(originally posted on 7/28/15)
Growing up we all learned that games have rules and you have to play by those rules, otherwise you are cheating. And cheating is bad. If you cheated you were considered a poor sport, someone who couldn’t play nice with others, or someone who just always wanted their way at all costs. Again, all bad. So it’s no wonder that we resist the idea of breaking the agreed-upon rules. So how does this translate into a tip to fight against anxiety? Stay with me.
First let’s look at the game we play with anxiety (feel free to substitute “worry” or “fear” for anxiety if that resonates more). This game is one of power. The person with the most power wins. Anxiety plays the “What if” game as it projects into the future and creates a negative prediction of your fate. “What if you make a mistake during your presentation?” “What if your supervisor hates your work?” “What if your coworkers find out that you don’t know as much as they do?” “What if you don’t get that job you’re applying for?” There is no shortage of “What if” questions that can be thrown at you. And the rules of the “What if” game are that you need to answer the “what if” question with an unshakeable answer as to convince anxiety/yourself that the feared future outcome will not occur. In other words, the only way to stop the “what if” questions is to answer the question in such a way that anxiety is so impressed with your response that it has no comeback. Spoiler alert: Anxiety always has a comeback if you play by its rules. For example, anxiety asks “What if you make a mistake during your presentation?” and you answer, “I’ll practice my presentation 100 times the night before so that it becomes second nature.” Anxiety’s comeback is, “Ya, but what if you still make a mistake?” Then the game continues and you feel like you are losing ground. The more comebacks anxiety has, the more powerless you feel, and the more you feel like you are losing the game. The rules of the game are designed to do just that. Anxiety has the power because anxiety made the rules of the game.
To paraphrase the Wizard of Id, the person with the power makes the rules. So you can either wait until you feel powerful then change the rules, or you can change the rules and feel powerful as a result. I recommend option #2. If the object of the game is to eliminate anxiety’s comebacks, the best way to achieve that goal is to cheat (or “change the rules of the game” if considering yourself a cheater is too repulsive). Instead of answering anxiety with a typical response to the “What if” question (to convince anxiety/yourself that the feared outcome will not occur), cheat by agreeing with anxiety. In response to “What if you make a mistake during your presentation?” you can respond with “Mistakes are common. I’m sure I’ll make a few and that’s fine.” When you stop arguing with anxiety, it no longer has a comeback. You suddenly changed the rules of the game…and you start winning.
Things to expect: When you change the rules of the game, the other player gets upset and throws a tantrum. Expect anxiety to respond with a tantrum. This will most likely look like anxiety coming up with even worse scenarios to throw at you. “Not just a mistake in the presentation, but what if people laugh at you, what if they lose respect for you, and what if they think you are stupid.” When this happens, stick to the rules you have imposed. Avoid responding to convince anxiety that it is wrong, instead continue to respond with, “That’s ok. I’ll laugh along with them, I’ll show them that I can be serious and knowledgeable while at the same time not taking myself too seriously. It might feel mortifying for a couple of minutes but that won’t last. I’ll survive. I’ll show them how to make mistakes gracefully.” Anxiety will try to get you to play by its rules again by turning up the heat. When this happens, stick to your game plan and wait it out. Anxiety will start to decrease.
When it comes to anxiety: cheat and don’t play nice.
Shawn Healy, PhD
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Find more Tips for Lawyers and Law Students to Reduce Anxiety here.