Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Fine Line Between Compassion and Anxiety

Becca is a very compassionate child.  I like to think she gets that from her mother.

Becca is an anxious child.  I know she gets that from her mother.

If someone around her gets hurt or isn't feeling well, Becca will be very, very sweet to him or her.  She's extremely kind in that sense (not so much in the I-going-to-snatch-whatever-toy-you-have-that-I-want or I'm-angry-so-I-will-hit-you-in-the-face sense, though), and she's naturally empathetic.  For example, I've been having some trouble with my lungs lately.  If I tell her that I can't get up and play with her because my lungs hurt, she'll say, "Your yungs not working?  Oh, I'm sorry, honey.  I will give you a hug to feel you better.  Maybe go see Dr. Wawls to feel you better, too." All while patting me on the back and giving me said hugs, plus some kisses to boot.  Super duper sweet.  She immediately thinks about what she would want and need done if she were sick and does it.  And while it doesn't help my lungs, it definitely does "feel me better."

I think I've mentioned on here before that we've been seeing signs of excessive anxiety in Becca for a while now.  Like I said, I know she gets that from me - I've been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder for, well, I don't know how long (turns out that the docs don't automatically tell you your diagnosis...but that's another story!).  Years, though.  Before Becca came into the picture.  While I certainly have very little to complain about these days, neither Becca nor I have exactly lived a charmed life, and those kinds of experiences (emotional and physical) leave scars that can trigger the Speas family genetic predisposition towards anxiety and depression.  Becca's anxiety is also tied into/exacerbated by her sensory issues.  The world feels "off" to her physically, she can't confidently navigate her surroundings, and she is very concerned with how things appear - dirty hands, high chairs, etc. freak her out.  Her anxiety keeps her from eating.  For example, if you present a large plate of food with several different options on it, you may be thinking, "Hey, I'm giving her lots of options so that she can pick what she wants and leave what she doesn't.  There's so much on here that surely she'll want something from it!"  That's great, but what she sees is a huge plate of food full of stuff she can't bring herself to eat and, wow, there's now way I can eat all of that so I'm totally overwhelmed and freaking out so I'll just throw the whole plate.  (Okay, we've generally speaking moved past the plate-throwing, but I think you see what I'm getting at.)  She also fixates on things that trigger her anxiety - simple things like a sticker being ripped.  "We got to fix it!  We got to fix it!"  And -- and here's the flipside of the compassion -- if she sees someone get hurt, it really disturbs her.  Not just in the little kid oh-that's-scary sort of way - in the I-have-to-see-it-fixed-and-that-everyone-is-okay-and-I-won't-even-be-distracted-by-chocolate-or-Strawberry Shortcake-kind-of-way.

It's not surprising, really, that you'd see both characteristics in us.  There's a very fine line between compassion and anxiety.  In fact, I think I'll go out on a limb and say that one of the things that makes us compassionate is our anxiety.  Anxiety comes with an unfortunate kind of imagination - the ability to imagine anything that could possibly go wrong.  And I can't speak for Becca on this, but for me, with that imagination comes a sense of how it might feel if each horrible scenario were to play out.  Of course, I know I could never know what it's like to have this or that happen, but my anxiety (and life!) puts me in touch with enough of my own pain to be able to begin to sense what others are going through...to begin to "suffer with" (you know, com-passion) the other.  And the constant vigilance of anxiety helps us to notice when people around us are hurting.  I'm not saying that anxiety is always a good thing or that anxious people are automatically compassionate (I mean, look at Mr. Monk) or that we shouldn't try to (as Jesus said) "let not our hearts be troubled," but I not convinced anxiety is not without its gifts.

Desmond Tutu says (among many, many other great and wonderful words) that "our suffering can either ennoble us or embitter us."  I'll be honest.  Lately, as I've been looking back over my life, it's been very easy to be bitter.  Please, spare me the lecture on how lucky I am that my daughter survived, that I've got a job I love and a roof over my head, I know all that, and I DO appreciate it.  But, honestly, there is plenty to make me bitter, too.  My life has not been easy.  And Lord knows Becca's life has been anything but -- hate to say it -- fair.  But I want desperately for our wounds and broken places to ennoble us.  I trust that they occasionally do and, as time goes on, they will more and more.  I'm trying to raise my daughter in such a way that her coin of compassion and anxiety is more heavily weighted towards compassion.  I can't take away the hurt or the pain or the rough start or the continuing difficulties she faces...but I can help her flip the coin.


  1. You will be surprised how she manages to find her own way as well as come to terms with the things other people might deem handicaps. Life is not fair. If it was, I would be thin and have no wrinkles. Becca is fortunate to have two parents who act as advocates when she needs one and who step back and let her handle things when necessary. That's something every kid needs.

  2. You're such a good mom! I'm learning the exact same things about my own anxiety. I can see how my sister's eating disorder manifests itself in exactly the way you mentioned Becca's struggles with anxiety and food above. And you can't explain it well to someone who doesn't live it. Our anxious brains are just wired differently. I hate that Becca has yet another challenge to overcome, but I know you're the kind of mom who can help her find the good in it (while still honoring the part that says, "THIS SUCKS!"). Love you guys!

  3. as a fellow anxiety-prone individual, i see the link to compassion; i think someone who has anxiety issues tends to take on the anxiety of others, so compassion naturally comes of that. y'all have a great thanksgiving!

  4. I have been living with General Anxiety Disorder for 8 years....I also tend to be over compassionate for others,,,sometimes told by folks that this trait of mine is annoying! What a blessing to hear your thoughts of the" link"...and now I know that I must pray for a balance.