Today a family, community, and the entirety of humanity is at siege, in mortal peril, and gripping the attention of viewers in the popular television series called, "The Last of Us." Two generations ago a radioactive event in George Romero's 60's sci-fi movie classic, "Night of the Living Dead," brought cadavers out of their fetid slumber to startle viewers out of their seats while they stalked and relentlessly pursued human flesh. A decade earlier, audiences of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" cringed as they watched family, friends, and members of the community furtively replaced with replicas hatched from cryptic pods left by an alien race. Zombies and ghouls have populated modern cinema to captivate the human imagination and psyche.
Zombies in Nature
That someone or thing might be controlling our minds is a very unsettling and disturbing idea. Even worse when it is directed in hypnotic fashion to destroy us, and horrifying when it is used to direct our minds to do it to ourselves. We are fascinated to learn about creatures in nature who use their power in this way to overtake and feed on their prey. The television series, “The Last of Us,” is about an emergent fungal mutation that infects the human race to cannibalize itself. This is science fiction, albeit a hypothetically plausible event. There are in nature instances where this actually does occur. The jewel wasp, for example, injects its victim with a venom that, rather than merely kill, transforms it into a slavish zombie willingly led toward a living crypt to be consumed by the wasp’s future progeny. This gruesome fact of nature may become even more unsettling when applied to us humans.
In Western civilization, themes of cannibalism may be found as far back as ancient Greece. In Euripides’s play, “The Bacchae,” the character, Agave, at the behest of a vengeful plot by Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, dismembers her son, a practice in ancient Greece called “sparagnum,” presumably for the purpose of consuming him (literally, in Greek, “omophagia,” the practice of eating raw flesh).
Whist we may be thankful that instances of actual cannibalism among humans is exceedingly rare in modern civilization, genocide may be regarded as a form of cannibalism in the sense that through it we are destroying our own kind in order to "serve" ourselves. Nazi Germany of the mid-twentieth century is arguably the most deservedly reviled episode in modern civilization mainly because it systematically tortured and exterminated millions of its own people. Its infamous leader, Adolf Hitler, relied on mythical symbolism and promises of cultural redemption at the expense of a "blighted and parasitic portion of our species" to promulgate genocidal propaganda. Hitler achieved this in part by appealing to the emotions of the German people with the charisma of his fervent speeches and the massive rallies that bordered on mysticism as vividly portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl's film classic, "Triumph of the Will."
The act of cannibalism also finds a modern derivative in our language when we say we feel “consumed,” especially when it involves human relationships. More literally, what we mean by “to be consumed” is that we lose ourselves to the experience. As a young boy, I was often exposed to an uncanny phenomenon in the evangelical church that my family attended on Sunday mornings. The term, “glossolalia,” refers to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. It was an unwelcoming experience to watch, as the sermon during church services reached a feverish pitch, certain members of the congregation breaking into what appeared to be gibberish or speaking in a foreign language. Many of the congregants, even those who were not speaking, were emotionally consumed by the experience that had built up to those fitful moments. It is as if the entire congregation, in those moments, became one, enthralled in the passion and spirit of what was called “the holy ghost.”
The Psychological Dimensions of Cannibalism
All of these phenomena, charismatic tirades and mass rituals, Dionysian rites to celebrate oneness with nature, and speaking in tongues, share something in common. Each involves the surrender of one’s sense of self. When one surrenders willingly to the experience, it can bring ecstasy. When it is imposed against one's will, as in the case of zombies, horror. But when it is imposed surreptitiously, it becomes an effective instrument of power that relies on stealth to do its bidding as in "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and the classic early 1950's film, "The Manchurian Candidate" about a repatriated prisoner of the Korean War who had been brainwashed to carry out the nefarious plans of a hostile political regime. These stories gave expression to the fears in post-World War II America about the spread of communism.
The investigation of systems designed to cloak reality for ulterior purposes he called “hermeneutics of suspicion” was first studied by the existentialist philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. According to Ricoeur, the concerns of philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, for example, exemplified a narrative that illuminates how a false reality may be used to harbor power for the sake of cultural institutions that resist change. For psychoanalysts, such as R.D. Laing, a false-reality process he called, “mystification,” may be used to maintain the status quo in family systems at the expense of some of its members. And for some cognitive scientists such as Paul Hoffman, our experience is more a tool of natural selection than a reflection of reality. Even Freud proposed that the mind itself is a system designed to expurgate experience that is too disturbing to face. While in Freud’s and Hoffman’s cases, we may say the deception of experience serves a potentially benign purpose, it is unsettling to realize how our experience deceives us and understandably more disturbing when it used for nefarious purposes or against our will and greater interest.
In my blog titled, “Vampires of Trust,” I refer to the grifters and cult leaders who rely on stealth and deception to wield power and influence over their unwary victims. The “mantra” of how cults leverage power is a function of the four “I’s,” “infiltrate, isolate, insulate, and indoctrinate.” However, the phenomenon of experience deceiving itself doesn’t necessarily have to be intentional for there to be reason to hide the remnants of a history that tell a story of psychological trauma, the result of abuses of power. In my clinical practice I sometimes treat patients who suffer from what is called dissociative disorders. These are psychological phenomena that reflect the consequences of abusive relationships that have been in many instances repressed. One of the tragic consequences of this disorder is that the victim of these experiences may go through life in some ways like a zombie, without feeling or a firm sense of conviction or agency, and without the benefit of a consistent memory of one’s past by which one otherwise would be better able to thread together a coherent sense of meaning and purpose in life. Though these aren’t the dystopian narratives of a modern-day horror movie they nonetheless reflect the consequences of how the abuses of power, however unintended, can lead to a tragic trajectory for a person who, like the zombie, travels through life either unaware or without due appreciation for the insidious origins and effects that deprive one of an authentic self.
For better and worse, human beings are social creatures. It is what has produced all the benefits of civilization, i.e., science, technology, the arts. Communication and cooperation have served as foundations for who we have become as a successful species. On the other hand, our social nature is also is the source of our insecurities and the maladaptive ways we deal with them. Classic psychological research on conformity and obedience has shown how susceptible we are to influence by other people, especially those to whom are assigned power, status, and authority, including personal characteristics such as self-confidence and charisma. A good measure of circumspection and skepticism, therefore, is always advised before placing our trust in someone we don’t know well. How this may best be applied depends on the circumstances in which an appeal to our trust is enlisted.
