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...]

Overcoming Fear of Intimacy

Don't settle for second-rate knowledge about our psychological problems.

Don’t settle for second-rate knowledge about our psychological problems.

For our personal growth and self-development, the psychological establishment is feeding us baby food. We’ll have difficulty fulfilling our destiny without better educational nutrition.

Let’s consider the problem in light of what mainstream psychology is telling us about the self-defeating behavior known as “fear of intimacy.”

We won’t find abiding love, of course, when we’re afraid of intimacy. So how do we fix the problem? An online search for information turns up hundreds of articles and numerous books. Much of this self-help literature does a decent job discussing the experiences and characteristics of fugitives from intimacy. But it does a lousy job providing real insight that can dramatically improve their lives.

One mainstream explanation says that intimacy-dodgers have a fear of rejection (being rejected or abandoned by the loved one), along with a fear of engulfment (feeling controlled and dominated by one’s partner, along with losing oneself in the relationship).

Indeed, these two fears are felt by individuals who flee from intimacy. But where do these fears come from? Relationship experts are not explaining the true source of these fears. They say the fears can be due to a social phobia, an anxiety disorder, or a history of abuse. Yet even when these factors are aspects of the problem, we still need knowledge that goes beyond a diagnosis or the wounds of victimization. [Read more...]

The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings

To understand mass shooters, we must search our own psyche.

To understand mass shooters, we must search our own psyche.

While some mass shooters are psychotic or schizophrenic, only about five percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness. The rate of mental illness is higher—an estimated 20 percent—among rampage or serial killers. Most of the mass murders didn’t qualify for any specific psychiatric disorder, according to strict criteria. These individuals—often working-class men who had been jilted, fired, and felt humiliated, or youths who felt rejected and despised—lived next door to neighbors who never imagined them capable of such crimes.

We would like to believe that the behavior of the shooters is foreign to human nature, not something intrinsic in our psyche. Or we say that a gun-worshipping culture is to blame. Yet might there be another factor, some common element at the heart of human nature, to account in part for these horrendous events?

We all have a dark side. Psychology, literature, and mythology have chronicled this aspect of our nature, yet still we flee from examining it. Carl Jung wrote in his 1957 classic, The Undiscovered Self, that a true understanding of the inner self recognizes the existence of good and evil within us. In his view, the unconscious was being ignored “out of downright resistance to the mere possibility of there being a second psychic authority besides the ego. It seems a positive menace to the ego that its monarchy can be doubted.” Jung also wrote that a lack of insight deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil. Underestimation of the psychological factor, he added, “is likely to take a bitter revenge.” [Read more...]

When Eyes Are Blinders of the Soul

Our eyes can easily go looking for things that make us upset, angry, or dissatisfied.

One way to diminish our suffering is to become conscious of when our eyes go looking for something that upsets us. Another way is to be watchful of what our imagination is up to.

Just as sponges can soak up dirty water as easily as clean water, our eyes can also take in impressions from the world around us that leak misery into our soul. We like to think we use our visual faculty in pursuit of pleasure, but we also use it to entertain old hurts, grievances, and longings. Our eyes go looking for pleasure and stimulation—but also needlessly for ways to suffer.

Groucho Marx famously asked, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The drollery is delightful, yet our eyes are suspect nonetheless. Our eyes, along with our imagination, quite readily go searching for things to worry and brood about. Through our eyes and imagination, we can be tempted to look for sights or impressions that stir up within us negative emotions relating to deprivation, refusal, helplessness, rejection, and unworthiness.

The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” He meant, of course, that we’re emotionally blocked from seeing objectively. [Read more...]

How Deeper Insight Relieves Stress

It's important to understand the sources of stress in our psyche.

As I sit at my desk writing about stress, I can feel some tension stirring in my body. Outside my home office where I write, construction workers are noisily building a new house. Work will go on next door for a few more months. No doubt I’ll feel the nuisance of the noise at times, but I don’t really expect to feel much tension or stress. For one thing, stress is largely related to unresolved negative emotions—and I’m happy to see this lovely new house being built. Moreover, if the noise gets too loud I can head off to the nearby town library and park myself in one of its secluded corners.

Stress is synonymous with suffering. It’s on a par with tension and anxiety. We experience stress when we add the tonnage of our unresolved emotional issues on to the back of normal everyday challenges.

