Beware the Limitations of Superficial Psychology

Don't be afraid to explore your psyche

Some cognitive psychologists say our difficulty achieving happiness is due to “logic-processing errors.” But this remedy is too superficial. Logic or common sense can’t separate out the ingredients of unhappiness because those ingredients reside deep in our psyche, beyond the reach of logic or common sense.

The best psychological approach depends on knowledge, not logic. This knowledge of how our psyche works leads us deep into our unconscious mind. There we discover the repressed material and unresolved negative emotions that compel us to recycle painful feelings and memories, thereby producing unhappiness.

According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning” (Stumbling on Happiness, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Wait a minute! That’s not true at all. Think of people who meditate. They’re not afraid of reality. They search for truth and meaning on an inner level to help them recognize and overcome life’s challenges—and they feel happier for doing so.

We have to be willing to approach reality or we’ll be like children afraid of the dark. We won’t have the strength to deal with challenges such as climate change, resource depletion, terrorism, and corruption in the financial markets.

Gilbert also writes that we need a certain level of illusion or delusion, a “psychological immune system,” that “allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it.” Gilbert’s remedy is no solution at all. It’s a formula for endless inner conflict between feeling good and feeling bad. The review of his book in The New York Times was aptly titled, “The Joy of Delusion.”

Here is an example of real insight, as applied to a category of people called “injustice collectors.” These chronic complainers and quiet sufferers unwittingly use their powers of mind and imagination to produce impressions from daily life that leave them feeling offended, cheated, oppressed, or otherwise victimized. Their problem is not that they are making “logic-processing errors,” as cognitive psychologists say, but that they are operating in the dark. Logic requires access to the relevant facts, and most injustice collectors don’t have those facts at their disposal. They don’t know what’s happening in their psyche, and only depth psychology can reveal or teach it to them.

The fact is, injustice collectors are unconsciously compelled to suffer. They unwittingly produce subjective impressions that injustices are being done to them. They wrongly believe that these injustices—which may be real, exaggerated, or imagined—require them to suffer. How can injustice collectors apply logic when they can’t see the unconscious processes at work in their psyche?

Their unconscious compulsion to suffer has to be fully explored. Injustice collectors are determined at a deep level to continue their suffering ways. To free themselves, they have to instigate the equivalent of an inner revolution, fueled by new insight or consciousness. This can involve spending some time each day applying their growing self-knowledge to those situations in which their suffering arises. They begin to see the inner choices they have been making to move into negative feelings “at the drop of a hat.” They understand that they have been suffering not because circumstances justify their suffering but because they have been recreating and recycling unresolved negative emotions.

A healthy person is interested in generating thoughts and emotions that lead to creativity, productivity, pleasure, or relaxation. An injustice collector, in comparison, is secretly (unconsciously) interested in generating thought or emotional processes that involve (among other negative emotions) deprivation, control, criticism, and rejection. This produces tension, frustration, anger, cynicism, and depression. Injustice collecting is also a factor in behavioral problems such as addictions.

Don’t be afraid to go deep! Understand, as well, that psychologists and psychoanalysts who have not done deep work in their own psyche are incapable of teaching superior knowledge and methods for emotional health and self-development.