Anxiety occurs as a result of the thinking mind projecting limits on everything and the thinking mind always projects limits on everything!
This is what thinking is of course, thinking is that process whereby we impose limits or boundaries on the world – if we didn’t do this then there wouldn’t be anything to think about! This it’s only when we have partitioned something off within boundaries or limits that we can think about it; it’s only when we have defined something that we can think about it, in other words.
No imposed boundaries means no thinking therefore, and thinking is how we gain purchase on the world; it is how we orientate ourselves in such a way that we can make ‘rational decisions’ as to ‘what to do next’. When there are no ‘defined things’ – and therefore no defined outcomes or goals – then it has to be the case that we are not able to make any rational decisions at all. This brings us back to the first point that we made, which is that anxiety occurs purely as a result of the limits which the thinking mind projects on everything. Clearly, if the possibility of making logical decisions exists, then so too does the possibility of making the wrong decision! The polarity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is inherent in the idea of a decision, after all – whoever heard of a decision without the possibility of right versus wrong?
What we’re really talking about here is control and control is all about right versus wrong. Control is ‘getting the right thing to happen rather than the wrong thing’! There’s a psychological component to this, of course – the psychological component in question being that it feels good when we are able to bring about the right outcome and not-good when we can’t. There’s a feeling of security and self validation when we get the right thing to happen, and the converse is of course also true when we can’t.
Moving one stage further into ‘the psychology of control’, we can say that what happens with all of us is that we get habituated to the feeling of ‘being in control’ (or ‘being inherently able to control’) and we derive an important sense of well-being from it. The sense of being in control’ is the same thing as what Albert Bandura has called ‘perceived self-efficacy’ and perceived self-efficacy is generally seen as a very healthy thing – it is seen as ‘a thing we all need to have’. To consider perceived self-efficacy (or the sense of ‘having the ability to be in control’) as a healthy – or indeed, essential – part of our psychological make-up is seriously deluded however! The reason we can say that it is a delusion to see PSE as being ‘mentally healthy’ is because PSE (or the sense of ‘having the ability to be in control’) is, at root, the very same thing as anxiety.
A sense of being control may not feel like anxiety, but that’s because it’s latent anxiety. It’s anxiety that hasn’t yet been manifested. Perceived self-efficacy is ‘anxiety waiting to happen’ and the reason we can say this is because – ultimately – it is no more than a comforting illusion! At times, we will indeed be able to get things to happen the way we want them to, but this does not mean that we will always be able to do so. It doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed to be able to do so – it doesn’t mean that we can ‘bank on the fact’, which is exactly what we do do, every day of our lives.
Perceived self-efficacy is, when it comes down to it, nothing more than ‘an expectation’, and – what’s more – it’s an unwarranted expectation and so going around basing our sense of well-being on an unwarranted expectation is not in any way a manifestation of mental health! This isn’t a sign of good mental health – no matter what anyone may tell us – but rather it’s ‘an accident waiting to happen’. It’s not mentally health we’re talking about here but ‘us setting ourselves up for a fall’!
When we use this illusionary (although comforting) sense of ‘being in control of what’s going on’ in order to build up some sort of a concept of ourselves, some sort of an idea or image of ourselves, then we doing ourselves no favours at all, therefore. What we are actually doing is that we paving the way for the creation of a concept of ourselves that is based on the suspicion or fear that we – in some fundamental way – aren’t able to can control effectively. This is – we might say – the ‘anxious’ self-image, and whilst the ‘confident’ side of the self- illusion is one that is acceptable to us, and highly approved by everyone, the other side of the illusion is one that is correspondingly unacceptable to us, just as it is unacceptable to society as a whole. We promote the one type of illusion, and try to ‘cure’ the other, therefore!
This attitude of ours is of course quite laughable. What kind of a thing is it where we – in all seriousness – value one aspect of an illusion whilst regarding the other, complimentary aspect of the same illusion as a regrettable error that needs to be fixed? The fact that we, as a culture, take this approach says an awful lot about us, and what it says is not in the least bit complimentary! Our problem is that we have somehow been railroaded into thinking that the only possible way that we have of deriving a feeling of ‘well-being’ about ourselves is through our assumed ability to control successfully, when this is not in the least bit true. Well-being does not come from the ability to control!
