Ernest Becker: You need anxiety to be a better person

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

Anxiety sucks.

Or does it?

Well, it turns out that anxiety actually makes you a better person, if you know what to do with it. This is according to a world renowned professor and Pulitzer prizing winning author.

In this article, I’m going to explain why anxiety makes you a better person and how you can use it to live a more creative life.

If you’re not a little nervous, you’re not really alive

Have you heard the old adage, “If you’re not a little nervous, you’re really not alive”?

It’s pretty good advice. There’s something to be said for accepting and learning to navigate the everyday anxiety of life.

It’s particularly true when you’re an artist, whose very feelings are the raw materials of their craft.

If you’ve ever tried to create art — whether writing, painting, acting or making movies — you’ve probably experienced the anxiety that comes from hoping for inspiration and losing sleep when it doesn’t come.

This is the difficult emotional terrain where an artist lives much of the time — in a matrix of triumphs and defeats, optimism and despair, impassioned beliefs and deflating feelings.

What does the artist do with all of this crippling anxiety?

According to Ernest Becker, they use it.

Becker was a professor of cultural anthropology and bestselling author of the Pulitzer prize winning book, The Denial of Death.

According to Becker, for anyone experiencing anxiety, there’s always a choice.

You can succumb to existential despair, which is what the neurotic does. They make the reality around them a part of their ego, succumbing to dark and ugly self-pitying feelings.

As Becker says:

“There is a type of person who has difficulty fetishizing and narrowing-down; he has a vivid imagination, takes in too much experience, too large a chunk of the world—and this too must be called neurotic.”

But artists, rather than succumbing to feelings of despair, make use of their anxiety. They use their anxiety as a tool to spur them to engage in a creative act.

Again in Becker’s words:

“We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active work project.”

We’re all artists, seeking to create something in our own ways. Anxiety is an opportunity for all of us to go deeper into ourselves and use anxiety to spurn creativity, rather than neuroses.

How to use anxiety to your advantage

I think we all face feelings of anxiety and struggle to make the choice to become an artist, using anxiety to our advantage.

There is an approach you can take that may help you use your anxiety much more productively.

When facing anxiety, create a character in a story that represents you and the anxiety you’re facing. Ask yourself: who is it that feels terrified and overwhelmed? Why is it happening?

Write a scene in the story and give meaning to the anxiety. Compose the music for your scene. Completely inhabit this space and those aspects of the character whose narrative you’re building.

Go so far as to create rants and vitriolic exchanges between your characters, letting your passion and actions even alarm yourself. Take the narrative as far as it can go in your mind and work with your anxiety.

This is how you start to move from being the neurotic in your narrative to the artist, as you create more with the scene and create the meaning for why you’re experiencing this anxiety.

When you can truly seeing yourself and create from a state of total anxiety — even if it’s your own fictional story — you’re starting to surrender to it. It’s the ultimate act of creative surrender from which, out of the crucible of your deepest pain, you have now started to create.

You are becoming an artist.

A modern day philosopher does the same thing

Does the idea of this exercise itself make you anxious? It’s not a surprise. It’s pretty confronting.

It may surprise you that a modern day philosopher does exactly the same thing.

Jason Silva is the creator of Shots of Awe, a series of short videos exploring the miracle of life. Silva now has over 1 million fans on Facebook, which is testament to the quality of his creative output.

Yet Silva experiences acute anxiety just like many of his. His secret is that he has embraced the words of Becker and channels his anxiety to create his videos.

Silva explains his process in the video below, which inspired this article. Check it out and let us know what you think in the comments.

RELATED ARTICLE: Debilitating anxiety: My story of suffering, shame and surprising discovery

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