Have I been too hard on myself, or not hard enough?

This is a terribly unhelpful question I often ask myself.

After a year like 2020, it’s easy to waffle between intense self-criticism and total absolution from working on yourself. But this is the challenge of growing up—to walk the middle line by staying curious about how you function and who you could become, even in darker times.  

To muster some of that curiosity, this week I’m reaching back into the past to access a calmer, more thoughtful version of myself (the version that grabbed doorknobs with abandon and ate food in buildings that weren’t my house).

Last December I wrote an article for Thrive Global I called, “20 Ways You’re Going to Have an Incredibly Anxious 2020.” I wasn’t prescient enough to have the pandemic on the list, but I think the anxiety of COVID-19 only intensified the examples I gave.

Take a look below at the list I composed for the article. Was I correct? Do any of the behaviors remind you or yourself over the past year?

20 Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020  

  • You borrowed standards of success from the world around you. 
  • You tried to force people to agree with you politically.  
  • You avoided everyone who seemed anxious or distressed.   
  • You quickly borrowed solutions from others without using your own thinking.
  • You focused more on your kid’s responses to stress than your own. 
  • You rigidly defined what a successful year would look like. 
  • You acted as if your anxious imaginings are reality. 
  • You used all your energy to seek praise and attention.
  • You assumed you knew what others were thinking. 
  • You didn’t define how you want to respond to troubling news stories.  
  • You didn’t share important information with family members.
  • You tried to make others act more mature. 
  • You vented to others without first trying to calm yourself down. 
  • You tried to teach your family how to not embarrass or annoy you. 
  • You relied on others’ reactions to evaluate yourself.
  • You overfunctioned for everyone when you felt frustrated. 
  • You avoided situations where rejection and disappointment were possible. 
  • You conformed to your friends’ opinions to not upset them.  
  • You convinced yourself that another person must change in order for you to calm down. 
  • You prioritized alleviating the anxiety of the moment, even if it compromised your own principles and beliefs. 

It’s important to remember that all of these behaviors are automatic, even adaptive reactions to stress. They’re not particularly creative, but they can be quite effective at calming you down temporarily. And the more stressed you are, the harder it is to interrupt them—even if you’d like to behave differently. Many are examples of what Dr. Murray Bowen called borrowing self, of relying on the thinking or the cooperation of others to manage distress. Even in a year of social distancing, most of us still managed to use each other to fill in the gaps of our own maturity.  

One example from that list tapped on me on the shoulder: You rigidly define what a successful year would look like. Earlier in the year I wrote about how flexibility is a sign of maturity, and the challenge of not holding one’s self to 2019 standards in a 2020 world. But I can’t say that I lived up to this definition. By setting unreachable standards for my own work, I became even less effective. I let my anxiety distort my ability to evaluate myself objectively, and it’s almost impossible to feel motivated when you’re not operating in reality. It’s also hard to be honest with yourself and others about what you can and cannot do.

Shifting from borrowing self to building self is a lifelong journey. But to give you some ideas, I’ve reversed my list of anxious behaviors for you.

20 Ideas for Growing Up in 2021

  • You take the time to define what you really value.  
  • You share your thinking without trying to manage the reaction.
  • You work on managing your own reactivity around anxious people.  
  • You take time to access your own thinking before polling others.  
  • You focus on managing your anxiety while relating to your children. 
  • You generate your own objective, flexible, and attainable definitions of success.
  • You take time to gather facts when you feel distressed. 
  • You try to evaluate yourself more objectively.
  • You ask people what they are thinking rather than guessing.
  • You define how you want to respond to big issues and events.
  • You share important information with family members.
  • You work on your own maturity rather than forcing maturity on others.
  • You try to calm yourself down before sharing challenges with others.
  • You focus on how you want to respond to challenging family members. 
  • You use your own principles to guide your actions.
  • You let others be responsible for themselves. 
  • You treat rejection and disappointment like they are manageable.
  • You share your thinking with friends, even when they may disagree.  
  • You focus on managing your own anxiety instead of managing others.
  • You accept the reality that some anxiety is the price of growing up, of living a life driven by your own thinking and beliefs.

Are there one or two examples on this list that could use your attention in 2021? Or even better, do you have your own ideas about what how to interrupt some of those anxious, automatic behaviors?

If I could give you one word to take into 2021, it would be curiosity. To look at your functioning with less disgust, and even less reverence, and acknowledge that you are just a human doing predictable, universal human things in the face of stress. Shutting off this autopilot takes a great deal of flexibility, patience, and creativity. It requires you to be curious about what could finally happen when you navigate life with own best thinking instead of your anxiety.

News from Kathleen

Want to read more of my writing? I’ve started writing a weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine.

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