Wealth disparity continues to grow in developed nations. By next year, as Oxfam reported this month, the richest one percent will likely control half the world’s total wealth. This disparity is happening, in part, because money, when used neurotically, is overrated, desperately accumulated, and recklessly dissipated.
In developed nations, all economic, political, and social dysfunction is, to a significant degree, a symptom of the extent of the population’s neurosis. This collective neurosis—the accumulated weight of unresolved negative emotions and self-defeating tendencies—is a massive burden on human destiny.
Both the rich and the poor have a role in this wealth-distribution problem. Let start by considering a factor that’s at play in the psyche of many rich people, particularly those who are lacking in empathy and generosity. It’s obviously self-defeating to be lacking these qualities. This insensitivity hinders the development of one’s own goodness and consciousness, and it blocks an individual from experiencing greater life satisfaction and any sense of higher purpose or destiny. In other words, self-aggrandizement invariably contaminates one’s moral life. Researchers have been finding in dozens of studies that a person’s feelings of compassion and empathy go down—and feelings of entitlement and self-interest increase—as his or her wealth increases.
As well, upper classes are more likely than others to engage in unethical behavior, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences. Yet many people sacrifice their moral life for the emotional and materialistic comfort that wealth allegedly provides. Why is this so? Why do the rich overrate the importance of wealth? They value wealth inordinately because it supposedly “raises them up” from the deep, usually unconscious self-doubt that challenges all people. Their wealth, as they experience it, is all that stands between them and the sense of unworthiness and inferiority that can, at a deep level, still haunt their inner life.
Wanting to feel superior, special, and powerful can be an addictive yearning in the emotional life of a psychologically undeveloped person. People are anxious to escape the anxiety produced through the inner conflict that, in varying degrees, persists in the human psyche. This inner conflict produces worry, fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. Inner conflict gives rise to feelings of being helpless, vulnerable, and overwhelmed. A person’s vast wealth can provide an illusion of security and power. But the underlying neurosis persists, producing continuing unhappiness. This unhappiness can be dealt with only psychologically or spiritually. Accumulating more wealth, as scientific studies show, only makes it worse.
Many rich people don’t want to see or have to deal with poor people. The poor, especially those in desperate need, make them feel guilty. When they encounter the poor, they’re reminded by their inner critic of their insensitivity and lack of generosity. As well, their inner critic, functioning as a mocking conscience, reminds the rich of how they still resonate emotionally with feelings of being unworthy and insignificant. As an unconscious defense against this accusation, they scorn the poor and try to avoid them. Their wealth and cunning serve as narcissistic reparation—a psychological “protection plan”—while creating more separation and distance from “ordinary” people and, ultimately, from their own self.
The richer the individual, the more he or she doesn’t want to even think about poor people. Since the materialistic gap is too big to be bridged by trite rationalizations or marketplace ideologies, the super-rich have to become cold-hearted and shut off introspection in order to avoid feeling guilty. Those rich individuals who are most heavily defended are likely to be more adamant and influential in denying help or benefits to the poor.
Money neurosis also plagues the poor. Unresolved inner conflict is often the cause of poverty. Various configurations of inner conflict lead to addictions, relationship failures, bitterness, cynicism, and faulty decision-making. Whether rich or poor, we make unconscious choices to recycle old hurts and cling to inner conflicts that originated in our first years of life. We all have levels of emotional pain along with self-defeating impulses, whether or not we were born poor or rich or had toxic or decent parents.
A psychological undercurrent among the poor involves inner passivity and accompanying problems of self-regulation and self-defeat. These psychological issues can apply to all people, of course, not just the poor. Many people are brought down or defeated by their emotional weaknesses. One way to become or remain impoverished is to be careless or reckless with money.
Emotional issues can contribute to poverty in the first place, and these issues then make it harder for individuals to extricate themselves from this hardship. Of course, poverty in itself is not necessarily debilitating or a recipe for defeat: Many great people have emerged out of poverty, and many people are able to live happily and work at a high level of skill despite relative poverty. Yet wealth disparity that denies opportunities to millions of people undermines humanity’s struggle to evolve.
Many poor people are plenty smart, of course, yet they can lack the inner power or emotional assurance to become well educated or to pursue a skilled trade. (This study reports that self-worth boosts one’s ability to overcome poverty.) Unresolved inner passivity, a product of inner conflict, produces a tendency to slip into self-pity and apathy and to react inappropriately when opportunities arise to better one’s self. The most painful form of criticism is self-criticism, and poor people can be very critical of themselves for allegedly being failures and losers. This also means they’re more likely to be negative, as well as judgmental and critical of others. (This study reports that verbal aggression of children is more common in poor families.) All of this is obviously self-defeating.
Underlying unconscious passivity can become a cornerstone of a poor person’s identity. This emotional default position remains unconscious in his or her psyche and leads directly to self-sabotage. Unresolved inner passivity produces a tendency to slip into self-pity and apathy and to react negatively with cynicism, anger, and other displays of inappropriate aggression.
When they haven’t experienced enough inner growth, both rich and poor people aren’t connecting with their autonomy, goodness, or authentic self. In this predicament, they often position themselves at the mercy of a relentless inner critic that discredits and belittles them as failures and losers. It’s easy to stay trapped in this inner conflict when the psyche’s opposing dynamics of aggression and passivity aren’t recognized or understood.
Liberals are inclined to attribute wealth disparity to the failure of the elite to be more generous and compassionate, while conservatives say the problem is due to the character defects of poor people. Liberals and conservatives see the issue in terms of morality and character, yet psychological insight shows another pathway to understanding the problem.
When we lack vital self-knowledge, we’re all poorer in so many ways. Deepening self-knowledge makes us wiser, less prone to self-defeat, and more connected to our self-worth and to the worth of others. Our common humanity, exposed psychologically, can now be embraced. Self-knowledge gives us a better chance to play our cards like a winner, whatever hand we’ve been dealt. Our most satisfying pleasure now comes from living a life that benefits our self as well as others. Everyone is smarter and richer.