The New Johari Window #2: Models of Interpersonal Awareness

The New Johari Window #2: Models of Interpersonal Awareness

Signal Anxiety

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.

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About the Author

William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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