One of the most common experiences that leads people to seek therapy is anxiety. Which makes sense. Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling you’re having, maybe along with worries you can’t shake, so why not look for help from someone whose job it is to understand anxiety and to know what to do about it?
I treat a lot of different presentations of anxiety, and one of the first conversations I have with a client on this topic will be:
What’s the goal of our work on anxiety?
This might sound like an unnecessary question. Isn’t the obvious answer, to get rid of the anxiety?
Addressing that question, and clarifying the goals of anxiety work in therapy, suggests a first question:
What is anxiety for? Why does it exists in the human experience?
Anxiety isn’t a mistake or a dysfunction; it serves a purpose. Anxiety is there, built in to our system, to warn of us impending danger, and to feel uncomfortable enough to make us take some action to make the danger go away before the feeling of anxiety withdraws. And when I say “danger,” this could be physical danger or emotional danger. Sometimes the perceived threat is about a concrete event happening; sometimes it’s about a relational situation that feels frightening to experience. That second type can sometimes take a little reflections to sniff out.
Now: since anxiety is a built-in survival mechanism, we wouldn’t be trying to make it so that you never feel anxiety again. That’s too high a bar, and also it would rob you of a crucial survival tool. Let me suggest more feasible and healthy goals for anxiety work:
Let’s make it so that when you feel anxiety:
You can identify the reason you’re feeling anxious; and
The amount of anxiety you feel is proportional to what’s actually going on.
If you can get to that point, then you don’t have to add the worry that when you feel anxious it means that there’s something wrong with you. Because a lot of the time, it doesn’t.
“I texted her forty minutes ago. Why is she ignoring me?”
“Something is seriously wrong with this friendship. I sent that email two days ago, and no response.”
Isn’t Internet communication great? You can click a button, and the other person gets your message — whether it be a few sentences, one emoji, or several pages — right away. And when the other person replies, we get their response immediately. Speak, answer, speak answer — it’s just like having a face-to-face conversation.
Except, it’s not.
If you were having an in-person talk with a friend, and your friend just stopped responding all of a sudden and sat there in silence looking at you, you’d have a pretty good clue that something significant had happened with the conversation, or maybe with your friend’s attention or even health. But in a text exchange, email thread or chat window, we can’t see what’s happening with and around the other person. We don’t know what’s unfolding in their lives that minute, that hour, that day, that might get in the way of an immediate response. They might have a family crisis, or an important report to finish, or they might have been in an all-day meeting. They might be separated from any online access. There’s no way for us to know for sure.
Online messages can sometimes offer us an immediate response. Be careful of expecting one.
There’s another element in play in the timing of online interactions. Answer this for me: How long is a reasonable amount of time in which to answer a text? An email? A friend request?
Someone else will have different opinions about reasonable response times.
You feel that the other person has taken too long, so there must be something wrong. And it’s possible that there is. But they might merely have a different sense of how much time can reasonably pass before a reply.
Try holding off on assuming that you’re being snubbed, or that there’s a crisis, because you’re still waiting for a reply, even if it seems too long for you. It will reduce the anxiety or outrage.
“I can’t believe I did that. I’m a screw-up. How can I ever be proud of myself again?”
I know how much it can hurt when we look back and realize that we’ve made a mistake — particularly a large one. And a painful truth is: No one (at least so far) ever gets access to a time machine. So we don’t get the chance to go back and fix mistakes in the past. How, then, do we live in a world where we did that ill-advised thing, and that we can’t change that it happened?
But here’s the thing:
People get to be fallible.
Because no one has the option to be infallible.
What follows from this is that everyone is going to make mistakes. Pretty frequently, in fact. That can be a hard thing to face, especially if you’ve been given messages from others, maybe parents or influential adults when you were young, that making mistakes is not OK. The problem with this message is that if the expectation is that you’ll never mess up, no one can meet that standard.
The task is not to make it so that we never make consequential mistakes. The task is to make it so that when we inevitably make mistakes, we can live with the fact that we did something imperfectly, badly or unwisely.
Let me make a distinction here — between character and behavior. Character is who you are; behavior is what you do.
