Everyone knows that we need to face our fears rather than try to hide or run away from them. This is pretty straightforward – no one is going to argue with this. Running away from fear feeds the fear that we are running from and so this is no answer at all. But what few people tend to realize is that struggling to solve the problems that make us afraid doesn’t help either, when it comes right down to it. Okay, if I fix the problem that is worrying me then this will make me feel a big relief in the short-term, but fixing the problem is feeding the underlying fear just as much as avoiding the problem is.
We can understand why this is so by considering the matter carefully. Suppose that I am desperately trying to hide from my fears, and then one day I realize that this isn’t working, and so I desperately turn around and aggressively try to confront my fears (or face them). Is this apparent change of tactic going to change my basic situation? The answer to this question is “No it isn’t” because when I desperately turn around and try to face my fear this is really just another way of trying to run away from the fear. After all, my sole motivation is to defeat the fear, to get rid of it, to escape it, and this is exactly the same motivation that I had before when I was trying to run away or hide from the fear! So what has changed? If I try to avoid a problem then the motivation is to escape the fear that I have in relation to that problem, and if I try to fix the problem the motivation is still to escape from the fear that I have in relation to that problem. Either way, I am afraid that I might not be able to get rid of the problem.
THE BIG INVISIBLE SNAG
We always come face to face with a big invisible snag when someone tells us that we have to face our fear – or, even more to the point, when I tell myself that I have to face my fear. The snag is created by the words ‘have to’ and the desperate (or ‘compulsive’) motivation that lies behind these words. ‘Have to’ means pressure, it means that there that I don’t have any choice, it means that I am up against a brick wall. We can also explain this is saying that ‘have to’ is a rule, and rules always create anxiety. After all, if I have to do something, what happens if I can’t do it?
As soon as I say ‘I have to” this creates the spectre of ‘the completely unacceptable alternative’, and this ‘completely unacceptable alternative’ is just another way of talking about fear. Basically, if I say to myself that ‘I have to face my fear’ this is not going to be at all helpful:
When I say to myself that I ‘have to’ face fear this makes me afraid of what might happen if I don’t face the fear; in other words, if I make facing fear into a rule by saying to myself “I have to face the fear” then this instantly sets me up to be anxious.
ANXIETY IS ALWAYS ‘TASK-RELATED’
When I say “I have to overcome my anxiety” then I am turning my anxiety into a task to be ‘solved’ and this is not going to help matters at all, even though it sounds like it ought to. This point is not necessarily obvious so we will spend some time going over it. Tasks and rules go together: if I have a rule, then this means that I have a goal, and if I have a goal, then my ‘task’ is simply to achieve this goal. So if I have a rule saying that I have to overcome my anxiety then whenever I start to feel anxious I am obviously going to take on the task of trying to do what the rule says. But as soon as I try to do this then I have automatically assumed that it will be a ‘very bad thing’ if I don’t overcome the anxiety, and so I am actually creating anxiety by having a rule that I must get rid of the anxiety.
Anxiety will always be produced when there is a rule that I absolutely have to obey, which is to say, when there is a task that I absolutely have to succeed at. If I feel that I absolutely have to succeed at a task, then this automatically raises the possibility that I might not be able to succeed. In other words –
The more important it is to me that I succeed at the task, then the more I will fear not succeeding, and so making a task more and more important to me will only increase the underlying level of fear.
Now it is of course true that when we are well we are able to take on tasks in a healthy way, which is to say without getting unduly anxious about them. So what makes me start getting anxious? Obviously the tasks must have become more important to me than they ought to be – something must have happened to ‘load’ the tasks with extra importance that they don’t really warrant. This extra importance paralyses us (so to speak) because the possibility that we might be unable to accomplish the task looms too large in the background.