I. Zombies at the Cinema
The popularity of zombie themes in stories at the cinema and in television gives evidence to how powerfully this topic resonates with our collective and personal psyches. The popularity of the series, "The Last of Us," was inspired in part by the anxiety associated with our recent pandemic, "Night of the Living Dead" by cold war fears associated with nuclear holocaust. Theater has throughout civilization served as a useful channel to release our emotions through the process of identification. It serves as both a bellwether to assess the most common sources of our collective concerns as well as a personal means to release our anxieties through a psychological mechanism known as catharsis.
II. Zombies at the Political Feast
In order to empower ourselves as active citizens engaged with due interest in the proper governance of our society, when choosing a leader or a political party to support it behooves us to be informed both about the issues at hand and where the candidates stand on those issues. At the more systemic level of political process, those systems of governance that are designed to maintain a balance of power among its governing entities as well as transparency and accountability to the people they represent help protect us from abuses of power. Beyond these measures, we empower ourselves as agents of societal discourse and governance through our efforts to remain vigilant to the lessons of history that help us identify cultists, populists, and fascist leaders who gain power by appealing to popular grievances, dissemination of disinformation, and efforts to scapegoat at-risk populations of the community. These devious methods represent forms of gaslighting, deflection, and "divide-and-conquer" tactics often used by narcissists in interpersonal relationships. Such "leaders" with these qualities inevitably become rulers, instead, inured to the concerns of the people they are supposed to represent.
III. Interpersonal Relationships: The Zombie Within
When our trust is enlisted at the more personal level, it is important to have trusted friends and family members with whom we can share our apprehensions and questions about our judgment. A seasoned therapist is, of course, also a great resource for these purposes. Not least important, however, is the value that self-understanding and the quality of our relationship with ourselves offers us. The zombification that can result in dissociative disorders from abusive relationships, whether in childhood or later in life, stems from our insecurities and psychological defenses that may thereby gain power over us, leading us toward a less mindful existence more easily influenced by the dictates of those to whom we relinquish power.
Our best resource against zombification, then, may be discovered through the potential of the power and awareness that lies within us. Hence, it may become eminently apparent that while at the head of every cult there is a charismatic leader, there can be no influence without surrender. By the same token, the development of a codependent relationship with a narcissist depends on more than the persuading influence of their charisma and gaslighting tactics. For this reason, awareness of oneself and one’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, as well as how willing we are to open ourselves to their possibility and address them, may serve as the most powerful “firewall” to navigate these situations successfully so that we may lead our lives with a sense of agency and confidence that embraces the life we wish to live authentically.
In the study of psychology and practice of psychotherapy it is generally assumed that the concepts we use and problems we work with are universal and stand the test of time, yet some are timelier than others. If there is one problem that meets the need for these times it is the search for hope. The research on learned helplessness has shown that when faced with a challenge of seemingly insurmountable odds, it is likely that an organism, or individual if you like, eventually ceases to try to extricate itself from that situation before succumbing to exhaustion. Eventually, it is presumed, a decision is made, conscious or otherwise, that the expending of any further energy is not worth the effort in the face of the long odds of it ever succeeding, or perhaps it becomes just too painful to tolerate the withering disappointment about the payoff each effort fails to produce. In the face of stubborn adversity, it is not easy to summon hope.
Why Is Hope Important?
This seems like a question whose answer would be too obvious. Not necessarily says psychologist, Dan Tomasulo, in an article published in the most recent issue of Psychology Today (May 2023) titled, “How to Find Hope.” According to Dr. Tomasulo, hope becomes salient in our minds and concerns when it is most difficult to find. It is during times of such uncertainty as these when adversity prevails that hope becomes a most prized commodity. Knowing this has helped me realize that the old adage, “It is always darkest before dawn,” may be more than a truth; it is wisdom. Situations that threaten the loss of hope summon within us the capacity to find in ourselves what is necessary to overcome and prevail.
How To Cultivate Hope
In her article titled, “Hope is More Powerful Than You Think: 5 Ways to Build Your Hope Skills and Cultivate Greater Resilience,” (Psychology Today, May 18, 2022), psychologist, Ilene Berns-Zare, cites research that associates hope with greater emotional and physical well being, positive relationships, and productivity and achievement. The author references Kathryn Goetzke, creator of Hopeful Minds, who uses the mnemonic, “SHINE,” to engage basic principles that may be used to engender feelings of hope, some of which include practicing stress management, finding and using your talents, and setting goals.
It should be a not so surprising irony that the psychologist made famous for his research associating learned helplessness with clinical depression has devoted the remainder of his subsequent career studying positive psychology. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, in his book, The hope circuit: A psychologist’s journey from helplessness to optimism (2019), introduced a program called “PERMA,” an acronym for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning, and Achievement, to help others learn the skills necessary to establish a lifestyle that promotes a hopeful attitude.
Drawing from his own as well as a large body of research that preceded him, Seligman’s model is predicated on the idea that living with a hopeful attitude is tantamount to fulfilling our basic human needs. Put in this way the endeavor to establish a more hopeful outlook and lifestyle is less a matter of learning and cultivating new ways of thinking and behaving than it is getting in touch with what simply makes us happy. Seligman’s list of needs includes rediscovering positive emotions, engaging in meaningful activities, nurturing positive relationships, savoring accomplishments, being present and mindful, strengthening resilience, taking risks, and accepting responsibility.
Realization That Relies on The Acknowledgement of Limitation
While all the aforementioned ideas sound good, and what can be more promising, after all, than gaining the ability to live with a hopeful attitude, it is as most of us eventually learn from repeated visits to the “Self-help” section of the bookstore that the exhilaration of the anticipation of better days suggested from bold promises stamped on each volume’s colorful dust jacket belies the hard work ahead. In the most recent volume of Psychology Today (May 2023), the feature topic, “The power of hope: The secret is focusing on what you can control,” several authors offer caveats intended to rein in the peddlers of hope who fail to sufficiently distinguish wishful thinking from the parameters within which the actualization of hope may become realistically possible. For example, in her article titled, "The Expectation-resentment Loop” psychologist, Peg O’Connor, cites, Epictetus, one of the founding members of the ancient Greek school of philosophy known as stoicism. Epictetus advised that we “not seek to have events happen as (we) want them to happen but instead want them to happen as they do happen,” an idea not far from learning the benefits of gratitude and appreciation. Tempering unrealistic expectations, according to Alex Lickerman, a physician from Chicago, may also be achieved by learning to appreciate the joy of anticipation itself. While at first blush it is disillusioning to learn that more often than not lived events are not as enjoyable as the pleasurable anticipation that precedes them, we can turn that disappointment around by learning to appreciate anticipation itself. And, I might add, it is also reassuring to learn, by the same token, that dreaded events are more often than not less unpleasant than we had feared.
