Today I’m going to speak about one of the most dramatic human experiences… Fear. But not the usual fears, but the big one, the existential angst. And I’m going to do this from the existentialist perspective, probably the toughest school of psychotherapy available today.
Imagine that our discussion takes place somewhere at the horizon of our existence on Planet Earth, somewhere above everything familiar to us, but at the same time at the doorstep of the infinite Space.
You were born on Earth, this acting like a Safe Heaven for you. Here you are protected and you depend on many things to survive. Here is also the place of death – you are human and you will die. Out in the Space there are numerous possibilities and opportunities. Nobody knows if there is life like ours in space, but it definitely is a huge variety of worlds, hidden by the darkness of the space, far away from our comfort zone. If you’re willing to fly towards the Unknown, you witness autonomy but at the same time you face the separation from everything familiar. This is the usual course of our life: we leave our womb, our family, our parents’ house, we venture outside, we develop, in Jung’s words… we move towards Individuation. But there is a price: we lose everything we leave behind us; we can’t leave and remain at the same time. If we want autonomy, we automatically get isolation. It’s logical. And it’s difficult to accept.
Deep in the two realms, the Safe Heaven and the Individuation, there are hidden 2 fears. We leave safety because we begin to feel the danger of fusion with the Whole. Some of us feel this, others don’t. There are people who are comfortable about following rules, having a religious faith that is giving to them all the necessary life principles to live by. I am not writing for those. I am writing for those who, at a certain point in their life, felt that are suffocated by their familiar world, by their family, friends and too much “love”. I am writing for those who were touched by the desire of being free. Those who experience fear of fusion – probably a problem with their personal boundaries and self-identity – but this is another story.
Fusion is one step from death. If you feel you’re being suffocated, you fear physical death. Nobody enjoys losing their breath. Well… with the exception of some sexual practices that involve strangulation… Crossing the border into the unknown is fueled by fear of death and by a defense mechanism that covers this fear: the Special Status. You leave the Safe Heaven because you think and feel you’re someone special, you are a hero, you are some sort of god, you’re not just like the others who enjoy the safety of amorphous crowd. You think you deserve more, you are different, you are you and not a part of a larger mechanism. You are Superman. So, off you go!
After some time of wandering through Space, after experiencing Freedom (under the form of Independence) and enriching you existence with a lot of experiences, there comes the time when you begin to feel Loneliness. Some of us are lucky to meet others who wander through space and are able to re-create in space the Safe Heaven they left. Others aren’t so lucky, me included. They increasingly feel the burden of isolation, and what was once a passionate and interesting trip becomes a hellish fight for psychological survival. And it is normal; those who feel fusion feel loneliness as well, as they are insecure about their borders (remember my article about Borderline Personality Disorder).
What does a person wandering alone through space, in the middle of despair? First, it loses the illusion of the special status. She understands that she’s like everyone else: weak, vulnerable, prone to “humanity”. Intense anxiety follows this discovery. The person understands that loneliness means lack of help if something nasty happens, experiences disconnectedness. This is the Fear of Life. It’s the fear that maybe… maybe… we didn’t experience everything we wanted on Earth, in full connection with the others. Maybe there is something left undone, unfinished. The Universe stretches infinite in front of us and we witness our smallness by comparison. We hesitate, we’re full of doubts. The greatness of the Space is crushing us. We can’t control it, we can’t contain it… And we are responsible for each of our actions, choices and attitudes… very responsible… This is torture.
Fear of Life gives birth to a defense mechanism that brings calm to us – the Supreme Savior or Protector. We turn very “religious”. Just remember what you do when you’re in danger. Most of us pray. The ones who don’t must face anxiety head-on. By re-connecting with the Supreme Being, we re-fuse. We return to a safe heaven, a spiritual one. This keeps us warm during our voyages through space. Often, this is not enough, so, after some time, we return to the Earth because we can’t bear being alone. Days after our return, we face fusion again. We lose our special status, we become just a brick in the wall, so we feel Fear of Death once again. And the vicious circle is restarted.
