The Lingering Pain of Old Shame

Why is it that old shame so often awakens in our mind?

Why is it that old shame so often awakens in our mind?

We have all experienced, like a punch to the gut, old feelings of shame for things that happened long ago. Everybody, or course, has committed past blunders or acts of negligence, cowardice, or foolishness. A lot of people hold on to these memories, and they continue to be inundated with waves of regret, embarrassment, and shame.

Even when people try to forgive themselves for old missteps, the memories can persist. Why would we continue to be haunted by such memories from the past? They only bring up—right in the present moment—a fresh new experience of the original shame or humiliation.

The answer to this question affords us an opportunity to see exactly how, in our unconscious mind, we produce much of our emotional suffering.

Jeremy, a client of mine, was lying awake in bed in the middle of the night. A recurring memory from 40 years ago crept into his mind. At that time he was almost fired after making a foolish judgment that cast himself and his company in a bad light. The memory seemed to hover over him like an ancient curse, and once again he found himself reliving the original shame.

“What’s this all about?” Jeremy now asked himself. “This event is ancient history. Why am I tormenting myself right now?” [Read more…]

An Unconscious Factor in PTSD

Some detective work is involved in uncovering this unconscious factor.

Some detective work is involved in uncovering this unconscious factor.

I believe a psychological factor in post-traumatic stress disorder is being overlooked, one that might be a key to treating the painful, debilitating condition. Current treatments involving therapies and medications are not particularly effective, and the disorder is still not well understood.

This psychological factor operates unconsciously, and some detective work is involved here in uncovering it. The clues are found in the symptoms. The symptoms of acute, chronic, and delayed-onset PTSD are many. They arise following perilous experiences in which individuals felt intense fear, horror, or helplessness.

PTSD develops in some individuals following experiences of bullying, domestic violence, gun violence, sexual abuse, animal attack, and living in dangerous neighborhoods. PTSD has affected more than 15 percent of U.S. soldiers deployed since 9/11. The percentage of Vietnam War veterans affected by PTSD is double that number.

The symptoms involve the onset of troublesome emotions and behaviors. These include nightmares, flashbacks, rage, and addictions, as well as difficulty in suppressing disturbing thoughts and feelings, along with intense guilt for failing (or allegedly failing) to act appropriately or for committing harm to others.

As an overall effect, one’s old familiar sense of self—one’s psychological constitution—has been shattered. The stricken individual has no idea how to restore or reclaim that former self. [Read more…]

When in Doubt about Sexual Orientation

Unconscious conflict can block one's clarity on this issue.

Unconscious conflict can block one’s clarity on this issue.

A lot of young people are filled with doubt as to whether or not they’re gay. They focus on the question of their sexual orientation, but often this focus is misplaced. Often they’re entangled in unresolved self-doubt or self-alienation, and the question of their sexual orientation is just a “playing field” on which their issues of guilt, confusion, and indecision are acted out.

Many people, of course, have no doubt about their orientation and are perfectly happy with it. But others are highly ambivalent and often tormented. To minimize emotional distress, they’re better off making the right choice—whether they’re straight, gay, or lesbian—as soon as possible. But unconscious conflict involving self-doubt and self-alienation can block them from acquiring that certainty.

I received a lengthy email from a 21-year-old man who described many of the behavioral and emotional difficulties he had been experiencing, including anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame, as well as “a pretty bad masturbating routine, sometimes doing it four times a day.” He wrote in part: [Read more…]

Why Students Fail to Learn

Students can learn more easily when they unblock emotional issues.

Students can learn more easily when they unblock emotional issues.

Wouldn’t it be regrettable if an important new approach to learning didn’t include an understanding of the epidemic-level barriers to learning itself?

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has become involved in a program called the Big History Project, which has introduced a new approach to teaching history in hundreds of American high schools. This new approach establishes cognitive connections across varied subjects—from cosmology to archeology to globalization—so that students can acquire, as the program’s developer David Christian says, a “much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge.”

The program challenges students to “synthesize complex information.” The aim is to enhance mental prowess of students and help them to appreciate more fully the interdependence of all life.

This is awesome! Seeing the world with more insight is vitally important. Perhaps the Big History Project can also inspire students to see themselves as well as the world more objectively. I hope the program’s developers incorporate depth psychology into the curriculum. Why? Because the subject exposes the roots of an extremely important concern of educational experts, namely the reasons why many children and adults are such poor students or learners. [Read more…]

Be Brave when Truth Comes Knocking

The best truths are revelations concerning human nature.

The best truths are revelations concerning human nature.

Dare I presume, like a guru on a mountain ledge, to speak about truth? It’s such an enchanting topic, one I can’t resist babbling on about. Still, I’m mindful (if not observant) of Lao Tzu’s words: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”

I was reassured about tackling this topic when a man, dressed in a monk’s brown robes and accompanying a child, showed up at my front door on Halloween night. Kiddingly, I asked him, “Are you the mad Rasputin?” He replied, “No, I’m Truth. And that scares everyone.”

Certainly, gentle John Keats wasn’t trying to scare us when he broached the subject of truth, producing a masterstroke: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” I’ll try to say in 1,200 words what Keats said in eighteen.

Most of us claim to care about truth, and the pursuit of it ennobles us. Over the centuries we’ve established a nodding acquaintance with many noble truths. The best of these are revelations concerning human nature. They tell us why, for instance, we often doubt, distrust, and dislike ourselves and each other. Great truth reveals the beauty of our being and the truth of our essential value. Paradoxically, great truth often displays an ugly face, a blurred selfie of human nature that shocks our naïve self-image. Even when ugly, a truth that champions reality possesses raw beauty of its own. [Read more…]

Greed as a Mental-Health Disorder

Greed can be traced to conflict in the unconscious mind.

