Anxiety is a state of mind in which we are subjected to pressure that we don’t really need to be subjected to at all. There is no actual necessity for the pressure we experience in anxiety – it just ‘comes with the territory’. So when I have to attend to any kind of a task at all, the chances are that this huge and unnecessary pressure will suddenly appear out of nowhere and lean heavily on me. I have to do some sort of everyday task (such as going shopping or going for an appointment) and straightaway the pressure appears, like a so-called ‘friend’ who I really don’t want to see, but who turns up all the same.
The idea behind this sort of mental ‘pressure’ is that it supposedly helps us to do whatever we’re doing, or planning to do. The pressure is a highly monotonous message that is saying to us “It’s very important that you do this!” or “It’s very important that you do this right!” Even more simply put, the pressure is saying “You have to do this!” “You have to do this!” “You have to do this!” “You have to do this!” and “You mustn’t get it wrong!” “You mustn’t get it wrong!” “You mustn’t get it wrong!” over and over and over again in a mechanically repetitive way.
Needless to say, this exaggerated emphasis is not helpful at all – far from being helpful it is the exact opposite of helpful. If you are doing some kind of a job and I follow you around yelling in your ear the whole time that it is very important that you do whatever you are doing, that it is very important you do it right, that you mustn’t mess it up, that you have to do it, and so on, then this isn’t going to help you in the least. Far from helping you it is going to make it impossible for you to do what you are trying to do. It is going to jinx you so thoroughly that you just can’t do it at all.
Pressure comes out of the message that you have to do something – the message that there is no choice, the message that you must do it. Pressure is all about forcing, in other words and forcing is ‘the absence of freedom to do otherwise’. Forcing is when we lose our freedom to do otherwise, and so we can say that anxiety is what happens as a result of this loss of freedom. If I knew that I didn’t have to do it, that I was perfectly free not to do it (but that I could do it if I wanted to) then there would be no anxiety. Anxiety comes about as a result of ‘lack of freedom’ and the cure for anxiety is – therefore – to bring back that freedom.
Anxiety is always lack of freedom, and in freedom there is never anxiety!
The thing about anxiety is as everyone knows that there is no one else there putting pressure on us apart from ourselves. There is no one else taking our freedom away from us – we are doing it to ourselves. It is us ourselves who are giving ourselves the endlessly pressurizing message with all the ‘have tos’ and ‘ought tos’ and ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ in it. We are jinxing ourselves. Knowing this doesn’t help us in the slightest however because we can’t help doing it to ourselves. It’s involuntary – it is not subject to conscious control. We don’t seem to have any choice in the matter – it just happens, automatically. We don’t, in other words, seem to have the freedom not to be taking our own freedom away from ourselves.
The basic idea behind putting pressure on ourselves is as we have said that it will supposedly help us to do whatever it is that we are doing. That is the unconscious rationalization (or ‘belief’) behind forcing: the task that I am faced with for some reason seems to me to be overwhelmingly important and so – because it does seem so important – I try to ensure that it is done right, and the way I try to ensure this is by pressurizing myself as much as I can…
PURPOSEFUL VERSUS PLAYFUL
This more-or-less ‘unconscious’ belief – the belief that we have to force ourselves to do things if we are to be sure that they will be done – is not something that is specific to anxiety. We all have this belief in us to some extent or other; this unexamined idea is buried deep down in us and it unfailingly comes out when we are under pressure. A good way to explain this unhelpful tendency is to say that it arises out of a fundamental lack of trust in the spontaneous side of our nature, and a corresponding over-valuation of the purposeful (or directed) side.
