Atalanta Beaumont

Handy Hints for Humans


Are You in the All or Nothing Anxiety Trap?

Dos and don'ts for a calmer life

Posted Nov 04, 2016

When we find ourselves out of balance and under stress, we humans tend to exhibit all or nothing behavior. This behavior exacerbates any feelings of anxiety and heightens our belief that this is a pressing situation, if not an emergency.  When events are going well we have the ability to stabilize and stay in our Adult self. This is the part of us that can assess and respond to situations calmly and reasonably.  Our Adult self is also able to self-sooth and to assess what is a priority, what can wait and what doesn’t matter in the least.

However, when we allow ourselves to become unbalanced, stressed or threatened, either by a situation, by other people or, indeed, by the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening, then we can flip into our Parent self or Child self. None of these parts are unwelcome, it is just that in times of stress or emergency we need to be wholly in Adult. When we use Child thinking to tackle problems we often exacerbate their importance and cause ourselves anxiety.  The same happens when we use Parent behaviors which can be rule-bound and over-anxious, causing us to become unfocused or to use inappropriate strategies to tackle a situation. 

These inappropriate behaviors and beliefs are fueled by what are known as Drivers in Transactional Analysis. There are five drivers and depending on your upbringing you will tend to favor one or two that either helped you defend yourself as a child or that were exhibited to you by adults as the preferred behaviors to use. 

The Drivers are:

Hurry Up: Self-explanatory. When anxious or threatened we tend to Hurry Up, instead of taking stock and slowing down, both Adult behaviors which will help in a stressful situation.  When we slow down we are able to gauge an overview of the situation and work out the best approach.  Breathing slowly and regularly will help, as will writing down the pros and cons of any problem.

Please Others: When we start to worry, we often try to guess what it is that others want of us in a situation rather than what would be the best problem solving action to take.  This is a learned behavior, often used to deflect others’ anger.  We need instead to ask ourselves “What makes sense in this situation?”  “What will help to get me/us back on track?”

Be Perfect: Of course there is no such thing as perfect, whose view of perfect, anyway?  Anyone who is a regular reader of my columns will know that I think failing is a very good thing and have very little time for the idea of being perfect.  However, many children have been made to feel “not good enough” and as though they have failed if they do not reach a certain idealized way of being. This is very inhibiting when we find ourselves in an unusual or difficult situation. If we are trying to be perfect and get things right we often fail to think of alternative, more helpful behaviors.  We can become rigid and frightened of doing the wrong thing and this in turn inhibits logical, problem-solving thinking. Instead of thinking “How can I get this right?” try instead to think “What would be helpful, here?” “Who might know what to do or how to help?”

Be Strong: Children or adults who have learned that they cannot share their problems or that they need to be strong for others, tend to adopt this behavior. They will keep things to themselves, often brooding and resenting the burden they have but at the same time not sharing it or letting anyone know. These people hope that you will become telepathic and blame others when they aren’t. This is a completely self-defeating lonely position to take. Share your problems with people you like and trust. With your family and those who love you. It is patronizing in the extreme to think that they cannot help or share your burdens. You can be honorable AND share the bad as well as good times. Indeed, if you don’t you will end up isolated, alone and angry – not fun.

Try Hard: Children who have been told they are “Mummy’s little helper.”  “Such a good/kind boy/girl” can fall into a trap of trying all the time.  This is exhausting and self-defeating. You need rest and the ability as an Adult to recognize when “good enough” will do. You don’t need to try hard at everything. It is very good for us to find something that is relatively easy for us to be good at. Anything at all, baking, sports, crosswords, stamp collecting…whatever.  Something that is ours, we are good at and gains us some easy praise. It is not good to be striving all the time. Learn to give yourself a pat on the back for a “good enough” effort and remove the exhaustion and effort of always being in “try hard” mode.

These are not called Drivers for nothing. They drive us on. We become irritable and exhausted when we feel driven. Just being aware of your drivers and taking some gentle action to put them into perspective will take the pressure off. You cannot expect to un-learn these behaviors instantly. (Those who do expect this will be exhibiting their Be Perfect Driver!)

So slow down, remember to breathe and use kind, self-soothing talk to yourself.  Try not to use all or nothing words like always/never or “nightmare” or “disaster”; these words put us on red alert and start the cortisol and adrenaline flowing.   Avoid pleasing others unless that is your personal choice.  Recognize that being perfect is tiresome, for you and others so try not to let yourself fall into that trap.  Ask for help and share your problems, this makes you more accessible and warm, not weak.  And learn to gauge when “good enough” will do.  Get the drivers under control and life will start to be less fraught and more pleasurable.  Anxiety will start to recede.  Most of all,if we remember to be kind to ourselves and others, life will become less stressful and more effortless – let the good times roll.