A COUNSELOR'S THOUGHTS ABOUT LETTING GO
I'm a counselor in Plano, Tx. I am a mom, a wife, and a friend who is living through a global pandemic AND I am helping others.
I have this unique perspective as a therapist to be experiencing this global trauma, and a first responder, helping people move through it with more ease.
And, what I notice is that the things that have helped me and my clients thrive during Covid-19, require that I’m letting go of other things and other ideas.
In order to immerse myself in stillness and quiet, I have to let go of the idea that I must constantly be productive. Stillness and productivity are both good and are both values of mine. Choosing between the two in any given moment, or deciding how much stillness I should allow, is where anxiety really begins to creep in.
Also, in order to pursue any value, I have to have boundaries to protect that pursuit. Pursuing stillness requires saying no to cleaning the house or registering the kids for school in that moment of stillness. Unfortunately, pursuing that boundary brings a whole extra layer of anxiety. “Does meditating on my porch while there are dirty dishes in the sink make me look lazy?” “Does doing yoga while my kids aren’t registered for school make me a bad parent?”
As a therapist who counsels people with anxiety and eating disorders, I love talking with clients about the idea that anxiety is a natural response to choosing one value over another. Anxiety is natural when choosing your mental health over helping others. I love helping clients see that exercising boundaries is an act of declaring what they don’t want, in order to make space for what they do want.
In other words, saying no to one thing (a favor they don’t want to do, a relationship that isn’t working for them, or an apartment that isn’t even close to what they were looking for) is intimately connected to saying yes to other possibilities. When anxiety is seen as a hurdle and not an impenetrable brick wall, clients get to discover that they can view anxiety (when managed properly) as a necessary tool to making the next right decision and not an excuse to shut down.
I bring this up because one of the misconceptions I see in sessions is the idea that treatment for anxiety is all about absence.
“I don’t want to be worried.”
“I want to stop obsessing.”
“I want to get rid of my stress.”
Some therapists call these “robot goals” because they’re about not feeling. But in reality, managing anxiety isn’t about making it go away.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts about emotions and binge eating, trying to change, suppress, or numb our emotions can actually do more harm than good. Emotions (yes, even anxiety) serve an important purpose.
Ironically, it’s our thoughts, judgments, and reactions to our feelings that get in our way the most. It’s not the anxiety itself that gets in the way of our goals. It’s the added layers of thoughts like, “Why am I being so neurotic?!” or some of the actions we take to numb the anxiety, like drinking in excess.
Anxiety and Personal Values
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of the activism surrounding George Floyd. When I look at my role as an ally, and when I support clients who are doing the same, I notice the anxiety around saying the wrong thing and offending someone. I notice the anxiety about not doing enough. And then I notice the thoughts that accompany that anxiety. They look something like this:
“So why bother? You’ll just make things worse, and even if you don’t, it won’t make much of a difference anyway.”
This is a perfect example of how anxiety gets in the way only when we listen to its “translations.” There are two values at play here: (1) I want to help and support, and (2) I don’t want to offend or come across as ignorant. Both of these are good values and not necessarily incompatible. Having to choose creates anxiety and makes us want to just shut down and do nothing.
But anxiety is exactly what is normal and even needed in these situations. If we look purely at the sensation of anxiety, we might see things like increased heart rate, tense shoulders, and racing thoughts. And although it might not be comfortable, we can actually work with that! When we can get okay with the physical, we can focus on why mentally we are struggling with choosing among our values.
In fact, many clients come to understand that anxiety can be motivating to some extent. To use the example I gave above, my anxiety about saying the wrong thing has motivated me to educate myself more about racism and what I can do about it. Once I can move beyond the haze of anxiety, I can see clearly the possibility that help the cause and not offend at the same time.
Now then, what do we do with that pesky second layer of the feelings about our feelings? For example, when I still have a thought that what I’m doing is not enough, how do I respond to that?
This is what makes anxiety so convincing and so distressing at the same time. It appears to be helping us approach our values, but some part of us knows that it is keeping us back from an even more important value we hold.
Given that anxiety crops up when we are forced to make a choice between values, it makes sense that one of the common symptoms is indecisiveness. This makes our path forward both easier and more difficult. When a client is choosing between her value of being social and her value of setting boundaries and taking time for herself, there’s no “wrong” answer. But that also means that whichever course she chooses, anxiety might chime in to tell her she should have gone with the other path.
This is why in therapy for anxiety, I talk with clients about the idea of “both/and.” For example, one theme I’ve encountered recently is clients feeling guilty engaging in calming activities like meditation or reading a lighthearted novel when they feel they haven’t done enough for social justice.
I help them understand that their values are not competing. These values actually complement one another. One doesn’t have to choose between contributing to a cause OR taking time for self-care! In fact, paradoxically, choosing self-care allows most people to have greater impact when they do show up to fight for what they believe in.
The Hard Work of Managing Anxiety
So, clients ask, “When will I stop feeling anxious choosing what to do and making space for that choice?” The answer is they won’t, but it’s not the right question. The right question is “What do I need to do to manage anxiety so I can make the next decision?”
Answer: It takes work.
This reminds me of the attitude behind hashtags like #nofilter” and #Iwokeuplikethis. While the intention behind these tropes might be to celebrate our raw beauty, what ends up coming across is that spending time and effort on our appearance is something to be ashamed of. I think this extends to mental health too.
I mentioned in my last post that friends have remarked on how I’m “thriving” in the pandemic. I now realize how much intention and effort it takes to maintain my resilience and gratitude. And truly, my hope with this post is to celebrate this! I certainly did not wake up like this. To me, the “extra” activities and boundaries I put into place in order to thrive are a reminder that I am not complacent.
In the words of Cheryl Strayed, “If the words love, light, acceptance and forgiveness are written on one side of the coin you’ve earned by creating the beautiful life you have [. . .] on the other side of that coin there is written the word no.”
To me, this idea applies to managing anxiety in a similar way that it applies to fighting for social justice. We can't depend on something we don’t like to just disappear. We have to be the change we want to see in the world. And oddly enough, the tricky part is keeping it going when it’s actually working.
The thing is, when we take away what we’ve added, we also add back what we’ve let go of. So here’s to being “extra.” Here’s to “high maintenance” goals. Here’s to scheduling free time. When there’s too much on your plate, sometimes the solution is to add something else.
If you want help with overcoming anxiety, I’d love to work with you! I OFFER VIDEO COUNSELING FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE!! If you’re looking for counseling in Plano, Texas contact me here or at 469-850-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include anxiety, depression, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, and body image issues. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.