Can We Choose To Stop Letting Our Past Dictate Our Present?

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Laurel Hermanson asks: Is it possible to stop using our personally defining issues as excuses for unhappiness and self-destructive behavior?

My earliest memory is of my brother returning from his first day of kindergarten, or maybe first grade, missing a shoe. He lost it while walking through a field with friends on his way home. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4, but I remember my mother’s anger, big and loud. I was confused, and being so little, I was anxious.

I was an anxious kid. Whether this was due to unfortunate genetics or my childhood, I don’t know. I had my first migraine at 7. As a teenager I suffered chronic and painful stomach cramps. I threw up a lot. What conflicts I couldn’t process, I internalized.

In my 20’s I was introduced to the word “hypervigilance” by a therapist. A hypervigilant person is anxious and worried that something bad will happen. He or she is excessively aware of their surroundings, hoping to detect and possibly prevent approaching harm.

When I learned of this phenomenon, I latched onto it like head lice on a preschooler. Finally, I had a word to explain why I worried so much. Would I lose my job? Was my husband flirting with other women? Did my friends really like me? Why was I so awkward at parties? Since that therapist failed to provide a proper context for the word, I embraced it. Do I seem nervous? I’m hypervigilant!

A decade later I was diagnosed with chronic clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD!). I learned that depression can mask anxiety, the mind/body equivalent of a nuclear reactor shutting down to protect the core. For 15 years, medication and talk therapy eased the worst symptoms, but never exiled my sidekick, hypervigilance.

During that time, I had a complicated relationship with what I considered a tiresome but useful disorder. I sometimes contemplated the truism that worry is a waste of time, but I saw nothing harmful about being attentive to keep from being hurt. Yet at times I felt overwhelmed, trapped. I wanted to be fun! party! girl! So I self-medicated: booze, cigarettes, prescription painkillers.

My psychiatrist recently explained that hypervigilance itself is not a disorder. It is a symptom associated with many anxiety disorders, including GAD and PTSD. While I believed hypervigilance made me anxious, it turns out the inverse was true. Hypervigilance is a behavior, one that cannot be unlearned without first accepting one terrifying reality: Being hypervigilant doesn’t work. It cannot prevent danger or harm. Nothing can.

Hypervigilance is my highest remaining emotional hurdle. What may have been a valuable tool while growing up is now an excuse. It’s an unneeded crutch I still lug around despite its weight and clumsiness. Wielding that crutch has not only failed to protect me, it has also bruised me, the people I love, and my relationships.

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Like many people, I cling to certain behaviors, comfortable deceptions that promise emotional self-preservation. But are we truly safe when protecting ourselves becomes paramount? At what point does self-preservation eclipse our ability to be self-aware and responsive to the needs of others?

We save ourselves from playing the fool if we expect the worst from people, because we can’t be disappointed, right? We save ourselves from appearing weak if we lash out when threatened, because no one will fuck with us again, right? We might even save ourselves from any conflicts at all if we surround ourselves with sycophants, because we’ll never have to argue with our friends, right?

Wrong.

People will disappoint us and it will hurt whether we expect it or not. We will feel threatened no matter how often we come out swinging. We will argue with friends because no one will agree with us all of the time. We can’t control other people.

When we go into self-preservation mode, we accomplish one thing: We shield ourselves from intimacy. From happiness. From life.

My hypervigilance manifests itself in a relentless quest for knowledge. When I have all the facts, I feel better equipped to process conflict in an analytical way, which helps inform my response. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? Perhaps it would be logical if it came from curiosity rather than fear.

My reconnaissance can be heavy-handed. Before my husband and I married, I sometimes snooped around his computer. (I wouldn’t recommend this. If you go looking for incriminating evidence, you will find, at the very least, something unsettling.) I also grilled him about past relationships, and I wanted every detail. In our fledgling romance, my badgering created an undercurrent of fear, the very thing I was trying to escape.

After we dated for six months, he admitted to having a “technically unconsummated affair” with a married mother, someone I knew of. He ended their brief fling before we met, but I had always suspected they were more than just friends. I asked him about it often. I wasn’t terribly surprised when he finally told me. And while I was glad he trusted me enough to be honest, I felt mostly relieved—because my suspicions weren’t crazy. For a while I was OK with it. Who was I to judge either of them? I had made bad decisions in my life.

I became not OK with it when I learned she was angry with me when I started dating him, and she continued to pursue him while we were involved. In her mind, I had taken something that was rightfully hers. This knowledge pissed me off so much that I obsessed over it and talked about it—a lot. Why was she so angry? Even if I had hurt her, it was unintentional. What the fuck, man?

One day I was ranting to a lifelong friend about how I couldn’t shake my feelings of animosity toward this woman. My friend said, “She sounds a lot like your mother.” Wham. My reaction to her words was visceral. In that moment, I saw myself as that scared little girl, confused and anxious about anger I didn’t understand and couldn’t process.

My friend’s insight was the missing puzzle piece that had been buried under my need to know not just what, when, and where, but why. In other words, the why didn’t really matter, because it wasn’t my problem. I had taken someone else’s confusing anger and built a puzzle that wasn’t mine to solve.

My suspicion may have been founded (years of practice!), but I didn’t process that precious information in a healthy way. I obsessed over details and inflicted my misery on my husband. Had he been a less patient man, this might have doomed us. My jealousy and paranoia damaged our relationship for a time. But his honesty, while incremental, filled the potholes until we reached a place of real trust.

He was willing to share uneasy details in the interest of building that trust. But that won’t always be the case with other people in my life. Are my friends talking shit about me behind my back? Do people take me seriously as a writer? Is anyone even reading this? This is where I need to examine whether my hypervigilance is serving me, or vice versa.

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I’m trying to become comfortable with not knowing, to live outside of self-preservation mode. My pursuit of  “truth” is damaging to friendships, family ties, even work relationships. What some people mistake as the need to be right is really the need to be informed. But what difference does that make to them?

In this excellent article on anxiety and obsessive thinking, clinical psychologist Dr. Heather Stone explores the phenomenon of what she calls “searching for bad news,” and offers an alternative.

“The Unknown that you fight so vehemently—that you fear, blame, rail against, and pray would become Real so that it could finally leave you alone—is often better than every known thing you have ever wanted to control,” Stone says. “Let me put it another way: Every good thing in your life that surprised you was previously unknown to you. You didn’t anticipate or create the people who showed up and loved you. You didn’t manage or direct the gifts that you were given, either literally or metaphorically. Live with the Unknown, because the stuff that will make you happy in life will be the stuff that you can’t control.”

So, can we choose to set aside our emotional crutches when they no longer serve us? Can we stop using our defining issues as excuses for unhappiness and self-destructive behavior? I would argue that breaking free of our old, comfortable narratives is a worthwhile challenge. While these places may feel safe, they aren’t safe at all. If we stay there too long, we inevitably suffer all the bad things we can’t prevent, and we miss out on all the good things we could be enjoying.

In another article, Dr. Stone states, “Hypervigilance may cause you to miss what is meaningful and valuable in your life.”

I don’t want to miss anything meaningful or valuable. I want the good, the bad, even the most heart wrenching experiences. I want to feel it all, because it’s all part of life. And life is too short to spend it waiting for the other shoe to drop—or to be lost.

Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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