If you’ve experienced anxiety, then you know how debilitating it can be.
Even the word anxiety exudes unease — with the letter “X” jammed right in the center of it — lurking in the middle, awkwardly wedged in an uncommon position.
I’ve lived with anxiety my entire life.
I know that now, but I didn’t have the words to describe it as a little kid.
Every person’s experience is different, but for me, I can feel it in my body, and I can feel it in my mind.
I sense it in the tightness of my neck and upper back, minutes after the tension started, all without my knowledge.
I can feel it in my constricted airway as I open my e-mail and wait to see what has arrived.
And before I implemented a meditation routine and daily reflective practice, I most definitely noticed it in racing thoughts. Intrusive thoughts. Worry-filled, perseverating thoughts.
These feelings are common, and they are symptoms of anxiety. They are so common that you’d think there would be more people talking about anxiety.
But that’s not the case. We still have a long way to go until anxiety enters the daily lexicon of living.
And that brings me to what I want to discuss: the anxiety of living.
I see this as different than the bodily manifestation of anxiety.
I see the anxiety of living as different than scientific jargon, as different than the prevalence data reported by government entities and nonprofit organizations.
The anxiety of living is a cultural issue; it’s a societal malaise.
I talk with so many people who are unhappy with their lives, who wish they were doing something else — people who just can’t seem to find a way to pursue what they want.
And the explosion of fascinating opportunities is partly to blame.
We now have more choices than ever — more avenues to explore, more educational opportunities, and more ways to entertain ourselves.
But, as Barry Schwartz so eloquently explained in The Paradox of Choice, having more choices is not a good thing.
Looked at another way, Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard called it the “dizziness of freedom.” With so many options, with so many paths to potentially tread, it’s easy to freeze, to become paralyzed with fear.
We’re paralyzed by our fear.
I know I was for most of my life.
I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it all. I would become mortified if I couldn’t make everyone happy. I was scared that I wouldn’t achieve everything I wanted to achieve.
What I didn’t realize is that I was going about my life in the wrong way.
I was trying to do everything. I was trying to be everything to everyone.
If you believe what the media and the marketers tell you, then you think you really can have it all. You think that buying the latest gadget or committing to the latest fad will bring you one step closer to eternal happiness and self-sufficiency.
When has that ever been the case?
Why did I, for so many years, think that the meaning in my life would be found outside of me in a person, gadget, or accomplishment?
The meaning comes from within.
And the anxiety of living comes from constantly comparing ourselves to the outside world.
But we don’t need to be all the things we see.
What we need to do is commit to better know ourselves, to figure out what brings us joy. To see where the warm, tingling sensation comes from when we are truly content.
I still have the body anxiety.
It’s a genetic reality on both sides of my family.
I will still get sidetracked by the occasional intrusive thought that sends me down a familiar shame spiral.
But it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. Because I’ve set the intention to better know myself with each passing year.
But I hardly ever have the anxiety of living anymore.
And that’s because, the more work I put into understanding what makes me truly happy, the easier it is to make decisions that dislodge me from the life others want for me.
It’s like I was a train was that slightly off the tracks.
As I trusted my intuition and realigned my decisions with my deeply held values and interests, I fell and slammed back in between the rails. And when I did that, the ride became much smoother. The rails didn’t grate on me; instead, I flowed between lines — the lines I had established for myself.
How each person gets to this point is typically a circuitous road. What worked for me may now work for you.
But simply knowing about the anxiety of living is a good starting point.
If you can realize that this is not the road you want to be on, and if you can develop the inner strength to know you have the power to change it, then you can begin to shape your own path.
The anxiety of the body and the mind — the anxiety we talk about that is a mental illness — gets plenty of attention.
The anxiety of living does not.
I believe each person can create a meaningful life.
It’s time to have fewer conversations about how we can be like everyone else.
Instead, it’s time to talk about how we can help every individual craft an authentic life — a life that is so personal and inherently meaningful that the paralyzing impossibility of doing it all becomes the shining possibility of realizing what each one of us was always meant to be.
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