Blazing Past the Exit Ramps

How "what if" questions can keep you from growing

Lately I’ve been thinking about how anxiety makes it so easy to hit the ABORT button in my life. There are so many projects I’ve never started, or relationships I’ve never prioritized, because the effort requires putting up with some uncertainty. I can’t help but think my life is a little bit poorer because I am so quick to avoid that discomfort.

On an episode of the Magic Lessons podcast, playwright Sarah Jones describes the anxiety of embarking on a creative project. She explains how asking herself “what if” questions (i.e. “What if nobody likes this?”) is like taking an exit ramp off the highway. She never gets very far down the road.

This is a wonderful metaphor for the anxious brain. Taking on a new project, chasing after a goal, or staying connected in a challenging relationship entails a certain amount of anxiety. And when you begin to feel that distress, one way to calm yourself down is to take the quickest exit. We find these exits by asking ourselves the “What if” questions.

“Exit Ramp Questions” Could Look Like:

  • What if I never succeed at this?

  • What if they don’t want to listen to me?

  • What if nobody shows up?

  • What if she thinks I’m annoying?

  • What if he disagrees with me?

  • What if someone else is better?

  • What if I look ridiculous?

Most of these questions have to do with other people’s reactions. When we feel distressed, we try to predict and control the thoughts and behaviors of others. We avoid any movement that might disrupt a calm relationship system. This is how we end up never talking about things that might upset our family. Never sharing work because we might get negative feedback. Never reaching out to new friends because we don’t want to seem too needy.

There is a high cost to quick relief. When you stay in your comfort zone, you never get to see the human you might have been.

Staying on the highway looks like being guided from the inside out. You need a map, a plan that describes who you’re trying to be and what you really value. Without one, it’s almost impossible not to take the nearest exit. It’s scary to be in unknown territory in a relationship, or your career, but if you have principles to guide you, it’s a little bit easier to stay focused on yourself, and not everyone else’s reactions.

This week I encourage you to think about the exit ramps you take to maintain calmness in your relationships and your work. What would it look like to be guided by a different metric than relationship pressure or the world’s definitions of success? How can you put up with the reality that staying on the road requires some amount of discomfort?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What are the common exit ramp questions I use every day?

  • What’s worth doing, even if it causes me some distress?

  • How can I stay focused on my managing myself, and not everybody else?

News from Kathleen

I wrote about how sensitivity is often control in disguise for Forge Mag.

I talked about responding instead of reacting in your relationships on the I Do Podcast.

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