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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Hidden Dynamics of Racism

Depth psychology sheds more light on racist behavior.

Depth psychology sheds more light on racist behavior.

News commentators have been trying to figure out what motivated a group of white University of Oklahoma students on an outing earlier this month to sing a racist chant laden with anti-black slurs and a reference to lynching.

The episode made national headlines after it was captured on video, and it led to the expulsion of two students, the disciplining of a few dozen more, and the closure of the university fraternity to which they belonged.

The students have apologized and appear contrite. Yet they probably don’t fully understand what possessed them to behave so badly. Commentators have attributed the action of the students to racism, bigotry, and cultural influences. But the episode can be understood, for the edification of everyone, at a deeper level.

The students were unwittingly expressing a hidden aspect of human nature. In varying degrees, all of us can feel vague doubts concerning our intrinsic value. At times, many of us feel deep inside a sense of being flawed, unworthy, bad, and insignificant. This is not something people readily talk about.

This impression can consist of a deep-down suspicion of being a fake, a fraud, a nobody. The existence in our psyche of this negative sense of self can, when acute, produce shame, anxiety, and guilt. People instinctively cover up or defend against the realization of how emotionally attached they can be, how identified they are, with this irrational impression. (The origin of this painful sense of self is discussed in an earlier post.) [Read more…]

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Unconscious Factors Fuel Abortion Fight

Behind the abortion debate is the great issue concerning human consciousness.

Behind the abortion debate is the great issue of human consciousness.

The abortion fight won’t go away. This month the United States Senate failed to create a fund for victims of sexual trafficking because an abortion provision had been inserted into the bill. Meanwhile, legal challenges are proceeding in many states over recent legislation that restricts the constitutional right of women to have abortions.

Deeper psychological understanding of this conflict can help to resolve it. For starters, we have to talk about abortion without becoming so uncivil and confrontational. The abortion debate is very emotional because, behind it, a larger battle is being waged over issues of submission, compliance, and control over the minds of women and men.

I’m not interested in changing anyone’s position on the abortion issue. I only want to bring a few psychological ideas to the debate. These ideas may be helpful and stimulating to people who are ambivalent or undecided, as well as those who are firmly in one camp or the other.

So what’s going on in our unconscious mind? Some people unconsciously identify with the fetus. Identification is a psychological process through which we “get into the skin” of people or creatures in order to feel what we imagine they’re feeling. In doing this, we often experience a painful, negative emotion. This identification takes place because we’re compelled to experience whatever is unresolved in our psyche. People can be identifying with the fetus as a “person” who isn’t wanted or valued. Such painful feelings correspond with unresolved hurt in their own psyche. [Read more…]

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When Life Becomes Unreal and Dreamlike

Hidden conflict in our psyche produces depersonalization. psyche

Depersonalization serves as a defense to cover up inner conflict in the psyche.

Many millions of people frequently experience themselves in a pronounced state of unreality, in what can be described as an out-of-body, vague, dreamlike mental-emotional condition.

This affliction—known as depersonalization—gets little attention in the media. Yet it is, in fact, the third most common psychological complaint, after feelings of anxiety and depression. According to the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, “The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

The manual says that episodes of depersonalization “are characterized by a feeling of unreality or detachment from, or unfamiliarity with, one’s whole self or from aspects of the self.” In addition, the depersonalization experience “can sometimes be one of a split self, with one part observing and one part participating, known as an ‘out of body experience’ in its most extreme form.”

Depersonalization is commonly associated with childhood trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, migraine, sleep deprivation, and recreational drug use. The affliction does not produce discontinuity of consciousness, a symptom associated with dissociative identity disorder.

Experts say the exact cause of depersonalization is unknown. I am making the case, however, that the origin or cause of depersonalization, as published in psychoanalytic literature in 1950, is, in fact, known.* [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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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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The Pain We Lock Away

What is it we don't want to see deep in our psyche?

What is this hidden pain that we’re reluctant to see deep in our psyche?

It’s so important to see through our psychological defenses if we want to become emotionally strong and escape from suffering. Through our defenses, we lie to ourselves in much the way that parents lie to children to protect them from life’s harsher realities.

Some experts believe that psychological defense mechanisms serve a good purpose. One expert, writing at the Psychology Today website, said, “Psychological defenses are forms of self-deception we employ to avoid unbearable pain.”

“They also protect you,” said another writer at the same website, “from the anxiety of confronting your weaknesses and foibles.”

