable to stand up to factual critique. Political views are, at their core, about values, and values are deeply subjective.

Take, for example, the abortion debate. The meat in the middle of this particular shit sandwich is the fundamental philosophical dispute over when an embryo or fetus should be considered “fully human” in the sense that its right to life overrides the concerns of the woman who carries it. There is no objective answer to this question. I am pro-choice, because I value a pragmatic approach which accepts that humans tend to screw up, regardless of attempts at reigning them in, and the best solution is to reduce the harm that results from those screw-ups. To me, keeping abortion legal while making birth control widely available to make it less necessary is the right balance. But I can make those arguments until I’m blue in the face and no amount of evidence will change the mind of the pro-lifer who sincerely believes that the moment sperm and egg meet, a new human life is formed, and that interfering in that process in any way amounts to murder. We’re playing in different ballparks, screaming past each other into the void.

It’s difficult not to succumb to the desire to keep screaming, even when it is so clearly not productive. It’s frustrating to try and argue a point when your debate partner seems to be speaking an entirely different language than the one you know. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a relativist, philosophically speaking. But I think it is important to grasp the fact that when it comes to political discourse, the only way to really make progress without resorting to fascist dictatorship is to acknowledge the humanity of the other side, understand that your differences grow out of divergent values, and then try to find a compromise. At this point in our history, it seems that both sides would prefer fascist dictatorship to democratic cooperation.

Popular media have further muddied the pool in this regard. Rather than arguing facts and fostering respectful discourse in order to try and bridge real gaps in core values held on each side and emphasize compromise, pundits across the spectrum settle for cheap point-scoring and ad hominem attacks. It’s easier to sway public opinion by placating people’s emotional biases than to challenge people to actually consider issues on a rational basis and think of their political rivals as human beings with legitimately-held views. Take this meme as a case in point: Instead of saying anything substantial or crafting an argument based on facts, the creator is essentially blowing raspberries at his or her presumed opponents and saying, “Nyah-Nyah. You guys are stupid,” and ignoring the wider implications of such a statement.

clowns2

Liberals often wonder why so many working-class folks “vote against their own self-interest” and fail to make what they see as the obvious choice to support Democratic candidates. Most of the left-wing establishment is so far removed from the everyday existence of the people they’re trying to reach that they can’t effectively communicate their message to those people – their attempts come off as condescension. Dispensing with this kind of “if you don’t agree with me you must be stupid” bullshit might go a long way. Also, I think that letting a few “uneducated” liberals rise to the top could only help their cause. But it seems they would rather maintain an in-crowd of academic hoop-jumpers and keep preaching to the same choir.

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine any substantive change actually happening when the screaming clowns continue to rake in profits for media outlets. Networks might argue that they are in the business of giving the people what they want, and they wouldn’t be incorrect. But sometimes what the people want is exactly the opposite of what the people need. The trick, in a for-profit media marketplace, would seem to be convincing the people that they want what they need. I’m still trying to work out how to do that.