The psychoanalytic theory of anxiety and defense

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Donald L. Carveth


The chronological development of Freud’s theories of anxiety is reviewed in connection with the series of infantile danger-situations, the distinction between traumatic and signal anxiety, and the defenses evoked by the latter to avoid the former. The central defense of turning aggression away from the object and back against the self, thus generating the hostile superego, is emphasized. A critique of Freud‘s one-sided conception of danger as loss of the good is offered in light of Melanie Klein’s recognition of the danger constituted by the presence of something bad. In light of the shift from topographical to structural theory additional types of anxiety are distinguished: instinctual anxiety experienced by the ego in the face of the Id; Reality anxiety in the face of the external world; moralistic anxiety in the face of the superego. While Freud failed to distinguish persecutory and reparative anxiety and guilt, Klein and her followers posited two fundamentally different layers or positions in the mind, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive or reparative positions characterized by these two types of anxiety and guilt respectively. There has been a good deal of confusion due to the widespread failure to distinguish depressive anxiety from depression: there is no depression in the depressive position because the splitting involved in depression is a paranoid-schizoid phenomenon. The existentialists remind us that not all anxiety and guilt is neurotic.

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Carveth, D. L. . (2021). The psychoanalytic theory of anxiety and defense. Metalepsis: Journal of the American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis, 1(1), 12-24.