I don’t remember what game we were playing, or what this little boy was having a tough time with, but I remember like it was yesterday watching his father get more and more frustrated, eventually losing his temper and snapping at his sweet little boy. They were on a team and they were losing and the little boy wasn’t playing well enough–and this, apparently, was a big deal. That’s how it went in public, so you can imagine what the little boy heard every day about his worth at home. And now this little boy isn’t so little anymore, but he still says the word “sorry” constantly: any time there’s the teensiest chance that he’s disappointed anyone, made a mistake, or even just when he’s waiting for someone to be mad at him for no reason. He’s sorry for everything, because he knows–more deeply than he knows almost anything else–that who he is isn’t good enough for the people who “love” him.
I don’t know if you believe in a god, but I’m sure you believe in Love. I grew up believing that there is a god and that this god absolutely hates everything besides absolute perfection. Which is weird, because I also grew up reading a holy book that states, “god is love.”
This is not about whether I believe in that god anymore, or a different god, or no god.
I want to write about the impact my belief system had on my day-to-day notions of “love,” and the ripple effects that has had on each area of life.
I’m guessing I have lots of fellow humans whose unique worldview experiences or social experiences have led them to internalize similar notions about “love.” (I’ll try to sum up these love-notions a little later.) If you find that this speaks to your own experience, I’m writing this for you. And if you find that this sounds like the experience of someone you love, I’m writing this to help you understand and be with them.
What I learned about love, you can learn in lots of different ways:
You can learn it, like I did, from living in a world where everything has a specific spot somewhere between good and bad on a moral scale. We believed we had a very clear understanding of what was the holiest and most excellent way to do or say or believe–everything. It led to deep, guilty soul-searching episodes when someone would ask, “Is this the best use of your time?” Because it probably wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, you were probably disappointing god. “Best.” It’s why you had to sit with your family in church, not with your friends, because symbolically that was the most god-honoring way to do it (and, anyway, sitting with friends might corrupt you). It’s why we talked on our way home from church about how much we disapproved of those families who did let their kids go sit with their friends in church. It’s why we couldn’t play sports. It’s why we mocked people who worshiped with “shallow,” “worldly” contemporary music. It’s why I realized, as do many of the males who grow up in a similar worldview, that I was “called to be a pastor” (minister, if you’re not familiar), because even if we didn’t attach the word “best” to it, we would attach words like “highest calling.” I just know I got more attention and support for wanting to be a pastor someday than I did for wanting to play baseball. This was just the world we lived in. Doing and saying and pursuing and loving only the “best” or the “best way” was the obsession of our everyday lives.
You can also learn the same lessons about love from parents who are really mean to you. If you’re being constantly criticized, constantly yelled at, constantly mocked, constantly put down, constantly shamed–and especially constantly compared. Compared to your other siblings, compared to your parents, compared to your friends, compared to successful people on TV. Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I don’t know if he actually said that or something similar, and I know that “genius” has more than one definition, but do you sort of get it? There is a beauty and worth in every unique individual. But some of us grew up in homes or ended up in jobs where people were always mad at us because we couldn’t climb trees, but they didn’t bother to discover how well we could swim. Maybe you weren’t “smart” enough. Maybe you weren’t “athletic” enough. Maybe you weren’t “extroverted” enough. Maybe words like “klutzy” or “daydreamer” were used derogatorily about you a lot. Maybe you were happier just reading a book alone in your bed, so your family or friends called you “boring.” So you learned that you weren’t quite as worthy of love as someone smarter, more athletic, more extroverted, more fun, etc. The most deserving of love–the most lovable–are the ones who are most those-things: extroverted, smart, athletic, fun, funny, talented, “interesting.” (“Interesting” is a dangerous adjective when we use it to compare people.) Maybe you kept your version of you and you think it’s unlovable. Or maybe you fixed yourself by switching to the version of you that is all those better words like “smart” and “athletic” so that people will love you, but you don’t feel like you anymore, and now you’re training the next generation that only the “best” are worthy of love.
