Do you feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop? Even when things are going really well, do you feel like it is too good to be true? You’re not alone.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. (Source: National Institute of Mental Health).
The hallmark of anxiety is a sense of vulnerability all the time.
We live in a culture validates the idea that we are always susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm from unknown dangers.
This makes anxiety seem reasonable and even smart.
What do we do when we feel vulnerable? We try to prepare and protect ourselves.
Unfortunately, all this preparing for an imagined threat prevents us from experiencing all the goodness in life. Brene Brown calls this phenomenon foreboding joy. She says that foreboding joy is an attempt to minimize vulnerability by “rehearsing tragedy” and “perpetual disappointment.”
Here are some examples of foreboding joy:
- Having a great date night and feeling really connected but then think to yourself, “I hope nothing ruins this.” (perpetual disappointment)
- Watching your child sleeping peacefully and then think to yourself, “I don’t know what I do if anything ever happens to him.” (rehearsing tragedy)
- You get a bonus at work because of the excellent job you did this year, and then think to yourself, “Oh no. Now my boss will always expect this level of performance and I will never be able to sustain it.” (perpetual disappointment).
The bitter truth is that no amount of rehearsal can protect you from the pain of actual tragedy and nothing is more disappointing than a life wasted on worry.
The biggest danger most of us will face is our own thoughts. They might not kill you but they’ll suck the life out of you.
How do we combat the enemy within?
To help my clients, I created a tool I call the Aware Alert Alarm Scale.
- Aware is neutral observation. It is being in the moment without judgment.
- Alert is a heightened level of attention. There is more discernment and information gathering.
- Alarm is a warning sign and perhaps a call to action.
The struggle many of my clients face is that they are rarely in awareness. They experience a free-floating anxiety that keeps them on alert at all times. Therefore, the distance from alert to alarm is very short because they feel vulnerable all the time.
Here is how to use the Aware-Alert-Alarm scale:
Recently, a patient told me that she needed to look for a new job because her boss micro-manages her and she was sure she was going to be fired.
My clients and I lovingly refer to this kind of thinking as an express train to Crazytown.
She was barely aware of her boss’ management style before she skipped all reason and went immediately to catastrophic thinking.
To bring her from alarm to alert, I asked her 3 questions:
- Has your boss complained about your performance?
- Is your company going through downsizing right now?
- Are you the only one she micro-manages?
She answered no to all three. We did our fact checking and saw there really was no need for alarm. I explained that micro-managers are usually battling their own anxiety. I asked her to bring her alertness down to awareness by questioning her own anxious thoughts and cultivating compassion for her boss.
After two short weeks, she was able to develop compassion for her boss and no longer felt threatened by her. She was more relaxed at work and more certain of the value she brings to the company.
The situation was exactly the same. The only thing she changed was her thoughts.
Don’t waste your precious time rehearsing tragedy or stuck in perpetual disappointment. Your thoughts are one of the few things in life that you actually can control. Choose to dwell in gratitude for all that you do have and visualize your success and happiness.