Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amazing May 19

The Deep Rooted Nature of Anxiety and Guilt


As practising Special Educational Needs teacher now for a number of years and as a semi-qualified counsellor for a greater number of years I have always been fascinated by the prevalent and deep rooted nature of both anxiety and guilt. Also in my everyday life, having lived some fifty two years on this planet I have come across severely anxious people and people troubled with a profound sense of guilt.

It is interesting to learn that existential therapists like Rollo May see neither of these deep-seated complaints as being mere effects or emotions among other effects or emotions. They are, in fact, in a different league altogether from say pleasure, joy or sadness, and perhaps depression, which May does not mention at all. He states that the deep-rooted nature of both anxiety and guilt cut right down to our very existential roots. Speaking, firstly of anxiety, our existential psychoanalyst says that it is

an ontological characteristic of man, rooted in his very existence as such. It is not a peripheral threat which I can take or leave, for example, or a reaction which may be classified beside other reactions; it is always a threat to the foundation, the centre of my existence. Anxiety is the experience of the threat of imminent nonbeing. (Op. cit., p.109)

These are shattering insights for anyone who might take anxiety as a feeling among other feelings. I have been teaching and working with a 16 year old boy who has Asperger’s Syndrome and who has also been diagnosed with OCD. This latter complaint is crippling to say the least as OCD is primarily all about anxiety. This boy could check his pencil case countless times per day if he was allowed. He is currently under the care of a psychiatrist who has him on medication, which he needs badly. Without a doubt his anxiety is rooted in his very being at all times, and has almost become part of who he is when he suffers badly from this complaint. Anyone meeting Robert (a pseudonym) for the first time even would realise that he is a very nervous and anxious boy whose anxiety threatens the very foundation, the very centre of his being. In other words, I am describing Robert with the terms May gives us for the nature of anxiety above.

In short, to quote another psychiatrist, Kurt Goldstein, anxiety is not something we “have,” but rather something we “are.” I can clearly visualize Robert when he is very stressed and anxious as being a person who is literally experiencing the threat of the dissolution of the self. This is disconcerting stuff for the uninitiated to encounter, given that it cuts so deep into the very being or self of the person in question.

In talking about the difference between fear and anxiety this is what May says, and his insights are illuminating for any of us who have to deal with anxious persons:

The difference is that anxiety strikes at the central core of his [the patient/client’s] self-esteem and his sense of value as a self, which is the most important aspect of his experience of himself as a being. Fear in contrast is a threat to the periphery of his existence; it can be objectivated (sic), and the person can stand outside and look at it. In greater or lesser degree, anxiety overwhelms the person’s discovery of being, blots out the sense of time, dulls the memory of the past and erases the future – which is perhaps the most compelling proof of the fact that it attacks the centre of one’s being. While we are subject to anxiety, we are unable to conceive in imagination how existence would be “outside” the anxiety. This is why anxiety is so hard to bear, and why people will choose, if they have the chance, severe physical pain which would appear to the outsider much worse. Anxiety is ontological, fear is not. Fear can be studied as an effect among other effects, a reaction among other reactions. But anxiety can be understood only as a threat to the being itself. (Ibid., p.110)

Many existential philosophers and psychotherapists prefer the terms “angst,” anguish” or “dread” to the more tame term “anxiety” because such words capture its more foundational and ontological nature. The words “angst” or “anguish” come from the Latin “angustus” which means “narrow” or “tightened” or “choked.” This etymological base of the word would imply the pain experienced in the “narrows” of childbirth. So anxiety which is ontological shares the struggle of childbirth (often a struggle between life and death) through the narrow passages of the mother’s body.

Anxiety also causes deep inner conflict in the person of the sufferer. Is not this conflict precisely the conflict between Being and Non-Being in the person in question? Let’s listen to May’s poetic and wise words here:

Anxiety occurs at the point where some emerging potentiality or possibility faces the individual, some possibility of fulfilling his existence, but this very possibility involves the destroying of present security, which thereupon gives rise to the tendency to deny the new potentiality. Here lies the truth of the symbol of the birth trauma as the prototype of all anxiety – an interpretation suggested by the etymological source of the word anxiety as “pain in narrows”... This interpretation of anxiety as birth trauma was, as is well known, held by Rank to cover all anxiety, and was agreed to by Freud on a less comprehensive basis. (Ibid., pp. 111-112)

This is essentially why, given that there is a new, albeit symbolic, life to be born deep in (or from) the psyche, there is a strong connection between anxiety and freedom, a second major theme in existential literature. Kierkegaard, according to May, described this close connection between these two themes thus: “Anxiety is the reality of freedom as a potentiality before this freedom has materialised.” (Quoted ibid., p. 112)

I will leave the discussion of the ontological nature of guilt until the next post.

To be continued.

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