Reframing anxiety: a path to self-creation

Credit. Harmony. Michael Lang, Artist

by Edward Reid



 “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”  Henry David Thoreau 


Perhaps you have heard this or know Thoreau’s work. Maybe this strikes a chord with you as you live what seems like the same day over and over. A life of safety passed down to you. A life like this may or may not be the right way for you. The only way one will know is by making dissimilar choices. Maybe it’s creating the opportunity to allow for a different choice to be made.

Walking the same path, doing the same thing each day for a person maybe what they choose for the stability and reliability found in the same daily routine. Is there such a thing as reliability in sameness? Things around us change. We adapt or maybe we think that one day we will find meaning or purpose in what we do, although we are dissatisfied. It’s as if something will change one day affecting us in a positive way without effort on our part, assuming we expect a positive change.

What is holding people back from making changes so that one day they are not on their deathbeds full of regret? What is it that hinders us from making choices?

Some people may wake up in the middle of the night petrified about this but then tuck that away into the back of their minds and go back to sleep. Yet it’s always there, eating them away.

One of our most significant barriers is a word everyone knows well today, anxiety. This has burdened humanity since the dawn of time and challenged humans to make choices…or not. Today this word is used with much negativity, but maybe we could reframe it and use it differently.

“How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking but by doing. Try to do your duty, and you will know what you are worth at once.” Goethe

Anxiety is in large part based on thinking and the perception of the physical world around us. We are bombarded with “noise” from external sources affecting our thoughts. Do we over think? Does that thinking paralyze us as individuals and as societies? Anxiety that creates inertia is not suitable for military commanders and is not good for business leaders. I don’t think it’s suitable for anyone, and there are ways to overcome this.

I believe there are anxiety levels that should be dealt with psychiatrically. Still, overprescribing medicine appears common in my experience. The alternatives? I have found mindfulness discipline as a coping tool and averting being doped into living a life of drugged monotony. The tools used depend on the person. My objective is clarity of self-worth.

“The distinctive characteristic of the human being,” wrote Rollo May “in contrast to the merely vegetative or the merely animal, lies in the range of human possibility and in our capacity for self-awareness of possibility. Kierkegaard sees man as a creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and carries it into actuality by creative activity.” Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

Kierkegaard wrote much on dread/anxiety, the freedoms we have, and what passions we can follow. We have many, and that also puts us in a predicament. We are overwhelmed with choices of what to do, which causes “dizziness” and anxiety. With so many different routes (especially today) in life, this can stop a man or woman in their tracks and leave them even more anxious and paralyzed.

Perhaps some of us may have preferred a past where our roles were defined for us, unlike today when we are given so many opportunities. At one point in history, this would have only been a dream. Many are now driven into depression when given a life open to many different roads.

We have arrived at this apparent freedom, and there is no getting around it, so we must deal with it and make the best of it. This is by using our anxiety as a push to self-realize what we want.

How each individual self-realizes will differ in its particulars. There is a general formula that can lead us in this direction; some have said to follow your bliss, others go with the flow, and others to find a passion; Kierkegaard would say follow your anxiety.

“Possibility means I can; In a logical system, it is convenient enough to say that possibility passes over into actuality. In reality, it is not so easy, and an intermediate determinant is necessary. This intermediate determinant is anxiety.”

We must realize that anxiety will always be with us when we make choices. It is normal, and we should accept that as part of the human condition. It is part of self-realization. We envision the possibility of furthering our self-creation. With that comes an open-ended future, and we move forward regardless.

With that, we can self-generate a feeling of excitement, knowing that we have broken a barrier. A barrier that most don’t break, and you are a gambler in not knowing the outcome. Gamblers sometimes hit the jackpot. Without gambling, there will never be a jackpot.

Suppose the possibilities unfolding in our life are free of anxiety. In that case, this is not a sign of mental health but suggests that we possibly live in a manner that betrays our potential.

“The capacity to bear anxiety is important for the individual’s self-realization and conquering his environment. Every person experiences continual shocks and threats to his existence; indeed, self-actualization occurs only at the price of moving ahead despite such shocks. This indicates the constructive use of anxiety.”  Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

Unfortunately, most people do not constructively use anxiety. Instead, we flee from our anxiety. Some of us will go as far as to delude ourselves with the claim that we don’t even deserve a better life and that comfort and security are best in these uncertain times.

The totality of what has been chosen is overlooked at the moment of such a decision. We have made a Faustian bargain by refusing to move into the possibilities that make us anxious. We gain some temporary comfort in avoiding the challenge and remove the chance for failure that comes with each step on the path of self-realization, but we do so at a significant cost. For these trivial gains pale in comparison to the suffering we set ourselves up for when we refuse whole-hearted participation in the process of our creation:

“When a person sacrifices his right to self-expression [i.e., self-realization] for the sake of survival, his very survival is endangered, not from without but from within. With the surrender of the right to self-expression the meaning of life is lost. This is not a psychological phenomenon only. Self-expression is the direct and immediate manifestation of the life force in an individual. Self-expression is equivalent to life expression and a life that isn’t expressed, isn’t being lived. That leads to a slow death.”   Alexander Lowen, The Voice of the Body

We are all held back by something or some things, and that keeps us immobilized and not free from fulfilling our potential or self-realization. Don’t let anxiety stop you from living your best life and expressing who you are.