Collapsing into Helplessness

A sense of helplessness. when emotionally embellished, makes things more difficult for us.

A sense of helplessness, when emotionally embellished, makes things a lot more difficult for us.

James E. Holmes’s spiral notebook helps us understand his descent into madness. Holmes, a neuroscience graduate student who killed 12 people in a 2012 mass murder spree in a Colorado movie theater, had covered page after page of his notebook with the single handwritten word Why?

In repeatedly writing Why? in his notebook (illustrated here), Holmes was desperately asking a question he couldn’t answer. Evidence suggests he was asking imponderable questions such as why do we exist, why does life exist, why should we matter in the great scheme of things. (His notebook brimmed with what his defense lawyers called “a whole lot of crazy”—delusions about death, human worth, and “negative infinity.”) Anyone who struggles relentlessly to come up with definitive answers to such questions faces the prospect of feeling painfully, profoundly helpless. (That’s why religions encourage people to deal with such questions on the basis of faith.)

Psychologically, we can make sense of what happened to Holmes. We can see clearly what he was doing to himself in the lead-up to his shooting spree. In a process of mental and emotional breakdown, he was falling into the passive side of his psyche and spiraling into a painful sense of utter helplessness. In doing so, the danger existed that he would flip to the other side and become manically aggressive.

This existence of inner passivity is not peculiar just to people with mental illness. We all have a passive side of our psyche, and it can lead us into emotional weakness and self-doubt, thereby creating serious behavioral difficulties. We benefit greatly by seeing and understanding this part of us. In the case of Holmes, meanwhile, we are able to study the role that this passivity plays in the development of mental illness. [Read more…]

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Solve the Mystery of Your Suffering

Some detective work is needed when investigating your psyche.

Some detective work is needed when investigating your psyche.

To solve the mystery of your suffering, you have to do some detective work. You also have to gather your courage and your wits as you embark on this hero’s life-changing journey.

Guided by the three exercises below, you’ll be taking a plunge into your psyche and the emotions and memories it holds to explore hidden recesses for clues and insights into this mystery.

You’ll be looking at your emotions and motivations, your relationship and family history, and the deepest feelings and beliefs you hold about yourself.

If you’re serious about learning something complex—and you are very complex—you have to put in study time. Your choices are to solve the mystery of your suffering, or to condemn yourself to a life half-lived or worse.

It’s a good idea to make notes and keep a journal. You might even want to have a spreadsheet to organize all the evidence and clues. Keep in mind that some emotional discomfort—resistance especially—is involved in doing these exercises.

To expose inner truth, we have to overcome denial and resistance, and be prepared to shift away from our old identifications. Such discomfort, while usually fleeting, is a prerequisite for personal growth and insight. In previous posts, I’ve written explicitly about this process here, here, and here.

So gather up your detective wiles, set aside some evenings, and dig in. It’s time to bid adieu to suffering. [Read more…]

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Answers to Questions from Readers (Part 4)

The road to inner freedom.

The path to inner freedom.

Readers often send me emails with their comments and questions. Here I answer three of them, edited to remove identifying details. My responses are in italics.

My life has been a struggle for many years. The negative emotions I experienced (mostly being viciously manipulated and disrespected by relatives and other people) are still present.

I always had the impression (even before reading your articles) that I was somehow choosing to be involved in those negative emotions and experiences. However, I did not have the proper understanding of the inner dynamics of this process. Certainly it is very difficult to accept the notion that I’m making inner choices in order to experience those bad emotions: this is extremely humiliating. I mean, it really is humiliating to recognize that I am choosing to hurt myself over and over again in this manner. What do you think about this? –DK

You are feeling what most people feel when presented with this knowledge. It’s very common to feel humiliated or offended when we first consider the possibility that we’re choosing unconsciously and repeatedly to indulge in certain negative emotions.

We experience this sense of humiliation mainly because our conscious ego is so offended at the revelations of this depth psychology. Our conscious ego, which operates rather like an old software program, is of course just one aspect of our total self. Yet a great many people identify with their ego and experience so much of their life through it. We can feel as if we are our ego. Absorbing depth psychology means, however, that we get access to some of the hidden operations, enabling a bigger self to emerge. Even though this benefits us greatly, we still experience resistance to the process. [Read more…]

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An Insightful Case of Self-Injury

As many as two million Americans harm themselves each year.

As many as two million Americans intentionally harm themselves each year.

