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Anxiety

3 Social Mistakes Anxious People Make

Anxiety can be relationship sabotaging, but it doesn't have to be.

Key points

  • Anxiety-prone people may struggle to adjust to changes in their relationships.
  • When anxious, they may engage in negative behavior, like testing the people around them or focusing on themselves instead of helping others.
  • Having self-compassion can help soothe anxiety and prevent self-sabotage.
Joice Kelly/Unsplash
Source: Joice Kelly/Unsplash

Let me start by saying that is article isn't meant to make any anxious person feel worse. It's not intended to increase your fears that you'll end up lonely, struggle at work and in friendships, and won't attain the love, acceptance, and respect you desire. Rather, these are some potential patterns to be aware of. If they apply to you, then you can make some small tweaks to address them.

1. You struggle with relationship changes.

I've always been anxiety-prone. In elementary school, I became close to my teacher each year but was very anxious at the start of any new school year when I would move into a new class, still with all my classmates, but with a new teacher.

As an adult, I notice the same general pattern repeats. As a writer, I become close to my editors, but when an editor changes jobs and I get a new editor, I find that hard. Why is it a problem? I often struggle to form the same level of relationship with the new editor. I end up comparing them to the old person and don't appreciate the new person's unique strengths for what they are.

When I was a therapist, I used to see this pattern too. If a client had ended a therapy relationship because their therapist left their role (e.g., went on maternity leave or started a new job), it was sometimes very difficult for that anxious client to bond with a new therapist.

This pattern happens most among people who have what's termed a preoccupied attachment style.

What you can do: Give yourself grace and self-compassion. Notice if you feel angry toward a new person in your life when it's not their fault. Aim to discover their strengths.

2. When you feel triggered, you "test" other people.

Again, I'm going to give a personal example here. Why? I hope it's de-stigmatizing. I also hope it helps readers know that, with skills and self-awareness, you can catch patterns of relationship sabotage before they cause you problems.

Here's the story. I'm currently 19 weeks pregnant. Before my last OB/GYN appointment, I was feeling upset about the Supreme Court leak. Medical autonomy is important to me, and the leak triggered my general fears about that. Specifically, I'm anxious that, during labor, I'll be railroaded into interventions I don't want. When I'm not in labor, I'm confident I can stand up for myself and decline anything I don't want to happen to my body (see this article: "How to Recognize When You Don't Have to Do Something"). However, the vulnerability and pain involved in giving birth can make that difficult. At my last birth, I ended up "compromising" and accepting some interventions I didn't want because I didn't feel like I could decline too many things. And back then, I was uneducated about my rights as a patient and too scared to decline some things, e.g., when I was told something was "hospital policy."

My current OB/GYN is wonderful and, time and time again, has reassured me about my fears. Yet, because my anxiety had been triggered, I started to feel distrustful of her for no objective reason whatsoever. I had the urge to go into my appointment with a laundry list of interventions I didn't want. I felt the urge to test whether she really was as accepting, supportive, and respectful of me as she seemed to be.

When triggered, anxious people often feel the urge to test whether their attachment figures like, accept, trust, and respect them. Sometimes the tests they set up are so strenuous that they end up being self-sabotaging and actually annoy the other person.

What you can do: What happened? Luckily, I recognized this pattern before the appointment. Instead of administering the test, I mentioned how the leak had triggered my anxiety. That was a much more supportive conversation. When you feel like testing someone due to you feeling anxious, try being vulnerable instead. Process any feelings of anger you're having internally, rather than projecting them onto your attachment figure.

Again, this pattern is most commonly seen in people with a preoccupied attachment style.

3. When a friend tells you about a real problem, you talk about your worries.

Anxious people's worries are often very close to the front of their minds. For example, health anxiety. When a friend needs your support about an issue they're experiencing, it can trigger your worries powerfully. You may feel the urge to mention your fears (or past traumas) rather than keep the focus of the conversation on the other person and their emotional needs.

This can feel inappropriate to the other person, especially when a friend is already experiencing a problem, whereas, for you, it's a worry. For example, if a friend has been diagnosed with infertility and is undergoing treatment, but you fear infertility. Or a friend has a gene mutation that increases their risk of cancer, and you fear cancer.

What you can do: Again, notice your urges, and give yourself grace and self-compassion for your worries and fears. Access the support you need regarding your fears, but keep that separate from conversations in which a friend needs support for a problem that has already eventuated.

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If any of these patterns apply to you, they shouldn't be a source of shame. They're not for me! They're just part of how anxiety and attachment styles work. I recognize that my anxious nature has lots of upsides too. For example, anticipating things that could go wrong can be useful, anxiety helps drive my conscientiousness, and wanting to be perceived positively by others can lead to very positive forms of social sensitivity. For the downsides of an anxious nature, you can simply learn to work around these, as I do.

There are many suboptimal interaction patterns associated with anxiety. The three I've included here are just a small sample. Try to notice any others you have. What behavioral urges do you get when you feel those anxious feelings? How does it affect your relationships? What can you do instead?

Since I mentioned self-compassion several times throughout this article, here are several resources if you want to upskill in this area. Try self-compassionate behavior and language.

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