A fractured arm, a kick to the face, and a concussion - just another day on the cheer team
My daughter was in tears when I picked her up from cheer practice. She's a middle schooler and a base on the cheer team. That means she lifts other teammates up in the air by their feet to do stunts. I couldn't believe middle schoolers were doing this, but it turns out her coach sees how capable they are. As an anxiety-prone mom, I see all the reasons to worry. My daughter had been kicked in the face hard when a teammate fell out of a stunt at practice. I told her I could see that today was hard, but that she can do hard things (thanks Glennon Doyle for that gem). Internally, my anxiety brain was at DEFCON 1 level high alert.
In the past month, one cheer teammate fell out of a stunt and fractured her arm. Another fell and got a mild concussion. And my daughter took a foot to the face. These are all part of sports and offer valuable lessons in grit and resiliance. But my anxiety brain hates those lessons. It wants to put her back in my womb where she will be safe forever and never experience any harm or discomfort or challenges or sadness or joy or triumph or life.
Later, as I dropped my daughter off at school, she was telling me about all the complications in their upcoming cheer performance. Anxiety brain was inside my mind marching around and preparing for armageddon. It's like the robot in the Terminator movies, assessing all the potential threats so super mom can neutralize them. But in that moment, she didn't need super Terminator mom. She needed good listener mom.
I couldn't help myself. "Be caref-" jumped out of my mouth before I could stop it. Then I saw the look on her face. It was more than annoyance. It was years-worth of aggravation at my use of the phrase, "Be careful." That flash in her eyes kicked my words right back down my throat and into my heart, where I felt all the damage I'd done with those words. I'd spent a couple of years learning and preparing for this moment, this opportunity, to do something different.
Before I could even get to the place of rethinking my words and their impact, I took several years of therapy. I had to face all the ways my anxiety was poking holes in my childrens' confidence and tolerance for taking healthy risks. My therapist and I have been doing a new (to me), more unconventional form of therapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), developed by psychologist Dr. Richard Schwartz. Personally, IFS has proven to be more gentle and effective for me than EMDR therapy. Dr. Schwartz believes that we all have many parts that work together (or sometimes against one another) in our minds. We have professional parts (manager parts), aggressive or hypervigilant parts (protector parts), and parts that sometimes cause us to dissociate (firefighter parts). Working with a therapist, people can learn about the roles of these parts, have compassion for them, and help the whole system to heal. It was this form of therapy that finally allowed me to have compassion for myself when it comes to my anxiety.
Through this work, I've come to understand that my anxiety part developed when I was young and had to face multiple situations in which my siblings and I were in danger. I learned to assess everything around me as if I was in constant battle (Terminator), and as if everything was a threat. While this part has done an excellent job at keeping me, my siblings, and my children safe, it has become overbearing at times and interferes with my ability to take or allow risks. My anxiety shackles my potential for playfulness and joy.
In therapy, I had an internal conversation with this anxiety part from a place of curiosity. I pictured it as a soldier, always ready for battle, stoic, serious, and incredibly hypervigilant. I thanked it for keeping us all safe and noted that it must be exhausted. I offered it a choice. "You've been working around the clock. Your job is so important. If there is an emergency, I know you will be the top expert at keeping us safe. We need you, so we want you rested, instead of wasting your energy and skills on minor incidents. I'm promoting you to General and putting you in charge of the war room." I could feel my body relax. My anxiety part liked the idea of getting a promotion and being recognized for its survival skills. I gave it a hat and a medal to pin to its lapel and told it I would let it know when to report for duty. I pictured it puffing up its chest, clicking its heels, and saluting me before retreating to the war room. Relief.
My Anxiety General is always on standby, ready to give orders and take action. It wanted to give my daughter orders when she was telling me about her cheer performance. "Be Careful!" But I respectfully asked it to go back to the war room, and reminded it that this is not an emergency." This allowed my playful side to enter the conversation. "Be caref-" (look of aggrivation on my daughter's face)...
"Be FABULOUS!" I said. She's no dummy. "That's not what you were going to say," she laughed. "Busted," I chuckled. I've been honest with my children about my anxiety and how I'm actively working through it in therapy. I explained that my anxiety brain wanted to take over, but that I knew it didn't need to so I asked it to sit this one out. That act of compassion for myself made something astounding happen.
"It's okay. You're a mom. I get why you worry." Instead of eyerolls and annoyed huffs, she offered me compassion and understanding. Hopefully, when the time comes, she'll remember this and offer herself the same compassion and understanding.
I am constant a work in progress. I'm still unlearning, relearning, and adapting. My son doesn't want me to say "Be fabulous" to him, so I've asked him to help me find a word that he likes instead of "careful." My anxiety General may overstep from time to time. But if I can stay present, curious, and compassionate with myself, then just maybe, I'll be able to foster a healthy relationship with myself and my children.