Paul Tillich on the 3 forms of anxiety

Tillich larger picMy wife recently put me on a mandatory book-buying fast. Begrudgingly, I complied but figured I’d make the most of it by rereading some old books that I haven’t touched in years. All in all, it’s been a highly productive fast (finally we have enough money left over to spend on senseless, impulsive purchases in the toy section of Crackle Barrel on Sunday morning).

One of the works I dusted off was “The Courage to Be” by Paul Tillich. The book is primarily an ontological and ethical study on courage but spends considerable time working through various concepts of anxiety. He discusses three basic forms, all of which comingle in a way that requires an aptitude for nuance, the kind of which Tillich had no shortage.

The three forms he discovered were: anxiety of fate and death, anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, and anxiety of guilt and condemnation. The goal of this article is to provide enough material on each category so that one can use it as an easy reference guide for his thoughts.

The Anxiety of Fate and Death

It seems to me that this first form is at once the most obvious, yet the one most likely to escape one’s general awareness. The average person does not walk around with his or her mortality on their mind most days. Yet, ask anyone and they will tell you that they understand their situation, that they could meet their end at any moment—stroke, stray bullet, stray car, stray falling piano, etc. But unless they have just narrowly escaped death on the freeway, or recently experienced the passing of a loved one, the average person does not dwell on the fact of their mortality. How then do fate and death qualify as “the most basic, most universal, and inescapable” form of anxiety?

Tillich argues that “death overshadows all concrete anxieties and gives them their ultimate seriousness.” Indeed, “The fear of death determines the element of anxiety in every fear.” The inescapable fact of death changes everything.

“Why don’t you get a job; why don’t you marry; why don’t you have kids,” are some anxieties people foist on one another. “Get off my back,” the immortal might reply, “I can do all of that in 700 years.” Without the threat of death, anxiety has no foothold.

And not merely the threat of death, but that of fate poisons the pool of courage.

“The threat of nonbeing to man’s ontic self-affirmation,” Tillich continues, “is absolute in the threat of death. Fate would not produce inescapable anxiety without death behind it.” Fate in this context is important to include with death, and in fact with all the forms of anxiety, in that, it “stresses their contingent character, their unpredictability, the impossibility of showing their meaning and purpose.”

Contingency here should not be misunderstood as meaning “causally undetermined,” but rather that “the determining causes of our existence have no ultimate necessity.” Tillich explains that “it is not causal necessity that makes fate a matter of anxiety but the lack of ultimate necessity, the irrationality, the impenetrable darkness of fate.”

“Death stands behind fate and its contingencies not only in the last moment when one is thrown out of existence but in every moment within existence. Nonbeing is omnipresent and produces anxiety even where an immediate threat of death is absent.”

 The Anxiety of Emptiness and Meaninglessness

The threat of nonbeing, delivered by the anxiety of fate and death threatens a person’s whole being, and therefore one’s spiritual self as well. Tillich states that “spiritual self-affirmation occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning.”

By “creative” Tillich has in mind a “spiritual creativity” which allows one to “participate meaningfully in their original creations,” that is, “Everyone who lives creatively in meanings affirms himself as a participant in these meanings. He affirms himself as receiving and transforming reality creatively.” A person who does not experience this “spiritual self-affirmation,” experiences instead the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness.

If that lacks clarity, allow me to quote Tillich at length to help iron out the thought:

The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in the sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference or aversion. Everything is tried and nothing satisfies. The contents of the tradition, however excellent… lose their power to give content today. And present culture is even less able to provide the content… Anxiously one turns away from all concrete contents and looks for an ultimate meaning, only to discover that it was the loss of a spiritual center which took away the meaning from the special contents of the spiritual life.

Tillich bustThe danger with this form of anxiety is that its remedy—a strong faith in God or something of ultimate meaning—cannot be produced intentionally, and the attempt only deepens the anxiety. In addition, as one attempts to break out of this situation, he will often attempt to identify himself with something “transindividual.” Tillich explains, “He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively.”

I find this to be one of Tillich’s more brilliant observations and one that lends explanatory power to many ills in modern society. Far from pertaining only to religious individuals, all people are vulnerable to the “escape from freedom,” (as Erick Fromm put it) in order to avoid the anxiety of one’s existential responsibilities. “In order to avoid the risk of asking and doubting,” Tillich continues, “he surrenders the right to ask and to doubt. He surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life… to escape the anxiety of meaninglessness.”

The trouble is, one’s conquest of doubt required the “sacrifice of the freedom of the self,” which then reveals itself as “a fanatical self-assertiveness.” The very anxiety that his self-surrender was supposed to conquer becomes a fanaticism that attacks those who disagree with him. This is because he must suppress in others what he had to suppress in himself.

