A Remedy for Feeling Trapped

Emotionally, we have  a tendency to accentuate feeling trapped.

Emotionally, we have a tendency to accentuate feeling trapped.

Millions of people know the feeling of hopelessly trying to wiggle out of a vise. We can feel trapped by our jobs, relationships, and financial circumstances. We can feel trapped in an elevator or an airplane, or in our house, neighborhood, or the state where we live. Some people even feel trapped in their mind or their body.

“Here we are,” novelist Kurt Vonnegut noted bleakly, “trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” Playwright Tennessee Williams was no less grisly: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” Poor literary writers! Is this the sense of desolation that results from doing daily battle with a balky imagination?

It’s true, of course, that people can be trapped somewhat in unpleasant situations or predicaments. We might not have enough money, for instance, to just pick up and leave our job, relationship, or the town where we live. But often we embellish upon the feeling of being trapped, accentuating the misery of it all. At its worst, the feeling produces claustrophobia.

At a conscious level, people prone to feeling trapped want to feel free and unrestricted. But unconsciously, meaning outside their awareness, they have an affinity for (or resonance with) the feeling of being trapped. The feeling stems from lingering emotions and memories having to do with childhood helplessness and passivity.

So while we like to think we want to feel free, we might not quite know how to live without our old familiar sense of isolation, restriction, and boring routine. Hence, instead of confidently navigating our way into better situations, we remain stuck in the old pain of feeling trapped. Right from the start, we’re also quite capable of trapping ourselves in a difficult situation for the unconscious purpose of living our life through that familiar, painful experience. [Read more...]

The Golden Rule Needs Depth Psychology

There's a psychological reason for why the Golden Rule so often gets broken.

There’s a psychological reason why the Golden Rule gets broken.

The Golden Rule, which invokes us to treat others as we would like to be treated, is the cornerstone of social order and the foundation of civilization. Fortunately, we usually make some effort to abide by it. Unfortunately, though, the Golden Rule gets broken on a regular basis. A hidden conflict in human nature explains, in part, why this is so.

We do indeed, on a conscious level, want to be treated kindly, yet we often expect unconsciously to be refused, controlled, or dominated—or to be criticized, rejected, disrespected, betrayed, and abandoned. Not only do we expect such treatment, we often go about provoking it.

Note that children sometimes provoke their parents to punish them. In subtle ways, adults can also provoke others, often through unconscious passive-aggressive behaviors and tit-for-tat emotional reactions. Addictive personalities, codependents, people with guilt and shame issues, and people prone to career and relationship failure induce criticism, disapproval, and punishment from others. They act out with others what is unresolved in themselves.

Our negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors, which derive from unconscious inner conflicts, make it more difficult for us to feel compassion. In light of these conflicts, the Golden Rule might need an addendum: “Best applied under the supervision of depth psychology.” We usually need some degree of resolution of our inner conflicts in order to become truly open-hearted.

Compassion and love are the mainstays of the Golden Rule. But often people don’t know what it means to be compassionate. Codependents or enablers, for instance, feel “compassion” for the dysfunctional person who is being enabled, and they allow this misguided sense of caring to lead them into painful experiences and self-defeat. [Read more...]

A Deadly Case of Inner Conflict

Our struggle to make sense of what seems senseless.

These murders challenge us to make sense of what seems senseless.

We struggle to understand the mind of mass killers. Their evil actions blast away at the moorings of civilization and blacken the soul of humanity.

One of these acts of violence was investigated this month in The New Yorker magazine. The article, written by author and psychiatry lecturer Andrew Solomon, examines the life of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who shot and killed his mother, 20 children and six teachers, and then himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.

Adam’s father, Peter Lanza, came forward to be interviewed by Solomon about his relationship with his son and about his understanding of his son’s mental health, in the hope of being helpful to others. Mr. Lanza has labored painfully since the day of the shootings to comprehend the horrific crime.

Adam Lanza, as Solomon’s article says, “was never typical.” He showed hypersensitivity at a young age, was diagnosed with sensory-integration disorder and later with Asperger’s syndrome (mild autism), and was susceptible to seizures. According to his father, he was “just a normal little weird kid” who displayed a sharp sense of humor and a keen intelligence. Although his emotional stability deteriorated through his teenage years, no one feared that he would become violent.

