On anxiety and power

Paul Cotterill
4 min readOct 10, 2021


It’s World Mental Health Day, and this is what I have to say alcoholism, depression, anxiety and and power. People may take offence. It is not intended. I say that sincerely. Being able to state that is an acknowledgement that my own power is greater than that of many others.

2/ Dan Carden MP’s emotional speech in the Commons , and other stories told my public figures with social and media power about their own personal struggles, increasingly unsettle me, precisely because they are often told with helpful intent. I choose Dan Carden’s here because it was so sincere, and because it is recent. Others are just as sincere. Others feel less so, and feel more directly “look at me, I have overcome the odds and am a great and powerful person”..

3/ Why do even the sincerest assurances by the powerful that it’s “ok not to be ok” unsettle me? Here’s why.

4/ What gives us humanity is the capacity to promise. This was Nietzsche’s greatest insight in the Genealogy of Morals.

5/ What gives us the potential for action is the capacity of others to forgive. This was Arendt’s greatest insight in the Human Condition.

6/ And what gives us agency is the capacity to promise an action in the validated knowledge that our promise was sincere and we will be forgiven for failure. This is Habermas’ s single greatest research insight: that people are linguistically hardwired to validate promises as sincere, even in the knowledge that promises are broken, that social progress happens where validation upside outstrips facticity downside, and that this progress happens better in societies ‘uncolonized’ by a capitalist system that depends on distrusts for its necessary power inequalities.

7/ Within such a capitalist system, if the powerful monopolize the validation of sincerity via their colonization of discourse, then the powerless will have less capacity to assume sincerity, for sincerity is meaningful only if insincerity exists, just as ideal speech only exists in the non-ideal context

8/ And if the powerless enjoy less capacity to assume sincerity, they will not be able to promise, and will not be forgiven for not acting.

9/ Then the powerless will be blamed for their lack of action, for not seeking to help themselves.

10/ Saying this is not to doubt the personal sincerity of the powerful when they act, or speak of their act in a way they think may help the powerful, but it is to question their conception of power and oppression.

11/ I don’t know exactly how things can be better, because the powerful do not want to give up power, especially when it is sincerely wielded.

12/ But I want to know, and am trying to work it out, and I think Joel Kovel’s insights into a critical therapy that does not ‘flatten humanity’, but offers modest and respectful release, may help, because it contains the quality of forgiveness.

13/ And I think that Kierkegaard speaks for all of humanity, not just that powerful part that has the agency to self-forgive, when he speaks of how the anxiety that traps many of us and limits our agency, can in fact be a portal to liberation, if only we can channel it towards the leap of faith, a leap that takes us beyond the grasp of those who would tell us that it’s ok not be be ok, precisely because that’s very convenient for their continuing to be more ok than us.

Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way, has learned the ultimate… Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness…….Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility, and only he who is educated by possibility is educated according to his infinitude. Therefore possibility is the weightiest of all categories. It is true that we often hear the opposite stated, that possibility is so light, whereas actuality is so heavy.



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.