Focusing on Authenticity while Treating Anxiety, Grief and Major Life Transition
Three common session themes are: struggling with worry and doubt, wanting to feel more confident and secure, and grieving but not realizing it. Most of the people I support manage their lives fairly well, but when a big change occurs, circuits become overloaded, so a neutral guide is sought to help regain a sense of control and direction.
A Major Life Transition or big change includes positive and negative events like promotion, retirement, graduation, empty nest, new career, relocation, divorce/breakup, job loss, serious illness, or death of a family member. Cancer, in particular, is a serious illness I have years of experience supporting.
Both wanted and unwanted change spark anxiety and a process of adjustment. Why not take advantage of the change process by evaluating and making choices that infuse your life with more authenticity?
For our purposes, a simple definition of authenticity is living according to what you believe is important, true and worthwhile. This is more easily said than done when the needs of family, employers, or other larger systems limit freedoms and influence priorities. Women have been shaped to put the needs of others before their own as "caregivers" in western society, but challenges with being authentic effects all people... even celebrities whom you would think are above it all. Reserving your true self for when you're home and around people you like might be enough for you, but some people don't even allow themselves that smidgen of freedom. It is among those whose freedom is extremely limited that physical and mental health suffer. Three common styles of inauthentic relating that increase stress and decrease health are Stifling, Pleasing, and Controlling.
Stifling is a style of relating to people and self that minimizes conflict while maximizing resentment and disappointment. Years of suppressing preferences and desires can lead to forgetting what you like, want, need or even hope for. What would motivate you to suppress these really important and interesting facets of yourself? Maybe you live in an environment where being different or simply being visible makes you a target for violence or ostracism. Or, you may have been ridiculed for expressing yourself and thus learned to keep those messy personal bits hidden. Stifling is not about being shy. It’s about consciously not speaking up or revealing yourself. Keep this up and your personality starts to recede as you take on the characteristics of the demanding or dominating others in your life.
Pleasing is a style of relating to people and yourself that requires a form of mind-reading and anticipation that keeps you focused on others while ignoring yourself. You are motivated to assume this draining stance because you think pleasing others is what will make them like you and treat you well. By pleasing them, you avoid being alone or lonely. The problem is, with this approach, you give all the power and control to other people. Few of your needs/desires are met because you fear asking for something will make the other person leave or tell you no. If you don’t ask for what you want, the other person can't know what you want. Mind reading is only possible in the movies. Neither you nor the person you're interacting with know your thoughts without speaking them. Consequently, as in Stifling, resentment builds because give-and-take is out of balance in your relationship... you are the only one focused on pleasing.
Controlling would seem to be the alternative to Stifling and Pleasing, but really controlling is just another form of giving up your power to focus on someone else’s needs while ignoring your own. Resentment and disappointment end up being part of this style as well because the focus is on the other person. Rather than ask for what you need, you suffer in silence feeling unappreciated and exhausted. What motivates those who control is an unspoken lack of trust that others will follow through or do things the ‘right way’. This person is mostly concerned with avoiding negative outcomes and may even be accused of being a perfectionist. The Controller has to get involved and direct the show since letting go and allowing the other person to do things differently invites potential disaster.
What all styles share is the habit of taking responsibility for things that actually belong to other people. In other words, a co-dependent style of relating is present. There are more healthy ways to interact with people; ways that require you to speak up for yourself and share what’s important to you. When you live in this more visible and direct way, you have a better chance of experiencing satisfaction and fulfillment. And you experience less anxiety.
A cherished college professor offered this definition of anxiety that has stuck with me: Anxiety is fear of loss in the future. Our minds are primarily designed to help us survive another day and alert us to any present or future threats in the environment. Consequently, our thoughts maintain a negative bias to protect us. Without any effort, we can drift toward negative outcomes and scare ourselves into preparing for the worst. Worry is actually a normal reaction to stressful situations. But when worry dominates your thoughts and actions, you may benefit from learning how to get off the Hamster Wheel of Doom and relax. Emotions are information designed to motivate action. Not all thoughts are facts that warrant attention or action. Developing a little distance between the dialog running through your mind and the emotions those thoughts evoke can help you restore balance and have a more easy time of it. There are many different forms of clinical anxiety and no one remedy works for them all.
Grieving is the emotional and physical expression of loss. Some of the emotions people feel during the grief process include anger, despair, yearning, denial, shock, sadness, confusion, disbelief, guilt and relief. It is a complex process that takes time to feel your way through. Trying to repress or not feel unpleasant emotions doesn’t make them go away. While your mind may not acknowledge them, your body will. Some of the physical symptoms associated with grief include crying, breathlessness, frequent sighing, headaches, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, stomach or back pain, general body aches, and lethargy.
Robert Frost wrote in his poem A Servant to Servants, “the best way out is through”. You must feel your way through this very important process.
Every loss is experienced differently. If you’ve been laid off before, the second layoff will not follow the same pattern. Same with relationship loss. If you are less distraught by your father’s passing than you are by your mother’s that does not mean you loved your father less. It means the relationship and bond you had with your father was different from the one you had with your mother.
Talking helps organize such confusing and conflicting thoughts and feelings so that they are easier to bear.
Major Life Transition
A transition is the internal emotional/psychological experience that accompanies change. For example, when you move to a new city, that is a change in residence. The disorientation and doubt, and possibly the excitement and hope that you experience while dealing with boxes and maps is the internal process of shifting from an old to a new mindset while the house becomes home.
Shifting mindsets requires you to let go of things/people/habits you’ve kept to feel safe that become barriers to progress. Added to the work of unpacking and developing new routines it the grief process. You may have wanted this change and looked forward to it, so the anger, sadness, numb feelings, regret and longing surprise and confuse you. But, rest assured. They are part of the normal process of major life transition. Talking about what you're going through helps.
with a special interest in Cancer
Working for the American Cancer Society was responsible for my change of career from computing to counseling in 1999. One of the requirements to working at ACS was for either a close family member or yourself needed to have been treated for cancer. 3 grandparents, an uncle, and my mother all had received treatment for different types of cancer, some successfully, so I sadly met that requirement. In the year I spent talking with cancer patients and their family members I learned just how tumultuous this journey was. It didn’t just happen in my family. Cancer impacts many. So while I have not been diagnosed myself, I have accompanied others as they are tossed about by the rigors of treatment, tests, and recovery.
If you are frightened, that’s a normal reaction to an extraordinary experience. If you are angry, again, that’s a healthy reaction to the process of passing through misery to restoration. Much of what is experienced in the grief process applies here for patient and for family/friends. What’s lost is significant. One thing most cancer patients share is the experience of cancer having changed them in fundamental ways.