Why do you get anxious? We think the cause of our anxiety is external. But the true cause—and the path to relief—nearly always lies within.
Imagine you are six years old. You are behind the wheel of a car. You desperately need to get somewhere, and driving is the only way.
As if this weren’t stressful enough, you are not alone in the car. You have passengers.
Some are critical and controlling: “Don’t turn right, turn left! What the %&*$# are you doing?!”
Some are fretful: “What’s wrong with you? Susie is your age, and she knows how to drive just fine!”
Some are trying, without success, to be helpful: “Don’t forget there’s a tree on the left up there.”
But all these passengers are, of course, missing an essential point: you don’t know how to drive. What’s more, you aren’t supposed to know how to drive. And in your six-year-old heart, you know this to be true. You’ve never taken driver’s education. You have no license.
And even if you didn’t care about legality or necessary skills, there is another insurmountable obstacle: you are too short. If you sit up higher, your feet move even further away from the gas and brake pedals. If you slump down enough to reach the pedals, your head sinks below the dashboard and you can’t see the road.
You can’t win this one
If you were this six-year-old, would you be anxious? I would. I’ve had adult driving nightmares in which my brakes weren’t working, but at least I didn’t have the additional terror of not knowing how to drive.
This scary automotive scenario is you, with no Loving Adult behind the wheel. And as you’ve undoubtedly experienced, common life tasks like handling conflict, dealing with intense emotions, and making decisions become scary and overwhelming when your six-year-old is driving.
And what about the chorus of back-seat drivers? They may look like the bad guys in this scary movie we’ve imagined, but that’s an unfair judgment. In truth, like the six-year-old, these critical, controlling parts are also mere kids themselves. They are trying desperately to help you manage an out-of-control situation. However, like our young driver, they are too young for the task. They know it. And they are harsh because they are terrified.
Why exactly are they terrified? You might say, “It’s because they don’t know how to drive, of course.” On one level, that is true. But on the deeper level, the true source of the anxiety gripping your inner kids is that they are “home alone.” To put it another way, the grown-up, Loving Adult “you” is not there.
Making sense of anxiety
Distilled to its essential truth, our “home alone” metaphor sounds like this: you appear to be anxious because of the situation you are in (like being behind the wheel of a car, for our six-year-old). But while the situation may be a stimulus for your anxiety, it is not the root cause. The root cause is that your inner kids are “home alone”. You are trying to handle life from a very young place in yourself, and that is overwhelmingly anxiety-producing.
By allowing your inner six-year-old to try to drive, you are putting her in an impossible bind. You are implying she should be able to drive. Within the metaphor, the anxiety dynamic is easy to spot. It is ridiculously obvious that you cannot expect a first-grader to drive. And it is poignantly clear that a first grader would be scared if you put her behind the wheel—because you are the one who is supposed to keep her safe.
Yet we unwittingly put ourselves in just such a position when we tell ourselves our anxiety is caused by things outside of us. That’s like telling the six-year-old she is anxious because she isn’t driving well. That’s only a small part of it. She’s anxious because we are crazy-making her—by suggesting she should be able to drive at all.
How do you put your adult self back in the driver’s seat?
You can get some relief immediately by simply noticing that you feel anxious. Then, the next step is to accept responsibility for the reality that you must have left your kids home alone. (I’m assuming here that there isn’t some true danger at hand—like a burglar breaking in to your house or a saber-toothed tiger growling at you from behind the garbage bins—or a physical cause for your anxiety, like over-caffeination or sleep deprivation, either of which can send an otherwise happy sensitive person into a spiral of anxiety).
You can actually say to yourself, “Wow, I’m feeling anxious! Is there some way I have put my inner six-year-old behind the wheel?”
By asking yourself this question, you remove one layer of internal crazy-making. You are acknowledging that you see your six-year-old there behind the wheel, and that this isn’t right. With these acknowledgments, you establish yourself as a presence separate from your six-year-old, and bigger than her. She is no longer home alone.
I love this way of viewing my inner selves. It removes any blame from the equation. We can all too easily fall into the trap of demonizing the parts of ourselves that sprang up in childhood in an attempt to cope. We label these coping parts “the wounded self”, then set about trying to get rid of them (because who wants a wounded self? It sounds so awful and—well, bloody.) Or we label these parts “the ego”, and try to transcend them.
But as you may have discovered, getting rid of these inner parts is not so easy. And if you try to transcend them, they have a way of popping up again. There is a good reason this is so. As terrified as your six-year old may be, she is also touchingly brave and persistent in her loyalty to you: she is, after all, a part of you. So, supported by her obnoxious but equally loyal back-seat drivers, she will refuse to relinquish her hold on the steering wheel until she is sure there is a grownup present who knows how to drive.
This is not a Chinese fire drill
In other words, don’t expect your first grader to leap out of the driver’s seat the moment you show up. On the contrary. Why should she trust you? You have been gone for a long time. As far as she is concerned, you are just another one of those obnoxious backseat drivers she has been enduring all these years, here to tell her she doesn’t know what she is doing. (As if she didn’t know that already.) Her driving may be awful, but for all she knows, yours are even worse.
So you need to be patient, and to listen. Refrain from saying, “OK honey, you can relax now. I’m here.” As I said before, your inner six-year-old is a part of you, and that means she’s no dummy. She won’t believe you: more likely, she’ll feel wary and patronized. So simply listen. Patiently reflect back what you are hearing. After each reflection, humbly check in with her by noticing your body sense of the conversation. Do your words resonate? If they do, you’ll get a distinct feeling of “Yeah…that’s it”. That’s your young driver letting you know you are hearing her accurately.
The more you listen, the more you show up with Loving Adult Presence, and the more your inner six-year-old will trust you and let you know what she needs from you. When she finally moves over and lets you take the wheel, you’ll experience true relief from your anxiety.
Photo by Eric Marty on Unsplash
If you sense you’re leaving your inner kids home alone yet can’t perceive exactly how it’s happening, you may want to give yourself the support of 1:1 sessions.
What a great post!…..so “right on” for me….thanks Emily
Thank you Carol!
Thank you for this insightful piece Emily! I have found it at just the right moment – I’d just had a ‘revelation’ during an EMDR therapy session that in traumatic situations I tend to act from ‘panic’ mode feeling like a child not an adult – and the way I behave reflects this too and I was shocked to realise that whilst I’m a natural ‘mother’ to everyone else I fail to mother myself and recognise my own needs at the times I most need a calm and nuturing perspective. This article explains what I am doing and how I can find the adult to centre myself from a place of self care and kindness instead of just spinning in panic, thank you!
Faye, this is wonderful you had the revelation that you can be an adult to yourself at those moments when panic might otherwise set in: this is truly a life-changing realization. Thank you for letting me know, and I’m very happy the article make sense out of this inner panic and how to be with it.