The article covers a lot of ground, yet still it leaves unanswered questions as to Adam’s motive for committing the atrocities. A forensic psychiatrist is quoted saying that Adam’s actions expressed this message: “I carry profound hurt—I’ll go ballistic and transfer it onto you.” Solomon, the author of the article, concludes that this statement reveals “as much motive as we’re likely to find.”

I believe, however, that we can acquire further insight into the killer’s state of mind, along with more understanding of his motive. [Read more...]

Vital Knowledge for Marriage Intimacy

To establish intimacy, we need to be smart about psychological issues.

To establish intimacy, we need to be smart about psychological issues.

There’s a reason men and women are creating better marriages than ever before. We’re living in the era of what some have termed self-expressive marriages. Many married people are now more interested than ever in personal growth and self-fulfillment, and they see marriage as a means, through mutual exploration and supportive partnership, to achieve those ends.

I‘ve acquired some personal know-how on this subject. My first marriage ended in divorce in the 1970s because I was too neurotic to make it work. My second marriage was a mutual adventure in personal growth. It lasted 21 years, until my dear Sandra, an author and psychotherapist like me, died of breast cancer in 1999. Now I’m happily married to Teresa Garland, an occupational therapist who gives training seminars around the country on autism, ADHD, and sensory disorders. She’s my editor and I’m hers. Her first book, Self-Regulation Interventions and Strategies, has just been published. We’re devoted to each other, and we actively support each other’s pursuit of personal and professional fulfillment. (Quick plug for Teresa’s book: Available here at her publisher’s website and here at Amazon).

The desire for intimacy is a prerequisite of good marriages. Intimacy depends on mutual trust, respect, and affection. It’s also a measure of the openness and sincerity of each partner. Intimacy also hinges on a couple’s ability to refrain from acting out, with each other, each one’s own unresolved personal issues. (In an earlier post on intimacy, I approach the subject from another perspective.)

Of course, many individuals resist doing the inner work of self-development. That means they’re likely to have more difficulty dismantling the personal issues that block intimacy. [Read more...]

Stressed Out in America

Much of our stress is caused by inner conflict, not just outer circumstances.

Much stress is caused by inner conflict, not just outer circumstances.

The 134,000-member American Psychological Association recently published its annual report on stress. The report is trademarked: Stress in America™. Yet this official stamp of self-approval can’t hide the hollowness of the report.

Millions of Americans are struggling to keep their stress levels down. It’s vitally important that mental-health professionals provide the media with high quality psychological knowledge concerning this epidemic of misery. This knowledge should be made available at every opportunity. As in previous years, however, the APA’s latest report offers mostly numerical findings and percentage comparisons. No psychological insights are presented about the origins and causes of high stress.

The report’s numbers really only disclose that a bad situation appears to be getting worse: During the school year American teenagers experience more stress than adults, and teens believe the stress they’re experiencing far exceeds what might be considered healthy. Only 16 percent believe their stress level is on the decline, the report says, while twice as many teens say their stress level has increased and will likely continue to increase. The report is based on a survey done last summer of 1,950 adults and 1,038 teens.

The APA does mention that money and work continue to be the most commonly mentioned stressors for adults, adding that “these issues are complex and difficult to manage, often leading to more stress over time . . .” But the report says nothing that might at least hint at how and why issues concerning money and work “are complex and difficult to manage.” (I come back to this point further on.)

The APA notes that the majority of teens say the challenges they face at school are a major source of their stress. However, no details are provided that might explain why the school experience is so stressful. [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...]

Oh, Sweet Narcissism

Our intelligence is held hostage by lingering self-centeredness.

Our intelligence is held hostage by lingering self-centeredness.

Centuries ago our ancestors, in the throes of self-centeredness, cherished the commonly held belief that the Earth was right smack at the center of the universe. Even the poorest peasant could find solace in the notion of being at the center: “If the Earth is at the center, then I am, too.” What a sweet narcissistic way to perceive reality!

