On Being Scared All the Time
It’s not an illustrious category to belong to of course, but there are plenty of us at least. We worry about work, money, being left, illness, disappointing, over-promising, madness and disgrace, just to start the list. We worry in the early hours, we worry on holiday, we worry at parties and we worry all the time while we’re trying to smile and seem normal to good people who depend on us. It can feel pretty unbearable, at moments.
A standard approach when trying to assuage our blizzard of worries is to look at each in turn and marshal sensible arguments against their probabilities. But it can, at points, also be helpful not to look at the specifics of every worry and instead to consider the overall position that worry has come to occupy in our lives.
There is a hugely fascinating sentence on the topic in an essay by the great English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: ‘The catastrophe you fear will happen has in fact already happened.’ When we worry, we are naturally fixated on what will occur next: it’s the future, with its boundless possibilities for horror, that is the natural arena for exploration by our panicked thoughts. But in Winnicott’s unexpected thesis, something else is revealed: the disaster that we fear is going to unfold is actually behind us.
There is a paradox here: why do we keep expecting something to happen that has already happened? Why don’t we better distinguish past from present? Winnicott’s answer that it’s in the nature of traumatic events from childhood not to be properly processed and as a result, like the dead who have not been adequately buried and mourned, to start to haunt us indiscriminately in adulthood. But they do not make themselves felt in straightforward and transparent ways as laments about the past. They show up perfectly disguised as unfairly intense apprehensions about the future. They convince us that something awful is about to occur; they blind us from seeing that it did so long ago.
For example, we may panic that we are about to be humiliated and shamed. There are no particularly strong grounds for this in objective reality, but we are utterly convinced nevertheless, because this is precisely what happened to us when we were tiny and at the hands of a parent. Or we worry intensely that we are about to be abandoned in love not because our partner is in any significant way disloyal, but because someone who once looked after us at a very vulnerable point definitely was.
A benefit of understanding how much our worries owe to childhood is a new sense that it isn’t so much the future we should be distressed about as the past. We can replace dread and apprehension with something sadder yet ultimately more redemptive: mourning. We can feel profoundly sorry for our younger selves as an alternative to being panicked for our future selves.
Appreciating the childhood legacy of worries, we also stand to realize that we can adapt and improve on how we respond to what alarms us. If we have been well parented, we will have been bequeathed a repertoire of good moves to latch on to when crises occur: we know how to reach out, seek help, perhaps move away and only take as much responsibility as we are due. We have access to a corridor through our troubles. But when we have lacked this kind of tutelage, we remain in significant ways, in relation to our troubles, like the frightened children we once were. We may be tall, drive a car and sound like a grown-up, but faced with concerns, resort to our toolkit of childlike solutions: we overreact, we go silent, we scream, we have a little sense of other options, we feel extremely limited in our powers of protest and agency, we lose all perspective.
To which it is appropriate, and in no way patronizing, to remind ourselves of what can — in our deeper psychological selves — still be an entirely implausible thought: that we are now adults. In other words, in response to the kinds of terror we knew so well at the age of four or eight, we don’t have to be either as afraid or as powerless as we were. We can mount a direct protest, we can make an eloquent case for ourselves, we can complain and defend our position, we can rebuild our lives in a new way elsewhere.
There are two ways to mitigate risk: to try to remove all risk from the world. Or to work on one’s attitude to risk. Knowing that many of our fears have childhood antecedents as do our responses to them can free us to imagine that history won’t have to repeat itself exactly. Adult life doesn’t have to be as terrifying as our childhoods once were and our responses to our fears can have some of the greater vigor and confidence that is the natural privilege of grown-ups. We’ll still be worried a substantial portion of the time, but perhaps with a little less fragility and fewer burning convictions of total upcoming catastrophe.
If you enjoyed this article, many of its ideas are explored further in How Modern Media Destroys Our Minds — a guide to navigating modern media and staying sane in a world that does not turn off.
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Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.