Having examined some classic theories on the origins of anxiety – the greatest psychological obstacle to lasting contentment – we now consider the solutions offered by the early psychoanalysts. Let’s start with Fromm-Reichmann who is careful to point out that anxiety has not only “negative, disintegrative facets but also some positive, construction ones.”7 We need only be concerned when anxiety takes the form of “an unpleasant interference with thinking processes and concentration, as a diffuse, vague and frequently objectless feeling of apprehension or as a discomforting feeling of uncertainty and helplessness.”8 It is as if Fromm-Reichmann is in effect defining anxiety as the opposite of contentment. Her solution to this mode of discontent is of course psychotherapy, but here I think we must begin to diverge from the psychoanalysts and rework the components they impute to a successful program into a self-guided option.
The first step is to uncover the causes of one’s particular anxiety – especially developmental or childhood issues, frustrated or suppressed hopes and drives, feelings of insecurity, failure, or guilt, and fear of death or the unpredictable. I might add to these stress from excessive responsibilities, overstimulation, and possibly indolence. In any case, identifying the causes of one’s individual anxiety helps shrink it down to manageable size.
Next it is essential to come to appreciate that some level of anxiety is universal and that we must learn to deal with it. Rigid resistance to anxiety is itself anxiety-causing. I find personal consolation in Freud’s insight that baseline anxiety is a manifestation of the survival instinct making it seem benignly natural. Alternatively recognizing that anxiety is universal bonds each of us to the rest of humanity. Relaxation techniques which will be discussed in a later post offer some help as well.
The third step is to break the cycle of anxiety which manifests two ways: (1) the propensity to feel helpless in the face of anxiety further exacerbates it, and (2) dwelling on the specific sources of anxiety reinforces it. The cycle is broken by recognizing and eliminating these patterns and adopting healthy alternatives. For example, Alfred Adler, in his essay Individual Psychology, Its Assumptions and Its Results, suggests the following for overcoming this cycle (referring to one arising from the unfounded feelings of one’s superiority over others): “…gain a reinforced sense of reality, development of a feeling of responsibility and a substitution for latent hatred of a feeling of mutual goodwill, all of which can be gained only by a conscious evolution of a feeling for the common weal and the conscious destruction of the will-to-power.”9
(final continuation next post)
7Thompson, Clara (Editor), An Outline of Psychoanalysis. The Modern Library, New York, 1955. Page 114.
9Ibid.,page 297 (his italics).
2 Replies to “CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – PSYCHOLOGY – PART III (continued)”
My wife gets very frustrated with ignorant drivers or those who seem unaware of anyone else on the road. She drives aggressively.
This causes her to take unnecessary risks. Would this equate with anxiety? I don’t know, but the affect on her well-being and others around [riding with] her is not healthy. A good friend gave her a small, silver plaque, which is attached to the driver’s seat headrest.
It reads: keep calm, and drive on. Does not help much.
Light and profound! As a fellow sometimes sufferer, I think impatient driving is a sign of lack of peace of mind. Patience it seems is learned by confronting and accommodating irritations and is essential to ultimate contentment, but patience is also a consequence of inner tranquility. Getting there is a struggle for some of us – a plaque may be a simple ploy, but most other options are equally basic – taking one or more deep breaths, counting to ten, repeating a mantra, etc. Psychology offers other more involved methods to overcome higher level anxiety and behavioral lapses which I plan to discuss later in this segment. As for your wife I can only suggest she consider some quite well written books chocked full of helpful points, Eknath Easwaran’s ‘Meditation’ or Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now.’ She may also be amused as well as helped by Tolle’s 2 CDs – ‘Living a Life of Inner Peace.’ – one of my favorites.