Normally, in the sort of relatively unimportant (or perhaps ‘playful’) activities that we might be engaged in we don’t experience any pressure and so our purposeful minds don’t feel the need to come to the fore and hijack the whole show. Because there is no ‘hijacking’ going on life happens naturally – the spontaneous self is left to do its own thing. The purposeful mind is still there, but because the situation is not a stressful one it is somewhere in the background but it is not holding onto the reigns too tightly. When the purposeful mind is not holding the reigns too tightly then the spontaneous mind is free to work without interference, without having to account for itself to its rational overlord. So the spontaneous mind is then free to ‘do its own thing’ as a result of this freedom everything happens harmoniously – without our anxiety-ridden supervision.
The point is therefore that when the purposeful mind ‘gets on top of things’ (so to speak) and insists on taking total control of the situation, then the spontaneous self is left as a result with zero freedom and so it cannot function. It is choked, squashed, flattened, blocked, suppressed, and thus there is no spontaneity.
The way the spontaneous self works is therefore through freedom, whilst the way the purposeful mind works is through ‘lack of freedom’. Thus, when the purposeful mind wants for a process to happen a particular way it takes away all possibilities of the process happening any other way. For example, if I want a marble to roll in one specific direction then I block it from rolling in any other direction – I ‘hem it in’. This generally works very well indeed for mechanical processes (or at least, for a lot of mechanical processes) but it works very badly in the psychological-emotional realm, and the purposeful mind is all too often busy trying to interfere in this domain. This is the same thing as being ‘heavy-handed’ – if I want myself to do something then I order myself to do it, I say to myself that I must do it, I put pressure on myself to do it. Or if I want myself not to do something I say that I must not, I prohibit myself, I deny myself. There are of course instances when this is appropriate and helpful but if I – as is the danger – adopt this approach across the board then this backfires in a dramatic fashion and I discover that I am frozen, incapable of acting in a fluid and effective way, incapable of interacting harmoniously with the world. The harmony is gone and all that is left in its place is graceless and counterproductive forcing.
When the purposeful self ‘takes over’ completely and starts micromanaging everything it does this by only allowing what it sees as necessary to happen and making sure that all other doors are locked and bolted. The freedom for things to happen in their own way is taken away, revoked. Another way of putting this is to say that all ‘free space’ is taken away so that there is only space for things to happen in exactly the way I want them to. The problem with this however is that all the vital psychological processes – such as insight, creativity, empathy, compassion, humour – and what is generally called ‘moving on’ or ‘letting go’) can only happen when they have the space to happen, when there is no ‘dictator’ standing over them the whole time, cracking the whip and barking out orders. The ‘dictator’ in this case is the rational-purposeful mind which is essentially an abstract domain that has no genuine space anywhere in it.
FREEDOM EQUALS ‘UNCERTAINTY’
The reason the rational-purposeful mind has no space in it is because it does not deal in uncertainty, because it does not permit uncertainty. This mind is based on logic and logic is a black-and-white sort of an affair which deals in YES or NO but not in MAYBE’s. Logic is absolutely rigid in this respect – it has no give in it whatsoever and yet – despite how it sees the world – reality itself has lots of give in it, and is therefore full of genuine, honest-to-goodness irreducible uncertainty. Uncertainty is really just another way of talking about freedom – a process is free to go this way or that way (or maybe some other way), it is free to happen in whatever way it is going to and that way is not written down or mapped out in advance. If it was written down or mapped out then it wouldn’t be free.
What we have here therefore is a fundamental incompatibility – the rational-purposeful (or ‘logical’) mind deals in black-and-white categories (i.e. rules about how things may happen) whilst reality is in its essence ‘a wide open space’ in which anything at all is free to either happen or not happen. Once we’re stuck in the purposeful mind, the purposeful self, then there is simply no way – on this basis – that we can find our way back to spaciousness. That isn’t going to happen – space can’t come out of ‘no space’. Freedom can’t come out of ‘no freedom’: all that is going to happen is that I am going to be putting massive pressure on myself for ‘something’ to happen – for some kind of a breakthrough to occur – and it isn’t going to happen, it isn’t going to occur. No meaningful change in my situation is ever going to occur because meaningful (i.e. ‘genuine’) change can only happen when there is the space for it to happen and the purposeful self operates – as we have said – by taking away space.
