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...]

Tormented Mothers, Endangered Babies

Inner conflict plays a major role in maternal mental health.

Inner conflict plays a major role in maternal mental health.

Thousands of mothers are plagued on a daily basis by intrusive thoughts in which they imagine or see themselves doing harm to their children. The problem was highlighted this month in two articles (here and here) that appeared in The New York Times.

In these thoughts or mental images, the women consider dropping their infant or child from a building or bridge, suffocating or abandoning the baby, throwing him or her against a wall, or wrecking their car with the baby inside.

Only a very small percentage of women act on these impulses, yet the suffering of those who regularly entertain such thoughts is nonetheless considerable. Their emotional state can also affect their bonding with the baby, the health of the baby, and the wellbeing of their family.

Scientists attribute such maternal mental health problems to an interplay of genes, stress, hormones, and disrupted brain chemistry. Unfortunately, these experts are not paying much or any attention to depth psychology. They’re failing to see or appreciate the role that inner conflict plays in creating this mental and emotional suffering.

Recent studies indicate that, within one year of giving birth, at least one in eight women, and as many as one in five, develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Women suffering from these conditions are more likely to experience thoughts or impulses to harm their children. A dozen states, moved to action by occurrences in which a mother kills herself or her baby, have passed laws encouraging screening, education, and treatment. [Read more...]

Four Steps to Stifle Our Inner Critic

Our inner critic is harsh, cruel, and a big fat liar.

Our inner critic is a cruel callous bully, as well as a big fat liar.

We all have an active inner critic. It’s a force of human nature that I can, in whimsical moments, visualize as the leader of an outlaw trio that includes the gun-slinging desperado, Yosemite Sam, and his fellow Looney Tunes cartoon character, the ferocious, dim-witted Tasmanian Devil.

There’s nothing comic or funny, however, about having an active inner critic. It might be more accurately depicted as the leader of a trio that includes Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. It produces much of humanity’s anxiety, fear, and depression. The inner critic can operate inside us like a cruel aggressive tyrant whose intent is to rule our life. Subduing or taming it could be the most heroic thing we ever do.

That process can be accomplished in four steps. First, we must become aware of our inner critic. A lot of people don’t even know they have one, though they might be suffering acutely from its influence. We want to notice how and when it intrudes into our life. Second, we begin to understand that our inner critic is a big fat liar. Third, we start to realize how we tend to be passive to it, how we let it get away with harassing, belittling, and punishing us. Fourth, we learn how to stand up to it. Our stronger sense of self and growing inner authority begin to subdue it. Here’s how we can make this happen:

Step One – Our inner critic dishes out self-aggression. We all have aggressive energy, and ideally we learn to channel it in creative, constructive ways. But we have to be emotionally strong and healthy to keep our aggressive energy from becoming a negative force, both in terms of how we relate to others and in terms of how, on an inner level, we relate to ourselves.  

When our inner critic is acting up and intruding into our mental and emotional life, we want to try to realize that this is occurring. People often don’t experience the inner critic in any conscious way. The stream of negativity that emanates from it can do much of its mischief entirely at an unconscious level. [Read more...]

The Human Weakness behind Alcoholism

Alcoholism is caused in part by inner conflict.

Inner conflict contributes to alcoholism.

Many alcoholics and addictive personalities resist the idea that their plight is in any way due to character weakness. Any such allegation, they feel, categorizes them as substandard people who are to blame for their troubles. Weakness of character or “moral weakness” is not what causes alcoholism, one addiction website states emphatically. This is true, yet we can’t ignore the influence of a certain kind of inner weakness in the psyche.  

There’s an essential reason alcoholics are sensitive to this allegation that character weakness is behind their out-of-control drinking: Inwardly, this accusation is directed at them on a daily basis by their inner critic. The inner critic (superego) is a primitive, aggressive agency of the human psyche, and it berates alcoholics with allegations that range in intensity from “You should be trying harder to stay sober!” to “You worthless, no good loser! Look at you! You’re truly disgusting!”

