Anxiety and Fear-Based Decisions
May 30, 2014 10:35 PM   Subscribe

Yes, another anxiety-related question from me. I'm sorry. I'm currently in the throes of a possible breakup, and I've recently realized that I'm making far too many decisions based on fear - fear of having a panic attack, fear of getting sick, fear of having needs. This has damaged my relationship. I need to stop this behavior, but I'm not sure how to do so without becoming non-functional from the resulting anxiety.

In doing some work, I've realized that, from childhood, I gained my sense of worth through being invisible in order to please adults or those important to me. I was praised for being a quiet, well-behaved, compliant, need-free kid. I internalized this and being invisible became my identity. I learned that having needs caused others to become angry or disappointed or irritated and they didn't want to be around me. I learned to be responsible for others' feelings. I don't stand up for myself. I don't express my needs or wants. I keep everything in. I know my anxiety has roots in this identity. My fear of having needs manifests in being afraid of getting sick and needing help. Then, I'm so afraid of getting sick, that I actually feel sick, and then the panic comes and then I feel worse, and on and on. My fear is that I will cause others to leave and/or I will be unlikable and considered a pain or worthless if I have needs. I'm afraid to be a person because people have needs and needs make others mad and they go away. I desperately want to overcome the anxiety and do what I need and want to do, both for myself and for my relationship. How do I make decisions that terrify me (i.e. cause panic) while remaining functional so I can actually follow through? In the past when I have done this, I became so anxiety-ridden that I literally could not eat. I lost five pounds in about a week and a half. I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't function. How do I convince myself that it's ok to have needs, it's ok to make decisions based on what I want rather than what others think I should do, that it's ok to stand up for myself and express my needs? I have never had a positive experience with expressing my needs with another person.

tl;dr: My anxiety is ruining my relationship because I make too many decisions based on fear. How can I stop while remaining functional (meaning, not becoming so anxious that I'm having continuous panic attacks where I can't eat, sleep, etc.)?
posted by msbadcrumble to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I see from your other questions that you've been seeing a therapist, and I hope that's still ongoing. If you have never had a positive experience with expressing your needs to another person, I would not suppose the fault there lies entirely with you. Other people should be showing you that's OK. So I would start with the assumption that you have two separate problems: (1) anxiety about being needy and (2) a relationship that isn't working. While those problems are very likely to interact, try not to leap to the conclusion that it's all on you.

Also, I wonder if it would help for you to describe relationship needs in general--not just your own, but everyone's--and put that in front of your SO for an honest mutual look at how relationships are supposed to work. As examples, I think most people need affection, sexual fulfillment, household help, financial stability, expressions of praise and admiration, conversation, honesty, mutual understanding about family and/or health issues, and someone to do things with who makes life fun.

If you point all this out, that's not you expressing your needs, it's you describing the needs anyone might reasonably have. Then, you and your SO can figure out how to make sure both of you are both getting those things, and you're being supportive and giving at the same time you're making sure the deal works for you too.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:55 PM on May 30, 2014

I'm sorry. I just could not read your entire wall of text. This is entirely on me, not you!

Nonetheless... Every relationship ends until the one that doesn't. There is NOTHING you can do or change right now to prevent any break up.

This is actually Very Good News.

When you get emotionally healthier, nothing about your current relationship will seem worthwhile or sustainable to you. Right now you are gaining instead of losing - but I know you can not see that from where you are standing right now. Please be OK with this. It's normal and natural.

I often talk about "self-work" and "meditation" here on the AskMe's - honestly, both are the same thing, and the root action consists of practicing periods of introspective honesty, along with periods where you clear your mind. Sometimes, both happen simultaneously.

Hiking, walking your neighborhood, and Yoga are all good for this. Downloading some binaural beat meditation apps and using them are great, too. As is journaling.

Don't fight The Journey. Excel at it.

That's my advice.
posted by jbenben at 11:26 PM on May 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You just do. There's no real trick to it - sometimes you will have a panic attack, sometimes loved ones will resent your needs, sometimes you find out you need something else - you just do it. We've short-handed it down to 'practising vulnerability'. It's a change, for you and the people around you, but the thing is avoiding these decisions and acts doesn't actually stop the anxiety. It's still there. It just steals the joy as well.

That said "I have never had a positive experience with expressing my needs with another person." sounds a LOT like catastophising. A lot.