‘Pressure’ and ‘anxiety’ go hand in hand. This is not to say that wherever there is pressure there is automatically going to be anxiety however because usually when we want something to happen it does (which is to say, ‘when we press the appropriate button then the required result occurs in response’). The general way of things for the purposeful self is that when it puts pressure on itself to do this and do that (i.e. when it orders or instructs itself to do this or that) then the desired outcome comes about as a result – which is of course the whole point of ‘purposeful behaviour’. Purposeful behaviour means that I have an idea of something, I make this idea into a goal, and then I perform the specific sequence of actions that will result in turning this goal into a reality. Generally speaking there is no inherent problem with this golden formula (just so long, as we have said, as it is applied within the domain of ‘mechanical processes’) and because the pressure will – for the most part – get turned into a ‘successful outcome’ I will not experience any anxiety with regard to my regular day-to-day activities.
Where anxiety does come in is when the day-to-day tasks are loaded upon by unconscious factors and seem as a result to have much more ‘hanging on them’ than they should do. Talking about ‘unconscious factors’ tends to sound rather mysterious but it oughtn’t to – all we are really talking about here is the very well-known and thoroughly uncontroversial phenomenon of psychological displacement. Psychological displacement is the result of me ignoring or denying the urgency of something that is happening for me where it is happening, so that the urgency of what I am ignoring gets loaded upon some other area of my life instead. Or as Scott Peck neatly puts it, if I don’t voluntarily attend to my pain where it belongs, then I am compelled to attend to it where it doesn’t belong. [Or as Jung even more neatly puts it, ‘when an inner situation is not made conscious then it happens outside as fate.’]
This displacement principle gives rise to the type of behaviour known as pseudo-solution, which is where I fix (or try to fix) things that aren’t the real problem at all, but which serve as handy surrogates for the real problem. This is such a well-known idea that little in the way of explanation is needed – I know I need to attend to one task but because it is too demanding or too challenging I ignore it and focus instead on something that isn’t so demanding or challenging. I distract myself with trivialities. As a result of pseudo-solution, therefore, I may start taking an interest in all sorts of things, none of which matter anything like as much as I am making them out to. If this psychological tendency develops far enough, the end result is that I am busy all of the time, doing things that don’t really need to be done at all (and even if they really do need to be done, I end up making far more of a big deal of them than is necessary). In a nutshell, what happens as a result of this tendency is that I get caught up in spending pretty much all of my time concerned and preoccupied with stuff that doesn’t really matter to me at all.
It is not hard at this point in the discussion to see where anxiety comes into the picture: the whole ‘displacement process’ works by making things which aren’t hugely urgent seem much more important than they really are and because there is instant relief in this (because I have successfully avoided or distracted myself from he unwanted challenge) it is inevitable that this process will escalate as time goes on. This is, after all, a pretty obvious kind of ‘psychological rule’ – the rule that says that Wherever there is an immediate ‘pay-off’ for a behaviour, then that behaviour will inevitably escalate.
What happens then is that absolutely everything that is genuinely important to me gets ignored, or swept under the carpet, and the area of my life which is made up of the ‘safe stuff’ (the harmlessly trivial stuff) starts to get so heavily loaded upon that everyday life quickly approaches the point of being impossible. My ‘comfort zone’ becomes acutely uncomfortable, in other words. This provides us with a neat definition of anxiety – we can say that anxiety is ‘a systematic failure of our comfort zones’. Our comfort zones used to work, they used to be safe places, but what inevitably happens is that what we have successful ignored in one area starts – sooner or later – to pop up in another area, albeit in a disguised and therefore unrecognizable form.