You can learn this dangerous version of love from being in a family or social circle that gets most of its pleasure from making fun, bullying, mocking, teasing-but-really-not-just-teasing, and criticizing others. For some, life seems to be about who we can laugh at today, who we can shake our heads about and say things like “how do they live with themselves?” or “I’m glad I’m not like them.” Humor is a complicated subject, because making fun of people who are different or uncoordinated or “dumb” or “stupid” can be so, so pleasurable. And so, so dangerous and hurtful and sad. There are lots and lots of videos on the internet of genuinely hilarious accidents and situations that people have found themselves in–harmless. And there are just as many videos of people who have found themselves in confusing, embarrassing, or frustrating situations and are being taunted by the rest of the world–not at all harmless, but so easy to laugh at. Maybe you and your siblings or friends found your identity in entertaining each other with running commentaries on the stupidity you saw all around you: Ignorant people, confused people, tongue-tied people, nervous people, lazy people, vain people, “fat” people, “ugly” people. The world was about judging others. Happiness was found in making fun of a “stupidity” that thank god you didn’t share. And now what you know about love is that love is for the “best” ones, the “good” ones, the “talented” ones, the ones that won’t be the butt of a joke.
You can pick up these dangerous notions about love from growing up in a home where everything is about being wealthier than the rest of the world, more successful, more academically inclined. You find that you don’t fit into this world, so you are less lovable. Or you find people in the outside world who don’t fit into this world, so you can’t love them as much.
In the end, this idea about love that come with words like “best” and “worthy” and “disappointing” and “different”–these ideas can come from worldviews and experiences that put any different version of “best” on a pedestal: Religion, morality, health, sports, money, intelligence, style, popularity . . .
And this idea is sometimes imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of hate. But they’re also imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of love. “I want the best for you, so I will protect/teach/push you by . . .”
In a nutshell, this damaging notion about love that so many of us have learned is this: Love needs a reason.
“I will love you if . . .”
“God loves you if . . .”
“I will be disappointed in you if . . .”
“You’re stupid if . . .”
“I will be so proud of you if . . .”
“You’re my favorite because you . . .”
“I love you because you are the best at . . .”
“I will support you if . . .”
“I will disown you if . . .”
And it sometimes goes one step further. “Love needs a reason, and each reason falls somewhere on a scale.”
“You’re the most . . . in the family.”
“You’re so much smarter than . . .”
“You’re so much more beautiful than . . .”
“You’re not as . . . as you used to be.”
“You’re not as . . . as she is.”
“You should be more . . .”
“If only you could . . .”
“I would love you more if you were less . . .”
I honestly think this idea matters a lot. It’s such a deeply rooted part of what love and worth mean to so many of us, and it has real and sometimes very sad effects.
Deeply internalizing the idea that your own or someone else’s worthiness of love is dependent on where they fall on a scale of worst-bad-good-better-best impacts our mental health and our relationship with ourselves. It impacts how we feel about entire people groups and the world as a whole. It impacts how we bond and interact with our social circles. It impacts our relationships–especially our closest ones. And it seriously impacts how we experience all the little (or big) things in life, like art and adventures and cups of coffee.
There are a lot of personality traits that society has largely endorsed as “better” or “normal.” I think that collectively we are slowly getting more accepting about these things, but generally, being “not normal” in certain ways comes automatically with a feeling of “bad.”
Deeply introverted people and people with sensory processing sensitivity can find it difficult or impossible to function in many settings. If I’m such an introvert that I literally can’t even process the fact that you’re loudly saying words directly into my face in a crowded restaurant, I very likely feel a lot of shame for being this way. Like I’m letting you down. If that’s you, maybe your parents told you that you had a bad attitude or only cared about yourself, or your friends told you that you weren’t any fun. Or maybe they all said “oh that’s okay that you’re introverted,” but you could tell for sure they actually meant “we can put up with this, but you’re definitely not our favorite.” Either way, at least until recently, introversion has been treated like it’s a bad thing and introverted people have often been left feeling misunderstood, lonely, ashamed, and “less than.”
