Authentic Engagement

A radical way of being.

The Anxiety of Being

How do you relate to your anxiety?

Anxiety is often looked at as the enemy in our culture. The goal is to get rid of it, or at the least, to tone it down. Often it is associated with being neurotic. Woody Allen has made a career portraying the anxious neurotic that we can all laugh at. There is a cultural conditioning that says, something is wrong with you if you get too anxious. This same conditioning tells us that anxiety needs to be eliminated. The aim is to be cool, calm, and collected, like the archetype of a martini-sipping James Bond.

I want to point out that being human, by its very nature, has to include anxiety. We always live in the unknown. We know that we are going to die. There are always choices we have to make in our life in order to make meaning and there is not one inherent choice to make. There is no ultimate answer. All of this is anxiety provoking as it is part of our human condition. Thus, the challenge is how we incorporate the inherent anxiety of being so that we live the most optimal life.

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It is not a matter of anxiety being bad or good. It is your relationship to your anxiety that is important.

If you try to avoid anxiety at all costs, your world will shrink. By avoiding all situations where you might feel anxious, you create a life that is so safe that it is stifling. There will be a flatness to your existence. You will be going through the motions of your life. By not taking risks, you will be missing out on experiencing a richness of life. An antidote to this restriction is discovering that you can tolerate more anxiety than you thought you could.

For example, you are anxious about having to share your opinions in class because you are afraid of what others will think of you. You’ve taught yourself to keep your mouth shut. The price you pay is not engaging with your classmates or professor. As a consequence, you can feel lonely or isolated, and your grades may suffer. One possible course of action to increase your tolerance of anxiety is to risk answering a question. Then, give yourself credit that you took the risk. That is the victory. I believe that often you will receive positive responses and your daily life will feel richer as you start letting yourself be known.

If you feel you are being overwhelmed by your anxiety, your world also shrinks. In this case, rather than dealing with your anxiety by avoiding it, you feel an inability to control the anxiety. It feels impossible to be still or centered.

For example, you obsess and spin out on all the negative case scenarios that can happen in your life. It is as if what you are anxious about has already occurred. You won’t get that job you wanted, and then you will never get any job. You spiral further down the rabbit hole of worst case scenarios.

If you are over-identified with your anxiety it is difficult to maintain a centered perspective. In order to gain more control, an antidote is to see that you are more than your anxiety.

Roberto Assagioli, a prominent psychotherapist who developed psycho-synthesis, has a dis-identification exercise. He encourages clients as part of the exercise to acknowledge: I have my anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.

I am not minimizing those who are overwhelmed by anxiety, who are dominated by it and need relief. In addition to Assagioli’s work, some forms of relaxation techniques or meditation can be helpful in calming one’s anxiety down to a manageable level.

A healthy relationship with your anxiety is possible when you have enough distance between your anxiety and the rest of your identity.

No matter which of these types of relationships you have with your anxiety, the aim is to discover an authentic relationship with your anxiety where it does not underwhelm you or overwhelm you. Anxiety is a part of being human. It is how we relate to it that makes the difference whether or not we have a rich existence.

Bob Edelstein, L.M.F.T., M.F.T., is an existential humanistic psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon.

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