The Art of Anxiety: The Secrets We Keep and the Chaos it Creates
“We’re only as sick as the secrets we keep.” – Maria Nemeth
We are a Friends family. If I need a good laugh, I’ll binge watch several episodes and escape the world for a while. One of my favorite episodes is The One with the Secret Closet. Monica, the perfectionist, and neat freak, has a closet that she just throws everything into. Her house, life and world look perfect and tidy. That closet…a total mess of chaos. I love this episode because it’s so close to life and our own mess of mental chaos.
The secrets we keep are like Monica’s closet. We shove everything that hurts, causes emotional pain, and creates feelings of shame into a closet in our mind, slam the door, and pretend it isn’t there. But it is there, and it is full of junk just waiting to fall out.
The brain is a tricky thing that we can’t always control. The emotional junk in the closet may be out of “sight”, but it’s not out of mind. When we feel stressed, triggered by a present event or anxious, junk starts seeping out of the closet and causes internal mental chaos, our brain trying to shove it back in but our mind knowing that it needs to get cleaned out.
I remember driving down the freeway one morning, my life feeling like it was out of control and my brain in total chaos. The secrets and shameful junk start leaking out from underneath the door of my mental closet, and memories start flashing in my mind. The level of shame I felt made me nauseous. I loved the lie of perfection because it kept me safe, but it also kept me from connecting with others because they may find out that I’m not perfect, and therefore not worthy of being called friend, daughter, wife, mother. I shoved that junk back in the closet that day and went to work. The junk stayed there for years, seeping out, controlling me way more than I was controlling the memories and pain.
Our brains are built for protection. They are designed to help us keep moving. Our culture often says the past should stay in the past and it doesn’t affect who we are today. The unspoken alternative is wallowing in our sorrows and not moving forward. But we are a culture of either/or and there is an alternative. Find the middle…
It is so important to acknowledge the hurts, but that doesn’t mean we have to sit in it forever either. We can do both.
Open the closet door, a little at a time: Whether you realize it or not, that junk behind the door is controlling you instead of you controlling the junk. It takes a lot of mental energy to keep that stuff locked up and there are days that your brain won’t have the capacity to keep the door closed.
Tell the secrets so they lose their power: This is so easy to say and so difficult to do. When I finally told my secrets to someone, the right someone, I felt like an emotional weight had been lifted off me. Telling a counselor or a trusted friend can make room in that junk closet so that it’s not so full and stuff stops leaking out. Even if you don’t have a counselor or a trusted friend, writing the junk down will also help relieve that closet.
Remind yourself that the junk doesn’t define you: shame is a deep-rooted emotion that doesn’t allow for being human. Shame says, “I did something wrong, so I must be wrong”. Fear is a liar, and this is one of the biggest lies of all – we are all human and we all make mistakes. There are reasons for those mistakes. Yes, there may be consequences but do not believe the lie that the mistake defines you.
Ask yourself a question: “What would I tell a friend if they told me these secrets?” We are way kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Imagine a friend telling you the secret you’re hiding away. What would you say to them? It is likely to be much kinder than what you tell yourself.
Find a counselor or an emotionally trained coach to help you through the telling: Counseling and coaching are expensive, I get it. Even if you have insurance, copays can be pricey. However, if you can connect with a trained counselor or coach, don’t hesitate. These professionals are like mechanics for your brain. You wouldn’t try to fix a car when you don’t understand the mechanisms, why would you try to do this for your own brain? If this feels cost=prohibitive, check out our online courses and groups to learn the Art of Anxiety.
Telling our secrets and releasing the junk from the closet can feel impossible. When we’re faced with a seemingly impossible organizational problem, experts will tell you to start with one area and just concentrate on that piece. The brain is no different. Start with one piece, heal that one, and then move on. This is a journey, not a race. And the journey to mental peace instead of chaos is so worth it.