I appreciated your recent question and comments about feeling anxious in life and marriage.
You mentioned being anxious and fearful all the time but unable to capture any of it.
I relate! Especially when you described those anxious thoughts as “ping-pong balls bouncing around in my head incessantly.” I know how much our anxiety plays a role in undermining our long-term relationships, health, and well-being.
I know you want to make it stop or at least make progress in addressing the noise inside your head.
I want to share some of what has worked for me, the men I journey with, and what I have seen produce consistently effective and powerful results in my life and theirs.
I grew up in a very anxious environment. To the point that I am confident mental health professionals would have diagnosed me and some of my family as having pretty significant anxiety disorders.
I grew up feeling profoundly unsafe and, therefore, insecure and lived in awful and often traumatizing anxiety for nearly four decades.
I no longer do and confidently say I’m healed from that and without medical or professional intervention (not that I have any beef with those)
The first step to overcoming stressful and anxious thoughts and their resulting feelings was to recognize that they were all centered around feeling insecure and unsafe.
All my anxieties usually have four things in common:
- They are about the future, not this exact moment I am experiencing.
- They overestimate the likelihood that my future includes hardship that leads to suffering.
- They overestimate the magnitude and depth of that hardship.
- They underestimate my capacity to experience that hardship.
All my insecurity and lack of safety are from an imagined and predicted future.
The ability to predict and avoid an imagined future can help keep me from legitimate danger, violence, bodily harm, or injury. However, those same capabilities can also be devilish within a long-term relationship like marriage.
Anxiety significantly distorted how I saw myself and my wife and created a lot of challenges to overcome.
How the voice in my head was rarely true but always right
For most of my life, I treated these predictions as though they were incontestable reality and already real.
Because I did that, I lived many moments as though the future was already happening.
That meant I effectively began to live in the suffering long before the events that might have created it ever came to pass.
In this way, I nearly always lived in the exact thing I feared. It’s the nature of focusing on something. Thinking long and deeply about anything is often a surefire way of bringing it to pass.
I’d spend a lot of time thinking about horrible and disastrous outcomes and then get up, live life, go to school, and work like that, all primed for them to happen.
Then I’d experience “confirmation” that my fear was justified and my predictions “true.”
As with all of us, I learned to become convinced that my thoughts represented “truth.”
Falling out of airplanes and into fear
I could get myself very worked up at times. I remember once, in my early thirties, an experience at 3 am a few days before a business trip, where I began imagining the airplane splitting in two and me failing to my horrible and tragic death.
The thoughts and feelings overtook me, and I started to get sad about the pain and suffering my children would feel, how they might not experience a good and loving father, how their lives would be deeply impacted, and…
Next thing you know, I’m freaked out and trying to figure out how to get out of my business trip and resolve never to travel, etc.
Our brains do this kind of stuff! They’re organs dedicated to using what we know from experiences to predict the risk of pain, discomfort, and death and then strategize to avoid it.
Learning to listen to the “other” voice
Obviously, I didn’t fall out of an airplane, split in two, or die, nor did my wife and children experience painful loss and tragedy. I also didn’t cancel that trip or stop traveling.
Instead, I continued to slowly learn how to first climb out of the holes I kept falling into in my anxiety. Then, I learned how to fall into very few of them.
That all began by slowly realizing that I was not my thoughts; that thoughts are something I experience, like the wind, heat, cold, wetness, humidity change, sunlight, sound, light, and more.
Thought, like all of those, is something entering my awareness. But I’m not them; I’m the being aware of them.
I learned that as this being, to the degree I’m willing and diligent to exercise my awareness, I have a will, capacity, and responsibility to evaluate and weigh those thoughts and impulses.
I learned to recognize that “I” am this other voice, what some call “The observer” and others “The witness.”
The fastest path out of insecurity is… security!
The more I realized that I’m “The Observer,” the more I realized I, as this observer, could interrogate these thoughts and “think about my thinking.”
It never made sense to me that this would be two parts of my brain, and it is still an idea I reject. Instead, I concluded that seeing this part of me as my consciousness, spirit, or soul made more sense.
This perspective also helped me not feel like a victim limited to biology and physiology but to transcend any perceived limits.
I learned my thinking is flexible. It’s not bound or limited to past experiences, beliefs, understanding, or stories. It is all indeed malleable.
It all began to feel less limited, confined, and victimized and became boundless, expansive, and powerful instead.
Piloting airplanes instead of falling from them
I started to see my life experience as though I was the pilot of an aircraft programmed with an autopilot that would fly anytime I refused to take the controls.
I learned, too, that the more I took those controls, the more I could reprogram the autopilot (what neuroscience calls neuroplasticity).
In those moments, I could experience security by focusing on better and more secure thoughts.
I could grab the stick and switch off autopilot this way.
I could interrogate a thought and determine if it would benefit me.
I could evaluate the autopilot “flight plan” and update parts I didn’t like.
I did this by asking questions like “will this thought lead me where I want to go?” “can this idea produce good fruit in my life?” and “has this failed for me before?”
The more I did this, the more my “flying” began to smooth out, the more secure I became in my thinking, and the more confidence I experienced in my process.
As a result, I felt more and more secure. I also felt the most alive I’d felt since I was a six-year-old experiencing a warm summer day.
