Collapsing into Helplessness

A sense of helplessness. when emotionally embellished, makes things more difficult for us.

A sense of helplessness, when emotionally embellished, makes things a lot more difficult for us.

James E. Holmes’s spiral notebook helps us understand his descent into madness. Holmes, a neuroscience graduate student who killed 12 people in a 2012 mass murder spree in a Colorado movie theater, had covered page after page of his notebook with the single handwritten word Why?

In repeatedly writing Why? in his notebook (illustrated here), Holmes was desperately asking a question he couldn’t answer. Evidence suggests he was asking imponderable questions such as why do we exist, why does life exist, why should we matter in the great scheme of things. (His notebook brimmed with what his defense lawyers called “a whole lot of crazy”—delusions about death, human worth, and “negative infinity.”) Anyone who struggles relentlessly to come up with definitive answers to such questions faces the prospect of feeling painfully, profoundly helpless. (That’s why religions encourage people to deal with such questions on the basis of faith.)

Psychologically, we can make sense of what happened to Holmes. We can see clearly what he was doing to himself in the lead-up to his shooting spree. In a process of mental and emotional breakdown, he was falling into the passive side of his psyche and spiraling into a painful sense of utter helplessness. In doing so, the danger existed that he would flip to the other side and become manically aggressive.

This existence of inner passivity is not peculiar just to people with mental illness. We all have a passive side of our psyche, and it can lead us into emotional weakness and self-doubt, thereby creating serious behavioral difficulties. We benefit greatly by seeing and understanding this part of us. In the case of Holmes, meanwhile, we are able to study the role that this passivity plays in the development of mental illness. [Read more…]

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O Shame, Where is Thy Secret Source?

We can penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Self-knowledge helps us to penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Shame is a powerful and self-damaging emotion, and many books in recent years have tackled the subject in search of its roots. Some experts say shame is “the quintessential negative emotion” because it influences so many different moods and behaviors.

While shame can saturate our emotional life, most sufferers don’t understand its roots deep in our psyche. (I wrote about shame in an earlier post, “How Deeper Awareness Can Eliminate Shame,” and this is a fresh attempt to help readers understand the affliction.)

Shame is the painful sense that there exists a dark secret or an exposed truth about some vile, disgusting, or pitiful aspect of oneself. The negative emotion sometimes lies dormant until triggered by a situation or event in a person’s life. Other times, shame is active within us on a daily basis. Whether we’re conscious of our shame or not, it can play an important role in obesity, addictions, depression, crime, violent behaviors, sexual offenses, social phobias, career failure, outbursts of anger, and other self-defeating behaviors.

Shame is often associated with external variables such as our appearance, clothes, social skills, and a sense of physical and mental ineptitude. It’s also associated with inner fears such as being exposed as a fake or phony, and experiencing or imagining ridicule over our handling of money.

We have a better chance of overcoming shame when we know where it comes from and how it’s produced. Shame itself is a byproduct of forces, drives, and conflicts in our psyche. [Read more…]

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Escaping the Clutches of Helplessness

Feelings of helplessness can be entangled in our sense of identity.

Feelings of helplessness can be entangled in our sense of identity.

We can all feel fragile at times, fading feebly in and out like a tiny sparkle in the vast firmament. It’s easy then to feel helpless, overlooked, insignificant, and unappreciated.

An entanglement in helpless feelings can certainly dampen our light, leaving us afraid to be venturesome. We can feel befuddled, overwhelmed, or exhausted, buffeted about by the winds of misfortune. Disappointment, dissatisfaction, and the sorrow of not living up to our potential are likely to haunt us.

A chronic sense of helplessness keeps us from believing in ourselves, trusting ourselves, and pursuing our destiny. Our self-regulation weakens, and we fall prey to impulses to overeat, overspend, and overindulge. We also lose our ability to regulate our emotional life or maintain physical health, causing us to sink into apathy or become increasingly bitter, depressed, or ill.

We are indeed helpless when it comes to influencing many events and situations. We accept this fact with equanimity when we’re emotionally strong. But we can’t accept it so easily when plagued by chronic helplessness. Instead, like a turtle on its back, we experience the personal challenges of daily life through a painful sense of being unable to rise to the occasion. [Read more…]

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A Plague of Neurosis Upon Our House

We make our politics a script for the national staging of personal dysfunction.

People are in psychological crisis, and masses of us, steeped in the anxiety of helplessness and futility, are feeling marginalized and victimized. Making it worse, we take our pain out on each other.

Around the world the complexity of modern life contributes to personal distress, as does the effect on us of misguided leaders and anti-democratic forces in government and corporations. Yet our psyche, like a Model-T Ford sputtering along a superhighway, remains our primary weak spot.

Psychologically, we operate according to old-fashioned principles. We’re quick to blame others for allegedly causing our pain. We want to attribute our neurotic suffering to the stupid beliefs and rotten behavior of others. The more we blame the other, though, the more we dislike or hate the other and the less clearly we see the essentials of our predicament. We also suffer more acutely from our own unresolved negative emotions.

America, the world’s best hope for rousing leadership, finds its political process mired in an uncivil war. Americans are making their politics a script for the national staging of personal dysfunction. Behind this conflict, clamoring in the bedlam of our neurosis, swarm the demons of our dark side. [Read more…]

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The Astonishing Basis of Our Addictions

We can overcome addictions by understanding our emotional issues.

It’s curious that we humans get addicted to both substances and activities. On the substance side, people get hooked on drugs, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, and fat. We can also become addicted without substance abuse, in activities involving gambling, shopping, promiscuity, pornography, video games, and even work.

