In this space, I explore psychology, consciousness and emotions, all to encourage the question: How do I want to live?
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(I am neither a therapist nor a medical professional; I am simply someone using my lifelong experience with an anxiety disorder to highlight material well understood by psychologists. Existence is painful. I like helping.)
In 2018, I published a memoir called Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious LIfe about growing up in Greenwich Village in the 1970s and ’80s with an undiagnosed panic disorder, and how recognizing something was wrong with me without knowing its name until I was 25 years old, shaped the course of my life. The book did much better than I anticipated any book of mine ever doing.
GOOP chose it for their book club, O Magazine selected it as one of the best books of the summer, People Magazine featured it and Publishers Weekly gave it one of its coveted stars. All those things were amazing—I was floored.
But those moments, thrilling as they were, did not define the book’s success for me. The mark of its success, in my eyes, was the flow of invitations over the past four years from schools across the country to speak to hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and community members, ranging in age from 5 to 95.
I tailored my talks to the specific community I was in, but the content of the talks—a distillation and simplification of my book, including my story, many of my thoughts on how we raise, consider, treat, and experience kids; the flawed model of child-rearing many adults default to—remained at the core.
Since the pandemic, I’ve only given a handful of talks, all on Zoom, and I miss the in-person engagement, the swarm of students afterwards wanting to confess and confide, and the absolute pure love I feel in those moments for these incredible children who just want to be seen, heard, understood, and loved. Same as we all do.
So, for today’s post, I offer the greatest hits, the best bits, from the central talk that I deliver to high-school students. This is a highly condensed version-it doesn't go into detail about my childhood or my panic disorder (for that, you'll have to read the book)-but I still hope you still get something out of it.
THE (HIGHLY-CONDENSED) TALK:
"I believe that it’s our moral responsibility as human beings to share with one another what our personal experience of being human feels like. Without sharing that information, we are left to wonder whether we’re doing life wrong, and we walk around with the secret worry that we’re defective and broken. So, this is me sharing with you my experience of being a human being on this planet, so that you can know that you’re not weird or wrong or broken or alone. So that you can understand that feeling wrong and broken is the most human feeling of all.
I grew up in Greenwich Village with an undiagnosed panic disorder, and had no idea what was wrong with me until I was 25 years old. I want to tell you the story of how my very well-meaning parents, teachers, doctors, and other adults in my life overlooked and ignored my anxiety and the way that led me to feel defective and devalued, and made me feel like I needed to hide my true self from the world. But, before I do that, I want to take a second to talk about the difference between typical anxiety and disordered anxiety.
Typical anxiety occurs in response to a stressor, like an exam, a fight with a friend or your parents. It feels bad, but it passes. Typical anxiety is fleeting. Disordered anxiety is not fleeting. It is relentless, clingy, and will not leave you alone. It interferes with your entire life. Typical anxiety is your stable, grounded, well-adjusted friend. Disordered anxiety is that toxic person in your life you cannot shake, no matter what. I’ve had toxic-person anxiety my entire life. My very first memory, when I was around 3, is of having a panic attack.
As a child, I was convinced my mom would die or disappear if I wasn’t watching her. I believed that after I left for school every morning or for my dad’s house every other weekend, she’d forget she had kids and move to Europe without telling us. I refused to sleep at friends’ houses and I never let anyone sleep at mine. I was worried that they would distract me from keeping track of my mom’s whereabouts. At night, I’d watch out my window to make sure my mother wasn’t running away to join another family. No matter how much I begged, I kept having to leave for school every morning and for my dad’s every other weekend.
To me separation meant death. My worries were so extreme, they interfered with absolutely everything I did. I felt my fears, not just inside my body but with my body. I don’t think I took a full breath until I was 25. Deep down, I believed that something was horribly wrong with me, that I had some defect no one else had. And because no one else had it, that meant I was broken, and this was a fact I needed to hide from the world.
The closer it got to leaving my mom, the worse I felt. I acutely sensed time passing, of the closing gap between present and future, like an invisible force dragging me by my ankles toward quicksand, eager to drown me out—dead. And, on the day that I had to part with my mom, I’d feel myself turning into a balloon, floating up to the ceiling where I’d observe myself in the third person down below, like I was watching myself in a movie. I began to think that I was crazy, and I was only 7. Things only got worse from there.
For a variety of reasons, the adults, doctors, and teachers in my life didn’t recognize or take my distress seriously, and instead of assessing my emotions, they decided to focus on the more tangible symptoms, like my terrible grades and inability to do well on tests. Their concern was filtered through one lens—learning differences (back then we called them learning disabilities—and having LD was a huge stigma).
