Have you ever noticed that anxiety seems to have a life of its own?
When I’m anxious I have a sense of a storm growing inside me. My thoughts run away from me, creating a doomsday scenario of ferocious winds whipping up dark clouds and heavy seas into a fearsome storm.
Over the years, what I’ve found most helpful is to develop self-awareness. In other words, to both pay attention to, and detach from, what’s going inside my head.
When anxiety creeps in, I try to step back and remember that most of my anxiety is based in fear of the unknown. Generally, I find that I’m convincing myself that a particular situation I’m facing will end in the worst possible way.
Once I recognize that, I can then take a few moments to ground myself in the here and now, starting with taking a few breaths and noticing all the tangible things around me. Then I can remind myself that I don’t know the end of the story. And that generally works.
Except when it doesn’t. Turns out, there’s more to the energy of anxiety than what we experience as individuals.
For example, when I was a pastor, I noticed that I often came home from church meetings feeling on edge – even when I had gone into that meeting feeling calm and optimistic; even when I didn’t have any personal stake in the decisions on the agenda. There just seemed to be times when my frame of mind going into the meeting didn’t matter – I could still come away feeling anxious.
As I said earlier, I knew very well that anxiety is often activated when we are concerned about the outcome of a future event. Anxiety becomes a beast that’s fed by the stories of failure, loss, defeat, and every doomsday scenario we can think of. So, I understood why I was anxious when I was heavily invested in outcomes. But why was I anxious about outcomes that weren’t so important to me?
Then one day I learned (sadly, I can’t remember where) that while we tend to focus only on the anxiety that we might experience personally, anxiety can also be experienced as a group. In fact, it can behave as a discrete force that can travel from one person to another, generally lodging in either the most vulnerable person or in the leader.
Bingo! I was the leader.
With that awareness, when I met with committees or the governing board, I began to shift my focus from my investment in outcomes so that I was free to observe what was going on in the room. This was not always an easy thing to do.
But, to my surprise I discovered that curiosity was my best tool for keeping my attention to what was happening in the group in that moment. The first time I tried this an astounding thing happened.
First, I noticed that as the committee tried to make a difficult decision, there were some tense exchanges between members, and I began to feel jittery. As I observed my own reaction, I noticed nervous energy starting in my feet and moving upward. And because I was aware enough to notice it, I could stop it. I simply decided not to accept it – and it worked!
Second, I observed others in the group. And sure enough, the anxiety seemed to travel between people. As that happened, I also observed an impulse in myself to jump in and smooth things over.
Once again, I caught myself. I resisted the urge to bring down the temperature by offering a solution. Instead, I only shared what I was observing and hearing and then trusted them to come to their own conclusions.
When I left the meeting that night, I left all the anxious energy in the room.
Many years earlier I had been trained in family systems theory for clergy, based on Bowen Theory and Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s extensive work on becoming a non-anxious presence. This is brilliant, I thought. I’ll just be a non-anxious presence, and all will be well.
But setting the intention to be a non-anxious presence and truly becoming that non-anxious presence are two different things.
The night of that meeting, curiosity was what allowed me to maintain the healthy distance I needed to stay in my role as leader/facilitator rather than get drawn into arguments. And it helped me to make space for the conflict that needed to be expressed and that ultimately led to a creative solution to the problem in question.