At the Font of Despair
It is a paradox that in the moments that despair of its possibility does hope reveal the purchase gained by the insistent nature of its redeeming promise. Hope is found where it might least be expected. Author, mystic, and psychoanalyst, Michael Eigen, whose paper titled, “The fire that never goes out,” (The Psychoanalytic Review, volume 79, Summer 1992) had a lasting influence on my thinking, my life, and in my work as a psychologist. Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst, as Eigen’s muse described, contrary to psychological theories that posit the achievement of integration as the sine qua non of human psychological development, how life is more akin to living in the spaces of transition, as much formless as it is distinct. Citing Winnicott’s discussion on the topic of democracy that draws on the parallels between human psychology and the political systems in which we live, Eigen avers that the criterion that should define psychological health is basically the same as that which makes democracy work. The capacity to accommodate the confluence of conflicting ideas within stands in contrast to totalitarian systems that seek to contain and fix them in dogmatic fashion. In both social systems and human psychological health, strength derives from the capacity to tap the potential that lies in the unintegrated elements that comprise unrealized promise. Hence, we may find that from the origins of confusion that spin despair, hope gains us possibility to reach its most palpable realization. Failing that, in despair of the limits that the promise of hope can’t penetrate, may we realize the limitless wellspring our capacity to hope can provide.
In today’s world, one of the least flattering qualities one can assign, or receive from, peers and acquaintances is that of being “codependent.” This is one of the popular terms used today in a relationship-conscious and psychologically-minded society to identify a trait that suggests that that person so identified is likely to be too “needy” and lacking in self-confidence and sufficient backbone. Not a quality anyone would aspire to become to say the least. While I would agree that anyone with these qualities, so to speak, would be worthy of pity and possibly even contempt it is the seemingly sudden emergence of this phenomenon and the association between dependence and the qualities by which it is defined today that troubles me. While we could explain its popularity, at least to some degree, on how pedestrian the assignation of psychological judgments and diagnoses are thrown around today, thanks to the internet (everybody is a psychologist just as everyone today is an amateur physician, thanks to WebMD), I think it is nonetheless significant and compels me to examine which judgments have become salient and how the ways that they are used to define who people are, in relationships or otherwise, reflects the world we live in, viz., who we people, as a whole, have become.
Codependency vis a vis Dependency
While the term, “dependency” has been around a long time, “codependency” is a relative newcomer and the two are easily confused. The word, “codependent,” is a misnomer inasmuch as a literal interpretation denotes interaction even though it is an adjective generally assigned to a person. Some professionals, such as Sharon Martin, LCSW, (The difference between dependency and codependency, PsychCentral, September 21, 2018) have attempted to explain the difference as essentially having to do with whether the self-efficacy of the individuals involved are enhanced or impaired by the nature of the relationship that exists between them. Associating codependency with loss of autonomy is also implied when Martin underscores as a central tenet that one should not rely on their partner for self-esteem. A healthy relationship founded on mutual reliance that isn’t sacrificed to a loss of autonomy or, if you will, self-sovereignty, is what Martin calls “interdependency.” Experts often, however, make the distinction on the basis of whether it refers to an individual or a relationship. A person who is predominantly dependent, for example, lacks autonomy such as in a willingness to make decisions or to take risks as well as the ability to tolerate being alone. A codependent person, on the other hand, fosters a relationship in which their partner is encouraged to become exceedingly reliant on them to the detriment of their partner’s autonomy.
These two terms, as you can see, are not mutually exclusive as many people fit the bill in both categories. Part of the problem when using these concepts, therefore, stems from both a lack of specificity as well as agreement with regard to what these terms actually mean. More importantly, in my mind, is how as in Sharon Martin’s blog on this topic a cultural bias is revealed that assigns greater value to independence and autonomy for personal growth purposes as opposed to collective qualities such as self-sacrifice, altruism, and what the personality psychologist, Raymond Cattell, once called “comentation,” i.e., the tendency to conform to conventional ways of thinking and behaving. While it is probably generally agreed that the ideal person would embody a “healthy” balance of both, the semantic meaning assigned to dependency and codependency versus autonomy, and even narcissism, with respect to their relative status suggests that the value assigned to each isn’t.
The Bivalent Nature of Dependency
Dependency as a clinical phenomenon was first identified as a personality disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in their second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published in 1968 (in their first edition, published in 1952, it was given the name “inadequate personality.”) It has stood the test of time as a classifiable “mental disorder.” The latest edition of the DSM defines dependent personality disorder as “an excessive need to be taken care of, submissiveness, clinging, needy behavior due to fear of abandonment, difficulty making decisions without input, reassurance, and advice from others, and requiring others to assume responsibilities which they should be attending to” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Standing alone, the clinical description of this disorder belies the bivalent qualities that dependency connotes. The word, “dependency,” derives etymologically from the late Middle English term meaning literally “hanging from something” which is now obsolete. As is the nature of semantics, meanings evolve often as metaphors and in accordance with the relative value assigned to those metaphors within their respective historical and cultural contexts. The early history of the meaning of “dependency” reflects how its assigned value had evolved from denoting “a state of deriving existence, support, or direction from another” in the mid-15th century, to meaning “reliance, confidence, and trust” by the early 16th. Within the span of less than a century the meaning of the word had shifted from that which resembles its clinical, more pejorative, use today to one that constitutes a virtue necessary for healthy human relationships to develop. In my clinical practice, I try to correct this cultural bias by explaining dependency’s bivalent nature when pertinent in my work with patients. While in some circumstances it can, as is popularly understood, foster an unhealthy relationship that negates one’s power and identity as well as enabling one’s partner’s destructive habits it may also play an integral role toward establishing trust, the bonding of emotional investments that are reciprocal in nature, and demonstrating confidence in one’s partner that fosters self-esteem.
