Like many other highly sensitive people, I am prone to over-thinking. Worry was my constant companion for years. A lot of it was the after-effects of trauma. I tried to think my way through situations, control things even before they happened in an effort to protect myself.
Over the years, I have done enough inner work to find my way through that paralyzing anxiety and fear. But even today, over-thinking and worrying are a part of my life. The feelings are not as intense, but they are there. I know anxiety comes in many different flavors and for many different reasons. There are the illusory fears that my mind creates that I need to get rid of. There are fears that have a basis in truth. I need to see what they are pointing to.
Because of how close worry and anxiety feel to me, I have a deep interest in them. I like to learn about them. I like to understand where they come from.
This week, I would like to share a real-life story told by the wonderful psychologist Rollo May. The experience of anxiety he talks about relates to a very specific experience. You may or may not identify with the essence of what he is talking about. But it pin-points a way in which anxiety is created, and I think you will find this fascinating.
The story is from Rollo May’s book The Courage to Create.
When he was a graduate student doing research, May studied anxiety in a group of unmarried mothers in a shelter home in New York City. These were young women in their late teens and twenties. When he began this work, May had, what he thought was a good, sound hypothesis. He thought that for these young women, predisposition to anxiety would be proportionate to the degree to which they had been rejected by their own mothers (as a result of this pregnancy). Not just his professors, but even the commonly accepted wisdom in psychology at that time agreed with this.
But when May started his work, he found himself flummoxed. Only half of these young women fitted this hypothesis. The other half did not fit in at all. The very basis of his theory was being called into question.
The second group, the women who did not become predisposed to anxiety included women from Harlem and the Lower East Side who had been radically rejected by their mothers.
“One of them, whom I shall call Helen, was from a family of twelve children whose mother drove them out of the house on the first day of summer to stay with their father, the caretaker of a barge that went up and down the Hudson River. Helen was pregnant by her father. At the time she was in the shelter, he was in Sing Sing on a charge of rape by Helen’s older sister. Like the other young women of this group, Helen would say to me, “We have troubles, but we don’t worry.”
This assertion challenged everything that May believed. How could the data he was gathering from all his psychological tests paint such a different picture? Being forced out of their house by their mothers, these women had simply gone on to making friends on the street. They had somehow not developed a predisposition to anxiety that the other half had developed.
“How could this be? Had the rejected young women who had not experienced anxiety become hardened, apathetic, so that they did not feel the rejection? The answer to that seemed clearly no. Were they psychopathic or sociopathic types, who also don’t experience anxiety? Again, no. I felt myself caught by an insoluble problem.”
As often happens, May found the solution to this problem when he had stopped looking for it.
Late one day, May put aside his books and papers in his little office that he used in that shelter house. He walked down the street towards the subway. The problem of why there was such a difference in these two groups had exhausted him. No solution was in sight, so he tried to put the whole thing out of his mind for that moment.
Then, out-of-the-blue, a thought struck him. All the women who did not fit his theory were from the lowest social classes. All of them came from poor, disadvantaged families. Just as this thought struck him, it opened up a whole chain of associations. Something new was emerging, something completely different from the ideas he started out with.
His old theory had to be changed completely. May says:
“I saw at that instant that it is not rejection by the mother that is the original trauma which is the source of anxiety; it is rather rejection that is lied about.”
The mothers of the poor women had also rejected their unwed daughters, but they had never made any bones about it. The children knew they were rejected, and they went out on the streets and found other companions. Their situation was clear to them. “They knew their world–bad or good–and they could orient themselves to it.”
In contrast, the middle-class young women were always lied to in their families. In fact, “they were rejected by mothers who pretended they loved them.”
This subterfuge was really the source of their anxiety, not just the rejection by itself.
For these young middle-class women, the world had spun on its axis. There was confusion all around. They couldn’t see through the pretense of the show of love. They could sense the rejection caused by their unwelcome pregnancies. The lies made it hard for them to separate these two strands and to find their feet. While both groups suffered, only these women, the women who had been cut off from the reality of their situation, became predisposed to anxiety.
To May, it became clear that “anxiety comes from not being able to know the world you’re in, not being able to orient yourself in your own existence.“
Anxiety comes from not being able to know the world you are in. Anxiety comes from being not able to access the reality of your situation.
Maybe, you, like me, can think back to such a time when you couldn’t see reality. Maybe, the reason you couldn’t orient yourself and move forward was because you had lost your place in the universe. Maybe, what you need is to have more compassion for yourself.
How can you give this to yourself?
If you resonated with the essence of this post, you might also like to check out this piece I wrote about a simple self-nourishing practice that can help you give yourself some of the compassion that you so easily give to others.
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