What does anxiety want?

By March 7, 2022April 16th, 2022Anxiety, Define self
Handling conflict

I believe Dr. Bowen has stated that “anxiety is a self wanting to be defined”. This is an interesting and productive way to think about anxiety.

Bowen wrote that there are two main variables to the theory.  They are “degree of anxiety” and “degree of integration of self” or level of differentiation (p. 361). The relationship between these two is that the lower the level of differentiation the more reactive one is to anxiety (p. 407).

Anxiety is a valuable signal.

Anxiety is a signal that should not be ignored. It is the feeling of the body ready to respond to a threat. Once we are aware that we are anxious, the body has already unleashed a cascade of reactions to prepare one for the threat that leads to the anxious feeling. One way to think about a threat is that it is a threat to self, that a part of, or all of, self will be impinged upon or lost. Good reason to be energized for flight or fight.

You versus the relationship.

In relationships, this can show up as any feeling of tension, discomfort or uncertainty. Or this can turn into a clear level of anxiousness for one’s safety or the ‘safety’ of the relationship. This level of anxiousness is indicative of a conflict between what one thinks they need to do for the relationship in contrast to what they want to do for themselves. How much does one have to “go along” to “avoid conflict” and not “rock the boat” even though they don’t want to?

Anxiety trying to tell you something.

This anxiety is a signal that there is a threat to you for doing what you want to do. The signal that a threat is reduced or resolved is that our anxiety goes done. So reducing anxiety is a useful normal response. But in relationships, the short-term reduction of anxiety has a price. It often means giving up self to the relationship. Giving up self has a cost over time.

What do you want?

Another approach would be to observe what “self” one is trying to hold on to. What does one have to do to reduce the discomfort?  Do you have to give up your point of view or opinion?  Give up a goal?  Do you have to behave or do something you really don’t want to?  In other words, do you have to give up some self?  The alternative is to hold on to self by defining self.

Defining versus comforting.

Defining self starts with being clear on what you are willing to do and not willing to do. Then it’s the ability to act on that. Acting on what one believes is not about changing the other person. It’s about communicating and acting on what one believes. This can take conviction in order for one to stand firm and not go along. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong. You are just making your choice and the other person then can make their choice. The choice to hold onto self isn’t always easy, but giving up self just to feel less anxious, just to be more comfortable simply delays the inevitable.  If you don’t define yourself now, when will you?   

Go easy.

It is always easier to talk about defining self than it is to do it. Going along is part of being a social species. It greases the wheels of family and society. Like most things it is not either-or, it’s the degree or amount of losing self that matters. You’ll have to be the judge of that. Anxiety will be your friend in this if you listen.

Dave Galloway


You can watch Dr. Bowen discuss anxiety here.     For a discussion on anxiety and differentiation go here.