To assess just how poorly I learned required taking tests, many tests. This seemed like a very odd choice for a person who didn’t test well. I spent many weekends taking a battery of tests, only to find myself a month or so later in the office of an entirely new clinician taking the exact same battery of tests. Oh, I realized with that specific slow, warm wash of shame, I failed the first test, and they’re giving me one more chance. I hadn’t even known there had been results, but when I found myself in a third office for a third round, it felt like confirmation that the results had been withheld from me for a reason: I was stupid.
I believed that I was stupid. But I also knew something else: that I was defective, that there was a profound fear in me that leaving my mom would lead to her disappearance or death, and made me feel like I was dying whenever we were apart.
I was 11 when I took that first IQ test, and I was 19 when I took the last. Countless tests spanned the eight-year spread between 11 and 19. When you take an IQ test, no one tells you whether you got something right or wrong. You don’t receive a grade and learn where you went astray. You simply don’t know. They ask you a question and you answer and they move on to the next question, betraying not a single emotion, so I had no indication how I was doing. What I was certain of, based on the number of times I had to take those tests, is that I never answered correctly.
The tests created just one subplot of my youth, but the message I received from the story it told was that the world was a place filled with questions with only one right answer—right answers I didn’t know. And not knowing the answers the testers expected of me meant I was wrong. Ergo, being wrong meant being dumb, and so I was afraid of participating in anything that threatened to expose my lack of knowledge. I began to believe the story about myself I imagined the adults were telling—I was defective; that there was a right way to be human, and that I was doing it wrong.
The adults focused their attention on reshaping my learning difference to fit into what they believed was the right way to learn and absorb information and present myself in the world and it just reinforced my feeling that I was somehow failing at being normal. I looked to others as my barometer for how to define myself and attempt to become whatever their idea of “normal” was—to conform to the world’s standards. But as I grew older, I discovered that my existence as a creative and emotional person wasn’t considered a valued aspect of intelligence. And that didn’t align with the person the adults wanted me to become. The world I lived in measured people by test scores, IQ, and grades. I didn’t test well, I was treated as though I was an aberration, and because I didn’t meet the standards that were invented to define normalcy meant that I was abnormal.
It wasn’t until college that I really began to question the validity of these kinds of expectations. Who said we were all supposed to be the same? Who said our brains all had to match? That we were ALL supposed to operate at the same levels, process things the same way, learn at the same rate? People look different from one another, we are different weights and sizes and races and speak many languages and have different life experiences, so how can we all conform to a standardized system that denies our humanity and very lives? People are variant and fluid. We change and evolve. And yet, I felt pretty fixed in a mindset that wasn’t even mine. I was conditioned to respond to the world as if it were a test—getting things wrong terrified me. Yet, underneath all of that, I sensed that there must be another way to exist in this world.
Something is wrong with this picture, something's not normal. Can you tell me what's not normal with this picture? Can you tell me what's foolish?
We are not objects, and yet we are always striving to be inanimate in some way, hoping to arrive at a set level of eternal happiness or ease, beauty or comfort. But that’s not how evolution works. Nothing stays the same—not happiness nor sadness, not even difference. There is no one way to be, no one right way to live, and to buy into the idea that there is means you’re living someone else’s flawed, idealized notion that there exists this concept of normal. If you are working hard to be “normal,” then you’re working toward matching a state that someone else decided is true. You’re working on becoming less you by striving toward a concept, and not a practice. We learn these frameworks as children and often don’t even realize that we are operating under their influence.
We think we know who we are, but many of us are wrong. Who are we, really, but stories we’ve internalized, written by those who raised us. Underneath, or over to the side, maybe even high up, a different self-state exists—one you think isn’t you, but it is. It’s just an unfamiliar part of yourself, like the part that couldn’t swim before you learned, couldn’t sound out words you hadn’t yet heard. Once, you didn’t know, and then you did. That once part exists still for other things, but just because it’s not familiar doesn’t mean it’s not you.
We need to create a new model for “normal.” We need to create a new model for what it means to be a human being. We need to make room in the world for people to tell their stories without being judged or discriminated against. We can only do that by sharing our own stories, which I realize demands a level of courage. We can also do this by being the safe person in which others can confide. Everyone has a struggle—it’s part of being human. It doesn’t mean you’re weird or broken.
I go to schools to give talks because I want everyone to live as human beings, not as inanimate objects, and one way to do that is to share our stories of living through pain and the ways we have confronted our fears so that others may grow stronger and feel less afraid and ashamed. If we can make the invisible visible and encourage one another to share our difficulties, then we can all evolve into the story of ourselves, stories we get to tell, and not the story of ourselves we’re only afraid might be true.
