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Why We Need to Stop 'Shoulding' Ourselves

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“I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I shouldn’t have eaten that.”

These are common phrases I hear from clients in my counseling practice. So many people are so hard on themselves so much of the time, believing self-criticism will help them attain their goals. After all, many of us have all been raised with a “no pain, no gain” attitude. Our culture expects so much of us and requires us to live at such an unnaturally fast pace that it has caused an epidemic of perfectionistic and stressed out people. Who could possibly keep up with the unrealistic expectations of our culture without having it take a toll on our mental or physical health?

Many of my clients think their self-berating will get them in line or keep them in line. I often ask (rhetorically of course) how it is working out for them, knowing full well if it was working, they would probably not be sitting in my office! Many people fear if they stopped beating themselves up or being really hard on themselves, they would never get anything done. Is self-hate really an effective motivator? Can’t we motivate ourselves with kindness, passion or encouragement? I work with people in all walks of life — nurses, doctors, personal trainers, teachers, etc. — and I often ask them if they ever speak to their patients, clients or students the way they speak to themselves. They wouldn’t dare. They would likely be fired if they did, not to mention they often view others which such different standards and with so much more compassion than they do themselves. Why do so many of us feel compassion and kindness toward others but then turn inward with a whip of self-criticism and perfectionism?

Many of us were raised with the belief if we were kind to ourselves and liked or even loved ourselves, we would be conceited. But is that true? Can we upgrade the program on that one and all agree self-care and kindness is not necessarily self-grandiosity and entitlement? When someone lives with the internal program of “shoulding” or self-criticism and perfectionism, what usually ends up happening is that they are either very anxious about getting things done and getting them done perfectly — a thankless, never-ending job since none of us is perfect! — or they end up burning out or rebelling and are unable to get things done at all. This often leads to feeling depressed because they can’t keep up with their self-imposed rules, regulations and expectations.

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So where does all this “shoulding” leave us? For many, the answer is depressed and anxious. So many people “should” themselves regularly with high, unrealistic expectations. They are very driven, perfectionistic, achievement-oriented and outer goal-focused. I call this being a “human doing” rather than a human being. Others fall into the opposite extreme of the spectrum and find it hard to get much of anything done. They struggle with procrastination and then beat themselves up about it. They struggle with depression and feel badly because they can’t get themselves to do what they set out to do. Then there are those who bounce back and forth between “shoulding” and rebelling. They may also “should” themselves but then rebel and can’t seem to get themselves motivated.

I used to be a “bouncer.” I was either excited by some new diet or completely blowing it off. I was either totally into some new Jane Fonda workout or I couldn’t get myself off the couch. I was either swearing off alcohol or all-out partying. I was not a big fan of moderation, you might say. So, if listening to your harsh mind messages is one choice and rebelling and feeling badly about yourself is the other, you may not realize there is a door number three. Door number three is following your heart. It’s making your choices out of love and kindness and what feels the most right to you, rather than making your choices because of a self-imposed whip or rebelling from the beating and going on strike. I have heard it said that the longest 12 inches is from the head to the heart. The heart is a loving voice. It’s our intuition, the part of us that is compassionate and kind. But it’s hard to hear that voice when it is being drowned out by the megaphone of the mind. A kind voice is in there though — we all have it.

We were not born “shoulding” ourselves. We learned every internal rule we have. And fortunately, we can unlearn them. We can learn to delete the harsh messages in our mind in the same way we can delete a virus from our computers. And we can upload new, kinder messages. We can get things done from a place of moderation. We can rest in a place of peace, relaxation and self-worth. 

So see if you can take a few moments now and then and ask your heart rather than your head, What feels right for you? I promise you will still get things done. It just won’t be from an anxious place of trying to prove you are worthy or a depressed place of thinking you aren’t.

Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of “Getting Over Overeating for Teens.” She is also co-author of “The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the ‘I Feel Fat’ Spell.” Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, blogs or podcasts, please visit www.andreawachter.com

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Being Vulnerable Enough to Talk About My Anxiety

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There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday. It was a day I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder-blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways leading to a bridge. Then I’d drive over the bridge crossing a body of water. Once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing unusual about the minute or so I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except it terrified me. The night before I was due to make the drive I couldn’t sleep. I rose early, well before the sun came up.

In retrospect, the details of how I crossed the bridge don’t seem all that important. What’s important is I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms were sweating and my heart was racing and my legs were wobbling and felt strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier — standing strong and snow-capped and stunning just out my driver’s side window — felt like an old friend. Before I knew it, I was over the bridge and I steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5. I was relieved.

