Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Yesterday, a new friend of mine texted me about hopes and plans for future life (post-COVID) and asked if I would be interested in attending a party—whenever humans are able to meet each other again. Anxiety hit me in an instant.
My chest tightened, I started grinding my teeth together, and an avalanche worth of thoughts crashed through my mind. The thoughts that seemed to hurl through my mind over and over were those fearful ideas about about every embarrassing or scary thing that could happen to me if I were to go to a party.
Anxious thoughts often come in a chaotic or spiralling manner. People have described it as an uncontrollable stream of questions, or that their thoughts get away from them and take full control of the driver's seat.
For example, right now, some of my thoughts include:
What if people don’t like this blog?
Am I over-sharing my own story?
Is anyone actually going to find this helpful?
Though I typically focus more on mindfulness and the observation of our thoughts (rather than questioning the reasons behind them), the curiosity that is essential to mindfulness can be quite useful for understanding our unmet needs and our core beliefs. Most of us understand that there may be underlying reasons for our fear or anxiety and we can typically rationalize through those thoughts to dispute them… but digging into the deeper meaning is usually neglected.
Think of a single thought as the top layer of something deep and complex. This scene from Friends came to mind because on the surface, you see this big brown sweater and some other fabric poking through underneath, but you really don't know what he has on and you probably don't understand why he’s wearing all that in the first place 😂 When we look at the thought itself, all we see is its shape and texture on the surface, but that shape and texture is significantly impacted and moulded by each layer underneath (Gosh I really hope this metaphor pans out).
So what if we paused and started to dig downwards instead of pressing forward? What if we took off each sweater or layer to see what’s underneath it all?
The Downward Arrow is a simple and effective technique to figure out what’s beneath the surface. Basically, you take the thought and ask “if that were true, what would that say about me in this moment?” Another way to phrase that is “if that were true, what would that mean about me as a person?” Continue to ask this question and dig deeper and deeper until it seems like you’re at the core belief or fear; there is no "correct" end, but if you've come to a final thought that is simple, short, and hits you right in the gut, you're probably there. And because modelling is a huge part of what I do, as a person and a professional, I’m going to lay out my own example to demonstrate this process.
Of the 50+ thoughts that rushed into my mind when my friend brought up the idea of a party, the following were the loudest and most prominent for me:
1. What if I end up standing alone and nobody wants to talk to me?
2. What if I look like I’m too scared to talk to people?
3. What if I talk to someone and they want to leave the conversation and I don’t take the hint?
So let’s go through this one by one, assuming that each anxious thought/question were true in order to see what comes up (as my heart begins to race knowing that I’m about to be super vulnerable 😅).
1 - I end up standing alone at the party and nobody wants to talk to me.
(At each arrow, ask: “If that’s true, what does that say about me right now?”)
People will think I’m weird or a loser.
I don’t belong with those people.
Nobody likes me.
I’ll never fit in.
** I don’t belong anywhere. **
2 - I look like I’m too scared to talk to people.
(If that’s true, what does that say about me right now?)
People will think I’m insecure.
No one will want to be friends with me.
I’ll end up alone.
** I’m unlovable. **
3 - I start talking to someone and they want to leave the conversation but I can’t take the hint.
~ this one was harder to get down to the next “layer” and I ended up with multiple options—because sometimes our minds are just too complicated 😅 ~
This process allows us to move downward and dig into the meaning of our thoughts. It may not be useful or relevant all the time, but if done often and with self-compassion, it can reveal some important information about ourselves.
Now, what do we do? If you attempted this practice you might find yourself left with those final beliefs or thoughts and feel terrible or uncomfortable 😅 So here is the important next step:
Validate your needs.
Taking the final thought or belief from the examples above, that validation may look something like this:
I don’t belong anywhere. --> I am deserving of belonging.
*pats self on back* I’m unlovable. --> I deserve love. *self-hug*
We can acknowledge that we deserve these fundamental desires and (hopefully) treat ourselves kindly in these moments—but this process can also help us recognize our needs that are especially lacking. If the majority of our superficial thoughts lead back to the same core belief, then we can make an effort to get that value met—whether it is true belonging, unconditional love, success, etc. We can make choices and commit to a line of action that strengthens & protects whatever important thing is being threatened by these anxious thoughts.
Some other common core beliefs that show up at the bottom of the arrow:
I am a failure.
I am worthless.
About other people...
I can’t trust anyone.
About the world…
The world is not safe.
With this practice, as always, give yourself a heavy dose of self-love, self-compassion, & self-acceptance. We all have core beliefs that are pleasant & unpleasant—but the unpleasant ones tend to take over in times of stress or doubt. Recognizing these patterns and unconscious motives of fear can help propel you into a life that aligns with your values, your desires, and your fundamental needs as a human.
Keep shining, rock star ☺️