Lise Bosch wants us to rework the way we view anxiety and mental health.
It seems to be the most common perspective to adopt when we talk about mental health and anxiety – the solution-based formulaic thinking that sees our thoughts and feelings framed with an impatient itch to resolve it. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the predominant way we view any kind of personal progress, any sticky character dilemma that persists despite the answer seeming so blindingly clear to the audience.
The irony is that often anxious people are also the most self-aware people, innately conscious of how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it, and how illogical that feeling is. Yet those spirals, those meandering night-walks of our mind continue down conclusions drawn by cruel rumination. The popularised opinion on the solution to this head and heart submersion is to flick over to a more practical self-perception in order to debunk and correct our messy trains of thought. Unfortunately, being the humans that we are with all our lovely humanness, this ideal can be tough to reach sometimes. It can slip between our fingers, leaving us frustratedly fumbling.
This perfectly articulates the core of our battle with the highs and lows of our mental health. The consequence is often an expectation that through adequate execution of researched processes and re-worded thinking, progress adopts a steady ascending line on your chart.
For months after first starting my mental health journey, this was my anxiety crutch. An impatient need to smooth out my rough edges through an objective lens, switching over to the left side of the brain and choosing reason to fix, correct, and alter my fretful, messy little mind. And don’t get me wrong, it’s an undeniably effective approach, and has much evidence to argue its case. But I think, for me at least, it also created a subtle expectation that your feelings are fixable, and thus lead to a string of shame and stress when that fixing proves difficult to do. When you find yourself lingering on hurt, on uncertainty, and can’t pull yourself up as easily.
As someone who operates largely from the heart, who wields empathy and poetic reassurance as my soul-tools, something felt slightly… off. Unfulfilled. Like my mind followed closely but my heart was lagging behind.
Throw in a month of heartbreak and an identity crisis and I found myself growing very tired of trying to rationalise every anxious day, fix every ruminating thought and stand outside all those fumbling feelings with an objective lens. Suddenly my go to fix-it mode didn’t fit into this time of slow sensitivity, of re-evaluation, of gradual and grating growth. Those well-intended words of logistical empowerment from loved ones fell slightly short against my unmoored emotions and anxious antics. And sure, time is key to the acceptance of those facts and truths (no one appreciates a thorough analysis of your sailing skills when you’re scraping for survival in a storm), but fundamentally my heart was exhausted from being so impatient with my growth, so desperate to just fight all of that discomfort and anxiety away that I fell into intense self-criticism and frustration.
Enter Sarah Wilson. Wandering through a bookstore with a pay check and New Year’s resolutions, I pulled out “First We Make The Beast Beautiful” in all its navy glory. There, in the bottom left hand corner, lay the words “A new story about anxiety.” I was pretty much sold after that.
I won’t dump a book review in here because I’d never do it justice (just read it) but essentially the premise is to rework the way we view anxiety and our mental health. To move away from a popularised need to fix, to medicate, to rationalise away and instead move towards a gentle acceptance in which we sit with our distressed thoughts and our hurting and offer them an ear. As Wilson writes,
“I ask you, do you feel, in you heart of hearts, that fixing your anxiety is the answer? I ask this of anyone with the kind of low-to-medium anxious buzz we’re all feeling, as well as those of you with a diagnosed anxious condition. Because the question is equally relevant. Do you think it might be lovelier if we bundle up our uncertainty, fear, late-night over-thinking and kooky coping habits, tuck them gently under our arm, and see where they take us?”
So, I started to slow down my race to being OK, that impatient scramble for a nonchalant togetherness that bursts from frustration every time my progress seems to drop, or my heart feels a little too fragile when I wake up. Instead of manifesting a glow up in which I suddenly breathe carefree, fun and easy, I had grace for my overthinking and appreciation for the depth and richness of all those complicated feelings. Sure, this may seem a little wishy-washy and idealistic (definitely not the practical step-by-step guide you may be after), but it does help with that “I’m anxious about being anxious” spiral that seems to worsen everything and fuel our restless insomnia.
In the process of sitting with all of that heart-breaking, I felt myself undergo a process of heart-making. Instead of resisting those crises of pain and insecurity, I began to draw them close for an “intensification of inner life” that Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl argues is essential for our survival through periods of suffering.
Because sometimes meaning emerges from us sitting tightly with the hurt, the questioning, the doubts and existentialism. Without judgement. Without a need to resolve. A richness is provoked which we may have otherwise missed in our clamber for steadiness and ease. New insights, new maturity, new understanding.
Treating our hearts with grace, giving ourselves time and patience and understanding when they are slow in their healing or struggling in their growth, seems to me a more fulfilling approach to our mental health. Yes, this requires time and an immense amount of empathy for yourself (a paradoxically difficult thing for empaths) and may seem like a slower and more pained trajectory. And for those blessed few who live through life without the downwards pull of anxiety, who Wilson labels ‘Life Neutrals’, such lengths may seem entirely unnecessary.
But for those of us who so often feel as though there is something fundamentally wrong with struggling, that our mental health characterises an unpleasant, unlovable and limiting side to ourselves and as such needs to be fixed, I think this gentleness is heavily missed.
I suppose this is my round-about way of encouraging you to listen in to yourself, as you would your dearest friend. Don’t rush it or brush it off, don’t become critical or frustrated with your bad days or apparent step-backs. Take the time to re-align yourself with grace and have an appreciation for all your depth and complexity (it makes you that much more interesting).
As difficult as it is, viewing your anxiety and mental health as something beautiful, something to see fondly instead of critically, something that enriches your inner life and provides you with a rare maturity and insight – it may just be a step in the right direction.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with seeking improvement, with choosing reason and rationality to organise and structure your thinking, as long as you don’t leave your heart behind on the way. Because it’s through your heart that you find empathy and develop grace and gentleness with your vulnerable self, and I have found that to be equally vital in the process of healing and re-discovery.
So, I propose we ditch the Fix-It Felix toolbox and embrace the messy ups and downs, the steps forward and the steps back. Flesh out that heart of yours, embrace your restless and intricate mind. See where they take you and listen in.
Lise Bosch is a second year journalism student who spends her days knee deep in poetry, tea and sweaters. As a South African born empath who lives through gentle strength and understanding, she hopes to inspire connection, reflection, and appreciation through her writing and storytelling. Lise attends Turramurra Uniting Church. Lise’s article first appeared on the Perspectives website and is used with permission.