2017-11-09 / Guest Column

Basic Anxiety, The Fear That Shapes Our Personality

By Michael Feld, L.C.S.W.
Certified Psychoanalyst
Licensed Psychotherapist

Our personality develops as a result of our exchanges with the people closest to us in our early years, usually our parents. We grow in a healthy way if as young children we feel loved and accepted for being ourselves. If our parents respect our individuality and encourage and guide us to express our own true selves, we can develop to our full potential. Often, however, there are disturbances in the relationship with our parents. When our parents can’t express genuine warmth and affection, we feel unloved. This feeling of not being loved is extremely frightening to a child. It causes other feelings to emerge, including those of being small, insignificant, helpless, deserted, endangered and isolated in a world that is out to abuse, cheat, attack, humiliate and betray. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney called these feelings of being alone and helpless in a potentially hostile world “basic anxiety.”

We probably rarely, if ever, experience basic anxiety as adults. But its initial experience in childhood was so terrifying and painful that it moved us to search for relief from its intensity and solutions to prevent its re-occurrence. What we developed as solutions were different ways in dealing with our parents, and eventually all people. We could move toward people, clinging to them for help and being very compliant by serving them and meeting all their wishes. Or we might fight with them by becoming very aggressive and rebellious. Or we might withdraw and become detached and removed from the world of mingling with people.

In a healthy child, all these moves are interchangeable according to the situation. But in a child who is terrified of the feeling of basic anxiety, there is much insecurity. We try to establish a sense of security by behaving in one way. However, anxiety always lurks in the shadows, since it is extremely difficult to always be compliant, loving and dependent without sometimes feeling angry and rebellious. Anytime we experience the two different moves together, we feel torn apart by this basic neurotic conflict, and vulnerable to anxiety. To further insure our wholeness, and avoid the feeling of basic anxiety, we adopt a very compulsive, rigid way of living life. This means we develop a certain type of personality or character structure.

As part of our personality, we accumulate a whole set of values, ideals and prides in our solution. We become one of the following character types:

1. Self-effacing, compliant, loving people who are unable to be aggressive when necessary, and who are vulnerable to abusive relationships. We become dependent and clinging, hoping to solve all our problems through love.

2. Expansive, aggressive, rebellious people who trust no one. We become abusive, vindictive and enjoy having people look up to us and be dependent on us. We are terrified of any soft qualities, fear any weakness we may have, and to cover it up we lash out at others. We develop a pride and need to master and control our environment and the people in it.

3. Resigned, detached people who prefer the feeling of freedom from others. We enjoy being alone, withdrawing emotionally from people and life, and live mostly in fantasy and the imagination. We do not know how to enjoy the world of people. We are dull and without any passion.

To be exclusively and rigidly one way is neurotic. Which means it is a painful way of living. It also means it is behaving in a way that is purely motivated by the fear of experiencing any anxiety, which might trigger the fear of basic anxiety.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapy involves a process of learning to accept all three sides of our personality. It involves putting them all together in one person and being able to be loving, assertive or independent when necessary. It is a way of learning to be spontaneous, and accepting our feelings and ourselves for simply being who we are. It is a process of healing through self-acceptance, self-mercy and self-compassion. It is a process of becoming intimate with ourselves, which eventually allows us to be intimate with others.

Prepared as a public service from the office of Psychotherapist Michael Feld, L.C. S.W. (347) 248-1092

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