I have always suffered from a chronic, low grade, underlying anxiety. It feels like I live on the edge of a crumbling precipice. One wrong word, one wrong move and the ground will give way beneath my feet sending me tumbling into the abyss below. It often feels as if the ground will give way even if I don’t do or say anything wrong.
My anxiety comes, I know, from having grown up in a world where things are neither safe nor predictable and dreadful things happened without warning or explanation.
In the world of my childhood I ran, crying, to my mother once because a bully hit me and she hit me too by demanding to know what I did to make him hurt me. I tried to think what I had done to deserve the punch in the gut (and the punch in the psyche from my mother) but I couldn’t think of anything. All I had done was say hello. But, back then, I was just a kid and mother was always right. If she said I asked for it I figured I must have and I knew somehow, some way, I had to try and avoid asking for it again.
In that world of my childhood the comforting lap of a nice, respectable, decent man suddenly turned into a nightmare place with probing, hurting, fingers and a hissed command in my ear to sit still because I was about to get what I asked for.
I didn’t remember asking to be violated. I thought I was asking for a hug but he was a grown up and I was a little kid. If he said I asked for the nightmare I figured I must have and I resolved to somehow, some way, avoid asking for it ever again.
Over the years I collected a very long list of things to try and avoid asking for but it seemed there was always a new catastrophe around every corner. My anxiety grew even though I got used to the ground crumbling beneath my feet. I learned to expect the unexpected, assume the worst, and be prepared for anything. I developed skills in reading body language and I even, or so I thought, became a bit of a mind reader.
It all came to a head 16 years ago when I went to university and had to participate in a group project as part of a class. We all had to take a test in pessimism and the scoring sheet allowed for scores ranging from zero up. The lowest score was zero and was for people who were 100% pessimistic. The test creators simply did not expect anyone to score less than zero or else they put everyone with zero or less in the same category.
I scored minus 11 and, if memory serves, I think the maximum positive score was about 15 so all the other people in my project group got anxious. They didn’t want me to work on the project with them because they were afraid my pessimism would cause us to fail.
As the ground crumbled beneath my feet I protested. I pointed to the grades I had so far been getting (to my surprise I might add) and they let me join in. We did just fine but the test results made me rethink my attitude. I realised I needed to try and reduce the level of my pessimism somehow, some way.
Since then I have had a long, uphill battle with my pessimism and anxiety. They are always there generating fear and my automatic, negative self-talk constantly makes the ground beneath me start to crumble.
Last night it felt like I might have made it to the top of the mountain at last.
Something happened at work. My anxiety kicked in, my pessimism jumped on board and my negative self-talk began. The ground beneath me began to crumble. What if I get the sack? How will I pay my rent and survive? Nobody will hire me ever again if these people sack me! I felt myself begin to fall into the familiar old abyss.
I grabbed myself by the scruff of my neck and halted my fall. I fought back using the skills and knowledge gained during all those years of study, work and living. It isn’t the first time I have fought back. I’ve been fighting back for a long time now and it’s getting easier and easier. These are the steps I took to stop myself falling.
Step one — Thought Stopping.
“Stop it!” I mentally yelled at myself. “Stop catastrophising right now!” (See the link for an explanation of this term)
Step two — Reality Checking.
Recall past behaviour — this person has disagreed with things I have done before and has always told me. Nobody has ever gone behind my back to harm me before so where is the evidence anyone will do so now? There is none.
Is it even remotely possible I have done something so bad it would warrant instant sacking? No. I know the rules and regulations — I know what the sack-able offenses are and I would never commit them!
Step three — Positive Self-Talk
“The worst thing that can happen is I will be told I have done something wrong and I will be asked to lift my game — I will NOT be sacked out of hand.
Within seconds the ground beneath my feet firmed up again.
I realised I no longer live in the world of my childhood. I may be standing on the brink of a precipice but I know where the solid ground is these days and I don’t GO onto the crumbly bits any more. It’s possible someone may come along, pick me up against my will and throw me into the abyss. That happened early last year when five youths attacked me in my home. It’s possible a previously stable patch of ground will crumble beneath my feet but those things are POSSIBLE. They are not PROBABLE!
Last night I realised that, over the years, I have built a safety rail around the edge of the precipice. These days the truth is that most of the times I think I can feel earth crumble beneath my feet it is not the ground that’s getting weak — it’s just my knees!