Chasing the Shadow

Depth psychology is a powerful tool for penetrating the mysterious shadow.

Depth psychology is a powerful tool for penetrating the mysterious shadow.

Our brightest thinkers struggle to expose the hidden dynamics of the shadow, the dark side of our psyche. Depth psychology can shed light on those repressed regions of the mind, yet experts are having difficulty deciding on the discipline’s basic tenets.

By way of illustration, I’d like to recommend a lovely book, with the proviso that one section of it is flawed. The book, written by Ken Wilber and three of his associates, is titled Integral Life Practice: A 21st Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening (Integral Books, Boston & London, 2008).

Based on Wilber’s admirable body of work on human consciousness, the book adopts a method of healing that integrates body, mind, spirit, and shadow. It’s a fabulous blueprint for expanding our consciousness and getting us beyond our negativity, irrationality, and egotism.

The authors state correctly that the shadow is “the most sorely neglected area” in self-help literature. Even the Eastern spiritual traditions “don’t adequately address the psychodynamic shadow,” they say, adding that shadow work “frees up energy that would otherwise be spent shadowboxing within ourselves.” That freed-up energy becomes available for growth, creativity, and healthy pursuits.

Unfortunately, the book’s presentation of the shadow is flawed or, at best, incomplete. Employing depth psychology, the authors discuss repression, projections, and disowning of emotions, but they fail to see how these dynamics are linked to psychological defenses and emotional attachments. [Read more...]

A Chaos Theory of the Mind

There are some childish things we still haven't put away.

There are some childish things we still retain and need to put away.

As adults, we like to think we’ve put away most childish things. But infantile and childish ways of experiencing ourselves and life linger in our unconscious mind. That baby in the adult’s psyche can be highly mischievous and harmful, producing chaotic reactions.

Early childhood’s influences on our adult experiences have parallels to the scientific concept of Chaos theory. This mathematical theory attempts to understand erratic behavior as it occurs in certain nonlinear systems such as weather patterns. The theory proposes, as one example, that small air disturbances in one location can result, days or weeks later, in storms or hurricanes more than a thousand miles away.

Comparatively, the unconscious mind of adults is buffeted by gale-force winds of emotional chaos that originated as an infantile effect decades earlier. Emotional associations from our distant past now buffet our life in incredible, mysterious, spectacular, and frequently painful and self-defeating ways.

Emotions percolate and circulate in our unconscious mind with some degree of chaos. We all know what it’s like to be happy one moment, sad the next, with no conscious input from us. We also know how hard it can be to regulate our desires, impulses, and emotional reactions. Both neuroscience and psychology have established that our brain struggles mightily and often unsuccessfully to limit the effects of irrationality. Often we try to apply common sense and reason to moderate unpleasant emotions or to curb self-defeating impulses. Yet our emotional side, with a life of its own, can often be impervious to rational entreaties. Still, we can bring order to the chaos when we understand just what we’re dealing with. [Read more...]

Free Yourself from Inner Conflict

The dynamics of inner conflict come into focus when we look beneath the symptoms.

To bring inner conflict into focus, we must look beneath the symptoms.

Inner conflict is a private war within oneself. People tend to think it’s about making a difficult decision. According to conventional thinking, that decision can range from choosing a style of shoes to more serious considerations such as a career move to another city or the compromise of one’s integrity over an ethical issue.

But these examples illustrate only conscious inner conflict. Much more significant are the unconscious varieties. These deeper conflicts are the roots of our suffering. When we expose the roots, we can resolve the conflict and end the suffering.

One way to expose the roots is get a shovel and start digging. Here we penetrate the ground beneath eight common emotional experiences: 1 – loneliness; 2 – envy; 3 – depression; 4 – greed; 5 – guilt; 6 – sadness; 7 – boredom; and 8 – indecision.

I’m talking here about chronic conditions, meaning, as in this first example, not occasional loneliness but chronic loneliness. Keep in mind that I’m trying to expose the essentials of the deeper conflict behind each of these varieties of suffering because of the importance of that self-knowledge.

1—Loneliness, when chronic, is the result of wanting to be in the friendly or loving company of others at the same time that the person is prepared, unconsciously, to experience old unresolved feelings such as separation, rejection, abandonment, or unworthiness. [Read more...]

