Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Anxieties and Defences: Normal and Abnormal *

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Anxieties and Defences: Normal and Abnormal *

Article excerpt

This paper reflects on some issues that have emerged since Social Defences against Anxiety-Explorations in a Paradigm (Armstrong and Rustin, 2014) was published in 2014, and is a contribution to a continuing debate on these issues. Its starting point is an implicit contrast in the perspective taken by different contributors to the volume, in regard to the nature, significance, and function of anxiety as a social state of mind. This difference has both cultural and ideological dimensions. One perspective is broadly shaped by concerns for "social protection", embodied in the health, education, and welfare systems of the UK. Anxieties are believed to arise, in the context of responses to physical or mental ill-health, social deprivation, deviancy, or sexual disturbance, and also of breakdowns of relationships and organisations. It is the task of certain social institutions, networks, and professions to manage these. They are often found to do this badly, as in Isobel Menzies Lyth's original study, by means of unconscious social defences that have harmful unintended consequences. The sources of the anxieties in question are seen as natural and unavoidable elements of human lives, but as nevertheless constituting threats to well-being. The underlying goal is to find ways of coping with the anxieties that lessen their impact, and that enable them to be borne in constructive ways. Common issues are those faced by welfare systems whose tasks are those of social reparation. For many years an anxiety has been widely felt throughout the relevant professions and services in Britain that their entire function has been placed under threat through demands for their marketisation and through an increasing scarcity of resources. This has been as a crisis of a "dependency culture", (Khaleelee, 2003; Khaleelee & Miller, 1985), even though an important aspect of this crisis is intolerance and disparagement of the condition of dependency itself (Dartington, 2010).

An alternative perspective is to be found in particular in the paper by Larry Hirschhorn and Sharon Horowitz (2014), "Extreme work environments: beyond anxiety and social defence" whose topic is the work of speculative financial traders-hedge fund managers-and by analogy, practitioners of extreme life-risking sports. Here "anxiety" is described in more positive terms, as a natural concomitant of risktaking, and as in itself a potential stimulus to individual and social development. (These are risks consciously espoused, and are distinct from unconscious anxieties, either paranoid-schizoid or depressive.) The epigraph at the head of their paper quotes Nietzsche "The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment is-to live dangerously". And in their own words ". . . Any work worth its salt-which means it entails significant risk-stimulates anxiety". Enhanced conditions of risk are understood in this and some other papers in the volume as the product of a more turbulent "globalised" environment, and the issue is to find ways of managing the ensuing anxieties, through what Hirschhorn and Horowitz term "protective frames" that can support risk and innovation. The cultural context of this perspective is that of entrepreneurial capitalism rather than of public welfare. It does not seem coincidental that the strongest formulations of these contrasting perspectives are from the US and Britain respectively.

This paper aims to explore these differences of perspective. In particular, it will suggest that there is a risk within the "social welfare" perspective that anxieties themselves, rather than dysfunctional social defences against them, come to be seen as a problem. It will suggest that the value of anxieties as both unavoidable and positive elements in change and development should also be recognised.

The paper will look first at the origins of the concept of anxiety in psychoanalytic theory, second at the "social defences against anxiety" thesis, and third at the idea of normal anxiety as a stimulus to growth and development. …

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