What it is that makes it so hard for us to live without anxiety, fear or worry? Why is it that so many of us feel constant comparison and competition? Could these feelings be so deeply imbedded within us and our society that they are inescapable?
Who we were, are, and will become is an intricate composition of nature and nurture. Human nature itself hold countless different components, many beyond my understanding at this point. However, my recent experiences with self-doubt and anxiety have sparked within me a desire to discover what lies beneath such intensely all-consuming sensations. With anxiety, self-doubt and insecurity seemingly at the forefront of our reality, I feel that it is really important that such feelings are understood and explored on a deeper level. In my own life, a more profound understanding has increased my awareness of such feelings, in turn enabling me to address them from more of an objective point of view. In the words that follow, I have delved into one idea of where it may all have come from.
When I feel anxiety, I feel the liquid fire of intensely cold fear. A deep sense of dread consumes me, numbing me to my surroundings. My awareness heightens, leaving me with a feeling of complete vulnerability, likeable to that of a child in danger. A voice within my own mind critiques my life harshly, it watches my every move, judging and instilling fear and doubt within everything I do. Why is it that I am afraid? What do I have to be scared of?
My mind ponders the root cause of fear, like everything it must have its purpose. Fundamentally, I found that it is a survival mechanism that occurs when the brain senses a risk. It also enables our minds to think more creatively, helping us to survive dangerous situations. Both are functions which were constantly necessary in a time where we faced life threatening risks in our day to day lives. An age when situations of grave danger were vital to the survival of ourselves, our family’s or even our whole tribes. Our minds are also wired to predict future situations with an awareness of what could go wrong. “From the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theatre of the human mind” Put expertly by Yuval Harari author of Homo Sapiens. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution, it was with anxious minds and hearts that the farmers watched the skies, hoping for signs of rain to feed their crops. Their fears and worries were real, without the blessing of the rain there crops would die, causing themselves and their families to starve to death. This worry for the future is ingrained deeper than we know, for it is one of the minds ways of helping us avoid danger in the outside world. However, it is also a process which I believe to this day induces a lot of unnecessary anxiety . Essentially it means are brains are naturally programmed to take us out of the present moment. In my experience it is often a lack of presence that causes us to feel anxious about situations that haven’t even happened yet, as we struggle to predict and control what is beyond our power. Often this comes in the form of worry. We begin to overthink and worry about things that we need to do, then we become anxious thinking that we either have to many things to do at once or we are not capable of doing them. The best course of action in these cases is always to act. To act on your thoughts before you give yourself the chance to overthink. What we do not realize is that even if the situation was to become dangerous or we were not able to complete what we wanted to, we have only increased our suffering by experiencing it as a thought as well as a reality. I believe that in a day and age where we no longer face constant threat, these brain processes which were once so useful have quickly turned necessary fear into self-inflicted anxiety.
I began to observe within myself what else it was that generated unnecessary worry and “unwanted” nerves. I discovered that these feelings were triggered not only by fear but also by competition or comparison to myself or those around me. It was the need to be better than or more than I was, the feeling of not living up to the expectation of image, society or myself. Again, maybe these responses are imbedded, for competition and comparison were also tools that were vital for our survival. To be stronger, greater and ultimately better, allowed you to live longer, to survive when overs could not. Yet in most of our lives, a time when humans had to fight for enough resources to exist, is no longer. In my mind I begin to see why the western world is so riddled with feelings that no longer serve us.
I recently read an incredible book called Illusion and Reality ; The Meaning of Anxiety by David Smail which inspired me to look around at the society that we live in, it was then that I began to see things from another angle. I began to question whether these feelings were in fact induced by the society we have created, could they be a method of keeping us under control, a way of suppressing our true potential? When you do not love yourself wholly, when you believe that you are not enough, you spend your time filling yourself with fear, comparing doubting and worrying, forgetting that you are capable of the life you desire. Essentially you become passive, acceptant of treatment and a life that you do not truly want. Your limitless potential burns out, like the last flame of a dying fire. By competing amongst ourselves we forget to question the system, we forget to compete for a better world. All that is truly important becomes clouded by our own overwhelming inner struggle.