Copernicus and then Galileo, wielding scientific knowledge of our solar system, exposed the fallacy of that self-centeredness. Another narcissistic hurt, applied by Charles Darwin, informed the proud lords and ladies of the Industrial Revolution that they were descendants of early primates. Darwin was indignantly denounced by millions of people. To accept his proposition was to be humbled, offended, and belittled. A century and a half after Darwin, many millions still deny the science.

It appears that, at some point in history, we slipped through a little warp in the doorway of perception and placed our mind at the center of existence. We were proud of our clever mind and believed it elevated us far above other creatures. We fashioned God in our image and required that He focus his attention on us, confirming our special status. This narcissism stands on shaky ground. One minute we’re jubilant in our pride, the next we’re shaking in anger at being slighted or offended.

Narcissism has its genesis in the self-centeredness of the infant. An infant understands its existence in terms of self-centeredness. An infant, lacking experience and the development of intelligence, knows only its own sensations. The infant has no ability to perceive reality with any objectivity. For infants, nothing exists beyond their sensations. Each child is the center of his or her universe. Childhood development (as well as adult development) is a process of learning to overcome this distorted perception and become more objective and discerning.

Most adults get only part way there. We’re still seeing ourselves and the world with childish eyes. [Read more...]

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...]

Cognitive Therapy’s Distorted Thinking

Cognitive therapy is not helping to raise our intelligence.

Cognitive therapy isn’t helping us to discover our inner truth.

Recently I came across a best-selling psychology textbook, and I believe the sections of it dealing with the essentials of self-awareness are not accessing a deep enough level of understanding.

The widely used textbook, written by three Harvard University professors of psychology, is titled simply Psychology (Worth Publishers, New York, 2009). Students pay $152.48 for the latest edition of this textbook. They’re not getting their money’s worth, and I’ll tell you why.

In this textbook, the authors express their preference for cognitive therapy. (They subtly—and not so subtly—disparage psychodynamic therapy which is based on depth psychology.) Cognitive therapy, they say, “focuses on helping a client identify and correct any distorted thinking about self, others, or the world.” The key term here is “distorted thinking.” Who decides what constitutes distorted thinking? Sure, if you’re thinking about murdering someone or jumping off a cliff, that’s obviously wrong-headed. But most people who go to psychotherapists don’t need someone telling them what or how to think. Rather, they need help in discovering their inner truth and developing their authentic self.

The best psychotherapists don’t mess with this notion of distorted thinking. We don’t deal in “cognitive restructuring,” to use one of the textbook authors’ favored terms. Instead, we trace the client’s difficulties back to the source, using as clues the memories and occurrences associated with the client’s anxiety, stress, painful emotions, and self-defeating behaviors. We’re guides for the exploration of their unconscious mind. We don’t tell them what to believe or what to think, although we do introduce basic principles and knowledge for them to consider.

Let’s compare the two approaches, cognitive therapy and psychodynamic therapy, using an example from the textbook. [Read more...]

Indecisive No More

What's the real intention of chronically indecisive people?

What hidden feeling are chronically indecisive people indulging in?

There’s something important that chronically indecisive people need to understand: They’re not actually interested in making a decision. Since this statement flies brazenly in the face of common sense, let me restate it differently.

Indeed, as these individuals anguish intensely over the pros and cons of a given option, they think they want to be decisive. But they’re fooling themselves. Behind their apparent sincerity, they’re cozying up to an old unresolved negative emotion (inner passivity) which involves feeling weak, helpless, and lacking in the sense of their own authority. This old joke satirizes the emotional predicament: “Once I make up my mind, I’m full of indecision.” 

Through this emotional weakness, indecisiveness haunts a significant percentage of people. When we finally do make up our mind—after agonizing and procrastinating long enough—we’re likely to start being indecisive over some other matter.

The misery and self-defeating consequences of our indecisiveness are the prices we pay to cover up an inner conflict. What is that conflict? On the surface of our awareness, we do indeed want to be decisive. We want to feel the pleasure and sense of authority that goes with making a good decision on our behalf. Deeper down, it’s a whole different matter. We don’t want to feel decisive. It’s too tempting instead to “know ourself” through unresolved inner weakness. We want to experience ourselves through the old self-doubt, uncertainty, and sense of unfitness that is an emotional default position. At a deep level, we’ve known ourselves through that familiar frailty as far back as we can remember. [Read more...]