Chapter 6: Human distress

I wish here to discuss in more detail the kinds of emotional distress and associated behaviours that result when needs, especially personal needs, are frustrated and interfered with.

A. Physical distress

I mean, of course, to discuss the emotional accompaniments of the pain, hunger, and so on that result from frustration of physical needs. As I have suggested earlier, emotional distress at the physical level is difficult to disentangle, in humans from the personal distress involved with it, especially in children. In animals of the same species, as we have seen, anger - arising when there is some perceived actual or possible interference with the animal's preoccupation with food, territory, mating, the young - may lead to threat displays, token or minimal fighting, or severe destructive attack. Fear - arising when the organism is approached by another seen to be dangerous and threatening - may lead to immobility and submission, or to flight, or to last ditch counter-attack. In highly frustrating situations set up in the laboratory, animals may exhibit not only direct and displaced aggression but also regression, resignation or apathy and, perhaps most interesting of all, compulsive fixated maladaptive responses. All this no doubt gives us some indication of the response tendencies inherent in the human qua animal organism, tendencies always to be taken into account when seeking to understand the distressed behaviour of humans.

Most important, however, is the point already made, that when humans are distressed through physical frustration, there can also be significant additional distress resulting from personal frustrations that may be a consequence of the physical.

B. Personal distress

My main theoretical suggestion is that in human beings there is not only the anger, fear and grief whose equivalents we find in animals suffering some physical interference or threat; there is also anger, fear and grief that is the result of personal needs being interfered with, and this in the human infant as well as in the adult.