Yet people are generally determined to ignore the inner causes of stress. They want to blame stress on external factors. In its latest annual survey on stress in America, the American Psychological Association says that money, work, and the economy continue to be the most frequently cited causes of stress. [Read more...]

Avoidable Miseries of the Workplace

We want to identify the inner dynamics that can ruin the pleasures of work.

Work, paradoxically, is a blessing and a curse. It can torture us when we have it and depress us when we don’t. What’s worse, loading “Sixteen Tons” of manure from “9 to 5”on “Maggie’s Farm” after “A Hard Day’s Night,” or having to beg, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in “Allentown” because the “Unemployment Blues” means “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore”?

This post offers some psychological insight to help workers find greater enjoyment and creativity in their labor. (The agony of feeling useless that’s inflicted on the reluctantly unemployed will be the subject of a later piece.) Work satisfies basic physical, psychological, and emotional needs, yet people can find ways to suffer even when they hold excellent jobs.

A straightforward psychological principle assures greater enjoyment and creativity in the workplace: Once we manage to avoid unnecessary emotional suffering, we’re much more capable of appreciating our work and being successful at it.

Emotional suffering is related to the state of our psyche, in conjunction with the extent of our self-knowledge. When our psyche is contaminated by unresolved issues and conflict, we can suffer anywhere, anytime. [Read more...]

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...]

The Problem with Positive Psychology

We won't be authentic if we fail to penetrate into our unconscious mind

Most everyone is looking for happiness. The shopping malls of the self-help industry feature thousands of different methods, beliefs, and practices for finding it. Many of these approaches are of limited value, and we do ourselves a big favor by avoiding them.

According to Martin E.P. Seligman, founder of positive psychology, people who apply his method “are the people with the highest well-being I have ever known.” Seligman’s approach encourages us to apply determination and grit in order to increase our positive emotions and relationships. We flourish, he claims, when we focus on engagement, accomplishment, and a sense of meaning. His latest book is titled, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Free Press, New York, 2011).

Seligman’s approach can produce a temporary boost of happiness, or an illusion of it, but it doesn’t deepen our spirit, soul, or psyche. It risks turning us into smiley-faced puppet people instead of real and authentic individuals who are evolving through deeper awareness. Positive psychology advocates a kind of willpower-on-steroids programming that insists we can feel fulfilled and happy by believing we are making it happen. This system does not appreciate how, through unconscious conflict in our psyche, we compulsively replay and recreate unresolved negative emotions. [Read more...]

Respect, Disrespect, and Self-Respect

When we possess true self-respect, no one can make us feel disrespected

A client of mine, Jill, complained that she was feeling disrespected by her husband, Jack. Indeed, he often mocked her and spoke to her sarcastically. He also had difficulty expressing his affection and appreciation for her. He had been raised in a family whose members had been notoriously disrespectful to one another.

To improve their marriage, Jack has to do his part to become a more considerate person. But Jill has an issue here, as well. She could easily feel disrespected. She too had been raised in a family where the parents had been lacking in their respect for their children. In addition, her siblings had often been mean and mocking toward one another.

There would be no point in either of them blaming parents or siblings for their current difficulties. With insight, Jack and Jill can live happily together. [Read more...]

The Negative Emotions Behind Addictions

I read this definition of an addiction on the internet: “An addiction is an unconscious way of coping with emotions.” Yes, that’s true, but a more precise definition is called for: An addiction is a self-defeating reaction to, or consequence of, unresolved negative emotions.

Unless explored and understood, these emotions produce inner conflict, suffering, and self-defeat. We can overcome their disrupting influence in our psyche, and thereby enhance our capacity for self-regulation, when we see our inner dynamics clearly enough.

Our unresolved emotions have to be identified. An addictive person can be struggling with feelings of being deprived, refused, controlled, helpless, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, criticized, hated, and so on. Even when the addictive person is not actually being, say, refused or controlled, this individual is unconsciously determined to experience events and situations through these unresolved, negative emotions.

With the right knowledge or with in-depth therapy, a particular individual can identify, based on his or her childhood experiences, those negative emotions that “push his buttons.” Once the negative emotions are identified, the individual becomes aware of how determined he or she has been to continue to experience those unresolved negative emotions in the different situations of everyday life.

We can say, in fact, that addicts have a hidden addiction, and that is to those negative emotions that are unresolved in their psyche. [Read more...]