On any given day if you ask Carly what she has planned, you’re likely to hear at the end of her sentence, “But it depends on how I’m feeling.” For Carly, the feeling is her anxiety that she has been struggling with for a long time. For others the feeling may be depression or a medical condition, such as back pain. For still others, it’s not how they’re feeling, but how others are feeling — what their boss’s or partner’s moods and reactions may be at any given time.
I’ve met many people who are like this, as you probably have as well. What these folks have in common is that their problems, their conditions, or these others are essentially running their lives. That they have fallen into this state is understandable — the feelings, the pain, the worry about others’ reactions are real enough, especially if these issues have been going on for a long time. But the end result is that everything is dependent on “it” or "them"; everything that unfolds in their lives is qualified with “We’ll have to wait and see,” “Maybe,” “I don’t know.” They hesitate because everything is conditional; their stance is always reactive; their lives are created not by them.
This is a subtle, yet powerful psychological process that can easily become an overall approach to how you run, or fail to run, your life. Rather than being the captain of your own ship, you become merely the passenger. Rather than being the master of your own destiny, your destiny is controlled by these other forces, other people. Your future is always up in the air, a question mark.
Another way: Run your own life
The challenge for Carly is to change her thinking, to see herself less as a victim of her anxiety, and instead see her anxiety as a major element of her life that she needs to learn to work around and manage. Her challenge is to shift from her reactive stance to a proactive one. Here are some suggestions for making your life more your own:
1. Have a vision for your life.
Again, it is understandable that Carly’s vision of herself and her life has likely withered over time. She has given up looking ahead, because in her own mind, everything is dependent and tentative. But the counterintuitive strategy is not forever reinforcing her defensive stance, but instead going on the offense.
The starting point is being bold and envisioning the life she wants to have. Rather than the watered-down life she has come to accept, she needs to envision the ideal. Here we can think of others, such as Stephen Hawking, who was able to envision a courageous and productive life in spite of his debilitating illness. Here Carly steps back from her everyday, anxiety-driven, myopic thinking and instead thinks big: What kind of person does she want to be even with her struggle with her anxiety? What does she want to accomplish? What are her passions, her purpose? She envisions, she dreams, and her challenge is to consciously push against and counter those voices that say, "Why bother?"
2. Set goals.
With this broader vision in place, she can now begin to set out goals — daily goals, weekly goals, three or six-month goals, one-year goals, five-year goals. The content of her goals is less important than the setting of them and moving towards them; this is counter to standing still, to waiting and seeing. She can start small and take those baby-steps to build her self-confidence.
3. Have a plan to address the problem.
Rather than emotions determining what she feels she can and cannot do, rather than letting them set the pace of her life and always dreading what each day may bring, she needs to proactively have a plan a place to manage these problems. Here she talks with her physician or psychiatrist about medication, or she uses meditation to lower her anxiety when it starts to creep up. Here someone with depression has a friend or partner who encourages them to get out of bed rather than staying put, or the person with back pain has remedies and tools to reduce the pain or, often more importantly, tools to reduce the worry about the pain on a bad day.
And if those bad days do come, have a way of moving forward towards your goals in spite of them. Yes, on a bad day, some plans may be modified, but they are not scrapped. The emotions or the pain is acknowledged, but it is not in charge. Like setting goals, what is important is less “what you do” and more about changing the process — how you approach the problems and your relationship to them.
4. Change your relationship with others.
And if you feel your choices and fate are determined by your worry about others’ moods and reactions, you want to proactively change these dynamics. Here, too, you want to have a plan — to learn to act “in spite of.” What is usually driving this give-away of your own power are “little-kid” feelings, echoes of the past that you cause you to feel less than an equal, not quite the grown-up. The reality is that you are an adult, that though your past may linger, it does not need to be forever replicated. You want to give up the magical thinking that if only you do it “right,” the other person will change; instead, change you. Have a plan, get support, stop being the victim or the passenger.
The overriding message here is that yes, emotions and problems are real, but it is your attitude that governs their power. Think big, have a plan, set goals, take action, get support from friends, professionals.
Reclaim your life.