I Was Ashamed of Being Anxious
27 Feb 2015
Many years ago, an exchange student from Germany came to live with my family for a year.
This had many implications, including some cultural exchange, sharing the household washing-up burden that SO UNFAIRLY fell on my brother and I, and an extra excuse to go on lots of fun trips.
During one outing to a theme park, we came across a terrifying ride, called Oh Dear God Why Would You Go On THIS Are You A Total Fool.*
* I may not be remembering the name of this ride correctly.
It involved lying flat, suspended only by a thick elastic cord, and being pulled seventy feet in the air, and then being dropped towards the ground below. For “fun”.
I didn’t have a fear of heights (before this day), but this ride still looked a little… unnecessary.
You went on in pairs, so my German exchange buddy and I stepped up together.
We got strapped in and hovered a few feet above the ground, nonchalantly waving to the rest of the family and assorted onlookers like the brave little heroes we were.
As we ascended higher and higher, however, our chatter got less brave and considerably more shrill.
“Don’t look down”
“Hold me I’m scared”
“Oh my god please help ohgodohgodohgod don’t look down”
“Don’t let go! aReaaeaeRaaeaaea”
“Don’t LOOK DOWWWWWN”
By the time we reached the top, we were grasping onto the rope – and each other – like our lives depended on it. The ground was a tear-inducing plunge beneath us, and the sensation of lying flat with only an elastic strap underneath was stomach-turningly horrifying.
And then came the final challenge. In order to ‘enjoy’ plunging towards the ground, we had to pull the cord that was holding us up.
There was a brief debate about which of us was the least cowardly, and then he pulled it.
We plummeted towards the ground, screaming, swearing and weeping.
Minutes later, after bouncing up and down like the world’s most cowardly yo-yo, we came to a stop.
Naturally, we confidently swaggered off the ride as if we’d barely noticed it had happened, ready to receive our applause at how brave we’d been.
We walked into the booth, where we found the family – and the public at large – laughing at a video feed from the camera that had been attached to us, broadcasting our undignified gibbering and wailing to the world down below.
This false bravery doesn’t matter too much when it’s a teenager pretending not to be scared by a theme park ride.
But, as an adult living with anxiety, the same tendency to hide my fear from others caused me a lot of pain.
During my most anxious periods, I was rarely honest about it, even with my close friends. It was crucial to appear ‘strong’, and to project an image of success.
I wanted everybody to be impressed by my ability to deal with anything, so how could I tell anybody I was falling apart when there wasn’t any visible hardship at all?
And so, I kept everything to myself.
This response made everything worse. Bottling up your emotions is a famously unhealthy way of dealing with them. Seeking no support forced me to live with my problems alone.
Worse, this approach magnified the problems. Because I believed I was the only one anxiously battling my way through every day, I judged myself harshly for my inability to cope.
Instead of doing what was necessary to sort myself out, a large part of my energy went on beating myself up for getting into this situation in the first place.
That sort of self-criticism is a common response… but it’s certainly not very helpful for solving the problem.
Honesty, Silence & Hiding Anxiety
If hiding just makes it all worse – for ourselves, and for others silently suffering – why do we do it?
There’s probably a different reason for each of us. For me, I feared the reaction I would get if I was honest.
I was ashamed. I was scared of admitting the truth in case it made people like me less. I thought that since it was “only me” that felt like this, that nobody would care or understand. I thought I’d be admitting there was something wrong with me.
It turned out all my assumptions were false.
I wasn’t the only one.
Today, now that I’m open about anxiety, as soon as I mention it a huge number of people tell me they have the same experience. It’s common. We are not alone in anxiety. Everyone else does not have it all figured out.
There’s nothing shameful about being anxious.
My anxiety was rooted in habits of thought. Finding and undoing those habits was a lot of painful work. But there’s clearly nothing shameful about it.
Even if it had a more biological cause (like a chemical imbalance), it still would be nothing to be ashamed about.
Blaming somebody for a chemical imbalance, or a habitual mode of thinking, is pretty irrational. Blaming myself was even less rational. And way less helpful.
Nobody has ever reacted badly to my being open about it.
In reality, the reaction is generally the opposite: a recognition that honesty takes strength, along with a little support to help us along. While I don’t doubt that it’s possible people will react negatively, I suspect that those times are rare exceptions, and not the rule. (Our anxious-mode brains make worst-case-scenarios seem more likely than they are, so we blow this possibility out of all proportion.)
Hiding anxiety creates a culture of silence around it, making it an unnecessarily lonely struggle for ourselves and others. Ironically, we’re all lonely together.
A large part of the motivation behind writing this book was to show that anyone can suffer from anxiety, no matter how sorted they appear from outside, or how great their life seems to be ‘on paper’.
If we can all stop pretending everything’s okay, we might start to make progress on actually making everything okay for more of us. And we might get a little more support along the way..
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.