For some of us, just seeing the word can cause anxious feelings to manifest.
Anxiety, defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome, in some form or another, has presented itself in all our lives.
For some, it can be a debilitating condition, threatening to overtake even the best of days, isolating us, and creating feelings of fear and uncertainty. For others, our anxiety flairs in connection with real-time events in our daily lives. It presents itself as we anticipate outcomes and can elicit a general sense of unease.
Still, some of us find our anxiety triggered by things that remind us of a traumatic or unsettling experience in our lives. Often these were times when we were not in control of our circumstances and bad things happened as a result.
But sometimes, the source of our anxiety is caused by something we might not automatically recognize as the culprit. A source that, once acknowledged, is within our power to change more readily than other sources of anxiety might be.
Sometimes, our anxiety is the result of values confusion. Put simply, values confusion is when our behaviors are incongruent with our held and/or stated beliefs.
In his book Your Faithful Brain, Dr. Leonard Matheson illustrates values confusion through the story of Carol, an accomplished woman who, among other issues, was struggling with anxiety. Upon further exploration, it came to light that Carol was experiencing some uninvited flirtations from a married co-worker.
While Carol was not comfortable with these behaviors, nor did she do anything to encourage them, she did not directly address them either. Instead, she chose to endure the flirtations rationalizing the behaviors as “her own fault” because she allowed this coworker to help her move into her new home weeks earlier.
But the consequence of not confronting the situation had begun to negatively impact Carol’s quality of life, leading her to seek professional help. Dr. Matheson helped Carol see that the incongruity between her held beliefs and her actions was at the root of her present anxieties.
I must admit, there have been times in my life when, like Carol, I experienced a sense of dis-ease within myself related to values confusion. When I started in therapy, there was no shortage of areas in my life that were incongruent with what I said I believed.
For example, I said that I believed people were worthy of love and should be treated as such. But I did not treat myself that way.
I said that people should not tolerate abuse, of any kind, in their relationships. Yet I allowed myself to tolerate it.
I said that facing our past and healing from it was important. Yet, I locked away pieces of my story in fear of the possible rejection and shame that revealing them would bring.
For me, each of these areas of incongruity caused, among other things, a strong sense of anxiety. I have seen this same anxiety manifest in my clients. Often, for the same reasons.
Which makes sense. We are not designed to believe one thing while simultaneously behaving in direct opposition to those beliefs. This causes a sort of dis-integration within us, and with others. And for those of us who believe in God, it can cause a dis-integration there as well.
On the surface, this might sound confusing. So, let’s look a little deeper.
Our values and beliefs are more than a “what." They are a part of “who” we are. And science shows us that our brains are wired to protect us against attacks on “who” we are. (Incidentally, did you know that our brains respond to an emotional threat [real or perceived] in the same way that it responds to a physical threat?).
But typically, when action against our values/beliefs is carried out, and it negatively impacts us or those we love, the threat is external, so we know where to direct our protective responses and behaviors. The rub comes when that threat to our values and beliefs is coming from within. The waters get muddied and we don’t quite know where to go with our protective responses. The result? Anxiety, (among other things), ensues.
There is a verse in Scripture, written by the apostle Paul that sums this up perfectly. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…” (Romans 7:15).
I feel you, Paul. I feel you.
The places where incongruity shows up might not be as obvious as mine or Carol’s (or Paul’s). Any number of inconsistencies between our values/beliefs and actions can create not only a general sense of anxiety, but feelings of regret, guilt, embarrassment, and ultimately, shame- the mother of all isolation and condemnation.
The longer we live this way, the greater our anxiety becomes. Which is an interesting trait of anxiety. It will tell you that if you do what it is asking you to do, it will go away. However, the truth is, the more we do what anxiety tells us to do, the stronger it becomes and the more it rules our lives.
Unfortunately, we rarely recognize it as such, because when we obey our anxiety, we often feel “better”, giving us a sense of being back in control. But that is an illusion.
So, what can we do about it?
If you have read this far and are wondering if values confusion might be at the root of some your anxiety, try this.
· Do all my choices align with my values/beliefs?
· Do I maintain healthy boundaries in relationships consistent with my values/beliefs?
· Do I speak up when someone is asking me to compromise my values/beliefs?
· What do I believe about myself as the result of my upbringing that might cause me to compromise my values/beliefs? (“I can only be loved if “… or “If I ___ people won’t accept me.”)
· Do I engage in activities or relationships that are incongruent with my beliefs/values?
· Do I treat others and myself in a manner that reflects my values/beliefs?
As you answer these questions, you might find that additional questions arise. I encourage you to write those down along with your answers. While insights that questions like these can provide might be helpful, knowledge only has power when it is combined with action.
To take anxiety’s power away, we can start by engaging in steps to align our values/beliefs with our behaviors, thereby creating a sense of the congruity we want. When our minds and hearts are fully integrated within our actions, we can experience the sense of peace that helps us live the life we have been created for.
For more ideas on congruity and integrating the heart and mind, check out Your Faithful Brain by Leonard Matheson, PhD and Your Faithful Brain Ignited! by Agovino & Birkemeier, LPCs. You can find these books and more at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/resources.
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