Day 377: Free-floating, re-sticking anxiety (The _ Metaphor)

I know that one way to engage readers, or  listeners, is to ask them a question.

I don’t think I’ve asked my readers, before today, to answer a specific question. But I need help, right now, in completing the title of this post.

Here’s the deal.

Today, I wanted to write about this phenomenon: How anxiety (or dread, or whatever-we-want-to-call-it) can attach to something and — once that issue is resolved — re-attach to something else.

I notice that in myself, and others.

Here’s a personal example. I have a dread of other people’s anger (which I wrote about here and here). Why do I dread that? Probably because I believe, deep down, that if I anger somebody, I will lose them forever. Rationally, I may know that is not true; but my stubborn subconscious still believes it.

As a result, I get anxious if I believe that somebody is displeased or angry with me.  And because I’m human and I personalize things (see here for the cognitive distortion of personalization, among other human distortions), I can see anger or displeasure in a whole range of reactions from innocent bystanders.  That is, somebody else might be distracted or upset about something THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME, but my first thought is this:

I’ve done something wrong. They’re pissed off at me.

For the past 50 years or so, I have worked very hard at not having that reaction.   However, because of that automatic response, I usually am thinking that SOMEBODY is mad at me.

This “habit” has resulted in various people in my life getting this message from me (in person, over the phone, and — as communication technology has advanced — through email, text, and social media):

Are you mad at me?

Sometimes, that question is more sophisticated; that is, the language sounds more adult. For example:

Because you have not responded to my messages, I’m wondering if it’s possible that I have somehow offended you.  If so, I apologize. Our connection is important to me, and I hope there is some way we can resume it.*

And, ladies and gentlemen, in the vast majority of times that I have asked this question (primitively or sophisticatedly), this has been the answer:

No. I’m not mad at you.

However, despite all this evidence to the contrary, if you asked me, at any particular moment, this question:

Ann, do you suspect that somebody is mad at you?

If I were being honest, my answer would be:


And I could provide the name of somebody, as proof.

For example, right now, as I’m writing this post, I worry that a friend of mine is mad at me.

What is this based on?

Nothing. Everything. Believe me, I can come up with reasons.

Will I ask this person if they’re mad at me?

Yes, I will, eventually. What do I think will happen?  Past evidence predicts they will reply, as above.

No. I’m not mad at you.

And if they ARE mad at me?  Past evidence predicts we will work it out, and re-connect.

What else does past evidence predict?

Once that worry is resolved, I will — too soon — start believing that somebody else is mad at me.

WHY, oh WHY, do I do that?

As I mentioned previously in this post, I have some theories about that. However, these days, I am focusing on changing behaviors and thoughts without completely understanding the Why’s.

That reminds me of another metaphor I used, with a client, last year. A nurse, who was having some confusing negative emotions, told me, “I really want to understand WHY I’m feeling this way.”  And I replied, “I understand that you want to know why.  However, maybe you could start healing before that.” Then, I used this analogy: “You know how when somebody comes into the Emergency Room with a bleeding wound, you start treating it immediately, even if you don’t know the cause?  Sure, you could treat it better if you knew more. However, even with limited knowledge, you still do everything you can, to stop that bleeding and start the healing.”

And, that metaphor was effective.

So where was I, before the Emergency Room metaphor?

Oh, yes. I want to reduce my free-floating anxiety, especially regarding my Dread of Anger.

So, what helps with that — or any other helpful, healing change?

Communicating, through writing or speech.   Reducing the power of the old habit with the power of words — which includes coming up with metaphors (such as those I’ve written about here, here,  here, and here).

Which leads me back to beginning of this post. Today, I would like to come up with a good-enough metaphor for  free-floating, re-sticking anxiety — whether it’s worry about somebody else’s anger, or anything else.

Before I started writing, I tried to think of something — animal, vegetable, or mineral — that sticks, becomes unstuck, floats away, and then re-sticks to something else.

Here were the candidates I came up with:

1.  Barnacles.

download (11)

According to Wikipedia (which is where that photo lives), a barnacle is designed to stick, but it does so permanently.  So that didn’t really fit what I was trying to convey.

