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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Anger and the APA

Anger is not normal--it's mostly an ugly emotion.

Anger is not a normal response—it’s mostly an ugly emotion.

Lots of people are angry these days. Social conservatives are angry at secular liberals, and liberals at conservatives. Democrats are angry at Republicans, and vice-versa. People are angry at the police, and the police are angry at the mayor.

That’s not such a bad thing, according to the American Psychological Association. I went to the 135,000-member organization’s website to see what it had to say about anger. According to the APA, “Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion.”

I completely disagree. Anger is mostly an ugly emotion. Much of the time it’s the result of unrecognized inner conflict. It’s also frequently a psychological defense, a way of blaming others for one’s own unresolved negativity.

Granted, people are often better off expressing their anger (please—not abusively!) rather than suppressing it. Yet why is this anger arising in the first place?

The APA goes on to say that anger is only a problem when it “gets out of control and turns destructive . . .” This is a trivial observation, and it’s not even accurate. Anger can be a problem long before it gets out of control. Consider a man who is speaking in an angry tone to his spouse. He’s not yelling, so he’s not necessarily out of control. He certainly doesn’t think that he’s out of control. Yet his anger is likely misplaced. If maintained over time, it will be harmful to himself and the relationship. [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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Prisoners of Guilt

After a guilt trip, Tom locked himself in an emotional prison. following a guilt trip.

After a guilt trip, Tom locked himself in an emotional prison.

Do guilt trips lock you up in an emotional prison? What do you need to know to deflect or neutralize guilt trips?

Let’s look at Tom’s encounter with guilt. He was concerned this past Christmas about picking out presents that his nieces and nephews would need or like. So he gave money to his sister to buy his presents for them. He did, however, wrap the presents, and he was present when they were opened Christmas morning.

The children liked the gifts and thanked Tom cheerfully. However, Alice, the eldest niece, told him with a hint of disapproval that she knew he hadn’t personally bought them. He hadn’t gone to the store, she reiterated, and picked them out himself. Taken aback, Tom mumbled an excuse about being too busy. Alice didn’t look impressed, though, by his explanation.

Afterwards, Tom was bothered all day by guilt. In his mind, he kept seeing Alice making her “accusation.” He began to feel upset at her. “How could she be so mean as to say that to me,” he thought, “after I got her such a nice present!” Soon he was speaking resentfully about Alice to a friend.

His friend told him, “Tom, it’s true she laid a guilt-trip on you. But you’re the one who got triggered. You have to ask yourself why you’re so upset by that young girl’s passing comment.”

This friend’s suggestion is a good one. Tom’s problem is not with his niece but with the ease by which he gets triggered by real or implied criticism. [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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Emerging from Shyness

Inner fears left over from childhood are the main cause of shyness.

Inner fears left over from childhood are the main cause of shyness.

Shyness is a remarkably common affliction. Experts believe the incidence of shyness in the United States is close to 50 percent—and rising.

Most shy individuals are not experiencing the problem at the acute level in which it becomes a social anxiety disorder. Yet even “gentle shyness” can be painful since it derives from the fear of social disapproval and humiliation.

It’s important to distinguish between shy people and introverts. Some introverts are shy, of course, but shyness is inherently painful while introversion is usually not. Shyness is rooted in fear, while introversion is largely derived from one’s preference for quieter, more solitary situations and experiences.

It’s also important to distinguish shyness from sensory processing disorder. People with this disorder experience varied unpleasant sensations due to how they process input from their own body and the environment. For this reason, they often avoid social situations—for instance, noisy parties and restaurants with strong smells—and can be seen as shy.

Shy people process social encounters through inner fear. (This correlation between shyness and inner fear is shown here.) Because their perception of the world and others is tainted by inner fear, shy people see the people they encounter as being indifferent to them, disappointed in them, critical of them, or hostile toward them. [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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