The New Johari Window #2: Two Models of Interpersonal Awareness
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 this series of 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.
We also might use the metaphor of “inoculation” to describe the signaling properties of anxiety. Ernest Becker (1971, p. 43) uses this metaphor when discussing Freud’s notions about anxiety:
Freud understood this process of the ego taking over anxiety as a sort of “vaccination” of the total organism. As the central perceptual sphere learns what the organism gets anxious about, it uses an awareness of this anxiousness in small doses, to regulate behavior. The growing identity “I” must feel comfortable in its world and the only way it can do this is experimentally to make the anxieties of its world its own.
Signal anxiety doesn’t really hurt us (unless it is long-lasting), but it does wake us up. It lets us know that we need to be vigilant and careful not to proceed further toward the threatening interpersonal relationship or context—or any thoughts, feelings or memories associated with this relationship or context. The paradox is that at some level we are fully aware of the thing that threatens us—otherwise we wouldn’t splash ourselves with the noxious anxiety.