Last day of 2011 and I’m here in the Chicago suburbs, writing in the house where I grew up. Coming here was unexpected; I booked the ticket a few days before Christmas to arrive on Boxing Day and surprise my parents (they were delightfully surprised, by the way). For the first time, I hopped on a trans-Atlantic flight without checking in bags. It is a short trip – tomorrow I return to London. I therefore don’t need much and it has been a minimal-baggage journey.
I say all this because on this last day of the year, I’m thinking about what we carry with us as we move through the world. I’m asking the question: What are we carrying and how is it impacting on our work in social change?’
In years to come, when I reflect on 2011, I imagine I will firstly think of it as the year where I lived free from anxiety. My last anxiety attack was in October 2010. My battle with anxiety has been an on-going one, lasting at least twenty years. Never mind why it managed to stay around for so long (that’s another post – if not a book!). The point is that over the years, driven by constant anxiety, I’ve thought, spoke and acted in destructive and struggle-inducing ways.
What’s it is like to go about your days with anxiety flowing through your veins? Well, for starters, sometimes I wasn’t even aware that I was anxious. It is only with hindsight that I can see how I was – and the implications of it. Because some days it was just a low steady flow. Chronic anxiety is akin to chronic pain – you can live with it, and it can become so much a part of you, you don’t notice it is there (and its impact on you) until something happens and it decides to surge. Then you think ‘Oh my God, I’m in pain!’ as if it is something new, special, of the moment. When it’s really only a significant increase of what’s been alive in, and influencing you, all along.
Whether I was aware or not, I used to move through the world carrying unhealthy levels of fear and nervousness, which negatively impacted on my professional and social lives. The impact varied from situation to situation and this isn’t the space to go into detail about how chronic anxiety works. However, I’ll share an example, to give you a general sense of it.
A number of years ago when I was a senior policy advisor in central government, I had a period of severe anxiety. I was going into work a bundle of nerves, very quick to snap. During that time, I had one high-level meeting where – I would later find out – I offended most of the people in the room by being aggressive. This of course meant that people focused less on what I had to say and more on how I was saying it. Perhaps you can imagine it. You’ve got that fear and anxious energy jumping about inside you – so you are in flight or fight mode. You are very scared. When someone says something that even vaguely pushes a button, you growl, hiss, jump at them.
One day during this time, a colleague and friend overheard a phone conversation I was having while at the desk next to her. She heard me being very short and abrupt with a consultant doing a really important project for us (and, notably, doing it rather well). She said something to me about what she had witnessed and suggested I take some time out to give attention to whatever was going in inside me. In the thick of it, I wasn’t seeing how I was I behaving. Even if I had some awareness, I was so entangled in the arms of anxiety that I didn’t have the wherewithal to think ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t me, and its destructive’ and then consider how I might extricate myself.
For two decades, the anxiety was impacting my professional and social relationships – to varying degrees. Sometimes, I am sure I had periods where people around might not have had any sense of what was going on in side me. Sometimes, it was impacting in little, on-going ways that people probably noticed, but didn’t give much thought to. Sometimes, like in the example above, it was having fairly obvious and significant impacts – and people were definitely noticing. Regardless of the degree, most significantly, chronic anxiety meant I was often moving through the world dis-connected from, and less connected with, my creative and compassionate self – two intrinsic resources I value greatly, professionally and socially.
Driven by anxiety, constantly carrying around a lot of fear, I wasn’t serving my self and others to the best of my ability and capacity.
This past year, not only have there been no anxiety attacks, but I’ve generally been moving through the world on a day-to-day basis driven by a much more steady flow of calmness. People around me have noticed the difference. And I’ve noticed the difference. These days, for example, I can sense when I’m feeling anxious – it isn’t the norm, it is the exception. When it arises in me at low levels, it is like a pebble thrown into a still pond; I notice it. [Note: I must be clear here – anxiety/fear can serve very useful purposes in life. I’m not expecting to banish them from my life – and I’m not saying I have done so. An ‘anxiety-free year’ means I’ve been experiencing healthy levels and forms of anxiety/fear.] Most significantly, I am now much more connected with my creative and compassionate self – I am serving my self and others more meaningfully than I ever have been.
I’m entering 2012 giving a lot of attention to the question of what I carry with me as I move through the world – moment by moment. Reflections on years of being anxiety-ridden illuminate for me the reality that what I bring with me (large and small) affects what I give to/share with/take from others – intentionally or not. What I bring with me can expand or contract my capacity to be guided constructively by my values and do what I believe I’m here to do: support my self and others to live a life rooted in truth and dignity.
Reflect. See. Be aware. Expand. Repeat….
What are you carrying with you as you move through the world? What can you see when you self-reflect? What types of awareness would help you to be the creative change force you can/want to be?
Wishing you an expansive 2012!