Interdependency as an Antidote in an Alienating World
While individualism served its purpose that sailed the ships to explore and colonize the world bringing prosperity and cultural advancement to the West during the High Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment from our vantage point today, in hindsight, we realize how much its virtuosity was defined by the purposes it served delimited by their time and cultural context. We might identify post-World-War-II America as a turning point on which the virtues of individualism have been transformed ironically into what has become more of a malady. Many books since have been published on this topic, perhaps none more prescient than Riesman, Denney, and Glazer’s mid-century classic, The Lonely Crowd (1950) which observed that change was afoot with regard to how the sources and nature of the average American’s identity was going through a major transformation. According to the authors the traditional principles and ethics that had anchored self-development to character, such as egalitarianism, altruism, honesty, industry, etc., were being replaced by an “outer-directed” focus that is more self-conscious, status-seeking, and materialistic. Without the internalization of the enduring values that are necessary to bind individuals together communally, individualism conceivably degrades into a society more fragmented by the strains of competition, consumption, and idolization of the self.
In an effort to address concerns associated with these societal trends, the German-born Israeli-American sociologist, Amitai Etzioni, proposed in his book, The New Golden Rule (1996), the concept, liberal communitarianism, as an alternative both to the libertarianism that has gained popularity amongst the political right as well as the pitfalls of previous efforts in recent history when communitarian systems degraded into totalitarian governments. Etzioni’s vision proposed, among others, a society governed by the rights of individuals that are limited by what serves the common good and one that is regulated by an interdependent consortium of checks and balances that renders them accountable. Robert Putnam’s landmark, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), attempted to explain how the historical and cultural changes that have taken place since the mid-20th century have created a society increasingly isolated and bereft of communal interest. Putnam identified the concept, “social capital,” as the solution whereby investment in relationships that share common interest, goals, reciprocal engagement, and time spent in shared spaces may restore the sense of community that has been lost.
In her recent article in the Opinion section of The New York Times (March 9, 2023), titled, “Can We Put an End to America’s Most Dangerous Myth?” author Allissa Quart makes an appeal to “release people of the shame about the need for others.” According to Quart, Americans suffer from a destructive ethic that it is a virtue to do things on our own without help. As an antidote, she proposes that we learn the “art of dependence” such as accepting help with grace, cultivating the skill to lean on others, and to a realization of the myth of the so-called self-made wealthy and successful person. Quart recommends and practices active measures such as starting mutual aid groups, joining support groups, counseling peers, and acknowledging those who are generous with their support.
Codependency Contra Narcissism
Sharon Martin’s blog on codependency is one of the legion articles and books on the topic written today which is an indicator of how prevalent and distressing this phenomenon exists in our relationships today. They attempt to distinguish healthy from destructive relationships on the basis of how much one should give in any given relationship as well as the importance of preserving a sense of autonomy and individual identity. While these books share many helpful insights and practical steps there remains a bias with respect to the concept of codependency that is not only a reflection of the values of the society in which we live but also, if not addressed properly, may contribute to the social conditions that lead to codependency in relationships in the first place. In other words, disparagement of dependency in deference to autonomy and self-esteem in relationships, however it may be done with the best of intentions, unwittingly espouses a social value that ultimately may be harmful or what we call iatrogenic. The psychologist, Philip Cushman, identified this problem in the practice of psychotherapy as “the lifestyle solution.” We as psychotherapists ultimately do our patients a disservice if in the treatment of their symptoms and problems we fail to be cognizant of the world in which we live and how it may contribute to these problems by the values it promotes that may constitute the source of these problems. Not to do so is tantamount to putting a band-aid on a problem before sending our patients back into the world that is responsible for creating their injury.
Every relationship constitutes a dynamic between two or more individuals that elicits patterns of behavioral and emotional reactions that perpetuate themselves indefinitely. In a society that has become increasingly bereft of the institutions and values that have successfully held individualism in check in the past, the privileging of autonomy over responsibility and self-esteem over caring, whether it be in advertising or in the therapist’s office, can only exacerbate the narcissistic trends and cynicism that have plagued our society in recent decades. The logic behind how this problem is created in relationships is that the dynamic counterpart to narcissism is codependency and the solution as we have been promoting, i.e., self-esteem and autonomy over caring, dependency, and values such as communal and interpersonal responsibility, only creates a vicious circle by which it becomes self-perpetuating. As long as narcissism remains a problem that is prevalent it will continue to cast a long shadow offering false promise of safe harbor from the dread of isolation and inadequacy, the conditions that both foster codependency and link these two dysfunctional states together.
This is the time of the year when Christians celebrate Easter, the holiday that symbolizes death and renewal, the transformation of the tragedy of death into the promise of eternal life. The holiday was appropriated from the pagan festivals celebrating fecundity and the renewal of life upon the onset of spring. Despite their different interpretations of what “renewal of life” means by the celebration of this holiday, both Christians and pagans share an appreciation for the necessary transfiguration that the eternity of life entails. Without death, life would not be possible and therefore eternal life, whether in nature or as an individual spiritually or psychologically speaking, may only be achieved through transformation.
Stories from Antiquity
Though not all stories about transformation throughout history are uplifting, many are tragic in fact, they may be understood generally as a metaphor for the evolution of the person. From antiquity, Homer’s Odyssey is a 10-year journey home through a series of harrowing episodes that challenged the character of the soldiers returning from war. The golden ass, a third-century novel written during the period of the Roman Empire, depicts through the metamorphosis of a man into a donkey the story of the hubris of youth transformed over a plethora of episodes into a pious and devout individual.
The Pact with the Devil
Stories in the modern era often focus on a pact with the devil, the proverbial “Faustian bargain.” In The devil and Daniel Webster (1936), a short story by Steven Vincent Benet, a farmer makes a pact with the devil for seven years of prosperity. In Thomas Mann’s novel, Doctor Faustus (1948), the protagonist, a composer, makes a pact with the devil sacrificing the prospect for love in order to have celebratory success in his career, bringing destruction to others in his wake and eventually to himself as well. Both of these stories were written during the advent of fascism and could be interpreted as cautionary tales against the appeal of populist political movements. They may also serve as allegories about human development in which the ego and its ideals, such as vanity, power, and absolute freedom, struggle in their effort to outstretch the constraints posed by reality in the physical world, morality in the ethical world, and the limits beyond which tragedy inevitably must ensue. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, a 19th-century classic, based on a medieval tale, is the story of hubris that embraces power whose unbridled force brings destruction to those touched by his insatiable will.
