Piglet on the Couch: Anxiety as Inner Conflict
Some months ago, I stumbled across “Winnie the Pooh,” a 2011 film featuring many of my favorite childhood friends, while wading through the vast waters of Netflix’s streaming library. My delight upon being reunited with these characters inspired me to integrate my training as a therapist with my affection for Pooh and his friends by writing about Eeyore, Ashdown Forest’s sad, gloomy, and lethargic grey donkey. In that post, I explained that depression results from one’s inability to manage depressive feelings. As a child, the individual learned that expressing feelings of sadness, guilt, and shame was unacceptable to his or her caregiver. In order to preserve the relationship, that part of the child’s emotional self splits off and often remains hidden, a threat to the self and others.
Piglet, the fearful, timid, anxiety-stricken “very small animal,” endearingly demonstrates that the same is true of anxious feelings. When facing fierce creatures such as heffalumps, woozles, wizzles, and jagulars, Piglet is overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety, so much so that he shivers, shakes, stutters, or hides under the covers of his bed. Despite his timidity, however, Piglet accompanies his friends on their many adventures and, though he hesitates, occasionally conquers his fears and saves the day. It’s obvious that Piglet cares deeply for Pooh and his other friends, so why is it so hard for him to deal with his anxiety and “be brave”?
To understand why Piglet and so many (non-fictional) others experience anxiety, let’s take another look at the child-caregiver relationship. Like depressive feelings such as guilt and shame, anxiety arises from situations in which the child is caught between his or her striving for self-expression and self development and the parent’s requirement that the child conform to the parent’s own needs and expectations (Shaddock, 2000). In other words, the child’s needs conflict with the parent’s needs, and not surprisingly, the child chooses to meet the parent’s expectations for fear of damaging his or her relationship with the caregiver.
As an adult, the anxiety-prone person is constantly conflicted; the individual (perhaps unconsciously) still wishes to express his or her own needs and feelings but is preoccupied with satisfying others’ needs. In doing the latter, the person maintains emotional safety and stability in relationships. However, the individual also continues to conform him- or herself to others’ expectations, hindering emotional self-expression, self-actualization (that is, development and growth of the self), and intimate relationships. The person leaves his or her “self”—the deepest feelings, thoughts, and desires—behind for the sake of the relationship. That’s precisely why Mary Main, an early researcher on anxious attachment, suggested that anxiety of this kind yields a “false but felt security” (2005, p. 292) that so many of us find burdensome but difficult to relinquish.
Notably, though, Piglet became anxious and fearful only in certain contexts (when facing the aforementioned heffalumps, for instance). In the same way, even if we do not feel anxious most of the time, many of us feel conflicted and anxious in certain situations, for example:
- You want to share thoughts or feelings but are afraid of how the other might react.
- You are wracked with guilt because you forgot an important birthday or anniversary, and you scramble to make it up to that person.
- You feel as though you ought to go to an event or social function, but you really would rather stay home.
- You dread seeing someone at home, school, or work because of how they usually make you feel. You feel angry at that person but never say anything because it’s easier not to discuss your feelings.
Chances are you can think of some situations and contexts in your own life in which you feel anxious. Regarding those circumstances, I invite you to consider a few questions: How do you feel conflicted? What are you afraid will happen? How is that fear getting in the way of connecting with yourself and with others? What do you really wish to do or say, and what would happen if you did? It is no small thing to lay down security, no matter how false, though in doing so, you may discover true security and connection with others and yourself and, with time, that heffalumps aren’t so scary after all.