The Anxiety Experiment

Right after I posted my last post about giving up anxiety for Lent, we had a scare at work involving a deadline that slid under everyone’s radar. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes my stomach churn in quite the same way as my boss asking when a brief is due when I didn’t even know I was supposed to be writing one.

Anyway, about anxiety. Like all good overachievers, anxiety is always just beneath the surface for me. In many ways it is an excellent motivator. In other ways it causes me to veer toward procrastination. (I did not fully appreciate the way that perfectionism and procrastination are inextricably linked until someone pointed out the obvious: if you are afraid of failing, you might never start. The longer you put something off, the longer you aren’t doing it wrong.)

(I admit that for me there is also an element of drama – I tend to thrive on the excitement of not knowing if I will get something done on time, so I leave things till the last minute and enjoy rising to the occasion. I always wrote my best papers in college when they were due in three hours, and it’s still true. My best briefs and motions get written at the 11th hour. I’ve learned to manage this and live with it. It probably makes my assistant crazy, but it’s my style and it works well for me.)

I have always been a worrier, and a perfectionist. But I am happy to report that the older I get, the less of a problem this is. Much of this is because I’ve worked hard to be more and more comfortable in my own skin. I surround myself with people who love and support me. I try to limit my exposure to toxic, negative people and situations. I’m mindful of spending my time and energy on people and things that are good for me. Because of that, I am confident that the people who really love me know that I’m imperfect and are okay with it. I’ve disappointed many people in my life (we all have) and I try not to beat myself up over it.

My anxiety has also decreased after my brother’s death. This might seem paradoxical to you. Wouldn’t someone who lost her only sibling in a car accident be utterly petrified of ever leaving the house again? Well, yes. And no. Life is scarier now in some ways, yes. I am painfully aware of our mortality and vulnerability as human beings. I am excruciatingly aware of how it feels to lose someone too soon. I pity Anna when she starts taking driver’s ed. And yet, I have let go of a lot. My child just stuffed a fistful of potting soil in her mouth? Eh, she’ll live. I still clean my house, I still limit her exposure to germs, but I’m not going to sweat it… because you can try to control a person’s entire life but bad things are still going to happen.

Several years ago, I was encouraged to categorize my anxiety into productive worry and non-productive worry. Productive worry is when you have some control over the outcome and so you do things that will help. For example, if I am worried about salmonella, I will choose not to eat raw meat. (If I am worried about meeting a deadline, I will make sure I start the project on time… ahem.) Non-productive worry is worrying about things I cannot control. As they say in AA, we must ask for the wisdom to know the difference… and to be mindful of the degrees of control we can have. Cleaning off your counter after preparing raw meat: a good idea. Encasing yourself in a plastic bubble to completely cut off all exposure to germs: a bad idea. (My ideas sometimes fall in between.)

My job (the lawyer one, not the mother one) is just about the best job for someone who likes drama. And it is just about the worst job for someone who has anxiety. A divorce attorney must have very, very, very thick skin. She is the scapegoat for all her clients’ problems. She is yelled at daily about things that are not her fault. Trouble is, for a long time (and still), I tend to think that sometimes, maybe, those things might just actually be my fault. At least partially. If two parties are arguing through their attorneys about what time the children should be exchanged on Christmas Eve and my side loses, I get yelled at. I cost my client Christmas Eve with his child, etc. Could I beat myself up for not being a better advocate for my client? Of course. And I do. But more often than not it has nothing to do with me. Very likely the other side was absolutely rigid and not willing to negotiate at all. My boss says, “You can’t get a divorce from a better person than you married.” And so much of my job involves managing expectations and helping my clients understand that I do not have a magic wand that will turn their ex-spouses into reasonable, cooperative people if they weren’t reasonable and cooperative to begin with.

(Speaking of my boss, he doesn’t have this problem with anxiety. AT ALL. He has a very thick skin. And I’m fortunate to have had him as a mentor, because his approach has vastly helped me thicken my own skin.)

Anyway, this all brings me to this Lent. Recently I was having a conversation with an attorney-turned-life-coach, and I was talking to her about my boss—not him specifically, but men in the abstract, and how in many ways they were more forceful advocates because they didn’t take things so personally. She suggested that I try for a month to be more like that. In fact, her exact words were, “Any time something goes wrong, blame it on someone else.” Not literally—I won’t be telling the judge that something is her fault. But it’s true that when something goes wrong in a case, I blame myself—whereas my boss says, “That stupid judge, she got it wrong.”

So I decided to turn this into a Lenten experiment. I don’t know about the blaming-other-people-for-everything part—because I don’t want to be like my clients who cast blame where it doesn’t belong. And, um, that doesn’t seem very Christlike. But it does mean that I am more honest about why things go wrong and what I can change. For some people, being honest means that they should be quicker to examine themselves and accept responsibility if they are at fault. But I tend to do this too much. (About work-related things, anyway—I’m not always so quick to be accountable in other areas, but maybe that is a different post!)

So for me, being honest means I can genuinely say, “That was not my fault” or, more often, “I am not going to worry about the outcome of this because I can’t control it.” And to me this experiment is perfectly appropriate for Lent. After all, take these words from Matthew:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Something I’ve learned in my 3+ years as an attorney: you can only do so much good. And you can only do so much bad. If someone’s divorce blows up in their face, it wasn’t because of me. It was because of the choices they made: the person they married and chose to have children with, the choices they made about parenting, how they spent their money, etc. How could I possibly have an effect on all of that? I can’t. So I must choose—every day—to let go. I am spending this Lent being extra-mindful of it, and so far it’s going okay. And surprise! None of my clients’ lives are any more or less miserable because of it.

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2 Comments

Filed under Daily Life, Wellness

2 responses to “The Anxiety Experiment

  1. Liz

    I can really relate to these issues, as we’ve talked about before. I think it is a wonderful experiment to try to be honest about what is and is not your fault. I take too much on myself too, but ultimately there is only so much fault one person can cause

  2. Great blog post. These are issues many people can relate to, and I think you have a good perspective. I’m glad I found your blog!

    Eileen Flanagan, author of The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change–and When to Let Go

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