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Anxiety in the Words of Famous Psychologists, Philosophers, and Others

I have collected a few interesting and insightful quotes by psychologist Rollo May, author Yann Martel, philosopher Robert Pirsig, theologian Paul Tillich, and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, for today’s post.

Sometimes a person’s explanation of a concept really helps us understand a matter in a new or a fuller way; hopefully today’s quotes can help some of you gain a better understanding of anxiety.

The quotes below refer to fear, anxiety, but also the nature of anxiety itself, courage, creativity, etc. They are all fairly long, except one, with which I will begin:

Thomas Szasz:

Anxiety is the unwillingness to play even when you know the odds are for you. Courage is the willingness to play even when you know the odds are against you.

Rollo May:

Creative people…are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the “divine madness” to borrow the term used by the classical Greeks.

They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.

Yann Martel:

I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life….It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease.

It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy….[Fear] nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it.

So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.

Robert Pirsig:

Anxiety…is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all. Often this, rather than “laziness,” is the real reason you find it hard to get started….

[Anxiety] can lead to all kinds of errors of excessive fussiness. You fix things that don’t need fixing, and chase after imaginary ailments. You jump to wild conclusions and build all kinds of errors into the machine because of your own nervousness.

These errors, when made, tend to confirm your original underestimation of yourself. This leads to more errors, which lead to more underestimation, in a self-stoking cycle.

The best way to break this cycle, I think, is to work out your anxieties on paper. Read every book and magazine you can on the subject.

Paul Tillich:

Fear and anxiety are distinguished but not separated….

Fear is being afraid of something, a pain, the rejection by a person or a group, the loss of something or somebody, the moment of dying.

But in the anticipation of the threat originating in these things, it is not the negativity itself which they will bring upon the subject that is frightening but the anxiety about the possible implications of this negativity.

The outstanding example—and more than an example— is the fear of dying.

Insofar as it is fear its object is the anticipated event of being killed by sickness or an accident and thereby suffering agony and the loss of every- thing. Insofar as it is anxiety its object is the absolutely unknown “after death,” the nonbeing which remains nonbeing even if it is filled with images of our present experience.

Anxiety in the Words of Famous Psychologists, Philosophers, and Others

Arash Emamzadeh

Arash Emamzadeh attended the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he studied genetics and psychology. He has also done graduate work in clinical psychology and neuropsychology in US. Arash maintains a personal psychology blog and a blog for Psychology Today. Arash has a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests; he also maintains a poetry blog.

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APA Reference
Emamzadeh, A. (2018). Anxiety in the Words of Famous Psychologists, Philosophers, and Others. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 May 2018
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