Until very recently, if you were attracted to someone of your own sex, you were likely completely rejected by family and friends. Or maybe you were “accepted” but like in the “isn’t this amazing that we still accept you???” way that makes you feel just as rejected. Sexual orientation had such a central spot on the bad-worse-worst scale in the world I grew up in that I remember one time being told not to use the word “homosexual” because “it’s so evil it shouldn’t even be named.” So many people have accepted the message that they are less worthy or unworthy of love because of their sexuality.
Any and every kind of “fitting in” is so important to us that we reject the parts of ourselves that don’t match the “normal” we see around us. We learn to be embarrassed about making unusual life choices. We get self-conscious about being “different.” We try to reshape every unique part of ourselves until we can feel like one of the “normal” people. I love singing, and sometimes I quietly sing in my office. On self-conscious days I don’t let myself sing, and that’s sad. On days I embrace my “weird,” I get to enjoy that part of me. Another not-normal thing about me is that I have a really hard time understanding teasing. Very often I hear things as really serious (or at least seriously passive aggressive) that were meant as affectionate teasing. This is a noticeable enough part of my personality that for a while it became something I felt very embarrassed and ashamed and guilty about. Like I was defective.
We all have unique us-things that aren’t normal-things. And if we learned that love needs a reason and that love needs the best reasons, our unique us-things leave us feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, and lonely.
So “not normal” equals “bad.” But it’s more than just that. We have legitimate “weaknesses,” or aspects we identify in ourselves as areas where we want to grow or change–even if we know it’s “normal” to have these weaknesses. An internalizing of the “you-have-to-be-worthy-of-love” message means that we equate having these weaknesses with the generic label of “bad.” If something about me frustrates myself or causes stress for my significant other, that makes me “bad,” or at least it is a “bad” thing about me. And that is very sad, and it means you probably can’t love and accept me, and so I feel helpless and vulnerable and threatened and unlovable.
Weaknesses aside, even my strengths and my accomplishments and my good-things have to be the best! One of the most common phrases I remember hearing growing up was, “Is that really the best use of your time?” And that question lodged deep in my psyche. As an adult it has left me dealing with chronic tension and anxiety about doing all the best things, making all the best choices, “redeeming the time” as I learned to call it. It meant that relaxing was bad. It meant that getting lost in a story for the story’s own sake wasn’t worthwhile. It meant that playing video games with friends was a waste. And even as my values and beliefs changed, the old “bests” were simply replaced with the new “bests,” and I began feeling guilty for going a day without learning some big thing or without writing or without going to the gym. Every choice and every day has to be the “best.” My whole life has to be the “best,” so the idea of a career where I’m not making this huge impact on the lives and hearts of so many people was just not acceptable so I never bothered to look into acting even though deep down it was like my favorite.
Perfectionism. Workaholism. Obsessive dieting. Over-commitment. Dissatisfaction. Competitiveness. Fitting in. Stoic toughness. All these ways we are compelled to tirelessly grasp for “best” so that we can be happy with ourselves and so that others will be happy with us. That’s a lot of “best” to keep up with, especially because we never quite think we’ve reached it.
This subtle idea that love requires a reason affects how we see the broader world, too, from humanity as a whole to specific people groups. People who “talk that way” or “dress that way” or “spend that way” or “think that way” or “look that way.” People who struggle, people who “fail,” people who are vulnerable, people who need help, people who are “different.”
We alternatively fear and scorn “those people.” Democrats or Republicans. Immigrants. “Blacks” or “Mexicans” or “Middle Easterners.” Men or Women. Boomers or Millennials. “Filthy” rich. Homeless. “Fat” people. Sensitive people. Dreamers. Network marketers. Christians. Atheists. Parents. Politicians. Auditors. Celebrities. Rednecks. Rebellious teenagers.
We find a label that we’ve experienced as somehow “bad” or “less than,” and we assign it to a group of people we don’t know–humans just like us deep down–and then we get to hate them, reject them, make fun of them, mistrust them, attack them, write them off, bully them.
The idea that some groups of people are less lovable because of who they are or what they’re going through is the very antithesis of compassion. We mock and make fun and build walls and forget that all these people are just humans who, like us, at their core are just vulnerable souls in need of love and support.
