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 understanding 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...]

How Inner Passivity Robs Men of Power

Many cultural and economic influences challenge the male psyche.

Many cultural and economic influences challenge the male psyche.

An acquaintance of mine (I’ll call him Sam) was arrested recently for obstruction of justice. He was pulled over by the police because his vehicle fit the description of one that had been stolen. Though innocent, Sam, who’s in his mid-twenties, became rude and uncooperative. When he could produce only an expired vehicle registration, he was handcuffed, taken to jail, and his vehicle impounded. His case was later dismissed, but he paid a price in time, money, and misery.

I’ve spent some time in Sam’s company and I know something of his state of mind. He’s a smart, caring, and loyal person. But he has a significant emotional weakness. He’s quick to feel that people are trying to control, dominate, or oppress him, and he’s adopted an anti-authority outlook on life that can be traced back to this emotional weakness. Because of this, he interprets authority as something unpleasant or bad that needs to be resisted.

Deposits of inner passivity are contained in Sam’s psyche. Inner passivity, as I describe it in many of my posts and books, is a feature of human nature. It’s a leftover mental-emotional residue from the stages of helplessness and dependence we experience through our childhood years. When we’re not aware of inner passivity, we can fall prey to its influence and become weak, ineffective, and prone to self-defeat. Instead of possessing true power, we’re likely to react unresponsively, passive-aggressively, or with belligerent self-defeating aggression. [Read more...]

A New Understanding of Bipolar Disorder

Inner conflict may be the main cause of bipolar disorder.

Unresolved inner conflict may be the main cause of bipolar disorder.

About 5.7 million American adults experience the particularly burdensome affliction known as bipolar disorder. Psychiatric experts are uncertain as to its origins, yet depth psychology does have a theory to explain one possible cause.

Depth psychology is usually not effective for people with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Yet people with bipolar disorder, while they sometimes have psychotic breaks, usually return to a fully functional state between episodes. At such times these individuals can strengthen themselves and become more stable by learning self-knowledge that pertains to their affliction. Researchers pursuing medical and neuroscience investigations of bipolar disorder can also sharpen their science by considering the influence of these psychological dynamics.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, in combination with medications, is known to help bipolar sufferers cope with their affliction. This therapy is advice-oriented, while depth psychology tries to uncover the influences of inner conflict and help to resolve that conflict. Understanding the deeper psychological factors in bipolar disorder can help sufferers because the knowledge, when absorbed, enhances the individual’s intelligence and strengthens self-regulation.  

Psychoanalysis has identified a condition in the human psyche that it calls inner passivity. This passivity can be understood as the lingering effect of infantile helplessness. All of us, not just people with bipolar disorder, are to some degree influenced by it. [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...]

Curbing Our Appetite for Brutality

We become liberators, too, when we free ourselves from the darkness within.

We become liberators, too, when we free ourselves from inner darkness.

Nelson Mandela’s greatness was most visible in his power to overthrow—through his courage, compassion, and peaceful manner—the brutality and murderous ways of the Apartheid regime. He was an ordinary man, he said, as he counseled us to find our own greatness.

How do we acquire greatness? Mandela’s power to do good was rooted in his charisma and love. If we are to be liberators like him, we presumably have to shed our negativity, fear, anger, malice, and violent instincts. We have to liberate our self from the darkness within.

From where in human nature does such negativity arise? A recent article in The New York Times tries to comprehend the human capacity for the slaughter of innocent people. Citing examples this year of horrific bloodletting by terrorists in Kenya and government security forces in Egypt, the article asks: Do we all have the capacity for such wanton murder?

Experts interviewed in the article say yes. But they don’t get to the core of the question. Instead, they blame the readiness to kill on “a culture of authority and obedience that supplants individual moral responsibility with loyalty to a larger mission . . .” Also blamed are “a routinization of violence, as well as injustice or economic hardship . . .” One expert says the most important ingredient in the willingness to murder for a cause is “the dehumanization of the victim.”

These explanations are superficial. Mandela, who died yesterday, would have more to offer. He would want us to ask ourselves: “What is it about me that would cause me to forgo moral responsibility? Why do I allow myself to see the enemy as less than human? Are there people who I hate, and do I have some hidden need to have enemies?” [Read more...]

The Futility of Compulsive Approval-Seeking

Approval-seeking is often a psychological defense.

Approval-seeking is often a psychological defense.

Using brain imaging, researchers have discovered that pleasure is activated in the brain when people get positive feedback concerning their reputation or character. These researchers do not appear to understand that such pleasure is not necessarily genuine or healthy. A psychological defense, for instance, feels good when it successfully covers up something important that an individual does not want to see about himself.

Few people, experts included, know or address the hidden reasons why we generate such pleasure in receiving praise and validation. Typical is this superficial explanation:

These results [from the research cited above] may explain why Facebook is so popular. It likely isn’t Facebook itself . . . it is all of the self-promoting features that it offers: posting what you are thinking, posting pictures of yourself, giving your opinion on what others post via “likes” . . .  throw in a little intermittent reinforcement (e.g., not knowing when the next time someone will “like” or comment on your post) . . . and Facebook has a winning formula . . . Or at least one that gets us hooked.

Yes, but why do we get hooked? Why in heaven’s name do so many of us feel the need to go through the day constantly assessing ourselves and looking for validation. This emotional neediness often shows up as inner dialogue in which we’re trying to establish our importance either to ourselves or to others. [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...]