Common Defences Against Anxiety and the Sacramental Way of Dealing With Them

I have been thinking about being
vulnerable lately and how I respond to it. Of course Freud and his followers have developed a good theory of ego defence mechanisms against the ‘thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to’ and I don’t think I can contribute much to that, but I have noticed some kinds of behaviour, that happen all around the place in parish life and in friendships, that have made me think about how people protect themselves from anxiety.

Now this is not meant to be directed ‘at’ anyone. I myself am a particularly anxious person, and thinking about the defences against anxiety begins with me. So here goes.

I think I am pretty intelligent. But when I was younger, the trials and tribulations of youth meant that my social distress took over from the exercise of my brains. Henceforth I used to ‘say’ that I was smart, but in defending against the anxiety of failure, or the possible proof that I was not as smart as I thought,  I would not put in the regular hard work that would get me good results. I used to do everything at the last moment rather than plan for exams. What came out as laziness was a response to the anxiety of
wondering if I really was as smart as I thought.

This led me to the ambition of doing a Doctorate. This was the best I could be. It meant for the first time ‘doing the work’ and facing the anxiety, which I did! It is the first piece of decent work that I ever did. It is a
pretty good piece of work, but it is the first.

But then came the thoughts of what having a doctorate would mean. In a university setting, having “Dr.” in front of  one’s name is just a prerequisite for being seen as legitimate. It’s a key to the door. But in other places I used to think ‘People don’t respect me enough. Maybe if I have “Dr.” in front of my name they will.’ So having the degree is a defence against the anxiety associated with having to negotiate all the time. Sometimes this works. When I am on the telephone I can say ‘Here is Dr. Paul Dalzell’ and that gets me access to some people I might not otherwise have access to.

When I went for my German oral exam, I thought “The examiners have German as a mother tongue. I am at a disadvantage. How can I defend myself against their natural superiority?” So I went as ‘The Rev’d Fr. Dalzell’ with my clerical gear on. That helped my confidence and let the examiners talk to me about the Church, for which subject my vocab was good!

The problem is that this strategy worked for the German examination, but it does not work for being a priest in a congregation. In a congregation everything has to be negotiated. A Doctor of Medicine or a tradesperson is sort of respected for their skill set but not so much a priest. Like a clown in the circus, the skill set of a priest is hidden in the millions of things that are implicit in putting on Church, so everything has to be negotiated.

But there are other responses I know about by which peole hide their anxiety. Technology frightens many people and so the problem of engaging with it, which means facing one’s anxiety, is dealt with by an outright rejection. “I am not going to learn that” can be a response to the anxiety provoked by a technology that one does not know how to master yet.

The same is true for new ideas. When new ideas come, the first response of anxiety is to reject them. “That’s stupid” is the most common first reply from someone who means to say “I don’t understand this and not understanding makes me anxious.” This is in part the cause of the ‘turnover’ in congregations that happens  when a new priest arrives. People who don’t think that they have to negotiate, or can’t negotiate, encounter the new ideas of a newcomer priest. They don’t understand them and so they say ‘Well that’s stupid, I’m going’.

I have also noticed that some people are vegetarian. This can of course be motivated by genuine concern for the conditions under which animals are kept or for health reasons, but I can also imagine that food habits are a way of protecting a person’s sense of vulnerability by exercising some form of control over the external world as symbolised by food. They exercise control over what they ‘take in’ because of the anxiety provoked by ‘taking anything in.’

At a political level I have often thought, and written, that the economic conditions under which we are forced to work make us anxious and insecure, with good reason. This anxiety can’t be directed at the real source of the malaise (the conditions under which we are forced to work) but at easier targets like immigration and the people whom we think are likely to take our jobs.

The bottom line in all this is that if there is any truth to my intuitions, there are a lot of anxious people out there (including me) busily defending themselves against potential threats. Like snails in our shell, the shell serves as a kind of defence for the vulnerable snail inside.

But the anxiety is real. The question is ‘Are there better or more honest ways to deal with it?’

The first place for me is prayer. The hymn ‘Take it to the lord in Prayer’ is true. It is a privilege to be able to speak to God about the things that make me most anxious, in the truest possible way.

Then there are my close relationships. The other night when I was anxious, but mostly trying to cope with it by bike riding, I had an altercation with my spouse. In the middle of it, out came the truth “ I am really anxious, I am full up and just about to boil over. The thing that you said just added that much more energy to the system and I boiled over…sorry!’ But the telling the truth that I was carrying a load of anxiety in itself helped to lower the temperature.’

These two options are a microcosm of what we do every Sunday. In the Gospel we are commanded to Love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. This is what Church is meant to be. In prayer and marriage or other close relationships we embody the fulfilling of this commandment at the ‘micro’ level. We embody the
sacrament of love. As the scripture tells us ‘Perfect love casts out fear’. But more, the opportunity to tell the truth about my anxiety lessens the need for huffing and puffing with my defences against it.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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