The Anxiety of Guilt and Condemnation

This third form is one that threatens one’s moral self-affirmation. Tillich again wisely applies this form of self-affirmation to all people, not only the religious. “Man’s being, ontic as well as spiritual, is not only given to him but also demanded of him. He is responsible for it; literally, he is required to answer, if he is asked, what he has made of himself.”

Whether one is religious or not, there exists within a man the necessity “to make of himself what he is supposed to become, to fulfill his destiny,” whatever that happens to be.

All people carry with them their own independent “hero project” (as Otto Rank put it) for their sense of moral obligation. One is faced with guilt and condemnation when he or she fails to live up to their own measure, to their ideal hero-self.

The trouble is, regardless of how well he has formulated the ethics of his ideal self, “man has the power of acting against it, of contradicting his essential being, of losing his destiny… Even in what he considers his best deed nonbeing is present and prevents it from being perfect. A profound ambiguity between good and evil permeates everything he does because it permeates his personal being as such.”

Tillich explains that this sort of moral self-awareness can drive a person toward complete self-rejection. And here I will again quote him at length:

To avoid this extreme situation man tries to transform the anxiety of guilt into moral action regardless of its imperfection and ambiguity. Courageously he takes nonbeing into his moral self-affirmation. This can happen in two ways, according to the duality of the tragic and the personal in man’s situation, the first based on the contingencies of fate, the second on the responsibility of freedom. The first way can lead to a defiance of negative judgments and the moral demands on which they are based; the second way can lead to a moral rigor and the self-satisfaction derived from it. In both of them—usually called anomism and legalism—the anxiety of guilt lies in the background and breaks again and again into the open, producing the extreme situation of moral despair.

At this point, Tillich breaks off into a very interesting discussion on despair as it relates to the three forms of anxiety. And I too will leave off here. Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Paul Tillich on the 3 forms of anxiety

  1. Just some thoughts shared…

    I certainly agree that anxiety commonly arises from one or a mixture of those three conditions.

    Tillich, like Freud, was certainly observant.

    Deep down, all anxiety is internal conflict, is a discord, a contrast between internal incompatibilities. Tillich suggests that in his three categories, though I am not sure if he states it as such.

    In some quarters nowadays anxiety is quite fashionable, particularly noticeable among single mums on welfare and their children, though not limited to that group. So, fashionable anxiety might be added as another category.

    Orchestrated anxiety can be conscious or semiconscious, and with time can become an ingrained and genuine condition.

    Anxiety is related to irritability. Irritability is contagious. Irritability easily transfers from one person to another. It particularly transfers to those with an external locus on control. And where there is a power imbalance irritability transfers to the one with less power as anxiety. Irritable mothers have anxious children.

    And we frequently see anxiety among young males who have not had a good and strong male role model in their lives. It is not uncommon to hear young men describe some mildly unusual or unexpected experience as “scary”, putting on a scared or even a cute expression when saying it. Even men are subject to the fashions of the times.

    It should be remembered that anxiety is fear, usually a background fear. And of all the fear that is claimed, there is a lot less; and of all the fear that is denied, there is a lot more.

    People were once taught well how to manage fear. Today they are not, or they are taught poorly or wrongly.

    Many leftist psychologists, counsellors and teachers even promote fear, anxiety, insecurity, propensity to be offended, emotional fragility and feebleness of character, and external locus of control. And they do all that under the guise of empowering people.

    In walking our own best life, we can find it useful to differentiate between bravery and courage. Bravery being the ability to push through fear. Courage being the realisation that there is nothing to fear.

    Bravery, regularly practiced, leads to courage. In other words, pushing through fears leads to the realisation that there is nothing to fear.

    There are two fears in us; the fear of something earthly and the fear of conscience or God. The fear an earthly thing may be a loud fear and will tell us to shy away from the thing we fear. Conscience, the voice of God within, is a whisper, and may prompt us towards the earthly thing to rightly deal with it.

    If we follow our earthly fear and shy away, then conscience will later deal with us, and there is nothing worse than conscience grating in our soul. So ignoring earthly fears and being God fearing is the better way to go.

    Courage is of the heart. Latin, cor, meaning heart. And to encourage someone is to enhearten them.

    True love, meaning the love of God, named Christ, has all the virtues in it, such as forgiveness, faith, hope, thankfulness, kindness,… and of course, courage.

