Today’s Insight: I Am Vigilant

One of those random thoughts entered my head a day or two ago: I am vigilant. I’ve been pondering that ever since.

I am vigilant—and I think that’s a problem.

It’s one thing to be aware. Awareness enables us to see things, to learn things, to understand things. In this way, awareness helps us to navigate the often choppy waters we encounter as we move through our lives, and to adapt to our ever-changing circumstances.

Vigilance is another matter. To be vigilant is to be on guard, to be in a defensive posture.

When we are in danger, vigilance can be a good thing, because it enables us to defend ourselves when needed. To be vigilant when we are not in danger? We actively look for signs of trouble; where no signs of trouble exist, the tendency is to invent them—even if subconsciously.

This, at least, is the conclusion I have come to.

For almost as long as I can remember, I have maintained a level of vigilance with respect to just about everything.

I am vigilant regarding the things people say (and don’t say), constantly looking for signs of approval or disapproval—even when the topic of conversation has nothing to do with me. Or, if they are talking about me (or to me), to see whether or not what they are saying corresponds with how I feel about myself. More often than not, this creates a conflict—not with the other person, but within me, and completely of my own making.

Part of this conflict is that I worry about how the people I care about perceive me, even as I’m determined to forge my own path without concern as to what other people think. This tendency results in being cautious about what I say and do, and in doubting my instincts—even when there is no good reason for doing so. To the extent that I have fallen short of expectations, the critical voices that used to come from the people around me have morphed into the critical voice that comes from inside my own head.

Worse, I am vigilant regarding the everyday workings of my body. Ever since the day in 1989 when had my first anxiety attack, I have long been hyper-attentive to any signs of a possible recurrence. Though I have learned coping strategies over the years, signs of anxiety usually divert my attention from whatever else is going on—until either I talk myself back into the moment or the anxiety builds unchecked.

Because I know enough about anxiety to recognize it for what it is, and to recognize that I am actually in no physical danger, I have often gone years without any serious episodes—living normally, as though it had never been a problem in the first place. But, like an addict, the awareness is always there. Even if I am not feeling anxious, I pretty much always have exit strategies in mind, just in case anything happens. If I’m driving somewhere, for example, I consider alternate routes in case I encounter heavy traffic. I consider where I am in relation to places I could go in case of emergency. I remind myself that I have my phone with me, and can call somebody (whether a friend or 9-1-1) if necessary. I may break my trip down into smaller segments: I’ll go this far, then see how I feel. Then I’ll go a little bit farther.

Either way, the upshot is that I’m always on guard. Instead of just being in the moment, enjoying it for what it is, I conjure up scenarios in my head, and try to figure out ahead of time what I will do when they don’t work out. I worry about what will go wrong next instead of considering what could go right.

While I could easily point to things in my past that have “made” me think this way, placing the blame on other people, I know the responsibility is mine.

I know I’m not the only person whose mind works this way. If I were, people like Brené Brown would have to come up with other things to write about, because nobody would be talking about shame and vulnerability. They wouldn’t have to.

That doesn’t make things any easier, but working to change these things is part of the path I am on.

(6 February 2014)