Fear vs. Freedom: Don’t Let Existential Anxiety Ruin Your Life

Fear vs. Freedom: Don’t Let Existential Anxiety Ruin Your Life
You did it. You freed yourself from that one thing that was holding you back. Now what?

Your mid-20s to early-30s are a heck of an exciting time. You’ve found your feet in the working world and are opening up new horizons of possibility. Your relationships—and romances—are more mature, rewarding, and committed. You’re beginning to feel like, well, a bona fide adult.

Or you’re paralyzed by anxiety and doubt.

If so, you’re not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 18.1% of Americans experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015, and anxiety is at an 80-year high amongst young people. It’s a major public health issue, and guys like you and me are far from immune.

Disorder can seem like a strong word. But simply put, if some hang up is interfering with your success in life, then it's a problem.

Here’s my story: I graduated college with loans. A lot of loans. And paying them off was my number one goal in life.

For three years I saved like a miser. Suffered through the hottest summer on record with no AC. Worked by candlelight to save on bills. Got by on one pack of Ramen a day, and there were days that I simply didn’t eat at all. It was going to be worth it, I told myself, because debt was the one thing holding me back. And then it happened.

My loan balance read a beautiful $0.00 owed. I was a free man. I answered to nothing and no one. I could do anything in the world.

I was terrified.

Terrified of what? As much as I hated my debt (and I hated it with a fiery passion), my student loans were both a prison…and a shelter. As long as I was living with a single-minded passion to be debt-free, I could avoid the crippling existential questions lurking at the edges of my mind:

In a world where you’re told you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone, what if I didn’t get to try everything I wanted? What if I wasted my time pursuing the wrong goals? How—how on earth—was I going to know what were the right decisions?

I was free from debt. But I was still losing sleep. I can’t count the nights that I laid awake in the darkness, trying to analyze and evaluate a hundred different options, a hundred different plans. Weighing one nagging “what-if” against another.

paradox of choice

I was suffering from a kind of existential anxiety and it was wrecking havoc on the life I’d worked so hard to build. I’m guessing there’s a decent chance that you’ve wound up in that same place at some point in your life, and while I haven’t figured out how to exorcise the anxiety that haunts me—and maybe I never will—I have learned how to be stronger than it by using these three truths:

1. You Can’t Be Everything, You Have To Be Something

The fact that you can be anything doesn’t mean you get to be everything. Part of my problem is what psychologists call the Paradox of Choice: in a world of limitless options—for toothpaste and your life’s work—having so many choices actually increases anxiety and makes you less happy.

In other words, when it comes to choice, more may actually be less.

In my own short life I’ve come to understand how wasteful it is to whittle away time in ceaseless deliberation. I know that I would rather reach the end of my days having done something rather than wasted my time so paralyzed by fear that I never got to be anything.

A good place to start is identifying your long-term goals and priorities, and using them to rule out some of the more fringe ideas for what you might do. For example, you might value creativity and want more of it in your career, but it doesn’t mean you have to quit your life and go back to art school. Another idea is working with a life coach who can provide exercises to help you explore different options in a constructive (and not paralyzed) way.

You could also try a technique called “Dreamlining” developed by Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. Dreamlines allow you to define what you want your life to be in various areas and then work backward from there to create specific, achievable goals. Ferriss breaks it down here, and even offers an Excel worksheet to help you get started. Dreamlines are revolutionary because they can help you see your ideal life is actually only a few steps removed from your actual life.

2. You Can’t Control The Past, You Can Control The Present

What-ifs are not your friend. “What if I had gone to a different school? What if I picked a different major? What if I asked her out when I had the chance? What if I stayed at my old job?”

I’ve spent more time re-hashing the past than I care to admit. Everyone has regrets but you don’t have to let them pull you down. And fortunately, all those what-ifs have a name: buyer’s remorse.

If you’ve ever made a choice and then regretted it afterward, you’ve experienced buyer’s remorse and it doesn’t just apply to cars or relationships. It’s a feeling fueled by the fear you may have made the wrong choice and it can eat up a lot of your valuable mental bandwidth. The first step in overcoming it? Accept what’s in the past and look forward.

There’s nothing more crucial to your success than your ability to leave the past in the mud where it belongs. You don’t have to be happy about it and we don’t have to pretend that you’ll never have a regret in the future. They happened and they will happen—it’s as simple as that. It’s only when we come to terms with the things we can never change that we have any hope of affecting the things that we can.

If you want to try a radical technique for orienting yourself in the present, consider trying the OODA loop method. The OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is a decision-making process developed by US Air Force strategist Colonel John Boyd that has spread from the military to business and learning applications.

OODA Loop

For our purposes, the key insight of OODA is that we often get stuck in the Orient phase. This is where our past, conditioning, prior knowledge, and the data from the Observation phase all come together, often creating a logjam that inhibits further action. The whole idea of OODA is to speed up decision cycles so you’re getting to Action a lot faster. Try thinking of each decision you have to make about your life as a single loop that must end in action and watch how your thinking un-sticks.

