The Anxious, The Dreamers, and Me

This is a post I started a few weeks ago and edited into a performance piece for a show called "Order in the Disorder - A Variety Show About Anxiety". I performed it on April 30, 2016 at The Tank in NYC. Regular blog posts should resume tomorrow with May's Tarotscopes, but in the meantime here is my piece for all who couldn't make the performance. I hope you enjoy it!

 

   As evidenced by the cover of my most recent journal, dreaming big is rather an important theme in my life. Collage by me.

As evidenced by the cover of my most recent journal, dreaming big is rather an important theme in my life. Collage by me.

I often feel like I have two warring personalities. There's the ambitious, outgoing visionary,  the woman who left everything she knew back in Wisconsin to move to New York and follow her dreams five years ago, and more recently quit a steady job in order to make more time for her goals. This is the side of myself that relishes risk and adventure, that craves a life path that breaks the norm and lights up my soul. We'll call that one Ambitious Anna. Then there's the other side of me - cautious, introverted, anxious, someone who would rather curl up under the blankets, watch Netflix, safe from all the dangers of the world. That's Anxious Anna. My therapist once told me that if I didn't have an anxiety disorder, she thought I would be Ambitious Anna all the time, but the fact of the matter is, I am rarely one or the other alone - Ambitious Anna and Anxious Anna exist side by side, vying for dominance throughout the course of each day, gaining ground here, losing ground there, occasionally almost drowning one another out completely...almost, but not quite. 

One place in the Venn Diagram of my personality where Anxious Anna and Ambitious Anna intersect is the world of inspirational blogging, webinars, life coaches, etc. Ambitious Anna likes stories of how other people have chased their dreams because it makes me feel more fired up, and Anxious Anna appreciates having a roadmap that makes the risks I take feel a little more calculated and well-informed. While I wouldn't call myself a self-help junkie (I'm more of a self-help dabbler, if you will), I have always enjoyed the pursuit of self-development, and like any pursuit, an effective approach requires research and the learning of new skill sets.

One of the common themes I've noticed is how to deal with fear. Most bloggers and coaches acknowledge that fear arises whenever you're taking a risk or going out after something you badly want, and they have all sorts of different suggestions for how to recognize whether that fear is serving a positive purpose - alerting you to the fact that maybe the thing you're about to do isn't really right for you after all - or holding you back from something you really want, perhaps even need, to be doing. They say things like, “Pay attention to your body's reactions to the thing that’s causing your fear. Do you feel like you're collapsing in on yourself, or do you feel expansive and light?" This may not be bad advice; it may even be helpful to many people. But, in my personal experience, living with anxiety means that all garden variety fear feels largely the same. Unless something is setting off the flashing red lights of my gut instincts that tells me something is truly dangerous, I don't really have a rubric for differentiating between "fear that tells me this isn’t right for me" and "fear that naturally arises from taking a calculated risk." It all just feels like anxiety to me.

 
   In tarot, the Nine of Swords is often considered the card that represents anxiety & depression.

In tarot, the Nine of Swords is often considered the card that represents anxiety & depression.

 

Take auditioning, for example. I know without a doubt that I want to be acting, but having an audition on the schedule looms over me, gives me a sick knot in my stomach and makes my heart pound until I begin to wonder if I should even go at all. Sometimes it manifests in strange ways - one night I had a stress dream in which I was auditioning for a Taylor Swift-produced musical version of Grey's Anatomy directed by Anjelica Huston, and I forgot all the lines to my monologue and tripped all over myself while Anjelica gave me her trademark, haughty stare-down.  Bizarre and hilarious, yes, but it highlighted how difficult it can be for my brain to reconcile how anxious I get over fairly routine parts of my day. Even the banal task of sorting through casting calls and applying to various listings can give me a panicky feeling as my mind cycles through every reason I shouldn't even be thinking of submitting. Does it matter that the worst thing that will likely happen is someone looking at my headshot and resume and thinking, "not this one"? Not to my brain. There's a reason I never ask myself things like, "What's the worst that could happen?" I know I am perfectly capable of coming up with scenarios that are far worse than reality.

These are the moments where Ambitious Anna has to claw her way to the surface and fight to drown out the "what ifs" and fears that Anxious Anna is lobbing at me. It's easier if I'm working on someone else's schedule because the fear of being thought badly of for canceling or being a no-show can often motivate Anxious Anna to get with the program, at least temporarily. It's a bit more difficult when my time, energy and success is the only thing at stake. If you don't try, you can't really fail, right? Your dreams remain plausible and safely tucked away in the corner of your mind, waiting for someday when you're really totally ready to go after them full force. 

So what’s a big-dreaming, anxious girl to do? I don’t really have an answer for that. I have an arsenal of coping mechanisms that I’ve built over the years, but there’s no way to erase anxiety entirely. The best I can do is acknowledge that the anticipation of a thing is probably going to be worse than the thing itself and try to push myself to do it anyway. It’s not easy. Some days I fail. Some days the outcome of pushing myself is not what I want it to be (an “it’s not right for me” moment, after the fact). But it’s either that or keep treading water and maintaining the status quo. And that is something I absolutely cannot do. So here’s to my fellow anxious dreamers and the never-ending battle between anxiety and ambition! Each step may be a struggle but, hey, it’s better than being feeling panicked that you’ll never make something out of your life, right?