Why Our Emotional Suffering Persists

Key findings from psychoanalysis expose the sources of our suffering.

Were we born to suffer? William Wordsworth seemed to think so when he wrote: “Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark. And shares the nature of infinity.”

Indeed, ignorance in centuries past doomed many people to perpetual suffering. Much physical suffering has been alleviated by modern medicine, of course. But I’m not so sure that emotional suffering is on the wane. Fortunately, “obscure and dark” recesses of our psyche can be illuminated by flares of knowledge from psychology. However, due to our resistance to facing deeper truth, the best and brightest knowledge is not widely understood.

Key findings from classical psychoanalysis have exposed the sources of our suffering. The first principle of this knowledge recognizes that our chronic upset, nagging self-doubt, and persistent complaints are symptoms of unresolved negative emotions that we’re unwittingly generating from within us.

Growing awareness produces an understanding that a deep negativity—consisting of an assortment of unresolved emotions—lurks in our psyche. On the surface, we may be optimistic, clever, and skillful. But deep in our unconscious mind we harbor the unfinished business of humanity, namely our compulsion to keep diving back into unresolved negative emotions. Lagoons full of negative emotions simmer and stew in our psyche with the leftovers of childhood—feelings associated with deprivation, loss, helplessness, control, domination, criticism, betrayal, and abandonment.

Usually we’re not aware of our tendency to keep diving unwittingly into these lagoons. What we feel instead are the consequences (symptoms) of this self-defeating tendency. These symptoms include anger, depression, hatred, greed, withdrawal, cynicism, envy, loneliness, apathy, and a judgmental attitude. As well as the emotional symptoms of deep negativity, we also have behavioral symptoms such as addictions and compulsions.

Typically, people try to address the painful symptoms without recognizing the source. The true source remains unconscious for most people. Without conscious access to that source, we’re unable to put an end to (or even modify) the suffering and self-defeat.

The next step in our growing ability to avoid the deep lagoons is our biggest leap yet. We start to become aware that we’re used to our suffering—it defines us, and we don’t know who we are without it. We come to the realization that we’re emotionally attached to our suffering. What does it mean to be attached in this way? This attachment is the consequence of the fact that we have no choice but to experience in a painful way whatever is unresolved in our psyche. Unresolved negative emotions are simply determined to be experienced, and our challenge is to liberate ourselves from these attachments. Through our intelligence we can achieve inner freedom when we expose the dynamics of our psyche.

What are some examples of unresolved negative emotions to which we are attached? We want love but, at some deeper level, we’re expecting rejection. We want to feel strong, but we are identified with ourselves through weakness. We want to get rewards and benefits from life, but unconsciously we’re expecting to be refused or deprived. We’re compelled to continue experiencing in a painful way, often on a daily basis, the negative emotions that arise from these unresolved conflicts.

Here are three more examples to help us understand unresolved inner conflicts: 1) even as we greatly dislike feeling helpless, we’re accustomed to the feeling, entangled in it, and compelled to recycle it; 2) we dislike feeling criticized, even as we expect criticism and compulsively behave in ways that make criticism more likely to happen; 3) we don’t like feeling lonely, even as we use our loneliness to recycle our sense of identity as defined by our emotional entanglement in feeling unworthy and abandoned.

The primary conflict in our psyche is between inner passivity (the self-doubt of our defensive subordinate ego) and inner aggression (in the form of harsh self-assessments administered by our inner critic or superego). Through this conflict, we experience aggression in one moment and passivity in the next. (Read, “The Futile Dialogue in Our Head.”) Most of us vacillate emotionally back-and-forth, identifying with the perspective of one or the other of these two polarities. Hence, we’re unable to establish wise inner authority, meaning an authentic self through which inner wisdom and the pleasure principle are more readily accessed.

Our consciousness does not see the source of our suffering, our attachment to the variations of deep negativity (again, these variations include emotions associated with deprivation, loss, helplessness, control, domination, criticism, betrayal, and abandonment.) All we usually see are our symptoms or reactions to deep negativity (again, these symptoms include anger, depression, hatred, greed, withdrawal, cynicism, envy, loneliness, apathy, and a judgmental attitude.) We give all the headlines to the symptoms, and fail to see the root cause of our suffering (deep negativity) back in the classified section of the newspaper.

We practice self-deception through our psychological defense system. This system is designed to protect our ego, the superficial operating system (or outdated software) of our mind. We protect our ego out of unconscious fear: I will disappear into thin air, or not be who I think I am, if I let go of my ego. Meanwhile, people cover up their emotional attachments to deep negativity by using the symptoms as psychological defenses. For instance, when using anger in this way, people say in the unconscious defense: I’m not attached to feeling criticized (or deprived, rejected, betrayed, etc.). Look at how angry I get when so-and-so criticizes me. That proves I don’t secretly want to feel criticized. This defense covers up the fact that, through our compulsion to keep experiencing what is unresolved, we are indeed truly interested in revisiting old unresolved emotions such as rejection.

We use defenses such as anger or blame to cover our tracks. When we blame others, we’re making them responsible for our suffering and covering up how we produce the misery we feel. Sometimes, as when we’re depressed or apathetic, we blame ourselves, though invariably for incorrect reasons that are themselves defenses.

While many people are overwhelmed by their suffering, many others do manage to keep it in check. Even so, smaller deposits of negative emotions can still degrade the quality of our relationships, work, and self-esteem. If we don’t uncover them, we’re the poorer for it. We’ll likely be less intelligent and more prone to self-defeat. Our lack of self-knowledge produces a dearth of brain power, a gap in our intelligence, which is a major detriment in a highly complex, dangerous world.

Through this learning process, we connect with ourselves at a deeper level. We feel our goodness and value more fully as we expose and then cast out deep negativity. As we make it a daily practice to review and assimilate this knowledge, we liberate the amazing self within us.