The Fear Conspiracy: How To Unite With Anxiety

Rethinking our relationship with worry

Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

“I can’t take it anymore,” she stuttered with a broken voice, fighting to hold back her tears.

It’s the beginning of my Monday-night mediation class and we’re all sharing something personal. A minute ago, I shared my wish to be kinder to myself.

There’s an evil whisper in me that’s relentlessly hunting for something that I did wrong, and it only shuts up when it has something to latch on to — some shameful act of mine to confirm its worldview that there can’t be a universe in which Maarten van Doorn hasn’t done anything bad recently. Feeding this voice feels perversely good.

I used to fight that part of me. It’s a mental habit I want to break. My meditation teacher advised me to try to become friends with it instead. I quite like that prospect.

My classmate is experiencing terrible stress for a public speaking gig coming up tomorrow. She thinks her anxiety is a bad thing. She is here to meditate to make that bad feeling go away.

To my surprise, our teacher, bless her heart, expresses her hopes that the speech will be successful.

The lights go out, we breathe, we cleanse our chakra’s (yeah, it’s that kind of meditation), and 45 minutes later she still feels nervous about tomorrow.

“I screwed up this meditation”, she concludes.

Evolutionary Residue

The first step toward eradicating negative emotions is to learn to understand ourselves better.

Often, when I experience anxiety, it’s because I’m afraid of what other people think of me. Indeed, I think that for many of us the angst underneath the nerves is not fear of failure, but fear of ridicule.

This is not weird, because psychological pain is just as real as physical pain.

“The part of the brain that “flares up” when your grandmother prods you with a pair of red-hot tongs is the same as the part that reacts when she stabs at you with a fiery remark.” — Charles Chu

But why does it work like that?

Part of the explanation is that the way others react to us is a much-needed source of self-knowledge:

The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value, as a result of which affliction we tend to allow others’ appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. If they praise us, we develop an impression of high merit. And if they avoid our gaze when we enter a room, we fall into feelings of self-doubt.” — Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

Of course, on some level, we realize that it’s foolish to live like everyone’s opinion is of (equal) importance. But it’s not that simple.

Our irrational paranoia of what other people think of us goes annoyingly deep:

“For your [ancestors who lived in 50.000 BC] almost nothing in the world was more important than being accepted by his fellow tribe members, especially those in positions of authority. Fitting in with those around him and pleasing those above him meant he could stay in the tribe, and about the worst nightmare he could imagine would be people in the tribe starting to whisper about how annoying or unproductive or weird he was — because if enough people disapproved of him, his ranking within the tribe would drop, and if it got really bad, he’d be kicked out altogether and left for dead.” — Tim Urban, WaitButWhy

For the biggest part of human history, social exclusion was a death sentence. Some of our neural machinery still believes the conspiracy theory according to which our fellow primates are capable of bestowing a death sentence on us if we don’t score enough points according to them.

Since they don’t have that power anymore, there is, in fact, no such danger. Our fear of ridicule misfires. It’s a false positive of our lizard brain, mistakenly lighting up our amygdala like a Christmas tree.

This doesn’t mean we ought to simply mute the fear. Ought implies that we can, and I can only dream of having this ability. It does mean, however, that we can confidently refuse to believe the message it aims to convey.

In fact, I believe we should reinterpret the message of fear as a beneficial clue that we’re onto something.

An Unreachable Goal

There are more depressions and burn-outs today than ever. A lot of people feel like they, too, ‘can’t take it anymore’.

I think the reasoning of my fellow chakra-healer (stop laughing) exemplifies a way of thinking that partly explains this epidemic of overwhelmedness. Our attitude towards stress is negative. We see the anxiety itself as a bad thing. Hence, we try to get rid of it, meditating it away.

This stance is unmerited. The stress itself is not the problem. While it has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that it is.

As such, the idea of first making the evil stress disappear and then doing the scary thing gets it backwards.

For one, the method is defective. Trying to control anxiety will always backfire:

When we try to control anxiety, we end up making it worse because we teach our brain to fear itself” — Nick Wignall

My classmate didn’t “screw up” the mediation. The goal she had was impossible. You didn’t screw up if you failed to reach a goal that was unreachable in the first place.

Secondly, the goal should not be to not feel afraid in the first place. The goal should be to feel afraid and then act anyway. Courage is not about being fearless, but about doing it despite shitting your pants.

A Different Attitude Towards Anxiety

I think that this tendency to want to eradicate negative emotions is related to the epidemic of burn-outs and depressions — of people assessing themselves as being unable to ‘take it anymore’.

Because we see anxiety as something that shouldn’t be there, we take it to be an indication that there’s something wrong. And while we interpret negative feelings as experiences not to be had and as signs that something must be amiss, this reading misses the mark. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing these ‘negative’ feelings.

In fact, they are signs of growth.

You cannot move past a boundary without experiencing the discomfort and the resistance. If it feels easy, you’re not growing. Your fear is an indication that you’re approaching your limits.

That’s a good thing.

Don’t make it harder than it needs to be by fighting fear and worry. That will only make them succeed in dragging you down. There’s no need to get uptight about a portion of stress before a big thing that’s coming up. It’s a normal part of the process.

“Sounds nice, Maarten, but this isn’t as easy to practice as you make it out to be.”

Believe me, I know. Let me offer you a meditative insight I had that might be of help.

There’s No Grand Ordering

Courtesy of evolution, we continue to see life as a game with an agreed upon ranking. In reality, there’s no such thing. There are no weekly campfire meetings anymore where everyone’s contribution gets assessed and those who haven’t caught enough prey are ostracized and left for dead.

Our tribe-members are probably still keeping score, but how many points we’ve accumulated in their books doesn’t mean a lot anymore. With the death penalty of unfavorable opinions no longer being a death penalty, we have the freedom to make sure that our ideas of success are our own.

Life only has one scorecard, and it’s an internal one. In the 21st century, life has become a single-player game. It’s not a game we play to win, but a game we play to keep on playing, to enjoy and to keep exploring. In this game, you don’t have to do anything. The only rules are self-imposed.

So to check whether you’re sailing the right course, build your personal compass.

The Takeaway

I’ve tried to convince you that a little anxiety should not be taken as an invitation to “question how rock-solid our world is, and whether the whole thing is stable as we hope, or could come crashing down”, as Kris Gage writes.

To end, I want to highlight the point.

In identifying the signal-value of fear, I don’t mean to be romanticizing it. In fact, I think that if you find yourself sailing through one storm after the other, your compass is probably broken:

If doing anything brings you more anxiety or unease or worry or stress or anything negative than it brings you happiness and peace of mind and comfort and security and whatever else you’re looking for, then you’ve overcomplicated it.” — Kris Gage

You are free and you are free right now.

There is no one in the entire world who can condemn you. You yourself are the only person who does that — and pointlessly. In reality, there is no condemnation, but as long as you think there is, you ache.

That was the insight.


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