The everyday tasks that we are faced with in life do of course have importance but the point is that in anxiety something happens to cause them to assume too much importance, importance that doesn’t really belong to them. Another way to put this is to say that we ‘lose perspective’ in anxiety – we perceive tasks which have a certain, limited degree of importance to have unlimited importance. Day-to-day problems are serious ‘up to a point’, which is to say, we do our best to solve them but if we can’t then we let them go – we ‘give up gracefully’. We give up gracefully because we can see the problems that we are facing within the ‘bigger picture’ – in the small picture of things the problem in question dominates the field, but when we pull back so that we can see the bigger picture, then we realize that life will go on whether the problem is fixed or not. It won’t be the end of the world if I can’t make the problem go away.
When the bigger picture is there then there is no anxiety, but what happens is that I get so engrossed in fixing the problem that there just isn’t any ‘bigger picture’, at least not as far as I am concerned. If anyone tries to tell me that there is a bigger picture, then I simply do not know what they are talking about. Another way of looking at this process of losing perspective is to say that what is happening is that the problem we are trying to solve, the problem are getting pressurized by, isn’t actually the problem we think it is. This phenomenon is sometimes called ‘displacement’ – a relatively small or harmless problem that I am concerned with becomes the carrier of some much weightier, much more ‘all-encompassing’ problem. Ultimately, all of our insecurity comes not from specific problems, which is to say, particular tasks that we are unsure of achieving, but from our unexamined need to be in control of life itself, which is ‘the big picture’ that we have been talking about. How can I be in control of the whole of everything? How can I make life itself into a ‘task’? Obviously I can’t, but rather than face the utter impossibility of avoiding the risk implicit in life as a whole, I concentrate on smaller tasks and get correspondingly stressed out by them. So when I get anxious about details, I am really being anxious about the whole thing – I am manifesting my lack of trust or faith in the overall process of life, which is necessarily outside of my control.
We can define anxiety by saying that it is a sort of deep-seated doubt that I have with regard to my ability to accomplish what I see as ‘all-important’ tasks, but which really represent my general insecurity in the face of everything. This deep-rooted doubt is well founded because when a task gets too big (when a specific, limited task subsumes too much within it) then it becomes unfixable, undo-able. Life is not a task that I can ever hope to ‘crack’, and if I insist on trying to crack it then I am simply going to be crippled with anxiety. Everything is going to come to a standstill. Making anxiety into a task that I have to crack is not going to help either. If anxiety is defined as a deep-seated doubt in my ability to effectively accomplish overwhelmingly important tasks, then it goes without saying that the task of overcoming my anxiety will be a task of the utmost importance to me. As a task, this will matter very much indeed to me and because of this my hidden insecurity (my doubt) regarding my ability to succeed at it will come to the surface with a vengeance.
POSITIVE ASSERTION CREATES A BACKLASH
The way that anxiety works is that I keep trying to bury my doubt by positively (i.e. forcefully) asserting to myself that I will be able to succeed. This may make me feel a bit better for a while, but the fact that I am trying to believe so hard that I can succeed is of course proof of my underlying lack of belief: if I have to say (and keep on saying) that “everything is okay” all this proves is that I want very badly to believe that everything is okay, and if I want so badly to believe it, then obviously I have my doubts. If it matters so very much to me that everything should be okay, then this straightaway means that I am very much afraid of the possibility that everything will not be okay, and it this unspoken fear that lies behind my so-called ‘positive thinking’.
