“There is Something Terribly Wrong with Me, and When You Find Out, You’re Going to Hate Me”
What do you do when you long to be yourself… but you don’t trust that anyone will like you as you are?
Do you get quiet and hide? Or do you get loud and outrageous?
Here’s a secret. The most anxious, scared person in the room might be the last person you’d suspect. The most anxious, scared person might be the loud one right at the center of attention. Oh, yeah.
I used to be the life of the party. Funny, teasing, goofy, flirty… that was me. In any social situation I was out there laughing and joking and being outrageous. You’d think I was having a great time. But this “party” mood had nothing to do with feeling happy. It actually came out of anxious desperation.
I felt a lot of doubt about whether people even liked me. Sometimes I felt so anxious and nervous I wanted to run out of the room. And sometimes I did.
But usually I covered up my anxiety — even from myself — by getting loud.
Alcohol helped, of course. Drinking was a good way to get into a zany mood and also a good excuse for it. (I could say later, “That was the booze talking.”)
My biggest anxiety was about whether I was OK. I had a deep conviction that there was something terribly wrong with me, that people would find out and then mock me and reject me.
So of course I never found out if I could just be myself… which would mean being quiet sometimes, being sad sometimes, sometimes showing how anxious I was. I never found out because I didn’t dare to show the vulnerable side of me.
Focusing helped me turn all of that around. I was really lucky — I learned the Focusing process when I was just 22 years old. Even so, it took me a while to apply it to this painful issue of risking being myself around other people.
I remember one time I took a greyhound bus to a science fiction convention. (A science fiction convention is basically a party that lasts for a whole weekend, attended by smart nerds. Who get just as anxious as anyone else.)
I realized I was pumping myself up to be “lively” and “smart” and “funny” as soon as I arrived. And I realized that I was doing that because I didn’t trust that I could just be myself when I got there. I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost. I didn’t feel I could be myself, and I didn’t feel like “pumping myself up” to be lively and smart and funny… or anything else that wasn’t me.
It was actually a great moment. It helped that it took four hours to get to the city where the convention was… because I had time to pause and reflect and face my feelings.
But it didn’t feel so great at the time. Instead of just falling into my usual pattern, I looked it. I saw that I didn’t want to keep doing that automatic “life of the party” thing that came from anxiety. But I didn’t have a clue what to do instead.
Just be myself? Ha! Number one, I didn’t know how. Number two, that’s exactly what I was terrified of.
So what did I do?
Something I learned from Focusing. Something so simple, it seemed like nothing. But it changed everything.
I acknowledged the two sides.
“Something in me… just wants to be myself… and something in me… doesn’t feel like that’s OK.”
And when I did that the anxiety got smaller. It was still there… but I was bigger than it was. I felt myself taking a deep breath.
I wasn’t even sure what would happen when I got to the convention. I didn’t make a new plan, or anything like that. I just knew that I was no longer in a state of inner struggle. As for what would happen… I would see. And sure enough, when I got there, how I behaved and how I felt were quite different than before. I was more relaxed, I was more present. I was also more vulnerable and more uncertain. I learned that I could stand that — and that I liked myself better when I stayed in touch with how I actually felt.
I realized that the “pumped up,” loud, outrageous way of behaving was another way of escaping. Even when I didn’t run out of the room, even when I was the life of the party, I wasn’t really there. I’d been keeping myself safe by never really feeling how I felt.
You see, I thought I had only two choices. Either feel, or don’t feel. Either be as anxious as I really was, or shut it all down and cover it up.
Focusing taught me a third way. Something my childhood in a small town in Illinois never taught me. I found out that I could be with my feelings instead of just being my feelings. I could say to myself, “I am sensing how something in me is really anxious right now.”
Try it yourself… with something you are feeling. “I am sensing how something in me is really _______ right now.”
The feeling is still there. You’re not arguing with it or fighting it. In fact, you can turn toward the feeling and get curious about what brings it, and what’s under it. That’s the kind of self-exploration that leads to lasting change and freedom from old emotional patterns.
When I turned toward my anxious feelings, and got to know what was under them, I discovered the part of me that was sure there was something terribly wrong with me. I was able to be a compassionate listener to that part of me… and that’s when the healing process began.
Today, I’m comfortable with myself. I’m the same person in a group as I am when I’m alone. I still get anxious feelings… but they’re not about whether I’m fundamentally OK… and they don’t make me want to run out of the room.
When we can feel and hear ourselves as we truly are, then we can change. It’s one of those little miracles that is really huge.
This article was originally published on Medium.com September 20, 2017.