What the book is about

In this book, renowned psychologist & lecturer Dr. Harriet Lerner addresses 3 universal human emotions: fear, anxiety & shame. She speaks with clarity, humour and empathy about the nature of these uninvited guests and how they tend to play out in our lives. She speaks about how we can actually use them to our benefit by recognising their signal value while at the same time never losing sight of the stance that there is no shame in experiencing or struggling with these emotions when they do. Well, unless you're her cat Felix who she is convinced was a Buddhist zen practitioner! :D


The impact of anxiety

Anxiety promotes catastrophic thinking. It takes away your ability to think clearly or tap into possibilities. It can also destroy your capacity to tolerate ambiguity and complexity as you over reach for control and certainty. You get locked into a narrow view of who you are and lose sight of your own possibilities. It spurs us to operate from our most reactive selves. It erodes the essential human capacity to think about our thinking. This manifests in toxic ways at both an individual level and collective level.

Ideas to deal with fear/ anxiety

This is not cookie cutter and depends on the nature & degree of fear and other factors. But consider these points when dealing with a fear or anxiety, such as the fear of rejection or failure.

  1. Action is powerful: Sometimes you can move past a fear quickly with action. When you avoid what you fear, the anxiety can worsen over time.
  2. Succeed by failing: If you fear rejection or failure, gain experience in getting snubbed or failing. It takes the edge and emotional charge off it.
  3. Risk feeling ridiculous: Feeling ridiculous is uncomfortable but not a a primal threat to our existence. Gain experience in appearing foolish esp when the stakes are low.
  4. Check your motivation: You have to be in enough pain about the status quo to act and make a change. Check yourself for where you're at.

How to deal with a scary event

  1. Talk Talk Tallk
  2. Go for the facts. Anxieties escalate and fantasies flourish in the absence of information.
  3. Be reasonably vigilant. Don't be ashamed if there are certain risks you choose to avoid.
  4. Don't go overboard on the above 3.
  5. Steer clear of activities that rev you up (eg. turn off the TV)
  6. Seek out activities that calm you down (eg. walk, listen to music)
  7. Keep perspective. Terrible things happen, and it is still possible to move forward with hope and love.
  8. Connect Connect Connect

Why we sometimes don't move on (from anger / grief / relationships etc)

  1. We may not be ready to detach from our suffering because it feels familiar.
  2. It can be our way of taking revenge - of showing other people how deeply they have harmed us. Moving forward may feel akin to forgiving the transgressor.
  3. The fantasy that if we hang on to our justified rage long enough, the other person will finally realise how much they harmed us and feel as bad.
  4. Anger keeps us connected (in a strange way) to the person who hurt us. Anger after all is an intense form of attachment, just like love.
  5. When we move forward, with each step taken on our own behalf, we may be officially taking leave from a relationship that was officially terminated a long time ago. We give up the dream that the person who hurt us will feel remorse, see things the way we do or come back to us. This can be difficult for us.

On rejection

No one is immune to the pain of rejection but the more we grow in maturity and self worth, the less we take it personally. If we choose to live courageously, we will experience rejection - and survive to show up for more.

In praise of anxiety

Fear and anxiety carry "signal value". They carry information about your environment, both external & internal. It pays to be mindful of these emotions and not ignore them entirely.

The more you try to make fear go away, rather than learning to function with it, the worse you will feel about yourself. You will mistakenly see yourself as a weak and impaired individual rather than a strong, competent person who happens to have an overactive fear response.

Why compare?

To some extent we all compare ourselves with others. It's easy to come up short because we compare our insides with other people's outsides, and while we know our own worst selves, we never fully know the pain, vulnerability and sadness of others.

Authentic self regard doesn't come from comparisons or one upping anybody. It comes from tapping into our creativity and personal pleasures, from developing our competence and connections, from participating in friendship, intimacy and community. It is hard earned.

Comparisons breed shame. Including comparisons about our suffering where we try and rank who suffered more.

We're not meant to be anyone else but ourselves. We all face the challenge of living the life we have, not the life we imagined having, the life we wish for or the life we are quite certain we deserve.

Fear of change

  1. Change brings loss in its wake, even when we truly and deeply want to make that change.
  2. We count on a high degree of sameness not only in ourselves but also in the people we care about.
  3. It's not just the capacity to change, but the capacity ot resist change that stabilises our sense of identity, our continuity with the past and our connections with others.
  4. In families, as in any other social system, change always triggers "counter-moves" from other people or other parts of the system. It's like the system trying to remain in homeostasis.
  5. Change requires us to anticipate resistance from within and without - and to manage our own anxiety so that we can be our best selves when resistance shows up.

Anxious workplaces

Systems carry anxiety too. When a workplace is under stress, it develops an anxiety disorder of its own.

From a systems perspective:

  1. Anxiety is a characteristic of human systems, not just individuals.
  2. Everyone is interconnected in a human system. That means you will always be reacting to how others manage their anxiety just as they will be reacting to how you manage your own.
  3. Anxiety rarely stays contained within one or two people, it zooms through the system at high speed gathering steam at every point along the way.  It tends to move from one person to another as everyone tries to get rid of their anxiety by dumping it on someone else. People have to develop the ability to hold and function with anxiety in order to avoid a downward spiral of anxious reactions when the workplace is under stress.
  4. Anxiety is contagious. Intensity and reactivity only breed more of the same.
  5. Calm is also contagious.

5 styles of managing anxiety from a system's perspective

  1. Over-functioning: Taking charge and coming in to rescue, becoming dominant, unable to allow others to figure things things out, feel like you know what's best for everyone
  2. Under-functioning: Making errors, unable to get organised in some areas, allowing others to take charge, reporting physical or emotional symptoms when stress is high
  3. Blaming: Refusing to see one's own part in contributing to the anxiety or stress, projecting responsibility on everyone else
  4. Distancing: Physical or emotional withdrawal
  5. Gossip: Talking "about" others rather than talking directly to them. Two people move closer to each other at the expense of the gossiped about party. Degree of gossip is a direct measure of anxiety in a system.

It pays to recognise our own style and be mindful when we are about to go into its grip in stressful situations. The more we can develop this capacity, the more peaceful & harmonious our workplace can become.

Closing notes

By letting go of our desire to control the course of the universe, we get back a sense of our place in it. Control is an illusion- a fact you will learn very fast if you become ill or have things fall apart in some other way. When we understand vulnerability and suffering as an essential part of being human, our individual fate can be easier to manage.

When bad things happen, we need to cultivate perspective. Honour our pain and suffering whilst also learning how to direct our attention away from it. We are better able to deal with bad things if we've already begun the process of coming to terms with the unpredictability and seeming unfairness of life in our calmer moments.

Cover Image Credit:  hannah grace on Unsplash

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