Everyone has an inner critic or superego, and for many of us that part of our psyche has assumed the role of the master of our personality. It can harass and scorn us for the slightest misdemeanors. Our inner critic can attack us for a wide variety of alleged “crimes,” most viciously for the idea that we are somehow a failure or a loser. In some people, the inner critic is an absolute tyrant that causes much of their unhappiness and suffering. 

Unconsciously, we give credence to these allegations. We become inwardly defensive and absorb emotionally the negative charges directed against us. As alcoholics struggle defensively to deflect these charges, they might say, “It’s not that big a problem” or “I’m trying, it’s not my fault, I don’t know what comes over me.” [Read more...]

Exterminate Infestations of Negative Thoughts

Our negative thoughts can feel as if they are reality-based.

Our negative thoughts often feel as if they are reality-based.

Negative thoughts are like termites that chew up and spit out our happiness. Many of us are frequently overwhelmed by such worrisome, anxious, fearful, and hateful thoughts. These thoughts gnaw at the fabric of our life, yet we’re often oblivious to basic knowledge that can eradicate this intrusive infestation.

These thoughts often seem reality-based. Certainly, it’s easy to believe the content of these thoughts. They seem to capture objectively the nature and extent of our plight. When they overpopulate our mind, they can produce an ugly reality, a self-defeating acting out of our negative outlook and worst fears. We must understand, though, that they represent a subjective impression rather than any deeper truth about us or our life.

Before getting to the liberating knowledge, let’s look at a list of common negative thoughts. (This list is bleak and grim, and we can insert a little levity by reading this section as experimental poetry noir.) I’ve separated this list into three categories that are explained further on:

A. Negative thoughts associated with inner passivity: No one understands me or knows what I feel; I’ll never make it; I can’t get started; I’m so weak, helpless, and out of control; I can’t get things together; I can’t finish anything; I don’t think I can go on; I feel like I’m alone against the world; I know I have a serious disease; I’ll never be healthy and happy again; What’s the point of trying?  [Read more...]

The Futile Dialogue in Our Head

Stop the needless yackety-yack!

Our mind is often the stage for the acting out of a recurring dialogue between two conflicting parts of our psyche. In people with mental disorders, one of these voices—inner aggression—can take over or “possess” the consciousness of these individuals and command them to commit dangerous or criminal acts. Yet the rest of us have troublesome inner voices, too.

Our voices are more subtle, restrained, and rational than in mentally disturbed individuals. Yet these voices or thoughts can still take control of our consciousness, make us jump to their commands and suggestions, and produce suffering and self-defeat.

Our oppressive inner dialogue consists, on one side, of the point of view of inner aggression. This dynamic or drive is seated in our inner critic or superego. On the other side of the conflict, inner passivity (seated in our defensive subordinate ego) functions as an enabler of our inner critic. Classical psychoanalysis has known about this inner conflict, but the universality of the problem, the self-damage it causes, and its mechanisms of operation are not being well communicated to people. [Read more...]

The Tyrant that Rules Our Inner Life

Our inner critic has its intrusive, rough fingers all over our psyche

Much suffering is produced through our relationship with our inner critic. This part of our psyche is also called the superego or self-aggression. It’s an authoritarian aspect or agency in our psyche that holds us accountable for any real or imagined shortcomings or failures. The inner critic is an offshoot of the natural aggression that humans have needed in order to survive in the world.

Not only does it hold us accountable, our inner critic harasses and torments us for our slightest shortcomings or misdemeanors. It is a rogue operator in our psyche that is mostly negative. It attacks us mercilessly for not living up to some unrealistic ideal of who or what we are supposed to be.

This inner tyrant has been called “the hidden master of the personality.”

It can feel to us that our inner critic is our moral conscience, as if it is an inner authority that we are supposed to trust and be passive to. But it is mostly negative and can’t be trusted. When we grow psychologically, we are able to shift inner authority over to our authentic self. It is this self that we can trust to represent our best interests and to be the true representative of our essence, integrity, and goodness. [Read more...]