Woman in a blue coat

How to be okay with who you are

A friend of mine recently said to me "I always wonder what I could have been if I didn't have anxiety". This is a common thought pattern. You may have had it yourself. It's the idea that you could have been far better than you are, except for this one thing called anxiety.

Sometimes, we can feel a little bitter and regretful about this. We feel like were robbed of our full potential and that we should be something different. In this article, I want to make the case that who you are is just as good.

I could have been Tom Brady

Tom Brady is the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots. He has won 208 games, 14 division titles and five Super Bowls: more than any other quarterback in NFL history for every category.

But you know, I could have been a starting NFL quarterback, too.

I just need to be able six inches taller, three times as strong, be able to run the 40-yard dash in half the time, and be able to throw the ball more than 15 metres.

I like to day dream about being an NFL quarterback. But I do not beat myself up because I am not one. "Oh, if only I could have worked out more, put myself on a stretching rack and injected steroids until my arms were the size of Popeye's."

I was never going to be Tom Brady. I am not built that way.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady. Photograph by Keith Allison.

Nor am I going to be Mo Farah. I have been running for 25 years and my personal best time over 5k remains at 27:16. To put that into perspective, Farah runs the 10k in 27:44.

In fact, there is a lot of people that I will never be able to emulate. Sebastian Vettel is younger than I am, and has won the Formula One world championship four times: I haven't even won it once, yet!

I don't beat myself up for any of us.

Yet, when it comes to being a fearless Bear Grylls adventurer type, I regularly chastise myself for not being built that way. I blame my anxiety. I tell myself I could be that person if only I could get over my worrying.

Sound familiar?

When it comes to anxiety, we hold ourselves to different standards. When we look at physical capability, we find it easy to accept that we are never going to be like our heroes. Yet, when we talk about how we are wired, we find it far harder.

Why is this?

There are a number of possible reasons. First, it is easy to see the difference between physical characteristics. If you look at a photo of Tom Brady and me, it doesn't take long to spot that he is a head taller than I am and that his arms are as wide as my neck.

However, when you line up someone who is struggling with anxiety, they can still look the same as the next person. It is invisible.

Second, it feels like something we should have control over. We like to think that we direct our thoughts. It is easy to accept that we do not control how tall we grow, but our brain feels like our private domain where we are in charge.

Third, it feels like something we should be able to change quickly. Building the "perfect" body takes hard work: everyone knows you have to go to the gym every day for a year to tone yourself up. However, with our thoughts, we feel we should be able to wave a magic wand and change them overnight.

We need to get real

It is time to stop kidding ourselves: we have had anxiety for a long time. It is not going away overnight. We are predisposed to worry. We are never going to be the ultra-cool Neil Armstrong type character that can be blasted all the way to the moon in a tin can without freaking out.

Any time spent beating ourselves up about this is time wasted. Yes, there are things we can do. I will discuss these below. But it all starts with accepting that we are not Amelia Earhart out of the box and that there is no easy way to alter that.

You want to be you, right?

To some extent, anxiety is baked into our personality. You know what, this is a superpower. The reason your projects get so much attention, the reason people think of you as a caring person and the reason you want to make the world a better place is all driven by your anxiety.

If you waved a magic wand and wiped this out, you would be someone else. Sure, that person might be jumping out of planes for synchronised skydives, but it would not be you. This person would not possess the endearing qualities that people love about you.

When we imagine ourselves without anxiety, we think of ourselves as how we are now, but without the worrying. But who is this person? How can you still be you, without it? The answer is that you cannot: the person who worries, and cares because of that worry, is all connected.

There are things we can do about it

None of this says that we cannot bring our anxiety under control and kerb our worrying. But we are not talking about eliminating it. Anxiety is a normal and natural human emotion. Everyone has it to some degree. We just need to tune the level.

If you want the ideal body, nobody is going to give it you on a plate. Even if you are taking steroids, you still need to work out while taking them. It is tough. You need to eat right and hit the gym on a regular basis.

Bad news if you thought anxiety was easy to fix: it's the same thing.

You need to hit the gym on a regular basis. Maybe this is a metaphorical gym: using a route like therapy or counselling. Or, if you go down the lifestyle route, maybe this is a real gym. Exercise reduces anxiety1. Or maybe you are using exposure and burning mental energy to constantly push yourself just outside of your comfort zone.

Whatever you are doing, it is like working out. You have to feel the burn consistently to achieve big results. These results take time to achieve. Just like bodybuilding programmes and fad diets, lasting results require a change in the way we live our lives.

Conclusion

We rarely beat ourselves up for not being physically bigger or stronger. This same logic does not apply to our anxiety. We feel like we should be able to banish it from our minds and be a different person.

This being a different person is the key. If we were able to eliminate our anxiety overnight, it would cease to be our loving, caring, dedicated selves. We would be rewriting our personalities, and we may not like the result.

Instead, we need to accept that we are the person we find ourselves.

If we want to change that, great, we can! But, just like toning our bodies, toning our minds takes time, too. We have to hit the gym, be it literal or metaphorical. There is no substitution for sweating it out.

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Published 22 January 2018. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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References

  1. Lane AM1, Lovejoy DJ. The effects of exercise on mood changes: the moderating effect of depressed mood. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Dec;41(4):539-45. ↩︎