Fundamental Anxiety: The Anxiety of Being Who You Are

by | Mar 27, 2022 | Anxiety, Shame | 0 comments

Does Your Life Feel Disingenuous?

Sometimes in therapy I come across clients who report they don’t really know what they truly want or who they really are. They have been so used to adapting to others or trying to be who they think they should be that they have lost touch with themselves and have become almost like an actor on a stage.

Fundamental Anxiety

In trying to trace back the root of this lack of authenticity I often find that the person in question has had experiences in their life that required them to take flight from themselves or to not be who they truly are.

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney has described this phenomenon by the term “fundamental anxiety” or “basic anxiety” and it is what we end up feeling when we experience that who we are is not okay or safe.

For example, I may grow up feeling like I am not masculine enough. The contexts in which I might discover this is when I want to cry but am told by my father “real men don’t cry”, or when I am expected to play sports but find that I don’t have the same agility or interest in sports as my male peers.

In these situations I am caught in a dilemma: I still have to exist with my emotionality, my lack of agility, and my lack of interest, but at the same time it is not acceptable. This is the definition of fundamental or basic anxiety because it introduces an anxiety into the very core of my existence: I can’t really be myself and I can’t not really not be myself. This is perhaps a psychological twist on Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” although the dilemma really becomes one of “to be and not to be”, how do I do it?

The Psychological Solution to Anxiety about Who I Am:

Well, luckily the psyche is wonderfully adaptive and resilient and has found a uniquely human way for someone to get out of the anxiety-fraught situation. It allows us to introduce disingenuity into the core of our being. I can simply take leave of my real feelings and become someone else in psyche or in spirit:

  • If I am not allowed to be sensitive, I can shut that well of emotions off and become stoic instead (not because I am not really sensitive, but because I can ignore tat I am and hate my sensitivity into submission)
  • If I don’t feel masculine enough, I can dedicate my life to going to the gym to bulk up my muscles (not because I really want to, but because who I am is not okay)
  • If I feel silly and ashamed when I am on a sports field, I can simply make fun of myself and allow myself to be the butt of everyone’s joke (not because the anxiety I feel is not really a serious matter, but because laughing with others defuses the situation and ignores the feeling)

In all of these examples, what I really feel is suppressed, and I instead take on a role. When I act out this role for a long time, that role becomes me, and I can live this way relatively protected from the original wounds of my basic anxiety about being who I really am.

The Price We Pay for Psychological Safety:

Unfortunately the price I pay for this safety, is to give up the very essence of who I am. Although my role protects me, it also makes me live as if I were someone else, and everything I do, feel, and think henceforth is now rooted in a lack of genuineness. And while this means I don’t really feel my pain as genuinely and directly as I otherwise would, it also means that I don’t feel my enjoyments and successes, because the life I live is in its essence not really mine.

From a psychological perspective we could say I paid the ultimate price – the psychological death of my real self – and with that the death of my real feelings, my real desires, and who I really am.


Psychologist Dr. Rune Moelbak

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak. Ph.D. a clinical psychologist in Houston. I help people get to the root of their problems. Visit my anxiety page to read more about my approach to the treatment of anxiety.


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