Why we need people, but push them away, when we’re anxious

This is an edited extract from my book first, we make the beast beautiful that picks up after an anxiety attack in the presence of my ex-partner “The Life Natural”. I tried to sum up the weird contradictions and paradoxes and baffling inconsistencies inherent in our need for/inability to cope with people when our heads are spiralling and every bit of stimulation affronts our senses and we just don’t know where to head. I highlight a bunch of “Cruel Ironies” throughout the book. Most exist in and around our dynamics with other people.

I think it’s worth acknowledging the Paradox of Other People (POOP?). Other people present another bundle of needs and thoughts and considerations to add to the goat rodeo going on in our heads. And they can get in the way of our control-freaky attempts to contain our anxiety when it starts to spiral, causing all kinds of cruel ironies for all involved. It’s worth mentioning that, back in Hawaii, shortly after the Life Natural left, I splashed my face with water, pulled on jeans and went downstairs to the piano bar. I sat with a glass of red wine, wrote things out on a paper napkin, and chatted about love to the bar manager. Without the intense pressure of, and responsibility for, ‘the other’, without someone else’s confusion screaming at me when I just need someone to sit with me calmly, I could come in close and do what I know works to cope. All of which made no sense to the Life Natural when I explained later. Here’s a few more POOPS:

Cruel Irony: The anxious tend to seek solitude, yet we simultaneously crave connection.

When I’m anxious every part of me wants to extract myself from other humans. I don’t show up to things. I move to remote areas, away from everyone I know. I pack up and leave states, continents, relationships. I want to save them from the drama that is ‘me’. But the irony is, few things fuel my anxiety like being left alone with the buzz. If a friend cancels because she can’t get a babysitter, I take this as social rejection. To me it’s a sign that I’m a cosmic pain in the ass and that everyone is fed up with me and I don’t fit and nothing makes sense. The very gist of why I jitter is the need to know I belong, that I fit.

Cruel Irony: We need easy-going people, but they can be our undoing.

We love easy-going folk. They can ride with our stuff. And they can be great teachers in the art of releasing a white-knuckled grip on life. But they can also tend to flake, and not realise what a big deal their flakiness is for someone for whom uncertainty can be their undoing. They can also defer too heavily to control-freaky anxious types. ‘I don’t mind, you decide,’ they say. Which is lovely and easy-going, but also very challenging when you’re organising dinner for five such easy-going types and you’re wobbly and, oh goodness, it all starts to tumble.

Cruel Irony: We cope with strangers better than our own mates when we’re anxious.

I think this is because around loved ones we feel so bloody responsible and guilty and hyper-aware of our inconsistencies and neurotic needs. It’s exhausting being that apologetic. In contrast, being polite and attentive with the old lady at the bus stop is like a job we must attend to. We busy ourselves with it. And this can distract us.

Cruel Irony: We may come across as extroverted, but we have social anxiety.

I can stand on a stage talking to thousands of people. I can do live TV without having a conniption. Again, it’s partly that I cope better with strangers. Plus, it’s a job I have to attend to. I rise to the challenge. Like a chef I put on an apron, removing it once the shift is over. But if it’s an everyday human experience that you’re ‘meant’ to enjoy, like a party, Lord help me. I liked this from blogger Glennon Doyle Melton who has to be physically alone to cope with her anxiety, even though she connects emotionally with her readers constantly:

“Now, please understand that it is important for me to appreciate humanity and all those lovely humans who make up humanity from a comfortable distance. Because, close up, they all tend to make me quite nervous and often, annoyed . . . I am tired and socially anxious, so going to parties and showers and things such as this where I might actually be forced to sit next to and talk to humanity is really out of the question. So, I learn about love and humanity through books.”

Cruel Irony: We can talk coherently and rationally about our anxiety, even joke about it, yet we freak out on a regular basis.

This is a cruel irony that affects our loved ones heavily. This explanation might explain the apparent contradiction. Anxious thoughts, apparently, have more pull in the brain than knowledge thoughts, so sensible facts and data go out the window when we’re panicking.

Cruel Irony: We seem doggedly set in our ways, but we have no idea what we want.

Our stubborn adherence to things (habits, rules, controlling triggers) is not based on a righteous sense that we are doing the right thing. Golly, no. We’re flimsily coping, albeit with a white-knuckled grip. As I share in a later chapter, our anxiety leaves us totally unable to decide between competing preferences. If you’re an anxious person’s loved one, feel free to be firm telling your anxious mate what you want when they’re in a spiral. They’ll respect your preferences and respond well to the certainty. It’s sweet relief. (And if you’re an anxious person, accept this truth and go with a loved one’s preference when they present it. That’s the deal.)

Cruel Irony: We look strong and controlling. But we actually need others’ help more than most.

My control-freaky behaviour creates the impression that I have everything sorted and, frankly, scares most people from wanting to approach me to offer assistance, even when I’ve gone AWOL or am standing in front of them, screaming out for help. The psychiatrist I was seeing recently, while writing this book, pointed out to me that I even micro-manage how I receive help from loved ones. Which makes loved ones feel kind of redundant. And, yet, it’s right at these precise moments I so desperately want someone to step in and convincingly take care of the planet for a bit. It’s just that I can’t correct my neurotic ways in time.

Cruel irony: We’re always thinking about everyone (and everything), but we’re so damn selfish.

I truly hate this about my anxiety. It can make me so terribly self-absorbed. I forget birthdays or don’t have the energy or creativity to buy a present. And, yet, I wish I could explain that in my anxious moments I actually care more about the welfare of others than myself. Plane phobics are most concerned about their kids. Obsessive-compulsives are often scared that if, for example, they don’t wash their hands, a loved one will die. Oh, it’s all just so hard for everyone, isn’t it!

It is, isn’t it. I’m wondering if you relate to any of these cruel ironies? Or if any others in the book grabbed you? In my next post I’ll share how loved ones can better cope with us when we make no sense like this. You can buy The Beast here (in Australia/NZ and US + UK).

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