Years ago, I was working with a bright computer science grad student, “Sheryl”. She really struggled with anxiety and then, when she was anxious, she would get down on herself for feeling that way. Sheryl would beat herself up for struggling and say things to herself, such as “how can I feel so anxious?”, “this sucks!”, and “I hate feeling this way. Why can’t I be “normal”?”.
As we got to better understand her anxiety and the thoughts she would have in response to it, I was really struck that she was having anxiety about having anxiety. Distress about having distress. We looked at how the thoughts/feelings she was having about her anxiety made her feel much worse. She named this anxiety about having anxiety “meta-anxiety”.
I began talking with Sheryl about acceptance. Acceptance is looking at what is and treating it and yourself with kindness. Having open eyes and not focusing on how you want things to be or feel different. I think of the Serenity Prayer, from Alcoholics Anonymous, often when I am trying to explain acceptance: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I started helping this client have more acceptance for herself and her feelings. When she was feeling anxious, she would begin saying, “It’s ok that I’m feeling anxious. It makes sense with all that’s going on right now.” Turning to herself in this manner, with kindness and openness, lowered her distress and helped her anxiety feel more manageable.
When we accept our distress, instead of beating ourselves up for it, we actually feel somewhat better. As Sheryl began treating herself and her anxiety this way, she found the levels lowered as she gave herself space, as well as acceptance and kindness. Sheryl then was more able to use the anxiety management techniques she had gained during her treatment with me.
So, the next time you are struggling with painful feelings, turn with an open eye to what is and treat yourself as you would a friend. Using acceptance and compassion will reduce your distress, and it will give you an opening to figure out how to best help yourself.