Why We Push Our Wiggles Away
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
As a child, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which answered a lot of lingering questions about my struggles to complete what seemed like relatively simple tasks. There were consequences for incomplete assignments and classroom blunders, the greatest of which were feelings of shame and inadequacy. Eventually, with support from my family and medication in my teens and early twenties, I gained an understanding of how my brain works and I relearned how to learn.
Despite the success and accomplishments I’ve experienced in adulthood, the seeds of anxiety around detailed tasks were planted long ago and the weeds still exist in my garden of life. Within my core, on a nearly imperceptible level, lies a deep-seated sense of doubt and lingering insecurity which can dampen my rhythm and stifle my ambitions. On my journey toward exciting experiences in life, I’ve been known to get off the bus rather than endure uncomfortable bumps in the road. What I experience in these moments is something I refer to as Wiggle aversion.
If you’ve hung out with me for more than a few minutes, you know that one of my favorite topics to discuss is something I refer to as Wiggles. Wiggles are deep-seated desires for something more. Wiggles exist in the space that lies between the life you’re living and the life you’d like to be living. Wiggles are sensations of excitement in your body letting you know that something more is possible for you. When a particular person, place, or activity stimulates, intrigues, or inspires you, you’re experiencing a Wiggle.
Our Wiggles date back to our earliest memories, with our unique and individual attractions to particular food, toys, and activities, to name a few. Children can’t help but follow each and every tantalizing Wiggle, exploring all of their distinct interests and curiosities. But our Wiggles don’t make it through adolescence unscathed.
As other people’s judgements are imposed on us, we realize at some point that we’re at risk for losing love and a sense of belonging if we continue to follow Wiggles that aren’t in line with the expectations of others. So without even realizing it, we attach a sense of danger to our pursuit of Wiggles, which prevents us from seeking many of the experiences that enliven us. This is the sensation that leads to Wiggle aversion.
YOUR WIGGLE AVERSION
Wiggle aversion happens when we snuff out our Wiggles, like fingers over a match, because within that space there also exists negative emotion which soon dominates the conversation in our minds. Putting our Wiggles on hold, or worse, burying them in a closet, is an experience similar to that of procrastination. While often viewed as a seemingly harmless lack of productivity, procrastination is defined by Dr. Fuschia Sirois as “the inability to manage negative moods around a task.” As we all know from experience, negative emotion can hijack our goals and deprive us of meaningful experiences.
So what’s the deal with these negative moods? If it’s really just a bad mood, it would certainly pass and you could get on with the business of creating a life you love. But unfortunately it’s not quite that easy. Just like the lingering effects of my childhood ADD, the issue goes much deeper. The issue, it turns out, lies in your brain tissue.
THE AMYGDALA HIJACK
Our brains are miraculous machines that are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, a biological programming that served us very well in more primitive times when survival was our sole purpose. The emotion-center of the brain is called the amygdala, and when it detects any threats it sends a flood of chemical messages through the body, in the form of stress hormones, designed to get you to act in a protective way. This is where the fight, flight and freeze responses come into play.
Sometimes the amygdala gets triggered from relatively benign threats, causing what sociologist Daniel Goleman refers to as an amygdala hijack. Seemingly harmless activities like signing up for an art class, losing weight, or going back to school can trigger our biological emergency management system and put us into protective mode. So what kind of threat could exist in these Wiggles that would prevent us from taking action on otherwise beneficial opportunities? Quite often, what we detect is a threat to our self-esteem.
Self-esteem refers to a person’s confidence in their own worth or abilities. It is the essence of who we are and our perceived value as a human being. It’s not a small thing. And when self-esteem is threatened, the amygdala steps in and triggers anxiety.
YOUR ANXIETY AVOIDANCE CYCLE
“People tend to organize their lives around avoiding things that cause anxiety,” says Dr. Kelly McGonigal in her book The Upside of Stress. This is known as the Anxiety Avoidance Cycle, which McGonical describes as any situation where “the desire to avoid feeling anxious overtakes our goals.” This anxiety avoidance is the key that unlocks the mysteries of many unfulfilled Wiggles.
