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…]

The Mysterious Allure of Kinky Sex

Behind kinky sex are remarkable facts about human nature.

Behind kinky sex are remarkable facts about human nature.

Sadomasochistic consensual sex play may be gaining some acceptance as a socially or culturally sanctioned sexual orientation. The New York Times reports in a featured story, “A Hush-Hush Topic No More,” that a significant effort is underway in the United States and Canada to “defend the rights” of kinky-sex adherents and to acknowledge the practice as an expression of freedom and normal sexuality.

The recent best-selling books in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy have achieved their wide popularity (70 million copies sold worldwide) by exploiting the strange, mysterious human weakness to “libidinze” (eroticize or make pleasurable) the experience of being dominated, violated, abused, or otherwise mistreated. One popular website reports quite seriously that the books are introducing youths “to a brave new bondage-loving world.”   

Kinky sex in a playful setting doesn’t have to be a big deal in itself, providing one can take it or leave it. But behind the scenes, deep in our psyche, sexual arousal that is sadistically or masochistically produced tells a remarkable story about human nature. If adherents to sadomasochistic sex play were to examine these psychological dynamics, many would find their kinky pleasures less appealing. With greater understanding, we prefer real love to cheap thrills.

Pursuing sexual pleasure from sadomasochistic practices cultivates a deeper problem. Many people extract unconscious nonsexual gratification (a third-rate kind of pleasure) from their unwitting, stubborn allegiance to painful old hurts, memories, regrets, and sorrows. When sexual sadomasochism is practiced, this dark side of the psyche is awakened and stirred up. The consequences can include considerable emotional disturbance and disharmony, along with the possibility of psychological regression. [Read more…]

A Hidden Reason for Suicidal Thoughts

An inner weakness in our psyche can instigate suicidal thoughts.

An inner weakness in our psyche can instigate suicidal thoughts.

Suicidal thoughts are quite common, and even people living good lives can experience them now and then. For many, suicidal thoughts are fleeting considerations, following which they bounce back to their everyday sense of self.

Others are haunted by these thoughts on a regular basis. The risk of committing suicide is increased for a person who begins to think often on how to do it. 

Experts say the causes of suicide are varied. Suicide is associated with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mood and personality disorders, depression, sleep deprivation, work failure, and drug abuse. Another cause cited across all the suicide-prevention websites is the feeling of helplessness.

This feeling of being helpless (overwhelmed, trapped, and unable to cope) appears to be a universal emotional experience among people with either fleeting or persistent thoughts of suicide. According to MedicalNewsToday.com, suicidal thoughts tend to arise when people “are no longer able to cope with an overwhelming situation, which could be financial, the death of somebody they love, breaking up, or a devastating, debilitating illness.”

An inner weakness in our psyche, one that goes largely undetected, produces the tendency for some people to collapse into helplessness. This weakness is sometimes felt quite acutely even by people coping with just everyday routine matters. We don’t need to be facing life-or-death situations to experience this debilitating weakness. [Read more…]

The Infantile Basis of Our Fears

Children and adults can easily feel menace or danger where none exist.

This post is a revised and expanded version of an earlier story, “How Inner Fear Becomes Our Worst Nightmare.”

Some people like digging around in the past—geologists, historians, archeologists, and genealogists—because the past is the foundation of the present and has a lot to tell us. Our own past in early childhood is also worthy of study because, for one thing, it has a lot to tell us about the levels of fear that permeate society.

Much is said and written about fear, yet seldom is it traced to its irrational psychological core. To overcome this inner fear, we have to see its existence in our psyche instead of denying it or trying to justify it by imagining Armageddon or “seeing” evil intent in others. Deeper insight makes us more conscious of our fear’s irrationality.

It’s easy to stoke our fears because we all have inner fears that have an infantile basis. Toddlers can burst out crying when getting a haircut, seeing a costumed character at the fair, even when meeting a neighbor’s new puppy. Children can also have fears of darkness, of falling, being dropped, chopped to pieces, accosted by bogey-men, and flushed down the toilet. We can also recognize that fear is an instinctive remnant of humankind’s early history when primitive conditions made the environment more immediately dangerous. [Read more…]

The Origins of Feeling Overwhelmed

An unresolved negative emotion can produce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

One sufferer described the misery of feeling overwhelmed this way: “Has anyone seen my brain? It ran off this morning flailing and screaming about being overwhelmed. I’d really like it back.”

As the comment suggests, the feeling of being overwhelmed can be agonizing. Paradoxically, though, the feeling is sometimes delightfully associated with love or with wonder, as when astronomer Carl Sagan contemplated “the overwhelming immensity” of the sky. For this post, however, I’m writing about the feeling as a disagreeable, painful experience. We can ease this form of suffering when we expose the source of the feeling in our psyche.

The feeling is widespread in modern life. Another person described a common rendering of the experience: “I constantly feel overwhelmed—busy, busy, busy! I ask myself, ‘How can I possibly get this all done?’ I’m living on the edge of chaos, and I tell myself, ‘This is crazy, insane!’ I go to bed, get up in the morning, and it starts all over again.” He later admitted, “Every day I load myself up with too many tasks and too much work, so I know I contribute to the problem.”

