“Living with anxiety is like being followed by a voice. It knows all your insecurities and uses them against you. It gets to the point when it’s the loudest voice in the room. The only one you can hear.” ~Unknown
White lights flutter before your eyes. Your chest tightens, as if under the weight of a hundred ten-pound bricks. You wonder if your next breath will be your last. Emotions rip through you: fear, glooming dread, hopelessness. Without warning or clear cause, these feelings consume you.
You start to wonder if you’re going crazy. It’s like you no longer have control over your own body, your own thoughts.
This is the experience of chronic anxiety. And if you’ve ever encountered it, you know that the presence of it—and the absence of answers or solutions—can make you feel like you’re losing it. It can make everything that was once enjoyable feel like a struggle.
I know this feeling all too well.
I used to suffer from periodic anxiety attacks in my early twenties. They left me perplexed and afraid. I felt like I was being possessed. I felt out of control and believed I was dying all the time, with no evidence of a real illness.
Anxiety stole parts of my life from me, until I decided I wouldn’t let it take away my hope for a better future. One day, embarrassed after having to pull over onto the side of the road in order to breathe, I decided to get help for my anxiety attacks.
I realized then that people pleasing was causing me anxiety in two ways.
First, I felt anxiety about being imperfect, making mistakes, and making choices that others didn’t approve of, especially in my family relationships. Then I felt more anxiety because I thought I shouldn’t feel this way. I thought if people knew I was suffering from anxiety that they would reject me.
Life can be messy, strange, and hard sometimes. And it gets even harder when the faith you once had in yourself is bulldozed by your inability to take a deep breath and calm yourself down.
It’s hard not to blame yourself. It’s hard to avoid feeling inadequate, like your issues are all your fault. It’s especially hard when you’re a people-pleaser.
Chronic people-pleasers want to look presentable all the time, like we have it all together and our lives are perfect. Anxiety doesn’t fit into the perfect lives we’ve established for ourselves. So when it hits, we become our harshest and cruelest critics.
We fail to realize that when we don’t accept our symptoms, we only exacerbate them. We forget that judging things never makes them better. We can’t help but get angry with ourselves.
Stop Playing Pretend
Anxiety had its most crippling effects on me when I was in college. I believed I needed to get all A’s on my report card in order to be a good student. I also believed that if I had to study to get good grades, I was somehow intellectually inferior.
I studied a lot for tests—more than what I thought should be necessary. But when I talked to other people, I pretended like I’d barely studied at all. And whenever I received the occasional B, I beat myself up pretty harshly.
I didn’t want anyone to know that I didn’t have the best report card. Little did I know at the time it made me appear pretentious and stuck up.
After graduation, I interned at a university clinic, where I started to see clients. With each client, I was assigned a therapy room. This one time, I accidently used a room that wasn’t assigned to me. When the therapy was over, the clinical supervisor was not very happy with me and did not have trouble showing it.
Not knowing how to handle disappointing someone, I cried to her and ran off because I could feel a panic attack coming on. Later I felt like a baby, and couldn’t understand why I had such a strong reaction to making a mistake.
Later I realized I was always anxiously trying to please people because it was difficult for me to deal with disappointing others. I thought somehow making a mistake devalued me as a person, and that made me anxious to think about.
I would assess my worth on how much I could do right, instead of realizing I had intrinsic worth regardless. This experience helped me understand that my urge to please was based on anxiety and fear more than anything else.
I spent that time of my life hiding who I was and putting a fake smile on my face.
In trying to appear perfect, I became rigid and lost my edge and my humor. I resisted my outgoing personality because I thought I would interrupt people too much. I thought I should always let others take center stage while I didn’t ruffle any feathers in the background.
I pretended everything was great, but it wasn’t. I was suffering from crippling anxiety, feeling disconnected, and often misunderstood. I was hiding my pain, and my frustration with people who were acting rude and selfish.
I gave advice and ran to the rescue of anyone in despair, and partook in activities that I didn’t necessarily enjoy. I hid my true self by hiding behind other people’s problems. I convinced myself that there was no room for me.
Through my own experience, I learned that the greatest changes begin when we look at our problems with interest and respect, instead of judgment and denial. When we allow our true thoughts and feelings into awareness, we have the opportunity to learn from them instead of unconsciously reacting to them without knowing why.