Take a moment and think of something you wish you had or wish you could experience, that you’re not currently working toward. Now ask yourself if any of these core Wiggle aversions apply to you:
Perfection shows up when you become attached to a rigid definition of success. You develop an expectation for a particular outcome, and if the results aren’t in line with this expectation, you interpret it to mean that you’re a failure or unworthy. If the risk of potential imperfection is too great, you’ll turn away from a Wiggle. I often fall into this trap around my ADD. After learning how to curate successful outcomes, anything less than success brings me back to the insecurity of my youth.
FEAR OF FAILURE
Fear of failure runs the show when worst-case scenarios dominate your thinking. Going down this path means getting stuck in the land of “what-ifs”. When each what-if is tied to a potential failure, your self-esteem can feel like it’s under attack. If the risk feels too great, you’ll shut down your Wiggle. I’ve considered going back to school for a graduate degree, but my mind swirls with concerns about my finances, the impact of disrupting my career, the risk of choosing the wrong program, and the possibility that the experience won’t be what I expect. When the risk feels too great, I turn my focus away from this Wiggle.
You’ll find that you go out of your way to protect yourself when you feel like you have to preserve certain roles and responsibilities based on your perceived identity. You might say, “Someone like me wouldn’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t do something like (fill in the blank).” Parents are a beautiful example of this. If you would view yourself as a bad parent for taking time away from your family to focus on your Wiggles, then you likely fall into this anxiety avoidance cycle. Or if the voice in your head says, “I’m afraid of what other people will think of me if I do this,” then you’re likely falling into this trap.
Seeing yourself in any of these descriptions is a good thing. Self-awareness is your most precious tool on the Wiggle journey! When you gain insight into what’s holding you back, then you hold the keys to moving forward.
F’ING FIRST TIMES
Pursuing a Wiggle that you’ve had an aversion to in the past can feel intimidating. It’s new and exciting, but can also produce feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. Renowned researcher, Dr. Brené Brown, coined the term FFT to describe F’ing First Times. As she says, “New is hard and we don’t like the discomfort. We’re so afraid of the vulnerability that we stop trying to do anything that we’re not already good at.”
I recently had the opportunity to tackle an FFT that triggered my attention deficit insecurities. My sweetheart had been teaching me welding and woodworking and my capstone project was going to be a grand one: creating a bench and matching end tables for our home. This was a technical project with many complex details- not the best combination for my self-esteem triggers. When the going gets tough for me, I tend to become paralyzed and prone to defeat.
According to Brené Brown, learning to normalize discomfort is the foundation of courage. Rather than allowing the difficult moments of this project to extinguish my Wiggle, I utilized Dr. Brown’s steps for getting through the hard, rocky parts of my FFT. Here’s how the strategy she’s outlined played out for me:
1.) Name the FFT when you’re in it: “I’m feeling insecure because I’m not very good at this and I can’t predict the outcome.”
2.) Normalize it: “But I’m new at this and I’m learning. Everyone struggles when they’re new at this.”
3.) Put it in perspective: “I’m going to make some pretty big mistakes and it’s going to take longer than I expect, but when I’m done I’ll be so much more skilled at this than I am right now.”
4.) Reality check your expectations: “It may not be perfect when I’m done, but it’s something I’ll have created from scratch and I’ll be very proud of it.”
In the end, after numerous twists and turns and minor accidents, my project was a success! In addition to creating beautiful furniture, I came out of the experience stronger, braver, and more confident. Not only did I prove that I have the ability to stay on the bus and endure the bumpy road, I actually gained the skills of being the bus driver and guiding my life in an exciting new direction, despite the bumps along the way.
As Brené Brown says, “The more we try new things, the more new things we’re willing to try.” What can you try next??
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