Love needing to be deserved impacts our own social circles, too. One way I’ve noticed I carry with me this only-love-the-worthy-ones baggage is through my deep down gut reactions to people who hurt me and let me down, even in little ways. I’ve noticed that I learned a tendency to see only one or the other: someone that doesn’t hurt me and I love them, or someone who hurts me and I hate them. There’s no room for people that I love and also am mad at sometimes, because once they’ve hurt me they’re “bad” and it’s simplest to just reject them and move along. Either someone is the “best” or they are unsafe. Only the “best” are safe.
Sometimes it’s not about safety, sometimes it’s just about preference and popularity. We learn socially to accept and appreciate and embrace and follow and enjoy the “best” people, and neglect the “less-thans” out there. It’s why even in many social groups that try to be built around “love,” like some churches, the “odd” people–the socially awkward or the mentally ill or the addicts or the handicapped–are left out of the cliques. We gravitate toward the people whose style and company we consider the “best,” and we happily leave the “odd” ones to fend for themselves.
This perfectionist view of love also tends to really rub other people the wrong way. When I take issue with everything that isn’t quite perfect–when I always, always, always point out the errors or the weaknesses around me and look for reasons to criticize every single thing–well, it’s just not how to win friends and influence people. My accepting and loving only the “best” things doesn’t work for my friends.
Perhaps most sadly and painfully, this idea that love needs a reason can slowly erode your relationships–especially your closest ones.
Back to the idea that “not normal” equals “bad.” Nobody will get to know your significant other better than you will. And you won’t get to know anybody else in the world as well as you know your significant other. Which means that you see the “not normal” highlighted in your significant other so much more closely and loudly than you see the “not normal” in other people you like and look up to. And when some of those “not normal” things about your significant other start to get under your skin–which, for the record, being annoyed can be completely understandable and healthy–it is so easy to forget that your view of your significant other is what it is only because of your vantage point. When you compare your significant other’s insecurities to your other friends’ insecurities, your significant other loses this comparison. When you compare your significant other’s anxiety or mood swings to the anxieties and mood swings you’ve seen in other people, your significant other loses this comparison. Every “imperfection” you see in your significant other, you see so much more closely than you see it in anyone else. And that can eat away at your feelings of love and acceptance and patience and compassion. You can become frustrated and quite understandably discontent. You can feel panicky and stuck. “Other people don’t seem to have this problem. If only I could be with other people.” The reality is other people do have this problem and other problems, you just see your best friend’s “bests” and “worsts” from a front row seat.
In the context of people needing to be worthy of love, realistically recognizing your best friend’s imperfections means you have found a “problem,” and instead of love there is doubt and fear and mistrust.
As compassionate and accepting as you determine to feel toward you significant other, whose insecurities and weaknesses you get to know so deeply–if you have internalized the lesson that you need a reason to love someone, you will find reasons not to love. And you will experience times where you have lost sight of reasons to love. And in those times, if your love for your crazy best friend has to “make sense,” you won’t be able to find it.
Chances are you’ll be right about your best friend being a little heavier on the weaknesses than a few other fantastic humans you’ve met. When you fell in love with your best friend, they were “the best person in the world.” But there’s a good chance that someday you’re going to come across someone that you see as “better.” Maybe a new person has those characteristics that attracted you to your best friend, but even more strongly. Maybe your values have changed as you’ve grown and this new person’s compassion or their healthiness or their ambition is more attractive to you than your best friend’s.
In a world where you’re supposed to save your biggest love for the people who have (in some arbitrary way) earned it the most, best-friend kind of love and safety and togetherness and got-your-back-ness doesn’t work.
Flip the roles for a minute. Your partner fell in love with you “because of your ambition” or “because of your sense of humor.” You know there’s someone with more ambition than you, or someone a little funnier. But you need your partner to still love you anyway. What you really need is to just be loved for you. No matter how you compare to the next person.
There’s nothing wrong, I’m sure, with being attracted to someone’s traits and strengths and accomplishments and style to the point that you “fall in love.” Love has reasons. I just think love can’t totally need reasons. Because there will always be a “more reasonable” person to love, but humans were made to provide love and safety for each other–and not just for the “best” each-others.