One inevitably finds embedded in these Faustian stories the message that suits the adage, “Be careful what you look for, you might get it.” By virtue of his determination to pursue his lofty ideals, the protagonist gradually is confronted with the irony that what he longed most for contains within his worst nightmare. The narrow-minded pursuit to achieve glory and power sows the seed of tragedy. In most cases in these stories the protagonist is brought down with it. For Citizen Kane, ambition unfettered by the corrupting influence of power reaches a final end in desolate isolation. Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick brings cataclysmic destruction to a ship and its entire crew at the behest of a phantasmic obsession.
Other stories of transformation, however, end with redemption as the reward at the end for the long struggle to actualize the self. Starting from a journey that begins with grandiose dreams in service of the ego, an awakening to consciousness of the fact of its futility and magnitude of destruction opens the doors to transformation. If I were you (1950), written by Julian Green, is a story about a man named Fabian who made a pact with the devil that gave him the power to transform himself into anyone he wished to be. Over the course of several transformations with individuals he envied for various reasons his inevitable disillusionment revealed that unhappiness with himself was the source that fueled his idealized projection. The life lesson learned for Fabian became the realization that happiness is ultimately the result of acceptance of oneself rather than the relentless pursuit to reify an idea of who one should be. His initial failure to come to this realization blinded him both to the inherent futility of his pact as well as to the destruction that the failure to achieve this insight would have brought to himself, to others, and the world in which he lived.
There is an irony in these stories about the ill-fated quest to actualize oneself through investment in one’s ego. In the wake of his disillusionment and destruction fate presents the protagonist an opportunity to realize what was traded away to seal the bargain that launched his personal tragedy. In his awakening he discovers that what is most precious is the spiritual foundation within which the ego may find meaning, purpose, the capacity to love, and reason to live. Without the destruction of the ego that stubbornly clings to its insistent state that negates this fact the self is doomed to shatter against the hard ground that resists its folly.
The Ground Underneath Us
The evolution of the self from the relinquishment of investment in the ego in order to attain spiritual awakening springs from the wisdom that standing on firm ground grants us. In Greek mythology, Antaeus, the son of Gaia, mother earth, could only be defeated in battle by an act of lifting him off the ground from whence he gained his strength. In acknowledgement of the necessity to situate an understanding about how we create meaning in life, the 20th-century philosopher, Martin Heidegger, proposed the concept, “thrownness,” to account for the inexorable context which is the world we are “thrown into” upon which freedom and consciousness may emerge. Without thrownness, freedom has no firmament from which its realization may become cogent.
“Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?”
While the self, in order to evolve, must realize the firm ground underneath it, it must also come to a realization that in order to actualize itself transformation must take place. The failure to come to terms with this realization reminds me of a phrase from a song sung by the late popstar from my generation, Janis Joplin, when she intoned in imitation of a hillbilly’s wistful lament. Herein lies an almost comical travesty that conflates spiritual redemption with material acquisition. We may see in it a critique that reflects cynicism about the American Dream. At a deeper level, however, it is a message that points to the tragedy that the quest for salvation and deliverance is doomed insofar as it remains fixed upon an idea that has far outlasted the time when it should have perished because it is founded on a child’s fantasy about what the deliverance from longing entails.
“I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am your slave, and you will reward me, for I shall be faithful.”
These are the words of R.M. Renfield, the maniacal sycophant from Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel, Dracula. A sycophant, according to the Oxford Language dictionary, is a person who “acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.” Where there are inequities in relationships there is power wielding its influence on how those relationships play out. Those that hold power hold the dominant hand over those under them by force or influence. Those who are underneath play a submissive role in return, whether by enthrallment or subjugation, or both. But there are others who though they play the role of submission wield a hefty influence, the ostensible servants, wolves in sheep’s clothing. These are the sycophants.
The concept of sycophancy derives, as far as we know, from ancient Greece. In Aristophanes’s comedy, “The Archanians,” a sycophant accuses a man attempting to sell his daughters of illegally selling foreign goods. A “sycophant” was someone who litigated by bringing unjustified prosecutions for personal gain, a not uncommon practice back then. Although it hasn’t vanished, this practice is presumably less common today because of its potential consequences, one case in point being a recent president and his attorneys who were levied a hefty fine for prosecuting a civil suit for “trivial gain” thinly veiled over a vendetta. In Dante’s Inferno, the grovellers were thrown to the second pit of the eighth circle of hell. Even to this day, the contempt with which we feel toward sycophants lingers in how the modern Greek language defines it as someone who slanders.
The relationship between the sycophant and his “master” is symbiotic; it usually benefits both parties. The master has a dutiful servant; the sycophant rides his master’s coattails, so to speak, ostensibly grateful to eat the crumbs off the end of his table. However, sometimes the master’s reliance on his sycophant becomes a poison pill that contains within its seeds of self-destruction. King Othello, by relying on the scurrilous warnings of his treacherous servant, Iago, eventually destroyed himself and what he held dearest to himself. In Harold Pinter’s psychological drama, “The Servant,” the deferential, yet conniving, servant, Barrett, manipulates his unassuming master toward such a weak and dependent state that the roles between them become reversed.
Though the stories and settings were very different, Iago and Barrett shared qualities that define sycophancy that are universal. Sycophants exhibit characteristics of the Machiavellian personality, someone who plans and schemes either for personal gain or nefarious purposes. Despite his lowly status as a zoophagus maniac who ate rats and cockroaches, Dracula’s Renfield was also described as “crafty and of superior intellect.” From a clinical perspective these features relate to qualities associated with the antisocial and passive-aggressive personality disorder types.
In all cases, sycophants, by manifesting dialectical qualities of both master and slave gain power through a triangulation process. As a third party, the sycophant serves the master’s interest to maintain power over others. According to Andrew Fiala in his recent book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), tyrants are enabled by scheming sycophants and “the foolish mob.” In fascist Germany of World War II, Hitler’s charismatic power over the populace of the German nation was enabled by the manipulative propaganda promulgated by his dutiful sycophant, Joseph Goebbels, as much as by the sociological and psychological dimensions of grievance that populist leaders use to gain power over masses of people (two classics in the field recommended to the interested reader: Charles-Marie Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) and Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism (1924).
