Here is an image that might conjure up some memories for you: Your partner telling you they are anxious…VERY anxious. About something. Or, just all the time. You might want to roll your eyes. “How could this possibly be something that makes you anxious?” Because as it happens to be, to you the only thing that creates “anxiety” is jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But, you probably have plenty of anxieties – because as human beings we all do – but can manage to ride the wave with a little balance, and you aren’t always in the throws of it. But, you have come to realize that your partner, friend, sibling, etc., is often in the throws of it. How do you help?
How NOT to help
Shame is the equivalent of poison to a person who is actively experiencing anxiety, and telling someone that they “shouldn’t be anxious” about something is the equivalent of shaming him or her. We might be tempted to tell someone who has anxiety about an impending new job, “oh don’t worry about it, they hired you so they must like you,” because that is how we might coach ourselves. But depending on the level of anxiety and previous shame a person may have felt, this approach can be counterproductive, despite it seeming altogether quite logical.
Empathy is the Antidote to Shame
Instead, an ally striving for a stance of empathy and curiosity can help someone struggling with anxiety. Curiosity — with as little judgment as possible — will help someone to open up about what is making them anxious, and empathy means putting ourselves in that person’s shoes, to see how the anxiety might make sense. The ally can join someone in the “hole” where they are located, a place where it is dark and they don’t know how to get out. However, when we get in their with them, we can help them feel less of a sense of shame, and more of a sense of support, through asking questions, being curious, and understanding. This can begin illuminating things, so where it may have been dark in the hole before, now it feels like there is a way out. Judging, or shaming, would be the equivalent of standing outside the hole and yelling down into the abyss, “what’s your problem, just climb out already?!”
Anxiety manifests differently, there is no “one size fits all” symptom of it. I might notice in my office someone struggling with anxiety as having a difficult time opening up. This can also be seen in relationships as a guardedness, both in intimate and non-intimate moments. In relationships it could also be seen as an overbearing of one partner, because that person needs to know that everything is okay, so they can possibly calm down.
Try on that Pair of Shoes…
Remembering that anxiety is in everyone, to differing levels, can also be helpful. Obviously, what makes one person anxious doesn’t impact someone else in the exact same way or to the same degree as everyone's experience is unique. The individual who is anxious about a first day of work may have had a horrible first day of work at a previous job and therefore imagines that every first day may be equally horrible, as a traumatic reaction. However, every one of your first days at work may have been exciting for you. So if you are only wearing your shoes and not stepping into the anxious person’s shoes, you will only see it from your perspective.