Anxiety Is Excitement in Disguise

At five am on a recent morning, I woke to find Cindy awake next to me. “What’s going on, babe?” I asked.

“I feel so anxious,” she told me, “there are so many things I have to do.”

This got me thinking about anxiety, a topic I frequently consider. Maybe what was trying to happen was getting up at five am and enjoying doing all those things that the thoughts seemed to be referencing. Perhaps there happened to be no excitement about sleeping at that time.

I also sometimes find myself feeling anxious about “all the things I have to do.” The accompanying belief is that there isn’t enough time to do what must be done. In reality, there is nothing I actually have to do. Almost everything I plan to do is something that I’m choosing to do. I could probably survive while doing almost nothing.

I have so many projects that I am excited to complete, so many interesting paths to follow. I read an article recently which suggested re-framing “have to” to “get to.” I get to work on all these exciting projects. I get to prepare for my first public technical talk next week; I get to open-source some software I was paid to develop; I get to write this article. I get to sit here in the shade by the edge of a beautiful pool, while the sun is shining, sharing some insights about the human experience. Amazingly, I get paid for doing that too.

I like this re-frame. I also get to work, to pay taxes and bills, and to respond to emails.

Anxiety says, “I get to do this, but I don’t know if I can do it.” The first part is the inspiration, the excitement, the energy. The second part is the limiting belief, reflective of deeper fears, fears such as, “what if I fail?”, “what if there isn’t time?”, or “what if I get overwhelmed?”

When I just go ahead and do the thing, I discover that the second part, the limiting belief, is usually not true. And even if it’s logically true, it’s usually not emotionally true. For example, “what if I fail?” is usually accompanied by a fear of failure. However, when I actually follow through and “fail” it always turns out that there was nothing to be scared of. Failure is often instructive, and the process that leads to failure is usually either fun or engaging. All failure can be framed as success and all success can be framed as failure. In reality, there is no success or failure; there is only what is happening. For there to be failure, there has to be the possibility of the situation being some other way than it is, which is always impossible.

I often feel anxious because I want to do things that I’ve never done before. The forward-moving energy, the excitement, is what seems to propel me, while the limiting beliefs seem to hold me back. Those limiting beliefs always reference the past. They are reflective of who I was, or of who I thought I was.

No wonder this anxious tension arises. I am becoming something different, which is in conflict with the identity I held before. I can let go of the security of my old identity and continually fall forward into the fresh, new reality instead, a reality that is totally unconditioned by what came before. This is scary. It’s scary to let life unfold in this chaotic way, depressing the excitement throttle all the way while completely discarding the braking mechanism provided by my limiting beliefs, by my calcified identity.

Yet all identity is calcified. There is no coherent entity that is appearing in all of this. There is only pure, unbridled creativity appearing as everything that seems to be happening. That creativity is continually flowing in and through this body as much as through all the other bodies and all the other apparent objects and situations.

Ultimately, even the limiting beliefs are an expression of pure creativity, and even those can be harnessed and utilized. For example, this whole article was written about, and because of, anxiety and the apparent tension between already being something and getting to die and become something else.

An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives |

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