Recently I read the book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson. And I can’t say enough good things about it. Today I explore 5 of Sarah’s cruel ironies when it comes to living with anxiety. If you struggle with anxiety or know someone who does, I know you will be nodding your head in understanding as you listen.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson.
Hey, gang. I am very excited to be back again here at the Happiness Hacks podcast to be sharing with you about this wonderful book that I have found. I found it back in May when I was on vacation. I absolutely devoured it. It is called, “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety.” It was written by Sarah Wilson. On the book jacket, she says, “Learning to view anxiety as her finest teacher rather than the enemy,” which I just absolutely adored. I gained so much from this book and just new ways of looking at anxiety. She did such an amazing job of really showing what it’s like to live with anxiety, giving a new voice to anxiety. It just is an absolutely fantastic book.
If you deal with anxiety or think you may have anxiety or live with someone who has anxiety, I highly, highly recommend this book because she comes from a journalistic background. She does an excellent job of researching and giving a lot of different voices along with her amazing voice that is just so heartfelt and so authentic in how she describes anxiety. It’s not exactly a self-help book even though she has some great techniques on how she, personally, gets through anxiety. It is just more of an exploration of what it’s like to live with anxiety. I bought this book because I got it from the library and I wanted to highlight so much that I ended up purchasing the book so I could actually highlight, but every page is highlighted or dog-eared. It just has been well, well worn. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this impactful.
The part of the book that I love the most is she has these different things called the cruel ironies of anxiety. She has them spread throughout the book. She has 16 of them. Today, I want to look at 5 of the 16 and talk to you about them in hopes that you will pick up this book. I’m not getting any money from this or anything from Sarah. I absolutely feel like this is a great resource.
The cruel irony, the first one I want to talk about is actually on page 27 of the book. She said, “Anxiety is rewarded in our culture, so we often miss the diagnosis.” She goes on to say that being high-strung and so busy is a badge of honor. I have talked about this before that saying how busy we are has become the new ‘fine.’ Someone asked you how you’re doing, answering, “Oh, I’m just so busy.” So anxiety and that feeling of go, go, go and push, push, push, and the natural way of living that comes with anxiety is rewarded in our culture, so the behaviors that spring forth because we’re anxious are valued, and so it’s very hard to get diagnosed with anxiety. I have so many clients that come into me and say, “I didn’t know that this wasn’t normal. I didn’t know that this was anxiety.” I think that’s true because it’s so valued in our culture.
Something I struggled with while reading this book was owning the label of anxiety. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot: “I’m anxious, or I have anxiety,” but we don’t want to have a label, a diagnosis. There’s a lot of stigma with that. A lot of life coaches will say, “I won’t diagnose you.” It’s one of the negatives of the mental health professional is that they diagnose you. But the part that I loved about this book, and it reframed it for me, was when you know that you have anxiety when you have that label, then you can start making the beast beautiful. It’s back to that belief of if you acknowledge what’s happening in your life, then you can start building coping mechanisms around living with it.
When we can say, “I struggle with anxiety, and it shows up in these ways in my life,” then I can take anxiety and view it as something that’s not holding me back but something that I’m learning how to carry and live with. So I think that there is a power in being able to label it and own it and acknowledge it instead of just pretending it doesn’t exist and not wanting to buy into the stigma of anxiety. Anxiety is a very real thing, and it is crippling, and so being able to start learning and owning that label I think is powerful. Because as Sarah says in the book, it takes 9 to 12 years for people to get the diagnosis of anxiety. The relief that my clients feel when they’re like, “Oh, this isn’t normal. This isn’t just a way of being. There is something going on in my life that’s different from other people,” that’s where owning your anxiety is a very powerful thing.
The next cruel irony she talks about is on page 28. “We suck it up when we feel anxious, and soldier on until we tip off the edge and anxiety turns pathological and even medical.” This goes back to what I was just talking about: the idea that we end up blaming ourselves. We blame our poor coping mechanisms well before we blame anxiety. We turn the feelings of anxiety on ourselves, and we blame ourselves, which is why I say for those of us with anxiety, our mongers tend to be very, very loud because our mongers are telling us to suck it up and soldier on and keep going. Our mongers aren’t telling us to take care of ourselves and, “Oh, that might be anxiety.” That might not be a normal way of looking at the world. We might have a lens that we view the world but is more hopped up than most.
So the idea of the happier approach and learning how to quiet those mongers goes hand in hand with this. I wrote the “Happier Approach” for those of us who have excessive anxiety because our mongers tend to be very, very loud. The longer we go without really dealing with our anxiety, the worse it’s going to get as with anything. The longer we leave any … diabetes or cancer, anything untreated, the worse it’s going to get. That’s why it’s so important to start exploring anxiety and exploring the idea that maybe I don’t need to live this way.
The next cruel irony I want to talk about is on page 31. She says, “The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.” I mean can I get an Amen from that one? That is huge. In reality the more anxious we are, the more we would love for someone to come and take a bit of the load, but we keep sucking it up and soldiering on is what Sarah Wilson says. I totally agree with that. I see that in my life all the time. I see that in my clients’ life. I wrote about that in the “Happier Approach.” One of the ways we know our mongers are in charge is the idea of, “I got this.” We just say to ourselves, “I got this. I got this. I don’t need to ask for help. I can take care of everything. I totally got it.”
