The Root Cause of Anxiety and How to Eliminate It
Why do most people become overly anxious around those that they’re attracted to? Here is the quick and dirty answer:
We have subconsciously developed an idealized image of our perfect selves starting from early childhood. Each image is meant to protect us from a reality that we couldn’t comprehend. When we are faced with even the most remote possibility of a rejection, this idealized self is under the threat of being “found out.” The inner child from within hangs onto this idealized image as a safety blanket, so when the blanket is being tugged away subconscious anxious reactions take complete hold of our emotions.
If that explanation feels wrong to you, then that’s because there are so many details I glossed over. It’s the details that make the difference between our great ambitions in life and being paralyzed by fear in the face of our moments of truth.
To explain this difference, I have to break down the entire human growth process to pinpoint where it all went wrong for most of us. It’s at these precise points that a tiny transformation of our brain’s most powerful features ended up being used to subvert its own development–just like how a tiny difference makes a virus look like a protein strain to our cells. The “devil” is really in the details, which I will explain further.
Based on the book “Neurosis and Human Growth” by psychologist Karen Horney that Andrian recommended to me recently, and other books that cover the subject from many different perspectives, an idea is starting to form in my mind about how these anxieties started to form. This is a special topic to me since I’ve always wondered why I had this strange and intense feeling.
For years, I thought I was the only one who had them. After associating myself with different men from various disciplines, I came to understand that every man on earth has them. I also realized that it’s not a natural pathological disorder. It’s developed in each man due to cultural, psychological and societal trends.
Despite these external forces, a few men are immune to them. Why? And how do they get them to dissipate? The answer to this question is probably the key to long-term happiness in life and romance.
Disclaimer: This is only a theory based on my experiences and readings. I believe however that it holds some special powers in being able to change my life and yours.
To note, a few books influenced this theory. Some influenced it in more concrete ways than others. However, you’ll find that reading these books yourself will provide you with the tools necessary to make real, impacting, long-term changes in your life. The books are:
- “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden.
- “No More Mr. Nice Guy” by Robert Glover.
- “Neurosis and Human Growth” by Karen Horney.
Eliminate Anxiety – How It’s Supposed to Be: The Normal Growth of the True Self
While growing up – with strong models and an increasing sense of efficacy to the real world around us – our imagination propels us into the open world. In this world, we learn that we can use our mental processes to break down problems and define the realities around us.
The world was full of challenges and dangers, but it was also full of wonders and life. From this, we develop a relationship with reality and ourselves. As we grow, our understanding of reality and the ability to shape it increases. Consequently, we are more compelled to challenge ourselves to seek a deeper connection to reality. It is a reciprocal relationship.
Think of a child learning to play with a new toy. He is so involved in figuring out how it works that he forgets what other people are instructing. He’s aware that they are talking to him, but he’s just choosing not to pay attention. For him, figuring things out for himself is more important than being told what to do.
If this process is allowed to mature to its full form, this child becomes a curious teenager and then a spontaneous person. His imaginations would allow him to apply his curiosity toward discovering his world and his capabilities.
This is not to say that he can do it all by himself. Strong role models are needed to show him how to stay out of trouble, overcome obstacles, be courageous in the face of fear, and be responsible for his actions.
These role models would guide him and provide the foundations which he can use as a launching pad. However, if the role models are less than ideal, or completely lacking, a man is likely to adapt external subtle fear-based messages that cause him to form self-limiting beliefs.
Interfering Forces: How False Beliefs Are Formed and Passed On
Several things could go wrong in the ideal growth process. These things cause a man’s curiosity and attachment to the reality to be agitated. I will generalize three distinct sources of information (or misinformation) that could cause a person to become fearful of reality instead of embracing it.
1. Parental subtle messages.
2. Cultural biases caused by his non-nuclear family and friends.
3. The media that he is exposed to while growing up.
In short, a strong set of models is required to show the child the polarity between the masculine and feminine and how they work together to promote growth and conflict resolution. The male model is important for a boy and the female model for a girl.