Once we realize that the only true competition is ourselves, it is then that we begin to work endless on our own growth and development, a process which threatens the control based society that we know today. Smail illustrated how we have given so much power to the eyes of society or as he called it the “other” that we have begun to live our whole lives seeking approval from this essentially non-existent entity. Rather than seeking to address the real issues of the overall system we are left so crippled by our own need to belong that we simply seek its approval. The “other” refers to everybody else but ourselves. It refers to the invisible pressure that we feel to be and act in a certain way. It’s presence holds power beyond speech and form. We have all at one point or another felt the judging gaze of the “other” yet we have also all taken part in it ourselves. Ultimately we are just as much a part of it as we are on the outside. However, when fear grips our every inch it is easier to join the judging masses than stand alone. Through a fear of not belonging we subject others to a feeling that we ourselves know to be so harmful. Therefore, if we truly educated ourselves on the reality we live in, would we no longer need to create this perfect image of ourselves and our lives? Would we realize that we have nothing to show or prove? Would we see that the validation we seek comes from within?
Smail went on to illustrate how it is more than a need to show off to any specific person but rather to show to this other (the eyes of society) hat we have in some way amounted to something, that we have achieved success. Yet what is success? Do we even know what our own definition of success is? Or are we just blindly following the ideals of society?
The cycle of not feeling like we are enough, of feeling like we need outside validation to assure us we are who we should be, becomes endless. So in an attempt to make sure we are meeting the expectations of the norm, we compare. We compare compulsively. We either conclude that we are better, inflating our egos and sense of self-importance. Or we leave feeling riddled with anxiety and inadequacy, having decided we are “worse”. It never ends in victory. Furthermore, what we compare ourselves too is more often than not a surface level, carefully chosen representation of somebody else’s life. It doesn’t represent their struggles, it doesn’t account for their own feelings of anxiety or inadequacy, it is simply a false comparison. One can never really know what is going on in another person’s inner world. It’s a very dangerous game to play, as we are all ultimately striving for something that is nothing more than a façade. In reality there is no “better” or “worse” as we are all uniquely beautiful beings who can only ever be the best version of ourselves. Therefore is this knowledge simply not embodied to its full extent? Or is there more to it?
From my own experiences, I have felt how deep these feelings can run. So as I delved into our biological dispositions, it all clicked. It became crystal clear why a society that wanted to maintain control would toy with our deepest human instincts.
As I looked closer I saw how comparison and judgement stretched far beyond social media, film, family jobs or advertising, from the minute we were born a box of expectation begins to form around us. An image we hold ourselves too begins to take shape. I remember as I was growing up, I would be told things about myself and about who I was. Others around me would say things such as “she’s clever” “she’s naughty” or “she’s pretty” etc. Unknown to me, my identity was being created. Who I was, was formulating right before my eyes. As I grew a little older and became more aware of myself, I begun to act accordingly to the labels which had been placed upon me, all the time believing that they were just who I was. I would then go on to describe myself using the attributes to which I had been ascribed. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a home with an extremely loving and accepting family who always allowed me the freedom to express myself freely and to be whoever I wanted to be. Apart from the home the only other means of conditioning in a child’s life is the education system. Therefore, without a compassionate, loving and safe home life the fear of not being enough runs even deeper. Emphasized by an unhealthy educational system based on unfair comparison, competition and expectation, an environment that thrives off labels, classification and judgment. A place where from a very young age you are told who you are and what you will amount to. Yet despite this incredible childhood, for which I am so grateful, I was still subject to the inescapable categorization of the world that we live in. Categorization ultimately makes it harder to break free. By labelling oneself as an anxious person rather than simply acknowledging that you feel anxiety in certain moments, you automatically put yourself in a box. You begin to identify with something that is impermanent. In doing so you begin to believe that is just who you are, that there is no other version of you to be.
Later in life I began to notice that the words that had been used to describe me didn’t even necessarily fit, they weren’t really the me that I knew or wanted to be, I was more than “clever” or “naughty” I just hadn’t had the chance to figure it out because I had been too busy abiding by someone else’s rules. The first step was to free myself of everybody else ideas and to figure out who I was without all that. As I set sail on this journey of self-discovery, my authentic self-began to shine through. I think a big part of breaking the cycles of anxiety and inadequacy comes largely from knowing who you are and loving that version of self exactly as it is, for through this unconditional self-acceptance the pressures of the “other” becomes less. So how do we learn to escape the inaccurate or unrealistic standards of who we ought to be? How do we handle the anxiety and fear that our society generates within us?
