Gene Wilder, Woody Allen, Ben Stiller—they’re so good at playing anxious shlameels. I often identify with their characters. After all, we live in an anxious world; I see it in the eyes of most people I meet. Anxiety is not all bad. We can be anxious to please, anxious to do a good job. Or we can also be filled with a paralyzing anxiety that may be diagnosed as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of us live with the anxiety that we’re not quite acceptable in others’ eyes. We have a hard time just being ourselves.
I feel that I was wired from birth to be anxious about being myself. I never quite fit in with my peers and thought that something was wrong with my personality and interests. I envied those boys and girls who were unselfconsciously “themselves”. Sometimes they got into trouble with adults for acting up, but it didn’t seem to bother them, nor did it modify their behavior. They simply adapted to their environment and hid those actions that might have rankled authorities. And they got away with it. Over and over again!
Ah, but not so with little Michael! Plastered on my expressive Italian face was reticence or guilt whenever I may have stepped out of my comfort zone or acted up. I never got a second chance to fool around. Hypervigilance became my watchword. I recall in the fourth grade innocently looking at the desk of the kid next to me to see if I got the teacher’s instructions correct. Mrs. Maher, in her frequently foul mood, pounced on me, accusing me of talking, and kept me after school. I was so terrified of my mother’s reaction that I simply let her assume that I had stayed after to help clean the blackboards (which I actually did do). Perhaps a silly and unnecessary reaction, but real nonetheless to a nine year old trying to be a “good little boy” all the time.
We can easily carry that anxiety about being oneself into adulthood. Learning to accept ourselves and believing that we are fine just as we are, and that we are complete and whole in ourselves is hard lesson for many of us. If we are fortunate we find a life-partner who loves us enough to bring us through this anxious phase to self acceptance. But this kind of anxious energy can also attract the opposite. Many have discovered almost too late that they have partnered with people who manipulated their anxiety in order to control. In my case I chose to enter a clerical institution that ended up reinforcing my anxiety. No matter what I did it seemed it was never good enough; I was never good enough.
Comparing ourselves to others is the other side of this coin. We look around and analyze the behavior of those who seem to be successful and want to order it for ourselves, “I’ll have whatever she’s having,” (from When Harry Met Sally). Yet we cannot reach this state of inner nirvana without first accepting, appreciating and loving who we are, even with our contradictory quirks and unique traits.
I have found that when I finally gave up trying to conform to others’ expectations, no matter how noble and high-minded they might have been, my anxiety about myself decreased dramatically. I still follow basic standards of behavior that promote a polite and civil society, but I act on them in my own terms with my own style.
What has been your experience about anxiety and self-expression? Tell us.
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