The next day on the way to meet friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia. This is the town where I went to high school, the town where I learned to drive, the town where I first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better — almost normal in fact — because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. I barely thought about a previous December night, driving those same roads and hurtling through the darkness. Dad rode next to me drifting in and out of consciousness, wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and rain spitting buckets. So much rain the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road. I kept stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying. I said a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed because every mile brought us closer to home; even though it wasn’t home anymore. Not since Mom died and since Dad got sick.

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I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests. So how could something so familiar become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post-traumatic-stress, the way it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I feel as if I have been to war. And I won — at least I think I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.

I recently told a friend I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy. A violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade of being brave and strong and having it all together.

The storm taught me nothing in life is certain — a scary prospect for a control-freak like me. But it also taught me the only way out is through. If I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, walk into them, and thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.

Once, I stayed a week at the beach. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him. Before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.

This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. When we were quite close to each other, he dove under again. As I treaded water looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – it seemed to me a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I believed he had not meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.

I’m a realist. I know I’ll never be fully free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes my fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, you’ll think I’m irrational. Maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.

Follow this journey at Extra Dry Martini 

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27 Real Life Texts That Helped People Get Through Anxious Moments

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When you’re stuck in an anxious moment, with racing thoughts and feelings of panic ricocheting throughout your body, reading an “inspiring” cliché may not be quite what you need to move past it. But inspiring words coming from a friend or family member who knows you — those can be different. Although it isn’t a “quick fix,” a perfectly timed text can at least remind you you’re not alone in your feelings and that you indeed are loved.

To celebrate friends who know what to say (or at least try their best), we asked people in our mental health community to share a text or message they received from a loved one who helped them during an anxious moment.

Here’s what they shared with us:

1. “I don’t know what to do right now to help you, and that’s OK. All I can do is be here for you and I can accept that. I know I can’t make everything go away, but I can hold you while it feels like the world is shattering around us. Your struggle is my struggle, and your fight is mine.” — submitted by Brooklynn G.

2. “Hey, you’re a beautiful, young mother. And I know shit’s always hard… Please, please, please keep being the beautiful mother that you are because even if you’re not in direct contact with the people who support you, you are an inspiration.” — submitted by Rachel M.

3. “After being diagnosed with depression/bipolar disorder/anxiety over 10 years ago, I never imagined I would find someone who could put up with me or better yet fall in love with me. I receive texts like this all the time from my fiancé, but this is the only one I could find right now. Sometimes all someone needs is a little motivation and support, to just to know their effort is not going unnoticed. He’s been my backbone, and I’m so thankful to have someone like him in my life, forever…

4. A tip for anyone with a significant other who’s battling mental illness — if there’s nothing else you can do, just be there to lean on. Mental illnesses are no joke and receiving a simple text with a little bit of encouragement could be enough to turn your partner’s mood around (even if it’s just for a bit).” — submitted by Kristy M.

5. “Progress, not perfection. Telling me and your therapist are both really hard steps to take, give yourself some credit for that. You haven’t truly lost because you’re still here and you’re still fighting. I’m proud of you for that and thankful too because having you in my life has made it better, and I know how hard the fight is, but you keep doing it.” — submitted by Theresa S.

6.  “Keep writing to me. You are never a bother to me. Stay in the present, you will get through this. You may not believe it, but I do. I have faith in you.” — submitted by Ariana M.

 7. “My fiancé sends pictures of our dogs when I tell him I’m not doing well.” — submitted by Erin W.

8. “My sister: ‘It’s OK to feel this way. I am here for you.'” — submitted by Erica F.

9. “You are not your thoughts: you are the person who you always were… and that will come back.” — submitted by Heleen K.

10. “I’m sorry… do you want to offload on me? I’m here for you whatever and whenever you need. Huge hugs xxx” — submitted by Emma L.

11. “I don’t know how to fix this, but I love you.” — submitted Steph B.

12. Submitted by Sarah P.:

13. “This one is kinda silly but from my boyfriend, ‘Think of pink giraffes.'” — Isabel M.

14. “My friend sent me, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m here for you if you need me.’ That meant everything to me.” — submitted by Matt N.

15. “My co-worker, ‘Take a deep breath. You got this!’ It was so nice to feel empowered in a moment of weakness.” — submitted by Ashley M.

16. Submitted by Katie L.:

17. “My mom randomly texted me one day while I was having a particularly bad day, and all the message said was, ‘Breathe. Love you,’ and it helped me make it to the next day.” — submitted by Rayne S.

18. “‘I love you.’ Part of my anxiety is worrying that friends and family don’t love me enough and will leave me of their own will.” — submitted by Megan E.

19. Submitted by Grace D.:

20. “Life is shitty, but you got this.” — submitted by Emily W.

