I've been living with anxiety for as long as I can remember, so I've naturally just assumed that I am an anxious person. Certainly, there is the neurochemical element that can't be ignored. But during last night's (or was it this morning's?) bout with insomnia, I decided to use the time to take a deeper look at my assumptions using some techniques from narrative psychology.
What I discovered is that I am not always anxious. This isn't my natural state. (OK, obviously, as a Buddhist, that should just be a given, but when I am experiencing anxiety, it feels as though it IS my natural state.)
It turns out that I only experience anxiety in situations where I feel as though I have no control. I've long known that I have control issues, that I need to be better than, smarter than, more prepared than anyone else to feel as though I am in control of every situation. It made me a good student, a good athlete, a good employee, and a good trainer. And it has made me miserable.
Just yesterday I told someone else that control is an illusion, that we never really have control over anything. And I know this is true. But I have a subpersonality who doesn't know that, who needs to be in control at all times, and when he isn't, he triggers anxiety to let me know that he feels out of control.
I had never really considered my anxiety the result of a subpersonality, but it makes sense. Subpersonalities develop mostly when we are young children as a way to help us cope with difficult situations or traumas. I think that some subpersonalities can also develop as introjections of parental traits. In my case, I had a very anxious mother who was also often distant when she wasn't smothering me. I likely internalized her anxiety as a coping mechanism for her absence, especially after my sister came into our lives and I was no longer the "chosen one."
Certainly, too, my father's unpredictable behavior and general absence (and then his death) created in me a need to try to control everything so that when he was present, I could know what to expect (as much as that is ever possible). When he died (I was thirteen), I did have to control everything because my mother couldn't do anything (literally). So I learned even more that being in control was the only to save what was left of my family, to keep myself fed and housed, and to ever get out of that unbearable situation. Thirteen is way too young for a boy to be running a family.
This need to control is a common strategy in children who are seriously abused. They learn to control their environment and predict the abuser's behavior as much as they can to limit the abuse. These children grow up with a need to control everything in their lives, and when they can't, they get anxious, they panic, or they become depressed (or all of the above).
But the crucial thing to recognize (and here I am talking to myself as much as anything) is that this need to control is not who we really are at our core. We are so much bigger than that. It's a coping strategy, a subpersonality that gets triggered and takes over whenever we feel we are out of control, or that events are out of our control.
For me, of late, it has been that I am in a situation where I cannot control the outcome -- and I am very attached to the outcome. I've tried working with the attachment in various ways, but love is a powerful motivator.
So my new approach is try to work with this "new" subpersonality that so much needs to be in control. The times in my life when I overcame my most serious anxiety attacks (all of which revolve around loss -- my father, my mother and sister, and various relationships), should be very instructive in how to work with the present situation.
And, as a faithful reader suggested to me this morning (thanks!), I am going to do more breath work when I am unable to sleep rather than just feeling frustrated and even more anxious because I can't sleep.
I don't know if any of this will work, and in some ways I am giving in to my Control Freak in even trying to control this situation. My last therapist used to always get on my case about having to "try" all the time instead of just letting things be. She was concerned that my Pusher subpersonality was always making me "do" instead of just allowing myself to "be."
Still, right now it seems that the only way to appease the Control Freak is to find a way to meet its needs. We'll see how well that works.