What Does Stephen Colbert’s Lifelong Anxiety Say about Our Self-Esteem?

What Does Stephen Colbert’s Lifelong Anxiety Say about Our Self-Esteem?


Anxiety is a crisis of confidence.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, superstar comedian Stephen Colbert revealed that he has experienced panic attacks since childhood.

He compared his inner sensations to those of an overheated car. Even after using medications, Colbert said, “I could feel the gearbox heating up and smoke pouring out of me.”

He called his condition anxiety.

He didn’t call it low self-esteem.

But anxiety is low self-esteem, compressed into some of its most intense physical and mental symptoms.

Whether it’s sleepless nights before every exam or one quick twinge after bumping into strangers on an elevator, anxiety always boils down to insecurity.

When we feel anxious, we feel threatened — not always on the conscious level — by people, circumstances, thoughts or even sounds. Body parts such as the heart, gut and amygdala whose job is to warn us of danger leap into action, and within nanoseconds we obediently react as if we're being chased, assailed, besieged. As if we’re being tested and our status, sanity and/or survival are at stake.

And we fear that we’ll fail.

This is anxiety: a thick, sickening sense of danger we feel powerless to manage, much less overcome. It is a racing, hormone-pumping, emergency-warning state that steered our prehistoric ancestors away from predators and poisons and which now screams at us Danger! Run! even in the apparent safety of our offices, classrooms and cars.

Colbert described spending his younger days walking panic-stricken in “tight circles around the couch.” Early in his career, “I would curl up in a ball on the couch backstage,” virtually frozen while awaiting his cues.

For most of us who aren’t actually in war zones, our daily dangers are far less glaringly obvious than those our ancient predecessors faced. We cannot simply spot the tiger, flee or fight. Instead, we look around while panicking — maybe not even knowing why — and see only our peers appearing calm, functioning normally.

This makes us yet more anxious: panicked not only by whatever first triggered us but also by the isolating shame of being frozen into terror by something we might not even be able to specify or name.

When we are anxious, we feel helpless. Useless. Freakish. Childish. Lonely. Cowardly.

Anxiety is a crisis of confidence.

Anxiety is the belief that we cannot meet challenges, that any moment we will, through our own incompetence, blunder or die. This is another way of describing low self-esteem.

And in those moments when we are gripped by anxiety, its symptoms make us hate ourselves yet more. We lash out at ourselves for “acting infantile,” for "letting this happen again," for being “weak” or “crazy,” for — however hard we’ve tried — not being “cured.”

Self-hatred squared. Lose-lose.

Examining the rise and fall of his own panic, Colbert realized that upon hearing his cues backstage, “I would uncurl and go onstage and I’d feel fine.” He remembers telling himself, onstage, “Oh, you feel fine when you’re out here.”

That’s when he realized: “Oh my God, I can never stop performing. Creating something is what helped me from just spinning apart like an unweighted flywheel.”

“And I haven’t stopped since. ... I have to perform.”

Most of us aren’t in the position of being able to perform regularly before wildly enthusiastic audiences measuring in the millions. But we all have at least one thing that makes us hate ourselves less.

Activities. People. Places. Realms which, once we place ourselves inside them, make us feel more normal, natural, accepted, alive, active, confident. In those realms, we barely recognize our frozen-or-fighting anxious selves.

For some, this realm might be sports. Or music, heard or performed. It might be hard work, wilderness, algebra, animals. For me it’s drawing. Give me a pen and I’m not the panicked hypochondriac you always knew. I’m not.

These passions might not permeate our day jobs or careers. But we should make them into practices, doing them daily if we can instead of half-forgetting them or saving them as rare rewards. We should consider them a kind of medicine.

This will not end anxiety. But reconnecting regularly with our calmer, truer selves, even in fifteen-minute stretches, can quell the raging self-hatred that lengthens panic attacks. If a medicine could do that, wouldn’t you take it?

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