Suppose we weren’t able to build our sense of ourselves on our ‘perceived self-efficacy’, on a spurious or illusionary sense of ‘being in control’? What would happen then? How would that work? This turns out to be a very interesting question indeed and it leads us to consider the possibility of an entirely different way of being in the world. Instead of deriving our sense of identity from our assumed ability to control effectively, we could make the experiment of seeing what it feels like when we aren’t trying to be in control the whole time, which is the same thing as ‘making the experiment of seeing what it feels like when we are free from ‘the ever-present need to control’.
This isn’t necessarily as easy as it might first sound, of course. Once we get caught up in this business of deriving our sense of identity from our belief in our ability to control effectively (which is easy to do) then we find ourselves in the situation where we need to keep on controlling in order to retain this sense of identity. This is the classic ‘lobster pot’ scenario, therefore – it’s easy to get in, but very hard to get out again. It’s a classic ‘Hotel California’ scenario – we swan in with the greatest of ease and then the next thing is that we stuck there forever! This being the case, then, we had better hope that we like the furnishings in our room because if we don’t then that’s really going to be just too bad! If we don’t like the furnishings then unfortunately we’re just going to have to get used to them…
This really is an exquisitely subtle trap – once I have constructed my sense of identity, my ‘sense of who I am’, in relation to my perceived ability to control, then no matter what I do I’m not going to be able to extricate me myself from this sense of identity. I’m not going to be able to extricate myself since whatever I do, it is always going to be ‘just more controlling’. Or if we put this in terms of thinking (which comes at exactly the same thing) then we can see very clearly that if my sense of identity is derived from my thinking, then no matter what I do I’m never going to be able to escape this thought-created identity. I’m never going to be able to escape this thought-created identity because whatever I deliberately (or ‘purposefully’) do, I do on the basis of my thinking. I can’t escape my thinking with my thinking, in other words.
Not constructing ourselves on the basis of our presumed ability to control (or on the basis of thought, which comes to the same thing) requires a subtlety that we do not ordinarily possess. Thought and purposeful action are the same thing – the latter being ‘the extension into the world’ of the former – and as we become adults (and get embroiled in the adult world) we very quickly learn to put all our money on thinking, all our money on controlling. This is ‘the sickness we become infected with’, so to speak. We learn to construct ourselves on the basis of our presumed ability to control, and since our ‘presumed ability to control’ comes entirely out of our thinking, entirely out of our thoughts about the world and ourselves, all we are doing, as ‘rationally-minded adults’, is setting ourselves up for anxiety.
The way out of the pernicious trap that we have created for ourselves by our unwise reliance on ‘thought as the basis for our sense of well-being in the world’ is for us to start exploring the subtle aspects of ourselves, the subtle aspects of what it means to be in the world, and this comes down to voluntarily experiencing our vulnerability (which is of course the true state of affairs). The socially approved and validated illusion is that we are ‘effective controllers’ (which necessarily means that we are not vulnerable, since the whole point of being ‘effective controllers’ is that by succeeding at this we shall not be vulnerable), and it is, as we have said, precisely because this ‘invulnerable status’ of ours is an illusion that we have set ourselves up to be anxious. It is the out-and-out lie that we tell ourselves about ourselves ‘being in control’, and the fact that we have based our sense of identity on this lie, that creates the menacing spectre of anxiety, and so all that is needed is for us to cease to rely on this pernicious illusion!
Something curious happens when we do this, when we withdraw our belief in the illusion of this thing called ‘perceived self-efficacy’, and that is that we find that we aren’t defining ourselves at all. When we don’t base our sense of who we are on the belief that ‘we are in control’ (or on the belief that we need to have this ‘essential ability’ to control) then we aren’t actually constructing any sense of identity at all! We don’t aptly need a sense of having this ‘defined identity’ when we not being governed by the ever-present need to control; we don’t actually need to say ‘who we are’ in this rigid, humourless, rule-based way. The reason for this is very simple – just as soon as we stop projecting limits on the world (which – as we have said – is what thinking is) then at the same time we discover that we are no longer projecting limits (or boundaries) on who we are. When we stop imposing limits or boundaries on our actual nature then we are free – we ‘free from definitions’ on the one hand, and we’re ‘free from anxiety’ on the other hand, since it was only being defined in this way that was causing us to be anxious in the first place.