Archives for posts with tag: anxiety

It starts so early.  Several years ago, I identified an undercurrent of shame as one factor that seems to hold me back. Trying to unravel its source has been tricky, and uncomfortable.

I can’t really remember a time in my life when I did not feel shame about something. My father died when I was very young, and I felt shame about being in a family that was so different than my friends’. Irrational, I know, but rationality is not a characteristic possessed by most kindergarteners.

My mother and her mother compounded my feelings. Mom and her sister had different fathers, and there was some suggestion that my grandmother had not been married to one of these men. ( I will never know, because the involved parties have all gone to their graves with their secrets.)

I got older, and taller than almost everyone else. And my hair was wildly curly. Different again, and shameful, in my mind. I was repeatedly ridiculed in elementary school for being singled out by my teachers for being smart.  And on it went;  right up to my current under-employed present- just another reason to feel shame.  Shame was a magnet for other reasons to feel it. I never stopped to question whether my feelings were valid.

Shame can be useful. Applied properly, it helps us function as a society. We should feel shame when we harm one another by lying, cheating and stealing, or worse.

Shame that only hurts ourselves is no shame, just waste. The real shame of this shame is that it is also very context-specific. Had my grandmother lived her same life in another time and place, right now, for instance, no one would blink at her less than conventional family life. It pains me to think of all of the emotional suffering that would have spared her, my mother and my aunt.

That kind of shame keeps us from taking our rightful place in the world; I know I dialed down my efforts in school to fit in with my classmates, (a real shame with permanent effect.)  More recently, ashamed of my lack of  employment-related identity, I have hesitated to make social overtures, an obvious waste of free time I will never have again, not to mention opportunities to make connections that might help me find work!

Going forward, I promise this:

1) When I feel ashamed, I will ask myself whether I have caused anyone actual harm. If so, I will do my best to right the wrong. If no, I will get over myself, and move forward.

2) When I see anyone around me feeling self-harming  shame, I will do my best to comfort and encourage them.

Imagine a world where we all felt shame only when we should, and never when we shouldn’t. We’d hardly recognize the place.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it all in this post. But I have spent a good portion of this year considering the impediments to what I want and need to do. Now I will address them in writing.

I will occasionally be dragging one out, holding it up to the light, examining it, and describing it before I decide how to dispose of it.

These musings will be posted under the category of “Baggage” so consider yourself warned if you would like to avoid the navel-gazing.

I was raised by an anxious and depressed mother. She came by it honestly; her life was hard in ways I can only guess. In the manner of her generation, she did not share many details. I do know that she dearly loved my father. She lost him suddenly when he was killed in a car accident on his way home from work. I was five.

I can’t count the number of times I heard “Your father didn’t come home one night” as I tried to weasel my way out of curfew during my high school years. At the time, I felt it was her effort to repress me. I get it now. It was her expression of the painful truth that at any time, anything can go horribly, catastrophically  wrong.

I have, perhaps predictably, lived a fearful life. I have been afraid to be hurt, afraid to be disappointed, afraid to be afraid.

As a result, I have missed opportunities. And fun. (Probably lots of fun.) And I have been hurt, disappointed and afraid anyway.

None of the worrying or avoidance protected me. And I have been gobsmacked by things I never dreamed of worrying about. And survived it all, so far.

The last five years have been particularly challenging. There were the three years of bi-coastal marriage. The Kid went to college, and came back early. There were health issues. Our darling Maggie dog died. My mother died, and my brother and his family were cruel and deceitful. I have been under-employed, and uncertain about what to do about it.

There is not that much left to be afraid of.  Rather, there is not much to be afraid of that I can control.

I am afraid that I will regret not taking more chances from now on. And I can do something about that.

When the topic of Anxiety came up, I was completely sympathetic, and  grateful to have dodged that particular bullet. I have several friends who have struggled with Anxiety Disorder over the years; one of whom who recently described her anxiety as a gigantic monster she battles.

This friend and I chatted recently, and I expressed my admiration of her ability to accomplish so much when she deals with such an oppressive condition. (I should mention at this point that my friend is super-smart, as are all of my friends.  Additionally,  she exhibits a scary level of self-discipline, as well as a relentlessly clear-eyed view of the world.  In short, she is a Queen, not a “princess.”) As I should have expected, she told me that when she is focused on the task at hand, she does not feel anxious. The beast seems to creep in when she is not occupied.

Over the last few months, I have been examining  the question of why I have not made more progress toward the goals I set for myself when I moved here. I am not really lazy, as much as I enjoy a little down time. So what then? Fear of Rejection? Fear of Failure? The dreaded “Low Self Esteem?”

On Rejection: I have spent decades at work at a job that involved the probability of rejection on a near daily basis. I was responsible for trying to talking about unpleasant things with strangers who were under no obligation to speak with me. I got rejected plenty, and came back for more every day.

On Failure: see Rejection, above. Failure at what? What is the worst thing that could happen, any way?  I am by no means the first to note that failure to try = failure.

On Low Self Esteem: Meh. On good days, I know I have family and friends who love me. I can think of ways I have helped people, and remember colleagues who valued me at work. On bad days, I think about how I never could seem to please my mother. (Hopping off the couch now, and pushing it  under the window. Looks better over there, don’t you think?)

When I follow these threads back to their logical origin, I keep arriving at anxiety. Not the big, horrifying kind that you can spot from across the room, but a little, insidious parasite that has managed to sneak into my pocket and travel with me everywhere. I am bigger than it is; and I am probably smarter, too. I don’t need to kill it, just attempt to domesticate it. I can allow it to stay in my pocket, as long as it doesn’t get in my way.  And I refuse to feed it.

When I first considered writing, the pest in my pocket was still undetected, and feral. I worried about my not-yet-written blog: “What if it’s no good?”  I spotted the pest, and began training it.  “What if no one reads my blog?”  More training. “What if my domain name is taken? I’ve got to get on this!”  Thank you, Pest. Now help me find a job.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (

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