“Learning to love ambiguity can be a very powerful, if rather counterintuitive, act. By love here, we’re not talking about falling in love or being in love. We mean love as an act. You can learn to care for and cherish ambiguity. You can invite it into your house for a while, give it a glass of lemonade, talk with it, and listen to what it has to say to you.”
When I first read that quote from the book Things Might Go Horribly, Terribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety by Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene, I had to stop, pause for a minute, and then re-read it again. And I repeated that pattern a few times. Something with it just resonated at a deep level for me. Though they are specifically talking about ambiguity, the book is on anxiety, and there is something powerful when we learn to not fear our anxiety. There is something powerful when anxiety moves from being an enemy that is out to crush us, to a friend that is trying to help us out.
Now if you, or someone you know has suffered from anxiety, the thought of that might be just too crazy and fantastical to even think about. And I understand why you might be skeptical at that possibility. But as someone who has struggled with anxiety most of my life, and continues to work day in and day out with people who struggle with it as well, there is a powerful transformation that takes place in that reframing of anxiety.
Reframing and Befriending Anxiety
I have thought about this process quite a bit, even wondering what came first, the reframing or the befriending. It may not matter, but I think that we first have to reframe our anxiety, before we can actually move close enough to it to befriend it and learn from it. I love the definition here of reframe.
“Framing is the thought process people use to define a situation and decide how they are going to deal with it. Reframing is doing this over again in a different way: – for example, deciding a conflict can be approached in a positive (or “win-win”) way, rather than a negative (or “win-lose”) way.”
Simply stated, reframing anxiety is the process of beginning to view the work of anxiety in your life in a new way over and over and over again. Instead of framing it as an enemy out to crush you, and as something that is destroying your life, you begin to think of it as an opportunity for growth. You begin to reframe it as a friend who is informing you about a new way to live your life. That is a powerful reframe and can be done by anyone.
In an earlier post I write about the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety, but to even know which is which, one has to actually get close enough to their anxiety to know what it is saying to them, and whether it is unhealthy or healthy. And to get close enough to it you have to reframe it from enemy to friend, then you have to befriend it so you can not be fearful of it.
Let me give you a clear example from my own life. Without going into all the details as I’ve mentioned them in previous posts, I am someone who has struggled with anxiety for most of my life. I believe most of it stemmed from my mom’s death from breast cancer when I was 11 years old, and all the anxiety that not only that culminating event brought upon me, but the ensuing stuttering I developed a couple of weeks later, and the up and down anxious ride from ages 6-11 when the status of her breast cancer changed from time to time. All those things created a lot of anxiety for me. That anxiety also created a lot of havoc in my life as I often found myself withdrawing from social situations, and struggling with deeps questions about identity. But when I was 21 I literally decided to look at my opportunity not as an enemy, as it had already destroyed enough things in my life, but rather as an opportunity for growth. I literally prayed to God that he would give me an opportunity to speak since that was my biggest fear and anxiety as it triggered all my stuttering, which led to feelings of inadequacy and shame. But I knew that the only way to work through my anxiety was to actually face it head on. And by facing it head on I was beginning to see it as a pathway to growth, rather than a closed door. That little inkling of a reframe began to grow larger and began to shape every experience that I had with anxiety. No longer was I simply seeing anxiety as a roadblock, but I was instead beginning to ask, “How can this anxiety be an opportunity for me to grow in my life?”
Reframing is simply coming up with other options in any given scenario. Often anxiety creates a narrowsightedness about those who struggle with it. Anxiety has a way of limiting options and closing doors.
In an earlier post I quote the work of Allan Hugh Cole Jr. in his book Be Not Anxious: Pastoral Care for Disquieted Souls, citing the congregational consultant Peter Steinke’s observation of anxiety. He writes the following about anxiety:
“Shares the same Latin root, angere, with the terms anger and anguish. Peter Steinke notes that angere, ‘is translated to choke or to give pain by pushing together,’ with its noun from angustus, meaning narrow.”
The literal definition of anxiety in Latin conveys this idea of things narrowing, not only physically, but existentially as well. That is, one can feel the panic in their chest from anxiety and feel that their airwaves are closing in on them, and they can also feel like the walls of their lives are closing in around them, limiting options and shutting opportunities down. In situations where people feel this, you want to help them see what the other possibilities are in their anxiety. Instead of walls closing in and options becoming limited, is it possible that anxiety is opening up the walls and creating more options? Most people don’t even begin to think about this when anxious, so if you are working with someone with anxiety, one of your roles is to provide hope and expand their horizons.
And once someone begins to not simply see anxiety as shutting off options and limiting them, they begin to have the capacity to befriend anxiety. We see this happen a lot in relationships where someone has a specific view about someone, and if that view is negative it closes options and limits the possibility of encounter between the two people. And without the encounter, there is little to no opportunity for personal or relational transformation. But if we begin to see the person in a new light then we have the opportunity to befriend them in a new way, and with that befriendment comes all kinds of new possibilities. And once you are in a relationship with someone then all kinds of new connections open up to you, and you begin to see things in new ways. This is true of anxiety. Once I reframe it as an opportunity to grow, and I move towards befriending it, I began to see how anxiety might be at work in my life for a myriad of reasons. Some of those reasons might be unhealthy and you will need to deal with them, and other reasons might be healthy and you can rest in the knowledge that it won’t destroy you.
