My first recollection of anxiety and fear was during my first day of kindergarten. As my mother dropped me off to a schoolyard filled with other kids waiting to meet their teacher, I felt my heart race and a cold chill go down my spine. Although I had difficulty at the time identifying what I was feeling, you could call it worry and fear. Not recalling having any friends up prior to starting school, and spending all of my time with my parents and two sisters, being forced to step into this new, uncertain world of academics was most intimidating.
My other memory associated with the beginning school was how left out I felt from the chit-chat and banter amongst my classmates. Standing off to myself, I began my foray into what most poignantly represented my first awareness of what came to be my struggle with social anxiety. Most every other challenge I experienced seemed to flow from this initial dreadful encounter. Through the remainder of my public school years, up through middle and high school, I continued to feel this same dread of not belonging, of not fitting in, despite some successes in forming friendships.
I grew up in a loving, middle-class family. My parents were Holocaust survivors who, having lost most of their family and everything they owned, came to America to start a new life. Having experienced what today would be called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome of their first child, a son, you could say that following the birth of my two sisters, my birth came to hold special importance. Being the only surviving son meant that, unlike my two sisters, I would enjoy the benefit of having my own room and being doted on. It’s not that my sisters didn’t have my parents love and support. It’s just that I came to represent their only son who could carry on the family lineage. While having its perks, being their only son came with its own pressures and a sense of personal responsibility. This was not one which I could or would take lightly. Not wishing to disrupt this special relationship with my parents, I came to be their “golden child,” doing everything within my power to maintain the highest of standards. Toward that end, I strove for all “A’s” in school, was super respectful to others, and quite mindful of not doing anything that could be construed as going against the image in which I was cast. You could say that I conformed, the best I could, to the ideals of my parents. After all, I didn’t want to cause them any more pain than what they already incurred. Not being without faults and misdeeds, I nevertheless strove to be the “perfect son” that my parents could be proud of. I must say that I pretty much lived up to their expectations.
This need to be perfect, however, also played itself out in other areas of my formative years. Such was the case with my friends. They needed to be everything I expected them to be, and when they didn’t conform to my belief that they meet all my needs in one neat little package, I’d abruptly cross them off my list of friends or passively let my relationship with them peter out. Because of this, I came to develop quite a narrowly defined list of friends. Every perceived slight by them eroded my belief in the goodness of others, as I became super vigilant with, and supercritical of, my peers. Only later did I come to realize how my need to be “perfect” may have led me to see others as unworthy of my time or attention. The outcome was invariably the same – feelings of loneliness, isolation, and non-acceptance, as I became the unwitting participant of my own suffering.
Overcoming a Life of Anxiety
Finally, into my college years, I excelled in my studies and had a limited group of friends with whom I bonded, as I continued my hyper-vigilant, hypercritical stance towards others who seemed to slight me in one form or another. Faced with a daily barrage of internalized “what if’s, should and musts,” my actions whittled down, in general, to participation that maximized safety and security at the expense of new, bold experiences. Never being much of a risk taker, as increased pressures and demands of growing older became more prominent and apparent, my hyper-critical, hyper-vigilant stance towards the harshness of life kept me steeped in the very limiting stance of maintaining a safety and security which, in fact, was nothing more than avoidance.
Living in a world of my own creation, so to speak, where anxiety, worry, fear, and other emotions had to suppressed or avoided whatever the cost, my refuge took root through over-involvement in family life, spending inordinate amounts of time in my room, and isolating from my peers. Pretty much everything I did or didn’t do, was dictated by overwhelm from anxiety, worry, and fear. This paralysis persisted for many years until I finally felt sick and tired, and quite depressed, about my state of affairs. It was then that I turned to therapy in an attempt to connect with that part of myself that, despite fear of failure and embarrassment, saw value in jumping out of my stagnant self. I could finally feel a sense of relief and hopefulness that would end my misery.