  1. Love and grief. When love needs are frustrated through loss of, or separation or parting from, through indifference or invalidation from or rejection by, other persons in the love relationship, then the resultant distress is experienced as sadness, sorrow, and in its more intense phases, grief. Natural, undistorted grief behaviour appears to involve tears and convulsive sobbing. The function of such behaviour I shall consider later.
    • Love needs are frequently (but not exclusively) very closely interrelated with physical needs that concern sex and parenthood/childhood. Hence many of the most intense human griefs seem to involve disruption of relationships between sexual intimates, between parent and children, between siblings. Although so closely interwoven, the biological can still be distinguished, in analysis at any rate, from the personal. Animal grief, if present at all (and it often seems to be totally absent), is nowhere near so paroxysmal and soul-searching as human grief can be. But intense human grief can be experienced at the loss of loved persons with whom the mourner has no biological ties; nor can such grief be reasonably reduced in all cases to a mere projection of unacknowledged hidden grief at the loss of kinfolk. Love flows from person to person quite independently of any physical bonds, and its disruption can generate deep and very genuine grief.
    • The biological underpinning of a central area of human loving, however, provides humans with a circumscribed powerful crucible for the traumas, exigencies and delights of developing love.
    • The clinical and experiential evidence now available indicates that human infants in their earliest years need a rich, sustained, supportive flow of human loving that is intimate, authentic, elegant, imaginative. Without such love, the grief induced in the very small child is profound and seems, if it is left unresolved, to affect all subsequent ability for loving, whether biologically based or otherwise.
    • Grieving attends a disruption of both the active and the passive modes of loving: a person grieves when her giving and receiving of love is suspended in a love relationship.
  2. Understanding and fear. When understanding needs are frustrated through a lack of information or a set of concepts that could make the human situation in particular, or the human condition in general, intelligible and manageable, then the resultant distress is experienced as anxiety and in its more intense phases, fear. If not suppressed, such fear can appear in the body as cold perspiration and involuntary trembling.
    • Personal fear of the unknown is often closely combined with the sort of physical fear that arises when the organism is under powerful threat, especially in unsophisticated societies where people need explanatory schemes for natural phenomena that threaten physical life and wellbeing. But there is, I believe, a purely personal or psychological fear that is not necessarily tied in with the sense of physical threat. This is the fear induced by a perceived threat to consciousness, when it is sensed that consciousness is going to be overcome, extinguished, influenced, invaded by impressions, sensations, thoughts, desires, powers and presences for which there is no adequate conceptual scheme available and which are therefore relatively unknown and unmanageable. This threat to consciousness as such may be seen as coming from other persons, the perceived world, something beyond the perceived world, from within the human being, or most generally from the future. The threat is to personal identity, psychological identity as distinct from a threat to the physical integrity of the organism.
    • In humans, severe physical threat, where there is a possibility of death, involves also psychological threat, since physical death is an assault of the unknown on consciousness. But severe psychological threat does not necessarily involve physical threat, although of course it may involve a phantasied physical threat. It is interesting that Reich postulated that character armour, the root of all distorted human behaviour in his theoretical scheme, first arose when hominids became self-conscious humans, became introspectively aware of their orgiastic sensations, and through fear of the amazing consciousness-consuming convulsions started to block and wall off their deeper physical sensations and emotions.
    • I believe that small children, quite apart from being subject to obvious physical fears, can also be subject to deep personal fears about loss of their tenuous psychological identity when, for example, they are put in strange and unfamiliar situations without being given appropriate information which they can use to, or when they are too young to, orientate themselves conceptually and sustain their sense of identity. Irrational parental authority compulsively and arbitrarily imposed is another, for the child, unintelligible threat to her psychological identity: although this often carries overtones of physical threat also.
    • But as well as the fear involved in not knowing, there is also the corresponding fear in not being known. A person's psychological identity is threatened when she senses that the people who matter around her have no real grasp of the kind of being she is. Again, I believe that for small children this can be a deeply distressing, fearful experience - the sense that parents do not know who is in their midst.
    • A person will be fearful of communicating who she is, of communicating ideas that mark her out as a distinctive sort of person, if she thinks that the prospective listeners have no belief systems that enable them really to understand what she says and give it a sympathetic hearing. Similarly, children may be afraid to announce who they really are, to say things that imply the kind of beings they are, partly because the concepts they acquire with the language may be inadequate, but more probably because they feel or learn that such identity will be socially eliminated by the incomprehension of the audience.
  3. Self-direction and anger. When the need to be self-directing is frustrated, by some meaningful self-initiated enterprise being thwarted, then the resultant distress is experienced as restlessness and tension, and in its more intense phases as anger. Uninhibited anger behaviour appears to involve high-frequency, vigorous storming movements of the limbs and corresponding loud protest sounds: a burst of verbal and non-verbal somatic righteous indignation, assertion of liberty, breaking the chains.
    • Clearly self-direction, the exercise of intelligent choice, can be closely related to meeting physical needs, as when a person elects to move toward a goal that will satisfy a need for food or sex or rest or warmth or shelter. If this move is arbitrarily interrupted there can be a double anger: the anger of organismic need thwarted combined with the anger of personal choice interrupted. But equally clearly personal anger can arise independently of any obvious physical need frustrated: classically when any organisation arbitrarily and unjustly restricts the range of social options open to persons within its jurisdiction. Those against whom unjust discrimination is exercised may have all their physical needs adequately met yet still experience intense anger. Social injustice and oppression where severe and unwarrantable restrictions are put on personal decision-making is a heavy hammer that ignites the spark of personal anger.
    • Children can be angered by the intractability of the physical world, by the frustrating gap between mental intention and physical achievement, by the obstructionist property of objects.
    • The child's capacity for self-direction appears to be exercised in imaginative play, self-initiated exploration of the environment and of interaction with others, imitation of adults, voluntarily becoming more and more self-directed in managing self and environment. Any arbitrary and ill-considered interruption of these behaviours may lead the child to experience personal anger.
    • But it is not only the imposition of the irrational parental authority interrupting the childish exercise of choice that may lay in anger. I believe that the failure of parents to take facilitating initiatives on behalf of the child, to provide conditions for discovery learning, to draw out childish self-direction, can induce deep angers, however defensively buried and occluded they may become.
  4. Interconnections of personal distress. Only in conceptual analysis can one make such simple and elegant connections between love and grief, understanding and fear, self-direction and anger. Precisely because in reality the fulfilments of these needs are mutually involved in each other, the primary frustration of any one involves secondary frustration of the other two. Primary grief at the sudden loss of a loved person may also involve secondary anger at the sudden permanent restriction on valued and pleasant choices and secondary fear at the prospect of unknowns and uncertainties thrown up by the loss. Similarly with primary anger or primary fear: the other two distresses may be aroused in a secondary manner.
    • Or all three distresses may be roughly co-equal, as when some social authority imposes with strong sanctions an unjust separation between persons who love each other: anger, grief and fear may arise in those persons in equivalent measure.
    • The relative weighting of the three major distresses is likely to be highly idiosyncratic - a function of the particular persons and situations.

