It takes humility and courage to accurately assess where you are and commit to the next step.
If you feel intense anxiety getting out of your house, the idea of obtaining and committing to a job on a daily basis might seem beyond what’s possible for you. If you feel intense anxiety sending an introductory text message to a potential romantic partner, the ongoing vulnerability required to sustain a long-term relationship might seem overwhelming.
Thinking about this, many individuals with anxiety disorders get so discouraged that they lose motivation to take the next step.
It’s important to see this as part of the pattern of anxiety’s game.
Anxiety (and his allies self-criticism and depression) will tell you:
“What you’re currently doing isn’t good enough. This shouldn’t be hard for you. You shouldn’t have to practice this. You’ll never get where you want to be.”
You need to be ready for this type of message and say back to it:
“Every time I identify, label, and allow an uncomfortable thought, feeling, or sensation, you get less power. What I’m practicing is a new process; it’s not about my outcome in any given moment. It’s okay that this is where I am and what I have to do. My fear circuitry has become conditioned by associations that don’t make rational sense. For whatever reason, other people’s fear circuitry has different associations than I have. The only way I’ll get to where I want to be is to gradually change these associations.”
If it’s difficult to muster the compassion, humility, and courage to set small, achievable goals on your way to overcoming your anxiety disorder, consider how you would teach a child how to read.
The child may really want to start reading a Harry Potter novel, but if he doesn’t know his letters, he can’t just jump into a text like that one. He also might not completely understand how identifying letters is the beginning of a more complex process of combining letters to make sounds, combining sounds to make words, combining words to make sentences, and combining sentences to make stories that convey ideas and make meaning. You know that.
So, you’re likely to be very patient with the child, encouraging him to start with the first step, continue to practice, reminding him that eventually he will be able to read.
You wouldn’t criticize the child if he isn’t making progress fast enough, because there is no pace that is right for everything, and you know that pressuring him to try to be someone he isn’t won’t help him read faster. If you saw him struggling, you’d make it “easier,” meaning that you’d break it into a smaller component. You wouldn’t make it easier because you don’t believe in him. You’d make it easier, because you understand that he has to master the smaller components before he can master the more complex process. Reading is also a skill to be mastered, meaning that having greater motivation will increase his skill-based acquisition. As a good teacher, you’d work to keep him motivated, because staying motivated is part of the process.
Can you see the comparison to overcoming an anxiety disorder?
Your anxiety disorder was created, intensified, and maintained by a cycle of fear, resistance, and avoidance of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
The skills you need to step out of this cycle are the opposite of what you’ve tried so far:
In the past, you have minimized, disregarded, and avoided your anxious thoughts, sensations, and feelings.
Now, you’ll be identifying, labeling, inviting, and even provoking more anxious thoughts, sensations, and feelings. This identifying and labeling process is like learning the alphabet of anxiety. Per the metaphor, you won’t be able to read — that is, do what you care about in the presence of anxiety with skill and grace — until you’ve practiced the basics over and over.
It’s important to do whatever it takes to stay motivated to take small steps. Self-compassion and humor are helpful strategies for staying motivated.