Taming the Anxiety Monster - Part 2
In part one of the blog series, Taming the Anxiety Monster, we learned how a poorly conducted study in the 1950’s resulted in misinformation about the impact anxiety has on executive functioning and performance. After decades of believing that small amounts of anxiety are helpful, we now understand that even the smallest amount of anxiety inhibits focus and performance, and is maladaptive (1). The first part of this series briefly introduced a way to minimize anxiety by learning to interact with your internal parts of self with curiosity and compassion. We will continue to learn about these internal parts and how your relationship with them can help eliminate the power anxiety may have over you.
The previously introduced internal parts are also known as your internal family system. Let me create a picture of this internal system by comparing it to a living family. Every person within a family plays a different role and carries out different responsibilities in order for stability and health. When these roles are clearly defined and relationships experience connection and compassion, the family thrives. Parents operate as protectors, nurturers and providers for their family. Young children are vulnerable, and in need of supportive, caring bonds in order to feel safe, secure, and process their emotions. Childhood and adolescence are stages when individuals learn that their needs do matter, but that the world does not revolve around their comfort.
Within the internal family system, our parts are known as the manager, firefighter, and exile (2). As the first blog mentioned, the exile part is your vulnerable childlike self that needs to be nurtured, protected and provided for. It is apparent that this part is in need when we are experiencing negative emotions such as fear, shame, hopelessness, isolation, abandonment, rejection, feeling marginalized, unseen, unheard, and so forth (2). When our exile needs attention, and we don’t know how to attend to it, we often see our manager or firefighter parts take over. Our manager is very good at keeping us on task, keeping us safe and driving us to perform, but it does a poor job at attending to our emotional needs. Our manager frequently shows up by worrying, people-pleasing, overworking, overanalyzing relationships and decisions, criticizing oneself and other, and over controlling one’s own behaviors and others (2). While our manager acts as a guard, our firefighter’s job is to extinguish pain. Our firefighter minimizes pain by providing comfort and rest but also often overindulges in activities like surfing the web, eating, sleeping, binge-watching television, gambling compulsively, daydreaming, escaping through romance novels, sexual addictions, and substance addictions (2).
Now that you understand your main internal parts, I would like to help you understand that you also have a self or what Allison Cook and Kimberly Miller call your spirit-led self (2). Your self is nurturing, compassionate, confident, creative, courageous, curious, calm, connected, and so forth (2). This is the part that helps your internal family system identify it’s roles, hurts, and longings, and provides the nurture and guidance it needs to function as a healthy family. When your exile part is experiencing fear, your self has the ability to interact with curiosity and compassion when your manager is taking over and pushing your exile aside. Your self can thank your manager for trying to protect and give her permission to rest. When your firefighter overindulges on an entire television series, you can have compassion for its desire to help you feel better and give it permission to take a break. Finally, when your self approaches your anxious exile with curiosity and compassion, your inner wounded child-self has a safe place to be comforted and soothed from the worries she is not able to process on her own.
Learning how to strengthen the relationships in your internal family system is an excellent approach to stopping a negative and maladaptive anxiety cycle. If you would like to learn more about this process, the book Boundaries for Your Soul by Allison Cook, is an excellent resource. This process takes a great deal of commitment and practice, but it is also a practical and effective teaching tool on how to be more attentive to your internal, emotional needs. The final part of this blog series will wrap up with more practical concepts, ideas and additional resources that will help you tame the anxiety monster within. Anxiety is an overwhelming reality for so many. I hope this blog series encourages you as you learn that the present struggle you have with anxiety does not have to last forever!
Brewer, J. PhD. (2021 July/August). “We’ve Got Anxiety All Wrong.” Psychology Today.
Cook, A. PhD. & Miller, K. (2018). Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts & Feelings Into Your Greatest Allies. Nashville: Nelson Books.