How Worriers Unconsciously Chose to Suffer

Worriers are good at using their imagination to conjure up problems.

What, me worry for nothing!

These days people are snapping a lot of selfies, those close-up self-portraits taken with a cell-phone camera. Could this activity foretell a coming trend in which more of us turn inward to take close-ups of our psychological self? When we penetrate our psyche, new intelligence about the nature of our suffering is disclosed.

Let’s take a close-up of the mild-to-serious form of suffering known as worry. Worrywarts abound, and many of them are highly skilled at picturing worst-case scenarios. They’re good at taking snapshots of things that are happening only in their imagination.

Not only do they worry, they worry for nothing much of the time. The things they worry about frequently never happen. So worriers suffer for nothing. That’s at least as bad as working for nothing or crying for nothing.

Worriers produce expectations or visualizations of future problems or calamities. They anticipate being harmed, helpless, defeated, overwhelmed, hurt or disadvantaged in some manner should those problems arise. Worriers also tend to believe that their worry is appropriate because, as we all know, bad things do happen on occasion.

Uncertainty is built into the DNA of life. Unpleasant experiences likely do await us. It’s also possible some disaster or tragedy will befall us. Yet the healthier we are emotionally, the more we’re able to flourish in the present, confident we can handle what life has in store. But some people see the uncertainties of life (or vagaries of fate) as opportunities to suffer right now, in this moment, long before anything bad has happened. [Read more...]

Get to Know Your Psychological Defenses

Our psychological defenses keep us from an understanding of why we are suffering.

Our psychological defenses keep us from an understanding of why we are suffering.

We’re often the dupes of our defenses which render us blind to our emotional life and mislead us about the sources of our suffering. For starters, we don’t see that common varieties of suffering are both symptoms of mysterious dynamics unfolding in our psyche as well as defenses covering up our participation in our suffering.

To understand this, take a look at the following painful experiences (List 1) and see if you can tell what they have in common:

Anger and rage; sadness, grief, depression; worry, anxiety, guilt, and fear; envy, jealousy, and loneliness; resentment, humiliation, and shame.

These painful experiences are all symptoms and defenses of deeper dynamics in our psyche. Our ability to avoid these unpleasant states is hampered when we fail to understand the deeper processes that instigate these forms of suffering.

What are we defending against? Deeper down, we remain entangled in unresolved negative emotions first experienced in childhood. Through psychological defenses, we cover up our willingness to remain entwined in these painful emotions. The emotions (List 2) include the sense of being:

Deprived, refused; helpless, controlled, and dominated; criticized, rejected, and abandoned; unloved, seen as unworthy. [Read more...]

The Love Song of the Self

The greatest human accomplishment is to connect with the self.

The greatest human accomplishment is to connect with the self.

The character Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s ironically titled great poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” personifies the painful plight of people who are unable to connect with their authentic self. Contemplating “a hundred indecisions,” Prufrock saw the moment of his greatness flicker: he “lingered in the chambers of the sea” and drowned in his self-doubt.

Prufrock lived in the shadow of his self, measuring out his life “with coffee spoons.” What then is this self—or Self—that supposedly rescues us from a life half-lived? We catch glimpses of it when our mind clears and life feels like silk upon our skin. Yet it’s not always easy to describe this core or essence that makes us feel at home in our body and in the world. So let’s heed Prufrock’s summons (though not his fate): “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”

We can note, for starters, that the role of the self tends to be overlooked in mental health treatments. Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, Linda Logan describes her treatments when hospitalized several times over a period of many years for a debilitating mood disorder: “Everything was scrutinized except the transformation of my self and my experience of its loss.” If anything, she writes, “it seems that psychiatry is moving away from a model in which the self could be discussed. For many psychiatrists, mental disorders are medical problems to be treated with medications, and a patient’s crisis of self is not very likely to come up in a 15-minute session with a psychopharmacologist.” [Read more...]

Finding Inner Longitude

Self-knowledge serves as our instrument of emotional navigation.

Self-knowledge serves as an important instrument of emotional navigation.

