The primary job of the American consumer is to manage anxiety. Whether confronted with choices of excess or sustenance, balancing a dizzying array of options with limited financial resources, the classic economic problem, has resulted in a society of people pre-occupied with managing stress and its related discomforts. Connectivity and its string of constant updates have led a certain status to novelty. The constant effort to be relevant, witty, insightful, or on-trend, or at least not mundane, adds a knowing sense of “not good enough – does anyone really care?” to our increasingly tangential social interactions. We used to confine our choices to what we knew was available, and we used to confide our opinions in a trusted few. Now the world is our market and our audience, although I fear many fret that no one is listening. The ease with which we can inquire, inform, and impress (or disappoint) is boundless. We buckle under the pressure to be exceptional individuals with networks who care.
Economy, with its relentless drive to innovate, has given us growth of choices that would boggle my younger self’s mind. So many options to answer every problem or opportunity presented are available and attainable. The first thing to be lost in this vast array of achievable choices is the choice to not decide. Not buying, not commenting, not posting, not acting are the options that become unavailable to many. Enough seems rarely considered. In that lack of consideration of limits that must be acknowledged, anxiety is born.
Mania, fueled by unequaled anxiety, is a condition of the inability to navigate endless choices. When manic, one thinks every opinion or idea he has is groundbreaking and that competing ideas pale in comparison. No financial or social limits are acknowledged, and the excess of getting consumes all resources available. Rules are made to be broken, and consequences are rarely considered until far too late. One is exceptional, and deserving of being treated as such. I’m not saying that society today is universally manic. However, I do believe that the stress and anxiety that precipitate or are comorbid with a bout of mania threaten psychologically healthy individuals with similar behaviors.
Depression, on the other hand, eviscerates all sense of self-worth. One is completely not good enough, and no effort will change that, it seems. Instead of spending, as in mania, we are spent, lost, irrelevant. Again, not to pathologize a nation, I feel these fears underlie choices we make as consumers and sharers of information. The anxiety of not being relevant plunges us back into the effort to present ourselves as who we would like to be, with little contemplation given to who that person is. In some larger social sense, we must matter.
But what if we don’t in the way we fantasize we should. Everyone matters, of course. But how much, and to whom? I’d like to be cited and quoted and referenced by others. Like many, in my most confident moments I have it all figured out, and must tell you about it. Then, other days, I fear I’ve gotten it wrong. This anxiety of mattering, of leaving a mark, of cutting the right swath, could lead to dysfunction. And sometimes it does. Yet, if I feel I am too special I can easily extrapolate that feeling into privilege and demand privileges and exceptions for myself that may not be available to everyone. And if I believe that I know better, then I risk doing certain damage to the choices available to others. Mental Illness has given me the insight to understand that things I was so sure of recently seem less certain now. Ironically, the inconsistencies in my behavior through bouts of illness have helped to temper the anxiety that comes with “I must have” and “I must know better.” Because, in fact, I must not.
Anxiety presents us with the terror of wanting to bend unlimited choices to our own will, and to have others validate those choices. We stake out a position in which we are most fulfilled or influential and are buffeted by changes that knock us from our pedestal. How we react to those changes defines how we will manage the anxiety that comes with our material, interconnected world. An open mind and less effort to be controlling can help. Mindfulness of our true motivations can be revealing. The point is not to choose less, or to share less, but to stop and consider the impact of this choosing and sharing. Is it beneficial? Is it fair? Is it even worth it? If the answers are no, and you proceed anyway, anxiety will follow. As will a litany of places where you will be called upon to reinforce your bad choice. Maturity is in learning from our mistakes. Anxiety is in doubling down on them.