A great deal of confusion surrounds the emotion we call anxiety. The feeling is unpleasant and makes us want to avoid whatever has aroused it, but we all know there are times (like going to the dentist) when we have to press on regardless. Few of us would ever think to describe anxiety as an asset. Yet life coach and holistic psychotherapist Robert Gerzon, author of Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety, actually believes anxiety can be extremely useful. In fact, he claims that “follow your anxiety” is as good a dictum as Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss”! He sincerely holds the view that anxiety will take us to the same destination as our bliss, a position predicated upon the idea that the pursuit of bliss will inevitably lead us into anxiety-inducing situations that we must face and overcome in order to achieve the bliss we seek.
Why would we choose to follow our gnawing anxiety rather than our enjoyable bliss? Gerzon also claims that most of us have no idea what our bliss is or where we can find it – but that we do know what makes us anxious. The connection between anxiety and bliss lies with psychology’s notion that behind every anxiety there is a repressed wish.
Gerzon writes of a “toxic-anxiety wall” that rises up to block the way to a desired goal in the “growth zone” (always on the far side of said wall). Our objective then is to overcome this “toxic anxiety” and reach the coveted goal. This is sound up to a point, but I think most people have some idea of what they really enjoy (bliss) and not all anxieties relate to those enjoyable things. However, if you are in the dark about your bliss, then anxiety may be just the guide you need.
But what if such high levels of anxiety are not always toxic obstacles to bliss or other worthy goals? Is it not possible, likely even, that such anxiety could be trying to tell us something? Anything that triggers that much anxiety is violating one of our emotionally important ideas, one of our subjectively formed guiding principles, the things that make up the core of our authentic self and that sometimes function as a conscience. High anxiety is a form of cognitive dissonance.
Now, it is possible that we have bumped into a flawed or toxic emotionally important idea or guiding principle, but it is far more likely that the goal we believe to be so desirable is in truth not desirable at all. Lack of genuine self-knowledge has led us to pursue an objective that goes against our true nature. Achieving such a goal would probably result in permanently elevated stress levels, and might even lead to an eventual breakdown or stress-related illness. We have all seen the music, movie, and television stars who win fame and fortune only to succumb to depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.
Many of us fear anxiety and react to this fear with the further fear that to shrink from what makes us anxious is an act of cowardice! One of two behavior patterns then emerges. The anxious person feels either they must overcome, at all costs, the thing or situation that is making them anxious; or they do shrink from the anxiety, and then engage in a vicious round of self-loathing for not having the courage to proceed. When viewed from this angle, it is not surprising that so many of us have trouble dealing with anxiety, for to feel it is to realize that we have stumbled into a situation which, since honourable retreat is not an option, can only result in one of two equally undesirable outcomes.
How can we tell whether our anxiety is a “toxic-anxiety wall” blocking the way to bliss or a legitimate warning that we are going in what is, for us, the wrong direction? When it comes to important life decisions, we must always try to discover what constitutes authentic behaviour or genuinely willed goals and move in that direction. Never, under any circumstances, pursue a goal for mere ego gratification. Remember that living by and for our emotionally important ideas will feel right regardless of how much anxiety and suffering we incur by doing so.
Most important, do not be afraid to back away from something that makes you anxious if you sense that what you contemplate doing (no matter how desirable) violates your sense of who you truly are.