On Anxiety

“Remember, babyhood is not a time of bliss; it’s one of terror. As babies we are trapped in a strange, alien world, unable to see properly, constantly surprised at our bodies, alarmed by hunger and wind and bowel movements, overwhelmed by our feelings. We are quite literally under attack. We need our mother to soothe our distress and make sense of our experience. As she does so, we slowly learn how to manage our physical and emotional states on our own. But our ability to contain ourselves directly depends on our mother’s ability to contain us—if she had never experienced containment by her own mother, how could she teach us what she did not know? Someone who has never learned to contain himself is plagued by anxious feelings for the rest of his life, feelings that Bion aptly titled nameless dread. Such a person endlessly seeks this unquenchable containment from external sources—he needs a drink or a joint to “take the edge off” this endless anxiety.”

This is from The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.

9 thoughts on “On Anxiety”

  1. “Remember, babyhood is not a time of bliss; it’s one of terror.”

    Quite a melodramatic statement, but literally nobody remembers his/her “babyhood,” so
    what you have here is a novelist with some training in psychology and a good imagination who is projecting his own reimagining (yes, it’s a word) of a point in his life about which he has absolutely no memory. Infants’ brains don’t retain permanent memories, and no adults can recall genuine memories of the time before they were at least three years old.

    What he says about the vital role of mothers is true, but the “baby think”bit is way over the top — no different than me looking a my cat and trying to guess what she’s thinking and feeling as she stares back at me.


  2. Memories can only be retained with language, which babies don’t develop for a while. I see that the writer has no training in psychology or any related field.

    The earliest memory from my past that is verifiable is when I saw a comic book cover which depicted a giant man with a flaming head, like the Human Torch. According to the publication date I was slightly over 3 years of age.


    1. Do you remember the time you transitioned from crawling to awkward walking? Your first word? A lot of the skills you now take for granted are based on ones you learned in deep infancy, whether or not you have conscious of recall of them.

      (Also, what’s the deal with memories only being formable with language? Your own example is visual, and there’s plenty of sound or smell-based ones I have, entirely independent of framing them in words.)

      I’m sure there are strands that don’t subscribe, but for the most part, psychology’s basic assumption is that a lot of the basic makeup of a personality is determined in early infancy – not necessarily because events then are more inherently dramatic, but because the earlier a thing happens, the more things are built around it later down the line. It’s a reasonable assumption.

      Now, I agree with Dreidel – the story is fiction, there’s no way to know for sure what’s happening in a baby’s mind. It could be bliss, it could be some worm-like unconscious state slowly dawning, we don’t know. We know some of the things it’s not – it’s not an adult-like mind capable of memory retention, for one – and we can make some guesses, but it’s fundamentally unknowable.

      The fiction is for the sake of parents, to better be able frame the little creature that’s demanding so much of you not as wilfully tormenting you, but as hopelessly lost and confused. Of course, it goes a bit further than that and ties anxiety levels purely to early childhood conditions (which is to a degree trackable and testable even without access to baby minds). If the story is wrong on the causes, it’ll cause some mothers a needless sense of guilt and make people around some other mothers put in more effort than needed, which both seem like minor enough risks.


      1. I should say that my mother’s impression that she was a good mother was severely tested by my brother because of his autism, and the fact that the Gregory Bates thought that autism and schizophrenia were due to cold mothering, which made her feel
        guilty for a while.


        1. The point is not to judge or condemn anybody. Maybe the mother didn’t know how to do containment because nobody taught her or she’s traumatized or she had postpartum depression, whatever. The point is to recognize that one has anxiety and start dealing with it productively. I suffered from extreme anxiety for years and had no idea that’s what it was because I couldn’t recognize the symptom. We don’t have this concept in my culture so I had no way of knowing what was wrong with me. I had severe sleep issues for instance abd didn’t know why. But then I got treated and got much, much better. And by the way, my relationship with my mother improved.


      2. People who live with anxiety and are ready to stop will get a lot of use out of the quote. Those who either don’t have the problem or don’t want to solve it won’t.

        If people aren’t ready or the problem is very dear to them, there’s nothing anybody can do.


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