The marine chronometer invented in the 18th Century made ocean navigation much more precise. The chronometer determined longitude, and it enabled sailors to avoid ramming their ships into unexpected reefs and shorelines.

Emotionally, many millions of us still crash upon life’s hard rocks. Often we’re not sure why or how it happens, just that we somehow drifted badly off course. Each of us, metaphorically, is captain of a ship that can start to sink when unruly emotions surge against our hull and waves of negativity crash upon our deck.

We have instruments of emotional navigation to keep us afloat and on course. These include the methods, techniques, and knowledge of applied psychology. Unfortunately, experts can’t agree on what constitutes the basic axioms, principles, or truth of human nature. Psychological schools of thought clash like factions in a religious war. Scientific studies in psychology and brain research are failing to unlock the mystery of human suffering. Psychologists not only can’t discern what’s true, they don’t even speak the same language. Psychiatrists, as well, have been attacking each other within the profession over what constitutes mental illness.

A growing number of scientists believe that psychiatry needs an entirely new paradigm for understanding mental and emotional health, though they can’t say what that new knowledge and system would look like.

We absolutely need a new paradigm. Yet when essential knowledge about our dark side is presented, we refuse to accept it. Even our best scientists avoid cold truth about human nature because, like most everyone else, they refuse unconsciously to acknowledge it in themselves. What’s really going on in our psyche? [Read more...]

Overcoming a Type of Resistance to Studying

Studying can be a lot easier when we understand inner passivity.

Studying can be a lot easier when we understand inner passivity.

This topic is addressed as an exchange of e-mails between me and a visitor to this website.

Reader’s comment: I have always been a studious person. Grades were important . . . I was also interested in learning and still am. However, now that I’m at university I’m avoiding studying. It’s not laziness or not caring. I feel fear. I have studied by myself all my life, so absence of family is not a big factor.

Whenever I do manage to study, I feel depressed afterwards. I feel like I have no energy, am mentally foggy, and at the mercy of my thoughts and criticism. All other life issues come back in full force, and I often cry. I also feel depressed again. I used to be very depressed, but now manage to keep it in check and mostly stand up for myself, except when it comes to studying.

Unfortunately, studying is necessary. I want to understand this reaction. More importantly, I want to feel pleased with myself after having studied for the allotted time. . . With all the inner work I’ve done, it feels as if this reaction has a strange power to put me right back to the beginning. I find it very painful.

Is it because studying is a “passive” thing to do? I feel much better after physical activity and such. But after studying, I feel robbed of the little inner strength and confidence I try hard to build every day. . . Why would this be? Do you have any ideas?

My response: I’ll suggest one possibility. Let me know whether you think it applies to you. Indeed, it appears that you’re having a passive reaction to studying. [Read more...]

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 WebMD.com, 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...]

Rebutting 9/11 Conspiracy Beliefs

9/11 conspiracy buffs are misled by unconscious emotional issues.

9/11 conspiracy buffs are misled by unconscious emotional issues.

More than ever, we need to discern what’s real and true about the events and circumstances of modern life. Unresolved emotions can clutter our mind, obstructing access to objectivity and wisdom. This is happening with 9/11 conspiracy buffs, many of whom believe that powerful individuals in the United States government orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Studies have shown that various beliefs can be strongly influenced by our emotional issues (here, here, and here.) These issues, often relating to inner fear, are usually unconscious. People often aren’t aware of how, for emotional reasons, they can unwittingly be discounting or misreading relevant evidence while at the same time elevating the significance of marginal evidence.

Conspiracy adherents have evidence that they say supports their claim. Obviously, varied hypotheses can be drawn up from inconclusive evidence. Selected evidence can produce many logically consistent pathways through the maze of a complex event, yet only one of these pathways might lead to the truth. The remaining paths, though believable or plausible, lead to wrong conclusions. I want to present more evidence—psychological evidence—that conspiracy theorists have not included in their assessments.

Many of us experienced emotional disorientation and a sense of helplessness as we unwittingly identified with the thousands of victims of the calamity who were trapped in the targeted buildings and in the four airliners used in the attack. To cope with these feelings, some people desperately seek a compensating sense of power or orientation. [Read more...]