My friend Anne called recently to tell me she was thinking of leaving her job to work independently. A successful professional, she loves what she does, but realized that the pressure of working at a book publisher was affecting the quality of her life. She didn’t want to overburden her coworkers or be judged harshly by her superiors, however, so she would stay on for a little while – “just until I get my ducks lined up.”
I said her plan made sense, except for one thing: They’re ducks! Once you get them in line, they start wandering around again!
Anne is not alone, of course. Most adults have some variation of misaligned ducks inside our heads: “Once I get my work done, e-mails answered, get dinner, and help the kids with their homework, then I can rest.” Teenagers tell themselves that once they get an A on the next exam or are accepted by their preferred college, then everything will be OK.
The content changes, but the formula stays the same: Once these things happen, then I won’t have to worry.
And that’s what ducks really are, metaphors for our anxiety. It will go away, we tell ourselves, as soon as everything is in order. But hard as we try to line up our ducks, the anxiety never seems to go away. It seems we are always working harder and so are our children. Even with maximum performance, the anxiety doesn’t go away. Sometimes it gets worse. So we work harder.
But consider this: Perhaps what causes our distress is not job performance or children’s test scores or any of the other things we are trying so hard to manage. Perhaps the issue is the anxiety itself. And the harder we work to try to manage it, the more we fail. Obsessive compulsive disorder is the extreme version of devoting one’s life to managing anxiety unsuccessfully.
So how do we manage our anxiety successfully? We start by giving up the illusion that we can do something to make it go away.
I recently saw an 8-year-old boy who developed anxiety about airplanes flying into his window after seeing a documentary about 9/11. When he went to bed, he was afraid that he and his family would be killed. I told him that many children think about death at this age and, while it’s frightening for everyone, it’s simply worse for some kids.
I told him it was real bad for me when I was a boy. My fears were not about airplanes; I was afraid of the bogeyman beneath my bed. I told myself that if I lay perfectly still, he wouldn’t know I was there and wouldn’t kill me. My young friend understood that I understood – but then he wanted to know if that bogeyman was still under my bed.
“To be honest,” I told him, “he is still under my bed but, after all these years, he is old like I am and he no longer has the ability or the desire to kill me. The worst he can do now is keep me up at night worrying about stupid things I have no control over. In a strange way, we are like old friends and I would miss him if he left!”
Of course, people with debilitating anxiety disorders should seek treatment. But the rest of us would do well to remember that these fears and insecurities will visit whenever they wish, no matter what we do. So instead of fighting unwinnable fights, I recommend going to the park and hanging out with the ducks.