“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.” ~ Charles Spurgeon
I came from a broken and very poor family. My father left the house during my teenage years and it was just my mother, little brother, and me remaining.
Like most single mothers going through the hardships of singlehandedly caring for two children, my mother was often anxious about my well-being. And she overcompensated for her anxiety by being overbearing.
I unfortunately inherited this anxiety, and it used to be a daily battle.
You know the feeling.
You feel uncomfortable and your heart begins to race as you play out worst-case scenarios in your head.
It’s the feeling when you’re knee-deep in debt and worried about how you’ll pay the bills this month to support your family.
The feeling when you are overwhelmed with pressure and you have no idea how to solve the situation.
The feeling when you’re an introvert and you need to go to a networking event for work and you don’t know anyone there.
My struggle with anxiety was one of the most crippling experiences, and as a result, I never grew.
So how do you overcome anxiety?
I realized that first, I needed to know where most of it was coming from.
Anxiety is Actually Your Brain Trying to Protect You
Anxiety comes from a place of fear, and fear is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from getting hurt.
Fear is triggered by a small part of your brain known as the amygdala, and its priority is to look out for your survival. For example, if a mountain lion was chasing after you, your amygdala would trigger fear so that it would activate your body’s fight-or-flight mode and you’d run for your life or grab a weapon to fight.
While your amygdala watches out for your physical survival, it also looks out for your emotional survival. Unfortunately, it’s not the greatest at accurately gauging how dangerous an emotional situation might be. It often blows things way out of proportion.
For example, when I looked to my mother for approval and didn’t receive it, I felt like I wasn’t good enough for her. The emotional pain I experienced developed a behavior of perfectionism.
“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” ~ Brené Brown
I had developed low-self esteem. And because I thought I was worthless, nothing was scarier than the thought of making mistakes and failing, because that would confirm that I was not good enough.
My brain literally made me believe that failure was a horrible thing and that the only way I could succeed in life was to do all things perfectly. Even though this was impossible, this was my brain’s way of trying to protect me from the heartache of not meeting my mother’s expectations.
This is why I never really took too many risks and searched only for options that seemed to have a guarantee for success.
The more I let my anxiety make my decisions for me, or lack of decisions for that matter, the further and further I felt from who I wanted to become.
This was when I came to my big realization.
Anxiety does not serve you when it comes to internal growth.
All it gave me was a false belief that I was unlovable unless I met a certain set of standards.
Fortunately, I’ve grown and learned some powerful ways to start overcoming your anxieties, which I’m about to share.
The Power of a Safe Space
When I was a teenager, a man named Anthony saved my life. If it weren’t for him, I would’ve gone down a much more self-destructive path than I was already on at that point.
His friendship helped provide the safe space I needed to be myself. He never questioned the mistakes I’d made unless I wanted to talk about it. And when I didn’t want to talk about it, he’d openly share his own horrible mistakes.
I never once felt judged by him, nor did I feel like he had a set of expectations for me.
His conversations gave me many eye-opening lessons. For example, while I was worrying what other people thought about me, the irony was that they didn’t really care about me as much as I thought because they were too busy worrying about their own image.
Anthony helped me feel safe. Safe to be myself.
And it was in this safe space that I finally realized that I had the power and responsibility to stay true to myself.
As a result, I was finally able to become more aware of the truth.
How I Overcame My Anxiety
In a society where we are pummeled with over 10,000 advertisements a day telling us how we should look, act, and feel, it’s easy to lose sight of who we really are.
And it makes it even harder when we have our own cultures and even our own families trying to tell us how we should live our lives.
For so much of my life, I was constantly giving in to other people’s expectations of me. I let their standards determine my self-worth, and it made me always anxious about not meeting up to them.
But the reality is that I let this happen.
And here’s the even harsher truth.
I let it happen because it’s actually much easier to live a life that someone else wants you to live.
The scariest part is once you take ownership of the one life you have, you have no one to blame if things go wrong. At least following someone else’s path gave me the right to blame them.
My brain would rather I sacrifice my mental health by letting others’ standards dictate my life than risk doing anything that might make me experience the emotional pain of looking like a failure and disappointing someone.
So I realized I needed to help my mind feel safe again, because all my anxiety was coming from my brain being in survival mode, trying to protect me from emotional pain.
This was when I discovered meditation.
I started using the free version of an app called Headspace, and I learned how effective it can be to simply be present and enter a state of awareness.
The key thing here that helped me changed my life for the better was exactly what meditation helped me develop.
Most of my life, I was being tossed left and right by my circumstances, and I lived my life a slave in reaction to my circumstances.
Meditation helped me become more aware of why I behaved the way I did, especially in these reactive moments.
I realized that almost all of my anxiety was irrational, and that it was my brain trying to protect me from emotion pain.
So the next time I was about to reflexively react to a circumstance that triggered my anxiety, I was able to be aware in that moment and think to myself, “Oh, I’m feeling anxious right now because this moment feels familiar to a painful experience I had in the past.”
And the moment I became aware of this I gave myself the power to make a choice rather than to habitually react.
Then I’d tell myself, “The old you would usually do this, but the new and improved you can do this if you decide to do so.”
Sometimes, I’d lose this battle and give in to my old ways, but other times, I’d win and I’d find myself transforming into a better person as a result.
Your Best Life Starting Now
Here’s the thing I realized about being true to yourself.
It is one of the most hardest decisions you will ever make, but it will also be one of the best.
The first key step of changing my life for the better was having awareness. The next key step was focus.
What you focus on is usually what you will gravitate toward.
The key to overcoming your anxiety is not to run away from who you were, but to run toward who you want to become.
So if you are chained by the shame of your past like I was, then your focus is to run away from it. The crappy part about doing this is your past will always follow you unless you stop running away and fight to free yourself from it instead.
As I meditated, I had such a clear idea of the person I wanted to become.
I wanted to become a great husband, a great father, and a great leader.
I visualized what that looked like and thought about how I could expand my heart to be able to become this person I was longing to be. I didn’t have all the answers, but I knew the only chance this life could ever become a reality was if I just took action steps toward that direction and learned as I went.
So much of my life I was running away without actually knowing where I wanted to go. I ended up in destinations where I just felt more lost than ever, and my anxiety kept catching up to me in the end.
So now, whenever I experience anxiety, I tell myself, “This is anxiety.” I thank my brain for looking out for me and then I ask myself, “What do I need to focus on in this moment and how can I get where I want to go?”
Then surprisingly, the anxiety calms down and the thinking part of my brain activates to try to figure out the best way to go about things.
This is what changed everything for me.
And I know it can change everything for you too.
While people might want you to live the life they want you to live, the world desperately needs the power that comes from you living your most authentic life.
If you are battling anxiety like I am, you deserve to cultivate the safe space you need to start running toward the person you want to become. It’s time to take a deep breath, be compassionate with yourself, and know that your best self is much closer than you think.
Stay aware and focused and you’ll be there in no time.
Here’s to keeping life beautiful.
Eugene Choi is the founder of Destiny Hacks. Through his blog and coaching service, he helps people develop a customized plan to serve a need that exists in the world, utilizing their passions and talents. Download his free guide to help find your unique calling here.