Love needing a reason–love needing the best, the most worthy-of-love things to love–is a fragile, hurtful, loveless love.
Beyond our relationships with ourselves and others, being obsessed with comparing lovableness and worthiness and good-better-best-ness just practically drains life of its zest.
The world is full of magic. But we miss most of the magic when we obsess over the “best,” when we only love the things that “deserve” to be loved.
We scroll and scroll and scroll through Netflix looking for the-just-right TV show with it’s just-right humor that will put us in the just-right mood that we felt that one “best” time. (And, of course, we land on The Office and commence our thirty-fourth rewatch, because, despite all I’ve written so far, if there ever was a “best” and “most-worthy-of-love” thing to be exclusively embraced, the Office is it. Or maybe just because “favorite” is okay, too.)
We stress and stress and stress over our choices, desperately needing to make sure we’re making the most right decision that will lead us to the most happiness.
We criticize most things because they’re not the best. We’ve seen better. Besides one, every single cup of coffee becomes “not the best cup of coffee.”
We mostly notice the “dumb” parts about each movie we see, each song we hear, each painting we look at. Because we’ve become wired to “discern,” to have “high standards,” to seek the best of the best of the best. Always. So we criticize almost everything in the world. All things but the best things are unsatisfying.
Once, when I was a teenager still living in a culture defined by a comparing/earning version of love, something struck me. And it’s a little dorky, like debate-kid-argument style dorky, so bear with me. This worldview of “god-accepts-only-the-very-best” and “only-the-most-excellent-is-pleasing” that I had grown up with, applying it so faithfully to each and every activity and choice in everyday life–its logical conclusion can only (and quite absurdly) lead to a world where we sing one and only one “hymn” to worship god–whichever we discover is the “best,” the most “beautiful” and “pleasing” to god. We’d only read one book, the best book. We’d only ever spend time with one friend, the best friend who had the most positive influence on us. Of course, this was absurd. Which meant, of course, that this notion of love and worth that I had grown up with was not an actual thing. It didn’t work. It wasn’t life. Life is bigger and broader, beautifully diverse and colorful, and full of countless uniquely lovable people and songs and places and styles and tastes and stories and choices and relationships and expressions.
The “best” just isn’t important. It’s not really even a thing.
Can I ask you a question? Like a real, honest, uncomfortable, stop-and-think question. If you learned this lesson about love–that love needs to be earned, that the biggest love is reserved for the best people and the best things–how has this impacted your life? What words of rejection have you said to yourself because you aren’t good enough? What harsh judgments have you caught yourself making because those people have problems? Who have you treated as less-than because you genuinely thought that’s how it worked? How has this fragile “I’ll-love-you-IF” and “You’ll-love-me-IF” version of love left you and your closest person in the weak, vulnerable, nitty-gritty-real-life moments? And do you ever wish you could just like things?
Could we give up this broken notion? Relearn love?
What if you just loved people and things . . . . . . ? (Like there isn’t more to that sentence.)
Maybe love doesn’t need a reason.
No, let me try that again without the watering down:
Love doesn’t need a reason.
My best friend and I used to ask each other all the time, “Why do you love me?” And that can be a very fun and encouraging and celebratory question to ask and answer. But often I was unnerved when the answers were less along the lines of “because-you’re-the-best-at . . .” and more along the lines of “I-don’t-know-I-just-do.” I couldn’t retrace the exact path it took for that answer to go from my least favorite to my most favorite. But it’s there now. Sure, I feel loved “for” being kind. But I also feel loved “for” being anxious now, too. And best of all, I feel loved “for” just . . . being me. No reason. Just love.
tl;dr version: Love doesn’t need a reason.
I have anxiety.
Some days I am in the zone, killing it.
I am a manager and I’m good at it.
I am great at sales and customer service.
I am great at leading projects.
I am the president of a Toastmasters club and I think I’m a good leader.
I am a really good friend to lots of people.
I have gotten straight A’s in basically every bit of education I’ve ever had.
I write a blog that lots of people read and find helpful.
I am a badass public speaker and can give a great presentation.
I make really beautiful piano music.
I have run half marathons.
People come to me for advice.
I survived and escaped a very toxic environment I grew up in and chosen to live life a different way.
