Until a year or two ago, I lived my life in fear of doing things wrong or just not good enough so that I would fail at every endeavor. I also worried about being judged negatively by others. This anxiety is a mixture of generalized anxiety (“what if I’m not good enough?”) and social anxiety (“what if I say the wrong thing or don’t say the right thing or do something so ridiculous that others think I’m totally incompetent and inferior). Indeed, there is a strong link between anxiety and perfectionism.
I was recently invited to speak to a creative writing class at a local high school. Despite the fact that I’ve been a high school teacher and counselor, the old me would have been highly anxious, probably to the point of physical illness and great misery.
The very first time I gave a presentation on mental illness and a reading from my novel Leave of Absence, I was so anxious I experienced derealization (the sense that the world around us isn’t quite real, is often flat and colorless and distant) off and on during the two-and-a-half hour drive from my house to the venue. My editor happens to live along the way and invited me (read: ordered me) to her house where she showed me her elaborate garden and served me chamomile tea in order to calm me down. It worked. Sort of. Physically, I felt calmer, but my anxious mind still raced with worry and fear.
That was two years ago. When I spoke to the high school students the other day, I wasn’t anxious. Well, I had a degree of anxiety, but that’s healthy. Some anxiety keeps us alert and on our toes, ready and engaged. I did not experience debilitating anxiety that dominated my experience. So what happened? Why the change from anxious to calm in a very similar situation? The answer is complex, of course, for overcoming anxiety (or any other difficulty be it related to mental health, physical health, relationships, etc.) takes time, effort, and more than one approach. While I’ve used a variety of techniques to transcend anxiety (yes, I have risen above it, but sometimes I fall back down in which case I work to rise up again), I think the most effective approach was to change my perspective from one of looking at things with dread and fear to looking at life with passion and fun.
When I take the focus off myself and put it where it’s supposed to be, I find my anxiety decrease and my effectiveness increase. Ironically, by not worrying about failing, I am more likely to succeed. This focus on purpose and passion rather than on failure and my personal shortcomings has another advantage, one which further reduces anxiety. Finding my passion and holding on to the purpose for doing what I do decreases anxiety and helps me relax, which in turn leads to a sense of fun.
Fun? How can anything possibly be fun in anxiety land? Awhile back, before an interview, I was talking to a former colleague and mentor. He had two wise words of wisdom, and only two: have fun. I scoffed inwardly. Until I tried his advice. I focused on my passion and my purpose rather than the worry, and I enhanced it by thinking of what I was doing as fun. It ended up being easier than I thought, because what I was doing was truly fun.
My new perspective reminded me that I love to write and speak and connect with people, to interact in meaningful ways. To converse and even to laugh. To be passionate rather than anxious, to have fun rather than to take life too seriously. When we replace worry and fear anxiety with a sense of passion, purpose, and fun, anxiety shrinks to make room for fun in whatever it is we’re doing. It seems to be true that what we focus on is what we make happen.