Your anxiety is not (only) about you

By Os Keyes

Here are some thoughts. They’re about anxiety, and self-respect, and how the absence of the latter can catalyse the former, and the harms that can result from that shitty combination.

Writing this up has taken the longest time. Part of that is how deeply personal it is, not just in the sense of being about my life but being about me, and my sense of self. Part of that is how tangled up it is in other people’s stories - stories I do not feel comfortable telling. Most of it, though, is how much of a complicated thing anxiety is. The weird eddies and whirls between different aspects of the self, and the impossibility of attributing anything to any one thing, makes it hard to tell a linear story. But it seemed worth doing: partly for my own work, and partly in the hopes that some of it might be useful to someone out there still reaching for frameworks to scaffold their own thinking. This doesn’t mean it’s going to necessarily be coherent: it’s somewhere between a single essay and a written representation of the process of having a dozen ideas and trying to grasp how they relate to each other.

I am a deeply anxious person, and always have been. This is not particularly rare: to the contrary, some amount of anxiety is increasingly common. We all have so much to worry about, these days, and many of us always have. Where I think a lot of people - including, historically, me - go wrong in thinking about anxiety is how we conceptualise its impact on one’s relationships with others. The result is a dangerously inadequate understanding of the harm anxiety can do to those relationships, and to those others.

Anxiety, vulnerability and harm

Anxiety (at least; my anxiety) is about fear. Fear of receiving harm; fear of causing harm. Fear of the possibility of either. Speaking for myself, my fears are that I will disappoint others’ expectations and be punished for it. That I will be taken in and trapped, and as a result, harmed. What all these things have in common are that they are centered on a feeling of vulnerability, and a fear of that vulnerability. A fear that our existence (either physically or conceptually - our sense of “who we are”) is vulnerable to others’ actions, and we are helpless in the face of that. The result is a sort of default attitude of mistrust, or distrust. Anyone is a risk; anyone can hurt you or change you (and the two are one and the same).

I’m not going to get into where that started, which is its own miserable story. What I want to say, very broadly, is that it comes from well…evidence. Times - long, formative portions of my life - where I have been vulnerable, and have been harmed through that vulnerability. Where I was made helpless and hurt as a consequence. Reacting with fears of vulnerability, and attempts to address them, is not an uncommon response; indeed, Beverly Flanigan identifies two of the three types of wound as the “Pilot in Command” and “Defenseless Drifter”. The former is a wound that forces a victim to, contrary to their beliefs of self-control, “recognise how helpless and fragile [they] really [are]”; the latter, experienced by someone who “believes they are not in charge of much at all..[and] views the world as an unsafe, hostile place”, consequently seeking protection, experiences harm from a protector as shattering “the myth of safety” the protector provided. My suspicion would be that these mentalities can also result from injury, and as a response to violation. That, a lot of the time, when we look at people’s control strategies, we’re looking at the legacy of unaddressed injuries.

But, regardless: I learned that vulnerability was an unacceptable risk, and that others were untrustworthy, and that the only way to be safe was to avoid vulnerability, and avoid trust. This isn’t a rare story; in fact, it’s a common one. But it’s a common story that is wrong. It leaves out a lot of the harm that this kind of attitude does. It does so, I think, because of the attitude to other people that is involved in this story, and the attitude to anxiety, too.

Anxiety and relationships

Portraying anxiety and mistrust as about, I don’t know, miscalibrated protection routines, is pretty common. And it’s pretty comfortable; it resonates with the sort of self-actualised idea of identity popular in the world, in which being influenced by other people is already a failure of your duty to stand alone as an agent, and to be unique. But it’s all-too easy to step from that portrayal of anxiety, to taking the same approach to the consequences of anxiety. To end up seeing the harms it does, and the solutions to those harms, as centered on the anxious person. It is the anxious person being anxious; it is the anxious person experiencing the harms of that state of anxiety, particularly the fracturing of social relations and the dissolution of internal happiness.

Other people certainly appear - but they appear in a limited way. They appear as the other party in a one-way relation; in a relation in which they are one of the sources of harm to the sufferer, along with the anxiety itself, but nothing more. Again, this makes sense; it aligns with the idea of vulnerability as risk. And if anxiety simply nullified the possibility of relating to others, and the desire for it, maybe that would be all there is.

But: it doesn’t. Anxiety can’t change the fact that we depend on other people, and our relations to them. All it can do is poison those relations, by undermining the trust that makes them possible. And since trust comes from vulnerability, and relations of mutual trust involve mutual vulnerability, that means that the harms anxiety does are to others as well as to the self. The witness is also the sufferer.

An example might make this ramble a bit clearer. Several years ago I found myself standing on a path (literally, as well as metaphorically) with a then-friend who we’ll call M. Because, well, I don’t want to add “violating their privacy on this blog” to the pile of other harms I’ve heaped upon them (much of them as a result of the topic of this essay!) M had asked for my help and time a few weeks prior - at this point, I forget what it was even about - and I had given them both. Because I had wanted to, but also because that was my “thing”; always being everything to everyone (else) at once, never disappointing, no matter how many grey hairs or half-truths were necessary. After all: if you always make everyone happy, nobody has reason to hurt you.

On this occasion, though, as we were talking and walking: something broke. Maybe it was the sheer amount of stress trying to be that impossible creature had put me under. Maybe it was the internal struggle I always had around vulnerability trying, flailing, to reach out and reach through. Whichever it was: I was honest. I was honest about the stress and pressure I was under (that I had put myself under), and how agreeing to their request had added to that stress. And then, well, I flinched internally, expecting a particular genre of recrimination; an argument as to why it was the “no”s that hurt them.

Who does anxiety harm?

M’s response was not that; it was the opposite. It was that I had broken their trust by saying “yes”. I had made her reticent to ask e to do things in the future, because embedded in all of those requests - sometimes explicitly - was the premise that I would say if I couldn’t do a thing, and would take care to ensure I was preserving myself. By saying yes when I had meant no, I hd broken the trust they had in the legitimacy of my answers. Worse: I had communicated that I did not trust M. That I did not take their assurances it would be okay if I said no seriously.

At the time, this response caught me…completely by surprise. It was almost unintelligible, because of the headspace I was in, that an assurance of comfort with a negative could just be an assurance. Because: of course I hadn’t trusted her assurances! People lie; people expect perfecton. Promises that they don’t are traps. It took me an embarassingly long time, and a lot of harm to both others and myself, to realise how unreasonable it was to have those expectations nd that approach to others. But at the time it made total sense. Because the only way to achieve safety was to have that paranoid and mistrustful a mindset.

My point, then (if there’s a point) is sort of twofold. First: anxiety doesn’t just cost the person experiencing it sleepless nights. It robs you of the possibility of healthy relationships; the possibility of community. Second; costs don’t just accrue to the anxious person. Precisely because relating is inevitable and necessary, the anxious person will still end up in relation with others. And in such a situation, the disjoint between one’s mistrust and the other’s trust, one’s invulnerability and the other’s vulnerability, guarantees harm. Not to the anxious person, but to the people unfortunate enough to be around them.

Most forms of anxiety are not this severe or serious. But it seems important (in line with broader transformative justice concerns about taking the time to reflect on relations as multifaceted) to try to have a better model of anxiety and its harms. Realising that so deeply and viscerally cost a lot, and came too late to help in many of the relationships I’d derailed - but it’s still useful for the future. And maybe other people than me, most of whom are much smarter than me, can take the cue to reach this realisation earlier.