Beyond the qualities that more or less define them, sycophants come in many varieties. In his book that examined the sycophantic personality titled, Ingratiating: A Social Psychological Analysis (1964), Edward Jones identified three types of ingratiation: Flattery, conformity, and self-promotion. Let’s take a look at some of the varieties as illuminated by characters from literature, examples contributed by Deborah and Mark Parker in an article from their blog, “The Ten Biggest Sycophants in Literature and History” (electricliterature.com, 2017).
One of the archetypal sycophants of modern Western literature, Uriah Heep, from Charles Dickens’s classic, David Copperfield, was a would-be master cloaked as a slave “of cloying humility” who as a legal clerk betrayed and blackmailed his alcoholic employer. Because of his indelible flaws of character that led to these nefarious actions, despite eventually being brought to justice his ostensible remorseful confession belied a deeper bitterness that fell victim to his fate.
In The Remains of the Day (2017) by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize laureate for literature, the author described how a butler, the protagonist in this novel, rendered the role of “servant” palatable, even honorable, by disidentifying with the role of submissiveness in the vocation through deeming it as just a role, instead of as a manifestation of who he is.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” everyone plays sycophant to the abusive, despotic protagonist, Miranda Priestly. In the mid-twentieth-century family serial, Leave It To Beaver, the infamous character, Eddie Haskell, portrayed the classic “Lick Up/Kick Down” sycophant whose unconvincing obsequious pandering to Beaver’s parents covered the viciousness of his true character revealed in the way he taunted and belittled him whenever his parents were not around.
Sycophancy in human relations reveals how the dynamics of power, domination, and submission can be and are often exacerbated and exploited by certain individuals whose role as a third element in this dynamic may be achieved through careful planning, scheming, and deception. Beyond the necessary quality of ambition, in order to be successful a sycophant embodies both qualities of serial intelligence that is able to calculate fairly sophisticated strategies based on an anticipated sequence of reciprocal actions aided by a keen and maturely developed understanding of human nature. Their destructive nature results because these ample strengths are insufficiently balanced by the degree of empathy and caution necessary to discourage acting on those impulses that cause harm and misfortune to others. On a broader scale, social and political systems founded on top-down, autocratic leadership create relationships of power amongst their constituents that are highly polarized. These are the conditions that foster abuses of power and with it those who exploit the dynamics upon which such autocratic systems are founded, the sycophants.
As I write this, the flurries of snow outside my window quietly announce their first arrival for the season. Time, I am reminded, to prepare myself for what lies ahead. Winter is here. When flurries become blankets, a rush of anticipation runs through my mind and everything seems fresh, gleaming, pristine. Then I venture outdoors into the winter weather and it catches my breath with a feeling of renewal and hopeful anticipation. Festive lights, holiday cheer, family gatherings. Not everyone shares these thoughts and emotions this time of year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a clinical mental disorder that affects between 10 and 20% of the adult population, at least to a mild degree. Approximately 5% suffer from its more severe effects. Women outnumber men who suffer from it by a ratio of 4 to 1 and statistics show that the farther one lives from the sun, viz., geographically distant from the equator, especially in the northern hemisphere, the more prevalent this condition is. And while most people get SAD in the fall and winter seasons, 10% of the population who suffer from it, paradoxically, fall prey to its effects in the spring and summer. People who suffer from depression or other mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, are especially susceptible to SAD.
Although SAD is mostly a disorder among adults, according to a wellness blog by Renown Health, one million children in the U.S. also have it. Because children often don’t manifest symptoms the same as adults the signs to look for include increased irritability, complaints about headaches or stomach aches, and, especially for children with ADHD, increased inattentiveness. For adolescents, SAD is more likely to show in their academic performance or ability to get up in the morning as well as some of the classic symptoms of depression such as a decreased interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, and an increase in appetite, especially for foods high in carbohydrates.
What is SAD and What Causes it?
Seasonal Affective Disorder has all the symptoms of major depression. The only difference between them is that SAD, unlike clinical depression per se, occurs on a seasonal cycle. A survey of its symptoms, therefore, constitutes all the symptoms that define major depressive disorder. They include symptoms of fatigue, sadness, loss of interest and enjoyment in life, poor concentration, insomnia and hypersomnia (sleeping too much), excessive appetite (especially for carbohydrates), feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. In order for a diagnosis of SAD to be rendered, these symptoms must be present at least two weeks in duration.
It is believed that SAD which is caused by the effects of diminished exposure to sunlight may be explained by the way our brain is influenced by light and the physiological functions of the body that are cyclical in nature. According to her blog, “Everything You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder,” (November 4, 2015) crosstalk.cell.com, Jennifer Levine cites studies that have shown how the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences mood, is especially affected by changes of the seasons in people diagnosed with SAD. Scientists further speculate, says Levine, that a region of the brain known as the dorsal raphe nucleus which regulates our circadian rhythms, as influenced by the natural hormone, melatonin, might be a contributing factor as well.
How Do We Treat SAD?
Although there isn’t much we can do about the climate in the region where we live that determines how much sunshine we can be exposed to, beyond the salubrious effects of vacationing in the tropical islands every winter, there are several ways one may modify its effects on our mood. The following is a list, many of which may be found on the website of the American Psychological Association that gets updated regularly, of ideas you may use to prevent getting the winter blues, or worse, Seasonal Affective Disorder:
A recent story in the New York Times (“A girl loses her mother in the jungle, and a migrant dream dies” by Julie Turkewitz, November 9, 2022) described the harrowing journey of a young mother and her 6-year-old daughter attempting to cross the Darien gap, a notoriously perilous route entering the Panamanian isthmus, as they sought asylum and refuge from the hardships that have befallen many of the citizens of Venezuela in the past 10 years. According to the author, there are currently over 103 million displaced people in the world and over 2.3 million people have been apprehended at the Southern border of the U.S. just this year so far. Due to several factors, wars, inflation, climate change, and the pandemic, the world is building toward a massive refugee crisis.
Beyond the financial, logistical, legal, and other challenges of assimilating so many refugees at one time mass migration confronts our psyches with “the problem of the other.” People here in the United States and the world throughout have witnessed a resurgence of reactionary social and political movements as a result. Slogans such as “America First” and paranoid ideas such as “the great replacement theory” reflect the extremism and isolationist tendencies triggered by these developments. But within the upheaval of such magnitude that is taking place, an interesting thing also is occurring. Confrontation with the foreignness of the immigrant/refugee is forcing us to confront in extremist reaction the foreignness that is emerging within our own kind.
