Personification and Externalization
I have found great value in personifying and externalizing my mental illnesses and other aspects of the wild ride my brain treats me to. But what the hell does this even mean? Well, dear reader, I shall explain using some very concise and easy definitions adapted from Reid Wilson, Ph.D., Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, NC, and contributor to Psychology Today. He is also that author of several books, including Stopping the Noise in Your Head.
I adapted the definitions below from Dr. Wilson’s article Wrestling With Anxiety in the Canadian Wilderness from May of 2020. It’s a brief, easy read and I recommend it. Anxiety, hiking, and bears! Oh, my!
Personification is the attribution of human-like identity to something, the subject, that is not a human. It is related to anthropomorphism in that it allows for treating the subject as a person you can address directly.
Externalization is perceiving of a part of yourself as being outside of yourself instead. Rather than being a part of you, it is something in a relationship with you.
Since my Anxiety burst through the wall of my mind like the Kool-Aid Man a few years ago, I have been personifying and externalizing it in an effort to make it a bit easier to deal with. For me, my anxiety is a ferocious vampire (no stupid sparkling; #TeamAlice) named Dave that stands about 1 inch behind me almost all the time. Because he is so close, if he decides to get me, there is no possible way I would be able to prevent it. I am completely at his mercy.
When I look back at my childhood, and really throughout my entire life, I can see that Dave has been with me almost since day 1. I have always been leery and uncomfortable with my back to open doorways, darkness, or any other place where Dave or other creatures could be laying in wait for me.
What are you afraid of?
I was actually afraid A LOT as a kid. My parents even tried the practice of checking my room for monsters when they put me to bed. But, it didn’t work. You see, MY monsters were wily, persistent little shits; they would just come back as soon as my parents left the room or turned off the light. Nightlights were a huge deal for me; although I never had a blue canary nightlight until adulthood.
To this day, I seldom enjoy horror movies and tend to avoid them altogether. It still takes some effort, sometimes, to walk through a dark room in my house. Being outside alone after dark, even just to bring the trash and recycling bins to the curb, is often a nerve-wracking experience for me. I am able to push through and do what I need to do, but it takes more effort than it does for most people, I think.
Anxiety is not my enemy
As humans evolved over the millennia, we developed fear and anxiety. These feelings helped to inspire caution, and ultimately helped us to survive as a species. It is easy for us to understand, today, that walking up a mountain lion and kicking it in the junk is not a scenario that is likely to end in our favor. But on a more primitive level, before we developed the brains we have today, it was the fear and caution that would have urged early humans to avoid junk-kicking exploits like this. Junk-kickers, those that didn’t exercise this caution, were less likely to be around long enough to procreate, making the junk-kicking trait less likely to pass on to future generations.
Thus, Anxiety, in a very real sense, was a vital asset to our success as a species. It exists as a means of trying to keep us safe. I find it helpful to keep this in mind and take it even a step further: Anxiety is not my enemy. It is a healthy part of me. It is not the fact that I experience anxiety that is a problem; it is the fact that I have an anxiety disorder that is the problem. My brain triggers anxiety far more frequently and forcefully than it needs to in its attempts to keep me safe. It sees more danger in more places or even just DANGER in all the places. Which brings us back to Dave.
Dave is my hero
Dave, as the personification and externalization of my anxiety, just wants to ensure my safety. He wants to keep me from being eaten. So, rather than standing 1 inch behind me to try and get me, he stands there to guard me. He has my back. My Generalized Anxiety Disorder makes Dave way more active than he needs to be. He needs to spend less time crying wolf and more time sitting in a corner with his coloring books and crayons. But he’s on my team (#TeamDave). He, like my Paladin, is my hero.