Thank you to all of you who contributed ideas and questions for this post- keep ’em coming!
As I thought about the best way to share my ideas on this subject, I was overwhelmed by the task. I’m not a parent yet, so how can I presume to tell any of you how to do your job? I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you the research on the topic or the “experts” opinions. But I think of my grandma’s response when people in the business world asked her what her degree was in. She’d reply with “I attended the school of hard knocks!” The only reason I’m qualified to write about this is because I’ve lived through it. So I’m going to tell you my story and invite you to take whatever it is you need for YOUR unique situation
This is going to be a bit lengthy, a lot dramatic, and very personal. I ask you to read to the end because this stuff MATTERS you guys. If we can change the way we experience and respond to emotions, we can change the trajectory of our lives. If we can change the way our KIDS experience and respond to emotions, we can shape the future of our world. HURRAH FOR ISRAEL
The first time I remember experiencing anxiety I was 5 years old.
I come from a long line of hard workers and high achievers. We’re pioneer stock ya’ll- you get the work done or you don’t eat that day. Ok so that wasn’t the reality of my childhood, but I was taught from a young age to work hard and accomplish goals.
I also come from a long line of emotional stuffers. Feel sad? Get to work. Feel disappointed? Get over it. This “rub some dirt in it” mentality runs through my blood I think. So when I began putting pressure on myself to be perfect, when I started feeling like I wasn’t good enough, when I learned to equate my performance with my worth, I didn’t tell anyone about it. I stuffed it inside and pretended it didn’t exist.
My dear kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Petersen, told me to stay after class to finish a project we worked on in class. Whether I was busy chatting with my friends or just being a classic perfectionist and making everything look just so, I didn’t finish the project in class so she asked me to stay afterward. I still vividly remember sitting at my desk in that empty room, staring down at a big brown M with the tiny mountain climber scaling one side, and crying silent tears. BAD kids stayed after school. I stayed after school, which made me bad. My tiny 5 year old heart was convinced it was all over for me.
My mom worked at the same school so she came down the hall to check on me. I looked at her and said, “Please don’t tell the other family membos.” That now famous line in my family spoke volumes about what was to come- I decided I had to be perfect. If I couldn’t be perfect, I didn’t want anyone else to know about it.
As I grew, I became involved in lots of activities, pushed myself even harder in school, and got involved at church. Every time I did something good I felt good about myself. Every time I did something “bad” (like that horrific A- I got in biology that one time, or when I joined the cross country team and took dead last in the first race, or when I got into a fight with my mom and said terrible things brought on by teenage angst) I felt like I was worth less. No not worthless, but worth less than I was before. It was a constant, subconscious point system- have a success, one point to Kearis is Worthy. Make a mistake, one point to Kearis is a Mistake. Back and forth, back and forth.
Of course as I was growing I didn’t know this was happening inside my head. No one even knew I was feeling this way, let alone how to help me if they did. So the emotions manifested themselves in disguise.
A fact about emotions- they demand to be felt and expressed. If we don’t have the courage or knowledge to express the vulnerable emotions inside of them, they will manifest in our behavior as a different, easier emotion .
My hard emotions changed face and came out sometimes as anger. I’d get upset and have a screaming fight with my mom. Once I got so angry at my brother I bit him (hard) in the back of the arm. Anger is one of the most common masks that hard emotions takes on because it is less vulnerable to feel than fear, sadness, or anxiety. Anger makes us feel in control and it is so powerful that it takes over our brain for a while, making it easier to ignore the deeper emotion. Every time difficult emotions arise and we turn them into anger, we strengthen that neural pathway and do it a little quicker the next time. It’s a dangerous habit which I’ll talk more in depth about in a later post. I’m definitely getting of subject here…
For the most part my anxiety manifested itself in perfectionism. I thought if I could just work harder or earn enough awards or receive enough praise that I would feel good enough. And I did feel good when other people praised me- in fact they encouraged and rewarded my perfectionist habits because on the outside they made me look good. But on the inside I was never enough. Never enough for myself, and never going to measure up to the bar of perfection that was constantly illuding me.
