Whew! We have covered A LOT of ground towards learning to heal your anxiety over the past few articles. We’ve talked all about the inner work that needs to be done … practicing self compassion, transforming negative thoughts, building positive core beliefs and building a solid physical foundation through diet and exercise.
This post is a bit different though.
Because we’re going to talk about the unavoidable external factors that set off your anxiety and make it tough to be yourself. Then, you’ll learn to design a system for dealing with these triggers by communicating authentically.
When anxiety makes us hide behind a mask
If you take a minute to think about how you talk about your anxiety when you’re with others, you’ll might realize you say things like “my job makes me anxious” or “my mother makes me anxious.”
That’s because there’s just something about being in certain places or around some people for us that makes it hard to be ourselves … to be comfortable and confident in our own skin.
To protect our vulnerable ego and get these people to like us, we create what we think is a more acceptable version of ourselves. We become a Barbie doll (or Ken doll or whatever image of perfection resonates for you) — a shinier, perfect self we put out there, hoping the world will find us easier to love.
This is pretty common, because we’re so often socialized into believing there are certain rules about “How to Be”:
- I should appear unwaveringly confident and 100% competent at whatever I do
- My measly problems aren’t worth troubling others with and I’m a big ol’ burden if I do
- I should NEVER sweat the small stuff and I am an emotional basket case if I do
- I should be able to leap tall buildings, fight off grizzly bears and navigate every bump in the road ALL BY MYSELF
Now, I’ve already talked about how limiting beliefs like this contribute to anxiety. So you know these ideas are only locking you in a cycle of anxiety.
The truth is that sometimes, we’re just not that confident. We have emotions. We don’t always know the answer. We need help figuring things out. It’s OK beautiful people! We’re human. It comes with the territory.
But, instead of owning our imperfect (and much more interesting) selves, we keep the Barbie act going. We put so much of our energy into juggling the perfect attributes that we think everyone will approve of … “I’m whip-smart and I’m super nice and I’m crazy hard-working and a constantly upbeat smile machine.”
And it just adds to the anxiety … because along with not letting our true self out to breathe every once and awhile, we’re all too aware that we’re bound to drop a ball at some point. Someone is going to be disappointed. And the anticipation is killing us.
But we long so deeply to belong and be accepted. To be liked and admired.
So here’s the really big problem. It’s true that some people may seem to like you more when you’re Barbie or Ken you. But they’re not liking you. They like the fake you. And you’re cheating your true self out of that affection … and your true self is the one that deserves it.
And, you know what? It may feel good for a while to get some level of acceptance from someone who otherwise might not appreciate you for who you are. But that can’t replace the deep connection we all naturally look for as social beings. We want to be seen. To be loved for who we truly are.
That can only happen if we express ourselves honestly, truly and openly. If we stop pretending to be perfect, unemotional and completely confident at all times.
So, how can we start being our true selves with others? By communicating authentically.
Here’s how …
#1 Identify the trigger
First, take note of the moments where you pretty regularly feel the need to fake it. Is it when you’re about to visit a particularly judgemental relative? On your way to a social function with friends? Heading to the office?
Need some help figuring it out? Try walking through this exercise recommended by Brene Brown in I Thought It Was Just Me by filling in the blanks below.
I want to be perceived as ______________, _________________, _____________________________, _______________________ and ______________________. I do NOT want to be perceived as __________________, ________________, _______________, __________________ or _______________.
Now, take a look at the words you used to describe how you don’t want to be perceived and think of the situations in which you tend to feel that way. Those are usually the moments when you want to hide behind your perfect-self the most.
#2 Prepare your mind and body
You can survive these moments better by steadying yourself mentally and physically with these easy tips:
- Recognize that while others may not like what you have to say, you have every right to say it—and you do not need to justify yourself. To anyone. As a matter of fact, speaking your mind is good for any relationship.
And if they don’t like what you have to say and reject it, take it as a hint from the universe about whether you should continue engaging in that relationship.
- Visualize the circle of people who love you unconditionally. Imagine them over your shoulder, offering support and encouragement throughout the interaction. Remember, you are loved!
- Relax your body using whatever go-to technique works best for you.
- Ensure success by visualizing the situation going well and all of the positive outcomes that can stem from it. You should have a vision of what success looks like, so you know you’ve reached your goal.
#3 Say it
There are a lot of unique factors that make communication authentic for each of us. Our tone, intentions, the choice of language, our level of empathy and self-awareness.
One of my favorite guidelines for communicating in a way that will be well-received by others is from Marshall Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication.
His formula goes like this:
When I see that______________ (Observation of the specific facts that occurred without judgement)
I feel ______________(Your emotional experience)
because my need for ________________ (Genuine human need) is/is not met.
Would you be willing to __________________ (Make a request, not a demand).
So, for example …
“When you scream and curse at me, I feel really anxious and I shut down. I need to be able to express my opinion without fearing a complete blowout. Would you be willing to teach me how to I can communicate my experience honestly in a way that won’t trigger you?”
“When you said my presentation didn’t meet expectations in front of the team, I felt ashamed. It’s important that I feel like a valuable asset to this team. Would it be possible for us to work out a different way for you to give me feedback?”
“When you came home late three times this week, I felt sad and unloved. I need to feel like our relationship is a priority for you, so can we talk about creating a schedule we can stick to?”
#4 Reflect on it
An important step for successfully breaking down our fears around communicating authentically is reflecting on how realistic those fears are. So, once you’ve made the leap, ask yourself, did it turn into the disaster you thought it would? Did appearing imperfect really destroy your relationship with this person? Chances are … nope, it didn’t!
Whoo-hoo! You put yourself out there. Now, revel in the rewards of your bravery!
If it was well received, you’ll have a whole new relationship and probably newfound respect and admiration from that person.
And if it wasn’t accepted as well as you’d hoped, bask in the glory of your courage to get through what was probably a real tough conversation! You put your feelings and needs on the record—and it only gets easier from here!