I am really, really smart.
I am funny (don’t ask my friends).
I love to help people and at least sometimes I am good at it.
Some days I bury my head in the couch pillows and hyperventilate.
Some days I spend the entire day near-panicking about what would be the best way to spend the day.
Some days I randomly start crying.
Some days I feel this non-stop heavy sadness.
Some days I worry myself sick that I might get sick and die soon.
Some days I am pretty sure my whole life might be a lie, that the people who said they love me, who are supposed to love me, really don’t.
Some days I feel like crying when someone lovingly teases me because I honestly don’t get that it’s teasing.
Some days I worry that lots of people are actually unhappy with me and are out to get me. That if I’m not a good enough leader, I’ll suddenly be surprised by getting booted out the door. That if I don’t make friends or family happy, they’ll tell everyone I’m a bad person.
Some days I worry that I’m actually some really hopelessly awful person.
Some days I’m afraid that I’m just “one of those people” who will never quite be good enough, always find a way to fail.
Some days I feel like I’m floating away and I can’t reach out and grab the world I know, it’s too far gone, and I’m just stuck floating out here where nothing feels right, nothing makes sense, I can’t find anything.
Some days I lay in bed terrified and feel the room spin, and feel like the ceiling is fading away, and I stop seeing what’s around me.
Some days I can feel the *thump* *thump* *thump* of my heart beating really hard and fast and all I can feel is that my heart can’t keep up with the intense panicky drowning “Oh no” feeling.
Some days everything feels yucky and sad and scary and I finally sit down on the floor and cry and cry.
Some days I see people who always make me happy, and I realize that they probably don’t really like me, that they probably are just nice about it.
Some days I try to smile and be in a good mood and be super friendly, but I truly can’t, so I just want to get alone.
Some days everyone and everything is unsafe.
If I had to describe anxiety, as I’ve personally experienced it, in one sentence, it would go something like this: Watching in terror as everything you need, everything you thought you had, floats just out of your reach, and in its place, all-the-danger surrounds you.
Some mental illness is so serious that someone can hardly function. Some mental illness leaves people functioning well some days, struggling on others. And some mental illness injects a little bit of struggle and sadness into a mostly thriving life.
Minds are weird things. And whether someone has a diagnosed mental illness or just happens to deal with the weird stuff that happens in the mind of a human–whether someone feels good 90% of the time or 10% of the time, or maybe 0% of the time–whether someone has a severe anxiety disorder with regular anxiety attacks, or someone “just” gets pretty anxious pretty often–it is okay that you struggle. And it is okay to SAY that you struggle.
Some mental illness just happens, because you just happened to be born with a brain that functions a certain way.
Some mental illness happens because of a thing that happens to your body, like a disease, or like a traumatic injury.
Some mental illness happens because of sudden trauma, experiencing something like watching someone die, being assaulted, being molested or raped, or watching while some tragedy unfolds.
Some mental illness happens because of a life full of trauma, like emotional or physical abuse from your parents, or like growing up with a belief system that makes the world a dangerous place, or like getting bullied a bunch as a kid for being different.
Some mental illness gets better. Some gets worse. Some just sits there.
I don’t know why I struggle with anxiety as much as I do. I’ve had a professional tell me I have anxiety, but I’m not really sure if it counted as an official diagnosis of a disorder, or if it just was a statement that it’s something I deal with that doesn’t quite warrant a label. Actually, maybe it shouldn’t need to warrant a label. Maybe you don’t have to be this-far-broken to be able to talk about being broken.
I had two concussions in the last few years, and the second one sent my anxiety through the roof and it hasn’t quite come all the way back to where it was–or where I imagined it was–back when life felt more “normal.”
I started seeing a therapist after my second concussion, and very quickly he helped me realize that it was probably a good thing for my mental and emotional health that I had my anxiety and my feelings shaken up a bit so I couldn’t keep stuffing them.
I learned that I’ve naturally always had a very codependent personality in all areas of my life. I felt like my feelings weren’t important, which helped to bury my anxiety. Sort of. Until I realized that no matter how much I tried to make everyone happy, I would never stop being anxious about it.
