Makes perfect sense. I’m sure I was the last person on earth to figure out how tightly wound I was. About everything. I remember turning to a dear friend and saying, “I guess I’m pretty anxious.” It was actually a shocker for me to come to that conclusion. “You think?” she said, casting a mock arched brow my way. Wow. So, it was like that, was it? It’s more than possible it’s that way for you, too. You may be the last to know, but everyone around you figured it out. Ages ago.
If you don’t even know you’re suffering with anxious overwhelm (maybe because this has been your “normal” for so long you don’t realize it’s possible to feel any other way), how can you start taking care of it? How would you ever even know your anxious experience is totally trashing your relationships and getting in the way of so much of what you say you want in life? There are a few telltale signs. As a therapist and Anxiety Coach, I work with Anxious Folk every day in my office, helping them identify the way their anxious thoughts are playing out in their relationships and unlearning the Anxious Habit.
Here are some of the ways Anxiety may be trashing our relationships:
1. Afraid of getting left behind, we’ll settle for less than we want. If we’ve been living with anxiety and anxious experience long enough, it doesn’t matter how competent we are professionally, we’ll often feel inadequate and unlovable. That fearful feeling we’ve been dealing with has taught us life doesn’t always go our way. Our negative, fortune-telling mind is whispering we’re going to get left out of the Happy Ever After Gig and we better grab the first one who comes along and seems to tolerate us, since that might be the only chance we have. Anxious Folk will sometimes sell themselves short. On top of that, our anxious experience may have numbed us out to our ability to enjoy life, perceive our own desires, likes, and dislikes, and we’ll end up fulfilling someone else’s dreams, rather than identifying our own wants and needs. On top of that, we’re Stellar Care-Takers. If you need us, we feel loved (yes, we founded the whole Co-dependent thing—it’s our tribe). So, we’re sometimes paired with people who demand a lot out of us, don’t give back, and are even less interested in identifying our needs than we are. Perfect match. Not.
2. We’ll find a way to sit out the Love Game. Anxious Folk are wired to be caring and considerate. We’re wired to be in relationship and yet, having had our hopes dashed once or twice, fearing another loss or another poor choice, we’ll find all kinds of ways of opting out of relationship in the first place. We’re masters at delaying gratification. Anxious Folk are champs at rejecting ourselves before we can be rejected by anyone else. Anticipating rejection and judgment, we fail to engage. We talk ourselves out of the game and can take up a permanent-feeling seat on the sidelines. We’ll buy every negative explanation we can find for why we’re undesirable, unpairable, or never likely to find our needle in the haystack. We especially love statistics that predict relationship failure for our particular group and cling to that as truth and a reason not to “try” in the first place. My anxious clients have probably quoted me a hundred Internet articles about why they’ll never find love. So let me say one thing about that right now. It’s crap! It only takes one. One. And there are dozens and dozens, perhaps thousands, of great matches for you out there.
3. Premature Evacuation. Suppose we find our way into a relationship, what is the first thing Anxious Folk do next? Relax into coupled bliss? Chill out on the beach with the sunset and their love? No freakin’ way! And if so, that whole bliss thing is short-lived. Our habit of anxious vigilance, catastrophic thinking, and the co-occurring experience of low-self esteem and feelings of unworthiness kick into high gear and we start worrying about how this relationship will end. We’re accomplished at projecting the worst-case scenario to our Happy Ending. Right off, my Anxious Folk will start fussing about “When is he/she going to leave me?” “Is this The One?” “How will I ever know if this is the right one for me?” “What if they leave me?” “What if this relationship is another big mistake?” “Am I going to get hurt?” “How can I keep them?” “What if I’m trusting the wrong person with my heart?” “How is this relationship going to end?” “I KNOW they want to leave me!” These powerful and very real feelings are so intolerable, I’ll find Anxious Folk solving the problem for themselves by prematurely evacuating and leaving the relationship. At least that way they know how it’s going to end and they’re in control. So, first comes that big wave of relief. And then the grief and longing. No fun at all.
