Recently I was meeting with a teenage client who had significant social anxiety. He would get so anxious about upcoming social situations that he couldn't function. For example, in school he was unable to concentrate on his assignments because he would be so preoccupied with the upcoming lunch period in the cafeteria and the social implications involved. In fact, his day to day anxious feelings would build to the point of him resorting to self-harm and coming up with creative ways to avoid social situations. We will call him Joe for purposes of this discussion. Here is an abbreviated excerpt of our conversation:
Jamie: Tell me a little bit about what's been going on.
Joe: I have severe social anxiety. It's gotten so bad I feel depressed all the time and often have thoughts of suicide.
Jamie: Why are social settings so difficult for you?
Joe: Well, I just don't know what is going to happen. I don't know what to say and worry I will say something stupid. I keep thinking about different scenarios to try to prepare and then find myself so overwhelmed it's hard to concentrate.
Jamie: Do you know anybody who knows what is going to happen?
Joe: What do you mean?
Jamie: It seems to bother you that you don't know what is going to happen, and I was wondering if you knew anybody who knew what was going to happen.
Joe: Well I hadn't really thought about that. I don't guess I do. (Laughs)
Jamie: Well, me neither. It seems to me that the problem isn't that you don't know what is going to happen. It's that you think you should know. This is why it makes sense for you to try to figure it out. I would think trying to know something you can't know would be very discouraging.
Joe: It is! It will drive you crazy. So, actually my anxiety is being caused by my trying do something I can't do. What a relief. I really thought there was something wrong with me, but I am realizing now it was just a misunderstanding.
How we relate to the unknown is at the heart of our mental lives. If you step back, you will notice that there are basically two distinct ways an unhealthy relationship to the unknown reveals itself.
1. Trying to know the unknown
In the above example, Joe demonstrated what happens when we try to know the unknown. Worry is the common term for this, and for some people it can lead to severe anxiety. We all have moments of worry, but regardless of how justified we may think it is, it always boils down to trying to figure out the future with our thinking minds. Another way to talk about this would in terms of uncertainty. When people face uncertainty they often try to become certain by analyzing and ruminating, innocently attempting to solve a problem with unknown variables. The truth is everybody lives in uncertainty. Some people have just come to terms with this fact more than others.
Young children are great role models when it comes to this. They live most of the day in a moment to moment flow of thoughts without their mind filled with expectations, assumptions, and judgments. It's no wonder they get over things quickly, and live with so much joy and vitality. You could even say they have more uncertainty than we do as adults given how little they know about the world. Given the percentage of time they spend not knowing, it's no coincidence they are so stress-free, confident, and creative.
- Have you ever worried about an upcoming event, only to find out it wasn't nearly as bad as you thought it would be? How does this happen?
- Imagine how it would feel to live most of the day completely in a state of not knowing. Do you think any negative feelings could survive for very long in that mental atmosphere?
- Young children are great mentors when it comes to the unknown. Take time this week to observe a young child. See if you can catch them worrying about the future. If you do catch them, see how long it lasts. Their wisdom may surprise you.