The Scoop on Intimate Partner Abuse

We need to look at the deeper psychological issues that precipitate domestic abuse.

Deeper understanding is needed of the psychology behind domestic abuse.

The problem of intimate partner abuse has received wide attention following incidents involving National Football League players. Yet media discussions of the subject tend to deal with superficial considerations. Little is being said about the deeper psychological issues that precipitate and fuel the abuse and violence.

Both the perpetrator and the victim are involved in agonizing behaviors that mirror inner conflict in the psyches of them both. What drives the perpetrators, usually men, to be so cruel and brutal, and why do so many women remain in these abusive situations? What do we need to understand that’s common to the various forms—physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and economic—of intimate partner abuse?

Most articles on the subject seem to consider the intimate psychology of warring couples as a forbidden topic. One article, a research review published earlier this month by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, discusses this problem of domestic abuse and the empowerment of women exclusively in terms of their levels of income, financial stability, and educational achievement—yet even that discussion is framed mostly in statistical terms.

While the problem is complicated, a deeper look at psychological dynamics turns up important facts. An abusive relationship puts on display two of the primary elements in the human psyche—aggression and passivity. A couple that’s trapped in a cycle of abuse is acting out the inner conflict that each experiences in his or her psyche. This conflict is between self-aggression, as administered by the inner critic, and inner defensiveness and self-doubt, as experienced through inner passivity. [Read more...]

Tormented Mothers, Endangered Babies

Inner conflict plays a major role in maternal mental health.

Inner conflict plays a major role in maternal mental health.

Thousands of mothers are plagued on a daily basis by intrusive thoughts in which they imagine or see themselves doing harm to their children. The problem was highlighted this month in two articles (here and here) that appeared in The New York Times.

In these thoughts or mental images, the women consider dropping their infant or child from a building or bridge, suffocating or abandoning the baby, throwing him or her against a wall, or wrecking their car with the baby inside.

Only a very small percentage of women act on these impulses, yet the suffering of those who regularly entertain such thoughts is nonetheless considerable. Their emotional state can also affect their bonding with the baby, the health of the baby, and the wellbeing of their family.

Scientists attribute such maternal mental health problems to an interplay of genes, stress, hormones, and disrupted brain chemistry. Unfortunately, these experts are not paying much or any attention to depth psychology. They’re failing to see or appreciate the role that inner conflict plays in creating this mental and emotional suffering.

Recent studies indicate that, within one year of giving birth, at least one in eight women, and as many as one in five, develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Women suffering from these conditions are more likely to experience thoughts or impulses to harm their children. A dozen states, moved to action by occurrences in which a mother kills herself or her baby, have passed laws encouraging screening, education, and treatment. [Read more...]

Understanding Anorexia

Unresolved inner conflict is a primary cause  of anorexia.

Unresolved inner conflict is a primary cause of anorexia nervosa.

Recently I watched a YouTube clip of Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil) counseling a 79-pound woman with anorexia, and it was a sad sight indeed. My sadness was felt both for the plight of the woman and for the plight of all people who get only shallow psychological knowledge from so-called experts and the media.

In this video clip from 2012, Dr. Phil succeeds only at shaming the woman for her anorexia. The woman already lives with considerable inner shame, and the unwitting Dr. Phil is only piling it on.

Anorexia can be treated and cured when its psychological origins are uncovered. Yet prominent websites on the subject—such as WebMD.com, the Mayo Clinic, and MedlinePlus, the website of the National Institutes of Health—provide only scanty and shallow psychological information. The National Institutes of Health, which favors a medical approach to understanding and treating eating disorders, claims that, “Family conflicts are no longer thought to contribute to this [anorexia] or other eating disorders.” I disagree with this statement, and I provide evidence in this article that family conflict, along with inner conflict, does indeed contribute to these disorders. When anorexics understand their inner conflict and how they act out that conflict with others, they have a decent chance of escaping their painful condition. [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...]

Taming the “Little Monsters” of Insomnia

The agony of the "cerebral loop."

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily,” one insomniac wrote. “Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of their skull well-swept, and all the little monsters closed up in a steamer truck at the foot of their bed.”

People can have trouble sleeping for lots of different reasons, and perhaps chief among them are those “little monsters” that cavort in our mind like gremlins at a hip-hop concert. “Crash the night,” the hellions shout, “time to break out, dance the wipeout, swing and freak out!” These little monsters (better known as random, unwanted thoughts, feelings, and fears) gambol to the music of worrisome speculations, dire considerations, and nightmarish scenarios.

Blake Butler, who once endured an epic 129-hour bout of insomnia, describes very well the grueling experience of insomnia in his book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia (Harper Perennial, New York. 2011). Below is an excerpt from his book. I quote Butler here at some length because his experience of insomnia, detailed with literary moxie, is highly relevant to what I say further on in this post.

This act of ‘sleep catastrophizing’ is ten times as commonly reported as other disruption stimuli, centered in our tendency to dwell on the worst possible outcomes of a given situation . . . And so the frame shakes. And the self shakes. And in the self, so shakes the blood, the mood, the night, disturbing, in the system, further waking, further wanting, if for the smallest things, the days of junk, [Read more...]

Teach Your Children Well

Better education teaches self-knowledge.

