"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master."
This was written by Demosthenes 2500 years ago. A big part of my counselling involves helping people move past anxiety. Sometimes that is overt - "I feel anxious all the time" - but often it is subtle, for example procrastination is often caused by unrecognised anxiety. Helping people overcome anxiety is one of the most common tasks of a counsellor. However as a philosophical counsellor, it is only half of what I do. For as I will show, you cannot always solve anxiety; sometimes you have to learn instead to live with it, and to do a good job of that. In such cases if you avoid your anxiety "you obtain a master": you become a slave to your fears. If you learn to face it with courage, and to live with it in a philosophically deeper way, you can become more free, and more courageous. When I help people I aim at this: to solve problems, yes, but in doing so, to help people grow wiser and stronger in general.
Life is dangerous. And trying to live in a richer, fuller way - to achieve, to love, to experience - makes it even more dangerous. Hence to exist as a human being provokes anxiety. Philosophers call this existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve existential anxiety, because life is not a problem to be solved. It is a challenge to be faced. And that's what I am talking about: facing your existential anxiety.
Here is another way of setting out the problem:
If your anxiety is a result of past trauma, then you can work through it in counselling and get beyond it. If your anxiety is a consequence of not knowing what you want, or how to balance different choices and demands in life, then you can work that out, and overcome the problem. If your anxiety is a consequence of bad perspectives - you habitually panic and lose your head- then you can work on that. The emotional growth you achieve through counselling, as well as the techniques you learn, help you to reduce such anxiety or even to free yourself of it. Such techniques work because such anxiety is not essential to living, it is not a consequence of your existence. It merely reflects knots in your life which you can straighten out. It is a problem which can be cured. But as I say, things are different with existential anxiety.
I once saw a client whose life was stuck. One week she came to counselling and described a dream. “I was invited to make some important choices", which "tricked me into dying.” This dream had left her disturbed and anxious, and so we explored what it might be telling her. She said that when she makes choices she often feels anxiety. I encouraged her to sit with that feeling and see what was connected to it. As we dug deeper she realised that making choices feels like becoming limited. I responded that choosing means excluding other possibilities. She agreed. But I noted that some people feel relieved by becoming defined and limited, and I pushed her to look further and see what becoming limited felt like. She paused again, searching, and then responded: I feel...rigid. Rigid?, I asked. Yes, she said, like...rigamortis. She added that she didn’t know why she used that word, but it came to mind and felt right. I thought for a moment, and responded that rigamortis makes sense, as it connected with something we had previously reflected on: as time goes on and choices are made, we limit our lives more and more, turning them into a story, which is to say a history: something that cannot be changed. The end point of this, ultimately, is death - the end of all further possibility. At this point she started crying, and told me that death terrifies her. And that getting older does too, for the same reason. It seemed that her dream partly expressed her anxieties about ageing and death. As we unpacked this we saw that she had been avoiding important life decisions partly because they felt like a movement toward ageing and death. As a consequence of this avoidance, her life was at a stand still. She was stuck and anxious.
The interesting thing with this person, was that her act of avoiding what made her anxious, made her even more anxious. There seems to be only two options in life: face your fear, or become its slave. "Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master." When you avoid the inevitable anxiety of living, it grows, and you become weaker. When you face it, its power over you diminishes, and you grow stronger. This applies to the kinds of anxiety that you can solve or overcome, but also to existential anxieties which cannot be solved. And this is what this client did: together we unpacked and faced her fears, but by bit, week after week. It was like going to the gym each week to build muscle, only the weight was anxiety and the muscle she built was emotional, resulting in greater wisdom and strength.
When it comes to anxiety there is a law of expansion, and you cannot stand still: either you are becoming more, or your anxiety is becoming more. Counselling is about you becoming more.