As the political animus has approached a boiling point in this nation, I personally was reminded of that classic science fiction film, “The invasion of the body snatchers.” The faces and names remain the same but something deeply unsettling has changed in their personalities. When “the other” becomes the enemy amongst us an eerie, more malevolent feeling arises that threatens treachery and betrayal.
Sociological Aspects of Xenophobia
Xenophobia is defined as the fear, dislike, and/or hostility toward anything foreign to our sense of communal identity. The social conditions that contribute to its pervasiveness were studied when these concerns were stirred up during post-apartheid in the nation of South Africa. Findings reported that they include a fear of loss of social status and identity, threats perceived or real, changes in financial status, or an influx of immigrant populations (Mogekwu, 2005).
There are two fundamental perspectives by which xenophobia may be judged. While to the outsider, it represents intolerance, distrust, animosity, and divisiveness, for the “xenophobe,” it represents an appeal to the solidarity of the tribe, usually against a threat from an outsider. However, this emotion can also be aroused within a tribe or nation-state, as explained by Andreas Wimmer (1997), during times of increased social conflict elicited by societal threats to the downward mobility of certain groups. It is likely, therefore, that the vilification characteristic of xenophobia is greatest during these periods of societal change within those groups toward those identified as either foreign or who are imbued with qualities of “otherness” because of the proximity of social status that exists between them.
Psychological Aspects of Xenophobia
The psychoanalyst, Vamik Volkan, in his book, The need to have enemies and allies (1985), has posited that the self-preservational function of xenophobia in large groups and communities may be a manifestation of a more personal “instinct” to preserve a sense of self. Conflicts that arise between groups or nations thereby can elicit regressive changes in the psyches of its members that result in more primitive ways of bonding such as a heightened interest in mysticism, the creation of shibboleths, and a susceptibility to the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
Following the demise of the Nazi regime post-World War II, Theodor Adorno and his associates at Harvard University studied and developed a personality test known as the F Scale to measure authoritarianism and its correlate, fascist tendencies. Some of the traits associated with this dimension of personality include distrustfulness, priority given to the value of power and toughness, the rejection of introspection and self-criticism, religiosity and the susceptibility to superstition, and a tendency to submit to an authoritarian leader.
The point of these studies by Volkan and Adorno suggests that while it can be assumed generally that xenophobia is elicited by social conditions as I described previously, “the enemy” lies nevertheless within us. There is some experimental research demonstrating that distrustfulness can be exacerbated by the hormone, testosterone, but more importantly, xenophobia represents a state of mind or psychological condition, if you will, that arises because the self is constituted through its relationships and, unless you are a hermit, we live in a world with others.
“Hell is Other People”
This is the infamous quote by Jean-Paul Sartre taken from his 1941 play, No exit. What Sartre meant is that we cannot help but define and judge ourselves except through the projected thoughts, words, and actions of others toward us. Who we are as we identify ourselves is fundamentally created and perpetually influenced through our relations with others. It is the source for the basic emotions such as pride, shame, envy, and jealousy.
The experience of “otherness” may be explained by the psychological process defined as projective identification, a concept introduced by the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein. While projective identification gives us a sense of self, the experience of otherness arises when emotions of hostility or fear are projected onto an object or person such that that person becomes imbued with qualities that naturally elicit emotions that correspond with those qualities associated with danger or threat. In Faces of the enemy (1989) by Sam Keen, the author illustrates how this psychological phenomenon is used during wartime by nations to portray the enemy in the most vilified, contemptible way to arouse fear and animosity among its citizens.
Projective identification, as the source for xenophobia, contributes to racism, antisemitism, ethnocentricism, and all belief systems that vilify groups of people who threaten, whether real or imagined, the security and status of individuals subject to these kinds of experience. Perhaps nowhere is the tragedy of the vilification of otherness portrayed more vividly than by Shakespeare himself in “The merchant of Venice.” When Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, cries out in protest, “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog/And spit upon my Jewish gabardine/All for use of that which is mine own . . . Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Shakespeare is appealing for his audience to experience the deeply wounding effects that vilification of “the other” has on the sense of humanity of its victims.
Although projective identification has been posited as a source for the development of identity as well as objectification for the emotions of fear and alienation, it also serves as the means by which a person my evolve psychologically. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, posited that each person contains a structure in the collective unconscious known as “the shadow” that represents the parts of our psyches disowned yet necessary to integrate in order for us to grow as persons. In pop culture, the science fiction movie classic, “Forbidden planet,” was inspired by Jung’s psychology of personality development as the source for the monsters it created. Even modern phenomena such as flying saucers, Jung wrote, are a psychological projection of disowned parts of the psyche threatening to invade because the self seeks integration and growth.
Radical Alterity and the Encounter with the Other
Actions can be taken to remedy the problems of society that arise from xenophobia. Celebrating diversity, calling out bigotry, standing up for people who are harassed or marginalized, and supporting organizations that sponsor the rights of “others” all represent practical and effective ways to combat these issues. We may also, however, discover that the solution lies within ourselves when we examine in a more profound way what “otherness” means.
Martin Buber was a 20th century philosopher from Austria who had a deep influence on other philosophers and scholars concerned with man’s fundamentally relational nature. According to Buber, there are two ways that man construes his relationship with the world around him. The I-It (Ich-Es) experience represents how man has traditionally conceived his relationship as one of between himself and the objects of the world. The other, I-Thou (Ich-Du) represents the encounter with the other. When the world and the others in it are treated as objects man experiences his world as alienating, devoid of compassion and empathy. By contrast, when man encounters the other with the respect and dignity the other demands the human emotions of caring and love pour forth naturally. It is through this enlightened perspective that man comes to realize God in all things.
Following in the footsteps of his illustrious mentor, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th century philosopher from Lithuania, probed the deeper realms of human experience in order to illuminate the nature of our relationship with existence. For Levinas, however, philosophy has been misguided ever since its historical origins from Ancient Greece by endeavoring to know the essence of truth and reality. “The other” for Levinas is an irreducible mystery, what he called “radical alterity,” not an object to be studied through logic and observation, nor to be understood through putative psychological processes. It is not meant to be understood at all. The pursuit of truth through knowledge must eventuate, as illustrated in Hegel’s dialectic, animus and conflict. The pursuit to probe further in order to understand, paradoxically and unfortunately, only takes us further from our quarry. Instead by suspending the endeavor to know or define, what Levinas calls “totality,” our infinite responsibility to the other naturally follows. So, for Levinas the solution to the problem of xenophobia is to acknowledge that our relational nature in the world entails an infinite ethical obligation to those with whom we share existence.