2. Sea anemones.


According to Wikipedia, again (where that image lives):

Anemones tend to stay in the same spot until conditions become unsuitable (prolonged dryness, for example), or a predator attacks them. In that case anemones can release themselves from the substrate and use flexing motions to swim to a new location. Most sea anemones attach temporarily to submerged objects; a few thrust themselves into the sand or live in burrows; a few are parasitic on other marine organisms [8] and some have symbiotic relationships with hermit crabs.

Hmmm. I think anemones are a better metaphor than barnacles. However, I don’t love it, because:

  1. I have trouble spelling “anemone.”
  2. The word “parasitic” skeeves me out.
  3. I am very distracted by the implications of the “symbiotic relationships with hermit crabs.”


At this point, I believe that a better metaphor –that is,  better than anemones or barnacles — exists, somewhere.

Which leads me to my question: Can you think of a good metaphor for free-floating, re-sticking anxiety?

I hope you’re not mad at me for asking  — or for taking this long to get around to it.

Thanks to creatures who live (or have lived) in the sea, to anyone who gets anxious, mad, or insecure, and — of course! — to everybody  reading this, right now (whether you answer my question, or not).


* Somebody got this message from me, fairly recently.

** This image lives on a post by a fellow WordPress blogger, sajeevkmenon. I wonder if Sajeev will get mad at me for using that picture? Or for screwing up his (or her) name?

Categories: inspiration, personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

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45 thoughts on “Day 377: Free-floating, re-sticking anxiety (The _ Metaphor)

  1. I believe I have a reflex reaction that relates to your dread of making somebody mad at you, Ann. I say ‘sorry’ too often, even when something is not even remotely connected to my actions (at that moment, at least). Sorry for avoiding your assignment for so long. See! I think these actions come back to us like a boomerang. That’s not a great metaphor, I know, but it does allow me to leave with this joke I heard recently. What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t work properly? A stick. So we all should work on turning the dread into a stick that lies out in the yard until it’s really needed. Have a good Sunday, Ann.

    • It’s a great metaphor, Mark, and a great joke, too. I also work at saying “sorry” less frequently. I will have a good Sunday, Mark, partially thanks to having the opportunity to write about this and hear back from people like you.

  2. I think that anemone is indeed the right metaphor, I have a friend who shares your same feelings that I’ll be showing this post to 🙂

  3. I think of a seed that floats with the wind. It is designed to attach to a surface that could be a possible place to grow. If that surface is an animal it may service the seeds life cycle by transporting it to a new place where it may get dislodged and re-stick to another surface. The reason I thought of this metaphor is that I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I recently had to euthanize our 10 year old dog. Seven years ago a terrible accident occurred where this dog’s chain strangled my Golden when he was 10. Although the two deaths are unrelated in time, my mind has combined the two. The grief of both dog’s deaths are magnified in my mind. I am working on dislodging death from the memory of both animals and reviving the images of their being very happy and loved.

    • Thank you for the wonderful metaphor and for sharing your experience. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, also.

      I am so sorry for the loss of your two dogs. All the best to you, in your healing journey.

  4. You don’t need my help, you’ve already sorted it out.) BTW Mark, I have a similar problem only I’m now getting annoyed at saying it.
    Another weird and wacky persons popping out… Good luck Ann Bless Susan x

  5. This would be a great question for a classical psychoanalyst. There must be some deeply rooted source from your early childhood that forms the basis for this anxiety. Good on you, BTW, for having the insight and courage to recognize this.

    I would be inclined to suggest that it stems from an unconscious fear of being unworthy of love, possibly relating to one or both of your parents. Perhaps this would explain a perpetual anxiety in the conscious mind of people not liking you.

    However, I am no expert.

    • Great answer, Navigator! I’m not sure it that fits my situation, but it’s possible (and even if it doesn’t, I still think it’s a really helpful, wise comment).

      So thank you!

      • You’re quite welcome, Ann. This touches upon some of the material in my book. I think we all are susceptible to such insecurities to some degree, especially those who appear otherwise on the surface.

