The New Johari Window #2: Models of Interpersonal Awareness
In his own analysis, Freud begins by noting that anxiety is not the only unpleasant feeling that we experience—there is “tension, pain or mourning, grief.” The unique characteristic of anxiety is that it “is the reproduction of some experience which contained the necessary conditions for an increase of excitation and a discharge along particular paths, and that from this circumstance the unpleasure of anxiety received its specific character.” Thus, according to Freud, “anxiety arose originally as a reaction to a state of danger and it is reproduced whenever a state of that kind recurs.” Freud concludes that: “we cannot find that anxiety has any function other than that of being a signal for the avoidance of a danger-situation.”
Freud’s signal anxiety seemed strange and mysterious at the time. After all, how can we know what we can’t know? Today it is less strange. Chaos theory and, in particular, the phenomenon called “fractiles” offer an explanation. Patterns keep repeating themselves at all levels of a system. We have a hint of what is opaque (and frightening) because we see this same pattern repeated at a more conscious—and benign—level. We get a little fear from dropping when we ride a roller coaster. This ride gives us a sense of the big fright that would come from falling to our death. We get a taste of terror when we attend a scary movie. This movie briefly samples the profound feelings that would accompany real life fear associated with the experience of being attacked by a murderous villain or alien monster.
All of this is offered to serve notice that I will be retrieving the old Freudian concept of signal anxiety in these essays. Clearly we often become anxious in our relationships with other people—especially if the processes of disclosure and feedback are involved. This anxiety in turn serves as a signal that something threatening lies below the surface of this relationship—or something unpredictable or threatening is associated with the context in which this relationship is taking place. In essence, our “psyche” splashes our face (or guts) with painful anxiety to inform us that this relationship or context is to be avoided.