Labelling things “good” or “bad” is an age-old tradition of humankind. Doing so has allowed us to make quick, sometimes life-saving, decisions as we navigate the world (e.g., “This person, plant, predator is bad / dangerous.”). When the urgency of a situation precludes extensive deliberation, value judgments about safety and trustworthiness must be made rapidly and decisively.
If asked to describe anxiety as either good or bad, most of us would select the latter descriptor. And particularly for those with severe anxiety, such an assessment is undoubtedly warranted. At its extreme, anxiety takes the form of panic—the sense that one’s life is in imminent danger. It impels us to take swift action, using whatever means necessary to avert the perceived threat.
In more moderate doses, anxiety prompts us to pay closer attention to things we care about. It highlights potential problems that may require our consideration or intercession.
At times, anxiety seems to come out of nowhere, not unlike intuition. I can recall numerous occasions where anxious intuitions led me to discover problems that were unknown to my conscious mind, but which my subconscious seemed to have some knowledge of. If these intuitions hadn’t been tinged with some measure of anxiety, however, I’m not sure I would have noticed or heeded them. So by flagging certain issues as salient or urgent, anxious feelings ensure they don’t get missed or glossed over.
Anxiety, Values & Meaning
Anxiety is intimately linked with values. Indeed, it’s rare for us to worry about things we don’t care about or haven’t invested in. So if you want to know what another person values, just ask her what she worries about the most.
Like anxiety, values motivate action. By highlighting what’s important, they rouse us from indifference and compel us to pursue what we want. If we fail to heed this call, we deprive ourselves of the meaning engendered by values-based action. Anxiety thus tends to reinforce the importance of our values, as well as the potential consequences of neglecting them.
Values inform us that life is better with certain things than it is without them. Insofar as they desire and prioritize one life path over another, values resemble commitments. Anxiety serves a sort of watchman over our values, ready to sound the alarm should something seem amiss.
Personally, if I had to choose a fate, I think I’d rather be anxious than depressed. At least anxiety entails an underlying sense of value or importance, the feeling that something in life is precious enough to warrant concern about its absence. By contrast, depression involves a perceived deficit of value, even casting doubt on our most foundational value—life itself.
Some spiritual teachers have espoused that maintaining strong attachments (read: values) is problematic since they invariably beget some form of anxiety or suffering. In other words, when we care deeply about something whose future existence can’t be guaranteed, we put our inner Zen at risk. In concert with author Colin Wilson, I’m more sympathetic to the counterview, namely, that an unattached life would ultimately prove less meaningful and more regretful. In his book, Frankenstein’s Castle, Wilson writes:
The real problem of human existence is not suffering… It’s the question of whether human life is really meaningless and futile… Suffering is a central problem of human existence, but this is because we have a suspicion that it is all for nothing. If we had certainty about meaning, the suffering would be bearable.
Paraphrasing a bit, we can weather anxiety (or other forms of strife) if we believe there’s meaning to be found on the other side or along the way. For Wilson, meaninglessness (and similarly depression and nihilism) is our greatest nemesis. Hence, discussions of psychospiritual wellness should start with, or ultimately circle back to, concerns about meaning.
This is not to say that it’s never appropriate to target anxiety itself. Especially when chronic or severe, it’s clearly unhelpful and debilitating. But we may not want to snuff it out completely, to the point of feeling numb or indifferent to our values. Ideally, we would find a way to effectively harness it, using it as a prompt for values-based action.
Anxiety & Creativity
Many of us are wont to gripe about working a day job that doesn’t speak to us or inspire our creative juices. At the same time, however, we often fail to capitalize on the opportunities we do have to act creatively and pursue our passion. While laziness or lack of self-discipline may play a role, our inaction is often rooted in self-doubt or fears about failure. In such instances, it may seem as though anxiety is working counter to our values by discouraging us from doing what we really love. But on closer inspection, I’m not sure this is the case.
To my eye, what’s actually happening is anxiety is advocating for a different set of values, namely, safety and predictability. It’s essentially suggesting—“You’ll feel safer if you don’t try”—which may not be untrue. Unlike routine or monotonous jobs, creative work requires walking into the dark forest of the unknown. Not only is the outcome of the creative process unknown, but also its perceived value or utility. Moreover, the path to creative success is never clearly marked, but is replete with dead-ends, U-turns, and forks in the road. Countless creatives have confessed that alongside every great thing they’ve made sits a pile of discarded ideas and unfinished projects.
This behooves us to ask ourselves what we really want out of our life and work. To what extent do we want to play it safe versus pursuing more meaningful, but scary endeavors? Is the anxiety associated with venturing into the unknown too much to bear, or do the potential rewards outweigh the risks?
How we answer these questions will hinge on our values as well as our tolerance for certain types of emotional distress. For instance, if we value creativity but feel overwhelmed in creative job settings, something might have to change. If we value creative work and can handle its attendant anxieties, it may be a good fit. Likewise, boredom can be a source of distress in mundane jobs, but it may be more tolerable for some personalities than others.
It’s also worth noting that while there’s often anxiety and uncertainty at the outset of a creative project, this eventually gives way to a meaningful state of flow and absorption. And in many respects the flow state is the creative type’s Holy Grail. As T.E. Lawrence once remarked, “Happiness is absorption.” Unfortunately, the path to flow is not always easy or straightforward. More often than not, we must endure some anxiety and self-doubt along the way.
Experiencing anxiety doesn’t mean we’ll never find creative flow. But we may have to weather some storms before the sun finally peeks through the clouds.
To learn more about finding and realizing your creative path, be sure to explore our online course: Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP.
*Top Image Credit: iStock Matter of Minds Series, agsandrew