What happens then is that our comfort zones – the areas of our lives that are made up of convenient pseudo-solutions (i.e. ‘non-challenging concerns’) – become very difficult and very demanding on us. They become overly pressurized – as we have said – so that every little task looms too large, and causes us to go through huge amounts of stress. The stress arises as we have said as a result of two things –  The absolute necessity for a task or job to be done and  The fact that I can’t seem to be able to do it, that I feel incapable of doing it, unable for the task or job.
This is a very curious sort of a thing since the whole point of a comfort zone is that it should be comfortable, just as the whole point of a pseudo-solution is that it should be easy, that it should be fundamentally unchallenging. So what is happening is that the pseudo-solution has become as difficult, as demanding, as the original solution, which obviously defeats the whole purpose of having it! Anxiety is thus a failure of our comfort-zones, a failure of our pseudo-solutions – after all, the ‘comfort zone’ is now highly uncomfortable, and the so-called pseudo-solution is every bit as difficult as the thing which we were trying to avoid (whatever it was).
One way of defining this cataclysmic ‘systems failure’ is to say that all the freedom that we apparently had in our comfort zones goes out of the window and everything becomes nakedly (or blatantly) compulsive. Actually, the comfort zone was always compulsive anyway – it’s just that we never noticed this very important fact because we were always able to obey it. The itch could always be successfully scratched, so to speak. This is the whole idea behind a comfort zone – something needs to be done, some action needs to be taken, but it is easy, it is no challenge, and so I do it without worrying about it in the least. I don’t even hardly notice the task, it’s so easy, and yet – having done it – I then get the rosy feeling of satisfaction or security or validation because I have done it, because I have ‘ticked the box’. This is ‘unconscious living’ in a nutshell. It’s so non-challenging that we hardly even notice it; in fact, it’s so non-challenging that we don’t even have to be there in the driver’s seat. It’s so ‘non-challenging’ that its actually automatic…
Compulsion is of course the very antithesis of freedom, but as we have said when we are able to easily obey the compulsion, and get the reward, then we simply don’t notice that there was actually no freedom involved in the whole process. When the compulsivity actually becomes visible however then this a different story – this puts a different complexion on things entirely. All of a sudden everything becomes an uphill struggle, with no bit of relief anywhere, no bit of a get-out clause anywhere – even the illusion of eventual relief or respite (which has always burned strong up to now) starts to wear thin. And yet we carry on chasing this thin hope, if for no other reason that it’s the only hope we have…
In anxiety the compulsion is of course still there as strong as it ever was, but the sense that we can successfully obey it is gone. The feeling or belief that we can actually satisfactorily fulfill whatever it is we feel we have to do in the first place has long since departed us. It’s all too difficult, it’s all too overwhelmingly and impossibly daunting – every little thing becomes an arduous task that we have to do, and that we don’t actually believe we can do, despite the fact that we keep on struggling. Life becomes ‘one damn thing after another’ and then when we get to the end of the day – and can at last take a break from the wearisome treadmill which is compulsive living – we have nothing to look forward to but another day of exactly the same fare.
What drives us on this treadmill is the very thin hope that when we have got the current task successfully out of the way, then there might perhaps be some blessed period of peace or relief, some shred of respite from the stress of not having the task completed. This seems to be our only chance, our only option. This hope is a cruel illusion however – the longed-for moment of peace never comes. It is always just ‘more of the same’; it is always just the next thing, the next thing, the next thing, and then the next thing after that…
The ‘pressure’ that lies behind anxiety is as we have said lack of freedom – usually we respond to this pressure by trying to ‘do the right thing’, by trying to successfully attain ‘the goal’ (or by trying to successfully avoid the outcome we are afraid of) but when the leash gets too tight we find that we don’t even have the freedom to do this, and so then we’re stuck in a situation of pretty much non-stop pressure, with no realistic prospect of relief. There is a kind of a ‘notional’ prospect of relief that keeps being dangled in front of us, but part of anxiety is knowing that it is never going to be delivered – that we aren’t going to be able to do whatever is necessary to get out of the bind we’re in. We go through the motions anyway – as we have to respond to the pressure – but it’s all just a mockery really, it’s all just an ‘empty façade of trying’ that isn’t backed up by any real confidence. The net result is that we are kept wriggling on a knife edge of anxiety with no prospect of getting off it – and yet we keep on trying to, with absolutely perfect futility.
