In his book, Mindfulness for Two, pioneering therapist Kelly Wilson, PhD notes that humans don’t just suffer when things are bad. We also suffer when things might be bad. We naturally and easily devote mental energy, time, and effort into considering the unknown. We worry that our boss might be disappointed in us, that we might be with an incompatible partner, or might be seen as a failure. As a general crowd, we hate what is ambiguous and uncertain.
To further complicate matters, we frequently respond to our concerns with self-criticism. We react to might with should, shaming ourselves for experiencing this anxiety in the first place. As in, we should be confident, should trust our partners, or we should face the future. As we contemplate our perceived failures, our fears of inadequacy grow, and we often become hooked in a vicious cycle.
So how do we break free? To begin, it can be helpful to place our anxiety back into the context of its original purpose: protection and health. We are most anxious about the things that matter the most. Fear inherently shows up in relationship to our strongest values, in an effort to protect us. Whether we are afraid of losing our community, our income, our sense of belonging, or future, anxiety plays a critical role in helping us to spot danger up ahead.
So when you find yourself caught between might and should, take a moment to genuinely ask yourself with curiosity, “What is my brain trying to protect?”
Oftentimes there can be magic in simply noticing and naming this phenomenon. We can honor the function and role of our anxiety, while also not becoming a slave to it. Author and psychologist Hilary McBride suggests taking a moment to speak gently to the fear inside, saying “thank you. You have done such a good job keeping me alive. In the past we learned that this situation was dangerous, so it makes sense that you’re here right now. We have new information now. I’m safe, so you can rest until I need you again.”