4. We’re checkers. While it’s not true all Anxious Folks are habitual stalkers of their loved ones, it’s pretty much true that habitual stalkers are anxious. Social media was created in such a way as to completely fuel and facilitate our anxious suspicions. All day. And all night. If you find yourself checking your loved one’s location tags, reading for which good looking girl or guy has “liked” their Facebook posts, getting pissed if one of their friends has just changed their profile pic to one with a bikini, or you find yourself compelled to endlessly comb through photos of all their old ex’s in their old Facebook photo albums, checking the phone, hacking the email, combing through their search histories, you’re suffering from one of the more virulent anxious relationship killers. If you’re really in a relationship with someone you can’t trust, get the heck out now. Don’t waste another minute or tear here. If you’re not, there are ways to learn how not to be controlled by your anxiety. All those anxious accusations and “Where are you?” “Who are you with?” texts wear relationships down. This pattern shows up in my office a lot with couples I work with, and not just the twenty-something crowd, either. It's potentially a very destructive behavior.
5. “Do you love me? Really love me?” Another version of checking behavior. Lots of Anxious Folk feel deeply unlovable and flawed. Although the people around them typically adore and value them highly, Anxious Folk may have a hard time letting that good stuff soak in. Often trained to perform for love, or feeling that they must earn love, Anxious Folk have a hard time feeling adequate or worthy. The uncomfortable intolerable feelings we’ve been discussing, point by point, come to a boil and an anxious person just has to break down and ask, “Do you love me? Do you really, really love me?” So understandable, as it can seem like the only way to get some relief from that nagging feeling you’re just not good enough to actually be secure in their love.
6. We’re caretakers in all our relationships. Before we learn to set appropriate boundaries, Anxious Folk are going to be giving, giving, giving, at our own expense. We can completely exhaust ourselves this way. For one thing, saying “No,” feels truly wrong, so Anxious Folk will find a way to say yes, no matter how over-committed they are already. This can lead to stress at home, an inability to save enough time for oneself or for attending to our primary relationships. Chances are, we learned very early we were valued for our extraordinary contributions and self-sacrificing ways. This was likely our role in our family of origin. And it’s a little addicting. The thing is, we neglect ourselves, can neglect our loved ones, and we end up burned out, resentful, and martyred if we don’t learn to live another way. Not very attractive. And very painful. It will sound and feel a lot like this, “I do and do and do for others, but no one does for me.” We may fail to notice the many ways we push away help and insist on doing things on our own. We isolate by accident, more often than not.
Our care-taking can lead us to push our way into our loved one’s lives as we “help” and suggest and control things so it all goes the way we know it should. We can find ourselves wanting everything to work out perfectly and painlessly for everyone we care about and we KNOW we’re the ones to make it happen. We’re not ones to sit back and let things work out on their own. Being in charge of the world is a big job, so we end up tired and cranky. Our loved ones may end up feeling managed, controlled, mothered, infantilized, and resentful. Without meaning to we can signal our loved ones that we quietly feel they are incompetent and not up to the task of living their own lives. Yikes! To make matters worse, it can be very, very stressful for us when our loved ones are struggling in their lives and we feel compelled to fix it, but we can’t. Anxious Folk are consistently shocked to learn their fussing and managing is driving their families bonkers. It’s hard to let go of our primary habit of soothing ourselves and expressing love, but our relationships can benefit enormously as we learn to trust our friends and family to live their lives and we get busy living ours. That’s actually our first job, right?
7. Our fears and limitations can begin to burden our relationships. Sometimes Anxious Folk are adept at pushing through a lot of the discomfort they feel, even though this is one way we actually raise our level of overall anxious experience. Being strong in all the wrong ways. Occasionally, anxiety will start manifesting in more significant and intrusive ways. Anxious Folk may find themselves too anxious to drive, to socialize, to go on vacation or to the market. The anxious chatter in our minds may spill over into constant rumination we share with our partners. Loving partners and family members find themselves picking up more and more slack, driving their anxious loved one everywhere, being constantly available to soothe out the rough edges, offering one reasoned argument after another about why things aren’t as bad as they seem. This can lead to exhaustion in the relationship. And resentment. At the same time, Anxious Folk may end up thinking their feelings are being minimized and dismissed. We often feel misunderstood. No one wants it to be this way, but couples can get caught in an anxious cycle and not know how to disrupt or change it. On top of that, although it may show up in different ways, Anxious Folk will often pair up with each other. Double Trouble.