STRAINING TO BE FREE
What we’re hoping to do with all our futile desperate trying is give birth to freedom – as if lack of freedom could somehow (if it is squeezed enough) give rise to the one thing that isn’t in it. The tactic of ‘taking away all freedom’ from the situation is the only tactic we know, and so we keep on applying it, over and over again. It is or course exactly the wrong thing to do, since it only constricts us all the more, but when we are so badly caught in a tight corner we don’t have the initiative, or the perspective, to come up with anything else. Straining is all we know, even if it only causes us more pain – and so we strain (albeit in a futile, counterproductive way) to try to obtain freedom.
This is a very hard trap to get out of. Even if we see that our constant straining to obtain a result (i.e. to find relief, to fulfill whatever compulsive demands are being placed upon us by the anxiety) is only going to backfire on us and make us feel worse than ever, all we can do about it is try to stop straining. The only option (or strategy) we have open to us is to try to stop straining, but trying not to strain is straining and so we are lost straightway. All we are doing is going around in tight circles – very tight circles indeed.
There is no way stop straining by trying to stop straining, just as there is no way to become peaceful as a result of mental pressure, as a result of ordering ourselves to be peaceful, just as there is no way to become free by ‘taking away our freedom to be unfree’. The way to become free therefore is to start by allowing ourselves the freedom to be unfree, or – to put this another way – by allowing ourselves the freedom to carry on doing whatever it is we are doing, without thinking that we shouldn’t be doing it.
When we observe ourselves being anxious we can see that we are constantly putting pressure on ourselves to achieve this that or the other, or to avoid this, that or the other. There is always the pressure of ‘right and wrong’. We are constantly straining to ‘make things right’ and so everything is about trying to make things be ‘the right way’, and being afraid of things happening ‘the wrong way’. But if we grant permission for things to be the wrong way, then the wrong way is no longer ‘the wrong way’! If we give ourselves back our freedom to be either the right way or the wrong way, then the difference between the so-called right and wrong way disappears. After all, in freedom there is no right and wrong!
When we are anxious everything we do and everything we think comes down to our ongoing frantic attempt to take away our own freedom from ourselves and the freedom we are trying to take away from ourselves is the freedom to be the way that we are. As soon as we see anxiety like this (as our own refusal to grant ourselves the permission to be the way that we are) then it becomes clear that the ‘way out’ from the trap is to give ourselves the permission to be the way that we are, to allow ourselves the freedom to carry on being anxious, and to observe this anxiety of ours in a gentle and ‘allowing’ way.
Only we can give ourselves the freedom to be the way that we are because it was only us who took it away. Only I can give myself permission to be the way that I am.
There is nothing complicated, or clever, or in any way ‘devious’ or ‘tricky’ about this ‘permission-giving’ (which is to say, it has nothing to do with the purposeful or thinking mind which only knows ‘complicated, clever, devious and tricky’). This kind of heart-felt permission doesn’t come from the head, but somewhere deeper.
There is no ‘smartness’ involved here, no cleverness. This not a strategy or a tactic that we need to adopt in order to win some battle; there is no skill or technique involved that we need to learn. The act of ‘giving ourselves permission to be the way that we are’ is not a deliberate strategy but a very simple, straightforward and guileless ‘spontaneous movement’ that comes by itself from deep inside us.
The ‘movement’ we are talking about is the heartfelt and uncomplicated movement of giving ourselves permission to be the way that we are, giving ourselves permission to be in pain, giving ourselves permission to be unfree. As we read in the Tao Te Ching:
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.