“My anxiety is propelled by fear. I feel trapped, stuck, and I’m seeking an exit. I become goal-directed, trying to get out. It’s an oppressive feeling.”
In 2016, I hosted a discussion on anxiety. Anxiety is a common experience among Millennials, but we rarely discuss it. I prompted participants to discuss how they understand anxiety, what role it has played in their lives, how and whether it can be good and creative, and what they think Christianity has to say about it. We had a wide-ranging discussion on anxiety, shame, fear, vulnerability, personas, social media, vocation rhetoric, disclosure, and other topics. Some of the major points are below.
“I feel stuck, hit the ground and can’t get up. Thinking about major life changes leads to concerns about everything in my life.”
“In college I had an unnamed fear of being discovered that I didn’t actually know what I was doing. So I responded by being self-deprecating or not trying.”
Anxiety and Perceptions
We found a common link between anxiety and others’ expectations (whether real or perceived). We frequently feel the need to have everything figured out, or to appear we do. And shame can arise in not living up to what we think we can do. That is, shame arises from the connection between expectations (either externally- or internally-imposed) and our belief that we will fail in living up to them. This shame brings about anxiety.
“I’m an eldest child and am very ambitious. I need to appear in control, not showing weakness.”
Brene Brown discusses a lack of vulnerability in today’s relationships. And this lack of vulnerability contributes to shame, which leads to a fear of weakness or failure, which in turn contributes to a lack of vulnerability. A vicious cycle.
We all long for acceptance. Some seek this out in the cultural phenomenon of anonymous online postings. But really we have a need to share ourselves with someone we will see face to face, every day, with someone who can potentially hurt us. Vulnerability cannot exist apart from the possibility of rejection or other hurt.
Anxiety can come from insecurity, which can also be destructive. When we feel insecure in ourselves, we turn to others to answer things for us. The way we do this can be like flailing in water and grabbing on to anyone nearby, which can end up drowning both persons.
“I feel anxious when there is an unknown ahead that needs to be addressed, and I can’t define that unknown. I’m always wanting to define parameters and remove ambiguity.”
Anxiety and Vocation
Many young people also have fears that arise with even minor decisions. Some feel that each decision bears ultimate importance, since it will affect other opportunities and choices that arises in the future. Thus many students worry about choosing the “right” college or “right” major or “right” courses. These choices can seem saturated with fatal importance, since they rule out a series of potential choices for the rest of one’s life.
This can be contrasted with the perspective of, “You’re flexible, you’ll figure things out.” We fear that “there’s a right way and a wrong way” and that we’ll choose wrong. In contrast, the Christian can live, “trusting that Jesus loves me, that He has a plan for my life, and that I’m not going to screw it up.” There’s not some secret code to crack.
“The problem appears so big that I can’t even begin asking questions about it. Perfectionists tend to have anxiety. They’re anxious about things out of their control or understanding, and about things that are unnamed.”
This is a deep problem in much of the rhetoric in Christian circles concerning vocation. We sometimes discuss vocation as if we have to crack a secret code. This rhetoric is often destructive and anxiety-inducing.
In contrast to this, some participants offered Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery, a book by Roger Butler. Another shared Augustine’s advice: love God and do what you will. Another shared a story of Mother Teresa, in which a man asked her to pray that he have clarity. Mother Teresa responded, “No. I will not do that… Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of… I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.” Another participant discussed how one of her theology professors focused on the universal call to holiness as a key focus for one’s life.
I myself discussed the distinction between generation and creation in Aquinas. Aquinas, drawing from Aristotle, says that the plants generate life from each other, and these natural processes develop in the constant generation of plants. But for the human person, we have more than generation. Rather, God breathes into each human person a soul that is created, that is not simply the succession of the life of the parents, but also involves a unique life which comes about from God. And when we think about the human life, we should think about it in terms of creation, not just generation. Our vocations are called to bring forth what has never been before, a calling to creatio ex nihilo.
Don’t Dump the Iceberg
In overcoming shame and being vulnerable, we also discussed how to disclose appropriately. Sharing can sometimes be too abrupt. Over-sharing can harm, rather than help, new relationships. We do want to be understood. Those around us often only see the tip of the iceberg in terms of our struggles and the depths of our personalities. So we want to share. But when we become attached to someone, especially in romantic relationships, we sometimes have the desire to just dump the entire “iceberg” on that person. This can be overbearing and unfair.
A healthier approach is to share gradually and appropriately, as a constant deepening of the relationship, rather than an instantaneous dumping. “Dumping the iceberg” can also result in an unhealthy dependency on that person, on whom we begin to rely as the sole support for our struggles in a needy and possessive way. We should resist this. One participant commented that real love has “the maximum intimacy with the maximum freedom.” We can’t just “dump the iceberg” on that person and rely on him/her to hold it for us. We give that person the freedom to work with us in carrying the iceberg in a way that is emotionally healthy and freeing for both of us.
In addition, our “icebergs” shouldn’t just be dumped on one person, but shared in a network of community that can support the iceberg together. “The manner in which you share the iceberg” can be very important.
We should share. In Christianity, we are drawn into an ever-deeper knowing. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
We also discussed the relationship between personas and anxiety. Frequently, anxiety can come from the disjunction between our “real selves”, the selves that we perceive we need to be, and our fear of failure in achieving this perception. These perceptions can frequently be unrealistic and come from unreal and unhealthy personas put forth by others.
Facebook, for example, gives a historic and unparalleled opportunity to cultivate and share a persona with others that bears only a limited resemblance to reality. We frequently share only the parts of our lives that are glamorous or interesting, and when we scroll our Facebook feed we see only the parts of others that are glamorous or interesting. We incorrectly believe in this persona put forth by others, and we ourselves feel the need to match our persona similarly, or we despair that our lives don’t live up to these personas put forth by others.
We ended by discussing the possibility that anxiety may be a good thing. It reveals to us shame, it draws attention to the disjunction between our perceptions and reality, and it points us to the parts of our lives that may need adjustment. In this way, anxiety can act like the conscience in drawing attention to the need for an integration, honesty, and vulnerability that we don’t currently have.