We stigmatize and discriminate against differences for a variety of reasons (resentment and fear being a couple) but also because we are so afraid to be different. Do you see the irony here? There would be much less discrimination if we all admitted that we’re all afraid of the same things. If we weren’t all afraid, then perhaps there’d be less structural racism and structural discrimination against the poor, people of color, the differently abled, women, the LGBTQ+ community. But we can’t lessen it because so many people are afraid of their feelings. If we work toward becoming less afraid of our feelings and more committed to the process of moving through what scares us, we will be part of a collective movement of people who are fiercely dedicated to their own evolution and the evolution of the people around them.
Being intimidated and afraid of our emotions is like being afraid of our ideas, our creativity, our imagination. Imagine being shamed for having imagination? For writing a great story or painting a masterpiece. Where did these things originate? From inside you. What are they trying to express? Your emotions. How can we find art, a medium to express our deepest feelings, worthy of profound study and yet bat away the very process that led us to make the art in the first place? Emotions are so often misunderstood.
I don’t know why people are so embarrassed to admit to their anxiety or depression. If we were all more open about it, we’d see how shared our fears are, and we wouldn’t have to implicate ourselves in this way of living by hiding our fears alongside everyone else.
We can only process our emotions when we face them. The only way out of pain is to go through the pain. Processing your emotions is the way you digest your feelings. And the weird thing is, it actually nourishes you, and you’ll find you want to face more and more because you want to evolve into someone who doesn’t fear their feelings, because being held hostage by fear isn’t living.
Having my anxiety overlooked for 25 years, and being tested for a decade, raised me to believe that who and how I was wasn’t good enough. The people in my life—the teachers, the clinicians who tested me, my family— tried to put me in their box, just as the world tries to put everyone in boxes, so that they can categorize and distinguish normal from abnormal. But these systems were primarily created by white cis-het men for white cis-het men, during an entirely different era.
We no longer live at a time and place where we put stock in binaries, and yet, the old model remains. If you are afraid to express your emotions, if you feel like you’d mock someone for sharing their anxieties with you, it’s not because you’re a terrible person. It’s because you’ve been socialized to believe a set of rules that no longer apply, nor should they ever have applied. Your generation has already changed the way people think about gender and sexuality, so let’s do the same thing for mental illness, for race, for class, for every systemic barrier.
There is no set standard way to be a person, and there is no such thing as “normal,” but it’s taken me my entire life to understand that. Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are not alien diseases. They are a part of being human.
Something is wrong with this picture, something's not normal. Can you tell me what's not normal with this picture? Can you tell me what's foolish?
Sometimes the best intentions are the ones that make you worse. Anxious people fear reality—when my mother would remove the obstacles from my life, or save me from discomfort, she was sending the message that reality was too hard for me. That kept me in a state of constant avoidance and dependence. The overarching need to have me tested telegraphed to me that I was inadequate. It would have helped if I’d been taught how to face the things that scared me and made me uncomfortable.
Sometimes parents and caretakers get so caught up trying to help their child that they overlook what is actually needed. Parents and caretakers, if your child wants to know what will happen to them if you die, please do not say, “I’m not going to die,” or “You don’t need to worry about that.” Make a plan with your child about what will happen. That plan will assuage their anxiety by addressing their concerns. When you deny your child the information they need to feel safe, you are not only inflaming their anxiety, you’re holding them hostage from reality.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to learn how to handle uncertainty and discomfort. When a parent, caretaker, or a trusted adult tries to take that away from you, they are unwittingly depriving you of learning a necessary life skill.
If there is one essential thing that I want you to take away from this talk, it’s that avoiding what you’re afraid of makes your life harder. It may seem impossible for you to face your fears, but it’s not and I can prove it: We’re not actually afraid of what we think we’re afraid of. For example, it’s not riding in an elevator, or getting on a plane, or even talking publicly that scares you. It is feeling dread and fear. Anxiety is a fear of feeling. But feelings do not kill you. If you can imagine yourself facing just one of your fears, you have begun to actually face your fears.
If I could go back in time, here’s what I’d tell my younger self: Uncertainty isn’t dangerous. Your feelings of fear are more common than you realize. You don’t need to be perfect to be accepted. Just because your feelings feel true does not make them facts.
When we talk about our interior pain, we make the invisible visible. I encourage each one of you to share your difficulties, so that you will grow into the story of yourself that you get to tell, and not the story of yourself you’re afraid might be true.
Thank you so much."
I'm so curious to hear what you thought of this. If you heard someone give this talk to you in high school, do you think it would have helped?
Until next week I am…
How to Live is a newsletter about all things psychological. To read more and subscribe, go to amandastern.bulletin.com
If you want to know more about me, you can read my memoir Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life.