That is until I ran into an area where I couldn’t quickly and easily come up with a better counterargument or thoughts than the ones I experienced when anxious.
I discovered at that time that all my difficult emotions, fears, anxieties, and insecurities seemed to have one thing in common – they were showing me where I didn’t know how to deliberately “fly” my life. Painful emotions existed anywhere my autopilot was operating on a horrible, ineffective flight plan provided to me as a child.
Pilot school and better flight plans.
In these moments, I found (and still sometimes find) myself experiencing an opportunity, specifically, an opportunity to root out an insecure and limiting belief and replace it with a secure one.
I started being thankful for these opportunities to enhance my pilot skills and upgrade my autopilot.
Part of doing this entailed first coming to an awareness that I needed and wanted to do this and that it made little sense that it should ever be anyone else’s responsibility to do this than me.
In other words, I had to learn to own my inner life fully. As a mature man, I needed to update my autopilot to reflect my will for my life, replacing anything that wasn’t serving me.
Better questions led to better flight
Fortunately, my life experiences pushed me to live somewhat as a maverick and non-conformist, and I was well-practiced in not allowing others to own me.
Unfortunately, this also meant that I could have been more terrific and experienced at how to healthily and effectively benefit from others.
I had to learn to ask myself better questions and to find others who would ask them of me too. I got decent at self-inquiry over time but longed for mentors to help me interrogate myself more deeply than I could.
My struggle and emotional pain from trying to find such men ultimately fueled my interest in creating Mentoring Men.
I eventually found a few wise and willing men with the right spirit, disposition, wisdom, love, and willingness to ask me what I didn’t know how to ask of myself.
Mentors & The Observer
Wise mentors helped me go deeper into my feeble and insecurity-producing beliefs than I’d ever been able to.
I discovered that the few good mentors in my life didn’t directly address my thoughts. They didn’t tell me what to do or not do. They’d didn’t tell me what to think or to stop thinking this or that.
They just asked me questions only my inner observer could hope to answer.
It was as if they held up mirrors at just the precise angle to reveal to me a part of self I’d never been able to see before. Their questions began to pierce dark and blind spots in my understanding of self.
I sincerely loved and appreciated this because it honored my ownership over myself and promoted self-reliance instead of dependency upon them.
Though all people are mirrors of own another, the experience of receiving this from a mentor with whom I shared no mutual dependency or responsibility meant our interactions could be highly vulnerable and intimate without fear of loss.
I also took much relief, even if painful at times, that these mentors would never allow me to have a dependence upon them but would keep raising mirrors instead, honoring self-reliance and ownership while fostering more of the same in a spirit of cooperation.
Where all this led me
Before my journey into a more in-depth experience of The Observer and with mentors making that possible, I used to “try not to think stuff.”
That was ineffective and made me feel like I was in an endless wash-rinse-soil-repeat cycle.
However, as my guided experience into myself unfolded, I found myself finding my own new and unassailable beliefs that led to an increasingly more profound sense of love and security.
In the process, I found that this improved my internal sense of security, confidence, love, acceptance, approval, respect, appreciation, value, worth, significance, and more.
As these each improved, I noticed that insecure thoughts stopped
as if they’d only ever been present to reveal these places that needed deep fortification and healing in my soul.
And so, brother, I stopped feeling the “ping pong” sensations you mentioned.
Fear has slowly given way to more profound love. I continue to find anxiety replaced with peacefulness and deep tranquility.
The constant need for more certainty I used to experience has given way to seeing a future with possibility, curiosity, and the trust that I’ll always be ok in whatever unfolds.
Addressing my anxiety indirectly led to addressing my marriage difficulty
Before these were addressed, they kept showing up in many of my interactions with my wife.
I unknowingly and unwittingly became needy and dependent on my wife in ways that began to destroy our connection and happiness.
Unfortunately, I was blind to these causes and embarrassingly believed I had a wife problem. I’ve felt a lot better about this after speaking with hundreds of men and discovering this is “par for the course” in marriage.
It all came to a head at one point when my marriage appeared more and more doomed. It was then that a few mentors suggested maybe I start looking within instead of at my wife as the cause.
I now consider the seven or so years of my extreme marriage challenges as a gift.
My mentors were right, and these forced me to look at and address my anxiety, fear, insecurity, and, ultimately, shame.
The journey through that led me to far more than freedom from anxiety but also more self-reliance, emotional resiliency, and maturity. It led me to learn how to create happiness instead of seeking it, and how to start from fullness instead of endlessly seeking it.
Doing so became the basis for turning around my failing marriage.
My marriage was just the canary in the coal mine, signaling to me the toxic and deadly fumes of a despairing and unhealed heart and mind.
As your brother, I’m confident the same is true for you and that if you cooperate with the process, allowing the conflict and friction of these times to guide you to “update your autopilot” and learn to “fly your airplane” with more mastery and expertise, you’ll soon be flying into satisfying times of deep intimacy and connection as a result.
Need a mentor to help you upgrade your autopilot and flight skills?
Our community exists to guide men through precisely this journey, experiencing profound transformation within their selves and relationships.
It all starts with a complimentary, no-sales pitch, warm, and personal mentoring session to understand your needs and desires and help you get started on your transformation.