Lately I’ve been paying close attention to my anxiety, and how it influences my life. This is a big shift from my normal relationship with anxiety- feeling it, being annoyed by it and then trying to get away from it… Netflix to distract has worked wonders, and let’s be honest, it still does some days.
But my relationship to anxiety has shifted significantly over the last month. Rather than fleeing it, I’ve started to use it as a guide, and the outcome has been rather profound, to the point that I thought it was worth blogging about.
Before I go too far into the shift, let me back up a bit.
In the counselling world often counsellors talk about “tough clients”, or “heavy clients”. What the counsellor is often referring to is the clients or families that we work with that are harder for us to sit with. All of us counsellors experience this. Reflecting back over the last few years of my practice I think I may have said a 6 month ago that I don’t experience the heaviness like I use to. And I think that this is an accurate statement. I’ve done a lot of work to not feel responsible for things that are not mine to be responsible for and that shift has changed my practice considerably. Since then I’ve noticed I’ve had less anxiety about my work.
Although I was able to make some big shifts in many regards, a month or so ago I noticed a I was still experiencing a pattern of “pre-session anxiety”. For months, maybe years I pushed this anxiety to the side and thought that it was just my “nerves”, whatever that means. Finally I decided to just start to track this anxious process that seemed to show up more before some sessions than other. And it also would show up more before meeting with some clients/parents than others. As I started to track this I started learning a whole lot about it…
Now I could have gone to a place of “othering” — a term I use when we are externally focused, often when we don’t want to look at our part of the pattern/problem, when we don’t want to take responsibility. An example being “I am anxious because the people I am meeting with don’t want to change”, or another classic example “I am anxious because these are difficult clients”.
I think I’ve probably spent years making statements such as those. But going to a place of “other” never gets us very far. If it’s the other person causing the problem it doesn’t give us much to work with to create change.
So I decided to take a different perspective.
What is anxiety telling me? How can I use this anxiety as a guide?
As I tracked this anxious process and turned away from othering, and towards myself I started to notice that it happens before meetings, and before certain conversations. I noticed that this anxiety has a whole lot to do with my worry of not representing myself accurately. I was worrying about “giving up self”.
What’s this giving up “self” thing I speak of???
I’m so glad you asked!
The Bowen Family Systems Theory does a nice job of explaining so I am going to borrow from them.
Families and other social groups tremendously affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to a “groupthink” and groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity… People with a [shakier] “self” depend heavily on the acceptance and approval of others where they might either quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. (https://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/)
What I’ve started noticing is anxiety tends to be an indicator of how much self I am at risk of giving up. It tells me that I am either conforming to another’s way of thinking, or at risk of conforming, dispute my better judgement.
In simpler language my anxiety tells me when I am at risk of not clearly representing myself, or it’s an indication that I am already not representing myself accurately.
An example of this is when anxious parents come to see me and make the request “fix my kid because I can’t”. Clinically I know that the best move is to work with the parents, and support them to support their child. Research strongly suggests this is the way to go even when the child is experiencing significant mental health/substance use problems. And I’ve witnessed the positive outcomes of taking this approach. But when anxiety and fear is up in the parent and I am worried about what they might think of me if I am clear with my positioning, I am more likely to do as per their request rather than lean in to the difficult conversation about what I think will be more helpful in the long run.
Although this is a rather obvious example of how this dilemma comes up, it can present itself in much more passive, minute way too. What I’ve noticed is that by investigating my anxiety, I’ve come to learn just how much “giving up self” I am at risk at.
My new strategy has been to notice the anxiety and then ask myself “how am I at risk of giving up self?” or “how am I giving up self”.
And then I use my anxiety as wisdom to inform how I proceed. One phase I have really started to appreciate is “it’s not if, it’s when and how” in terms of how I represent myself. Often the anxiety is also communicating that I need to be sensitive to something the client or other person is bringing to me. Rather than rushing to state my thinking I also need to be aware of the other’s experience. Sometime it’s just allowing space for the other to speak to their fears, their worry and concern. By validating this and communicating to them that “I get it” I can then bring in my thinking.
I’ve found that by starting to track this anxious process in myself, being curious of it and then using it as wisdom has shifted my narrative that anxiety is “annoying” and it’s also shifted my view on the work I do. It has really freed me up to be more calm, present and clear which I believe is more helpful.
If reading this makes you curious about your own anxious patterns I would encourage you to start to track them.
Rather than pushing the anxiety away, I invite you to ask yourself “what is my anxiety telling me, about me?” and “how can I use this as wisdom to inform how I proceed?”
And if you’d like to chat about it feel free to reach out, I would be happy to support you with learning from your own anxiety.
Written by Kathy Kutzer, MSW, RSW, RCC