the anxiety of being alive

Being in the world is often accompanied by an underlying sense of anxiety. From our births, we are required to come to terms with a continuing journey of separation. As none of us can literally return to the womb, we seek to find a sense of this unconditional safety and connection in the world around us.

The anxiety of separation was, at one time supported by a rites of passage; which enabled the movement into adulthood and greater independence. The entire community took part in this, providing the clear message to the initiate that he or she were being collectively held on their path of separating out into the world. The fact that the entire community took part in this, made clear that this is no easy task to accomplish. 

Today, without those cultural structures in place, we are left to make this break on our own, as best we can. This loss, can bring with it a sense of isolation. We are left with not only facing this separation alone, but with also having lost the fundamental message that facing this anxiety is also at the heart of being alive in the world.

The sense of anxiety we experience may vary depending on our respective personal histories. The more troubled our environment, family of origin and cultural setting, the greater difficulty in facing into ourselves and finding a sense of our own ground. In this way, the loss of a loving, nurturing mother can be seen as a wounding introduction to the world, and as adults we are left to inherit the child’s terror of being abandoned into an uncaring universe.

At these times, anxiety can become displaced into addictions, or obsessive/compulsive thinking and behaviours. In this sense, we might say that what obsesses us provides its own means of managing anxiety. For example, someone suffering from anorexia or bulimia focuses on body image as a means of exerting some means of control in a life that feels uncontrollable. What gets worried about then; becomes a defence against what is perceived as being potentially annihilating to our sense of self. However, as painful as our addictions or compulsive behaviour may be, it is always preferable to us, than what is considered as unbearable.

The work within psychotherapy therefore; is to be given the support to face what is unbearable in ourselves. Anxiety is a normal and natural part of life. It is part of the process of moving into the unknown. This place of unknowness is an integral part of coming to understand who we really are, rather than who we have come to believe ourselves to be.

Courage is also needed for this journey. Courage in this sense isn’t the absence of fear, but the acknowledgement that we, in all our glory, are at the end of the day more important than our fears.


Is happiness all it's cracked to be?

The search for happiness seems to be the ultimate goal within our contemporary culture. The media and advertising industries continually tell us that being happy is all we need in our lives, and they are here to enable us in achieving it. From this perspective, happiness often seems commodified and packaged up. We just click a button on our computer and purchase happiness in one easy manoeuvre!

However, this process of "buying" happiness bypasses an existential dichotomy; which is that our longings for happiness are continually pitched against what we suffer as our inherent limitations. Another way of viewing this; is the difference between what we hope for and what our actual experience of the world is.

Psychotherapy, in this sense doesn’t promote the goal of therapy as being one of gaining happiness, but rather to embrace meaning instead. It is true, that we will experience moments of happiness. However, they are ephemeral and can neither be willed into existence or purchased.

So, what does it mean to embrace meaning in our lives? Having worked with clients over a 10-year period I have seen how the pursuit of happiness is often in reaction to suffering. It’s as though happiness is seen as the eternal panacea that will cure all of us our ills and allow us to finally rest in peace. However, the reality of this position is that it often becomes its own form of purgatory, as the anxiety and pressure to find a “way out” through this pursuit brings its own form of unhappiness.

Living a life that gives a place to meaning, also means healing the gap between what we long for and the limitations we face in ourselves and the world we live in. It means learning to live with our suffering. It is fair to say that on the whole suffering gets a bad press these days. However, if suffering didn’t exist we would remain unconscious, dependant and fearful. It is a truism that we only begin to ask the important questions about ourselves and our lives when we are in pain. It is only from these choices to embrace and wrestle with these questions that we can begin to create a life filled with meaning for ourselves.

The purpose of psychotherapy is then, not to remove suffering, but to move through it towards a mind capable of holding the polarity of painful opposites. This isn’t an easy journey for anyone to make, but I have worked with many clients in making this journey, and allowing them to embrace not only a deeper, more meaningful experience of the world, but also to embrace who they truly are, without the need to continue hiding from themselves.

Understanding Shame

We might define shame, as opposed to other emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, shyness and humiliation. The etymological meaning of the word is “to hide” or “cover up”. The experience of shame isn’t an isolated event, but often becomes tied to a set of destructive emotions. This is because shame is often a difficult emotion to communicate, and masquerades as other feelings. To put this in context, the experience of guilt can often be resolved through some form of practical intervention, which may include confession and making amends. However, the experience of shame is in large part tied to the individual’s experience of self and identity. As such shame is linked to an individual’s self-esteem. This situation can in turn lead to chronic shame, which can begin to take over the individual’s life leaving them with a pervasive sense of fear and terror and the inability to live meaningful lives, and the experience of ongoing feelings of depression and anxiety. 

Shame can often play a dysfunctional role in men’s lives. Evidence in this respect shows that men are often more ready in displaying behaviours to conceal their vulnerability and shame about attachment and caring, with these behaviours more likely to lead to violence. In this respect, the differing varieties of shame can be distinguished between being humiliated and shamed by someone else and those incidents in which the person themselves becomes the major source of criticism and assault on their self-esteem. However, what is clear is that shame is often accompanied by the experience of incompetence and feeling less than; with the associated experience of the individual having no responsibility or control over the circumstances they face. This in turn leaves many feeling they have lost connection with what they consider to be familiar and safe in their lives.

5 sources of shame, including:

  1. Genetic and biochemical

  2. Family of origin

  3. Self-shaming thoughts and feelings orchestrated by one’s own narrative

  4. Current humiliating relationships

  5. Contemporary culture

(GOLDBERG, C., 1991. Understanding Shame. London: Jason Aronson.)

Shame can occur at every stage of development, and we might say that this is an inevitable consequence of being alive; in that as children we are almost entirely dependent upon the exact correspondence of our needs and the attentive nurturing care of our caretaker 24/7, the reality of which unfortunately is impossible to maintain. This process can in turn lead to self-blame and self-loathing, which can lead the individual to seek psychological help. The experience of therapy can be shaming in itself for the client too; as they are often confronted, maybe for the first time in their lives with the realization that they have lost any meaningful control in making changes for themselves. I have found in my therapeutic work that being aware of these factors is an important part of understanding the client’s experience of shame and associated issues around depression and anxiety.