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...]

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...]