America’s future is at risk if schools do not improve, says a recently published report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a research and policy organization. This warning, in my opinion, can be rendered more precisely to include the dangers to the nation and the world if psychological education does not improve.

Superior education teaches self-knowledge. Such teaching penetrates into the psyche or unconscious mind, making conscious what has previously been unconscious. This self-knowledge is needed to break through the thick clouds of unknowing and self-doubt that trouble so many children. It’s what we all need to navigate through complex, perilous times.

Higher learning is fundamentally developmental, write Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh in We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 2011). Such learning, say the authors, “inspires, reinforces, and reflects the growth and maturation of the learner as a whole human being.” This learning is not limited to the acquisition of new information. Rather, “it is centered in the potential for change in the learner as a result of engagement with new knowledge and experiences.”

Keeling and Hersh are writing about education at the college and university levels. Yet children at elementary levels can also experience learning as a transformative process. That will certainly be true if they are taught the basics of how emotional suffering and self-sabotage are created and held in place in our psyche. [Read more...]

A Participant in National Self-Sabotage

We need to keep a lid on the id.

Who dares suggest the American dream could be thwarted by an indistinct entity a mere two letters long? The CIA certainly doesn’t have a dossier on it. Yet one ingredient of personal suffering and national self-sabotage is the id. Yes, I know that’s an odd, whimsical word, one that many of us, should it zip across our mind, dismiss as harmless jargon.

Yet psychoanalysis has taken the id very seriously. The discipline defines the id as the primitive, unconscious part of our mind that induces us to pursue self-centered gratification, often at the expense of wise self-regulation. For reasons I’m about to discuss, the id appears to be particularly virulent in the American psyche.

The id is like a virus or bug of the unconscious mind. And it can wreak as much havoc on the national scene as swarms of computer viruses. We have an impressive national-security apparatus in place to block out hackers. But in blindness to the enemy within, nobody’s minding the id.

Civilization and national life are extensions of our consciousness. Despite that direct correlation between the inner and outer world, the media hardly ever talk about the psychological dysfunction of our leaders or write about the mental-emotional components in everyday political and social conflicts. To give them some due, the media are beginning to explore the psychological dynamics of family life and to look deeper into the roots of the 2008 economic crisis. [Read more...]

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...]

Obesity and the Dopamine Fallacy

Neuroscience Adds Excess Weight to the Obesity Epidemic

Consciousness is the main factor in self-regulation.

The Flip Wilson Show was America’s second most-watched TV show for its first two seasons in the 1970s. In his role as the sassy Geraldine Jones, Wilson, a comedic genius, had a trademark line, “The devil made me do it,” that his character declared when she needed an excuse for her impulsive or questionable behavior.

Another trademark line is being trotted out, this time by neuroscience, to account for the nation’s obesity epidemic. Nobody is laughing, though we should, when they tell us, “The dopamine makes you do it.”

Yes, dopamine, we’re told, has taken possession of the brains of obese people and turned them into sugar and fat addicts, slaves of the midnight snack and prisoners of the cookery. “It’s not your fault,” they’re told, “the dopamine makes you do it.” Hang in there! Great minds are working on a pill.

Professor Gary L. Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010), recently posted the essence of the dopamine explanation at the Facebook page for Psychology Today:

Initially, scientists assumed that obese people were simply addicted to food in the same manner that someone becomes addicted to heroin, i.e. food produces happy pleasant feels, and therefore eating lots of food would produce extremely pleasant feelings. Not so. A few years ago scientists discovered just the opposite was true; the brain’s reward center decreased its response to eating tasty foods. This induces people (and animals in experimental studies as well) to consume ever greater quantities of fat and sugar in order to mitigate the diminished rewards that were once experienced by consuming only one scoop of ice cream or a small donut.

The neurotransmitter in the brain for rewarding us for eating is called dopamine. Everything we do that is pleasurable requires the release of dopamine within the brain. . . . Needless to say, eating fat and sugar induces the release of dopamine. In both obese humans and animals dopamine function is significantly impaired. The key thing to point out is that this dysfunction occurs in response to many years of poor diet; dopamine dysfunction does not occur first. Our behavior leads to the dysfunction in this important pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter. [Read more...]

The Secret Allures of Pornography

An addiction to pornography produces guilt, shame, and other suffering

Lots of people, men in particular, are addicted to pornography. They are sexually aroused by the visual stimulation, and they return compulsively to the activity, looking for that pleasure. However, it’s often a pleasure that comes with a price. Many feel shame after feasting on the stimulation. They might also feel guilt if they have a partner who is being kept in the dark about it. They can also feel bad about themselves because they can’t stop the voyeuristic activity.

Pornography has dimensions to it of the impersonal, mechanical, tawdry, and boring. So how does a person become addicted to such voyeurism?

Several hidden psychological components are at play. When the consumption of pornography is addictive, it means the individual is acting out his inner passivity. He doesn’t have the power to act consistently in his best interests. This is the same inner weakness that leads one to be indecisive, to procrastinate, and to feel overwhelmed. This individual replays an unresolved emotional issue that involves the feeling of not being in charge of his or her own life. Such individuals frequently find themselves in fixes in which they are lacking in self-regulation, as with compulsive gamblers and those with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

All of us can suffer with guilt, confusion, worry, and anxiety whenever we are losing what may be life’s greatest struggle: to maintain self-regulation of behaviors and emotions. [Read more...]