C. Hierarchy of distress

This concept has been reiterated throughout. I think it is important for education, therapy, personal and interpersonal development.

  1. Physical distress via natural causes: the human animal's anger, fear due to frustration of, threat to, harm to, physical needs and the body caused by natural phenomena - animal attack, natural disasters, the elements, accidents, and so on. There may be little or no personal distress directly generated by the physical distress. But the greater the physical frustration or threat or harm, the more likely it is that there will be significant personal distress caused by it.
  2. Physical distress via human intervention: the human animal's anger and fear due to bodily dangers, frustrations, pain, caused by the actions of other persons. At the crudest level, these actions may simply involve animal-like competition for food, territory, mates, or protection of the young. Or the actions may be beneficent as in painful medical attention. The actions may also be malicious, as when any kind of physical threat or duress is applied for social ends.
  3. Personal distress via primary sources of personal vulnerability: grief through personal loss by death or separation from natural causes; fear at the inscrutable, not understood, psychologically menacing phenomena in the world and in the psyche; anger at human purposes thwarted by natural causes. Birth trauma effects.
  4. Personal distress via secondary sources of personal vulnerability: grief when an interruption of receiving or giving love is the result of deliberate human intervention; fear when psychological identity is threatened by the menacing attitudes of other persons, their inability to understand, their failure to communicate relevant information; anger when the agent's choice and purposes are interfered with, constrained, by other persons. These secondary sources may be face-to-face, organisational or society-wide.
  5. Personal distress via tertiary sources of personal vulnerability: grief when valid social weal is voluntarily seen by a person to require a separation from someone she loves; fear when healthy risks having been voluntarily undertaken in the interests of creative social change and organisational development - present a menacing prospect of unknowns and uncertainties; anger when a person intentionally frustrates some significant purpose of her own because she chooses to uphold some wider social purpose incompatible with it. These distresses are all intentionally self-induced, the apparent paradox being that personal needs can be fulfilled by frustrating themselves. But since personal capacities are potentially unlimited in their scope, a present fulfilment may be voluntarily given up - but given up painfully - to realise a possibility of wider fulfilment.

In actual experience, distresses from two or more of these differing sources may occur simultaneously in any one of several possible combinations. The general explanatory thesis I have advanced is that 1, 2 and 3 distresses which I call primary distresses - combine to produce, when they reach a critical threshold, distresses which I call secondary distresses. Primary distresses may be loosely called distresses of the human condition; while secondary ones, distresses of interpersonal distortion.

In their positive role, when they operate below the critical threshold as creative tensions, primary distresses generate cultural achievement and in turn are reduced by such achievement. Theoretical and applied knowledge in the natural and human sciences reduces fear of the unknown in the world and in the psyche, makes intractable nature more manageable and amenable to the human will, reduces time and energy spent on survival tasks, reduces infant mortality and enlarges the life span so that love is less ruthlessly disrupted by nature, and so on. As a result, cultural achievement becomes more and more self-generating, less and less a mere response to the stress of the given world. Culture responds to culture, idea to idea, personal capacities celebrate their own flourishing and fulfilment as an end in itself.

In their negative role, when they operate above the critical threshold, primary distresses generate interpersonal distortion which tends to become self-perpetuating through negative social practices and institutions handed on from generation to generation, particularly negative child-raising practices and the institutions that surround them. Hence interpersonal distortions can be culturally transmitted, and relatively independent of the particular pervasive set of primary distresses that generated them. If these distresses drop below the critical level and generate cultural achievement, this will occur in the transmitted distorted social institutions, and so we have the phenomenon of cultural distortion, of human knowledge and achievement applied to distorted and perverted ends.

This is a very crude presentation of what in reality must be an immensely complex dynamic system. The variables are so many and their interaction so intricate that what we may expect to see in human societies are enormously varied mixtures of adaptive and maladaptive knowledge and skills, adaptive and maladaptive social practices.