For almost my whole life I've been able to say that I know myself pretty well. I am an incredibly self-aware individual (to the point of over-over-over-analyzing and being a rampant perfectionist), and I have always been able to trust my intuition; to rely on myself to know what is true, correct, real, etc. Me and my gut? Best friends.
Until a few years ago.
A few years ago, I graduated from college, and was consequently flung out into the world without any distinct purpose. The possibilities were endless! The world was my oyster! Time to make things happen, right? Nope. Cue my not-so-slow decline into an anxious puddle of goo.
I could go on and on about the topic of my anxiety and how it has affected me. I already have, and I will again. But one specific theme has been cropping up in my life lately that I need to comment on today: I have lost my sense of reality.
I have exited the real world and entered Rachel Land, a mysterious place filled with neurotic beliefs and WebMD pages telling me I'm going to die, where anything that pops into my head is automatically true - especially if it's about how I'm going to never make it anywhere in life, and especially if I think about it hard enough - and all of my worst fears have been confirmed. All of this would be bad enough if it was just a nightmare, but it is my reality. My reality is a nightmare.
Sounds pretty harsh. And it would be, except because it is my reality, I am used to it. It doesn't seem like a nightmare. It seems like...reality. I have sunk into it and accepted it. And this is the most dangerous thing of all, because it means I have become complacent, and I have become unaware that my reality is unrealistic. This means that my life has been a constant worst case scenario and I have had no idea that it could be any other way.
Here's the silver lining, though (because there's always a silver lining): I have come to the realization that I don't have to believe myself.
I recently finished reading You Are Here, by by Thich Nhat Hanh, and in it he talks about one of the questions the Buddha asked his followers: "Are you sure of your perceptions?". I used to think I was, which was perfectly fine when my perceptions were healthy and positive, as they have been for most of my life. But I continued to believe in the the truth of my perceptions even as they began the vicious cycle of tearing me down, and that was where I went wrong.
Are you sure of your perceptions? I have taken that question to heart, and for the past couple of months I've been cultivating a set of questions I ask myself whenever a new, anxiety-spawning situation crops up. I keep telling myself I'm going to start writing them down in my journal to keep track of my progress, but so far I've only taken the time to think through them in my mind, which I'm still going to give myself a gold star for, because baby steps.
Currently, the questions are as follows: What specifically are you scared of? Once I've answered that, I ask myself, What is the worst possible outcome? and then What exactly would happen if that outcome comes to fruition? It's usually at this point, if I'm really taking the exercise seriously, that tiny little threads of relief start to wind their way through my brain canals. Because usually, the what would happen part isn't actually that bad.
The final question I ask myself is, If the worst happens, then what? The answer to this question is a list of solutions, which gives me a sense of control. What I've done is removed the vagueness from my fears and given them a specific name, and once I do that, reality hits, and I realize that I'll probably live to see another day even if those fears come true. It's all about making the abstract concrete, about fact-checking my perception of how a situation is going to play out.
This little process of mine was totally validated a couple of weeks ago when I came across this article on six fear-killing questions to ask yourself when you're scared of failing. Because often, the fear of failing is based off of totally false perceptions, and sometimes it has more to do with our fear of fear than with the fear itself.
This is not a self-help guide. I am the last person qualified to give out any advice, unless the qualifications include knowing how it feels to be so anxious you can't breathe and being paralyzed by fear. This is just a topic that has been coming together in my head for awhile now, and as I've collected these random articles and scraps of information that are so connected to what I'm going through, I've wanted to share them, just in case anyone else ever feels like I do. Also, I don't do this all the time. I have not solved all of my problems. I am still anxious. Hoo baby, am I anxious. But it's a start.
The beauty of realizing that you don't have to believe yourself is that suddenly, a light turns on at the end of the tunnel. If your reality isn't actually reality, that means there is an escape to something better. You can be free. I can be free. And if you understand how I feel, then you know how huge that is. I'm not saying to be delusional and pretend that bad things can't happen. I'm saying that when you have an awful thought, instead of embracing it, take a step back and ask yourself, Am I sure of this perception? Chances are you're not.
I leave you with these perfect, perfect words from Debbie Millman, as discovered multiple times on one of my favorite sites, Brain Pickings (lots of words, I realize, but I'm over soundbites. Sometimes it's okay to have to read more than one sentence):