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…]

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…]

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 snap 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…]

Aspects of Women’s Empowerment (Part II)

Aspects of inner fear can block women's empowerment.

Inner fear can block the advance of women.

The women’s revolution has stalled, in part because of psychological barriers women impose on themselves, writes Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013).

These psychological barriers “are rarely discussed and often underplayed,” Sandberg writes. Instead, many women prefer to blame institutional or external barriers for their lack of progress. But “internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention,” she writes.

What are these psychological issues standing in the way of women’s progress? Sandberg identifies internal barriers that include fear, self-doubt, guilt, risk-adverse instincts, acceptance of cultural stereotypes, and sensitivity to the feeling of being disliked. The author cites numerous psychological studies and draws on her considerable personal experience to discuss these issues. The women’s revolution is a vital aspect of human progress, of course, yet this revolution could conceivably fizzle out if we don’t see more deeply into our psychological issues. In a previous post, I examined some deeper aspects of patriarchal oppression, and in this post I consider the deeper elements of women’s self-oppression.

Sandberg writes that fear is a major problem for many aspiring women:

Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.

Both men and women have irrational fears, and these fears are produced out of unresolved conflict in our psyche. We benefit greatly from exposing the inner dynamics that produce these fears. Referring back to Sandberg’s statement above, let’s look more deeply into these dynamics. [Read more…]

The Correct Interpretation of Our Dreams

Sleeping dreams help us best when we correctly decode them.

Sleeping dreams help us best when we correctly decode them.

Sleeping dreams hover in our psyche like silvery sprites gracing the doors of destiny. When we remember our dreams and interpret them correctly, they reveal hidden dimensions of our being and lead us toward self-fulfillment.

Dreams often come to us in symbolic form—as allegories, riddles, and metaphors. Interpreting them correctly can be a challenge. We can be fooled into false interpretations when dreams serve as psychological defenses.

In a dream, for instance, we might feel judgmental or even disgusted when we see someone who appears weak or who is acting foolishly. We don’t want to acknowledge that we’re seeing our own weakness through that person. A correct interpretation enables us to see ourselves more objectively, which is a great help in becoming wiser and stronger.

People hold widely divergent views of dream interpretation, and many dream interpreters tell us what we want to hear. We’re easily seduced into believing whatever puts a gloss on self-image rather than what’s true. We’re inclined to object to true interpretations because they often point out our psychological weaknesses rather than celebrate our strengths.

Dreams often reveal an inner conflict. A dream in which we fervently desire an object can be covering up our temptation to feel deprived of that object or other benefits of life. This is the conflict: While we want to get and possess nice things, we are at the same time emotionally attached to the feeling that we’re somehow missing out on good fortune. [Read more…]

Desperately Seeking Validation

We won't do friends and loved ones any favors when we validate their suffering.

Watch out for people who lean on you to validate their pain and misery. They may be using you to justify their unconscious decision to hold on to their brand of suffering.

Sometimes, of course, we can help others in their suffering as we listen to them and comfort them. Friends and family members are justified in reaching out to us at times of need for our emotional support.

It’s a different story, though, when we’re being used by others for the purpose of helping them to cover up their participation in their suffering. We’re dealing here with the weird and wacky determination of people to use whatever means necessary to deny their affinity for pain and misery.

Let me explain with an example. Suppose that Tom is really angry at Jane because she rejected him and took up with another guy. In his hurt, Tom tells his friends how mean and cruel Jane was. He paints her in the worst possible light, portrays himself as an innocent victim, and in passionate intensity convinces his friends that he was grievously wronged.

Tom, however, is blind to his own true role in the drama. [Read more…]

The Meaning of Evolved Consciousness

What knowledge helps us to evolve?

Growing our consciousness is the most direct path out of suffering and self-defeat. Yet a lot of people believe that human nature, like the Ten Commandments, is set in stone. They say one’s human nature is a granite-like formation that resists appeals to virtue and reason, thereby preventing us from evolving beyond our often self-centered, ignorant, or foolish ways.

Our level of consciousness is likely to remain stationary only when we fail to explore our deeper dimensions. When we understand our psychological self, we become wiser, smarter, and happier.  Without this self-knowledge, we fall under the influence of inner dynamics that produce suffering and self-defeat.

We’re smart, yet we’re not necessarily sufficiently conscious. We’re able to build complex technological systems—yet the toxic byproducts might be ruining our planet. Our advanced weaponry can also destroy life on earth if our primitive emotions and aggressive instincts prevail. Our consciousness is not keeping up with our cleverness. So what does it mean to be more evolved?

A higher consciousness is ultimately associated with the quality of our self-knowledge. We learn what is precise and true about our unconscious mind, even though we might initially be appalled at what we’re discovering. [Read more…]

Prose to Shatter Writer’s Block

A lifeless imagination withers the spirit.

There’s nothing more painful than having writing talent—yet being blocked from expressing it. A lifeless imagination withers the spirit of the aspiring scribe. The problem is called writer’s block.

Writer’s block and other creativity blocks are symptoms or consequences of one or more unresolved psychological issues. Such issues hinder many varieties of self-expression and satisfying achievement, whether in the arts, sciences, mass media, or other endeavors.

The challenge is (1) to solve the mystery of whatever is blocking you, and (2) to have the will to move forward against the resistance you will feel in working through the issue or issues.

In the case of literary fiction, writers produce their content by way of their intelligence, knowledge, and unconscious mind. Often the richest and most original content emerges from the unconscious mind. The flow and quality of this content is influenced by the writer’s shifting psychological dynamics. The work of art itself becomes, in part, a dramatization of the writer’s unresolved inner conflict (or neurotic difficulty). In other words, the writer’s creative powers are somewhat at the mercy of unconscious defenses and counter-defenses. The writer is trying to settle an inner conflict, and the quality of the book hangs in the balance. [Read more…]