I wish I could say that I have anxiety because of the 18 or 19 years I lived in a home that I think was full of very damaging abuse.
But I’m not sure, because I always heard from my mom that I was always a super anxious kid. (I wish she had gotten me some help about it.)
I cried pretty constantly through most of my childhood. I worried constantly about getting sick and dying. I lay awake many nights worrying that I’d end up in hell for eternity, picturing what it would feel like. I sucked my thumb long past the rest of my siblings, because it was soothing and safe. I asked my younger brother to hold my hand when he slept in the bunk above me so that I wouldn’t feel alone. And like I said, I cried. A lot.
Knowing what I’ve learned as an adult about the mind, I can identify significant anxiety attacks I had as a kid. And I remember one year I spent over half the year crying and panicking alone in my room most of every single day.
So I don’t know. Was I born with anxiety? Probably. Did an unhealthy childhood make it so much worse? Definitely. Has it actually gotten worse since my concussions? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely gotten clearer and tougher to deal with.
I’m a pretty normal person, I think. If you know me well, you probably know me as generally positive and fun. I look like I’ve got my stuff together.
You probably haven’t seen me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.
A lot of mental illness, people can handle well. You can try not to take it out on everyone around you, you can keep it together while you’re in public and not make a scene, you can differentiate between situations where it’s safe and appropriate to open up about your feelings or where you need to be professional, respectful, or just get stuff done.
So you probably won’t see me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.
You probably won’t see almost anybody do that.
Which means when it happens to you, you might think you’re the only one. You might think you’re not normal, you’re not okay, you’re a failure, that nobody would like the real you.
Saying all of this is not comfortable or fun at all. I don’t want attention for it. I don’t want to be treated like I’ve got it especially bad, because, all in all, I don’t. I’m not making a statement about me.
I wanted to share all of this just because this shitty life stuff needs to be okay. Okay to experience and okay to talk about.
If you have intense anxiety or mild anxiety, you are not alone and you’re not weird and you’re not stuck hiding. Lots of people will love you and help you, just like you want to love and help them.
If you struggle with other mental illnesses, like depression, you are not alone. You’re not weird. You can be real about it.
I don’t want to minimize the seriousness and impact of some extreme mental illnesses. For example, some people have such severe mental illness that they can’t function well enough or consistently enough to take care of themselves, and they need real help–from family, from society, from community. Some people have such severe depression that they literally can’t find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, such severe OCD that no matter how hard they try, they can’t stop washing their hands even when their skin is falling off. I don’t want to downplay how much caring support and attention we should be giving those who genuinely can’t make it through without physical, financial, tangible help.
But I honestly think that struggling with mental health is a pretty universal thing. Mild or severe.
And sometimes we just need to know that it is okay, and we need the people around us to know that it is okay. Sometimes the mind and feelings just get weird.
I challenge you to treat your mental health just like your physical health. That means when you need to see a mental health doctor, see a mental health doctor. You go for a physical once a year. Why do we save mental health help for when we’re at the end of our rope? Let’s make mental health care normal.
Don’t be afraid to be real about yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for friendship. Don’t be afraid that your struggles–little or big–with mental health make you less.
A surprisingly huge number of us are right there with you.
We’re all in this together.
P.S. It’s okay to say “me, too.” It’s also okay to NOT say “me, too.” You can be as open or as private as you need. Just know you’re not alone, and you can at least talk to someone.
P.P.S. I wrote this a couple months ago and didn’t post it about 10 times before I finally decided to. I want to help others know they’re not alone, help others have a safe space to be exactly who they are deep down–that’s my passion. It doesn’t mean that it’s “better” to be public about your mental health. So again, there’s no pressure and no need to be vocal. You be you. Just know that who you are is okay.
“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.” – Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
you’re not alone
What or who did you think was a monster until you flipped your light switch on?
When we think that a thing is dangerous, unknowable, or scary, and we try to not look at it, it stays scary. It’s why, as kids, we think the stuffed animal under our bed or the shirt in the closet is a monster. They will only stop being scary if you flip the light switch on. And only when they stop being scary do you find freedom.
