You’re driving on the road, enjoying the music and views, the sun shines on your face, and the skies are clear. It is a great day!
Suddenly, a light flashes on your dashboard. On closer inspection, it appears to be the gaslight.
You look at the light and feel a whirlwind of emotion rise. You feel hot, flushed, your hands are sweating, and your heart begins to pound as knots form in your stomach. Your chest tightens. Before you know it, the sunny clear skies might as well have turned into a brewing storm, and you are yelling at the light to turn off as you continue to drive on high alert. What’s worse is that you turn and yell at your passengers (loved ones) too!
I know, I know, you’re saying, Wait, hold on just a minute here… Say what??
‘Why on earth would I yell at a gaslight? And what does that have to do with my passengers,’ you may ask? Allow me to explain.
What’s Going On?
That gas light that just lit up is relatively neutral, would you agree? It is not necessarily bad nor good. It is a clear way for the car to communicate with us regarding a need, one necessary for its proper functioning. Some may even say that makes it ‘good or helpful.’ It is saying to us, ‘Hey there! If you want to continue listening to those tunes and enjoying the breeze as you cruise around, you better fill ‘er up soon!”
Yet sometimes, we fail to perceive the ‘lights’ on our dashboard in this way. Sometimes, for some of us, a less-than-neutral perception may occur more often than we care to admit. On these occasions, we view the light as a ‘bad’ thing. Something that should not go on. Or worse, a sign that we have failed at driving altogether, that we are not a good enough driver or that we have let down others in the car. Suddenly, strange responses surface. Because we feel out of control and we have judged ourselves harshly, we attempt to avoid and disavow perceived danger with a feeling of panic. Without warning, a small light that communicated a message to simply prepare ourselves turns into a threat – to which we respond with an arsenal of attempts to control and mitigate risk operating from a place of fear and panic. How many different scenarios in your life have you found taking on this pattern?
Is it Really That Bad?
For the sake of keeping things clear and simple, let’s call the indicator light mentioned above Anxiety. Is Anxiety bad? Are we letting others down by feeling it? Is it wrong to feel anxious? Are we allowed to feel it?
The answer echoing through your mind is likely a resounding NO! If someone else’s response to anxiety was to berate themselves, we would probably feel sad for them and recognize they need support, not criticism or shame. Regardless, many of us do go down the path mentioned above to the point that guilt and shame settle inside us, sometimes completely unbeknownst to us. In this way, our negative interpretation has reinforced Anxiety and activated fears of rejection.
Level with Me
The truth is that in small doses, Anxiety is healthy and helpful. If the situation is understood accurately and acted on with compassion and understanding, Anxiety can motivate us to prepare for the future and enhance our skills to do our best. It can encourage us to take the necessary precautions.
Conversely, Extreme or Neurotic Anxiety often elicits responses and behaviors, such as in the above scenario, where we experience a whirlwind of uncontrollable emotions and yell at “the light.” These responses represent our unconscious attempt to thwart danger and protect ourselves, to an extreme degree. Extreme Anxiety causes us to feel out of control and prompts attempts to control others and our environment. When we are responding from a place of Extreme Anxiety, we may experience hopelessness, worry, despair, and attempt to disavow our emotional experiences. Extreme anxiety may lead to panic, which causes our minds and bodies to shut down.
Neurotic Anxiety majorly underestimates our capabilities and strengths and, at times, can even distort facts. It downright lies to us – we become fixated on the negative instead of the positive. Extreme Anxiety creates endless cycles of negative, catastrophic scenarios in our minds and we may become convinced that the worst possible thing can and will happen. Neurotic Anxiety overlooks pertinent information useful for problem-solving or balancing perspectives and makes it difficult to think clearly. It leaves us feeling small, it tells us we have enormous problems, it disempowers us, and it leaves us with a sense of hopelessness. Does this sound familiar?
The good news is that it is possible to learn to observe the ‘indicated gaslight’ or Anxiety and not respond with alarm. It is possible to learn to recognize these patterns and drive calmly to the nearest gas station. Your emotions do not need to hijack your trip or life, or your time with your loved ones.
Quick Perspective & Takeaway
- Indicator lights are not good or bad. They are communicative.
- My emotions are like indicator lights.
- What might my emotions be communicating to me?
Are you ready to feel less out of control and shift into a new perspective? You are more capable of making a quick stop and continuing to enjoy your drive (or life) than you think!
Dona Constantino-Nathan, MCC
Clinical Therapist & Assessment Consultation
Toronto Psychological Services & Research Centre
Address: 4920 Dundas Street West, Suite 205, Etobicoke, ON M9A 1B7, Canada
Work Telephone: 416-531-0727