chapter
20 Pages

The social meaning of anxiety

Where psychologists take an interest in the social meaning of anxiety they are usually most committed to upholding the analytical distinction between anxiety and fear. For example, Harry Stack Sullivan recognises anxiety to have a social meaning which is quite different to that of fear. He argues that fear is an adaptive response to dangerous situations which we hold in common with other animals. Fear functions to mobilise our bodies for action whereby we might flee the environmental situation or object which threatens to do harm to our physical existence (Sullivan 1953: 50). Moreover, fears are understood to hold no necessary significance for our sociability. By contrast, Sullivan places a special emphasis upon ‘the interpersonal nature of anxiety’ (Sullivan 1964: 297). He conceives anxiety to be exclusively linked to the social achievement of presenting and knowing oneself as an adequate human being. He maintains that anxiety is aroused exclusively in relation to the experience of social disapproval, and in its most extreme forms, it serves to make us acutely aware of our anticipated ‘embarrassment, shame, humiliation, guilt and chagrin’ before others (ibid.: 318). The distinctive sign of being in anxiety is that individuals are not so much motivated by the drive to escape their environment or any particular object, rather, they have a desperate need to flee from themselves. Thus in this definition, anxiety, unlike fear, has no object insofar as it is understood to be rooted in the unbearable experience of being the subject of social failure (Fischer 1970: 33-4).