The Psychology of Wealth Disparity

The collective neurosis behind wealth disparity weighs on human destiny.

The collective neurosis behind wealth disparity weighs on human destiny.

Wealth disparity continues to grow in developed nations. By next year, as Oxfam reported this month, the richest one percent will likely control half the world’s total wealth. This disparity is happening, in part, because money, when used neurotically, is overrated, desperately accumulated, and recklessly dissipated.

In developed nations, all economic, political, and social dysfunction is, to a significant degree, a symptom of the extent of the population’s neurosis. This collective neurosis—the accumulated weight of unresolved negative emotions and self-defeating tendencies—is a massive burden on human destiny.

Both the rich and the poor have a role in this wealth-distribution problem. Let start by considering a factor that’s at play in the psyche of many rich people, particularly those who are lacking in empathy and generosity. It’s obviously self-defeating to be lacking these qualities. This insensitivity hinders the development of one’s own goodness and consciousness, and it blocks an individual from experiencing greater life satisfaction and any sense of higher purpose or destiny. In other words, self-aggrandizement invariably contaminates one’s moral life. Researchers have been finding in dozens of studies that a person’s feelings of compassion and empathy go down—and feelings of entitlement and self-interest increase—as his or her wealth increases. [Read more…]

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How Do We Achieve Self-Control?

People often lack self-control in very subtle ways.

People can lack self-control in ways that are subtle and unconscious.

“If self-control is so important,” a reader asks, “how are we supposed to achieve it?”

Personally, I don’t much like the term “self-control.” It suggests a desperate struggle between willpower and cravings, or between restraint and impulses. The term promises endless flirtation with the prospect of self-defeat. It even brings to mind the image of people whipping themselves into compliance or submission.

The term “self-regulation” has more decorum along with a more promising prognosis. It allows us to appreciate the subtleties involved in making our life run smoother. We want to be able to regulate our emotions in order, for instance, to prevent worry, fear, loneliness, and anger from invading our inner space. We also want to regulate our behaviors so we avoid, say, procrastination and overspending, along with compulsive or addictive pursuits.

The lack of self-control is obvious when people are plagued by addictions or compulsions. But an ability to regulate our life often requires us to appreciate our mind’s more subtle aspects. In this post I write about these subtleties. The purpose here is to uncover certain emotions and behaviors that contribute to suffering and self-defeat but have evaded our attention. Seeing these psychological dynamics with more clarity is an excellent way to strengthen oneself. [Read more…]

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A Painful Game People Play

Playing these games is no fun.

Playing some games is no fun.

People frequently play painful games with one another—and they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Psychological insight can help avoid such clueless behavior.

One such game involves the readiness to devalue another person—and then to identify with what that person is likely feeling. Behind the impulse to play this game is the unconscious willingness to re-experience old unresolved feelings of being unworthy or unimportant.

William and Emily had been friends and regular dance partners for almost three years. The friendship, though not romantic, had been especially meaningful and enjoyable for Emily. They had drifted apart in recent months because William, without explanation, had withdrawn his interest in her. They now felt some awkwardness when they met occasionally at the dance hall.

On such occasions, William would immediately become defensive. “Oh, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t called,” he typically said in a guilty voice. “I’ve been so busy. I’m sorry I didn’t call. Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me.” Typically, they would have a few dances, but soon he was off dancing enthusiastically with other women. [Read more…]

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Neurosis Unbound

By acknowledging neurosis, we see ourselves more objectively.

By acknowledging neurosis, we see ourselves more objectively.

One of the obstacles to human progress is the widespread extent of neurosis. It’s important that we clearly see the nature of this psychological impairment—this common virus of the psyche—in order to overcome it.

Amid the world’s turmoil, we need signposts for orientation and direction. The word neurosis was one such pointer. Unfortunately, the word is no longer widely used. It was dropped from the leading psychiatric reference book in 1994, after psychoanalysts were elbowed aside by the growing medical and drug-oriented approach to treating mental health.

One research psychiatrist said recently that the term neurotic now seems “old-fashioned and quaint” and “ultimately anachronistic.” Another expert commented, “The qualities we once attributed to neurotics have simply become normalized.” The category is obsolete, he said, because “we’ve become so accustomed to people with continual worries and fears . . .”

Are they saying neurosis has become fashionable? If so, our species has nowhere to go but down. The suffering associated with neurosis is not normal. It can be avoided with the right insight. [Read more…]

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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. Of course, everyone 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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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