We all have a running story in our heads about who we are. Some are full of adventure and plot twists that have us dodging bullets and taking names later. Some are more mundane, full of the quotidian details of a life well lived. Either way, over time our story becomes our reality. What we believe is what we become.
For many of us, years of anxiety and fear have shaped realities that are limiting and even painful. We learn early in life that the world is full of people and events that we cannot control, so we come up with ways to get our basic needs of connection, autonomy, and safety fulfilled. We may try to please everyone or rationalize and control. We may be fixated on achievement or preparation for worst case scenarios. We may throw up our hands and eschew all responsibility for the bad things in our lives. These are excellent, short-term survival tactics, and our young brains rely on them. Unfortunately, what might have worked for us as children has evolved into a set of mental habits that keep us from moving forward.
But we can change our story if we are willing to challenge our beliefs and revise the habits of mind that keep us stuck.
Thwarting anxiety and surfing the wave
In my practice as a coach, anxiety is one of the key barriers to my clients’ ability to experience joy, make plans, forge healthy relationships, and find “happiness,” however that is defined. In probing further into a client’s desire to “be happy,” we discover a treasure trove of limiting beliefs. Resistance to uncomfortable feelings is the root cause of limiting beliefs, so the first step is to unlearn the tactics we have honed over time to defend ourselves against emotions and thoughts that we find threatening.
Step 1: Noticing
When something happens that challenges our story of who we are and what we are capable of, our minds and bodies react to reinforce the story. For instance, you might want to try something new—perhaps applying for a new job or going on a first date. Your story might be that you will fail.
Notice what happens in your body:
- Your stomach tightens.
- Your heart beats faster.
- Your breathing becomes shallow.
Notice the thoughts that follow:
- Maybe your thoughts take you to a memory of a failure that was particularly embarrassing or costly.
- Maybe you spend a lot of time preparing for disaster to stave off disappointment or sorrow.
- Maybe you decide to lie about having other commitments or not feeling well to keep from being judged.
Too often, our life scripts tell us to avoid any chance of failure; the cost is too great. Seems logical. Who wants to be embarrassed or rejected? There’s just one problem with this line of thinking: it doesn’t work. Instead of finding peace, we enter a vortex of negativity that leads us away from the things we care about most.
Noticing and accepting our unhelpful thoughts and emotions is the first step toward changing our story. It’s helpful to remember that emotions are just data. For instance, fear can alert us to danger, but no emotion lasts forever. We can think of our feelings simply as waves we can surf. They need not drown us.
When we can pay attention to our emotions without being hijacked by them, we can choose to move toward the thing that scares us anyway. We only get to the good stuff when we can allow ourselves to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And, yes, this takes practice.
Step 2: Acknowledging your limiting beliefs
- What is your story right now?
- I am not good/pretty/smart enough.
- I can’t get my hopes up; they will just be dashed.
- Nothing ever goes my way.
- My work must be perfect.
- I can’t let anyone else take the lead; they will screw it up.
There are infinite permutations of these kinds of beliefs that keep us from reaching beyond our fears.
Step 3. Reframing
What if you allowed yourself to acknowledge the possibility that you are more than enough, that you can handle disappointment, that you often succeed? Reframing begins with reassessing a perceived weakness as a strength. Your empathy doesn’t make you a sucker; it’s a superpower. Your optimism is not an invitation to disappointment; it’s an engine for progress. Recasting as a gift or opportunity an experience where you failed can help you realize what you might do differently next time.
We Can Change Our Story
How do we pivot from feeding the vortex of our emotions and limiting beliefs about what’s possible? It begins with awareness of what we are feeding the vortex and a commitment to action. Even small changes can interrupt the feeling of being stuck. Armed with a sense of purpose and great emotional awareness, we can be more grounded, centered, flexible, focused, present, and intuitive. Life challenges, disappointments, and uncertainty are all gifts that teach us what we are capable of, if only we are willing to open ourselves, little by little, to what scares us. We can’t be resilient and grow without distress — when we see challenges as the catalyst for change, we are less likely to want to snuff out that flame.
Tips for Calming Anxiety and Rewriting Your Story
- Keep your focus on the present
- Prioritize what’s important to you
- Lean into your strengths
- Be curious
- Be grateful
- Set and enforce boundaries
- Prioritize joy
Reference: To learn more about how to pivot to committed actions, see Dr. Steven C. Hayes’ A Liberated Mind: The Essential Guide to ACT