Feeling overwhelmed can sometimes be a normal reaction to very difficult circumstances, as in the plight of some single parents or the predicament of underemployed people struggling to pay bills. Still, our psychological issues can make challenging circumstances more difficult and painful than they have to be. [Read more…]

Deliverance From the Lonesome Blues

We can resolve the inner weaknesses that make loneliness so painful.

More people are living alone than ever. In America, forty percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. Many people happily live alone—but others are tormented by the wail of the Lonesome Blues. That oldie can echo in our ears even when we’re surrounded by friends and family.

Loneliness is a common brand of human suffering. Many believe that loneliness is an inescapable fact of human existence, a curse we’re fated to endure from birth to death. The novelist Thomas Wolfe spoke to this idea: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

Wolfe was famous and admired during his lifetime, which apparently offered little solace or good company for his loneliness. Even “super-famous” Albert Einstein succumbed to the misery. “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely,” he candidly commented. Being a rich celebrity doesn’t appear to help: “Hollywood is loneliness beside the swimming pool,” observed the actress Liv Ullmann.

Loneliness appears to have infiltrated if not occupied human nature. Impervious to the exhilarations of fame, wealth, and power, it produces assorted misery, ill health, and increased risk of heart disease. [Read more…]

The Hanky-Panky Behind Our Anger

Knowing the source of anger is important.

A new TV sitcom starring Charlie Sheen, who plays the role of an irascible anger-management therapist, is coming our way this summer. The show, which will be seen internationally, will apparently get its comedic effect from the hot-headed Sheen’s portrayal of a man of wisdom and propriety. I hope he doesn’t make a mockery of psychotherapy. Dare we hope that Sheen’s character will dispense some valuable insights into the nature of anger? That would help millions of sufferers worldwide who don’t understand that chronic anger is a defense covering up deeper issues.

Anger is often a laughing matter on TV, though less so in real life. In chronic form, it can escalate into debilitating misery. That’s when we feel it on a regular basis, in a self-defeating manner, toward an individual, group, or situation that we perceive as unjust or oppressive. Anger can also be produced through past memories and future expectations. Often we hold the anger in, and that of course is unhealthy for our mind and body.

We can also feel recurring anger toward ourselves, allegedly on the grounds that we’re a worthless fool or hopeless failure for lapses in judgment and missed opportunities.

Unfortunately, information from the media and from experts on anger management seldom reveals how anger is often used as a psychological defense. [Read more…]

Underlying Dynamics that Breed Bullies

Self-doubt concerning personal value influences both the bully and the victim.

If we want our society to put a stop to bullying—an excellent goal, of course, one embraced by President Barack Obama, educators, and celebrities—we can help the cause by better understanding the underlying psychological dynamics of bullying and by teaching this knowledge to our kids.

What are these underlying dynamics? The bully—girl or boy, man or woman—appears bold and confident on the surface. But this person is emotionally entangled in substantial self-doubt. All of us grow up with some degree of self-doubt. This feeling can be quite conscious and intense, or it can be repressed and inconspicuous. Our self-doubt produces uncertainty concerning our value, significance, strength, goodness, and worthiness. Even more so, it can produce deep emotional convictions that we are lacking in value, are deeply flawed, and are deserving of disrespect.

Self-doubt is a universal condition. We compensate somewhat for the painfulness of it when others give us recognition, acceptance, praise, and validation. The existence of self-doubt is evident in the human passion for fame, glory, power, and wealth, all of which bestow an illusion of value and superiority. Self-doubt is also evident in bullies who belittle and abuse others in their desperate need to feel superior and more powerful in themselves. [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 Deeper Issues that Produce Meanness

Meanness is a symptom of unresolved emotional issues.

Tired of being mean? Tired of being on the receiving end of meanness? The nasty trait produces a lot of unnecessary suffering, both for the person who’s being mean (the “hell of your own meanness,” a character says in Jane Eyre) and for the recipient of the meanness. Meanness is often a compulsive behavior that’s difficult to remedy without deeper insight.

Puzzled by his meanness, a fellow wrote, ”Every time I see a girl I like I always end up being mean to her. I try not to, and I know that I’m doing the wrong thing, but I just can’t help it. I don’t know why. I mean I’m really nice to my friends who I know really well, but to people I’m attracted to I end up being mean. Can someone give me some tips on how to fix that?”

“Tips” or advice won’t usually help that much in resolving an emotional problem such as meanness. Insight is a better tool. Mean people have psychological issues that can be resolved with insight. People who are frequent targets of meanness also have their issues, since unwittingly they can be attracting aggressive behavior from others.

Let’s take a deep breath and dive into the issue, using as an example the situation described by the fellow above. His meanness could be a symptom of his unconscious expectation that he is going to be rejected or seen in a negative light by others. More is at stake for him emotionally when the problem involves a girl he likes. If she sees him in a negative light, he feels the rejection more deeply. Consciously, he wants her to like him. Unconsciously, he likely expects her to reject him or to see him as inadequate or defective. He is psychologically entangled in the feeling of rejection, which means that, even though it’s painful, he’s attached emotionally to rejection or to being seen in a negative light. Instinctively, he feels the need to deny (defend against or cover up) this emotional attachment. By acting mean toward her, he can claim that he caused the rejection to happen: “I’m not looking for the feeling of being rejected—the problem is I get mean and cause it to happen.” Now, however, he feels bad and guilty for being mean. [Read more…]