Anxiety – where does it come from?

Anxiety in adult life originates in the early stages of our development. It re-surfaces when long-term personal and/or organisational structures begin to disintegrate into unfamiliar forms, and the painstakingly constructed defence systems of the personality appear to be in danger of being swept away.

The root cause of this feeling is not difficult to explain. All that the human organism can do entirely on its own, for the first year or so of its life, is to breathe. For the fulfilment of all other needs, it depends utterly on the goodwill of others. Although the situation improves gradually as we learn how to act for ourselves, physical development is slow, and it is not until puberty, when mental and motor skills are sufficiently developed, that our basic individual needs can begin to be satisfied without outside help. For a very long period – fifteen years, at the very least – the over-riding need of the immature human organism is to be loved. Any withdrawal of affection implies that none of its other needs is going to be met. Every child will instinctively sense this threat to its survival; it forms the foundation on which adult feelings of panic and insecurity will be built. If it can’t get itself loved unconditionally it will spend most of its energy building up a personality structure strong enough to permanently protect those bits of itself that it fears will be perceived as being unacceptable.

So you can begin to understand the core function of personal resistance in adult life to the process of individual and professional change. It perpetuates the task of helping a person to cope, in a world-view of the present derived from the personal past – a world in which he or she still feels inadequate, weak and powerless. Because of the child-like feeling that we are powerless in the grip of an external environment that to a greater or lesser extent has denied our basic, authentic needs, we mutilate ourselves to fit it. Deformity is the price we pay to avoid early abandonment. This resistance to authentic self-expression, in both its psychological and physical aspects, becomes an integral part of the individual in adult life. Although its origins lie in its function of protection against an infantile threat that has long ceased to exist, these long-denied feelings continue to be unavailable to the centres of logic and reason. The resistance to change has become internalised – incorporated into our selves.

The resistant process draws heavily on the current account of energy available for day-to-day adult existence. In extreme circumstances, it manifests in the world as unco-ordinated or ‘self-conscious’ movement, chronic stiffness or muscular spasm, and/or as the symptoms of psychosomatic or depressive illness. More often, it shows up in an organisational context as a lack of motivation, an inability to concentrate, or as a feeling of hopelessness. The physical or psychological suffering that goes with it is directly proportionate to the amount of energy used to repress and contain the catastrophic expectations.