We keep our negative feelings relaxed by not ignoring them, and we increase our awareness of reality by being willing to encounter our personal truths.
After therapy, I learned that my panic attacks were a reminder that I was a human, not a perfect being. I needed to be acknowledged for who I was, instead of always putting others first or forcing myself to have it all together.
I needed to know that my worth didn’t depend on what I did for others or what grades appeared on my report card.
Our bodies have so much wisdom, and sometimes they know more than we realize. Sometimes our anxiety is merely a signal telling us to take a closer look within.
Anxiety As A Symptom, Not The Disease
When I first sought therapy for my panic attacks, I thought they were a sign of weakness that needed to be eliminated. What I came to understand is that we can choose to bury our unexpressed emotions and deep thoughts, but they’ll come back later, often in unpleasant ways.
In my case, they came back as panic attacks. When aspects of ourselves are distanced, denied, or devalued, they’ll always try to make us listen by surfacing as unwanted symptoms.
Think about what some aspects of your ignored self are trying to tell you. Maybe your symptoms are coming up as chronic anxiety, depression, muscle pain, headaches, feeling lost, etc.
The analogy of the missing roommate, from Bill O’Hanlon and Bob Bertolino’s book Even from a Broken Web: Brief, Respectful Solution-Orientated Therapy for Sexual Abuse and Trauma, can help clarify the impact of ignoring our inner selves.
The Missing Roommate
Imagine that there are a bunch of people living together in a house, and they decide to kick out one of their roommate because they don’t like him. They lock him out and change the locks.
He comes to the door and tries persistently to get back in, but the roommates tell each other to ignore him, thinking he will go away.
After a while, he becomes exhausted and slumps against the door. They think he’s gone away and won’t cause any more trouble. For quite a while, it seems to have worked. But he’s really just sleeping outside the door.
Eventually, something wakes him up, and he decides he wants to get back in the house. He pounds on the door again but gets no response and becomes tired again. Finally, he becomes desperate and crashes through the front window.
That is what happens when parts of your true self are vanished, unexpectedly. The parts of you that went missing will want to show you who you’re meant to be. They’ll scream, “I want to come back! I am part of you! I will not be ignored!”
This is how it happened for me. I got so caught up in trying to be who I thought I was supposed to be, I lost who I actually was.
However, when we devalue parts of ourselves, they develop a mind of their own. They may go away for a while, at the expense of our wellbeing and relationships, but before long they’ll come crashing through the front window.
We must realize that the experiences we have, even seemly negative ones, are here to teach us, challenge us, and allow us to grow.
How you see yourself, your life, and your options is shaped by your mindset. If you live with the mindset of a people-pleaser, you’ll constantly feel pressure to fit in, make others happy, be liked, gain acceptance, and seem happy all the time. That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder you feel anxious!
When I reached out for the help of a therapist, I thought there was something wrong with me because of how sick I’d gotten. I wasn’t able to see that even if I could benefit from making some changes, my anxiety wasn’t my fault. I needed to grow so I could learn to better manage my life and be okay with sometimes disappointing other people in order to take care of myself.
It’s okay to make mistakes; it’s all right for people not to approve of all your choices; it’s fine to have the occasional issue. In fact, it’s through the pitfalls of life that you can learn and experience who you are.
I’m thankful for my panic attacks. They allowed me to open my eyes and change my life. I started making myself a priority and embraced my imperfections with open arms.
Editor’s note: Ilene has generously offered to give away two free copies of her latest book, When It’s Never About You: The People-Pleaser’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Health, Happiness and Personal Freedom. To enter to win one of two free copies, leave a comment below. You don’t have to write anything specific—”Count me in” is sufficient! You can enter until midnight PST on Sunday, December 24th.
Update: The winners have been chosen. They are Stephen Chavez and Julie.
About Ilene S. Cohen
Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, blogger, and professor. She’s a regular contributor to Psychology Today, with her most recent release of her self-help book entitled, When It’s Never About You. Her work is fueled by her passion for helping people achieve their goals, and lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. To learn more about Dr. Ilene visit www.doctorilene.com.