A few months ago, while running the Reggae Half Marathon with fellow blogger and YouTuber extraordinaire Kristen from Hopscotch the Globe, the topic of anxiety came up. We talked a lot about our backgrounds and she asked me what I thought had been the most helpful in terms of managing my anxiety. Now, that’s a loaded question and one that has a lot of answers – I’m not really sure there is  one thing that has helped the most. It’s been a combination of a lot of things. But it did start my mind working and it made me think about my last therapist and how helpful she was (until I found out she was committing insurance fraud). Criminal activity not withstanding, she gave me the single most helpful piece of advice I’ve heard to this day, and it has significantly changed my outlook on the world and how I interact with other people and myself.

Me every single day from 2002-2012

See, I used to literally lose sleep over other people’s problems. I had nightmares – literal nightmares – about problems in my best friends’ relationships. I worried constantly about my ex-husband, even after we were separated. I fretted nonstop about how I might be impacting someone’s day, or hurting their feelings, or how my personal actions might be contributing to other people’s bad behavior. As if I didn’t have enough issues of my own to deal with (and trust me, at that time, I had plenty), I was stressing out about other people’s problems, too! I was such a huge ball of stress that I had almost no control over my emotions and no handle on my day to day life. Unfortunately for you, this was before I started writing the blog, so you missed all that. Anyway, I was expressing all of this to my therapist, and she said something that made me look at my life and my relationships in a totally different way.

Therapist: “Danielle, I want you to think about who is in your circle. Think about the very small group of people – less than 5, most likely – who you trust implicitly, who would die for you, who care about you as much as you care about them. They may or may not be family members. They may or may not be friends. But think – really think – about how many people there are in your life that you can honestly say that about.”

Me: “I don’t know. Two, maybe? Three? I don’t know.”

Ok but where is this going, exactly?

Therapist: “Ok. So take those two or three people – they are your circle. They are the only people whose opinions and problems you are allowed to stress out over. They know you, and they care about you, so they are most likely going to act in your best interest. These people are probably not going to be upsetting you on a regular basis. Now, your circle can change. You can move people in and out. But I think you’ll find that it remains very small, and it remains very constant.”

Me: “That’s ridiculous. Life doesn’t work that way. Of course the behavior and the opinions of the people around me are going to color how I do things and what I worry about.”

Therapist: “Why? Why are you giving them that power over you? You and you alone have control over how you respond to these situations. They cannot force you to do anything. So, when someone makes you upset or you’re feeling stressed out about someone else’s problem, I want you to think about whether that person is in your circle or not. If they are, then you carefully consider the situation, talk about it with them, and do what you need to do to fix it. If they are not, I want you to say ‘Not in my circle’ and let it go. It is not your burden.”

Me: “Are you kidding? You want me to literally say to myself ‘Not in my circle’ and just LET IT GO?”

Therapist: “Yes. Try it.”

“That’s literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, but whatever.”

I walked out of the office skeptical and annoyed that I had spent a $30 copay on that nonsense. Still, I figured I might as well give it the old college try. As ridiculous as I felt and as ridiculous as it seemed, every time I got upset or started feeling anxious or mad, I would ask myself “Is this person in my circle?” And when the answer was inevitably “no,” I would repeat to myself over and over again “NOT IN MY CIRCLE. NOT IN MY CIRCLE. NOT IN MY CIRCLE!” Sometimes, it felt like I was screaming at myself, but inevitably, she was right – I felt better.

It happened little by little, but slowly I found myself worrying less and less about other people’s problems. I became less volatile. And as my personality settled, so did my surroundings. It became easy for me to see who was good for my life and who was not. It became easy to cut people out whose presence only caused me stress or regularly made me feel bad about myself. If I had to constantly ask myself if the person was in my circle, it was time for them to go! Of course, there are some things – like work, for example – that we don’t really have a choice in whether or not we care about. But we do have a choice in how stressful situations that are outside of our immediate control affect our self esteem, personal peace, and sense of self worth. It was time for me to stop taking every situation so personally.

Maybe if I just keep saying “I don’t care” over and over and over again, I’ll finally believe it?

We often hear the phrase “Never make someone your priority when you’re their option,” but we usually only apply it to romantic relationships. We should be applying it to our daily lives, too! I found that when I stopped focusing on everyone’s problems and just focused on myself and the people who mattered most, my anxiety drastically diminished. The feelings of self doubt and constantly struggled with have gotten significantly better, too. As my anxiety has improved and the most meaningful relationships in my life have come more into focus, I’ve become able to be a better friend and family member to the people closest to me. By proxy, I’m able to work through the more frequent, minor problems that surround me much more clearly without flying off the handle and thinking the world is about to end.

I’m calm as hell now.

Even now, 5 years later, I still remind myself someone is “NOT IN MY CIRCLE” from time to time. It’s more of a joke now because I don’t need the reassurance – I have finally become able to discern who and what should be a priority and what should not – but it’s undeniably effective. It’s the best advice I’ve ever received.

LEAVE A COMMENT: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Who is in your “circle”?

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