Sad to say, one of my mantras around maladaptive coping mechanisms that induces that 'introspective honesty' is from Dr Phil* and that is "what do you get from this?" because to continue a 'bad' behaviour like this gives you something. It might be control/the semblance of control (hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii) or it might be that other people avoid certain issues or topics because you lose your shit in a spiral of self-hate (seen this, it's ugly on all counts) or it might be that you feel virtuous in denial (seen this too) or something else entirely. The 'what do you get out of this' question makes you confront the actual active effects of your behaviour, not just the internal voyage there. Any time I find myself refusing to tell my partner that I need/feel something, I replay that question in the Dr Phil voice in my head, and I know I'm doing it because it's 'safer' and I get to control the outcome - if I stay silent it's status quo, but God only knows what will happen if I speak up! It's usually "oh shit, of course, I love you, let me" but catastrophising means I never think of that, I think of the worst.

(and yes, mindfulness and meditation are very good)

*what can I say, I was living with my best friend in a shithole and we'd start drinking on our days off at lunch time and watch Dr Phil before playing Guitar Hero, and some of it stuck
posted by geek anachronism at 11:45 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do I convince myself that it's ok to have needs, it's ok to make decisions based on what I want rather than what others think I should do, that it's ok to stand up for myself and express my needs?


One broken belief at a time.

By watching yourself learn things, and taking notes about the process.

By deciding on one mental habit to change next, and working consistently on that one until it sticks.

With all of that in mind: it seems to me that the thing that's currently blocking you most is the fear of a disabling panic attack. So perhaps the first thing you need to train yourself up in is reliable methods for taking down panic attacks quickly.

Once you know you have that skill in your bag of tricks, facing the risk of changing the next thing will seem much less daunting.

You might care to start by sitting back in the weeds like a hunter before dawn waiting for ducks, prepared to observe the process of the next panic attack so you can figure out how coming out of one actually works.
posted by flabdablet at 6:36 AM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you doing any physical relaxation techniques such as guided meditation, deep breathing or autogenics? If you aren't, maybe just buy a few meditation CDs and give it a whirl?

I am often in the same boat as you and it has helped me to realize that not only is worry optional, it doesn't accomplish anything. That is, worry in the sense of fussing over a problem is one way to get to a solution, but the awful FEELING of anxiety is no kind of real work; it just feels like it. But at the same time, there is nothing to be ashamed about if you're anxious. I used to expend a lot of energy in anxiety-provoking situations not only trying to manage my anxiety but hide that I'm anxious. You know what? Forget that. That is a layer of stress you just don't need.
posted by BibiRose at 7:00 AM on May 31, 2014

Have you talked to your doc about changing meds like you said in your last question? I honestly would start there. If you can get the physiology under control, it's easier to tackle things in therapy and on your own.

I also highly suggest journaling or blogging (set up a private one on, for example) and write and write and write. Let it just be a stream of consciousness. Hit post. Or not. Just let it sit there. Write down things that comfort you or help you cope. Write down every single thing you fear, no matter how small. If you want to get all analytic on it, go for it.

FWIW, exercise never helped me a bit. In fact it triggers panic attacks for me. So if it's helping go for it. But if you're doing it because you think you should, I hereby give you permission to not do it. Yes, self care is important, but if it's making things worse, than IMO, it's counterproductive.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk. It sounds like we might have some life experiences in common.
posted by kathrynm at 7:24 AM on May 31, 2014

I self-medicated against anxiety for many, many years. Now I use a combination of a 12-step program, therapy, mindful meditation, vigorous exercise and anti-anxiety medication, prescribed by a psychiatrist. I totally empathize, having been there, & having wrecked relationships because of my fear-based reactions. The first clue for me was figuring out that I didn't have to react to everything. I spent many, many years thinking "this needs action now!" and doing the wrong damn thing, when in reality, the best move turned out to be doing nothing at all long enough to step away, analyze my thinking & feelings, and approach the problem with a little bit of distance & reflection. It took a lot of help from a lot of people for me to get there.

Have you tried telling your partner just how hard it is for you to express your needs & to put yourself first, and ask them for help? I'm lucky to have a relationship that allows me to be weak when I'm weak & to have someone to lean on in those moments. A good partner should be helping you through this. An unburdening might be surprisingly cathartic. A first step towards communication might be letting them know you have a communication problem.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:58 AM on May 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your responses. I've gotten something useful from each one. To those who asked, yes, I'm in the process of changing my medication and I am continuing to see my therapist. I spent several hours today thinking and writing, and, apparently, getting sunburned in the process, and am coming up with a plan to start changing my thoughts and behaviors regarding my anxiety and its roots. Kathrynm, I'm going to MeMail you.
posted by msbadcrumble at 4:44 PM on May 31, 2014

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