That mentality of let me keep piling more stuff on my plate is because of anxiety. The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we become, I should say, the more high-functioning we appear, and so people continue to lean on us because we appear like we have it all together. When in reality, we are just awesome at making ourselves appear high-functioning. When inside, we’re just crumbling. That is why I talk so much about the idea of building loyalty within yourself because we’re good at being loyal to the people around us. We’re good at leaning in and helping them and appearing high-functioning to the detriment of ourselves. The reason we can do that is because the anxiety becomes less because we’re focused externally on getting all this stuff done, but in reality, we are spinning out. We’re uncomfortable. We’re pushing ourselves way too hard. We’re getting ready to hit that place where we’re just totally exhausted. That is such a cruel irony that we appear more high-functioning, so people lean on us more. When in reality, we need the help of people.
The fourth one I’m going to talk about was on page 121. She says, “We rush to escape what makes us anxious which makes us anxious, and so we rush some more.” We’re worried about the future and finding a better life, so we rush ahead, constantly thinking, striving, trying to figure out what does a better life look like, which only serves us to make us more anxious. So we push and push and push thinking, “Oh, I just got to check off these things off the to-do list,” or “Once I finish this, it’ll be okay,” and we’re pushing and pushing and pushing and becoming more and more and more anxious.
I notice this in my own life when I start going into hyper-pushing, and I’m rushing ahead and not wanting to slow down because I’m pushing so hard. That is when I know I need to practice ASK, which is the acronym of acknowledging what you’re feeling, slow down and get into your body, and kindly pull back to see the big picture. Because when you’re an anxious person, the last thing you want to do is stop and take a breath, do some meditation, whatever that may look like. The last thing an anxious person wants to do is stop moving, stop working towards that end goal. But it is one of the best things an anxious person can do is to stop moving. That’s why I love the idea of the happiness hacks because 10 to 20 seconds of getting in your body and taking a breath or moving your hands or wiggling your body or doing a dance in your office, something that allows you to pull out of that rush, rush, rush, push, push, push that anxiety puts on us.
Then the last one I want to talk about is on page 225 in the book, “I convince myself that controlling my life and aiming for perfection will cocoon me from anxiety, but it only causes more of the dreaded thing.” That is another one. Can I get an Amen? We decide, “Oh, I’m going to just aim for perfection. I’m going to aim for doing it right. Once I can do that, then I won’t feel so anxious. I’ll feed protected.” So we’re aiming for this thing that is impossible in a way to cocoon ourselves from anxiety, when in fact it causes more anxiety to be pushing and pushing and pushing for perfection. Again, ironic, catch-22, it’s a double bind. It keeps us stuck in indecision. It keeps us stuck in spinning from thing to thing. It keeps us just stuck from moving forward because we just keep assuming that if we can get it right and do it perfectly, everything will be okay. So we get stuck in research. We get stuck in asking people and looking outside of ourselves for information all in an aim to do it perfect so we won’t have anxiety.
Again, I talk about this in the “Happier Approach.” This is why I love the concept of ASK because it allows us to acknowledge what’s really going on in our lives and to look, is this a search for perfection? For those of us with anxiety, falling into perfection and the aim for perfection is almost like breathing. It just is such an easy default pattern to fall into. So I have been working on this in my life and with my clients that the minute that you start noticing perfection and the aim for that to be able to pull yourself back and recognize that isn’t going to happen. I’m in the midst of anxiety. What can I do to take care of this? What am I feeling? How can I slow down and get into my body? And how do I pull back and see the big picture? So all of those things come in to play when we are living in anxiety.
Those are the 5 cruel ironies, 5 of the 16 that Sarah talks about in her book. I might come back around in a couple of episodes from now and talk about some more of them because I, as I said, love this book and found it very powerful. In the meantime, I highly encourage you to go out and buy the book or get it from the library. I will put a link to the book in the notes section on my website at live-happier.com/podcast so you can see more information about the book and read all about it.
I always wanted to just do a quick shout out. If you are going to be in the central Ohio area or live in the central Ohio area, I am doing something I’m calling the Live Happier Day Retreats. It’s a way to spend some time with me. I’m going to be teaching two separate days near Lancaster, Ohio. I have a farmhouse that we’re going to be staying at for the day. Perfect for the introverts out there because you can sleep in your bed and have the bathroom in your own house. You won’t have to worry about that, sleeping with a roommate and all that stuff that happens when you do an overnight retreat. This is just a day retreat, but you get time with me. You get time with yourself. It’s a small group, and so we’re going to be talking about some of the concepts I talk here about on the Happiness Hacks. You can find out more information about that at live-happier.com/day-retreats. Again, I’ll put that link in the notes section if you want to find out more information about that.
If any of these cruel ironies resonated with you and you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I think I have anxiety and I didn’t really know it,” or, “Wow, my anxiety’s out of control. I need some help,” please reach out to me. Send me an email, email@example.com. I’d love to talk to you more about it. This is what I’ve devoted my life to is helping people with anxiety and figuring out coping skills and ways to live with it and, as Sarah says, ways to make the beast beautiful, so please reach out to me firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s the show. Thanks for listening. The Happiness Hacks podcast comes out every week. If you have questions, please email me, email@example.com, or follow me on Instagram @nancyjane-livehappier. Until next time, here’s living happier.
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