Anxiety arises from a sense of not belonging, of feeling that we are not being accepted as a person
Ahead of his talk on teen anxiety on 13 December, Psychotherapist Fari Khabirpour sheds light on why anxiety is so rife among youngsters today and explores ways to tackle it.
In a society dominated by reason and intellect, where we engage primarily through our minds and inside our heads, we tend to neglect our feelings.
One of the feelings that often bothers us and about which we are not always conscious is anxiety. Derived from a German word ‘angst,’ it is related to the word ‘enge’, which means being in a narrow place. To be angst-ridden is actually the exact opposite of feeling free. Whenever we feel anxious we are effectively in a condition of fear. And when we are fearful, we cannot do the things we want to do, we cannot express the words that we want to express, our inner feelings are blocked.
For example, if we love someone, but this love is connected to the feeling of angst we really have difficulties expressing our love to that person. Love is blocked and distorted by fear.
This feeling of being afraid is related to another idea which has probably occurred to you as well--how people react to what we say. Will my ideas be accepted? This anxiety underlines the fact that fear is closely related to feelings of acceptance or rejection by others. One of the greatest psychologists of human behaviour, Alfred Adler, stated that these two vital impulses of acceptance and rejection are the bedrock of all human behaviour.
Acceptance, arises from a feeling of belonging. Every human being, from infancy on, wants to belong. So the primary relationship between a mother and child, even before birth, even in the womb of the mother, is a relationship of belonging. Then after the birth of the child into this world, the feeling of belonging continues; it is not limited only to a single person, but others gradually come into the picture too.
According to Adler, the feeling of being accepted in these core relationships is fundamental; it is a need we have as human beings; we are born with it. The worst thing you can do to someone if you want to punish him, is to isolate the person; it is even worse than being aggressive or violent. I’m not saying that it is good to be aggressive, to shout or become physically abusive to a child, but it is better than ignoring him. At least the child in this situation feels that he exists; he feels ‘I am important to my parent’.
Photo: Fari Khabirpour. Hear Dr Khabirpour, pictured, speak about childhood anxiety at the ISL on 13 December. See the end of the article for details.
The worst kind of punishment is if you say to that child ‘I don’t love you’, ‘You are not my child anymore’, ‘I don’t want you’. This sometimes happens when we are very angry; we all know that it does and can happen. So, it’s better to avoid such expressions, even when we become very angry, or upset, even when a child doesn’t do what we want, doesn’t show respect. Even then we should avoid giving that child the feeling of rejection, because love should never be questioned or doubted.
Love is the most important thing in our lives. If there’s one feeling, one attribute that we need to keep in our hearts, at all times and under all conditions, it is love. For example, if I get the feeling, presenting my ideas to you, that you don’t care about what I’m saying, then I am immediately blocked. A feeling of fear overcomes me, my whole body seizes up. Concentration fades and I forget everything. Imagine how much more a child will feel when experiencing this sort of dismissiveness, especially in relation to school and learning. We often talk about children having difficulties concentrating. This is only because something in their bodies is seizing up. Blockage is the result of anxiety. And anxiety arises from a sense of not belonging, of feeling that we are not being accepted as a person.
Now, this doesn’t mean that as parents or teachers we should allow a child to do whatever he or she wants. Firstly, a child’s words and deeds might not be correct, might not be truthful or right, and it is detrimental to reward such behaviour. And secondly, it doesn’t help a child grow or learn if we never challenge his or her reactions. Learning only takes place when we are exposed to different ideas, views or concepts of life.
So, it is important to discuss questions with our children, to communicate with them honestly and openly even if our opinions differ. But such engagements should be always based on love and acceptance. You can think whatever you want, but you will always be my child, and I will always love you. This should be our basic attitude, in order to avoid provoking fear in people, in order to heal the anxieties of people.
We need to develop an atmosphere in our families and schools where kids have the feeling of belonging. Whenever I visit schools, what is most important for me is to sense the atmosphere in that school. In certain schools the atmosphere is such that when kids arrive, they feel immediately accepted and have a sense of belonging and the reverse is also true. When our children leave home for school each morning, they should have the feeling that they are going to a place where they feel safe, they feel accepted.
This feeling of belonging to a community is gradually disappearing in the world around us. It is being eroded in our materialistic societies today, where human relations and communication, love and the sense of belonging are less important than gaining power, acquiring money, securing social and political position. At the same time as the sense of belonging is declining, we see that feelings of fear and angst are becoming dominant. And worst of all they are being exploited. They are actually being used by certain politicians to gain even more power over people. Because if you make someone afraid, then you can control him better and can do whatever you want with that person. As soon as you arouse a certain level of insecurity in him, he will feel lost, he will become dependent on you, and you can manipulate him as you want.
What we generally hear on news day after day creates an ambiance of fear in our families which we may not even realise, the fear of everything that is happening in the world. And we keep telling our kids, ‘Be careful, don’t speak to strangers on the streets, watch out when you’re driving.’ We give them the impression that everything out there is dangerous. We want to protect our children, so we keep telling them to be careful. But the moment we do this, we are planting the seed of fear in their hearts. This is how we nurture angst in the next generation without even realising it ourselves.
We normally project our own fears on our children. They are not born conditioned to fear. A child is born with an instinctive feeling of wanting to belong and wanting to know, with a desire to love and to learn. So, since children want to understand, we can use this motivation to explain to them the issues at hand. And perhaps they will then reflect and tell themselves - ‘OK, next time I’ll do it differently and I’ll be more careful’.
Now, whether they actually succeed or not in changing their behaviour is something else. Children do not always have to do the things that we explain to them. They need to go through their own lives and experience things. Even though it is good to share our knowledge with them, at an intellectual level, they will learn more through their own actions and experiences rather than any amount of explanation or information we can provide.
Fear of making mistakes
Society today is primarily focused on failure. As a result we are very worried about making mistakes. We all make mistakes, constantly, because we’re not perfect. But if I don’t accept that making mistakes is normal, I might think I have to be perfect all the time. The pressure of being perfect is exhausting! And the final result is deep depression.
I have worked with many young people who suffer from depression. At a certain point, if the pressure to be perfect is sustained long enough, children give up entirely. They realise that they have been making enormous efforts and spending huge amounts of energy on being perfect, but will never reach their goal. In a world dominated by competition, there will always be someone else better than themselves. And when they finally realize this, they give up. Such resignation not only leads to depression but in some cases even to suicide. Children sometimes feel they should not exist if they are not perfect.
Stop pushing, start believing
Parents come to me sometimes and tell me how important it is to be demanding so that their children will learn and progress. It is not necessary to push a child. But it is vital to believe in your child, believe in his capacity to learn, to help him realise that he can succeed without being the best, and that it’s fine if he isn’t the best.
Sometimes even those of us who think we are doing the best for our children, because we are bringing them up to be ‘the best’, finally realise that the result could be fatal, to them and for us. What we imagine to be love can even lead to the death of those we love best. Instead of bequeathing true love to them, and raising them to be spiritually free beings, we are condemning them to fear.