Even now as I try to pen my thoughts, the overwhelming sense of doubt, failure and perceived reaction of ‘well that’s for attention’ fills me with dread and sends my anxiety through the roof. To some, the notion of someone experiencing anxiety, may never have crossed their mind coupled with everything that is going on across the world right now, this blog may seem insignificant and they are all valid thoughts and responses. But I wanted to express the truth behind someone who has lots of practice at grabbing the mask which shows the world ‘I have my shit together’, ‘I am confident’, ‘I have the answers’ ‘I am successful’ ‘I’m a good human being’……..the list goes on.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and I have always focused energy in supporting others who are in need or vulnerable, especially within my professional life working creatively with young people (mainly theatre) who often have complex needs and are experiencing mental health issues. So 3 or 4 years ago when my heart began racing, I couldn’t catch my breath and had an intense desire to flee from certain situations, you’d think I’d understand what was happening to me, especially given I had supported numerous people with an anxiety disorder. We can easily recognise that things aren’t ‘normal’ but can often avoid accepting the signs which tell us something isn’t right, which is exactly what was happening to me – I was putting a lid on these feelings and responses. My response was always, ride it out, tackle it head on and don’t let anyone know or see you struggling.
One thing I do a lot is reflect, process and try to understand ‘why’, I think this comes from the world of theatre where we over analyse every decision when creating pieces of theatre both as a maker and as an audience member. So naturally this has bled into my personal life ‘what did they mean by that comment’, ‘why are they acting this way’ reading all of the micro expressions, body language and trying to psycho-analyse everything, don’t get me wrong its served me well at times but bloody hell its exhausting. So when these strange responses started to occur, I went to that place of internal reflection to try and understand why.
Now in the previous years leading up to this, there were some significant life curveballs I had encountered (which we all experience, I’m no different than my neighbour next door) but what I did, was present to the world *grabs mask ‘I will do the right thing’ ‘I have my shit together’ ‘I am confident and can overcome this’ where in reality, I was internalising a narrative which sounded more like, ‘you’re a failure’, ‘everyone is judging you’, ‘everyone else’s life is perfect and you fall short again’. I am grinning at myself writing this, as when it’s on paper it’s obvious what I was doing to myself, but all I focused on were the headlines of these life hurdles e.g. a relationship break-up and worried what others might be thinking. What I should have been concentrating on is how am I was feeling e.g. I am hurting because of the relationship break-up you need work through these emotions to heal, reach out to friends and family, let others support you in your time of need, but I never did.
If you couple anxiety with Imposter Syndrome, they don’t create the perfect Gin and Tonic, in fact one fuels the other and heightens those thoughts / feelings even further, to the point where they can be quite harmful. Imposter Syndrome is me telling myself, I am a fraud and that all of my achievements are nothing other than a series of lucky outcomes. In reality I know in my heart I have worked my backside off to have a place at the theatre table, have many years’ experience and a bank of knowledge and that is why the Imposter Syndrome exists. When the stakes are high the risk of failure or getting something wrong because you have the experience is amplified to such a noisy level it affects everything, it creates the seed of doubt and that grows so quickly into a forest of fake belief.
It’s a weird feeling and often difficult to articulate in a way which makes sense to someone who’s never experienced anxiety. I personally feel there is a difference between feeling anxious and anxiety, we will have all felt anxious at some point in our lives, just before an exam, first day of school / job or public speaking, but for the most part it’s temporary and passes. Now imagine living most of your time inside your head, running an internal monologue that’s stuck on repeat, reinforcing those thoughts and feelings to a point where it manifests itself into ‘your dad giving you a bearhug so tight you can’t breathe’, ‘your voice catching on your throat with every word’, ‘your brain is foggy you can’t focus’ or the ‘inability to find a simple word during a conversation’.
Time and time again these feelings would appear, usually when I was at work or if I had directed or produced something I had created. As a creative working in theatre, one of the primary functions of the job is to present ideas which evolve in to creative projects / productions, so by its very nature everyone is passing judgement on your ideas, thoughts and your output all of the time – it’s the nature of the beast! Since 8 years old, theatre has played a significant part in my life, so it wasn’t because I was new to this line of work, if anything those pressured times were where I would usually flourish, so what had changed why was I feeling like this?
Throw in to a melting pot:
- A large tablespoon of comparing my back catalogue against everyone else’s highlights
- A bouquet garni of life’s curveballs, with a twist of pretending everything is ok
- A dusting of excessively high expectations on myself
- Sieve feelings so that I have to prove myself over and over, work incredibly hard – but feel it’s still not good enough
- A light beating of my self-confidence until there is little left
- Cover up with plenty of insecurities
- Stew on the same thing over and over which has happened in the past or could in the future.
And you’ll come to a beautiful dish of anxiety and imposter syndrome filled to the brim with nothing other than a sense of Failure.
When the penny dropped and I managed to process and understand that the fear of Failure was a horcrux debilitating any progression, it was a very difficult pill to swallow. I knew it wasn’t just work this was affecting, how could I be the best Dad if I got something wrong or gave unsuitable advice, starting some DIY was pushed to the side in case it didn’t meet my expectations, avoiding gatherings of friends as I might say or do something which may upset someone!!!
I don’t have any quick fixes to overcome this, and the anxiety and imposter syndrome still exist today, but I have some coping strategies that help me through so its manageable and hopefully one day they will subside to a point where they are more like anxious feelings. Accepting that mistakes are part of the process and that real validation only needs to come from me and no one else, I can diffuse the thoughts without it taking over (most of the time)
Looking back I wished that I had spoken to someone about these feelings at the time, instead I conformed to the male stereotype by pretending it’d sort itself out – they didn’t (just in case you were wondering) they just escalated. So why when someone is surrounded by so many friends couldn’t I reach out and be honest, the answer is ‘Failure’ I couldn’t come to terms with the concept of someone thinking less of me, that I’ve not met their (imaginary) expectations and the thought of being called out as a fraud; but knowing now there is no shame in reaching out, I have been able to surround myself with an amazing network of friends, family and colleagues.
Be kind to yourself.
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