"Anxiety: How do you always get the best of me? I'm out here living in a fantasy. I can't enjoy a God-damned thing."
Do you suffer from anxiety? I do. This is the first time I've admitted it publicly. It's not an uncommon thing, anxiety. Persistent thoughts. Worry in excess. A lack of sleep. Paranoia. Fear of missing out. Panic attacks and flashbacks.
I dream myself back to the worst days of my life and wake up in a cold sweat. I fear I'm failing my father. I act on impulse. I buy the thing I don't need but obsessed over all day. My memory sucks—I'm just in my head all the time. Distracted.
I go to the store twice and three times, always going back, forgetting things I meant to buy along the way. I dream vividly and all of my dreams are nightmares, I struggle to work or eat or write or shower or push myself, I'm unmotivated. And in my thoughts I'm restless and confused.
I think our loved ones are saints for putting up with it. For enduring the texts in the middle of the night, the apologizing for everything, the rethinking everything, the overthought, the failure to show up, the indecision. They bear it all.
If you're as lucky as I am to have such support at home and such wonderful friends, then you probably feel as guilty as I do for what an imposition your anxiety can be on others. I often feel larger than my body, like I'm taking up more space than anyone else in the room or hogging the air or stealing attention. My friends bear this so well.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay I called 'On delusion' and I put it up briefly on my website. It was pretty aggressive, I didn't name names but I asserted that a certain person I know has become delusional and simply can't be helped.
After a day or two, I felt maybe it was too harsh and took it down. No one said anything. It just wasn't the kind of thing I want to be remembered for, to be so condemning. It didn't belong on this blog.
I'm going to share it below but change what I said a bit. I've been giving it a lot of thought over the past few weeks and I've decided that maybe I'm the delusional one. It was that line, "I'm out here living in a fantasy, I can't enjoy a God-damned thing" that prompted all of this.
He says, I'm out here living in a fantasy. I can't enjoy a thing. That line grabbed me. Delusion and anxiety go so hand-in-hand. So here's part of the post I wrote, 'On delusion.'
I have been criticizing social media a lot lately. I've been wrestling with questions like, What image of myself am I putting out there? and, Am I speaking honestly about myself and others? and, Am I honoring the platform I've been given on social media?
You'll notice I still use Instagram, save for short breaks from time-to-time. Because at the end of the day I don't think Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook are evil. Ok, maybe Facebook is evil. The problem isn't an app, the problem is delusion.
Delusion is the act of living in fantasy about our world, about ourselves, and about others. You've probably heard someone say, "He's delusional," when speaking about a person with mental illness, but delusion isn't just questioning the nature of reality. Delusion is not just thinking you're Napoleon. Delusion is dreaming without doing, fantasy without footwork.
Delusion influences the way we think about ourselves and the way we talk about ourselves online. Delusion motivates so much of what we say about ourselves online, that we have entire websites and forums devoted to dispelling Internet bullshit.
Delusion can make an Instagrammer think he's a celebrity. It can make a private think he's smarter than his sergeant. It can make a receptionist think she runs the company. It can let a husband get so comfortable in his marriage that he takes his wife for granted. It can make a wife throw away years of love for the man who gives her just a little more attention.
On Zen Habits, Leo Babauta collected this list of daily delusions: We lose to old habits because of delusion. Procrastinate because of delusion. We get so frustrated with ourselves and with others because of delusion. We miss out on the wonder of the world because of delusion. We struggle to accept others without judgment because of delusion.
I think delusion is a particularly tricky enemy when it comes to forming new habits. Exercise is a great example of a habit spoiled by delusion.
As you read this, a delusional girl is scanning fitspo accounts and dreaming of having a body like that. A delusional boy is subscribing to bodybuilding Youtube channels and saving motivational quotes to his phone. It is a delusion, not because the idea is out of reach, but because dreaming is not doing.
We aren't lifting those weights, we're watching someone lift on YouTube. Get it? We aren't fitting into those dresses, we're watching someone else wear them out of the store. We're being motivated by the fantasy of what our lives will be like after we finally get fit.
It's a dream. It’s not real. When reality sets in, we find that it doesn't match up to the fantasies we played out in our minds. It’s uglier, it's harder, it takes sweat and work. When we dreamed of being fit we didn't picture this much sweat. It's less idealized. It's not perfect. And so we quit.
See what I mean?
Delusion affects us so pervasively that as a society we actually praise it. It was delusion that put a reality TV star in office. What made us elect—to the highest office in the United States—a man who has held no elected office before?
It wasn't that we were fed up with the status quo. We are getting the status quo right now! We didn't really believe he would "drain the swamp," as he was putting the special interest groups right into his cabinet and bringing back all the old Bush-era guys.
Delusion puts a terrorist behind the wheel with intent to kill for his god. Delusion puts a rifle in the hands of an angry kid. And left-leaning, right-leaning, Islamic, Irish Catholic—delusion doesn't discriminate like we do. We are all prone to our flights of fancy, to our delusions.
Delusion protects abusers. Delusion exonerates rapists. Delusion creates false reports—"bears false witness" as Scripture says. Delusion promotes laws that favor the wealthy. Delusion preys on the sick. It is delusion that drives a grade-schooler to lie to his parents, even.
The kid has a fantasy of what life would be like if mom and dad never saw his report card. Delusion is learned at such a young age. Then we carry it into every aspect of our lives. But we really show off our delusion on social media.