21. “My best friend texted me, ‘Maybe you need some rest.’ I changed my ‘plans’ for that moment and laid on my couch and took maybe an hour nap and woke up feeling much better… it was so helpful in that moment because I don’t think I would’ve done that.” — submitted by Lisa L.

22. “I remembered that you have to go through the bridge to get to my apartment. Remember: you will get through the bridge come hell or high water, and plus, you can’t have beer or my company until you get through it, so be brave. You got this, and if you don’t have it I’ll come get you.” — submitted by Brittney L.

 23. Submitted by Brandi W.:

24. “A close friend of mine assures me my brain isn’t ‘stupid,’ it is just trying to help and is misguided. And then sends me a bunch of pics of whatever her cats are doing at the moment. I do the same for her.” — Chriss T.

25. Submitted by Sammi G.:

26. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m here.” — submitted Lynsey G.

27. “We’ve got this.” — submitted by Michelle B.

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5 Things That Help My Anxiety When I'm in a Relationship

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When you’re an anxious person, dating can be daunting, especially when it’s a new relationship. Within the first few months, there are several things that could cause your mind to race and your anxiety to spike.

How will we handle our first fight? 
What if they leave when they see how bad my anxiety is? 
How will I get used to a new person’s way of coping with emotion? 
What if they leave the bathroom door open and my dog gets into the trash? 

Having anxiety is hard enough — balancing it with being in a relationship can be even harder. For me personally, it’s been an amazing learning experience.

I’ve picked up tips along the way that help keep my anxiety at bay.

1. Be clear about plans.

With my anxiety, change can be difficult to manage. Particularly sudden changes in plans. For me, the solution has been to create a Google calendar. It may seem weird, but hear me out. I’ve found my anxiety is triggered or spikes when my boyfriend has a change in plans. Creating a calendar helps. My anxiety can’t be triggered if I already know the plans for the weekend.

2. Be patient and understanding.

Getting frustrated or angry with someone who is experiencing anxiety doesn’t help. It can even lead to shame, which is not a positive result. If your partner is going through an anxiety attack, or even just a small episode, be understanding. Be with them in that moment and make them feel safe and heard.

One day my boyfriend and I were hanging out. I went to walk my dog and saw his allergies were kicking in and he had a gigantic bloody spot he wouldn’t stop itching. The entire walk all I saw was the spot, and by the time I got back to my place, I was in tears. My boyfriend asked what was wrong and I started sobbing because one little thought morphed into several ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). Instead of being confused or telling me to “think happy thoughts,” he held me and said, “everything is OK, you’re OK” over and over again until I was OK. With his immense patience and understanding, he brought my mind back into reality where everything was fine. I was able to deal with my thoughts and move on.

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3. Replace “I’m sorry” with “thank you.”

I learned this recently while reading and doing research on mental health and wellness topics. I stumbled upon a Huffington Post article where the author replaced apologizing — in situations where she had done nothing wrong — with an attitude of gratitude.

With my boyfriend (and honestly other people I’m close to in my life) I find myself apologizing when I’m anxious or think I’m not good enough. When I need to vent or just talk, he makes time to call me and ask what’s wrong but I have a strong urge to immediately say, “I’m sorry for wasting your time,” or “I’m sorry you had to do that.” So instead of saying things like that, I try to express gratitude. Like, “thank you for making time for me.” This can give your partner love and appreciation, and can make you more confident in your own voice and what you’re feeling.

4. Take time for self-care.

My boyfriend has taught me that taking time to recharge is really important for a relationship and also for yourself.

Self-care is necessary for me to help me manage my anxiety. It helps bring myself back to reality from all the fear-based, negative thoughts that swarm my brain on a daily basis. Because of society’s expectations (which I feel are unrealistic) I’ve always thought to have a good relationship, you had to be together all the time, every minute. But that’s not true. Because of my anxiety it took some adjusting, but when my boyfriend takes a few days to have his own time and space, it actually has nothing to do with me. That’s crucial to remember. I can’t make it personal. This is where being clear and communicating plans and feelings is also important. Thankfully my partner is good at communicating, so I don’t feel like he’s not wanting to hang out.

5. Don’t stop learning from each other.

This may sound cliche, but it’s so true. When I get out of a therapy session, there are three people I call or text. My dad, my close friend, and my boyfriend. This is because I want to keep these specific people updated on my constant bouts with anxiety and share with them the things I’ve learned that week or any realizations. I need a partner who is actively interested in knowing more about my anxiety and how to effectively make things better.

I was out to dinner with my boyfriend and he asked what I talked about in therapy that night (you do not have to talk about it if you aren’t comfortable) and I said, “Are you sure you want to know?” to which he replied, “Yeah because the more I know about it, the more I can understand what you go through.” Right there. That’s the kind of person I want in my life.

