I’ve known for a while that I come from a family where many members struggle with anxiety. With a father who is bipolar and a mother who takes anti-anxiety medication everyday, it’s surprising to me that I have adamantly contested the possibility of me having anxiety too. Since middle school, I have been labeled as a ‘worrywart’ – this is a trait I have known about myself for more than half my life. By admitting I may have anxiety, I felt like I’d be abating the more severe diagnoses and experiences of my family members with my supposed normal, run-of-the-mill worrywart tendencies.
I constantly reminded myself that being a worrywart wasn’t serious, it was just a phase or a natural part of my personality. But as I look back on my relationships, friendships, and experiences throughout childhood and early adulthood, I don’t think the seriousness of my worrywart personality is something I can arrogate anymore.
I have clear memories of middle school where I was unable to concentrate in class because I was anxious about an argument I had the period before with one of my best friends. Instead of focusing on the math problem, the only thing my mind could latch onto was the argument, how my best friend must be feeling, what I was feeling, how this would change the course of our friendship, if she would stay friends with me – my mind would be reeling uncontrollably and replaying the dialogue I could remember. My hands, shaking and my appetite, lost.
One time in 5th grade I was so anxious after a conflict with a friend on the playground, I had to go to the nurse after experiencing such severe stomach pains. I ended up leaving school early and apologizing profusely to my friend for unintentionally hurting her feelings. The emotional well-being of my friend was the only thing I could think about. Everything else seemed unimportant. From a young age, I’ve been terrified to hurt others, be hurt by them, and be abandoned by those I care about. And yes, I could argue – aren’t we all? We’re only human, of course. Yes, but those with generalized anxiety typically fixate and try to make sense out of irrational and emotional fears in order to strive for security and certainty.
When I got to high school, not much changed. Instead, whenever I would get anxious after an interpersonal conflict, exam, college application, or negative interaction with a teacher, people wrote off my nervousness and told me it was just because I “cared too much”. I bought into that because it didn’t seem problematic. Caring too much seemed like a positive attribute and because I was already a sensitive, emotionally-aware, and empathetic person who was looking to pursue a career in social justice and public service, I ignored crucial warning signs and convinced myself that my chronic worrying was helpful to those around me.
I ignored the days in college I went without eating in reaction to the nervousness I felt after having an emotionally taxing argument with my unfaithful and manipulative boyfriend. I ignored how preoccupied and vacant I’d be in the classes I loved because of the intense uneasiness I felt in an on-campus job I was struggling to balance. I disregarded the impact of my hypochondriacal tendencies and fears on my health, job, and school work – even when it interfered with my daily life. And my anxiety wasn’t just reactive to triggering circumstances or emotional situations, everyday it was remarkable how I could find something new to worry about. Most of my health anxieties were born out of not having anything else to worry about in my work, love, or academic life, so I could easily get worked up about a possible disease awaiting to surface. The more I ignored my underlying and constant anxiety, the more I left it untreated. After all, all my life people told me I was just naturally a worry wart and cared too much.
While that may be true, my nervousness continued to grow and consume me. Worrying became my default setting and although I knew it had no preventative power in reality, it was my self-protective cloak against conflict and emotional stress. What I started to realize was that my constant worrying was putting strain on my relationships. Although I consider myself to be confident, outspoken, independent, and empowered, in the vulnerability of an intimate relationship, my worry takes hold and I lose sight of those attributes.
While all romantic relationships experience conflict and can often healthily lead to growth and awareness, each conflict I experienced in mine heightened my worries or buttressed an illogical fear of being loved less or abandoned. And while you may think that worried mentality may lead to neediness in a relationship, it mostly lead to trepidation, avoidance of conflict, and insecurity in mine. Although our conflicts could have lead to growth and depth in our relationship, my mind had so much trouble unpacking how that could be. Our arguments, although resolved that same night, weren’t all signs of trouble but my chronic worrying internalized them that way. In the moments I worry most, I realize it’s also where I have most to lose.
Relationships through the lens of a chronic worrier like me (because I won’t speak on behalf of others) can be a fragile line between self-protection and protecting others you care about most. We want to protect ourselves from uncertainty, instability, and potential threats but at the same time, we want to safeguard our partner too. In my last relationship I would always remark on how much I hated conflict and my ex would reply with, “Well I don’t know how you’ve handled life all this time avoiding or hating conflict” which has truth, but stung nonetheless. Hating conflict in a relationship doesn’t mean I avoid it, but I may worry more than the average person when it does arise. I’ll worry in the moment when facing the conflict and I will most likely worry for days after, checking in on my partner to see if they’re okay or apologizing.
Relationships for a chronic worrier like me are challenging, full of emotion and sensitivity but those aspects also make it all the more meaningful to me. So yes, I admit that my anxiety can cause strain on an intimate relationship but I am learning to be more forgiving and aware of it and gentle on myself. This is a part of myself that I am working on, moderating, and ameliorating because I know it can cause stress and strain on myself and others.
But I’m not ashamed of who I am because of it. After all, I am human. I am a chronic worrier and worrying isn’t easy to do but I am hopeful that my next boyfriend can try and see relationships through my lens. I don’t love being constantly worried but I will continue to make honest efforts not only to improve my quality of life and well-being but to also communicate with my future partner about my worrying while taking his feelings into consideration. I’m human and trying the best I can and I hope my future partner can appreciate that, despite the worrying that may come along with it.