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Anxiety and the Enduring Self

How assigning a self to ourselves creates anxiety, and what we may do about it.

Key points

  • Anxiety gains power from people's fear of future consequences that will happen to them.
  • This fear occurs because people assume that their future selves will be the same as their current self.
  • Releasing this notion of a constant "self" could help free people from anxiety.

In my last post, I had promised to "examine how our fundamental conceptions of ourselves—our granting to ourselves the possession of an enduring self—contribute to our anxiety." The time has come to make good on that promise.

The first, and indeed, the primary, concept to unpack above is that of an "enduring self." What are we speaking of here? It is what we refer to when we point to a photograph of a smiling child and say something like, "Wow, I used to be such a cute kid." The "I " being referred to here is the enduring self. Something has endured in the passage of time; it has remained identical with itself. Even though, as we would acknowledge, everything else has changed.

After all, while we do resemble that child in some ways, we have changed in shape, in form, in physical constitution, and in psychological disposition. We don't look, act, or behave like that smiling child; we aren't even made up of the same stuff. But these, according to our ways and manner of speaking, are attributes or properties of some underlying unity or identity: the "I," the "self," the "ego," or the "soul."

Something bears these external attributes; while these attributes may change, the underlying self does not. It remains the same; it endures through time and maintains its identity as the entity to which these attributes may be assigned. Our manner of speaking reflects our commitment to the existence of this entity. After all, I did refer to myself above in the opening sentence of this post, did I not? And you, the reader, are you not similarly committed?

Are you and I not committed to the existence of this entity when we speak of our fortunes, our fame, our losses, our pains, our possessions, and, ultimately, our birth, growth, illness, and death? And so are our social and political systems, our systems of morals, our notions of responsibility and guilt. Our notions of personal identity and responsibility are dependent on the coherence of this concept: a young, slender, beardless man commits a heinous crime at the tender age of 19; 65 years later, we track down an old, grizzled, feeble man confined to a nursing home in a distant land and bring "him," the "person who committed that crime more than six decades ago," to justice.

Everything, as in my example above, has changed. But it is the same person, the same self, so we act and dispense justice accordingly. (Even though, naggingly, we find little to connect the personalities of the younger and older versions of this person.) In acting thus, we claim to have solved the problem of the reidentification of persons—what makes this person at time t1 the same person at time t2?—by deploying the notion of a self that endures through time.

It should be immediately apparent that our commitment to this notion of the enduring self brings anxiety in its wake. When I am anxious, I am anxious about my fortunes, my mistakes, my loss of love, my regrets, and my guilt, whether in the past or the future. As I note in my forthcoming book on anxiety:

We are anxious because we are worried about the fate of a particular thing or object, our self, the precious “I” (the one to whom our body belongs when we say “my body”). It is this self’s losses, its misfortunes, its apprehension of the nothingness that ensues after death that causes our anxiety; it is this self’s fortunes, its gains and fame, that we seek and strive for.

Glibly, if there was no such self, why would we worry about our futures? They will happen to someone or rather something else!

Anxiety is future-directed; as Kierkegaard (with whom we will spend some time in future posts) memorably claimed, "Anxiety is the next day." But we can only be worried or anxious about our future fortunes if, at some fundamental level, we believe they will happen to us, the same self as we are today. Realizing this was a key component of the Buddha's eventual journey to enlightenment; he considered it to be among the most important of the lessons he sought to impart. It was an illusion, an enduring and persistent one (as my language in this post and its title shows), but one we had to free ourselves from if we were to break loose of the suffering that was otherwise our inevitable lot during this short existence.

How could we do so? By following the Eight-Fold Path that the Buddha taught, which includes practices geared toward improving our conduct toward ourselves and others, and by attaining the right kinds of knowledge that dispel our ignorance about what we are. The Eight-Fold Path deserves detailed study (and rigorous adherence) in its own right; for now, I will briefly make a note of two notions that are related to it and which we may commence thinking about and acting on.

First, as the Buddha recommended, we must engage in mindfulness and meditation, in a first-person study of our consciousness, to come to understand how our mind works and how it creates the illusion of an enduring self. The higher-order relationship we attain with our thoughts in this fashion turns us into managers of our emotions and not their hostages. Among them, of course, is anxiety.

Second, we must engage in practices of unselfing: this terminology is due to Iris Murdoch in her The Sovereignty of Good, where she says, "The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion," and urges us to turn our selfish and self-directed gaze away from ourselves toward the contemplation of, and engagement with, nature, works of art, and, I would argue, to the care of others. As we pay attention to other things and beings, we pay less attention to ourselves, finding in this outward-bound attention deliverance from our anxiety.

Most fundamentally, then, to deliver ourselves from "selfish anxiety," we engage in practices that either help us understand ourselves and our natures or that direct our attention outwards, away from ourselves.

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