Experts offer a range of theories to explain the causes of addictions, and they can disagree to a contentious extent with one another. The causes are attributed variously to neurological disorders, brain chemistry, genetic factors, and low self-esteem. One expert, psychologist and author Stanton Peele, says we become addicted because the “delivery systems”—hypodermic syringes, nicotine-packed cigarettes, ubiquitous online porn, pocket-sized game consoles, chemically flavored food, seductive marketing messages—have become so effective at breaking down our resistance.

These theories are all worthy of consideration, yet I believe we really can’t understand addictions fully without understanding deeper elements of human nature. An essential cause of addictions derives from our lack of consciousness. We’re harboring psychological weaknesses that we’re failing to recognize or understand.

Addictive personalities experience themselves through unresolved emotional issues that produce inner weakness and a lack of self-regulation. In my view, the particular substance or behavior to which they’re addicted is secondary to their compulsion to experience the emotion of helplessness. [Read more…]

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The Helplessness Trap in Cravings & Addictions

Addicts can break free of the "helplessness trap."

This post is a revised and expanded version of an earlier post, “The Negative Emotions behind Addictions,” which was published here last October. In this version, I go into the heart of the emotional experience of the “helplessness trap” which addictive personalities experience when (or just before) their cravings strike.

When a craving strikes, we often react with a sense of inner helplessness. Will our intense desire for self-defeat prevail? Do we even have a chance to successfully resist, knowing our history of being overwhelmed by our cravings?

In depth psychology, an addiction is understood to be a self-defeating reaction to unresolved negative emotions. Unresolved negative emotions in our psyche produce inner conflict. Examples of common inner conflict include wanting to feel loved when entangled in self-rejection; seeking success when encumbered by expectations of being seen in a negative light; yearning to be praised and respected when tangled up in self-criticism; pursuing relationship stability when emotionally attached to betrayal and unworthiness; and struggling to self-regulate when undermined by unresolved helplessness and passivity.

In other words, unresolved negative emotions from childhood (including our readiness to feel deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and criticized) produce inner conflict. This conflict in turn produces suffering, self-defeat, and out-of-control emotions and behaviors. We can overcome the disruptive influence of inner conflict, and thereby enhance our capacity for self-regulation, when we see our psyche’s inner dynamics clearly enough. [Read more…]

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Mark Twain’s Mysterious Misery-Machine

It rusts away when sprayed by self-knowledge.

We all like to think we’re motivated by self-interest, self-protection, and self-love. Consciously, we are. Unconsciously, though, we operate a misery-machine inside us that churns up self-defeat, self-damage, and self-rejection.

A reference to a misery-machine is made by the character Satan in Mark Twain’s final novel, The Mysterious Stranger. The reference is found in this passage from the book:

Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously, with a fine and delicate precision, on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in the one department the other stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain—maybe a dozen. In most cases the man’s life is about equally divided between happiness and unhappiness. When this is not the case, the unhappiness predominates—almost never the other. Sometimes a man’s make and disposition are such that his misery-machine is able to do nearly all the business. Such a man goes through life almost ignorant of what happiness is.

This short novel, while nihilistic and grim in places, presents many insights into human nature. Twain’s savvy on matters of human conduct and motivation is consistent, of course, with his greatness as a writer. Perhaps the novel’s most significant insight is the idea that truth about human nature is not as pleasant as we would like. That in itself is not a popular or pleasant idea. That resistance may account, in part, for why the novel is one of his least popular books.

So what is this misery-machine of which he writes? Twain presents only the machine’s finished products—ignorance, self-serving hypocrisy, violence, despair, stupidity, malice, anger, vanity. He didn’t get to the nuts and bolts of the machine itself, which at the time the emerging science of psychoanalysis was beginning to do. [Read more…]

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Four Favorite Ways to Suffer

Knowing these four ways we suffer helps us to avoid them.

If you’re looking for attention, try wearing a T-shirt with this question embossed across the chest in bold type—Who Will I be Without my Suffering? These words have a thunderous effect on an unconscious level. That’s because we often experience ourself and identify with ourself most profoundly through our suffering.

We all need to make sense of our world and find our place in it. We look for orientation through our beliefs, ego, athletic ability, intelligence, skills, character, body image, personality, sum of knowledge, and possessions. Underneath these external values, though, we can also experience and know ourselves in hidden recesses of our psyche as victims of injustice and malice, as failures or phonies, or as individuals who are insignificant and unworthy.

We have, in particular, four favorite ways to suffer. We can engorge ourselves at the trough of human misery through feelings of deprivation, helplessness, rejection, and criticism. Chances are good that when we’re miserable, we’re entangled in one or more of these negative emotions. Symptoms such as anger, anxiety, fear, procrastination, and depression often have their roots in these four opportunities to suffer.

With a little insight, we can check in with ourselves to determine pretty accurately whether we’ve tumbled into one of these four pits of pain. We can get ourselves out with self-awareness and insight. Most of the time, people in the pits find it hard to escape because they resist seeing their own role in their predicament.

If you’re living a life of relative abundance, yet still feel anxious that something is missing in your life, you’re likely entangled in the first of the four, the negative emotion of deprivation. This means that you are unconsciously determined to see and experience the glass as half-empty. This propensity to see and experience our life through negative impressions is a quirk of human nature. It’s as if we have an emotional addiction to various forms of negativity. We often are unaware of how easily we can slip over to the negative side and stay there, even as we complain about how unpleasant it all is. [Read more…]

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