What I Wish I Could Tell My Anxious, Younger Self

Dr. Liz Matheis
A young girl wearing a flower crown leaning over the smell a flower

Last month, actor Gillian Anderson posted a video where she openly shared she lives with anxiety and depression, and that it should not be a source of shame or belittlement. She also gives advice to her younger self in that although she has anxiety, it doesn’t mean she can’t live a peaceful and beautiful life.

I am so thankful that a prominent person like Gillian has been so forthcoming about her experiences. It’s very easy to think — “You’ve got it all, Gillian. What are you anxious and depressed about?” But the truth of the matter is, anxiety doesn’t know your socioeconomic status or your profession, and it doesn’t care. Many of us are either born with a genetic predisposition or we were raised by our anxious parents, who communicated to us life’s experiences and events are dangerous. Many of us may have had life experiences that have shaken or shattered our sense of safety and trust in the people and the world of which we are apart. Regardless of how you’re here, you are here.

Related:I Trust You, But My Anxiety Doesn't

As a psychologist, I often sit with young adults who mirror my experiences as a younger version of me. I hear myself saying or thinking, “I feel like I’m talking to my younger self.” Watching Gillian’s video really hit home for me as I often wonder how differently my life paths and choices would have been if I had acknowledged my anxiety and had not been so shameful of my thoughts, feelings and choices. I often wonder if I could have lived more in the present and less in my head, what my life would have looked now. I wonder. I also wonder what I could have said to my younger self that would have made a difference in my experience of anxiety. I wonder.

I know I’m not alone with my regrets, my hindsight and regular bombardment of “what if’s.” But that’s anxiety too. That’s the all-consuming nature of anxiety that continues to take me away from the present and keeps me living in the past. It hurts to think that my life could have looked different, possibly even looked better or more relieved.

Related:What It Means to Be an 'Anxious Overfunctioner'

Nonetheless, I am here now. You are here now. So, here are a few words I think might have made an impact on my younger self.

You will be OK. I promise.

How many times did I think one situation was going to end in disaster and be “the end of the world?” Too many times to count in a day. I catastrophized each situation and the impact it was going to have on my bigger world and life. How many times did I conceptualize that one “bad” grade was going to lead to losing my college scholarship, which would impact my ability to finish college, which would impact my future career, which would impact my ability to support myself in the future, which would impact my overall ability to live my life? Yup, the whirlwind of disastrous and catastrophic anxious thoughts is one dangerous downward spiral. It’s illogical.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “How can one ‘bad’ grade in one college class for one semester lead to homelessness and poverty?” It can’t, but that’s where I can now, as an adult, tell myself that one isolated grade or one isolated event will not impact my entire life trajectory.

Related:This Therapy Technique Taught Me How to Fully Control My Anxiety

I am a resourceful person, I can problem solve and I can figure out how to get around that one grade or one situation that feels so overwhelming and horrible in the moment.

Please don’t feel ashamed. You haven’t done anything wrong.

If you’re anxious, you understand shame. You probably feel shameful all the time. I know I am still struggling with feelings of shame and guilt. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I should have called instead of sending a text.” Maybe, maybe, maybe. I still feel like I’ve done something “wrong” or “bad” even though I logically know that I did not.

Anxiety holds you to ridiculously high standards although you don’t hold others to those same standards. I know that I am more than accommodating with other people and it truly comes naturally. However, I am not accommodating nor forgiving when it comes to my own perceived errors. I am positive that you have experienced the same negative loop that I can play in my head for days; pure obsessiveness where I re-play a situation and pause and zoom in on my reaction, my words or my lack thereof. And I make horribly negative statements towards myself. It’s just horrid.

If I could give my younger self a message, it would be that each person makes errors in judgment, in thinking, in what was said or done. It’s OK. You can go back and apologize or explain, and it will be OK.

You are a good friend and person despite your anxiety.

As a young adult, there were so many experiences out of which I self-selected. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say or how I should act. I avoided situations where I could make mistakes and potentially hurt someone’s feelings. I wanted security, safety and predictability. With that, there are many fun life experiences and friendships that didn’t make it because of my anxiety.

And, as you know, anxiety remembers that. Anxiety capitalizes on those times and in all the ways that I was not a good friend. And regret. So.much.regret. I wanted to be a good friend and be present, but I spent too much time in my head thinking about what I’ve said or how I acted and how I could have done that better.

So, to my younger self, I say, you are a good friend. You are genuine, you listen, you offer sympathy (and empathy) and you care. And, remember that friendships are two-sided, a give and take.

Acknowledge that you are a fixer — but it’s not your job to fix it all.

Can I see a show of hands of how many anxious people are also fixers? I would say a good chunk of us are! We are born able to identify the problem and figure out ways to make it work differently or better. But where does it end? Does it end?

In my inner world, I could not draw a line to mark where my responsibility ended and where the next person’s responsibility began. The entire world and its problems were my responsibility and it was my duty to stay aware of them. I’m becoming exhausted just thinking about this. For the anxious person, the boundaries are vast, and we aren’t that great at creating spaces that are ours.

With all of this said, I would tell my younger self that I’m resourceful and I am a good fixer, but it’s not my job to fix it all.

#MyYoungerSelf has been eye-opening for me, as a mom, as a woman, as a psychologist. I’m thankful to you, Gillian Anderson. I wish you all inner peace and self-love.

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