Steps to Help Other Reframe and Befriend Anxiety
At this point it might seem like all of this is just a huge mental and emotional shift, and to be honest a lot of it is. But to create a lasting mental and emotional mental shift there has to be practical ways that one can practice this shift so that it becomes more readily available to access and work on creating some permanency around it. Let me suggest a few ways that you can help those around you reframe and befriend anxiety.
First, it’s important to ask a lot of questions of anxiety, so I refer to this as simply the process of interviewing one’s anxiety. This can be done a few different ways. One way is just to ask someone a lot of questions about their anxiety such as, “Why are you here?”; “Why are you in my life now?” “Where is God in the midst of this?” “Is God in the midst of this?”; “Are you a friend or a foe?”; “What are you trying to teach me about my life right now?” “Is there some type of fear I need to be facing?” Etc. There are an endless amount of questions one can ask of their anxiety and there are different ways to do this.
If you are working with someone I recommend you becoming anxiety, or allow them to become anxiety, and then simply let the other person ask questions about anxiety. It may sound weird at first, but it’s incredibly helpful in externalizing anxiety away from the person and making anxiety the person. It’s also helpful to talk about it out loud, as that’s one way to take fear out of anxiety and make it more friendly. I think there is a spiritual principle at work here as well. In Mark 4:22 the gospel writer writes, “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” I believe that when anxiety is kept in the dark it actually creates more problems for people, but exposing it to the light by bringing it out into the open is incredibly helpful in reducing a lot of its power in a person’s life. I have also on occasion used inanimate objects that are lying around in my office to be anxiety. For example, I might have a pillow on my couch be anxiety, and the person I’m working with and myself may sit across from it and ask all kinds of questions of it. Of course, we won’t hear any verbal responses from an inanimate object, but the process of sitting side by side across from the anxiety, and teaming up to ask questions together of it is a super powerful exercise in reframing and befriending it.
Second, another exercise I love to do is to have people take a stack of 3×5 cards or little scraps of paper and write down on each piece one anxiety or fear they can describe. For example, if a person comes to see you on a certain day you can have them write down all the things they brought into the office with them that are causing anxiety or fear. It’s a great exercise in externalizing anxiety when a person can get the thoughts and feelings out of their head and written onto paper. The mechanics of the process itself is helpful, as is the reflection of the topics by the person who is writing them down. After they have written them down I ask the person to stand up and place them on the floor around the office, usually a couple of feet or more (depending on space) from the other pieces. I then ask the person to simply walk around and through the anxieties and fears they have written down and to look at them, reflect on them, talk about them out loud. And one by one I ask them to pick up the anxieties and fears that are the most important thing to them that day, until they have the one remaining anxiety or fear that they feel is most important to discuss. Just the process of standing up and walking around is really helpful on a physical level, and then the interacting with the anxieties and fears by walking around and through them is an act of befriending them, rather than avoiding them.
Third, the other activity that I have people work on when they are trying to reframe and befriend their anxiety is that I simply tell them to learn to “sit in their anxiety.” This is not a popular request of mine, but it helps one reframe and befriend. We live in a culture that most often tries to ignore or stuff or hide the anxieties and fears that come up. And when we do this there is little to no chance to reframe or befriend anxiety, and, therefore, little or no chance to get close enough to the anxiety to know if it’s healthy or unhealthy, or to discern what direction to go. Learning to sit in one’s anxiety is about learning to get more familiar with it, especially the nuances of it, and how it feels in one’s mind, heart, and body. To sit in anxiety is usually as simple (and as hard) as asking someone to just simply notice what is going on for them, and to try and tolerate it for a little bit longer each time before they have to ignore it stuff it, or withdraw from it. Often I will recommend that someone practice some good breathing exercises during this period to help with the emotional regulation.
A good example might be asking someone to create about 5 minutes in the morning where they set aside time just to notice what their anxiety is doing with them that day. And as they notice it, the goal is just to stay engaged with it, and when the 5 minute timer goes off (if they choose to set one), just go back to what they were doing. But the key is to create space for the anxiety and to not fear it. Over time this will lead to some powerful reframes and befriending of it. It can even be helpful for someone to keep a journal during this period, taking a few minutes to reflect on their experience of sitting in their anxiety. Those insights can lead to a lot of growth.
Anxiety can either become an enemy that we feel is trying to crush us when we choose to not acknowledge, or it can become a great gift on the journey to change when we learn to reframe and befriend it.
Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Plano, TX. He specializes in helping people struggling with anxiety find new opportunities for growth, as well as spending a majority of his week with couples as they navigate relational issues. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and What It Means to Be a Man: God’s Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. Rhett lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two children. You can discover more about Rhett’s work through his writing and podcast at rhettsmith.com