Choosing Productive Anxiety
Conquering the Need for Approval, Part 3
Break Up With Your Anxious Life
The first time I said a hard "no" to my mother-in-law, I walked out of her house, sat in my car, and panicked.
I was afraid I'd hurt her feelings, or she was mad at me, and those ideas were almost intolerable. It's funny now to think about it, because I can picture the inside of my car, the weather outside the window, and the burning feeling in my gut. But I can't remember what the "no" was about. And I guarantee my mother-in-law doesn't either.
That was almost 20 years ago, and the beginning of what I think of as a boundaries success story. My relationship with Jeff’s family is one of the places God taught me to conquermy need for approval, without having to give up my desire for belonging.
I met my husband when he was 20 and I was just 18 years old. When Jeff took me to his home to meet his parents and two sisters, I really wanted them to like me. I hoped I would like them. But as time went on, I had two conflicting feelings: I desperately wanted them to accept me, but I was afraid of being absorbed into their family culture, losing my freedom and individuality.
A case could be made that this conflict I had is the human conflict: the competing desires for belonging and individual personhood. It's a spiritual question: How much does God want me to belong to others, and how much do I belong to myself? And it's an emotional question: Which will bring me peace? Adapt and comply to belong, or be authentic to my gifts and values and possibly belong to with less people?
Our family has found a pretty balanced solution in this area through trial and error. We had to do things that were really uncomfortable. For example, one year, we said, “No thank you,” to attending the Fourth of July parade in my in-laws’ neighborhood. We had enjoyed years of patriotic fun while the girls were babies, but now we wanted to invest in the relationships in our own neighborhood. That first year was hard. We felt guilty. Grandma and Grandpa were sad we didn’t come. But in subsequent years, it made sense to everyone, and there was not a break in our family relationship; we hadn’t complied, but we still belonged.
This example demonstrates some of the best advice I’ve ever been given on balancing my need for approval with my desire to individuate and do what’s best for me and my family of four. Kay Yerkovich is a Christian counselor who, along with her husband Milan, wrote a wildly successful book on marriage based on Attachment Theory, How We Love I had the opportunity to work as editor on their small group video series last year, and milked the situation shamelessly by asking for lots of personal advice.
In one instance, there was a gathering I really didn’t want to attend; I knew it would be painful for a number or reasons and cause me stress for days before and after. But I was really struggling to say “no.”
Kay said, “Look. You’re going to be anxious either way. Anxious if you go, and anxious if you don’t. Choose the productive anxiety.”
Kay’s advice is practical and brilliant. For those of us who struggle with people pleasing or an excessive need for others’ approval, we often feel like we have “no choice” in life, when the reality is, we have unrealistic expectations of our choices. We want one of them to be, “I get to do what I want and make everyone happy at the same time,” a choice rarely on the menu.
Because we rarely get a “no anxiety” choice, we need to be brave enough to tolerate discomfort (false guilt, fear, anxiety). We build a boundary-setting muscle that allows us to live more authentically. The other option is living life trapped in resentment. This advice applies not only to when we want to say no to invitations or requests for help. It also applies when we need to express hurt or address conflict. It will be hard; we may disappoint people and hurt their feelings. But many times, that is the only healthy choice to build intimacy and maintain relationships.
So, while you’re bravely building your authenticity muscle, here’s one more tip: Notice the story you’re telling yourself about what the other parties involved are thinking.
In her book Rising Strong, Brenè Brown writes about a time she went swimming with her husband, who was being quiet and detached; she made up a story in her head that he was not enjoying being with her and no longer liked the way she looked in her Speedo (I love this vulnerability). When she told her husband the story she was making up, he corrected her. His detachment had nothing to do with her, or her bathing suit bod.
Brenè now uses this technique personally and professionally: “The story I’m making up right now is [fill in the blank].” The story is usually false.
Have you ever done this? You said no to a friend’s request and then, when she’s slower than usual to respond to a text, you make up a story about how angry and disappointed she is in you? Sometimes, just acknowledging the story to ourselves is enough to quell our anxiety. Sometimes, in safe relationships, its helpful to say, “The story I’m making us right now is that you think I’m a really selfish person because I can’t take you to the airport next week.” And your friend can affirm that you are allowed to say no, and she still loves you.
I’ll wrap this up with the hard truth: Sometimes, the story we’re making up is true. Some people can’t hear “no,” or won’t want to continue in relationship with us when we express our sincere needs. Sometimes, we won’t want to continue in relationship when people express their sincere needs. We may have relationships that won’t last when both parties choose to be authentic, and that doesn’t mean one of us was wrong.
Choosing the productive anxiety is worth it. I’ve learned that my most satisfying places of belonging are those where I can both be authentic and be loved. They are places where I am safe to disappoint people, and be disappointed. They are relationships where I ask for what I want, and my loved ones are allowed to say “no, I can’t give you that.” To be loved in these places is to be flexible. To understand that love is not a total buy-in for others’ choices, that we do not always want the same things, and that everyone involved is learning and growing. And God, who created me for community, is there in the midst of us.