“Now is the age of anxiety.”
— Wystan Hugh Auden,
“Remember!” he recalled shouting at himself. “Remember!”
I was listening to a friend describing a particularly frightening anxiety attack.
“I had parked somewhere in a huge mall parking lot and, being in a hurry, had neglected to make a mental note of just where I had parked.
“Now I was standing in the parkade with no idea of where I should begin looking. I walked up and down rows of vehicles looking for mine. And the more anxious I became, the further memory retreated from me. I was no longer certain of the make or model of my vehicle — I couldn’t even remember the colour.
An older couple had stopped nearby. I could hear them talking about me — wondering if I was sick or crazy.”
This incident is typical of those experienced by people who suffer with anxiety disorders. I had a client once describe anxiety as such: it’s when you lose control, can’t think, can’t stop shaking and totally break down.
Anxiety is becoming an epidemic. In fact, a variety of studies suggest that more people go to see therapists and counsellors about anxiety than all other issues combined.
For me, one of the major reasons I started my journey of self-esteem building was to lessen my own anxiety – to forgo the need to always be in control of everything.
I think self-esteem or a lack thereof plays a major role in the development of anxiety disorders.
Healthy self-esteem bring with it a strong sense of self-worth and self-efficacy — essentially, a feeling of being capable of dealing effectively with whatever life should present us with. Put another way, healthy self-esteem bring with it a sense of “who I am.” People who suffer with anxiety don’t have a sense of “who I am” but rather the question, “Who am I?”
Poor self-esteem and anxiety share common themes.
In my experience, people with poor self-esteem do tend to lack a definitive sense of self.
Though they may have matured physically and intellectually, certain aspects of their emotional development have been delayed.
For example, individuals may know intellectually that they should love and value themselves — that anxiety is unnecessary and unhealthy — but emotionally they don’t believe it. Emotionally they may still be relating to themselves and the world around them as they did as a child.
Here’s a pattern I see played out over and again. Whether people come from an abusive background or not, they somehow came to believe at a young age that they just didn’t measure up — that they were never good enough.
And while most of these harmful (parental) messages were unintentional, as children they simply did not have the intellectual and logical ability to decipher and disregard unhealthy messages received from authority figures.
To further illustrate: if the individual became angry as a child, they may have been told that anger was unacceptable so to be acceptable, they suppressed it. Maybe as a child they were exuberant, creative or expressive and were told that such behaviour was also unacceptable, so they suppressed it.
Over time the child became adept at suppressing anger, grief and sadness but also creativity, spontaneity, joy and playfulness.
As they grew older, they naturally began to suppress wants and needs as these too may have been deemed selfish or self-serving.
Essentially, many people with self-esteem issues suppressed the building blocks of their authentic self — the part that would allow them to declare this is who I am.
And typically they did so to be more acceptable to others and in the process became unacceptable to themselves.
In the pursuit of love, affection, kindness, acceptance and validation they lost themselves, or perhaps put more appropriately, they failed to allow the development of an intact self.
Without a grounded sense of self, it’s nearly impossible to fight anxiety — we always feel out of control – and the harder we fight, the more the fear and anxiety escalates.
But things are not hopeless. We can work to develop our self-esteem, build and connect with our authentic self and, in doing so, let go of the fear as we discover an answer to the question, “Who am I?”
The person who struggles with anxiety is acutely aware of rejection.
Thus, a good place to start building self-esteem is to take an honest look at the number of people in your life who care about you as compared to the number who reject you.
Anxiety often distorts this assessment. If we’re going to be completely honest, most people find that far more people accept than reject them. And if you are being rejected, it’s probably prudent to take a look at the reasons why.
Instead of beating yourself up, take a little time each day to consider the good things in your life. Take a couple minutes two or three times a day to think, say or even jot down all the good things about yourself and then to see what happens. You just might be surprised.
People with anxiety issues often have a fear of being judged. This is where working with a qualified therapist or counsellor can be helpful. A major aspect of recovering from any debilitating disorder is first acknowledging the issue and then admitting that help is needed.
“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems,” writes Steve Maraboli, American speaker, bestselling author and behavioural science academic. “Nothing is worth your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety and fear.”
Admittedly, there are no quick fixes. Self-esteem building is a process requiring courage and perseverance. When it comes to anxiety, I believe self-esteem-building can play a major role in the recovery process. It is a key component to a permanent recovery. It was for me.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.