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? Inner forces are at play that compel us to hold on to our emotional suffering. We’re stubbornly entangled in what’s negative and harmful. We’re more masochistic than we’d like to think. Yet we only need to understand this glitch in our emotional operating system in order to remedy it.
Sigmund Freud recognized this inner aspect of human nature, and in 1929, when he was 73, he wrote about it in Civilization and Its Discontents. Here he describes this masochistic aspect as “an unconscious need for punishment.” The nonsexual masochism arises through our unconscious ego as we process the feeling of being harshly judged by our superego (inner critic):
The fear of this critical agency [superego] . . . the need for punishment, is an instinctual manifestation on the part of the [unconscious] ego, which has become masochistic under the influence of a sadistic super-ego; it is a portion, that is to say, of the instinct toward internal destruction present in the [unconscious] ego, employed for forming an erotic attachment to the super-ego. (The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989, 765).
These words, along with this section of Civilization and Its Discontents, may constitute the most significant insight Freud ever produced. Yet the discussion has largely gone unheeded in the thousands of books and papers written about psychoanalysis. Freud says in this passage that we absorb the superego’s aggression, and then, as our best defense against it, we use libido (the function of the pleasure principle) to make the best of a bad situation. We produce a perverse gratification by fusing libido with our passive acceptance of self-aggression. In other words, we defend against the harsh superego by making a third-rate pleasure out of the incoming aggression.
This nonsexual masochism at the heart of human nature is experienced through the clash of inner aggression and inner passivity. It locks people into neurosis, causing us to cling stubbornly to our suffering—experiencing guilt, shame, and inner fear—all the while claiming to be victims of the ignorance and malice of others or the hardships of a “cruel” world. (This conflict, when more severe, can also be a defining feature of mental-health disorders.) Under the influence of this self-defeating aspect, our creative and mental capacities are diminished. By way of contrast, it may be that love itself can best be understood as the libidinization of the experience of unity, wholeness, connection, and even reality.
The knowledge of this nonsexual masochism is an instrument by which we can establish inner longitude and navigate our way to the shores of evolved destiny.
This masochistic instinct loiters in the underworld of our psyche, producing a compulsion to turn inner experiences of aggression and passivity into third-rate pleasures of a morbid, perverse, stubborn, and grimly satisfying sort. We tend not to be aware of this perverse gratification because it’s registered unconsciously. (To understand how aggression and passivity are transformed into conscious sexual pleasure, read “The Mysterious Allure of Kinky Sex.”) Our superego’s self-aggression, by the way, is formed when, as babies, we’re unable to expend the overwhelming drive and energy of our biological aggression completely into the environment; consequently, a portion of this aggression turns against us to become insensitive, often cruel self-aggression.
This self-aggression boomerangs to become aggression against each other. Humanity’s taste for mindless aggression is evidenced in our industrial rape of the earth and our cruelty, violence, and warfare. We take perverse pleasure in exercising wanton destruction because doing so gratifies our ego and serves as an unconscious defense. “I’m not a willing, passive receptacle of my own unregulated aggression,” our unconscious defense proclaims, “nor do I feel frightened and helpless to the forces of existence. The fact is, I’m powerful, I enjoy my supremacy, and the world is at my mercy.”
The idea that we harbor such a self-defeating tendency is intellectually and emotionally revolting—a narcissistic insult. Just thinking about it, especially as it applies to us personally, can activate a kind of psychological gag-reflex. The danger is that, should this knowledge remain unconscious, it can “lead organic life back into the inanimate state,” as Freud said of the death drive. For supporting evidence of this theory, we only have to glance around at humanity’s ineffectiveness related to growing global crises. Recognizing our paralysis and self-defeat, we may be ready at last for this vital knowledge to serve as our chronometer of inner longitude.