Greed can be traced to unresolved conflict in the unconscious mind.

During a recent discussion of narcissism on the TV program “The View,” Rosie O’Donnell was told that the condition is “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self and their own importance and a deep need for admiration.” She replied, “That’s every celebrity I know, including me!”

That’s great candor from an entertaining lady. We might practice candor, too, by expanding our understanding of mental disorders to include the problem of greed. Both narcissism and greed produce personal and national self-sabotage.

Greed is a factor in the well-documented growing concentration of wealth in the United States. The super-rich claim to be deserving of their wealth, but it’s likely that greed—not wisdom, common sense, or concern about the common good—was a factor in the creation over the past decades of a “financialized” economy that unduly tilts the playing field in favor of those with the most capital to speculate.

Yet people don’t have to be rich to have the disorder; greed about money is all it takes. As a psychiatric diagnosis, it could be called the Great Gatsby Syndrome or, better yet, Wealth Accumulation Disorder.

Both narcissism and greed have their roots in profound self-doubt. Narcissism is self-aggrandizement of the emotional kind, while greed is self-aggrandizement of the materialistic kind. Narcissism (when it occurs as pervasive grandiosity) is listed as a mental disorder in psychiatry’s diagnostic manual. Why not greed? [Read more…]

The Core of Being

What do we need to know to access our core?

What we need to know to find our core.

We obviously become happier and more peaceful as we grow in wisdom and moral sensibility. How is the educational system helping people to do this? Some of the smartest educators say that they don’t know how to do it, even as a growing percentage of students show signs of deteriorating mental health.

The self-knowledge of depth psychology is our best insurance against self-sabotaging conduct that threatens our personal aspirations and degrades the quality of human life. Yet the most prestigious educational institutions in the United States have no particular training or learning processes in place to facilitate such evolvement.

William Deresiewicz, a Yale professor from 1998 to 2008, is quoted in an article in The New Republic saying that, “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

Deresiewicz has published a new book, Excellent Sheep: The Misdirection of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, in which he argues that elite colleges, along with private and affluent high schools, have come under the influence of a commercial and technologically accentuated ethos that cultivates narcissism and personal aggrandizement. [Read more…]

The Folly of Modern Psychology

The failure of modern psychology could sink us all.

Modern psychology is on a collision course that could sink us all.

Civilization is collapsing in the Middle East. Accord between Russia and the West is in shambles. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. Political and social dissension runs high in America. Totalitarians in China tighten their grip.

This dissension, disorder, oppression, and mayhem are fueled by human passions, particularly negative emotions such as anger, fear, intolerance, and hatred. Why is such unreason still raging among us? The human race should be doing better. It’s almost 70 years since the end of the Second World War and the signing of the United Nations Charter when a new standard was unveiled for civilized behavior.

Sixty million people were killed in World War II. Was it all in vain? Why haven’t we met the challenge to live up to the reasonable expectation that we might now, finally, be smart enough to live in peace and harmony. I blame the problem largely on modern psychology. It has failed to teach people the essential facts about human nature. [Read more…]

The Scoop on Intimate Partner Abuse

We need to look at the deeper psychological issues that precipitate domestic abuse.

Deeper understanding is needed of the psychology behind domestic abuse.

The problem of intimate partner abuse has received wide attention following incidents involving National Football League players. Yet media discussions of the subject tend to deal with superficial considerations. Little is being said about the deeper psychological issues that precipitate and fuel the abuse and violence.

Both the perpetrator and the victim are involved in agonizing behaviors that mirror inner conflict in the psyches of them both. What drives the perpetrators, usually men, to be so cruel and brutal, and why do so many women remain in these abusive situations? What do we need to understand that’s common to the various forms—physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and economic—of intimate partner abuse?

Most articles on the subject seem to consider the intimate psychology of warring couples as a forbidden topic. One article, a research review published earlier this month by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, discusses this problem of domestic abuse and the empowerment of women exclusively in terms of their levels of income, financial stability, and educational achievement—yet even that discussion is framed mostly in statistical terms.

While the problem is complicated, a deeper look at psychological dynamics turns up important facts. An abusive relationship puts on display two of the primary elements in the human psyche—aggression and passivity. A couple that’s trapped in a cycle of abuse is acting out the inner conflict that each experiences in his or her psyche. This conflict is between self-aggression, as administered by the inner critic, and inner defensiveness and self-doubt, as experienced through inner passivity. [Read more…]

Stung by Ingratitude

For some, the sting of ingratitude is very painful.

For some, the sting of ingratitude is painful and difficult to recover from.

Neglecting to say “Thank you” can infuriate the best of men. Did someone deny that courtesy to Shakespeare? If so, he let his characters do the talking. Viola proclaims in Twelfth Night, “I hate ingratitude more in a man / Than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness, / Or any taint of vie whose strong corruption / Inhabits our frail blood.”

Shakespeare wasn’t finished. His King Lear thundered, “Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thy show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster.”

Not all of us, fortunately, are so painfully stung by ingratitude. Benjamin Franklin apparently took it more in stride, observing that, “Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones—with ingratitude.”

Yes, most of us have felt some sting from the ingratitude of others. Often the hurt is remembered and experienced anew many years after the offense. For the sake of our equanimity and peace of mind, what ought we to understand about ingratitude?

King Lear’s “hideous” disgust for a child’s ingratitude is misplaced. Young children quite naturally have little sense of gratitude. They tend to take for granted the benefits of food, clothes, toys, and loving kindness. Seeing this ingratitude, parents sometimes wonder if they’re spoiling their children. Children are often prodded: “Say thank you now!” They say the words but don’t necessarily register the feelings. [Read more…]