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Calm • Anxiety

Ostracism Anxiety

It can take a very long time indeed to properly notice something fundamental about ourselves: that we are extremely anxious people. The reason that a fact so basic could possibly escape us is that there are – on a daily basis – so many things to worry about, which disguises our stubborn background state of low-level panic. It is, psychologically speaking, often far easier to focus on a succession of solidly-grounded worries than to take stock of a more abstract perennially anxious condition. 

We might define the difference between anxiety and worry as follows. Worry is a concern for an identifiable matter in the here and now: we worry that we’re going to miss the plane, mess up the presentation or fail to make the payment. Whereas anxiety is a diffuse, non-specific, nebulous state. It manifests itself as a quasi existential unease and dread that cannot lightly be pinned down to this or that matter; it is an affliction in flight from its own causes.

We might add another thesis: anxious people generally fixate on worries in order not to realise that they are anxious – or explore why they might be so. The reason is fear. Anxious people implicitly believe that it is their anxiety that is keeping them safe: they have made an unconscious association between being anxious and surviving. No wonder that they might be reluctant to think about their affliction head on; it might mean having to give up the last thing that stands between them and disaster.

But gradually – this is why the process can take so long – something is nevertheless liable to dawn on the perennially worried yet deep-down anxious person: that however many legitimate worries life may throw at them, there is something above and beyond the day to day which besets them: a root anxiety that is going to be present even if the horizon is totally clear, even if there is absolutely nothing to worry about in the here and now, even if circumstances are at their most benevolent. Slowly they may realise: I am not merely worried now; I am fundamentally anxious always.

However, this is only the beginning, because there isn’t just one kind of essential anxiety that can beset us. We might suffer from Death Anxiety, Money Anxiety, Appearance Anxiety or Status Anxiety. Here the anxiety that concerns us is Ostracism Anxiety. The panic goes something like this:

1. One day, from a clear blue sky, we feel that someone with huge power over of us is going to take us by horrific surprise and declare that we’ve done something wrong, very, very wrong. Love is not only conditional, it’s arbitrary and volatile in the extreme.

2. We won’t have any prior sense of how we might have sinned. This isn’t about being rumbled for something we knew full well we shouldn’t have done. We longed so much to be a good boy or girl – and now everyone around us is furious and set on pitiless vengeance.

3. The consequences of our mistake are going to be enormous, literally boundless. We won’t be gently wrapped over the knuckles or told to do a bit better next time. We will be finished: thrown out, excommunicated, humiliated, made into a target of mockery and disdained forever and ever. It’s not hyperbolic in the least to say: this will be the end.

This, in summary form, is what the sufferer of Ostracism Anxiety carries inside them at all times, in a garbled and unaware form. Beneath all their surface worries about this or that – about this phone call not answered or that slightly unusual text, this job that might not come off or that tetchy dialogue they had with a colleague – lies a terror of being thrown out of the group and shunned until eternity. 

Automat, Edward Hopper, 1927, Wikimedia

Like all anxieties, Ostracism Anxiety is the result of a certain kind of past. What we are anxious about today is – in a disguised and unknown way – in essence a profound reflection of something hugely alarming and cruel that we had to endure long ago, probably in our early childhoods. On this basis, we can guess that the sufferer from Ostracism Anxiety is likely to have experienced an excruciatingly conditional kind of love from their caregivers, people who would never have been felt to be loyal or steady but instead, capable of gross neglect and arbitrary swings of mood. The sufferer from Ostracism Anxiety isn’t merely anxious about ostracism; they will actually have been ostracised long ago, perhaps many times – but will have forgotten what they underwent, as small children will. Their present anxiety is a residue of an earlier disaster projected into the future.

Once we realise that we suffer from Ostracism Anxiety, there is one apparently simple but hugely helpful move we can make: find other people who have precisely the same fear. We can form a group based around the terror of being excluded from the group; we can make friends with people who are as scared as we are that they won’t have any friends after ‘the catastrophe’. Knowing that we have their backs and that they have ours constitutes a formidable victory over what had for years been an unnameable dread that stalked us behind a litany of smaller day to day worries.

We can find shelter. We are not mad. We don’t have to suffer forever. We had challenges in our past that gave us Ostracism Anxiety. Now we have a term for it, we can take up the subject with others and unite with kindly fellow souls who are ailing as we are but are as committed to healing through fellowship and vulnerable confession. This doesn’t have to be carried alone. The true defences against anxiety are friendship and love. It was their absence that gave us our problems in the first place; they are now the means by which we will be able to solve them.

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