When you suffer from anxiety, you’re likely to spend a lot of time worrying about how others perceive you. In fact, fear of judgment may be the most common symptom of anxiety.
While there’s a wide range of judgments people fear when they experience anxiety, there’s also the more universal fear that others will judge you simply for having anxiety.
What will others think of me if they discover my anxiety?
Will they see me as weak? Strange? Inadequate?
Of course, sometimes the fear goes much deeper:
If others see me as weird or “crazy,” will they still like me?
Will my friends still want to be my friends?
Will my partner still love me?
These are no small concerns. They speak to the human need for connection and the fear of being alone. And when anxiety amplifies this fear, telling you that others will reject or abandon you if they ever get a chance to see the real you, developing a way to hide your anxiety from others—and perhaps even from yourself—is nothing short of essential. Without a way to conceal your anxiety from others, the fear of rejection and of being alone would be utterly paralyzing.
Coping with the fear of judgment
“Performing” provides a way of coping with these fears. It involves acting as though you “have it all together” even in those moments when anxiety takes over, hijacking your thoughts, body, self-beliefs and emotions.
For example, you may find yourself smiling and laughing around co-workers, while internally your heart is racing and a part of you is saying that no one finds you funny or interesting. In your personal life, it may simply look like never opening up to the people you’re closest to.
Performing in this way can help you get through a range of difficult situations, but it also comes at a significant cost. The effort required to maintain the performance in order to keep hiding your anxiety can be exhausting–sometimes even more so than the anxiety itself!
You need a break, a chance to let your guard down and hit the pause button on the performance. And yet that’s precisely what you can’t ever allow yourself to do for fear that others will judge and reject you.
So, how do you break free from the performance?
Breaking free from the felt need to perform all the time can help you relax and recharge. It can also help to minimize the anxiety that drives you to perform in the first place. But how do you do it?
Below are 4 steps (of a sort) that I frequently use to help clients break free from the exhausting performance that so often accompanies anxiety.
1. Identify the performance.
When I work with clients experiencing anxiety, I find that calling attention to the “performance” often brings considerable relief by itself. In session, I focus on identifying the different ways in which a client may be “keeping it together,” whether consciously or unconsciously, in the here-and-now of the session. The point, of course, is not to judge the performance, but simply to take note of it. As the old saying goes, “You have to name it to tame it.”
2. Notice yourself performing in the moment.
After you identify your tendency to hide your anxiety from others by way of performing, the next step is to just notice times when that performing part of yourself takes over. You might notice it while out with friends, around your significant other or in a work meeting. Whenever the performance happens, all you do is notice without judgment that it’s occurring. Nothing more, nothing less. It may not sound like much, but as you develop the ability to mindfully observe the performance as it’s happening, you begin to create space to experiment with new ways of being.
3. Give yourself permission not to perform.
Once you’re able to notice your “performing part” attempting to take the reins in the moment, ask that part of you to step aside. Often, it can help to assign a number to the performance. For instance, if you notice yourself performing at a “7 out of 10” (with “10” being the least congruent), you might set the goal of only performing at “5” or a “6.” This might involve giving yourself permission to step away from a conversation that feels too overwhelming as opposed to taking the less congruent approach of “grinning and bearing it.”
4. Notice what happens when the performance stops.
As you begin to step out from behind the performance, the final step is to process the experience. Make note of how you felt being more authentic, both in the moment as well as after the fact. It’s not uncommon to feel scared or even terrified when it comes to letting down your guard in this way, but my clients almost always share with me that, after the fact, they experience a noticeable sense of relief.
Would you benefit from help in finding relief from anxiety? Get in touch to start therapy and counseling at our Charlotte, NC location today by calling (704) 800-4436.