This valuable guest post is by Erin Mahone.
As someone living with generalized anxiety disorder and working with clients managing anxiety, I’ve become adept at understanding the difference between fear and anxiety. They feel the same; in truth, anxiety wants us to believe it’s fear. Fear is a reaction to a actual threat. A bear, a mugger, a swarm of bees—these are things that it makes sense for us to fear. Anxiety is the gift of being terrified, not knowing what of, and having it never go away. This nagging sense of dread can make us do ridiculous things if we don’t find adequate tools to keep us from spiraling.
When I began my career, I felt I had a lot to prove. All of my colleagues were very experienced, intelligent, and generally intimidating. I really loved the organization and I wanted to be a valued member of the team.
On the morning of a big meeting that I was facilitating, it felt important for me to look very professional. Most of the time we were a pretty casual office—but on that day I dressed up. I decided on a particularly flattering pair of black slacks and paired them with a chic print blouse. The only problem was my bra options for this particular shirt were limited because they were all lace creating lines under the shirt. The only smooth bra I had was from before I was a mother of two—it didn’t really fit. In a haze of desperation, I put on the old bra, went down to the tool box, pulled out the duct tape, and taped the thing to oblivion. The girls had never felt so supported.
The day wore on and it came time to set up for the meeting. I pulled out all the supplies, loaded them onto a cart, and I also carried a large stack of papers. I got onto the elevator and was met by two of the women in my department. We were chatting when all of a sudden one of them got a strange look on her face and said—in a voice that felt extremely loud—“Do you have duct tape on your boobs?!?”
I look down to see that my shirt had come undone and there they were for all to see. I blushed vigorously, explained that I obviously needed to go bra shopping, all while frantically buttoning my shirt, still holding the stack of papers. My co-worker laughed, “Now that brings new meaning to holding it all together with duct tape.”
I was the butt of many a joke that night but the meeting went very well. The next day a select few dropped by my office to congratulate me on the meeting and to share a light jab about my unfortunate mishap. I find that so much of my life has been spent trying to look like I’ve got it all together and often I do appear that way—but whether literally or figuratively—so often I really am just holding it all together with duct tape.
After sharing this story at a recent presentation someone asked “Didn’t you have a camisole?” I did have a camisole yet my brain was so overcome with anxiety that I was beyond reason. I was blinded by perfectionism. Many years later I discovered what has come to be the central point of my work: Not one person on this earth was born with an instruction manual. Nobody knows what the hell they are doing.
Doctors lose patients, lawyers lose cases, branding experts create atrocities like “Puppy/Monkey/Baby.” In 2016 the smartest people in the room told us that Hillary Clinton would be President, and in 2012 the smartest people in the room told us Mitt Romney would be the President. The most educated, accomplished humans are just showing-up everyday doing the best they can. Sometimes it’s enough and other times it’s not. I could have locked “The Duct Tape Story” in my arsenal of shame and fed the monster in my brain that tells me I’m not good enough. At some point though, I got tired of being afraid that people would find out that I’m not perfect and instead I just came out to bask in the light of my imperfection.
What I learned from that humiliating experience was that I don’t have anything to be anxious about. When that happened the fear that people would “find out” I have flaws was immediately put to rest when I became closer to my colleagues and better respected within my organization. A fact that I managed to hold on to for about 4.5 seconds before the anxiety monster crept back. If I was going to make it as a professional adult, I had to come up with some personal strategies. I also need to take medication, meditate, restrict my diet, and limit caffeine. After 40 years of living in my body and many years of talking about these topics—I am an expert at anxiety. Here are my 4 R’s of Managing Anxiety:
Numbers 1 and 2: Recognizing Resistance
In his book, The War of Art, author Stephen Pressfield writes about resistance. It’s that voice that tells us we can’t have the life we envision for ourselves. Resistance is the thing that tells you all the reasons why it won’t work. No matter how great the outcome may be Resistance will try to make you think you aren’t good enough because change is hard.
In recognizing resistance, tools such as meditation, mindfulness, and writing, are very effective. Instead of constantly fighting Resistance, I began to think of it as a frightened child. When your child is scared you don’t tell them to shut up and go away, nor do you ignore them. You hold them close and remind them that no matter what happens everything is going to be ok.
What if we were as nice to ourselves as we are to everyone else? Self-compassion is essential to my anxiety management. In order to recognize resistance I must be open to the possibility that I have good to offer the world. I have to accept that success is likely and possible.
The other side of Resistance is Inspiration—Pressfield says that inspiration doesn’t just fall from the sky and bang the nearest person on the head. Inspiration is the reward for focus, discipline and showing up everyday. Resistance keeps us from showing up. Resistance tells us that we are being measured by unreasonable and ridiculous expectations. No one cared about my bra that was just resistance trying to shift my focus and help me find the reasons to believe I wasn’t good enough.
The third R of Managing Anxiety is: Relationships
It’s really very simple. You are not alone in this world. Stop acting like you are. Anyone living with anxiety knows that it can be difficult to ask for help because that voice tells us we should be able to do everything on our own. In many cases we cause unneeded stress and isolation when that message is internalized. The relationships you build in your life are an important indicator of your success. Be reliable, trustworthy, and hard-working—but it’s just as valuable to let people see you are vulnerable and give them the opportunity to help, support, and encourage your vision. This is a wonderful gift not only to you, because you get help – but also to those people you ask for support. Building a rich and meaningful life requires other people. You can’t do it all alone. Why try?
Finally, the fourth R of Managing Anxiety is: Re-Commit
Think back to the moment when you felt the spark of excitement, knowing what you wanted to become. Was it to have a family, start a business, be an innovator, creator, or change-agent? It probably wasn’t to be stressed, miserable, and overwhelmed everyday. Are you acting on that spark or are you allowing anxiety to get in the way?
In truth, the static that pulls focus from the spark is often the perceived expectations of the other people in our lives: mothers, significant others, children, friends, colleagues, or people on social media we don’t even know. We get so bogged down in the “shoulds” that we allow our spark to be dimmed. This step reminds us that the “shoulds” are not what we set-out to do. In Re-committing, we let go of all the things we can’t control—which is, everything on earth except how we show up everyday.
We all possess the ability to learn new skills, ask for help, and to survive failure, defeat, and humiliation. The next time you are so overwhelmed to prove yourself that you think the only solution is to duct-tape your boobs inside your bra find a quiet spot to: Recognize Resistance, lean on your Relationships, and Re-Commit to the light that you want to shine on the world.
Erin Mahone is an author, performing artist, activist, mental health professional, coach and workshop facilitator. She is the creator of #IfYouCouldSeeMe: Stories for Change, a multi-media project designed to eliminate mental health stigma and build more compassionate communities; the ReStory workshop series; the one-woman shows It Runs in the Family and Shark Woman Meditates (opening early 2019), and author of the book If You Could See Me: Life, Motherhood and the Pursuit of Sanity.
For more information and to be a part of the If You Could See Me Movement, please visit https://www.ifyoucouldseeme.com