Let’s talk labels. Not Gucci or Chanel (I’m not really the best person to consult on matters of fashion), but mental health labels.
The other day, a warrior sent me an email. In it, she wrote, “I have anxiety. Or I’m anxious…I’m not sure if there’s a difference.”
Her throwaway comment startled me like a leaf blower piercing a still Sunday morning.
Was there a difference?
Is being anxious the same as having anxiety?
On the face of it, sure. But probe a little deeper and you’ll discover that ever so slight variation in words can make a big difference to how you see your mind. To how you see your self.
Discovery #1: You become your thoughts
Thoughts are powerful little buggers. And all throughout history, sage writers, philosophers and spiritual gurus have presented us with the idea that we actually become our thoughts.
Take this anonymous, ancient Chinese proverb:
“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”
Gandhi echoed a similar sentiment:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle fleshed out this idea further. He said words are sounds that become symbols of our mental experience, connecting our past experiences with our subconscious mind. In this way, our words not only reflect our thoughts – they shape them.
You can try it for yourself. Sit quietly in solitude, and repeat silently: “I am sad” or “I am excited”. Watch what happens. Soon enough, you’ll believe you’re sad (or excited). Then you’ll act sad or excited. And then you’ll become sad or excited. When I did this little experiment, I actually started crying when moments earlier I’d felt fine.
Our words have power. Our thoughts, even more.
When we say, “I’m anxious”, we emboss the words in our mind, our heart, our soul. We make it true.
And so it is true.
And every time we feel anxious, we remind ourselves: “Well, I am an anxious person. Always have been.” And that reality is confirmed again. Over and over we embed this belief, we live it, breathe it, become it.
Reinforce a belief enough times and you will become it.
Discovery #2: You are not your anxiety
Now, I’m not saying anxiety is something to be ashamed of. Heck, I display mine proudly like an “I voted” badge on my lapel.
But if we want to dim the switch on our worries, we need to detach our feelings of anxiety from ourselves. You are NOT your anxiety. You simply feel anxious. Just like tomorrow you might feel sad. Or happy. Or pensive. Or melancholic.
Anxiety is one feeling. In a colourful kaleidoscope of weird and wonderful feelings. It’s fleeting. It can come and go. For many of us, it lingers a little longer. Always bubbling away in the background.
But anxiety isn’t all of you. It isn’t the complete portrait. It’s one spot – like a solitary photo that unites with a million more to make a massive mosaic. It’s not the whole face. It’s just one square.
That’s why – I believe – we need to switch our speech from “I’m anxious” to “I have anxiety”.
Sure, you may have carried anxiety with you all your life. It’s a mysterious little thing that sneaks into your suitcase, no matter how hard you try to leave it behind.
It’s there, along for the ride. But it’s just one item in your pack.
To look at it another way, we don’t say “I am a headache” or “I am nausea”. We say “I have a headache” and “I am nauseated”.
We say this because we know these are temporary states. The headache will pass. The nausea will abate.
Some days, your anxiety will peak. Other days, it’ll simmer and barely bother you. Either way, all we can do is our best to ride the wave. And use all our tools and tricks and self-awareness to manage our worries, so they don’t take over.
So the next time you utter the words “I’m anxious”, remember your words have power. Your thoughts can become your reality. And your anxiety isn’t you…it’s just along for the ride of your life.