This month I had some old anxieties pop up when I least expected them. I had a bunch of workshops and meetings with people I’ve never met, and there were parts in all of them which had open discussions with the group—usually about 20 people or so. Whenever the floor was open to talk, or I’d feel the turn coming to me—I’d have a huge rush of anxiety and nervousness flood my thoughts. I could feel myself get really warm and beginning to sweat, my hands would shake, and I’d start fidgeting in my seat. I felt like I was going to melt down. As all this was happening, I was also thinking: “Why is this even happening? Wasn’t I over this?”
I’ve had these feelings of talking openly with groups of people ever since I started going to school. I always remember being completely overwhelmed when being asked to speak up in class, or in front of any group. Even if I knew the answer to something, I’d often say “I don’t know” or look clueless, just to avoid more discussion. It was never about seeming dumb to look cool or anything—I was actually afraid to keep talking about something, because I didn’t want to engage with the group. As I got older and the feelings continued, I’d start finding excuses to not even go to things where I’d be forced to talk with a group of people. I honestly didn’t know how to deal with it, so I figured avoiding it altogether was the best way to stop all those uncomfortable feelings.
It’s only been in the last 4 years or so that I feel like I’ve actually managed it better. Through the volunteer work I do in my community, I’m constantly put into meetings and gatherings with new people all the time. I’ve gotten used to introducing myself and speaking about things I’m interested in, or questions that I have—things I would have never done in the years before. Over time, those anxious feelings began to fade into the back of my mind…until, you know, they sprouted back up again recently.
There’s a wonderfully quirky book I just finished called Sourdough. The main character has to constantly care for her sourdough starter to make the bread she loves. It’s sometimes a fickle thing—it needs to be fed a certain amount of flour and kept in a certain pot. Playing a certain kind of music makes it hum, helping it make better tasting bread. The more she respects and cares for it, the happier the starter gets. Things go well, until she pushes the starter too much to make more and more bread. It suffers, until it’s given a rival starter to conquer. I won’t give too much away, but it becomes hungry for more and gets harder to take care of.
When I read that book and thought about my anxieties, I couldn’t help thinking whether there’s a way to keep them ‘happy’ while growing with them—like that sourdough starter. After all, those anxieties are part of me, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to just get up and leave. I knew that putting myself in similar situations over and over helped eventually, but it got reset when there was a new group of people around.
A couple days ago, when Mark and I were recording the second part to our reactions to this month’s topic (watch the first part here), we talked about making my anxieties something I actually like. It seems like a simple concept, but since they’re often uncomfortable feelings—I instantly thought it would be a challenge. But I’m up for changing how I deal with all of this, and I’m going to give it a try. Instead of trying to rid myself of these feelings, I’ll try to welcome them back like an old friend. Maybe they’ll stay for some coffee and bread.