“If anxiety is mild, it is stimulating and facilitates increased and efficient action or thought.”– Roy R. Grinker, Psychosomatic Research.
In Part II of this segment we saw that for Erich Fromm, contentment is a state of well-being derived from the meeting of authentic needs, involvement in the world, self-respect, keeping one’s eyes on the goal of happiness, and the retreat into relaxation. Today we begin looking at the thoughts of a variety of his contemporaries from the opposite vantage point – contentment as attenuation of anxiety and dissatisfaction with the self. To be sure the main focus of these experts remains on pathological anxiety and its consequences, but several of them reference the challenges of ‘normal’ anxiety. I should note that for these posts, I am excluding theories on libido and sexuality (which seem less scientifically viable as explanations by the twenty-first century), and I am lumping with anxiety all psychological forms of unease of the mind and assuming significant blurring of the margin between ‘normal’ and pathological states. In short I wish to re-purpose the clinical thinking of these experts as counsel on managing anxiety for any individual on the journey to contentment.
The logical starting place is determining why we have anxiety in the first place. I particularly like Rollo May’s summation of Freud’s explanation – “the capacity for anxiety is innate in the organism, that it is part of the self-preservation instinct, and that it is phylogenetically inherited.”1 As a corollary May tells us the a person’s symptoms of anxiety are seen “not as merely the outcome of a simple intrapsychic process, but as arising out of the individual’s endeavor to avoid danger situations in his world of relationships.”2
Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (Erich Fromm’s estranged wife) referencing H. S. Sullivan adds that anxiety develops due to “inacceptable thoughts, feelings, drives, wishes, and actions.”3 These then are the ‘repressions’ dealt with through psychoanalysis. She also notes Adler’s tying of anxiety to feelings of inferiority, while still other therapists “find the source of man’s anxiety in psychological isolation, his alienation from his own self and from his fellowmen.”4 From this analysis she concludes anxiety as the “expression of the anticipated loss of love and approval, or separation, social isolation, or disruption of one’s interpersonal relationships implies a close psychological affinity to loneliness.”5 However she tells us of other explanations, for example, the unpredictability of death especially as a symbol of other unpredictable forces that impact the individual and Joren Ruesch’s theory that anxiety is due to “overstimulation which cannot be discharged with action, ”6
Another concept of anxiety is that of Karen Horney who emphasizes the individual’s ‘search for glory’ or an idealized image of the self. This common facet of personality, when pursued, leads to the need for perfection and neurotic ambitions which are insatiable and ultimately frustrated. Even success fails to give peace of mind, inner security, or joy in life – in short, seeking to realize an idealized self, is in the end, futile.
(continued next post)
1 Thompson, Clara (Editor), An Outline of Psychoanalysis. The Modern Library, New York, 1955. Page 104.
2Ibid.,page 109 (his italics).
2 Replies to “CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – PSYCHOLOGY – PART III”
Most assuredly. It may help you get out of the path of that out-of-control, speeding car, or the sights of the mass shooter, intent upon adding you to his body count—before taking his own tortured, miserable life. Anxiety (and adrenaline) enable us to act with purpose, without using precious time thinking about it. Reptilian brain, on full throttle.
Sure, it can also lead to human sacrifice—if you or others are in harm’s way, it does not matter much what you do, so long as you do something. If you and or others die, people will say kind things about you. For maybe a week.
I wish we could do more about the recent shootings – like you I am upset – fluctuating between extreme sorrow and uncontrollable rage.
Still I think Freud and the psychoanalysts mean something more by calling anxiety a manifestation of self-preservation than reaction to imminent threats and the fear of violent death. I think they are referring to that larger sense we all have of our specialness among humanity – our need for self-esteem, our feelings of superiority, selfishness, placing our needs above others, even greed and avarice. Philosophical and psychological contentment seem to me to be contingent on a healthy level of self-interest combined with a reasoned transcendence of our species-specific instinctual self-centeredness.
I hope these current posts will expose the full meaning of ‘anxiety’ as an impediment to inner peace for you and other readers.