It’s worrisome and disheartening to realize just how many people around the world regularly engage in self-injury or self-harm. They cut or burn their skin, pull their hair, scratch and interfere with wound healing, bang or hit the body, or swallow sharp objects or toxic substances.

Experts say that up to two million Americans, most of them teenagers and young adults, commit such acts each year. The psychiatric profession, meanwhile, has been unable to pinpoint a cause for why these individuals feel compelled to harm themselves.

Obviously, these people are emotionally troubled. Increased risk is found in individuals with borderline personality or bipolar disorders, yet many sufferers do not have a recognized mental disorder. Often they were sexually or verbally abused in childhood, and they experience themselves as failures and misfits. They usually describe themselves as being bad, unworthy, defective, and deserving of punishment.

As I attempt to show in this article, the behaviors of the people involved in self-harm, along with their emotional turmoil, make complete sense when we consider evidence from depth psychology. These individuals, for the most part, are plagued by inner conflict. Such conflict involves invisible inner dynamics—especially the engagement in the psyche between self-aggression and inner passivity—which strongly influence human emotions and behaviors. [Read more…]

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Blinded by the Darkness of Trump

A person with a narcissistic disorder is desperate to cover up how he really feels about himself.

A person with a narcissistic disorder is desperate to cover up how he really feels about himself.

Many millions of Americans don’t realize that Donald Trump, their hero and standard-bearer, likely has a serious mental illness. Many experts in psychology assert (here, here, and here) that he is unfit to be president of the United States. I provide psychological evidence further along that speaks to the grave danger he represents.

Trump’s behaviors and personality attest to a narcissistic personality disorder. Symptoms of the disorder are outlined in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The Manual says a narcissistic personality disorder is indicated when five of nine criteria are present. Trump would appear to have eight of the nine criteria: a grandiose sense of self-importance and readiness to exaggerate achievements and talents; a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, brilliance, and beauty; a belief that he is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other high-status people; a need for excessive admiration; a tendency to be exploitive for personal gain; a lack of empathy; a belief that others are envious of him; and arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes.

A personality disorder is a very serious level of dysfunction. Some of its symptoms even appear on the schizophrenia spectrum. I hesitate to attempt psychotherapy with people with personality disorders (ten disorders are listed in the Manual, including narcissistic personality disorder) because, through no fault of theirs, their resistance to inner progress is so formidable. I believe the Manual understates the severity of the condition when it says, “A personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

Americans who feel aligned with Trump are, in my view, buying into and taking at face value the psychological defenses that Trump employs to maintain and even heighten his narcissistic outlook. They can’t see the danger he presents, in part because many of them are unwilling or unable to see beyond their own defenses, illusions, and denial. [Read more…]

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Understanding Inner Evil in Mass-Killers

Evil begins with inner conflict in the psyche.

Evil begins with conflict in the psyche.

Domestic mass-killers believe that the hatred they feel toward others justifies their murderous behavior. They don’t understand that other people and social circumstances are not the cause of their rage and hatred. The evil begins with what potential and actual mass-killers are doing to themselves on an inner level.

In this post I enlist depth psychology to explain these inner dynamics at play in the psyche of such individuals. Further along, I’ll look at the particular case of the mass-killer who struck last month in Orlando.

The following psychological dynamics and characteristics can converge as the “perfect storm,” producing an individual ready to embark on a mass-killing spree. Here are some of the major elements at play in the psyche of such individuals:

* Whether or not they are inflicted with a mental-health disorder, these individuals are nonetheless highly dysfunctional or neurotic. This means they are plagued by intense inner conflict, particularly in terms of how they absorb abuse from their inner critic and in terms of how they inwardly create the impression of being marginalized, insignificant, and alienated from self and surrounding society.

* They feel devalued, unworthy, and disconnected from their better nature. Hence, they lack sensitive or generous impulses or instincts toward others. Such an individual is highly thin-skinned and easily takes offense, meaning he is quick to interpret everyday encounters with others as if he is being overlooked, rejected, or disrespected. [Read more…]

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A Common Theme in Relationship Strife

We need to understand the deeper dynamics that can drive us apart.

We need to understand the deeper dynamics that can drive us apart.

Millions of couples are stuck in particular forms of relationship dysfunction that push them over the brink into painful acrimony and separation. Often they have no idea of the deeper psychological dynamics driving them apart.

These unhealthy relationship dynamics repeatedly lead couples into confrontations, defensiveness, angry words, and heartbreak. Each spouse or partner reacts to the other according to set patterns and emotional expectations, and they snipe at one another like hand puppets consigned to a tragic script.

