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Calm • Anxiety

Why the world can seem so frightening – and how to make it feel less so

Some of us walk through the world in a notably fearful state: we are convinced that people are out to get us and that someone may try to ruin our lives at any time. It takes very little to ignite a panic. A senior colleague need only mention that they’d like to have a word with us tomorrow at 11 a.m. – adding with a smile ‘It’s just a little thing’ and we imagine throughout the night that they have discovered something terrible about us and are on the cusp of punishing us severely. Or when we walk into a room of acquaintances and someone looks up with a smile and says: ‘Oh look who it is! We were just talking about you,’ we might instantly blush and feel prickles of shame, so sure are we that appalling things about us have been unearthed and are now a matter of public discussion.

Why is something dreadful always about to be discovered? Why are people always planning to do bad things to us? One answer is that the aggression we keep imagining in others actually belongs in ourselves – but has been relocated elsewhere by a requirement we live under to be preternaturally ‘good’ and ‘pure’. We are afraid that others are out to harm us because it is in fact we who, at some deep level, want to harm other people. We fear exposure because we would – unconsciously – like to expose. We imagine that someone wants to triumph over and ruin us because we would – in a split off zone of the mind – very much like to triumph over and ruin someone else. It’s our own aggression coming back to haunt us that turns the whole world into a place of oppression and fear.

De Chirico, The Enigma of a Day, 1912

Why then might we be so unable to acknowledge the raft of aggressive feelings that in fact belongs to us? Why can’t we just realise who we might be in a rage with or want to harm and thereby drain existence of its free floating fears? Much depends on our origins. In the ideal path of human development, small children are allowed to manifest plenty of difficult feelings without unleashing overly strong censure from parental figures: they are able to get angry, to get dirty, to say mean things, to want to triumph over others, to want others to die (as it were, for a few moments) and to punish all those who don’t give them what they want.

However, in many families, such authentic expressions are the last things that can be tolerated. The parents may already be so aggressive, so uncontained, so preoccupied with themselves, that there is no room whatsoever for a child to get to know and master their own potent, combative, egoistic aspects. There is no place for anger, envy or a desire for revenge to dwell other than somewhere else – which means in effect in the people around us. By a dreadful logic, what has not been acknowledged as belonging to us has to be placed into the minds of innocents, like our friends or the person we just met at a party or a colleague we barely know. 

The next time we grow convinced that someone is out to get us, the theory invites us to pause and wonder whether what we fear will happen to us is not something that we would have wished to do to a person we were close to at the start. We should try to tease out the family characters who may be lurking beneath the present-day objects of terror – and reverse the direction of the aggression, picturing it flowing from us to them, rather than from them to us. 

When we feel sure that a male figure of authority wants to destroy us, we might wonder: is there perhaps a male figure of authority who we would have wanted (in the dimension of fantasy) to destroy (but could not on account of their brutality)? When we are sure that someone might accuse us of inappropriate behaviour, we might ask: is there someone who we might have wanted to accuse of inappropriate behaviour (but couldn’t because of their power over us)? When we fear that a man or a woman is secretly longing to spite us, we should ask whether we might not in our depths be longing to exact revenge on someone of their gender from long ago?

Part of draining the world of its constantly frightening elements is to grow more at peace with the idea that we may – in our younger form – have wanted to register and (in a bounded way) to display all manner of aggressions and that to do so would have been eminently healthy and psychologically cathartic. What causes problems is only ever the sense that we cannot live with minds that harbour certain feelings – for we then have no option but to develop a manic need to put those feelings into the minds of strangers, from where they have a habit of causing us a lot of trouble. When we are afraid, we should constantly ask ourselves: ‘Is this in them or might what I suspect is there not, in fact, be a version of what is in me?’ Whatever we cannot bear in ourselves will otherwise continue to seem like it is highly active and dangerous in others.

We won’t need to be so scared once we can take on board how much we – like all outwardly law-abiding and peaceful people – at some level harbour wishes to kill, crush, maim and injure, especially those archetypal figures who may have let us down badly in the early years. We can await a huge increase in our sense of safety from a more forthright, compassionate acknowledgement of our own split off feelings of envy and aggression.

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