After speaking to a client who was suffering with anxiety, I reflected on how debilitating anxiety can be. How much control over life do we really have anyway? We may need to have an element of control in order to function in our daily lives. Is it just an illusion though? My client, whom I shall refer to as Shirley, was very anxious around her husband’s family. She was logical, thought through and composed. Her husband’s family on the other hand were spontaneous, fun and loved to play games. During one session when I challenged Shirley’s thinking, she discovered that the root of her anxiety was fear. For Shirley, it was specifically fear of looking silly, and being rejected that was most difficult. After exploring this even further, we established that Shirley was told on numerous occasions, when she was younger that she was ‘no fun’ and a ‘kill joy’. No wonder Shirley shut down when it was time to play games with the family; she was petrified to ‘do it wrong’!
One way to challenge yourself is to take risks. I like to describe it as baby steps. You do not need to jump in the deep end of a swimming pool when you cannot swim. That would be an unrealistic expectation of yourself. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself, and at the same time challenge yourself to take a small step in the right direction. Perhaps you can slowly attempt to put your toe in the water as a first step? Think about your specific fear, and what baby step you may be able to contemplate taking.
I have worked with people affected by social anxiety. This can become difficult if your work puts on events that you are expected to attend outside of work. You know that you are expected to go to this event. However, your crippling fear is keeping your feet to the ground as if there is super glue at the bottom of your shoe. What would be the first step? I would recommend telling yourself that you are going for five minutes. It is possible to endure the anxiety for five minutes? When you are there you may give yourself permission to stay for another five minutes. You could even surprise yourself and end up having a pleasant time.
Freddie Strasser (2005) discusses one of his client’s fear in his book titled ‘Emotions’. Here Strasser says, “He feared the loss of his job. If he lost his job, then his life would become meaningless, insecure and isolated.” This made me think about Shirley. What did looking silly mean to her? What did appearing ‘not composed’ mean to her? Shirley uncovered the layers of these issues with me in the therapy room where she felt safe to hear her inner voice. She learned to accept herself being an imperfect human being who will make mistakes from time to time.
Strasser differentiates between fear and anxiety when he states, “Fear is an emotion that is evoked by a recognizable external threat, whereas anxiety is provoked internally.” Shirley labelled her own experience as anxiety, however I see the threat was actually her self-perception. Shirley’s way of being in the world was to appear as put together and composed, and she ran far away from any threat to that image. Therefore playing games and appearing ‘silly’ would have potentially damaged the image of herself that she was comfortable sharing with the world.
Aviva Keren Barnett (PgD, M.A ) is a UKCP registered existential psychotherapist and counselor. Aviva holds a Master of Arts in Existential Psychotherapy and Counselling. Aviva, a very passionate therapist, works with individuals on a private basis.