Part of us lives to please others, or at least to fit in with them. It’s good that it is so – as a species, it helps humans to synchronise with each other. Have you ever watched birds gathering in flocks? They seek and find protection in a mass of other beings, keeping within the safety of the herd, and not straying too far away. Humans do the same thing, following each other physically and mentally, seeking out the protection of the gang, the group, the culture, the nationality, the family, the friendship.
But there comes a time when an imbalance arises between protection and personal freedom. For instance, when the protection starts to feel constricting, the adolescent experiences an urge to move away from the flock of family, and forge their own lifestyle and identity. Or the married partner starts to feel that the marriage is unnecessarily restricting their behaviour. We like to be helped to feel safe, but, beyond a certain point, we don’t like to be controlled.
FREEDOM VERSUS SECURITY
There is a careful balance to be struck, in all lives, between security and freedom.
At one end of that continuum is the desire for absolute security, to know what is going to happen next, and to be part of something predictable. On a cultural level, it is one reason why we cooperate in rituals. Whether the practice is going to church, or logging onto social media, or following a set of social rules, we undertake the rituals because they give our lives shape, and put us in a predictable box called ‘our life’. They give us a sense of identity.
At the other end of that continuum is the desire for freedom, to be free of predictability, and to be part of something changing and exciting. On a cultural level, it is one reason why we rebel against social rules. We feel, in our bodies, a wish to break free. We experience frustration, irritation, anger. We may even shout and scream. This also gives us a sense of identity, but of a different kind.
An inability to manage transition between these extremes, is the basis for much anxiety.
THE ANXIETY OF DEPENDENCE
On the one hand, we can get very dependent on environments that make us feel secure. We have mini-tantrums if someone tries to pull us away from them. These environments can take many forms. We could be dependent on online gaming. Or social media. Or particular relationships. Or having our surroundings a certain way. Even worse, we don’t like to see our own dependence. So, when we are pulled away from our dependencies, we experience double anxiety: firstly, because our security is being pulled away; and secondly, because our dependence is being exposed. Not only can we can get very angry, but, in order to hide our vulnerability, we can get very insistent that we are right and others are wrong. We try to maintain our sense of being in control.
THE ANXIETY OF REBELLION
On the other hand, we can get very frustrated with those same secure environments. We have mini-tantrums if we get too claustrophobic. We can experience sudden urges to break free of the ‘chains’ of our dependencies. We get anxious on three levels. Firstly, we experience the anxiety of frustration, feeling trapped. Secondly, when we do pull away mentally or physically, we can experience the anxiety of insecurity. And thirdly, we can then feel anxious vulnerability, because our dependency is being exposed.
USING YOUR OBSERVER
There is a very special part of you, a part of you that is able to stand back and observe. It will notice your anxiety levels, and may provide the raw information for you to make self-care decisions. This noticing, we might call awareness. These are the kind of messages your awareness might offer you:
- ‘I notice that I am afraid of leaving the house today. The thought makes me nervous.’
- ‘I notice that I’m getting frustrated with my partner. I’m also getting critical and controlling.’
- ‘I notice the urge to get out of here, and escape to another environment.’
Sometimes the feelings are more complex, and our awareness is temporarily confused. This can happen especially in the ‘rebellion anxiety’ mentioned earlier, where our anxiety has three levels (frustration, insecurity and vulnerability). Because the mechanics of this trio are complex, we may just be aware of a nameless mix of uncomfortable emotions, without being able to tell ourselves a story that makes sense and fits the feelings.
Even so, with the help of self-analysis, or a good friend or counsellor, we can disentangle the story, and develop a sense of what is happening. Once things are less tangled, our inner observer can get better at forming a useful self-narrative.
If we cannot bear to self-analyse, then we can start to take short cuts and blame others. What would have been a helpful self-narrative, becomes a narrative all about others. Instead of self-development, we criticise the world around us. This is protective of our self-esteem in the short term, but damages our relationships in the longer term.
Projection is where we avoid criticising ourselves, and instead push a feeling of ‘wrongness’ onto others. For example, if we don’t want to ‘own’ our own frustration, then we might pick on our partner, and find fault with everything they do. This kind of argumentativeness is an extremely common form of projection. We can’t find an appropriate inner conduit for our uncomfortable feelings, so we vomit those feelings onto others, and then hide the fact we have done so with a useful victim story.
FINDING A BALANCE
The aim of good self-management is to use our awareness to moderate the balance between dependency and rebellion. We don’t want stifling ritual in our lives, but equally we don’t want insecure chaos.
Our inner self-carer needs to notice when we are experiencing overdependence on a restrictive lifestyle. Perhaps we have lived a certain way for so long, that we have forgotten how to break free and give ourselves something new to feel.
Our inner self-carer also needs to notice when we are experiencing hyper-rebellion against an existing lifestyle. Perhaps our frustration has burst out, and we have damaged our usual friendships and relations in expressing that frustration.
Our ‘play area’ lies between stifling ritual and damaging rebellion. To manage the boundaries of this play area, we need to be in touch with our feelings. Our feelings are our guide. The role of our awareness is to keep our minds clear, so that we own our own feelings. Otherwise we will project them onto others, and will never change.
In summary, we have a social, conforming, security-seeking side; and we have a rebellious, freedom-seeking side. We need to respect both.
There is anxiety generated from both those sides of our personalities. Firstly, there is the anxiety of dependence: we experience threat when our security is taken away. Secondly, there is the anxiety of rebellion, when we feel trapped by our surroundings, and need to break free.
Fortunately, we have an ability to stand back and observe our own feelings. This can enable us to develop a more accurate story of ourselves, a more accurate map of our feelings. We become aware. Unfortunately, when we cannot bear to observe ourselves, we start to make the story all about how wrong other people are, and how wronged we are as a victim. The problem with this, is that the minute we blame others, we stop learning.
The aim of good self-management is to be increasingly aware of our own feelings, and to exercise appropriate self-care. When we notice that we are being over-dependent, we can allow ourselves new experiences. And when we notice that we are being over-rebellious, we can find ways of expressing ourselves which do not threaten our relationships.
In short, self-development cannot come from blaming others and disowning our own feelings. Self-development can come, however, from self-awareness, and from holding ourselves accountable for our own feelings, and our own actions.
Once we are in touch with our own feelings and actions, we can play more happily, without falling into extremes.