Some people grow up anxious. They either come from families that are unpredictable and chaotic, or they are just wired for anxiety somehow. Or both. These people frequently have seen several therapists, taken medications, and are fairly comfortable with the idea that they have this chronic struggle in their lives.
Many people, however, aren’t wired that way. Many people take life by force, setting and accomplishing one goal after another, priding themselves in their strength and their ability to get through difficult times with sheer grit and determination. I ironically refer to these people as masters of the universe. They approach life with a no-holds-barred, climb-every-mountain attitude and often believe they aren’t “the kind of person” anxiety can happen to.
Naturally, these are the people who often struggle mightily when anxiety does enter their lives. After all, this kind of “weakness” is not compatible with who they are. In their anxiety, the masters of the universe find a foe they are unable to best. It is not in the temperament of these masters of the universe to say, “Okay — I guess I can’t handle this alone. I need to get some help and that’s perfectly fine.” They are invincible, right? The very fact that they have encountered a dragon they cannot slay is itself extremely disconcerting and anxiety provoking for them.
Well-meaning family members often express disappointment when their anxious loved ones are finally driven to pick up a phone and call a counselor, or when — out of desperation — they finally stop resisting medication. These expressions of disappointment (“What? You mean you’re going to see a shrink?” “You realize this is all in your head, right?”) are not only unhelpful, but provoke further anxiety in the already anxious person. “My wife isn’t going to respect me if I take medication.” “My husband is going to think I’m crazy if I see a therapist.”
These comments are also damaging because they reinforce the very attitude that caused the problem to begin with. They come out of that same master of the universe, grin-and-bear-it, just-power-through-it attitude that is what has often led the anxious person into anxiety by living without limits, ignoring important signs of burnout and fatigue, not dealing carefully and respectfully with their own emotions, and generally trying to live as if they are superhuman. Every comment that encourages the anxious person to suck it up and just continue life as usual is contributing to the problem. That’s exactly what the anxious person needs to not do. Their life as usual is the problem. Their anxiety is their body’s way of saying, “You cannot sustain this pace,” just as the fatigue that comes with the flu is the body’s way of forcing a person to get the rest that, if they had been resting properly to begin with, might have helped them resist getting the flu.
Of course at first the masters of the universe bring their usual “I will have victory,” attitude to managing their anxiety. It can take a lot of time, and some pretty intense suffering, to identify this attitude as the source of their anxiety. Usually the degree of discomfort will eventually lead them to modify their routines, schedules, and especially perceptions of themselves so they can finally emerge from what they have experienced as one of the most unwinnable and terrifying battles they have ever fought. (2)
Increasingly, as they make these changes, they realize they cannot go back to their lives as they were before. For perhaps the first time, they have seen a chink in their armor. They encountered a dragon that was only empowered by their resistance and discovered that — paradoxically — surrendering was the only way to win. If you love one of one these masters of the universe, your most important role is making sure your anxious family member turns their back for good on that identity and learns to live in the awareness of their human limitations. Help them learn to embrace reasonable expectations for themselves, to cut themselves a little slack, to stop thinking of themselves as one of the ones anxiety could never happen to. Encourage them to see a professional who understands anxiety. Encourage them to take medication if they really feel they are coming unglued. Support their paring down their work schedule for a while if possible. Allow them to determine what they need.
Of course you won’t be able to do this if you too believe you are a master of the universe. If so, let your loved one’s struggles paint a picture of what likely lies in store for you as well if you don’t learn the lessons afforded by this moment. I encourage you to learn them, and emerge with your anxious family member out into the spaciousness of a new way of living and being.
For there is no “winning” this battle. Because this dragon that cannot be slayed is the self. With anxiety, the self is both the one who is anxious and the one resisting the anxiety. The irresistible force vs the immovable object. Resistance truly is futile because resistance is the problem. Until the resistance stops, the battle continues. The way to win is to stop fighting.
After all, no one is actually a master of the universe. Unfortunately, many people have to learn that the hard way.
(1) After all, there are weak people and there are strong people, and the masters of the universe, of course, are the strong people. Right? Anxiety is a weakness, right? So of course there’s no way they’ll ever have to deal with it. That is the thinking.
(2) In counseling for anxiety, we help people identify what changes need to be made in their lives and approaches to life, as well as teach techniques for managing the discomfort of anxiety when it strikes.