Will we have enough gas, electricity this winter? The psychoanalyst Claude Halmos responds to our fears of lack

Y will there be snow at christmas? This question, which became the title of a film, is reminiscent of decorated pine trees and landscapes in white coats and opened the door to dreams and hopes. Much less poetic, which arises today: “Will we have enough gas and electricity this winter and at what price?” “, arouses concern and even in many consumers a fear that comes on top of all those things that are already weighing on them during this difficult period.

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What fear is it?

Of a fear that arises whenever the danger of deficiency arises, and that one notices less of what those who experience it say (because they often find it difficult to recognize it, and especially to talk about it) than of the behavior that it provokes in them. In fact, it is energy that prompts them to build up reserves (obviously impossible, when it comes to energy) of the product that could be missing, and this – it must be emphasized – even when it is not absolutely necessary.

We recently had an example of this with mustard: as soon as it became known that because of the war in Ukraine and due to the drought in Canada (the world’s largest supplier of seeds), this spice could run out, it has become impossible to find. Consumers rushed to buy it, and in quantities usually unrelated to their usual consumption.

We were surprised or offended, but the fact remains that this rush to empty the shelves deserves to be questioned. Indeed, it is customary to attribute it to the importance, for everyday life, of stored products (water, pasta or toilet paper, for example at the time of confinement). But in the case of a commodity like mustard, this can leave you perplexed.

How to explain this reaction?

The term ‘fear of lack’ is often spoken of, but the reactions to the prospect of deficiency are very complex and, to be understood, presuppose that we distinguish between two concepts that are often confused: fear and anxiety. We can indeed speak of fear if the feared danger is real (“A burglar has entered my house, I hear him, I am afraid”); and fear if it is imaginary (“I don’t know why, but I’m always afraid that a burglar will enter my house”).

This distinction, important for mental health care, is also there because the prospect of deficiency evokes both fear and anxiety.

The consumer who rushes to the supermarket is affected by the – justified – fear that is aroused in him by the prospect of a shortage of such and such a product and the consequences this would have for him and his family. But also—and usually without realizing it—by the fear aroused in him by the idea of ​​missing something. And it tries, through accumulation, to pre-fill a void that is in fact double because it is partly real and partly imaginary. This fear and this fear, which together make him act, function in a very different way: the fear can of course increase according to the importance – vital or not – of the object that might be missing. But fear of lack is not linked to reality, and the reasons why it increases for some essentially refer to the way the concept of lack resonates in their personal history. And this explains both the disproportion between the size of the supplies they constitute and their real needs; and the fact that they can even be products whose real importance is secondary.

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