Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Open: Strategies for Coping with Anxiety

Dear Viny,

I am generally an anxious person, and learning to love myself is a struggle, but one I am fighting with every day.

One source of my anxiety at the moment is my open relationship with my partner. We've been together two years and despite being open, neither of us have taken advantage of this freedom. I know my partner wants to but he hasn't found the time to go out and find someone he likes. He's recently started socialising more, which has resulted in me having small panic attacks and stropping at signs of rejection due to built up anxiety. I'm acknowledging the anxiety but still struggling with lashing out at my partner. It's not nice for him and is ruining an otherwise good relationship.

Do you have any tools for dealing this kind of fear and anxiety?

Thank you,
An Anxious Heart


Dear Anxious,

Fear and anxiety are my least favorite emotions, hands down. They're kind of like the flu: a common, contagious, completely miserable waste of precious time. I'm sorry you are struggling, and I commend you for your courage and insight. You're wise to realize that learning to love yourself is the only permanent cure for what ails you.

Learning to love yourself may take a very long time – your entire life, perhaps. And that is okay: there is no task more worth your while. Just be patient with yourself. Take it one day at a time. Take it one minute at a time. If you need to, take it one millisecond at a time. That's all I can really tell you about the process, because learning to love yourself is something only you can do. I can't do it for you. Your partner can't do it for you. You're on your own, baby. Bon voyage.

In the meantime, however, I do have some practical tips about how to manage your anxiety and mitigate the fear that's fueling it.

1. Get plenty of exercise. When you are feeling anxious and jittery, the best thing you can do is give all that nervous energy a physical outlet. Go running, go dancing, go swimming, go walking – it doesn't matter what you do, just get your body moving. Give your heart a good reason to race, on a regular basis, and it will be more likely to cooperate when you really need a rest.

2. Give your brain something better to do. Whenever you find yourself obsessing – What is my partner doing right now? When will he come home? What if he doesn't? What if he doesn't love me, what if he's never really loved me, what if no one will ever love me? – you need to find something else to think about. In the same way that a border collie kept confined in a small back yard will get into trouble, digging hole after hole in a desperate attempt to keep itself occupied, your overactive brain will continue to be a nuisance unless you give it something useful to do. Make sure that the job is both demanding and doable, the mental equivalent of waitressing at a pancake restaurant packed with picky eaters. Whatever it is, it needs to occupy as much of your attention as possible. In a pinch, try reading aloud to yourself.

3. Widen your perspective. This is a vague platitude, I know, so let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. About a year and a half ago, one of my life partners went on a vacation with an ex-girlfriend of his. I should mention here that this particular ex is still a very big part of his life: she lives with him whenever she's in town, which amounts to about half the year, and even though they are no longer romantically involved with each other, they have always enjoyed an emotionally close, physically affectionate relationship. Also, I really, really like this woman. She's a wonderful person, and I consider her a friend. So, I had no problem whatsoever with her and my partner going on a trip together. In fact, I was delighted that the two of them would be getting to spend some quality time together – and I did understand that sex was a possibility, albeit a remote one. All in all, not a setup for extreme anxiety, right? Wrong. On the day they were supposed to return, I got a panicked call from my partner's wife: Where were our two vacationers? Weren't they supposed to be back hours ago? Now I was concerned, too. She and I fretted for two or three hours, getting more and more freaked out as time dragged on, neither of us daring to voice the concern we shared: had there been an accident? Finally, we got a text saying sorry, there had been no cell reception until now, but they were on their way. About five minutes later, a long email from my partner came through – a lovely missive, all about the wonderful time they'd had, and how much he'd missed me, and oh yes, they'd had sex, and he felt good about it, and she felt good about it, and wasn't that great? Under normal circumstances, I would have experienced a sharp twinge of jealousy, taken a deep breath, and moved on. However, my system was still overloaded with cortisol from all the hours I'd spent worrying that my lover and one of his dearest friends had died in a car crash, and I would be called in to identify the bodies. That jealous twinge just kept on twinging, getting louder and louder. It was past bedtime – in fact, my husband was already in bed with the lights out – but I didn't think I would be able to sleep. I got into bed anyway, and lay there hyperventilating for what seemed like a million years, but was probably only ten minutes. Then I announced to the ceiling, “So, they did end up having sex.” There was a pause, as my poor husband's consciousness swam up from its peaceful slumber, and then I heard a sleepy voice say, “That's great!” I don't know what I'd expected to hear, but it wasn't that. “It's great?” I asked, incredulous. “Yeah,” he said, “Good for them!” And bless his heart, he was absolutely right: it was good for them. I just hadn't been able to see it, because I'd been so wrapped up in whether it might turn out to be bad for me.

4. Focus on the love you're giving instead of worrying about the love you're (not) getting. When your partner is off socializing without you, it's not going to do you a lot of good to sit at home pouting, or “stropping” (thanks for the new term, which must be a British-ism – I had to look it up on Urban Dictionary!). One suggestion would be to get out there and do some socializing yourself. However, there's a potential danger: if you're looking for external validation, hoping that positive attention from others will lift you out of your funk, you are likely to see rejection everywhere you look. Instead, try approaching your interactions with other people as an opportunity to be of service to them. For example, let's say you and your partner are at a party together. He's chatting people up and having a grand old time, whereas you are not. You know your partner isn't being an asshole; you know he's not ignoring you on purpose; you know he'd love nothing more than for you to enjoy the party, too. Nevertheless, you're feeling like a total loser, and you're angry at yourself for feeling this way, and you're angry at your partner because you're angry at yourself. In a situation like this, leaving the party will only make you feel worse, and dancing on the table in a desperate bid for attention will likely land you on your ass. Instead, see whether the host(ess) needs help mixing drinks or washing dishes, or find someone who looks a little lost and introduce them to someone you know. When you're feeling bad about yourself, focusing on others may not make you feel great, but it will definitely make you feel better.

5. Don't fight your feelings. No matter how busy you keep your brain and body, there will be times when you are overcome by negative emotions. Like physical pain, emotional pain is a “pay attention” signal. Sometimes, there's a damn good reason for this signal – you are touching a hot coal, say, or your appendix is about to burst – but sometimes your nerves are just randomly firing. In either case, though, resenting the pain will only increase your suffering. Just accept your emotions, even the unpleasant ones. Feel what you feel, and when you're ready, let the feeling go. (I have given this advice to other people in situations like yours; for example, take a look at my post on Letting Go in Open Relationships.) The bottom line is this: when you stop hating your anxiety, you can stop hating yourself for being an anxious person.

Alas, Anxious, it's getting late in the day, and I have black bean ragout with garlicky toasts and cumin crema to make, so it's time for me to sign off. I hope these suggestions are of some use to you. Of course, there's a caveat, because we have not really addressed the elephant in the room: namely, the fact that it is unclear whether or not you actually want to be in an open relationship. You say that neither you nor your partner has “taken advantage” of your agreement to be open. You say you know he wants to, that the only reason he hasn't is lack of time – but do you want to? Why did you agree to an open relationship in the first place? If this is something he wanted, and you agreed only because you didn't think he would be with you if you said no, or because you didn't feel you deserved to say no, or because you secretly hoped that he would change his mind and that would finally furnish you with irresistible, incontrovertible proof that you are a person worthy of love...well, my dear, beware: you're mired deep in self-sabotage, and you may need professional help to get out. Take good care of yourself, and best of luck.

Biscuits and Buskins,

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