I spent most of my life in a frenetic effort to control my environment and the image I wanted others to see in the hope of obtaining their approval and feeling safe. The strain of this effort eventually led to a very severe anxiety disorder, which as it turned out, surprisingly, was a gift.
As a young boy, my life was filled with many fears. I trembled in the darkness of my room at night. I shrunk back from the thought of physical injury. I feared talking to people I didn’t know. More than anything, I was especially afraid of my father and every other authority figure.
I was very concerned about what others thought of me and what might happen if I upset them. I was afraid most of the time.
I needed constant validation from authority figures, family, girls, and friends to feel safe.
I hated being so weak and afraid. I resented, and sometimes hated, people because they were in control of my life. They wouldn’t give me what I was so desperate to have: acceptance. At some point, my anger began to build. I determined no one was going to control me ever again. I didn’t need anyone.
As I grew older, I became skilled at managing my insecurity by being in control. By the age of 19 I had formed a coping strategy that allowed me to have an illusion of control over my life. Comfort, control, and emotional disconnection formed the three axes of my coping strategy.
Comfort allowed me to soothe myself. I used the comfort of food, entertainment, daydreaming, sex, fantasy, and isolation to ease my gnawing anxiety and simmering insecurity.
Control of my environment was mine by my 30th birthday. I owned my own company. I was the boss and had enough money that no one could tell me what to do.
I wore expensive clothes and drove fast cars. I crafted an image of looking cool to show I was above it all. My psyche and ego railed against the thought of ever working for another person. I had to be in charge. To be the boss of myself, I had to be the boss of you.
Finally, emotional detachment afforded me the ability to be around people. I pretended not to care what others thought, and soon I didn’t. If I didn’t give a sh**, people had no power over me. They could not provoke the fear of the little boy inside of me.
People meant nothing more to me than a way of validating myself. If I felt inferior to someone I would pick him apart in my mind, all the while smiling and being charming until I felt I was in control. People became a resource I used to make me feel good. When they didn’t make me feel good they became a liability I had to get rid of. And I got rid of them. No attachment. No compassion. No love. No fear.
By the time I was in my late thirties I had sold my company for enough money that I thought I would never have to work again. Mission accomplished.
My strategies of comfort, control, and detachment worked for awhile. . . until they didn’t. I had everything I had ever imagined would make me feel safe, valuable, and worthy. But inside, I felt like a fraud.
There was a real problem. Actually several problems. The comfort strategy had left me addicted to alcohol, sex, and food. I also had to avoid any anxiety-producing person or event because I might feel uncomfortable. As a result, I refused to make commitments and was often alone. My world was getting smaller.
I had become so practiced at disconnecting emotionally that I had lost the ability to connect emotionally. I had soon married and divorced three times. I was unable to be in relationship with other people.
Finally, the stress of controlling my image had left me with severe anxiety and panic attacks. I felt as if I were going crazy.
The years of hiding my inner self from the world had failed to produce the safety I sought. “What happened?” I thought. “How had things turned out so wrong?”
The answer, though it seems obvious to me now, was impossible for me to see from the anxiety-ridden perspective I had of the world.
The problem was I had sought safety from outside of myself. I was willing to move heaven and earth to obtain or demand the approval or compliance of others but I was unwilling to offer approval to myself. I didn’t know how.
In recovering from my anxiety disorder I was finally able to hear the obvious. I had begun listening to a series of self-help tapes focused on relaxation. In one of those tapes, the author said, “You are your own safe place or person, no one else can do it for you.”
This struck an immediate chord with me and resonated deeply. It became a profound epiphany and has echoed as a running mantra in my mind in the years since. Why did it take me so long? Why was something so obvious almost impossible for me to see? Even though I now know this truth, why was it so hard to finally accomplish?
For me it was four things:
A distorted worldview adopted from childhood that taught me, “I am not valuable unless you say I am.”
A highly sensitive nervous system that amplified anxiety, which made facing my innermost fears very painful.
A reactive nature, including the automatic responses to perceived threats and a tendency to take everything personally.
A fundamental lack of clear core values and purpose from my authentic self.
Awareness is half the battle. The other half is gaining new skills and challenging old beliefs. This is difficult without the skills to soothe your anxiety and validate yourself.
That is why I created “Fierce Relaxation,” a four-week, online class that offers practices and insights that have worked for myself and countless other anxious people.
Fierce Relaxation will help you develop your skills to soothe anxiety and challenge your self-limiting beliefs. You will learn how to:
Relax at will
Quiet your mind and body
Discover that you aren’t broken and don’t need to be fixed
Laugh at the chattering committee in you head
Use diet, fun, and physical playing to create a good mood
Get in touch with you inner values
Define and live your life with purpose