Most relationships that disintegrate do so because of what people don’t understand about themselves. One of the most common and damaging scripts that couples act out involves this conflict: One spouse or partner habitually complains that the other partner is not being emotionally supportive enough, while the other partner feels that no matter how hard he or she tries it’s never good enough. In such instances, both partners have unconscious issues that feed the dissension between them.

Let’s look at the unconscious issues that plague each partner, starting with the partner who chronically feels unsupported. This partner can be, of course, either a man or woman. For this example, I’ll choose a woman (Sarah) as the partner who frequently and painfully feels emotionally unsupported. She’s constantly disappointed in her husband (Larry), and he’s convinced he can never hope to satisfy her and that he’ll always be a disappointment to her. Larry and Sarah both feel that their relationship, rather than growing and becoming more loving, is fatally drifting apart. [Read more…]

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Breaking Free of Inner Passivity

Inner passivity keeps us locked up in misery and self-defeat.

Inner passivity keeps us locked up in misery and self-defeat.

Inner passivity is an unconscious realm of our psyche that’s very much “in our face” emotionally. I write a great deal about inner passivity, and I keep trying to bring this psychological aspect into better focus.

My readers keep asking me how, exactly, can they eliminate inner passivity from their emotional life. “Okay, I can see that it’s a problem for me,” they say. “Now how do I get rid of it?”

This message from a reader in Australia is typical of this feedback:

The symptoms you describe in your book, The Phantom of the Psyche, were almost a carbon copy of what I’ve suffered from my whole life. I loved the book, yet I’m still not sure what to do in daily life at a more practical level. The exercises in the book make sense but they seem a tad trivial when juxtaposed with the scope of the problem. Perhaps I’m asking too much of your book and that psychotherapy is really the only way to change things. Any thoughts on this would be great.

Good psychotherapy can certainly bring inner passivity and its symptoms more quickly into focus. Yet very few psychotherapists are going to address inner passivity directly. Here, in this longer than usual post, I offer some further direction for doing this on one’s own. [Read more…]

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Are You Hopeless of Ever Finding Love?

In any context, hopeless feelings can be traced to inner conflict.

In any context, hopeless feelings can be traced to inner conflict.

Hopeless romantics are frequently daydreamers, idealists, and poets—distinguished for their spirited passion and steady optimism. But another kind of hopeless romantic is stalled in lonely wretchedness.

Painful hopelessness stalks many people who, feeling unlucky in love, are convinced they’ll never find a loving partner for a committed relationship. These people have now activated a Catch-22: the more hopeless they feel, the more likely the psychosomatic side-effects of that negative emotion will make them less attractive to healthy people.

Often prowling in the psyche of such individuals is the sense that they don’t have much to give or to offer another person. Who they are deep down, it feels, is simply not enough to capture the love and devotion of others. “Sometimes I feel so broken,” one woman said, “that I’m sure the universe doesn’t care whether I ever find love.”

Hopelessness in whatever context it arises is a painful symptom of inner conflict. According to depth psychology, a person often fails to establish an intimate relationship because he or she is using the playing field of relationships as a way to replay and recycle that conflict. [Read more…]

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Words to Enlighten Younger Children

Younger children can be helped and inspired by depth psychology.

Younger children can be greatly helped by depth psychology.

Young children from six or seven years of age can be helped and inspired by the knowledge of depth psychology. Of course, it’s best presented to them in simple language.

Some basic thoughts and ideas are offered here concerning what young children can understand and learn about their psychological nature. I broached this subject a few years ago (Teach Your Children Well), and this new post tries to present the same concepts more simply. This post can also help adults to learn the basics.

Such knowledge might come across as mere empty words if the person who communicates doesn’t embody or personify the knowledge. The best guidance for young children might not be the words themselves but rather the emotional strength and kindly conduct of those who would instruct or teach them. In any case, the following statements can guide parents and teachers as they impart knowledge and wisdom to children. Some children can also read this content themselves and make good sense of it.

1 – Understand that we have an inner world of vanished memories and unrecognized emotions. This vital part of our nature is called the psyche. The psyche’s stirrings and dynamics strongly affect our mental and emotional life. These dynamics often operate beyond our awareness. It can be hard for us to see clearly enough what’s happening inside us. We want to become more aware of these inner dynamics so we aren’t limited or hurt by them. [Read more…]

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