I’m going to suggest that when we make a decision, take an action, that turns out to be a mistake, that’s about Behavior — something that we did. And so when that happens, feeling some Regret makes sense. We all have regrets about past decisions and actions that turned out not to be such a great idea. I know I do. But since regrets are about past Behavior, there’s always the opportunity to change behaviors in the future. We can’t go back and change the past, and sometimes we make messes that we then have to clean up — but we can always act differently in the future, informed by what we learned from the mistake.
When we think that mistakes are about flaws in our essential Character, that feeling is Shame. The danger here is hopelessness, because it feels like our character can’t be changed.
So let’s take the approach that mistakes are about Regret, not Shame. Mistakes we make — even the big ones — don’t define our character. They’re about actions and decisions that we’ve made in the past, and in no way determine future actions and decisions.
Accepting our regrets, learning from them, improving our decisions over time — that’s a pretty good way to live.
Also, I’m noticing an increase in folks who are interested in my online counseling and therapy offerings. If you’ve never heard of such a thing — or think it might serve you well — by all means, take a gander.
Let me share with you something that happened to me that helps illustrate the way in which “connectedness” in social networking can lie in the eye of the beholder.
About ten years ago, I was working at the same place as “Diane,” and she became a short-term friendly acquaintance. Since that project ended, I hadn’t seen or talked to her for all of those years, though through community connections her name would be mentioned from time to time. And she was a “friend” of dozens of my friends on Facebook.
So about a year ago, when I received a Facebook friend request from Diane, I thought, “Well. I’m surprised that she remembered me from our brief conversations years ago. But, nice.” I accepted the friend request. Diane is a fairly consistent poster on Facebook, so I have been kept fairly well informed about events in her professional and family lives, but in this case the “friending” did not lead to actual person-to-person communication. We were just in each other’s networks.
A few weeks ago, I spotted Diane at a public event, caught her eye and greeted her. She looked quizzically at me, gave me an uncertain half-smile, and asked to be reminded of my name and how we knew each other. I refreshed her memory and thought, “This is odd. You’re the one who sent me a friend request!” The rest of our brief exchange was friendly enough, but it left me thinking.
So what happened here?
It looks like Diane and I each had different perceptions of what a “friend” means on Facebook. It’s possible (without presuming to know what she actually thinks) that Diane has adopted the philosophy of “friends” as encompassing anyone in your larger network (i.e. many friends in common), or anyone you’ve ever had an association with, or some other highly-inclusive model that led her to send a friend request to someone of whom she had a vague (or no) memory. My own approach seems different, and has led to a different policy on Facebook friending than Diane has. (Also worth noting in this story is that after I confirmed her friend request, neither one of us sent the email of greeting and catch-up that often happens when Facebook brings us together with someone from our past. What protocol do you follow when you connect with someone from your past?)
It’s not that one of us is right, and the other wrong. It’s just that Diane and I have developed different definitions of what it means to be a Facebook “friend,” leading to different online social behavior.
What’s yours? Has it led to confusion when someone else in (or out of) your social network takes a different approach?
I spoke on the panel “Logging Off: Are Online Games Addictive?” at the San Francisco International Film Festival. As it turned out, the group conversation served a dual purpose. It was an adjunct to a screening of the film Life 2.0, which portrays various inhabitants of Second Life, but it also opened up a larger conversation about online experiences, the nature of addiction, and when and how we might decide that our online behavior is “a problem.”
I’ll be appearing on a panel at the San Francisco International Film Festival entitled “Logging Off: Is Online Gaming Addictive?” as an adjunct to their screening of a documentary about Second Life entitled Life 2.0:
Sunday, May 2
Film: 1:00 pm
Panel: 3:00 pm
Sundance Kabuki Cinema
1881 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Tickets to the panel are free, but require a reservation. Stop by and join the conversation!
A recent study by two psychologists from the University of Amsterdam looks at the evolution of online discourse amongst teenagers over the last couple of decades. As they delve into how the saturation of Internet access and the emergence of online social networks has encouraged teens to add an online element to their existing face-to-face relationships, they discuss the nature of these interactions: