In a lot of ways, my life pretty much works. I have strong, healthy kids who are fun to be around. My marriage is great. I have interesting projects to work on. I can feel the sun on my face almost every day. I can breathe fresh air and drink fresh water.
There’s nature right outside my front door, and I can see green things out the windows.
So when anxiety starts building up, or when depression creeps in, I used to tell myself things like: There’s no reason to feel this way. You shouldn’t feel like this. This is the wrong feeling.
And the voice I used sounded like: you idiot.
I would take the lousy experience I was having and lay a nice thick layer of judgment over it. This is not actually a strategy I recommend.
Instead of dealing with my anxiety, I would spend the day being anxious and feeling guilty about being anxious. Instead of sitting with the depression and figuring out what needed to happen next, I would feel empty (from the depression) and stupid (for being depressed at all).
Then one day I found myself kneeling in front of my daughter, who was struggling to handle some big feelings of her own, the way preschoolers often do. Sometimes, in the face of tears and snot and flailing limbs, it’s best to just be present, and other times it’s best to try to direct the flow.
If I’m lucky, parenting wisdom absorbed years ago from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood will surface, and I will say something helpful.
This time I heard myself saying:
There’s a Flannery O’Connor quote that says, in part, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
For me it’s more like, “I don’t know what I believe until I hear what I tell my kids.”
All feelings are okay. Anxiety and depression are more than just feelings, but the same truth applies. Having feelings that don’t match my circumstances is a thing that happens sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I’m wrong, or that my experience is wrong.
It just is what it is.
When I stopped judging my feelings, I could start supporting myself.
If I had a cold, I certainly wouldn’t tell myself: this is the wrong response to winter. Why are you feeling like this? Why all the sneezing? Nothing is MAKING you sneeze! Most people aren’t sneezing right now! Why do you need so much help to stop sneezing?
I would just get myself a box of tissues and go to bed.
When I started treating my feelings the same way, I could show myself more compassion. It’s awful to be anxious. It’s exhausting to be depressed, like all your energy has been sucked away along with all the light in the world.
I don’t have to spend the rest of my strength listing all the reasons this is the wrong thing to feel.
I can just deal with the fact that I feel that way.
I still have to handle the anxiety. I still have to cope with the depression. But I don’t have to wade through the judgment first.
That’s a whole layer of complexity removed, right there.
When I’m having difficulty, I don’t need my own judgment. I need to be on my own side. I need to offer myself kindness and nourishment and care. I need support, not second-guessing. I bet you do, too.