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—and repeat infinitely to adjust the course as you go. Freedom isn't about getting a major decision right, it's making the commitment to allow yourself to make changes once you make a decision.

3. You Don’t Need Clarity, You Need Courage

You can spend your whole life asking yourself “what if things go wrong?” but what you need to be asking yourself is “what if things go right?” Courage is the ability to see the upside of a risk and be willing to accept the downside.  Courage is that which allows you to live life boldly as you blaze your own trail. It’s not the knowledge that you’ll make the right choice but the conviction that what you’re fighting for is worth the risk.

Ultimately, the willingness to take risks is freedom. For all the anxiety and possible regret, it’s the only thing that allows us to live with true integrity, dignity, and on our own terms. For me, there are still terrifying days and there always will be. But if that’s the price I have to pay for freedom, well—I wouldn’t trade that for all the certainty and security in the world.

So where to find your courage? In my experience, courage isn’t a trait you’re born with, like blue eyes; it’s a habit. And like any habit it can be developed with practice. A technique I’ve developed is called Appointments & Accountability. Here’s how it works.

Take the the smallest, most immediate task in your Dreamline (from above) and make an appointment to accomplish it this week. Then, tell a friend, partner, or your Twitter feed about your appointment, and use the social accountability to help you actually meet your goal. You need both the Appointment and the Accountability for this to work—a specific appointment in your phone or planner backed up by single person who knows about it.

It helps to start small—sign up for a class, join a discussion group, challenge yourself to just gain exposure to a life direction you’re interested in. Small courageous decisions turn into big ones with time. Add up enough Appointments—and you have yourself a new life.

Required Reading (and Viewing)

Master of None
master-of-none dvd

Besides being just a generally hilarious and bitingly clever show (available on Netflix), Aziz Ansari’s Master of None heavily deals with this issue, and with the added bonus of showing it from a Millennial perspective.

The Myth of Sisyphus
Myth of Sisyphus albert camus

While Camus’ iconic essay does have some less-than-charitable comments on suicide, he does give us one of the most stirring and compelling essays on not only finding freedom in the world, but taking joy in it.

Being and Nothingness
on-being-and-nothingness

Jean Paul Sartre’s flagship work is no easy read, but for the intrepid reader, it will be one of the most rewarding, insightful, and thought-provoking books you’ll ever hack your way through.

Gordon Brown is a former ex-pat recently moved back to the US from the Middle East. He spends his time working as a vocational counselor and downing more energy drinks than is healthy and/or sane. You can find more of his fevered scribblings and subversive, revolutionary tracts over at CultureWarReporters.com..

  • Zac Silk

    I really enjoyed this article and it was particularly relevant to me. With all the emphasis on style and clothing that Primer showcases I feel very scared to actually wear my new clothing out.

    A lot of the stuff that I buy, that I like I end up just not wearing due to anxiasty of it being ruined or a thread being pulled or the clothing getting dirty.

    However this article allowed me to see that I should relax and not stress about the small things in life and overcome these things.

  • Josh Longanecker

    I have been buzzing on trying some sort of entrepreneurial endeavor. With my technical expertise (web developer) there are a LOT of avenues I could look into, and I have been paralyzed trying to boil it down to a single, solid approach to pursue. How do you choose one path over others when faced with uncertain outcomes and limited resources?

    • tim r

      My advice having gone through this in a similar industry (branding and design) don’t try and chose your path. Start walking and realize when the path you’re on isn’t the right one. You can always adjust and move in another direction. I tend to over analyze decisions and build anxiety based on that analysis. Once I actually start moving no matter which direction I am headed things become clearer and my anxiety dissipates. Just food for thought.

  • tim r

    Thanks for this. Great article and something that a lot of men (and women) can benefit from reading.

  • James Olander

    Achieving goals, even super crafty ones from ‘dreamlining’, is a spurious endeavor. I’m a big Tim Ferriss fan, and I’m even a bone fide graduate of the 4-hour-work week, owe his writing and work a lot of credit for my own path. But a sage on finding meaning, Tim is not. (Listen to some of his podcasts with the likes of Tara Brach and others where he delves into ‘finding meaning’, he’s off to a great start, but still has his own existential doubts and anxiety). It’s not your fault to confuse it all, because Tim provides a lot of great, motivating material, but Tim can’t bat 1.000 all the time.

    I’d edit your original article to remove anything that gives people reason to believe ‘dreamlining’ will give them more happiness/meaning. You got 1/2 of it correct with the “You Can’t Control The Past, You Can Control The Present”, but you whiffed on it’s forward-looking compliment.

    Courage on the other hand, pure gold. And curiosity, lots of that too.

    Other great reads in similar orbits:
    Rollo May
    The Inner Game of Tennis
    Man’s Search for Meaning