  6. Interesting post, unfortunately you are not alone. Hope you’re not mad at me for suggesting a metaphor.

  7. Think of this: You are a grain of sand, and each time you are agitated by another, it’s not long before you run into another… and another… and so on – in fact you see fear and anxiety as endless in this way. Though imagine you are the lucky grain of sand that makes it into the ocean to free yourself from aggravation – slowly floating, relaxed and clear. Then breathe it in, and enjoy it 🙂

    Fear and anxiety are only permanent and never ending if you see it that way. Instead of a metaphor for the never ending cycle – we create the chance of freedom from fear – because it does exist.

    There is no doubt you might get washed back up on the shore – just remember where the water is.

    • Beautiful! Thank you, so much, for all you wrote here.

      I also had this association as I was reading your wonderful comment: how a grain of sand that causes agitation in a sea creature also creates … a pearl.

      • You could say that if you do eventually form into a pearl, then it makes no difference whether you are at sea or not. You are different, and content with mingling with other grains in your new state – happy to feel them slide of your smooth surface, instead of the old days of rough entanglement 🙂

      • Again, beautiful! Thank you.

  8. Thank you for the interesting, thought provoking, post, Ann. What you describe reminded me of a bad penny, in this case a mental bad penny.

    • Great metaphor, Russ. A good penny isn’t worth much notice, is it? … much less a bad one!! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. Always wonderful to see you!

  9. Mental boomerangs.

  10. A rumora – little fish that sucks on a big fish, releases then moves to another to suck on.

    • Great. I love that we’re still in the water. This is reinforcing my wish to go to an Aquarium today! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  11. Hi Ann,
    I think that you are your own metaphor. And as it happens, you have explained something that just happened to me. One of my closest, long-time friends just sent me a letter that, now that I’ve read your post, really meant “Are you mad at me?” And,as she suffers from anxiety and I am not, nor almost ever have been, mad at her,because of your post I can just say, “Oh, this is that Ann thing” and I know not to be offended or hurt or bewildered, just to respond warmly.

    Your posts stick to me.

    But, lint also sticks. It goes away and it comes back mysteriously. Maybe it goes down the drain or into the vacuum or off to the dump, but it will appear again in the closet, in front of a classroom, at a restaurant. The physics of lint is a lot like the physics of anxiety.

    Bats also leave and come back, if you give them a home. And crows will always come looking for you if you feed them even once

    Athlete’s foot, kitchen moths and gout come back and they are hard to get rid of. Mildew and green slime come back. Shadows come and go and while they are with us, they stick to our feet. Earworms (musical), carpenter ants, stray cats and fog. Rocks return to gardens from nowhere. Dandelions. Some things become magnetic when a current runs through them.

    Water turns to steam and disappears, but condenses on a mirror. Algae can be scrubbed from fish tanks but comes back from nowhere. Dust bunnies roam the universe looking for a way back. Ghosts never really leave; they just wait for a dark moment to show themselves.

    • I never mind being upstaged by your comments; I love them so. Thank you for the insight and poetry of your heart and soul. I am blessed to have you as a reader. Your comments stick, like the most beautiful ghosts I can imagine.

  12. Silverfish and cockroaches disappear into crevices when you see them, but they’re never really gone. Meteor showers return on schedule. If you are a rhino, a tickbird might ride on you (and do you the favour of eating some of your bugs). Stars collect paparazzi.

  13. Drjcwash

    I think it is like looking into a mirror. Some days you like what you see and are pleased. The next day you look at the same face and you see something different. It is the same with free-floating unexplained anger. There is never a reason to explain why you are angry. You just are misinterpreting the image you see.

  14. Good post! I don’t have an overwhelming fear of someone being mad at me, but when I know someone is, it makes my tummy all bad tingly. I’m also one that says “I’m sorry” much more often than I should! But that’s the people pleaser in me!

  15. Great post, I am one of those people who doesn’t like to think that someone is mad at her, I am a big one for saying “sorry” and meaning it…………

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