SEEING YOUR ANXIETY PROBLEMS AS “PUNISHMENT”
This is a theme that has come up now and then in the community surrounding the podcast. When I asked my Instagram community how many people felt that anxiety means they are being punished in some way, I was blown away by the magnitude of the response. Clearly, many people that suffer with anxiety and anxiety disorders see this problem at least to some degree as some form of punishment they are being subjected to.
We need to talk about that, so let’s do just that in this episode. We don’t be covering faith-based or religious issues in this podcast. That’s a topic I will return to down the road.
Spoiler alert: An anxiety disorder is not evidence that you are being punished in any way.
WHY AM I BEING PUNISHED?
Punishment for having done bad things.
All humans make mistakes in life. Every one of us. Sometimes our mistakes or bad judgment has an impact on others. This is part of life. Things can, and do go wrong sometimes for all of us. Sometimes, we feel guilty about this. When in the grips of an anxiety disorder, that guilt can be magnified and distorted when processed through the fear and anxiety filter. When that happens, some people will reach the conclusion that anxiety is some kind of punishment for their mistakes and past actions.
Be aware of when the anxiety and fear lens magnifies and distorts things. You may be seeing those old situations and events in a much more harsh light than they deserve to be seen in. It is important that you acknowledge that your ability to judge things emotionally may not be at its peak when in an anxious state, so try to step back and give yourself a break now and then.
Guilt, regret, and being disappointed or angry with oneself for past actions are part of being human. But like all emotions, these can be addressed, hard though that may be to do. Processing the past and moving productively through emotions like guilt and regret is hard work, but it can be VERY helpful and it can and is done all the time.
Be careful about taking a passive stance toward your situation. Declaring yourself a moral, ethical, or relationship failure then declaring that you must accept punishment for it is not required. You can work through your past and find ways to come to terms with it. A more active approach is always better in this case. You are not required to sit silently and “take your punishment”.
Punishment for not being good enough or for being a failure.
If you see yourself as a failure, as weak, or as falling short of performance, moral, ethical, or spiritual requirements, you may begin to think that your anxiety problems represent punishment for being that way. You may conclude that this is all happening to you because you are less than, or because you are not worthy of a better life. You may think that you are being punished for falling short of your own expectations or the expectations of others. (Hint: Your own expectations are often created by others.)
Recall the podcast episode Josh Fletcher and I did on the inner critic. The inner critic develops when you are taught directly or indirectly that you are unable to pass muster in one or more aspects of being alive on planet earth. As Josh and I discussed, that inner critic can be exposed for what it is, and those negative, limiting beliefs can be shed over time. When you work on moving away from your inner critic and from the harsh way you judge yourself, you can find yourself less deserving of “punishment” after all!
Again, in this situation, we do not want to adopt a passive approach. Do not drop all your power and influence on the ground by declaring yourself less than, and deciding that the Universe is punishing you for being that way. That puts you into a victim space that you are not required to live in. I’m always talking about hard work here, but the work of confronting and unmasking the inner critic that leads you to this punishment conclusion is worth doing. Just as in recovery in general, small steps matter. Moving forward and working on these issues can change so much. The work is worth doing.
WAIT A SECOND. WHAT IF YOU’RE NOT BEING PUNISHED?
Let me save you some time here by just cutting to the chase. Your anxiety problems are NOT some form of karmic, universal, societal or spiritual punishment. They are just not. You may think they are, maybe for the reasons we explored above, but like many thoughts related to your anxiety problems, that thought is quite incorrect.
Anxiety disorders and their treatments are pretty well studied. We know how they develop. We know what fuels them. We know how to treat them quite effectively in most cases. The desire to avoid scary situations and thoughts is human! Sometimes our brains develop some really bad habits all designed to avoid scary things and to keep us safe from perceived threat. That’s not a sin. That’s not weakness. That’s not failure. That’s not being less than. That is just part of how all brains work, but your brain has taken it to an unhealthy degree. That’s what your anxiety disorder is. It is not a disease delivered to you by an angry God, or by the Universe, or by vibrations or energy, or by anything else.
Consider that being punished implies that there is some external source of punishment. Some power, force, or entity would be involved. Maybe you’re not sure what that even means, but if there is punishment, then there is judgment and the delivery of said judgement by some force outside of yourself. Now look around you at the people you see that are doing the things we talk about in this community, and slowly but surely get better. Were they being punished? How have they managed to turn that off? Does driving two exits on a freeway, staying home alone, not Googling symptoms, or doing your ERP homework somehow absolve one of transgressions worthy of punishment? Can bad people and weak people somehow gain favor with that magical punishing force simply by practicing a short walk around the block or sitting quietly rather than running when panic hits? These are things that improve the situation for many many many people across all walks of life. How is it possible that the actions of anxiety recovery are able to turn off the punishment machine?
See what I’m getting at here? When viewed in this light, the idea that some external force had judged you, then sent anxiety into your life as punishment seems highly unlikely, doesn’t it? Which seems to be the simpler explanation for anxiety AND recovery (you have to factor that in too!)? An invisible stream of energy knows you lied to your husband and is now punishing you with an anxiety disorder, or a well observed cognitive and learning wrong turn has taught you some bad habits rooted in avoidance?
Take a few moments at your earliest convenience and just consider – then act like – you are NOT being punished. Give it a try. You may be surprised at what happens. And while you’re at it, take some small steps toward addressing the reasons you thought you were being punished in the first place. This is all hard work, but you are worthy of the investment, and you are capable of making change.
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