I’ve managed anxiety since I was a teen and there are some scenarios that completely bring me undone if I’m not well grounded. One of these is entering social situations. When I don’t keep my anxiety in check, I quickly slip into old defensive patterns. Defenses are the reactive emotions that mask our deeper feelings; the anger, frustration or sarcasm that rises first. Defenses also present as behaviours that emerge in response to emotional triggers. These behaviours originate in childhood and represent misguided attempts to cope with our deepest fears; rejection, unworthiness or inadequacy. In adulthood, we discover more effective ways of coping with challenging situations, feelings and fears. But, from time to time, we slip back into old patterns and they can take us by surprise. This happened for me last week.
I’d taken my three boys to visit their Dad at an outside broadcast for the Commonwealth Games. I was rushing to visit before work and the morning had been hectic. As I walked in, I realised I was in trouble. As always happens for me when I’m not paying attention, the physical symptoms knock me over first. My heart beats quickly, my throat tightens and my thoughts start racing. While my inside experience speeds up, everything outside slows down. People smile and greet me warmly but I’m tongue tied, distracted, and terribly awkward. I try to slow my breathing and calm my limbic system (my emotional brain), but it’s a battle. The stream of critical thoughts running through my head ensures that I’m not present for any of the brief conversations with friends I’ve known for years and my critical thoughts take over. Every awkward hug and fumbled word reminds me how socially hopeless I am. I’m aware that I probably seem cold and aloof (another of my fears). I want to apologise, run outside and re-enter once I’m back on my emotional feet. It’s too late. I stand on the edges as my children bound toward their Dad. I want to call to them, “Don’t leave me here alone.” But of course I don’t. I return to old defensive patterns, standing as still as I possibly can, imagining myself invisible, and waiting for any chance to flee. If I could invite the ground to open and swallow me whole, I would. I’m 13 again.
When I reflect on how that morning unfolded, there were some warning signs. I was rushing. I’d not taken a moment before walking in to ground myself, take a breath, and reconnect with my intention to be present. I also allowed my critical thoughts to overwhelm me. Rather than hold the judgemental thoughts lightly, I accepted the thoughts about being awkward and unworthy as facts. When we are triggered (and not well grounded) we can be transported back to our old patterns. We find ourselves acting in ways that don’t serve us well at all. However, if we are willing to examine these difficult encounters with curiosity and compassion, rather than judgement, these experiences become opportunities to learn and grow. While, I’m not keen to repeat last Wednesday, I’m grateful for the for the reminder that our defenses often mask our greatest fears.