From here, researchers diverge on whether or not enough love or too much love affects the child’s anxiety. Some say that being over attentive to a child’s needs causes him to have attachment issues. Most say that not being attentive at all causes these issues.
The psychologist Karen Horney suggests that it is the subtle messaging of whether his needs matter to the parents that ultimately sets him on the path towards security or anxiety. The parents may be very attentive to the child, but if they do not communicate that they care about his needs, only to get him to silence, then the child might start to go down the reality-evasive path.
The next set of influences come from the child’s general environment. This is where specific cultural biases from his peer group, other family members, and community might cause him to embrace reality or deny it.
For example, if belonging is valued much more over mastery of skills, then the child will start to abandon acquiring life skills in the quest for superficial social skills. The difference here is the set of values that the child is deriving from his early life. These values might be based on a distorted sense of reality, leading to a distorted sense of self, or based on the appreciation of reality, which leads to a unique self. It will also be the values that drive him in later parts of his life, consciously or subconsciously.
Lastly, the media plays a bigger role in shaping our perception of reality than we’d like to admit. The media has the power to promote and demote values straight to our most vulnerable perception areas, piercing even the most protective parental techniques.
We learn by watching our favorite heroes save the world and smoothly getting the girls. Our heroes are not without some flawed agenda, however. They promote their idealized values, and we’re too eager to consume what we see without a second thought.
As a side note, I need to stress out that my previous comment on developmental psychology has mainly to do with focus. As most of us are aware, it takes an intense amount of focus and determination for us to gain meaningful cognitive abilities and skills that become second nature after a while.
However, our parents, our cultural environments, and the media all play a huge part in breaking up this focus rather than strengthening it. Except for the very lucky few who had a good direction, not finding a true passion early on in life means that we are forever floating from one trend to the next, not knowing where to establish and choose ourselves.
The Devil Is in the Details: The Mind’s Most Powerful Weapons Misused
The human mind is gifted with powerful tools that the rest of the animal kingdom doesn’t have. Humans have imagination, pride, and social recognition abilities so that he not only adapts to his environment, but they are also motivated to shape it according to their will. Yet these tools are like double-edged swords that can cut their owners if not used appropriately and skillfully.
They can be used to sever a person’s connection to reality instead of bringing him closer to it. They cause him to self-destruct instead of self-construct. I’ll go over three of these tools and how they are misused.
Imagination is the simulator that we all need to visualize possible life scenarios to better equip ourselves mentally to deal with them. Imagination, when tied to strategic planning and a set of actions, is one of the most powerful tools we have. It can be used to prevent undesirable outcomes or bring about desirable ones. However, when we feel trapped in impossible situations, we use our imagination as an escape from our realities.
This process can get very complex, depending on how strong our idealized self is compared to our actual self. The key difference is the set of actions that imagination triggers. If you are truly motivated by imagination to act boldly and relentlessly, then it’s working for you. If you feel that daydreaming about one day having super powers that you don’t yet have is enough for you to feel better, then it’s working against you.
In effect, by misusing imagination, we sell out the acceptance of reality and all its spontaneous adventures, ups and downs, and polarities. We sit back and create a fantasy world for us to comfortably retreat to. It is a cocoon that keeps us safe from the unknown, but like an eggshell that never breaks, it keeps us from growing in any meaningful way. If we don’t connect our imagination to how we can change our realities, it runs amok and creates scenarios too scary for us to bear. Fearful of a future that most likely won’t exist, we create an alternate world to hide into.
Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, is actually a strong motivator and a feedback mechanism for us to relentlessly continue down an arduous path of growth and self-actualization. When used correctly, pride rewards us for taking meaningful actions to promote and protect our values. We are supposed to tie our pride to our actions, which we can control, instead of our outcomes, which extraneous forces can impact. Pride is supposed to reward us for taking great risks and do the best to our knowledge and capabilities.