Anxiety should not be the reason I can’t be in a happy, healthy relationship — I am enough and deserve happiness.

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5 Responses That Make It Difficult to Talk About My Anxiety

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At times, I am reluctant to talk about my anxiety. It can be uncomfortable for me to share about my anxiety with family and friends. I have tried but when I did, sometimes it was difficult to cope with how people responded.

Here are some of the stressful responses I’ve received when I talk about it:

1. Listening to respond.

Some are concerned with planning a response to what you are saying rather than truly listening. This is a huge issue. I don’t want solutions, other stories or suggestions of things to try as potential cures. I just want to be understood.

2. Sharing a story or experience similar in nature.

Unfortunately, this similar tale may be an attempt “one up” my story about someone  who has a more serious illness or worse symptom. If I tell you about my anxiety, please listen.

3. Offering possible solutions.

I have been offered all kinds of cures from referrals to doctors to magical herbs. Right now, as I am sharing my story with you, I simply want to be heard.

4. Offering religion as a cure.

Prayers are wonderful and I gratefully accept them. But I do not want the power of prayer to shut down an open and honest conversation about my anxiety.

5. Questioning my treatment choices.

When I have shared the story of my anxiety and my subsequent choices about how to manage it, not everyone has agreed with my choices on doctors, medication and lifestyle. People have suggested many other options instead of listening to me and giving me options later.

What I am hoping for when I do share my anxiety with a family member or friend is simply for that individual to listen and demonstrate caring and concern by nodding, saying yes or asking follow up questions. That would show me a person is listening to me and that I am being heard. Simply listening would be a big help to me and my anxiety.

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When Anxiety Showed Up in My Life

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Anxiety.

A seven-letter word that struck me out of nowhere. I can see traits of anxiety in my life before I even knew, but when my anxiety became “a thing,” it took me off-guard.

One night while in bed, I felt a crushing sensation on my chest, shortness of breath, hot and clammy hands and feet and absolutely freaked out over the thought of someone breaking into the house. I knew this wasn’t normal for me.

I spent sleepless nights consistently peering my head out my bedroom window to make sure no one was there. All my senses were alert with any noise I heard. My car — which I had saved up all my money to buy — became a trigger, because I couldn’t bear the thought of my hard work and savings for that car being taken from me. I was checking the front door to make sure it was locked 20 times a night, just in case the last 10 times I checked it wasn’t enough — perhaps I had accidentally knocked the lock the last time I checked and it was now unlocked. These were the outrageous thoughts sweeping through my mind at night. I began to dread nighttime. I hated the thought of coming to the point in the day where everyone was off to bed, the house was dark, and we were meant to sleep.

It then spiraled into my day-to-day life. Leaving the house, driving off before the garage door was down  oh no, better circle back around the block and make sure the garage door came all the way down. Did I turn the hair straightener off? I didn’t use it, but maybe Mum did this morning and she forgot to turn it off, I better go back and check. I can’t be late to anything. I’ll wait half an hour to go through the register and not self-serve because if something with the self-serve goes wrong and someone has to come help me — this is too much.

After becoming severely sleep-deprived while trying to cover all this up, I went to my doctor and said, “I have a problem with anxiety and I need help.” Those were the hardest words to say because never in a million years did I ever think this would be me. That this would be my life.

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I can now talk openly about the initial first year of my anxiety and those irrational moments and thoughts I had because I’ve gained some control over it. “Control” seems to be the one thing anxiety doesn’t like; it thrives on having no control. My anxiety is not gone, it never will be, but I can accept that my anxiety is a part of me because it doesn’t take over my life.

I now sleep most of the night, with some hiccups here and there. I can lock the door once and be confident it’s locked. My car can be parked out the front of my house and it’s not a worry for me every night. I still experience my anxiety, but in smaller doses. I feel anxious when I post a letter, hoping that nothing happens to it on the way. When I hear loud wind I hope the roof doesn’t blow off. I feel anxiety when I’m running late or plans don’t run on time. It makes me tired, so bloody tired, 1,000 things running through my head at the same time, two parts of my brain fighting with each other trying to gain control.

It can be a silent struggle as most people are unaware of what is going on in my head. It doesn’t change who I am as a friend, girlfriend, or family member. Instead, my anxiety means I will do absolutely anything I can for those I love, because the thought of not doing enough isn’t an option. My anxiety makes me open-minded as I know everyone has silent chapters we aren’t aware of. It makes me care more for others, strive to achieve great things and it most definitely makes me stronger.

My anxiety doesn’t define me; it’s just a part of me. I am comfortable and confident with who I am now that I have some control back over my life. I think it’s important I talk about it because there are many others who are probably lying in bed at night — overcome with anxiety — and too scared to ask for help because of judgment.

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