The Paradox of Reassurance
When others express fear or anxiety to us, the human inclination is to reassure.
For example: If a partner states, "I feel like you don't love me," it is a very natural desire to respond with something like: "of course, I love you." Though this type of comforting might be well intentioned, it doesn't actually do the job that it sets out. Anxiety often persists and the question will surely rise up again.
Instead there are two ways to effectively address anxiety: confront it/bully it back OR go deeper into the primary emotion that is underneath it, which is often fear, pain or sadness.
Option 1: Talk back
We might refer to anxiety as the "brain bully." You've definitely encountered this bully. It's the one that tells you that you're going to fail, that you're not good enough, that if you don't act fast the opportunity will pass you by. It tells you that you're lazy, that you're not doing enough, that you should make more money, that your house is too small, your stomach is too fat. It screams at you that you are not lovable.
Anxiety uses put-downs like a bully, has one-sided conversations, and is often dramatic. One way of engaging with it is to start a two-way conversation based in reality. Talk back to your anxiety, using evidence you have that contradicts the hyperbole and the negativity that it is spewing your way. For example if the thought is "I am unlovable," consider the faces of people who have showed you appreciation and care. Tell the anxiety that you have felt cared for before. If the brain bully is calling you a "failure," think about the many, albeit small, accomplishments in your life and tell the anxiety about your successes.
Moving away from black and white thinking toward a more nuanced and complex narrative, destabilizes the anxiety and welcomes in alternative ways of seeing.
Option 2: Validate the fear as true
Alternatively, we can validate the anxiety by traveling further into it. I work with many children that are in the foster care system. They often grow up with the belief that they are not good enough or that that they did not matter to their birth parents. When they express this anxious thought (with their left brains, the linear/analytical side), I don't contradict it, but rather I open it up further, by saying something like "You feel like you didn't matter to your birth parents. I don't know if you did or didn't. Can you tell me about what it's like not to know if your parents wanted you?" By going with the grain of fear or resistance, rather than against it, we are able to access what is underneath: deep sadness and pain. Feeling these emotions, rather than avoiding them, is what releases the anxiety. Feeling our feelings is what enables us to move through them. Accepting them as existing, incites the dissipation process. We must digest them in order to metabolize them.
Either way, anxiety must be externalized, or made separate from "you." Anxiety is IN you, but it isn't YOU. Recognize the voice as one of many, not "the only."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lia Love Avellino is a therapist and writer based in New York City. She supports people in untangling the complex challenges related to relationships, sex, and reproductive health so they can experience aliveness in mind, body and soul. Lia is a practicing psychotherapist with Rennicke & Associates, the Director of Head & Heart at The Well in NYC, support group leader at The Wing, curriculum creator for The American Journal of Sexual Education, and project director for President Obama’s Teen Pregnancy Initiative.
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