Unraveling Unspoken Rules About Anxiety

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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My daughter and I spent an evening curled up with a box of chocolates watching the movie ‘Spy.’ A spoof based on those famous action hero spy movies we’re all familiar with, the film is an easy laugh and enjoyable. Thinking about it afterward I realized just how well they’d put some messages across. In the early part of the movie Melissa McCarthy’s character reveals a downtrodden woman full of personal anxieties. There’s a scene where she’s talking about her childhood influences. “I can still hear my mom’s voice,” she says wistfully. “’Just blend in, let somebody else win. Oh, and give up on your dreams.’ She used to write that in my lunch box.”

Everyone Melissa’s character works with seems to undermine her. She’s the constant butt of their humor and put-downs. Why, she wonders, do they all assume she’s never had a relationship and she lives in a house full of cats? This continues until her character proves she can’t be judged by her appearance and she goes on to save the day. Well, maybe the producers didn’t set out to make a movie about stereotyping, sexism, and harassment, but it’s all there and packaged as a comedy. Hopefully people see the irony because much of it is simply an exaggeration of what happens in real life to real people.

So where do these messages come from that help turn people into nervous wrecks? Look no further than the family. Yes, it’s true that our friends and teachers have some influence on character development, but family is the big one. Some of these messages are spoken, but many are acquired through simple observation and copying. Here are a few examples:

Risk messages

These are a few examples of risk messages. I call them risk messages because the whole purpose is to avoid or deny situations rather than confront them:

  • The only people you can ever truly trust is family
  • It’s always better to step away than get involved
  • We all have our place; don’t try to climb above it
  • Keep yourself to yourself and never volunteer

These repressive messages result in completely unnecessary cautions. Dreams are replaced by anxieties and trusting others or trying something a little different is seen as too high a risk to take, even though the exact opposite is often more likely. Social anxiety prevents teens making friends at a crucial point in their development.

Denial messages

Bottling up feelings or emotions is highly stressful and can, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, result in difficulties forming close and supportive relationships. Put another way, it makes us less likeable. The kind of messages that promote self-sacrifice over emotional expression include:

  • "Keep your thoughts to yourself"
  • "Suck it up!"
  • "Only weak and needy people ask for help"
  • "We’ve all got problems; what makes you so special?"

What results from these and similar messages is unhappiness and anxiety. People are naturally social and emotional beings but messages aimed at suppressing these activities can leave us tied up in knots from quite an early age.

Overruling the rules

It’s not always easy to turn things around and many people find it too hard to unravel what’s already so deeply embedded. So, how do we even begin to challenge upsetting anxiety thoughts? Awareness is therefore half the battle. If you realize something isn’t right, it’s about digging deep to uncover the kinds of messages that have been so influential. A loving partner or a more neutral therapist can sometimes help in this respect. It’s never too late to make a change, and opening yourself up to alternative beliefs and perspectives is a challenge that may result in real personal benefits.

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Regulate Your Behavior to Improve Your Self-Image