    • Crossbow, well thought post once again. One thing I’ll push back on in your post is the conflation of anxiety and fear. Tillich, as well as many others (including myself) see fear as something that poses an objective threat – something real in the environment which one can struggle with. Anxiety has no definite object, but rests in that murky, abstract land between the now and the dreaded then. I demonstrate this with my clients all the time by having them practice being present in mind. The very instant they are able to be present in mind they are incapable of experiencing anxiety. That doesn’t mean that the constriction of breath and other somatic signals of anxiety suddenly evaporate, but it produces instant relief from the “what if this, what if that” abstractions. In nearly every case that I’ve experiences, this produces an almost immediate sense of peace – one that lasts very temporarily if it is not reinforced with some transcendent something from which they can tether their deep rooted anxiety to (as in the 3 forms Tillich discusses).

      Here’s how Tillich puts it, “This situation [the anxiety of not being able to preserve one’s own being, or “naked anxiety”] drives the anxious subject to establish objects of fear. Anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage.” This is where things get really interesting for the person interested in psychology, because this one concept opens up the understanding of why people always need an enemy, always need to hate something/someone, and how it deceives one by temporarily allaying one’s anxiety, only to snap them back into a deeper anxiety once the object of fear is sufficiently dealt with.

  2. I don’t think we disagree, but have overlapping views.

    Yes I am aware of the distinction. Your last paragraph is interesting. I will try to meet it here.

    I have found that treating anxiety and fear as the one enemy is the way to defeat them both. A shotgun approach.

    I focus on the client understanding and managing cortisol and adrenaline. In other words treat anxiety/fear simply as a physiological/somatic/bodily reaction, which it is. When a person can manage well the sensations of cortisol and adrenaline they can manage anxiety and fear.

    The cortisol-adrenal system easily becomes over sensitive and kicks in when it need not. People can easily train it to do that by giving way to anxieties, so then it kicks in sooner each time, until they are living a restricted life, penned in by anxiety that they think is a psychological condition when it is just a poorly managed endocrine function.

    Mothers often induce this condition in children when the child says he/she feels unwell, has stomach ache, is nervous, anxious, etc, and keeps them home from school, overly mothers them, someway rewards or accommodates the condition. Pretty soon cortisol and adrenaline are kicking in for every little thing the child doesn’t want to do, and the child is becoming a prisoner of the sensations of anxiety. It gets treated as a psychological condition when it is a physiological one.

    The same thing happens with dog and horse owners who reward their animal by rewarding it or satisfying its anxieties/cortisol dumps. When the anxiety is ignored and the animal is pushed through those situations, to be rewarded afterwards when it is calm, then its endocrine system gets retrained and no longer kicks in as it did before.

    The signs and symptoms of anxiety and fear are simply show that the body is working as it should, pumping out cortisol (for anxiety/stress) and adrenaline (for fear) and is ready for whatever may take place — we can understand the bodily reaction and make good use of it. Retrain it and make a tool of it. In other words, transform it onto fuel, like Popeye does with spinach. Bring it to bear upon the object of fear, and upon the subject of life overall. Always move into the subject of fear, and into and against the anxiety, ignoring what it would have us do or neglect to do, and do what is good, right and best to do, or what is most adventurous to do, so as to never let it stop us from doing the most right, proper and bravest thing.

    And so we transform anxiety/fear into fuel for facing and managing anything, we train the cortisol-adrenal system to work with our best living, rather than against it, and to align our earthly fears with our conscience/better judgement or what we might term our God fearing part.

    And that, I think, ties in with your last paragraph above, about anxiety prompting us toward courage.

    Then there are those who want to have anxiety. They are getting what they see as gains from it, avoiding things they don’t want to do, trading off certain responsibilities…. I have worked in just about every field so I can spot them reasonably easily, but some have had me fooled for a long while. Responsibility is the heaviest burden there is. It is no wonder that people come up with all sorts of conditions to reduce its weight. Each condition must be dealt with according to what it is. Recognising it is the key, and that is not always easy. And there are those who appear to want the anxiety but actually do not. They are like those who appear to be chronic pain malingerers but really have genuine pain and physical conditions. It gets quite tricky…

    • Man, this is fantastic! We have much in common in therapeutic strategy. I really like the last paragraph, and I’ve noticed this over the years as well. I noticed these are the types that disappear from therapy soon after they are really confronted with the dragon they are keeping at bay through the process of worry, i.e. abstracting from reality. The body does not get involved with the fear so long as one can keep their brains operating in the abstract – linguistic – mode, rather than the picture mode. Worry/anxiety is indeed a way that the mind keeps itself from having to face the real deal of their fear, which is usually something of an existential threat – like what Tillich pours out in Courage to Be – verses simple neurotic anxiety.

  3. Yes, visual thought will always override verbal thought/self talk.

    And yes it is good to chat with someone of similar outlook and method.
    I tend to do things my own way. As my colleagues frequently say, Crossbow sails his own ship.

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