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:
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  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:
- I have trouble spelling “anemone.”
- The word “parasitic” skeeves me out.
- 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?