However, if we maintain and worship an idealized self, then we use our pride to protect this image instead of our true values. We take pride in things that don’t have very intrinsic deeper values. We take pride in trivial matters, materialistic possession, and outcomes that we can’t control. This pride can only be validated externally, so we are forever condemned to chase a ghost that only grows larger. There is not one materialistic thing or a status that will satisfy this pride. There is always something more to chase, and something more to be disappointed about. This is when pride is sinful.
Complexes are psychological signals within us that originate from a perceived lacking in life. A person with a Hero-complex, for instance, pursuits constantly the honor, integrity, courage, and initiative that a hero would bring to the community/organization that he is a part of. He imagines himself as the savior who brings these values.
Although psychologists believe that complexes are generally bad for us to develop and maintain, I believe that they are born out of a good intention. After all, the lack of value that complexes signal to us, albeit real or imaginary, must be dealt with. If it is imagined, then it must be proven to be so. If it is real, then we must effectively create these values.
We are meant to perceive these lacks and develop assets and strategies to overcome them within our true selves. If we have an inferior complex, then we have to see why we don’t measure up and truly be on the same level with others. If we have a superior complex, then we have to determine what we can do to see our values realized in others.
From an evolutionary standpoint, I believe that complexes are good for us since they are just information. Since no information is bad information, how we perceive and act on it is what makes the difference.
The combination of learned helplessness and the need to live in the eyes of others is deadly. It causes us to turn to the idealized self as the enabler for what we wish it could be instead of developing it in ourselves.
Now you are probably starting to get the pattern of how having an idealized self and a penchant to escape from reality cause us to misuse our most powerful mental processes. Karen Horney refers to this selling out of our potentials for seemingly instant unlimited powers as the pact with the devil (so the devil really is in the details).
This is where the details matter. Having an idealized self is not necessary a bad thing. It’s the learned helplessness that we acquire that causes us to over-invest in this false identity full of super powers. So the way out of purgatory is not to abandon these tools, but to use them to actualize our true self’s potentials.
Self-Alienation – the Complete Resignation to the Idealized Self
Before we can talk about the road out of the jungle, we have to talk about the prison that we put our minds in. This prison, although subconscious and imaginary, becomes very real when we come in contact with situations that require us to act boldly, spontaneously, and dynamically. We are paralyzed by our own fear of the loss of idealized self. Instead of showing our true colors, which are vulnerable and attractive, we bump into the wall of bullshit excuses.
This prison is called self-alienation. Self-alienation is the complete abandonment of our true values in place for falsified values and beliefs. We know that these values are not true and not our own if even when we achieve them, we don’t feel any happier. If anything, we feel sad and disappointed, but we continue to chase larger versions of these values in hope that their larger versions will bring us the happiness we want.
The process of self-alienation is ultimately self-destructive since it creates layers of false beliefs about a man’s reality (the claims) and himself (the shoulds). Karen Horney discusses much more on these false beliefs and how they manifest in her book in detail. I won’t go in-depth into them. I will just mention that you must work to identify these claims and shoulds in your thinking every day and eliminate them ruthlessly.
To reverse the processes of self-alienation, the answer is fairly obvious. We must get in touch with our true selves again. Although this sounds nebulous, our true selves are always within us. What is required is that we go back to those moments in our childhood when we were excited about our minds and reality.
Those moments cause us to become more curious, conscious, purposeful, and true to our unique values. This is the journey that most men like me who have gotten so lost must partake in. This journey requires consciousness, work, pain, commitment, courage, and most importantly, the deepest compassion for oneself.
The payoff of this journey, as many will attest, is a sense of unshakable confidence in one’s true self. No matter what happens, the realization of one’s deepest values and potentials is all that counts to the self in the end. This is the process of self-discovery.
