States of Anxiety

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Paul Hayward

States of Anxiety

Posted by Paul Hayward 485 Days Ago

States of Anxiety

This was prompted by something a client said to me the other day.

We were speaking of their anxiety; their understanding of the causes of it, the effects of it on their life and what they (I will use an anonymous ‘they’ to protect their identity) had been doing to cope with it throughout their life. They had considered many ideas, but they were all, in a sense, internal and individual to them. What about a cultural, societal level, I suggested? They had not considered it. Perhaps you have not, either? In any case, here are some thoughts on this idea, some I claim as my ’own’ but owing varying degrees to thinkers throughout the centuries.

We don’t live in a ‘vacuum’. We’re all impacted upon by (and in turn help to create) pressures: look better, do better, be better... if you follow this diet this will happen, buy this to make your life better, if you work hard you will succeed, and so on. These pressures are maintained by beliefs such as (in a Gatsby-like fashion, but without bearing in mind his final fate) “You can be anyone you want to be, do anything you want to do... if you put your mind to it.” Yes, work harder, play harder- can you feel the pressures rising in you as you read those words? But what if, what if you are not doing better (you think), what if you are not as good as you could be? What if you could be, should be, more?

Welcome to the state of anxiety. As Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Man is condemned to being free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does (Existentialism is a Humanism). In former times, I could have attributed who I am, what I do, to some extent in ‘God’. But when belief in a ‘higher power’ leaves the mainstream of a society (as Nietzsche prophetically exclaimed, “God is dead!”) then I am responsible for everything I do and, even worse, I am responsible for everything I do not do. Without a religion, a faith or a creed I am alone, captain of my fate, master of my destiny, responsible for everything in my life. If only I’d studied harder, worked harder, saved harder!

Or perhaps it’s fate. Life can be so cruel! No I am helpless before the world, before my destiny! In this way, perhaps ‘fate’ is like ‘God’ without the ‘God’ to appeal to? Then I feel an increased helplessness, because there is no-one, no thing to help. Increased anxiety?

Except. Except, it’s not true, is it? The limits of my responsibility are my ability to respond (respond + ability being the root of the word ‘responsibility’ as Rollo May pointed out in “Freedom and Destiny”.)  Maybe tomorrow I will lose my job because my company is closing. Am I responsible for the finances of ‘my’ job, ‘my’ company, ‘my’ country, ‘my’ world?

I think our English language confuses us and traps us here. It is not ‘my’ company, country or world, is it? No, all those ideas/concepts/things are not entirely, exclusively ‘mine’. But I feel responsible. I feel responsible beyond my ability to respond. I feel anxious. My societal beliefs are that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. So, if I am ‘failing’ (in my terms, at whatever I am trying to do) then the failure must be mine- I am not being all I can be.

Except that I am. I am being the best I can be now. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day I’ll be ‘better’ (at whatever it is I think/feel I should be better at) but for today, for now, I am good enough just as I am. I am the best ‘me’ I can be, having lived my life and made my choices in the time I am living in. And when I can accept that, when I can feel that, it is as though anxiety has less of a grip to gain a hold ‘in me’.

If only it were that simple. But, as Humberto Maturana (a Chilean Biologist and Systemic thinker) pointed out, “No living organism can affect another instructively”. In other words, I can’t say “Relax” to you and you relax. People don’t work like that. But what people can do is listen to others and be affected by and with them. They can witness, even share to an extent, another’s pain. One person’s presence can reassure another: you are not alone. One person, one trusted person, or a group of people can provide the space you need to find yourself, find your views, your opinions, your values- you.

Heidegger stated (in ‘Being and Time) that the ‘They’ (as in “They say”), or the ‘One’ (as in “One should”), is only a possibility, but we can give up our freedom to act by saying that we act according to popular opinion, custom or law. In doing this, we earn some relief from the stress of freedom but pay for it with the anxiety of not living for ourselves, not living as ourselves.

In trying to live our lives how we think we should (or, better, how we think other people think we should) we are anxious. It’s not really us acting, the anonymous ‘eye’ of Big brother, of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, of ‘society’ is always watching us, policing us we feel. No wonder we are anxious- we could betray ourselves, our true selves, at any time. Perhaps after some time we can even forget who we ‘really’ are, what we really want- isn’t it safer, easier that way?

Or we could become ourselves, in Carl Rogers’ terms, “Be the you that you truly are”. Because, you see, there is no ‘all seeing eye’ watching us. There is only you and you and you and I watching each other. Perhaps it would be easier (and healthier) for ourselves if we tried accepting each other as we are and not who we think we should be. There is a Greek word agape “to greet with affection” or “brotherly love” which seems to me to fit here. In other words, what if we tried loving each other instead? What if I love me (as me) you love you (as you) and we love each other (as we are). What if we became a caring, accepting society? What do you think might happen to states of anxiety then?

These are just some fairly random thoughts from a fairly random person. But I truly believe that if I accept myself as I am (knowing I can be better in every way but knowing I am as good as I can be now) I feel less pressure from ‘society’, from ‘They’, from The One, from others. I feel less anxiety. And you?