Home Societal / Political Community The Wonder of Interpersonal Relationships V: Coherence

The Wonder of Interpersonal Relationships V: Coherence

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Managing Anxiety: Interpersonal Assumptions and Orientations

At yet another level, interpersonal connection may be closely related to our personal management of anxiety. Out on the African savannah, where we are faced with many survival challenges, there was inevitably many sources of anxiety. As Robert Sapolsky (2004) has observed, we not only see and react to lions that are actually threatening to attack us—we can also imagine attacking lions that don’t actually exist. Thus, anxiety comes in two forms: real sources and imagines sources of threat and attack. It is in our relationships with other people that we address this anxiety.

The process of metabolism that I have described is often mediated through our interpersonal relationships. Specially, Wilfred Bion (1961) suggests that we are inclined to build a protective (or escaping) assumption that there is wisdom in our relationships (especially with a leader) or there is courage (as we look for a fight or flight leader). We also imagine our relationships as a source of hope and vision for the future (a concept that I think is central to the concept of Coherence to which I turn shortly). We “bond” with another person through hope and commitment to a higher purpose.

I offer another psychodynamic perspective on the use of interpersonal relationships when confronted with an anxiety-producing threat. The noted psychoanalyst, Karen Horney (1992), suggests that we take one of three orientations when feeling anxious. We can turn to other people for support and bonding—this orientation resides at the heart of our role as a social animal. Instead, we can move against other people. Bion’s (1961) assumption of fight is engaged not against an external attacking lion, but against another person or tribe—someone or some group that represents the “other.” The third orientation leads us to move away from other people. We retreat from complex, challenging and emotionally charged relationships.

As Waldinger and Schulz (2023, p. 112) note:

“Our strongest feelings emerge from our connections with other people, and while the social world is filled with pleasures and meaning, it also contains doses of disappointment and pain. We get hurt by the people we love. We feel the sting when they disappoint us or leave us, and the emptiness when they die. The impulse to avoid these negative experiences in relationships makes sense.”

They (Waldinger and Schulz, 2023, p. 83) further observe that: “life is chaotic, and cultivating good relationships increased the positivity of that chaos.” Fundamentally, we seek to become “unsocial” animals.

We are faced with a profound dilemma regarding relationships, for Waldinger and Schulz (2023, 112) counter their own observation: “if we want the benefits of being involved with other people, we have to tolerate a certain amount of risk. We also have to be willing to see beyond our own concerns, and our own fears.”  Furthermore (Waldinger and Schulz, 2023, p. 83) “the chances of beneficial encounters [are] more likely” given the chaos in which relationships often reside. Someone who moves toward other people when confronted with anxiety might wish to take note of Waldinger and Schulz’ positive outcomes.

Managing Relationships: Extraversion and Introversion

Now back to Extraversion and Introversion. The first two orientations identified by Horney (moving toward and moving against) seem to be most aligned with Extraversion. We can move toward or against other people on behalf of either transactional or autotelic motives and needs. The orientation that leads us away from other people is most aligned with Introversion. We need to feel less anxious or find a very good reason (transactional or autotelic) as an Introvert if we are to overcome our push away from other people. It seems that when we become anxious our Extraversion or Introversion kicks in and influences our orientation to other people.

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