Aggressively (i.e. positively) asserting that I can succeed exacerbates my underlying fear of losing, and so by trying to convince my self that “I can…” I set up an anxiety cycle that just keeps going around and around. The harder I work at trying to believe in the positive statement of “I can…” the more vicious the inevitable backlash is, and the inevitable backlash is the negative “But what if I can’t…” The ironic thing about all this positive/negative, up and down business is that the whole idea of winning and losing comes out of nowhere really. Winning and losing has nothing to do with anything. After all, the whole idea of winning versus losing only makes sense to me because I want to be in control, because I am afraid of ‘taking a risk’. What I call ‘winning’ is where I successfully avoid taking a risk, and what I call ‘losing’ is where I fail to avoid the risk. But if life equals risk (which it does) then what does winning or losing have to do with anything? How can I possibly assume that life is all about winning rather than losing, which is what I very much do assume? If I make a task out of overcoming anxiety this is not going to be at all helpful in the long run. In the short-term, it may give me a false feeling of security just so long as I am able to convince myself that I will be able to succeed, but before very long the buried doubt (or fear) will come back to the surface and I will be right back where I started. Making a task out of overcoming anxiety only perpetuates anxiety. It is completely the wrong approach because my motivation to succeed at the task is the same thing as my motivation to escape the fear, and my motivation to escape the fear is the fear – in the end all ‘doing’ (or all ‘solving’) just becomes the desperate or compulsive attempt to escape the fear. For this reason when I ask what I can do to overcome anxiety I am straightaway asking the wrong question because I am looking for a method, and a method is a ‘recommended way to accomplish a task’ and so again I am making a task out of overcoming anxiety.
PRACTICING ‘NOT DOING’
If making a task out of overcoming anxiety is completely unhelpful, what is helpful? What is the alternative? The answer has to do with this idea of ‘allowing problems’ that we talked about right back at the beginning of this discussion. When I am anxious and I try to accomplish a task (or fix a problem) that is worrying me what I am really doing is running away from the fear of not being able to fix the problem. The answer therefore is to get better at allowing the problem to actually be there without doing anything about it. This doesn’t sound very good to our goal-orientated way of looking at things, but since what lies behind our positive, goal-orientated approach is fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve our goals, allowing the problems that worry us simply to be there without doing anything about them is a courageous (i.e. difficult) thing to so. Doing nothing is the ‘radical alternative’.
‘Doing something’ isn’t courageous or radical at all because ‘doing something’ is how I placate (or try to placate) the anxiety, and that is what I always try to do, in a hundred different ways. As we have said, when I try to solve a problem (or try to think of a way to solve it) because I think that I absolutely have to, I am being ruled by fear, and nothing good can ever come out of such a situation. The only way out of the trap of fear and anxiety is to realize that I don’t ‘have to’ do anything, and I can obtain this realization for myself first hand by doing nothing, and seeing what happens. In order to practise ‘not doing’ it is best to start small, and build up. I just have to pick a small problem and then be aware of it being there for a while. This is hard work – it is equivalent to going to a gym and working out. If I want to get fit I don’t suddenly go into a gym and try to lift the heaviest possible weights, and similarly if I want to get better at allowing problems to be there I don’t try to take on the world all in one go. I just pick a relatively small problem and notice it being there for a while without either trying to do anything about it, or thinking about how I could do something about it. This sounds a bit like a task, but it isn’t because in a task I have a definite idea about what I want to happen, and in this I don’t. I’m not aiming for an outcome, I’m just letting things be – I am seeing what happens when I ‘let things go’. Letting things go is not something that happens easily and it has nothing to do with will power or determination because when I am determined I am determined for a certain thing to happen. Letting go is where I let whatever it is that is going to happen, happen. It has nothing to do with what I want or don’t want – essentially, what happens is ‘none of my business’. It’s not my job to make something happen, all I have to do is see what happens and this is where the ‘risk-taking’ comes in.
Of course, part of the risk in letting go is that we won’t be able to let go. So suppose there is some little thing that is bothering me, and I pay attention to that thing and practice ‘not doing’ with it, and I find that I can’t ‘allow’ the problem. Suppose that I find myself fretting continuously about it, as we usually do with problems that won’t go away. In this case the problem has changed – the problem used to be the original problem that I was practicing letting go with but now the problem is the fact that I can’t let go of it. In other words, the new problem is that I can’t allow the problem, so what I do now is that I ‘allow’ this problem – I let go of wanting to let go, I allow myself to be unable to allow. This doesn’t mean that I allow myself to be sucked into fretting or worrying just as I always do because when I am worrying I see ‘the problem that I am worrying about’ as the problem, but in this case it is the fact that I am fretting or worrying about the problem that is the problem I am allowing.