“They work as shock absorbers and help a person deal with pain,” according to another website.

Wow! Thank goodness for these defenses. Without them, we’d apparently be bouncing and rattling down the road in spasms of pain.

Wait a minute! What is this “unbearable pain” that we’re protecting ourselves from? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to see it clearly? Wouldn’t that give us a better chance to heal or resolve it? Our defenses, it seems, are preventing us from seeing ourselves more objectively. Well, what is it we don’t want to see? What reality or pain is so dangerous or threatening that we must navigate life’s highways in a truth-proof armored vehicle with jolt-free shock-absorbers?

One of the above writers provides the following answer. She says that (in a situation in which the defense of denial is being used to cover up a person’s substance abuse) “you protect your self-esteem” by refusing to acknowledge the harmful behavior. But this doesn’t make any sense. What kind of self-esteem is that? It sounds awfully fragile. [Read more…]

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Understanding Anorexia

Unresolved inner conflict is a primary cause  of anorexia.

Unresolved inner conflict is a primary cause of anorexia nervosa.

Recently I watched a YouTube clip of Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil) counseling a 79-pound woman with anorexia, and it was a sad sight indeed. My sadness was felt both for the plight of the woman and for the plight of all people who get only shallow psychological knowledge from so-called experts and the media.

In this video clip from 2012, Dr. Phil succeeds only at shaming the woman for her anorexia. The woman already lives with considerable inner shame, and the unwitting Dr. Phil is only piling it on.

Anorexia can be treated and cured when its psychological origins are uncovered. Yet prominent websites on the subject—such as, the Mayo Clinic, and MedlinePlus, the website of the National Institutes of Health—provide only scanty and shallow psychological information. The National Institutes of Health, which favors a medical approach to understanding and treating eating disorders, claims that, “Family conflicts are no longer thought to contribute to this [anorexia] or other eating disorders.” I disagree with this statement, and I provide evidence in this article that family conflict, along with inner conflict, does indeed contribute to these disorders. When anorexics understand their inner conflict and how they act out that conflict with others, they have a decent chance of escaping their painful condition. [Read more…]

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O Shame, Where is Thy Secret Source?

We can penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Self-knowledge helps us to penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Shame is a powerful and self-damaging emotion, and many books in recent years have tackled the subject in search of its roots. Some experts say shame is “the quintessential negative emotion” because it influences so many different moods and behaviors.

While shame can saturate our emotional life, most sufferers don’t understand its roots deep in our psyche. (I wrote about shame in an earlier post, “How Deeper Awareness Can Eliminate Shame,” and this is a fresh attempt to help readers understand the affliction.)

Shame is the painful sense that there exists a dark secret or an exposed truth about some vile, disgusting, or pitiful aspect of oneself. The negative emotion sometimes lies dormant until triggered by a situation or event in a person’s life. Other times, shame is active within us on a daily basis. Whether we’re conscious of our shame or not, it can play an important role in obesity, addictions, depression, crime, violent behaviors, sexual offenses, social phobias, career failure, outbursts of anger, and other self-defeating behaviors.

Shame is often associated with external variables such as our appearance, clothes, social skills, and a sense of physical and mental ineptitude. It’s also associated with inner fears such as being exposed as a fake or phony, and experiencing or imagining ridicule over our handling of money.

We have a better chance of overcoming shame when we know where it comes from and how it’s produced. Shame itself is a byproduct of forces, drives, and conflicts in our psyche. [Read more…]

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Easing Tension and Stress at Family Gatherings

Unresolved issues make it hard to fully enjoy family gatherings.

Lingering emotional wounds from our family of origin are like riptides in our psyche. At times, most of us in childhood experienced betrayal, rejection, and other painful hurts. As adults, many of us, swept along by emotional undercurrents, are unable to enjoy our time together at family gatherings. Here, for the approaching holidays, are some principles of depth psychology to help us foster good cheer.

We do want, of course, to feel affection and love for parents, brothers, sisters, and other relatives and in-laws. But time we spend with close or extended family can challenge us emotionally, producing shades of anxiety, shame, embarrassment, anger, and envy. Such gatherings bring to the surface any unresolved issues we have from childhood.

In the emotional world of our psyche, time and place are compressed. An old hurt we remember now as an adult on the West Coast can feel as fresh and sharp as when we first experienced it on the East Coast fifty years earlier. [Read more…]

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