Anxiety & Relationship Problems

As you may know, I’ve been where you’re at, beset by anxiety and panic. So I know what it’s like to see things differently. Everyone else lives as if there’s nothing to fear. But we see cause for worry. Are we crazy? Or is everyone else blind?

Why do people who suffer anxiety experience the world differently? It’s the same world. But we don’t see what everyone else sees. Why not?

The truth is that our experience of life is not function of what we’re looking at; it’s a function of how we see it. In other words, it’s a matter of perspective. Just as glasses change how you see things, your “emotional lens” changes how you experience the world.

This is true in real-time and in retrospect. Allow me to explain.

A man lands at JFK Airport, departs the plane, and enters the bathroom in the terminal. He’s at the sink washing his hands when he looks in the mirror and sees a women walking by. He thinks to himself, “OMG. Poor woman. She’s delirious, confused. How embarrassing. What should I do? Should I tell her she’s in the wrong bathroom?” But just as his heart was pouring out for this confused woman he noticed in the mirror two more women. “OMG,” he thinks, “It’s me that’s in the wrong bathroom.”

(That’s a true story, by the way. It happened to a friend of mine.)

Your perspective determines your interpretation. What you see is NOT what you get. How you see is what you get. Change how you see and you change your entire life experience.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that in the story above, when my friend’s perspective changed, it not only changed the way he saw himself and the woman in real-time, it also changed his interpretation of the past. In other words, moments before the two other women walked in, he was sane and the first woman was crazy. But after the two women walked in, he realized he had been wrong and the first woman was fine the whole time.

Imagine this: An elderly woman, who, after believing that she was happily married for 60 years, is told on her deathbed that her recently deceased husband never loved her. He, in fact, was a paid escort hired by her parents.

For 60 years the woman was happily married. But in the last few moments of her life, her interpretation of those 60 years did a complete 180. On her death bed, this woman would be able to remember laughing and smiling at birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and on vacations. But her feelings about those “happy” occasions would have been sour.

Contrary to popular belief, the past can be changed. Your brain can recreate what occurred. Change your perspective and you transform your entire life, the past, the present, and the future.

Changing your perspective is sometimes called reframing. And a good place to start reframing is with you.

Too many adults have low self esteem or other emotional baggage caused by childhood trauma, abandonment, control, or abuse. But as we discussed above, properly reframing your past can undo damage that’s haunted you for years.

When you’re flooded with anxiety, it’s likely that your perspective is negative or pessimistic. For example, if you have a social phobia, it might be because you think everyone is watching you. If you’re glossophobic (fear of public speaking), it might be because you think everyone can see your butterflies. I could cite hundreds of examples, but in many cases anxiety is triggered or made worse by negative or pessimistic thinking. The solution is reframing.

In addition to reframing how we think about ourselves, it’s also important to reframe how we think about others. People ridden with anxiety often struggle in their relationships, partly because they don’t give people the benefit of the doubt. For instance, if someone makes an inconsiderate remark, I can take it personally and seek revenge or I can reframe (“they don’t realize how sensitive I am about that” or “maybe he had a bad day at work”).

Giving people the benefit of the doubt is an acknowledgment that you can’t possibly have all the facts. You never know what someone is thinking or feeling. You never know what just happened to them. You never know how they are framing their situation with you.

Burt Reynolds, the Hollywood actor, was once sitting in a bar drinking a beer. A broad-shouldered fellow two stools away started harassing people nearby. Reynolds told the guy to watch his language. The man started to unload on Reynolds. In an interview years later Reynolds recounted:

“I remember looking down and planting my right foot on the brass rail for leverage and then I came around and caught him with a tremendous right on the side of his head. The punch made a ghastly sound as he just flew off the stool and landed on his back in the doorway, about 15 feet away. And it was while he was in mid-air that I saw… (this man) had no legs.”

Looking but not seeing is more common than we like to admit. We usually don’t have all the facts. We see only what we’re looking for. We’re experts at finding fault in others, and we’re rarely disappointed.

Why so cynical?

Why so pessimistic?

I’ll tell you why.

Because we’re comforted to know that compared to others we’re not so bad. It’s hard to lift our stature; it’s easier to bring others down. But thinking disparagingly of others cultivates an undercurrent of disrespect and lowers the bar of acceptable behavior in our homes.

There are, of course, times when we need to be critical, especially to protect ourselves and others from danger. But even in this case, our objective should be our welfare not the condemnation of others. And if you have to say something negative, you should view it as an unpleasant but necessary measure. It should not be a habit.

I know this might sound Pollyannaish, but I believe that relationships are made or broken based on at least one person’s ability to give the other the benefit of the doubt. I believe that everyone has the capacity to be more optimistic, to find ways—however creative they might be—to look for the best in every person and in every situation. Doing so will enrich your life and your relationships, and bring your anxiety level way down.

 

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