My foray into treatment for anxiety, worry and fear was a gradual ride. Back then, less was known about the contributing factors of, and effective treatments for, anxiety. Nevertheless, there were certain protocols utilized by mental health practitioners to address the behavioral side of the coin. Thus, I was put on a regimen of relaxation exercises (today it could be subsumed under the topic of “mindfulness”) designed to deactivate my body and mind. Although able to initially engage in such an endeavor, my anxiety, worry, and fear became so overpowering that attempts to regulate them through mental focus alone proved insufficient. This warranted, on my part, a new therapist with a new approach. In retrospect, I probably didn’t stick it out long enough for that therapist to introduce me to other approaches, as my anxiety got the best of me.
Switching to a new therapist, I was quickly introduced to what at the time was called “systematic desensitization,” which involved gradual, progressive exposure to anxiety inducing situations with concurrent practice in progressive muscle relaxation and other mind/body calming techniques. This behavioral approach was easier to do in the safety of my therapists’ office. In the real world, however, while I saw some modest gains, they quickly gave way to the power of (to coin a phrase) my “stickin’ thinkin.’” In retrospect, I needed a more powerful tool to overcome my co-dependent relationship with anxiety, worry, and fear.
Feeling Comfortable in My Own Skin
Not wanting to admit defeat led me to another therapist which, for me, represented a radically different and, eventually, life-altering approach. This was the “icing on the cake” that, finally, allowed me to gain not only mastery over anxiety and fear, but all distressing emotions. I have since come to call it “freedom from anxiety,” which represents a new relationship with the way I view and approach all emotions. This new, life-affirming outlook sprouted from rational, methodical examination of my cognitions (thoughts and belief systems), most of which originated in my early, formative years. Having their origin in messages received from parents, other authority figures and peers, these internalized messages come to represent what we refer to as our “self-talk.” This self-talk (or inner dialogue) forms the basis for the way we come to see ourselves and the world around us. For many years, I didn’t even realize how powerfully rooted these earlier messages were in real life and how they kept me stuck in anxiety, fear and worry. Initially not wanting to admit it, it wasn’t until I came to challenge previous thoughts and beliefs about myself and the world around me, that I could finally cleanse myself from maladaptive, unproductive and inhibiting thoughts and beliefs that kept me from living a life of purpose, direction and inner-peace.
As a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, worry, fear and depression, what follows is my 3-layer framework to helping clients gain their own freedom from anxiety, worry, fear and depression. The 1st layer involves identification and challenging of thoughts and beliefs that keep anxiety, worry, fear and depression alive. The 2nd layer involves gradual and systematic exposure to anxiety or fear-inducing situations. The 3rd, and final, layer, which deals with healthy emotional regulation, defies conventional wisdom by proposing that: (1) emotions are neither good nor bad, positive or negative, and that all emotions have equal value. (2) suppressing or avoiding uncomfortable or painful emotions leads to, paradoxically, these same emotions holding more power over you; and (3) once you’ve identified what your feeling at any particular moment and give yourself permission to feel any and all emotions, you can now shifted to more critically analyze and understand your relationship with anxiety, worry, fear and depression and what needs to be done not to get stuck in these emotions.
Depression, sadness, anxiety disorders, stress, and worry can make it difficult to find happiness in your life. We all need support at different times in our lives. Most of my clients seek help when their current way of dealing with life’s challenges no longer works for them. With a caring, non-judgmental and solution-focused approach, we will explore your issues and challenges in a safe therapeutic environment at my private practice in Delray Beach, Florida.
I also offer remote online therapy from the comfort and security of home that will allow you to learn more effective ways of managing your anxiety and stress.
Let’s walk the path to freedom from depression and anxiety together. If you’re ready to let go of the sadness, depression, fears, worries, and anxieties that are making life difficult, check out my Anxiety & Depression Support Group hosted the 1st Tuesday of each month at my private practice.