Original Photo © US Army Africa, US Army Africa on Flickr.
One night at university, my friends and I came up with a game.
That night, each of us would tell one lie, and whoever convinced the most people to believe it would be the winner.
Harmless fun, right?
I forget what lie everybody else told. But mine went on to become legendary. It was this:
I won Junior Masterchef in 1996
There were many reasons that this lie caught on as it did. Junior Masterchef was a popular mid-90s UK cooking competition for teens. I was about the right age group. At the time of this game, Wikipedia and the internet weren’t yet as easily accessed for fact-checking on the move.
And, most importantly, why on earth would anybody lie about something so weirdly specific?
I’m ashamed (and slightly proud) to say that this lie caught on like wildfire. It spread around my halls of residence, and became a commonly cited ‘fact’ about me to friends, friends-of-friends, and even wider still.
I had no difficulty inventing enough details to keep the lie going (“What did you cook?” “Oh you know, just soup, chicken and cake, all done up fancy”).
But the emotional toll of lying to people who I liked and cared for eventually became too much and I vowed never to tell the lie again.
Still, it followed me for a long time. Two years later – and halfway around the world in Australia – I was approached by a friend-of-a-friend who, to my utter astonishment, introduced themselves by asking “you’re that guy who won that cooking competition, right?!”
This single lie, originally told on one single evening, proved very difficult to shake.
But this isn’t a morality tale about the importance of telling the truth (although that’s probably a good idea in general – lying gets out of hand fast).
The ability to separate truth from lies is crucial in straightening the anxious tangle.
This is because anxiety is built on a foundation of lies.
Anxiety is, pretty much by definition, about things that aren’t happening.
It’s about things that might happen. It’s about the future – an imaginary future that may (or may not) be utterly terrible. And so we worry about it. A lot.
But this imaginary future isn’t real. As the old quote goes:
I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.Mark Twain
We’re looking at these frightening pictures in our heads – these images that aren’t real – and becoming afraid.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of. All of our experience is mediated through our brains, so things happening in our heads are very real to us.
But this means that reconnecting with reality – with the truth – can help reduce the pain of anxiety.
It’s rare that whatever we’re anxious about is actually physically happening right now, so reminding ourselves of what is real (and what is imagination) is a powerful technique for regaining perspective and feeling more peaceful.
Inner critic: Wait! But what if something bad IS happening? Reality isn’t all sunshine and roses, you know.
Inner critic: And even if it was all sunshine and roses! Sunshine burns. And roses have thorns and cause allergies. What are you going to say to THAT?!
Er. I didn’t invent the sun, you know. But I get your point.
Even when reality isn’t perfect, we need to be dealing with reality not imagination in order to do whatever we can about it. Even if our best option is only to grit our teeth and carry on. (Though hopefully there’ll be something more positive we can do to improve our situation.)
So, at worst, tuning into the reality of the current moment may help to regain perspective and reduce the feeling of anxiety. At worst, it prevents us from wasting energy on imaginary possibilities.
There are many techniques for reconnecting with reality. Sometimes it’s enough simply to realise that the object of our anxiety is only an imaginary scary picture in our minds.
But, when that isn’t enough, I find it useful to concentrate on something physically real – to notice something about the place I’m in, or how my body is feeling, or anything that is unarguably real right now.
This momentary focussing allows my brain to disconnect from the anxious pictures and to reconnect with reality.
No matter how good – or bad – reality may be, there’s no use spending our limited energy on anxious imaginary pictures of what could go wrong.
We’ve all got better options than wasting our time fearing things that may never happen.
If nothing else, I’ve got a cookery competition to practise for…
No cookery competitions were invented in the production of this blogpost.
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Read the whole series on Anxiety here.