from Rollo May's The Courage to Create. This excerpt from chapter 3, Creativity and the Unconscious, concerns breakthroughs from the unconscious to the conscious.
I wish to begin our exploration of this topic by relating an incident from my own experience. When I was graduate student doing research on The Meaning of Anxiety, I studied anxiety in a group of unmarried mothers-i.e., pregnant young women in their late teens and early twenties in a shelter home in New York City. I had a good sound hypothesis on anxiety, approved by my professors and approved by me-that the predisposition toward anxiety in individuals would be proportionate to the degree to which they had been rejected by their mothers. In psychoanalysis and psychology this had been a generally accepted hypothesis. I assumed the anxiety of people like these young women would be cued off by the anxiety-creating situation of being unwed and pregnant, and I could then study more openly the original source of their anxiety-namely the maternal rejection.
Now I discovered that half the young women fitted my hypothesis beautifully. But the other half did not fit it at all. This latter group included young women from Harlem and the Lower East Side who had been radically rejected by their mothers. One of them, whom I shall call Helen, was from a family of twelve children whose mother drove them out of the house on the first day of summer to stay with their father, the caretaker of a barge that went up and down the Hudson River. Helen was pregnant by her father. At the time she was in the shelter, he was in Sing Sing on a charge of rape of Helen’s older sister. Like the other young women of this group, Helen would say to me, “We have troubles, but we don’t worry.”
This was a very curious thing to me and I had a hard time believing the data. But the facts seemed clear. As far as I could tell by the Rorschach, TAT, and other test I used, these radically rejected young women did not carry any unusual degree of anxiety. Forced out of the house by their mothers, they simply made their friends among other youngsters on the street. Hence, there was not the predisposition to anxiety we would have expected according to what we know in psychology.
How could this be? Had the rejected young women who had not experienced anxiety become hardened, apathetic, so that they did not feel the rejection? The answer to that seemed clearly no. Were they psychopathic or sociopathic types, who also don’t experience anxiety? Again, no. I felt myself caught by an insoluble problem.
Late one day, putting aside my books and papers in the little office I used in that shelter house, I walked down the street toward the subway. I was tired. I tried to put the whole troublesome business out of my mind. About fifty feet away from the entrance to the Eighth Street station, it suddenly struck me “out of the blue,” as the not-unfitting expression goes, that those young women who didn’t fit my hypothesis were all from the proletarian class. And as quickly as that idea struck me, other ideas poured out. I think I had not taken another step on the sidewalk, when a whole new hypothesis broke loose in my mind. I realized my entire theory would have to be changed. I saw at that instant that it is not rejection by the mother that is the original trauma which is the source of anxiety; it is rather rejection that is lied about.
The proletarian mothers rejected their children, but they never made any bones about it. The children knew they were rejected; they went out on the streets and found other companions. There was never any subterfuge about their situation. They know their world-bad or good-and they could orient themselves to it. But the middle-class young women were always lied to in their families. They were rejected by mothers who pretended they loved them. This was really the source of their anxiety, not the sheer rejection. I saw, in that instantaneous way that characterizes insights from these deeper sources, that anxiety comes from not being able to know the world you’re in, not being able to orient yourself in your own existence. I was convinced there, on the street-and later thought and experience only convinced me the more-that this is a better, more accurate, and more elegant theory, than my first.