In my early 20s, I was the assistant leader of a Girl Scout troop. It’s startling to realize those little cookie-sellers are now older than I was then…
Looking back, several of the girls stand out in my memory and many have faded away. I remember the tiniest of the group, all filled with curls and laughter. I remember the kid who wanted to mostly wanted to hang out with me; I felt obligated to send her back to the kids though I truly enjoyed her company, too.
I remember the kid who both the troop leader and I found deeply challenging to even tolerate.
It’s hard to not like a kid. I want to like them all, inherently, even more than I want to like all humans generally. It’s just not to be; we humans are too complex for that.
Despite our dislike of this kid, we were committed to giving her the same Girl Scout experience as the rest of the kids – through every meeting, for the duration of camp outs, whenever.
This kid is on my mind this morning as I think about anxiety, that gross feeling that often wells in the torso and presses on the chest; that can steal our breath and, at its extremes, make our bodies feel as though a catastrophic medical happening is in the works.
Much as I would have liked to have just not dealt with that frustrating (to me) kid, she was a reality of the troop.
Much as I would like to just turn off anxiety when it well up in me, sometimes seemingly out of the blue, it is a reality of being human for many of us. Certainly for me.
With that kid, staying focused on my commitment to her positive experience of Girl Scouts involved lots of self-talk, occasionally commiserating with the troop leader, and practicing allowing for the reality that I just didn’t like the kid.
I treat anxiety much the same.
Let me get more specific on that one, in case anxiety is something that also lives in you like tidal waters, sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing, sometimes exacerbated by plate tectonics (say, world happenings) or hiding a rip tide (like a stressful life event).
When anxiety arises for me, I do some combination of the following:
- I name it but from a distance. We have a habit of saying things like “I am anxious” as though anxiety has replaced all other aspects of our biology and identity and left us as flesh sack filled with some substance called anxiety. When I’m naming this, I say, “Anxiety is here.” I often wave my hand as I say or think this, an instinctive gesture to indicate it’s present with me rather than possessing me. It would be like saying, “Yeah, that kid is at the troop meeting today and I’m noticing some annoyance. Noted.”
- I offer some compassion to that activated part of myself. Often, this look like placing my hand over my heartspace and offering what I call Hey Buddy Energy, like, “Hey buddy – I see you’re feeling some kind of way. What’s up? Want to talk?” Back in the Girl Scout days, I might have offered presence and a listening ear to the troop leader when she was overwhelmed by the kid without expecting I could actually fix anything for her; the kid was just a part of our troop dynamic. Similarly, self-compassion isn’t meant to end the anxiety; along with the above step of naming it, it’s about not exacerbating a rough feeling by making it everything or getting mad at myself for feeling it.
- I make as conscious and intentional a decision as possible about what I do next. Philosophically, I’m for any decision any adult makes consciously. (Of course, there are caveats about harm but I don’t think malicious acts come from a deeply conscious place; I think even planned out malice comes from reactivity and fear. Neither here nor there, though.) And so I ask myself: What would feel self-honoring right now? “Self-honoring” is a very intentional prompt there – it might feel good in the moment, for example, to let loose on a person I’m blaming for my surge of anxiety but it wouldn’t be self-honoring. As is true for most of us, throwing down on other humans isn’t values-aligned for me and so I’d ultimately feel terrible about such a choice.
Honestly, I no longer remember exactly how I managed my annoyance with that kid in our troop; I was definitely less skillful at 21 than I would be now… and I’d still handle it imperfectly now.
So, too, with anxiety, as I work to make those conscious and self-honoring choices…
…as I work to not engage in futile searches for the off switch…
…as I practice using movement and mindfulness to get me out of my head and into my body…
…out of my laser focus and into a more expansive view…
…as I work to allow for the reality that, sometimes, adults find kids annoying and, sometimes, life and my nervous system interact in a way that generates that gross feeling of anxiety.
And you, friend?