I'm anxious about my anxiety

I'd like to take it easy but I can't

Published February 3, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Basically, I'm an anxious person. Not about everyday stuff and not about other people's stuff, but about relationships and things I truly care about. Most of my friends don't realize this because I'm outgoing and laid back and open-minded. But then again I've always held friends at somewhat of a distance (not a great one, but I rarely cry to them) and am instead the closest with my family and fiancé. They know how I am, particularly my fiancé.

Which brings me to my problem. My fiancé and I have been together for over six years and we just got engaged. I love him with every ounce of my being and our relationship is sincere and stable. I'm lucky to be with him, which is why I get so mad at myself when my anxiety creeps in and starts fights between us. For example, my fiancé and I have different privacy boundaries, which is to say that I have none and he has some. He likes some privacy when surfing the Web, checking email and sometimes talking/texting on the phone. To make things clear: He's not being sneaky. If I ask him what's up, who is he talking to, he tells me without hesitation, and I believe him. And I try not to ask!

It's just that when I'm having a particularly anxious day (for reasons that I'm not always aware of, usually exhaustion), I key onto things like, "Oh, he just snapped the computer shut when I walked by" and cannot let it go. An "argument" ensues, in which I ask him why he just did that, he says it's for no reason, that's just how he is and he didn't want to make me feel uncomfortable, and can't I just trust that he's telling me the truth? He knows his desire for privacy can sometimes make me uncomfortable, and he has made fair compromises to help put me at ease. He's even asked if I want to look at his email, but I said no because I hate that idea. I am not the police, nor am I his mother. I trust him, so it's not that, but rather, in the specific moment, I'm convinced that some colossal problem is here to rip our home apart, and I cry and cry, and then, after much talking, realize that there is no colossal thing here to rip our home apart, I'm just spiraling and he's just being himself and everything is really OK.

I've seen a counselor about this. She suggested that when I start to panic I try shelving the anxiety for a moment and see the emotion underneath. I told her the emotion underneath is anxiety and asked her what that might mean. She suggested, given my childhood (it's always the childhood ... sigh), that I might be reacting to a fear of being left alone. Which makes sense to me.

My mother, who is also my friend, had her hands full with my trouble-prone younger brother from Day One of his birth, and there are many times when I was (unintentionally) ignored because my parents only had so much energy and that energy was best spent on keeping the crazy child from accidentally killing himself. In order to get some attention, I developed a great knack for overachieving. This has served me well in almost every regard. I'm working on the ways in which it hasn't served me well, namely that I often overachieve to earn love I'd really like to (and can) have without working so hard.

I know I don't have to work so hard. I know my life is good! I have wonderful, appropriately conditional love from my friends, amazing unconditional love from my mother and my father, and a healthy combination of both from my fiancé. It just makes me so anxious to think my anxiety could mess that last one up.

Thanks for any insights or advice you might have.

Anxiety Girl

Dear Anxiety Girl,

It sounds like your therapist was on to something.

If you are still seeing her, ask her to take you through this anxiety business again. Tell her you wish to spend some more time exploring what's behind your anxiety. You were probably on the right track. It might take more than one try. It may take some camping out around the idea but eventually something will emerge.

I mean, I can relate to what you said to her -- What's underneath my anxiety? More anxiety!

Of course! That's what it feels like. But if you keep looking, and enlist her help in focusing you on what precedes the anxiety, I predict that something will emerge; something will become clear to you; you will sense a connection and that will be a starting point to eliminating much of your anxiety.

The key point is that anxiety is not a feeling but something we do to ward off feelings. That's how my therapist put it to me, anyway, if I understood him correctly: Anxiety is a strategy we use to avoid feeling things.

That's why seeing what's behind it can make it go away. Once you see what's behind it, you no longer need it. You go, Oh, it's just that! And let me reassure you, whatever feelings or memories there may be behind your anxiety, they can't hurt you today. They're just feelings and memories from the past that got misplaced in the present.

So that's my general take on anxiety. I'm not saying you can fix it overnight. It's a matter of retraining yourself, and learning, and like any learning it can take time. But you can definitely change.

As to your fiancé and his need for privacy, it could be that he just wants his privacy. It's also possible that from time to time he is looking at things on his computer that he would be ashamed of, or that he would not want you to see. Also, if he has noticed your tendency to become anxious, he may be trying not to alarm you. Of course, as with our anxiety responses, this doesn't ultimately really help. It just makes things more confusing.

Sometimes, if you are reading or looking at the computer, you are just in your world and you do not want to share. I can sympathize with your boyfriend. On the other hand, he may be looking at porn and be trying to hide it. Ask him. It would be good to know. Just raise the issue and see what he says. It might clear the air and save some guessing and confusion.

But your anxiety is the main thing. I think if you continue to work with your therapist you will discover what is happening in that moment before you become anxious. It may surprise you. In fact, if you're doing it right, it will definitely surprise you.

By Cary Tennis

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