8. Our anxiety may show up as criticalness or irritability. High levels of anxiety are exhausting. Most Anxious Folk have toughed it out for way too long by the time they get to my office and it’s taken a toll on them and their relationships. Wired to be some of the most tenderhearted, observant, jump-to-help people on the planet, they may also end up snappish, irritable, and critical. Unexpressed and unexplored emotions will find their way out in unproductive ways. Women may find themselves labeled Harpies, Shrews, Bitches, and men will be called controlling, loud, angry A-holes, as well as dark and withdrawn. Anxiety can form a wedge in our relationships if left unattended.
9. Perfectionism. In an effort to control our emotions and self-sooth, Anxious Folk may practice high-levels of perfectionism. We’ll tend to be highly self-critical and it can leak out on others, too. We may hold others to high standards and hold ourselves to impossible standards. It can be a hard thing to live with in oneself or in one’s partner or family member.
10. Controlling. Can’t sleep if you’re not in control of the money? Have a hard time handing tasks off to others at work or at home? Do you live by that old standby, “If you want something done right, you might as well do it yourself?” Are you sure you know how your spouse, friend, sibling or child should be handling something? Everything? Even if they don’t ask for your opinion? It’s a hard thing to let go of, the idea that you need to manage it all, but your relationships will all be happier the day you step back and let the world roll by a bit more.
11. It can be hard to figure out how to relax and have fun. A lot of Anxious Folk grew up way too fast, sometimes carrying a lot of physical and emotional responsibility in their families of origin. We don’t always know how to play. We don’t always know what we enjoy doing or we’ve lost connection with our passions and interests. Our response to life is to keep moving, move fast, and keep ahead of all those anxious thoughts. Some of us are the original Energizer Bunnies. Our partners may have a much better handle on having fun, may give themselves a lot more permission to do so, and we can resent them for it. At the same time, they think their anxious partner can be a stick in the mud. This dynamic can lead to a real stuckness in the relationship.
It’s true, unchecked anxiety can exact a big toll on our ability to have and sustain happy relationships.
Anxiety can get you into and keep you in the wrong relationship, keep you out of the relationship game altogether, or scare you into leaving before you even know who you’re with and what your relationship can evolve into. You can literally lose out on love because of your anxious thoughts. Your anxious habit can lead you to be exhausted by the level of care-taking and managing you feel you need to do in order to be in relationship to the point that any friendship or relationship prospect feels overwhelming and exhausting because you’re used to working too damned hard at it all. You may find or feel exploited without realizing the way you set yourself up to feel that way. Because it’s too hard to say “No,” you may hide out and isolate as a form of self-preservation. I get it. Your current relationships and partner may be burdened by your struggles to calm yourself and deal with your stress, anxiety, and fears. It may feel impossible to quiet your anxious racing thoughts. Yes, it can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be this way forever.
You learned how to be anxious as a way of coping with life back in the day. You may have learned to take care of everyone else around you and sacrifice yourself in the process. That may be what feels right to you. It was a brilliant strategy then, it just sucks big time now. For one thing, it’s no fun. For another, it’s just too much work. The good news is you learned how to be anxious and you can unlearn anxiety. I see people do it every day in my office and in their lives. It’s possible to slide out of Anxiety’s control, embrace and engage in life more freely, rediscover your innate sense of play, and find a new way to flow with everything. That’s what I call Freedom. You can choose more freedom, a little bit at a time, a little bit more every day. With enough support and education, you can unchoose anxiety and choose peace. Now.