Online, we're tasked with crafting an image of ourselves and projecting it to the world. We take this job very seriously. We labor to make our quippy bio, we carefully curate our feeds, we max our Visas to go to the beach twice a year just to get those bikini pics, we spend all of our money to brag about some new product to our followers.
We ought to portray ourselves accurately online, but no one's going to smash that like button for a pic of us waiting at the DMV. Grocery shopping. Brushing our teeth. Watching a bit too much TV. Putting down the book we just bought to look interesting in the first place.
The boring stuff, all the many non-adventures of life, the maintenance and upkeep of life—it may not make for an exciting Twitter Moment or Instagram Story, but it's the grind that rebuffs delusion. The opposite of fantasy is footwork. The opposite of longing is legwork. It's boring. It isn't fun. But it gets you there.
Dan Harmon is one of my favorite writers. On an episode of his show Rick and Morty, he wrote, "I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I'm bored when I brush my teeth or wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it's not an adventure. There's no way to do it so wrong you might die. its just work."
His point: Therapy isn't glamorous, it's just work, but it's the kind of work that gets you there. Gets you to a place where you actually have something to brag about to your friends.
Delusion is the thing that makes us scorn the basic repairing, maintaining, and cleaning, taking care of ourselves. Things like brushing our teeth and therapy. We're so focused on the mountaintops that we actually neglect the climb, and social media drives us to take shortcuts.
And then, who we are has so little to do with what we say about ourselves…
No social media profile should ever be used to try to get to know someone. The profile is not the person. The measure of a man or woman is not a composite of all the superfluous things they say about themselves, these things they crowd in around their lives.
I read somewhere this week (and I've forgotten where), that "If you want to measure a man, measure his heart." Don't look at his Instagram feed and evaluate who he is based off of what he says about himself. If you want to truly know a person, look at his or her heart.
Look at the heart.
Look at what they're passionate about. Not the things they post about often but the things they spend their free time doing even when it isn't pic-worthy or postable. Look at what they're doing between breaks at work, what they're traveling across town to do, the things they're sharing with friends and family.
Look at how they treat the poor, needy, orphaned, elderly, sick, widowed, anxious, and oppressed. Look at how they talk to their parents. Look at what they spend their money on. Look at what they work on on a Saturday morning—those passion projects that may never make them money. Look at what they get up early for. Look at what they stay out late for.
If you want to know someone, look at what they bleed for. I'm a writer—you might know it because I told you or you might know it by the arch in my back, my tired eyes, and my knobby, arthritic-looking fingers. I bleed for this—I fully expect to get arthritis from this!
That's something you won't see on social media.
The ballerina posts a video dancing in her beautiful dress, but she won't post the callouses and bruises and cuts on her feet from day-in, day-out grind. She bleeds to dance.
Next time you see a hotshot guitarist shredding through his big solo, look past the solo and try to see the years of practice, the callouses, the scales up and down and up and down and up and down to a metronome day-in and day-out.
Because behind every great, there's a grind.
We have to fight delusion with every fiber of our being. And what are our weapons? Honesty, openness, confession, trust. Put out an honest image of yourself online.
You don't have to be brutally honest, but maybe once a week share something you're really passionate about, even if it isn't cool. Show the hard work that went into learning a skill you demonstrate online.
Speak freely about your beliefs and opinions and prepare yourself to defend them with confidence and kindness when you're met with criticism. Speak the truth, or as Jordan Peterson puts it, "Tell the truth—or at least don't lie."
Be open and available to people who want to share in your journey in some small way. I get a lot of messages on Instagram about guitar gear, and I try to answer every one of them. I'm not saying you've got respond to every single message, but be available for a few minutes out of each day.
Be real with people, and give your followers a chance to respond to the content you're posting. Be open, even if you don't know the answer. Be open especially when you don't know the answer!
If you don't know the answer to a question, make the discovery a journey with your followers. Be open to criticism and respond to the opinions of others with gratitude. Even if they say something you don't like, remember that they're still engaged. Thank them for their response. Address their concern.
Live a confessional lifestyle with your family and friends, with your most intimate loved ones. Don't get defensive when they point something out in your life, something they're worried about, something you could be doing differently. Especially when it comes to things you've shared on social media.
If they point out something that offends them, that disappoints them, that hurts to see, welcome that feedback. The criticism of a close loved one is a sign that they really care.
The last weapon we've got against delusion is trust. Trust people. It seems so simple, but in reality it's so terribly difficult to just trust people. At work we have a saying, always "Assume positive intent." Assume that even if someone's misguided in some way, their intentions were positive, their hearts were in the right place.
Never assume people are out to get you. That's a symptom of my anxiety that feeds delusion. That's paranoia. I have to caution myself to never try to divine the minds of others, to never manufacture grand conspiracies in my head. When we start questioning people in that way, it inspires delusion. It plants little fantasies in our minds.
Delusion fuels anxiety breeds delusion feeds anxiety and on and on and on the cycle repeats. We can play out entire conversations with people in our minds, putting words in their mouths and ascribing to them arguments they never espoused. Honesty, openness, confession, and trust will break the cycle of anxiety and delusion.
"Anxiety. How do you always get the best of me? I'm out here living in a fantasy." Battle anxiety, drop the fantasy. Be real.