The year before my mission I gave more of myself than I had ever before. I took on a heavy class load, worked part time to fund my mission, and worked to be the best prepared new missionary I could be. I woke up early, I studied my scriptures for an hour a day, I only listened to church music. I’d been dreaming of a mission for years and it was finally my turn. I spent hours browsing Pinterest boards of missionary skirts and researching the very best missionary bag. I made a comically detailed list of what to pack wore my “Sorry Mister, I’m a Sister” shirt with pride. Missionary life seemed so glamorous, so fulfilling, so GOOD. So I left for a 18 months on a mission to prove myself in South Texas. If I could be a missionary, I would finally feel like God approved of me and I could finally approve of myself.
I was wrong in every way. I had never been in an environment where I felt so much pressure to perform. We set goals for number of people to help and were expected to hit them. We had lessons on self-improvement constantly and were pushed to our very limit mentally and physically. Or, at least, I pushed myself to my very limit. I took every piece of counsel, multiplied it by 10, and held myself to that standard. I began to obsess over being perfect, work my butt off every day to try to be, and then cry to the Lord each night confessing that I hadn’t been.
My first panic attack felt like I would surely die. I knelt to pray with my companion to begin a planning session, and after amen was said I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t speak. My thoughts were racing and I knew I looked silly and I could hear my companion asking if I was okay and I wasn’t a good missionary and planning was no use because I’d fail and I was wasting the Lord’s time by being here and I can’t believe I’m having this meltdown and what on earth is wrong with me and am I dying and I shouldn’t be thinking about myself…. my body was shaking and tears were flowing from my closed eyes. It felt like someone was running a cheese grater over my soul. It lasted for what felt like hours but was probably more like a few minutes.
After that first experience, I lived in fear of going through that again. I began to avoid missionary meetings and anything that might set off that intense fear and panic I’d felt before. I avoided telling anyone about what I was going through because I believed I could just work harder, pray more and I’d feel better. I didn’t.
Then a sweet new sister moved into our apartment and who had knowledge on the subject of mental illness and finally brought me some answers. I heard her say words like “anxiety disorder” and “panic attack” and thought can this really describe me? Is this really the world I’m living in now? It was an incredibly difficult realization but at least it finally had a name. Now I knew these feelings weren’t because I had committed some grave sin or because I wasn’t doing enough. Now I could move forward and fight this like the battle it was and still is.
And that’s how it started, my journey with anxiety and depression. There’s obviously far more to my story but that would take volumes to write
PHEW! So if you’re still with me by now you must really deserve these tips I’m going to share 🙂 Here’s a few specific things that you can do TODAY to help your anxious child or friend or whomever.
*Disclaimer- In no way do I want this to sound like my wonderful parents did something wrong in raising me. I never told anyone about the intense feelings of self doubt I had, and lets face it, parents aren’t told how to help children with these things. All we can do is move forward with the new knowledge we’ve gained and help future generations.
- Foster open communication. Set up a time every week to talk to each of your children alone. I had a seminary teacher who called it a weekly “interview.” Call it whatever you want, but make it a priority to talk to your child about her feelings, dreams, highs, lows, and needs. The more you talk, the more they’ll share. And once you can understand what’s going on their heads you can know how to help them.
- Seek God’s guidance. The people who have helped me along my journey have been nothing less than angels to me. Listen to the voice of the Spirit to tell you how to help.
- VALIDATE. I cannot stress this enough. This post on validation will teach you skill I learned in anxiety school that will actually transform a child/person experiencing strong emotions. There is nothing more powerful than to know someone else is not judging you, telling you not to feel the way you do, or trying to fix it. Validation stops the cycle of anxiety in its tracks.
Having watched dear love ones suffer with the same intense feelings I do, I know how hard it is to stand by and watch. It is excruciating not to be able to take it away. But I want you, dear reader who cares so deeply, to remember these words of wisdom from my favorite sweatered angel:
“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.” -Mr. Rogers
I know you wish you could fix it, for them and for you. But dear loving parent, teacher, grandparent, friend– please remember that God has given you this child and knows that you will be able to help them. And God has given this child this oh so hard thing to bear so they may join the ranks of His strongest warriors. You are raising a warrior, and you are doing a wonderful job.