They say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Anxiety would disagree.
Anxiety is a feeling that tells us that we are, on some level, at risk. When anxiety is working well for someone, it’s pointing out a risk–it flags the risk and we can rationally decide if the risk is worth taking.
When we look at a risk, we balance the chance of failure and the cost of failure with the potential benefits of success. If success is certain, we don’t feel anxiety–we just act. If success is uncertain, we exist in a state of anxiety.
When that state of anxiety is intolerable, our brains will do almost anything to get us to avoid being in that state. It doesn’t want us to engage in a rational risk/benefit analysis–it doesn’t care about the end result of success or failure–it just wants us to not feel anxious. So, it messes with our rational thinking.
It will magnify the consequences to make failure seem absolutely terrible. It’ll tell you that failure will result in the worst outcome you can imagine, that it will be catastrophic. It’ll tell you that there is no way that the risk is worth it, so it’s better to not try.
It will magnify the chances of failure to make failure seem like it is inevitable. It’ll tell you you’re not smart enough, not good enough, not skilled enough, that it’s too hard, that people are expecting too much of you. It’ll tell you that failure is so certain, that it’s better not to try.
Anxiety will make you feel like it’s trying to keep you safe, but it isn’t. It’s trying to get you to avoid feeling uncertain. It’s not actually trying to protect you from the consequences of failure, it’s trying to get you to not feel anxious about the outcome.
How do I know? Because someone who is feeling anxious will sometimes choose to fail by not trying over trying and maybe failing. To try and fail means you have to feel anxious and try anyway. If you don’t try, you fail but never have to feel anxious. When failure is truly certain, it doesn’t come with anxiety.
An anxious child will refuse to take a test and take a zero rather than try and fail. Rationally, it’s better to try–you may get one or two answers right from luck alone–but their anxiety says there’s no chance they’ll do anything right. Trying and failing, to their anxious mind, is more terrible than failing through inaction.
Anxiety like that robs us of experiences. It keeps us sealed in a very small box, a box that feels safe and comfortable but ultimately empty. Without facing risk, we don’t grow in confidence. Without risk, we don’t get the positive experiences that lay on the other side of risk.
In order to overcome anxiety, we need to be able to tolerate being uncertain. We need to be able to proceed despite there being a risk of failure, knowing that we can handle the consequences of failure, even when our anxiety is trying to make us feel like we can’t. We need to be able to challenge the irrational thinking that anxiety is fueling, recognizing it as irrational.
If anxiety were rational, we’d only have to challenge it once or twice and it would lessen. But anxiety isn’t rational, so it may persist even after we challenge it. Anxiety becomes a tickle we need to learn to ignore, an old familiar pain that we have to soothe before we can act.
It’s better to have loved and lost, because we felt love and we can handle loss. If anxiety had its way, we wouldn’t have lost, but we’d never have taken a risk on love either. Fear and anxiety are unavoidable; they need to be accepted and tolerated.
In the words of Carrie Fisher, “Stay afraid, and do it anyway.”