For me the first step was observing how I felt anxiety. It was different in each instance and it was important to know where the feeling of dread actually came from. By asking myself this question I would look within to see in what areas of myself it was that I felt inadequate, therefore enabling me to give extra love and care to these parts. There didn’t always have to be an outer reason, I was justified in feeling how I did, simply because I did. By focusing solely on outer causes, I would lead myself down a path where I only accepted what I felt was truly justified. Therefore when I say that I was observing where it came from I am referring to my inner world. I observed that when I was anxious I became detached and disconnected from the present moment, the fear was really all in my mind. I had nothing to be afraid of as I was not in danger, but this knowledge didn’t stop me from feeling what I was feeling. To understand was not enough, I had to embody presence in every inch of my body for it to fully help me in the ways I knew it could. As the feeling would intensify I would feel as though I had left my body. I would be watching myself unable to interact authentically or truly express how I felt. At the same time I would become overly conscious of the fact that I would be coming across as very strange, even though in most cases this was not the reality. I would begin to focus intently on the way that I was being received, causing me to spiral into a dark place of self-doubt and fear. What I have come to realize was that this feeling only arose when I felt like I couldn’t be me. It would arise as a fear of not having expressed myself authentically. I guess I was afraid of what people or the “other” would think of me. It was the knowledge that I wasn’t living up to who I knew I could, and felt like I should be, in that moment. It was the pressure of my own expectation that really got me. I would compare myself to who I was at other times and then beat myself up for not staying true to that authentic me. I found that the situations which induced anxiety were caused by the stress and the expectation of my daily life; jobs, studies etc. All were realities in which it was easy to feel as though I was not enough. Every day we head out into a world filled with inaccurate representations of reality and unrealistic standards of beauty and perfection. If we do not learn to love and accept ourselves unconditionally it is a world which can cause us a lot of suffering. Our outer worlds will always be full of triggers, many that we cannot change, but what we can do is heal from within. Through this understanding I was able to see that it was normal and more than okay to feel this way. In fact if anything was normal, it was to experience these feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Knowing that essentially it was something that we all have to go through enabled me to accept myself in every moment of my endless journey of unconditional self-love and acceptance. It was the realization that I, like you, are not alone in it. We simply have to be honest enough with ourselves and the communities around us to seek the support that we need. What was truly important for me was focusing on imbedding new knowledge. Shedding myself of the fear and replacing it with love. I had to learn to allow my waves of anxiety to occur, I had to experience and accept them for what they were. I had to be as honest and upfront with myself and others about the way I felt at all times. Hiding within the fear simply because it was comfortable was not a long terms solution. I knew, like everything it would be a process. By starting to tackle our worries, fears and anxieties we take the first step on the path to shedding all of our conditioning. I would, and will lose myself along the way, fear and anxiety will creep up many times, but each time I find myself again I will gain invaluable self-knowledge and wisdom. I am strong enough, and so are you.
There is never a right or wrong way to feel. How you feel exactly in this moment is what you are supposed to be experiencing and through allowing yourself to feel all that you do, your emotions begin to flow past you, continuing on their endless cycle. They do not define or trap you because you are more than them. The more I accepted and felt my feelings of fear and anxiety the quicker they dispersed. I accepted that it was unrealistic to think that I would not feel this way at times, I am human after all. Instead I began to learn from my emotions. The more I came to know them the less they affected me. Wisdom was, and is still the key. While anxiety has different causes and manifestations, in varying degrees depending on the individual, the knowledge that you are exactly who you need to be, in exactly the right place in your journey, no matter what expectation tells you, I believe, helps to subdue some of the intense feelings of worry and fear. If you yourself know that you are doing all that you can, then who is anybody else to make you feel as though you are not enough. You are completely enough exactly as you are in every moment.
Ultimately I believe that while society exists as it is, we will all experience some anxiety, worry and fear to varying degrees, and while it is almost inescapable, all we can do is learn to give ourselves the compassion and understanding that we all deserve. If we can’t accept these feelings as part of ourselves, we cannot expect others to either. By learning a deep compassion for all that we experience, we can in turn share this understanding with those around us who are also fighting their own battles. For even if it doesn’t appear so on the outside, everyone experiences such emotions, they are part of being human in a society that thrives off fear and control.