Pink Floyd composed a song called Breathe. I invite you to listen to it, performed by David Gilmour:
Here are the lyrics:
Breathe, breathe in the air
Don’t be afraid to care
Leave but don’t leave me
Look around, choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all your touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be.
Run rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.
Among other symbols, the song is deeply existentialistic. Breathing means Life, fear of caring are the feelings of love that we sometimes hide for fear of being vulnerable (fusion, safe heaven). “Leave but don’t leave me” is the dilemma of choice between fusion and freedom. Choosing own ground is separation. Everything you give to the world (smiles, tears… feelings being shared in safe heaven) is what keeps you alive, in contrast with the compulsion of building something (holes in space) for fear of freedom (in Eric Fromm’s terms). In the end, there is a reminder of our impermanence on Earth and the correlation between the chosen and assumed intensity of life (biggest wave) and the foreseeable ending (early grave), pointing out that it is us who decide the existential rhythm. Obviously, the fearful rabbit is in each of us…
1. This model of existential angst is suitable for believers and non-believers alike. It’s some sort of absolute psychology (see my previous article). It’s hard to dismantle, as it’s very consistent. Irvin Yalom made several studies to support it, including years of working with groups of terminally ill patients (persons who have only days or weeks left to live).
2. Because it deals with anxiety, everything happens most likely at the level of our limbic nervous system (older neuronal structures). The elaboration of this theory is based on old brain structures, but the arguments are made using the neocortex, the evolutionary new brain structures, typical for humans. Therefore, we should pay attention to the high feelings, mature defense mechanisms, the Rogersian characteristics of a person or the strengths and virtues explained in positive psychology and covered practically by Shirzad Chamine (see my article). I’m not saying the existentialists aren’t right, but they’re using only (or mainly) angst, while the human beings may choose other alternative (new cortical) feelings, for instance love, gratitude, joy, etc. Despite removing a lot of uncertainty in therapy and highlighting inner values and assuming existence, perhaps it’s time for an upgrade to existentialism?!
3. The solution given by this model is finding a situation in our life when both fears of death and life are covered. Typically we use both defenses (special status and supreme savior) at the same time, for instance we go to our job (fusion) so as to get money (freedom). Or we work abroad (separation) together with our partner (chosen dependence). Only in pathological situations our defenses collapse and we become aware of the validity of this model.
4. Another solution, in case we can’t cover both fears with defenses, is to decide and assume our choices. That is… use Responsibility. We’re always offered a choice between Neurotic Necessity and Assumed (Responsible) Freedom. Practically, this means to choose to stay either in Safe Heaven or Individuality AND Assume It. That is… assume either the fear of death or the fear of life. And acknowledge that YOU DO THIS, YOU CREATE THIS, not that OTHERS DID THIS TO YOU. There is a quote I found somewhere, sometimes ago that sounds like this: Don’t say “Look what they did to me!” but rather “Look what I did with what they did to me!”.
Here is an example (and an exercise) for assuming responsibility. For each complaint that you might have about your current situation or your life, you add the following statement at the end of your sentence: “… and I assume my responsibility for this!”
“I am in Romania… and I assume my responsibility for this, because I can leave it at anytime!”
“I have a horrible job… and I assume my responsibility for this, because I can change this at any moment but I don’t!”
“I’m having a terrible headache right now… and I assume my responsibility for this, because I could have searched a cure by now!”
and so on…
There are intense workshops where you assume incredible things, where you take full responsibility for your life and the way it is at this very moment.
Choosing between Safety and Individuality, at a certain point in life, is often difficult. One of the ways to choose is to position yourself in the twilight zone of your existence (imagine you’re living your last hour of your life) and look back to your life. Ask yourself how you lived your life and HOW YOU SHOULD HAVE LIVED? A similar exercise can be found here. Undoubtedly, you will feel what is called Existential Guilt, remorse for what you didn’t do. Follow the voice of your guilt and you will find, at the end of your quest, your True Self and your Mission (what you should have done) and perhaps have also a Vision of how your life should look like… That is the moment when “leave but don’t leave me” will cease to exist.