Fear of vague unknown potentialities keeps us from chasing our dreams. Fear of who-knows-what a bully might do if you upset them keeps us from sticking up for ourselves and others. And the fear from seeing someone in your life as a monster to be afraid of, instead of a person to decide what you think about, keeps you stressed and nervous and sometimes even paralyzed.
Monsters are scary. When you see the world as one big monster, your dreams are scary. When you flip the light switch on and see that there’s really a lot of good happy safe stuff in life, and that everything is usually okay, the scariness fades away and you find freedom to do what you want to do.
Monsters are scary. On the other hand, flesh-and-blood people you decide that you don’t like or don’t want controlling your life are not scary. They stop being scary when you look at them in the light, look at them honestly, look at them plainly. Most people who have scared you are just people. You sure don’t have to like them, support them, or keep them around. But if they’re keeping you up at night or controlling your feelings, flip the light switch on and see them for who they really are. They are not monsters and so they don’t have any mysterious power over you.
I have found a lot of freedom in trading away the monsters I thought were waiting under my bed, for normal life stuff, and for finite, human, limited people who couldn’t really control me.
If you think you, too, might find some freedom in flipping your light switches on, go for it! All the stuff that scared you is normal to someone else. And all the people that you thought were monsters, who you thought you had to be scared of, whose power you thought would affect your whole life–they’re just people. You can choose to stop seeing them as scary monsters. You can be free from the fear.
You can find the courage to choose what you want.
Raise your hand if you often feel like you need permission to do something you’re inspired to do?
I don’t know if it’s just certain types of people. Maybe it’s a part of anxiety. Maybe it’s from growing up in a family where most things weren’t considered a wise use of time. Maybe it goes hand in hand with a codependent need to focus on everyone else’s happiness while neglecting your own.
I’m really not sure where it comes from. And I honestly don’t know how widely shared the experience is. Maybe it’s just a few of us. Or maybe there are lots and lots of us–waiting for permission to do what we’re inspired to do.
Maybe you want to try writing a story. Maybe you want to start running. Maybe you get a craving for chips and salsa. Maybe you want to talk to the stranger sitting next to you. Maybe you want to go for a road trip for no reason. Maybe you want to explore another career. Or maybe the beach is suddenly calling you.
The inspiration hits you. You know you want it. But there’s some voice telling you that of course that’s not for you! At least not today. That there are so many reasons you’re not ready to do that. It’s not like you’d be good at it anyway. And there are better things to do. It’s just not you–that’s for other people. Not you. . . .
Does that resonate with anyone else? Does anyone find that there’s a common theme in their day to day life of automatically assuming that you can’t, shouldn’t, or just won’t do a thing you feel inspired to do?
Big or little, I don’t think it makes a difference. The little ones make me scratch my head more, though. A job change is a big decision with lots of consequences. “I feel like inviting a friend to play catch” is NOT. Why is that hard sometimes?
If you ever feel that way, like you don’t have permission for all the things you’re inspired to do, like you’re never able or allowed to just go for things, like every new decision would be a wrong decision–if that’s you, I encourage you to see what happens if you just do things anyway.
What would happen if when your mind immediately went to every reason you shouldn’t do a thing (not worth it, not valuable, not worthy, not right now), you just told the feelings to go screw off and just did what you were inspired to do anyway?
Baby steps, even. Once a day, or once a weekend. . . . “It’s probably too chilly out.” I don’t care, I’m going for a walk! . . . “You’re not a reader!” I am today!
What would happen? You might find you don’t like it. It might cost you some time. Or you might find it exciting, therapeutic, enjoyable. You might discover a new passion in life. You might find a new hobby. You might make a new friend. You never know until you try. And if you try it, you just might like it. And you just might feel yourself coming alive.
(Side note: You might find something that you like that you’ll never be great at or that won’t “serve you” well. Great! That thing is what life is all about.)
Today’s never the right day if you’re waiting for life to give you permission. Today’s only the right day if you do the thing even though today was the “wrong” day.
Don’t wait for permission when you get inspired.
I think my life is much happier when I can let myself just do stuff.
And it always seems to turn out okay.
What did you do today just because you wanted to?