Anxiety is so close to me, sometimes it feels like a friend.
I mean, not a good one — more like one of those toxic, soul-sucking relationships you try every which way to fix but just can’t seem to get right. It’s a jigsaw puzzle I can’t finish, a maze where my deepest, darkest fears come true. Anxiety is a game I can’t beat no matter how much I study it. It’s very “the call is coming from inside the house,” because quite frankly, it is.
I’ve never had a problem knowing what I like, or what I want, but I’ve always had a problem being nice to myself. It’s guilt that creeps in when I’m midway through a manicure or haircut, whispering that I’m not worth fun-money. I’m not worth leaning into treat yourself! culture. Spending $50 on a manicure, something that lasts two weeks? A waste. Every time I’d look down at my hands, the pang of regret is there: I could’ve bought groceries. I could’ve put that money toward paying off my credit card debt. I’m reckless, I’m irresponsible, I’m an idiot. I don’t deserve nice things.
Regardless of how good the process or the final product made me feel, swiping my card at the end drained me. Every bit of joy flies away never to be seen again. The guilt springs from past trauma that feels like it’s always been with me. It’s guilt that my mother instilled in me — unknowingly — because bitch, you guessed it, her mother instilled it in her. Generational trauma is angry creature who takes no prisoners. She’s tough as nails; and, for as long as I can remember, she’s been stronger than me. But mostly, the guilt manifests as anxiety.
Anxiety is this daily battle in my brain, a self-fulfilling prophecy like a train I saw coming from miles away, but still couldn’t step off the tracks to avoid. I feel both relief and shame; sure, I saw it coming — I was right, and I love being right — but at what cost? I spent so long navigating life with the blinders of abuse and fear, assuming everyone else felt the same way I did. But dismantling my guilt and anxiety became a focus of mine as soon as I realized how easily other people do nice things for themselves, guilt-free. How I can walk into a salon with a friend and see her leave a whole new person, full of confidence and radiating straight up bad bitch energy?
I deserve that feeling. We all do.
My most successful self-soothing practice to combat my guilt and anxiety is something I developed in my late teens, when I was at my wealthiest — or most broke — stage of life, depending how you look at it. I’d just boarded a one-way flight to Southern California. I was leaving behind the unhealthy household of my childhood, and I was a blank slate, ready to become a new woman, eager for any part of me to be set on fire again. So I accepted a part-time job at a popular beauty brand who touted ethical practices and sought salvation in beautiful soap and a minimum wage paycheck. Finally, I had everything I thought I wanted, an environment that was physically safe and filled with people who seemed to have the same desire to belong to something bigger than themselves.
But, of course, a few short months couldn’t mitigate a lifetime filled with the constant fight-or-flight instinct to look over my shoulder at any second. The sinking feeling that I hadn’t really gotten away hung heavy in my stomach. I still felt so empty. Plus, my bank account balance was typically so low that I dreaded even looking at it. Add to all that the fact that I was still living on my uncle’s futon. Even so, I was hungry for so much more.
Realizing I was now the captain of my own ship shook something deep within me. So even though I couldn’t really afford to not save every dollar I made, at that point, getting something, anything, for myself that wasn’t strictly need-based felt like the biggest act of defiance. And so, Hot $20 was born.
Hot $20 is a baseline concept centered around being purposely frivolous, the way American Mall Culture programs us all to be. It currently takes the form of a long walk around the Americana mall in Glendale, usually accompanied by a soft pretzel. I allow myself to spend $20, sometimes a *little* more and sometimes a *little* less, on literally whatever I want in that moment. Sometimes it’s candles from Anthropologie , other times it’s a fancy lip balm from Sephora. It’s a fuck you to the concept of being frugal, within the confines of someone who is still very much bound by that practice.
By starting small and dedicating myself to only spend $20 at a time, I’m working to shift my brain’s idling mode from negativity into a gear where I believe I’m completely deserving of small kindnesses like this. And eventually, larger ones, too. I’m learning to be gentle with myself and to accept that unlearning behaviors I adopted — quite literally, to keep myself alive — is going to take some time. I’m learning that I don’t need to be so strict with myself, my hard-earned money, and even my time. Bottom line? I’m learning.
Coping Mechanism is an attempt to learn more about how other people handle these issues, based on my observation of the growing social emphasis on self-care and self-soothing. Historically, self-soothing was a term reserved for babies, a process during which tiny, brand new humans begin to figure out that crying won’t always get them what they want. But in 2019, the function can just as easily be applied to grown humans. Methods of self-soothing can be self-taught, they can be picked up in therapy, they can be passed on from a loved one, or, if you’re anything like me, they can be something you learned watching Queer Eye while drunk at 2 AM. These small, healthy practices to help calm anxiety can be almost anything, really.
Discussing Hot $20 with others has opened my eyes to a whole entire world full of these self-soothing practices, and future iterations of this column will be interviews focused on other humans who are cool, creative, forward-thinking, special, and have developed a care practice of their own. Consider this column a deep dive into the things we do to make the world a little sweeter, easier, and easy to swallow. We’re all navigating the world and we’re all, well, coping.