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.