Self-Discovery – A Person Is Never Lost If He Is Still Looking
“Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
– Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
If the journey down the devil’s path was paved with bad mental habits and learned helplessness to escape from reality, so it is that the journey back to becoming an integrated man requires a set of good mental habits and a self-belief that unknown can always be conquered with the right mindset.
The actualization of the spontaneous, dynamic, curious, and perennially calm self takes nothing less than looking deep in oneself with compassion and courage to abandon all defense mechanisms protecting the idealized self.
This strategy is a two-pronged approach: you must accept the inner child that needed the idealized self in the first place, and at the same time, develop the adult self, which is capable of coping with reality.
Accepting the inner child is a counter-intuitive solution since your instinct is probably to try to get the idealized self out of your head as much as possible. But armed with complex defense mechanisms and entrenched deep in your psyche, he will find ways to elude you. He will fight your conscious efforts tooth and nail when you challenge yourself to act boldly. The answer to this is to go back in time, so to speak, and relive the moments that caused you to develop this idealized self.
Hand in hand with your inner child/teenager/young-adult, you will rationalize why you felt like you needed super-human powers in the first place. You will see that the person inside simply felt helpless to act in some impossible situation. Instead of understanding reality as it really was, he internalized the destructive self-doubt within himself and wished that he had more power. This is when the idealized self started to take shape.
Developing the adult self shows the inner child that you are not helpless. You were simply afraid or you didn’t have enough knowledge and capability at the time. By taking bold actions, you develop a deep and true sense of efficacy with respect to reality as it is and not as you wish it to be.
Nathaniel Brandon’s book “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” covers this process thoroughly. The focus here is the self. By establishing your true values, living consciously to realize them, being responsible for them, being purposeful, and sticking to your integrity, the self starts to actualize. He develops a internalized sense that he matters to himself, perhaps more than anyone or anything in the world. This is where true self-esteem comes from.
Slowly but surely, the idealized self starts to lose his raison d’etre. With his legs taken out from underneath him, he starts to fall away. He makes a cameo here and there from time to time, but he becomes mostly invisible. The inner child no longer needs him. He has the adult actualized self to carry him through any challenge in life. He feels protected and secure by himself. He is tempted to take on greater and greater risks, not for the thrill of it, but to achieve the desires and values that truly bring him happiness.
The wondrous thing about self-esteem is that it is always rebuilding. It is the mind’s psychological immune system. It is only in a man’s search for glory, chasing his idealized self, that self-esteem suffers. This fruitless pursuit is like a smoking addiction that causes a person to develop neurotic impulses and random bouts of anxiety. However, just as soon as a person starts to heal himself through righteous actions and healthy mental habits, his mind starts to honor its existence and reality again.
“‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.”
– Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
As Dr. Nathaniel Branden states in his book, anxiety, and depression is a state of disassociation from the self and reality. Anxiety is fear of a future that is unknown, and depression is dread of the past that is unchangeable. Amazingly, when the self comes forth and finds room in this world, anxiety reduces exponentially. It is replaced by a sense of groundedness in reality. The world is not on your side and it doesn’t have to be.
Your mind, as long as you train it to work for you every moment of your life, will reward you with the most spontaneous gifts than you can imagine. But to be able to realize these gifts you must give yourself the gift of true self first. Lacking this you will forever feel unworthy and inappropriate in life. You will chase a shadow that comes back to haunt you in the face of life’s biggest challenges.
At times, when these anxieties and challenges are too much for you to bear, when life runs you over like a tank, that’s when the gift is shown to you. Like Dr. Robert Glover put it in “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” if you look at these moments as “what if it is a gift?”, then you will truly see that it is one of the greatest things you can realize. Reality has a way of connecting to your true self.
When your defense mechanisms seem inadequate to protect you from the glaring facts of life, your true self will pace forth. Perhaps, just like me, you need a rude awakening from reality. Until then, you will continue to live through others’ eyes instead of your own.
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