On his recent once-in-a-lifetime excursion into space in Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin spaceship, the iconic space captain and nonagenarian, William Shatner, remarked about how he unexpectedly was filled with sadness. When looking out into space, instead of awe-inspiring wonder, Shatner recalled that all he saw was “a cold, dark emptiness . . . unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing.” When turning his glance to the Earth Shatner was overwhelmed with the sadness of the degradation of our planet and how profound his attachment to the beauty and fragility of life on Earth was. Expressing what has been labeled, “the overview effect,” reported by previous astronauts, Shatner’s experience, I think, reflects the intense experience that the eternal beauty of nature and love as well as the vastness and finality that the mystery and terror of loss, death, and nonexistence can evoke.
Mysterium tremendum: The awe of existence
Fascination and bewilderment at the mystery of nature’s vastness is an experience most of us have had in certain moments: Standing at the beachhead peering at the vastness of the ocean before us, alone on a clear night gazing at the starry skies above, or witnessing the birth or death of a loved one. These are the deeply profound, rare moments that take us beyond the edge of understanding. These mysteries have interested writers such as Rudolph Otto, the 20th century German theologian, who described both the fear and awe he called numinous dread (“mysterium tremendum”) that is evoked by one’s insignificance when either contemplating or standing before the unimaginable magnitude of nature and existence. Modern philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, put death front and center in his existentialist explanation for how life comes to life in our conscious minds. In other words, without the profound mystery and finality of death there would be nothing of sufficient force to make us aware of ourselves and our place and purpose in this existence. It alone is what makes us authentic and to bring experience to a place in awareness he called “present-at-hand.”
The fear of death as a sociological phenomenon
“I am not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen
Not all great thinkers and writers have been so fascinated with mankind’s experience so much as his avoidance of the experience of death. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The denial of death (1974), the anthropologist, Ernest Becker, shows how throughout history mankind has gone to great lengths to deny the facticity of his eventual demise. The Great Freud was known to have been consumed with fears of his death throughout his adult life. According to Becker, Freud’s introduction of the controversial death instinct which never gained wide acceptance in the psychoanalytic community represented a subconscious sleight of hand to transform an underlying fear into a fundamental principle of nature itself. One of Freud’s most eminent acolytes, Otto Rank, recognized the significance of death anxiety that permeates throughout human history. In his lesser known, but ambitious treatise on this topic titled, Psychology and the soul (1920), Rank demonstrated how the prevailing religious and cultural belief systems specific to each era of human history reflect mankind’s efforts to secure his immortality.
Thanatophobia: Fear of death as a clinical phenomenon
Thanatophobia, the fear of death and dying, is also a known phenomenon in clinical psychology. According to the Cleveland Clinic’s website, 3 to 10% of the general population are affected by it. Here are some of the risk factors associated with this fear:
The common symptoms associated with thanatophobia may include panic attacks, anxiety, depressed mood, ruminative dread or morbid preoccupation, avoidance of dangerous situations, and hyperattention to physical symptoms of potential illness. Precipitating factors may include a traumatic experience, a significant loss, or witnessing a painful or difficult death. I have found in my clinical practice a recent surge of preoccupation and fear of death I believe is associated with recent events unique to our times that threaten our basic need for security and that cast a shadow over our basic need to feel optimistic about our future and confidence in our fellow man.
Remedies and solutions
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Marcus Aurelius
The psychologist, Otto Rank, said that the fear of death is, at bottom, the fear of living. Therapy should, therefore, be devoted to helping a patient to establish or rediscover meaning and purpose in life and living as well as to diminish the dread about trying to come to terms with its unyielding finality. In clinical practice, research has shown the benefits of both the standard tools and newer, innovative approaches to address death-related fears. For example, psychodynamic therapy can help a patient understand the origins of their fears from childhood relationships as well the defenses that may prevent them from uncovering issues that can cause these phenomena. Psychotherapists may also help a patient put their fear of death and dying within an existential framework to help them understand how universal these concerns can be and how often they may be elicited by either profound experiences or natural transitions that are part of the life cycle. Cognitive therapy can help a patient examine the distortions in their thinking that make these fears prominent and exposure therapy can be helpful by assigning behavioral tasks such as making visits to a hospital, writing a will, or talking with someone with a terminal illness. With some of my patients, I have recommended lifestyle solutions such as creative, artistic endeavors, adopting an animal companion, connecting more with family and friends, and vacation traveling in order to checkmark the “bucket list.” Finally, there is more recent promising evidence demonstrating how by both introducing virtual-reality-induced “out-of-body” experience with a general population and prescribing hallucinogens in controlled, clinical settings with terminally ill patients people can overcome or diminish their fear of death.
This is a year in which the Supreme Court of this nation has influenced the social and political landscape to an extent unprecedented in modern times. From abortion rights to climate change, the rulings of this court have created an uproar that reflects and exacerbates the divisions that exist in our society. No exception to this trend, gun control and gun violence have likewise been affected by this court’s docket of opinions.
Let’s provide a context for this controversy on gun violence. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey recently showed that in 2021 a record total of 49,000 people were killed by guns, including homicides and suicides, an increase of 3,500 from the previous years’ record, attributable to increases in both categories.
While mass shootings do not constitute the majority of these killings, they, of course, grab the most attention, and their statistics reflect the same trend. Defined as incidents when four or more people are injured or killed, not including the assailant, since 2014, when statistics were first recorded, the frequency of mass shootings which remained around or below 400 per year shot up (if you’ll excuse the expression) to 611 in 2020 and to approximately 700 in 2021, a dramatic increase that seems to coincide with the COVID pandemic. According to a Washington Post survey on July 5, 2022, we are on target to approximate that number again this year.
This nation in particular has been the subject of criticism around the globe for its “gun-happy,” violent culture, a product of Western movies that glamorize the machismo that wielding power with a gun symbolizes. While some studies have attempted to refute this stereotype by citing research that shows the U.S. ranking 11th in the world in annual mean deaths from mass shootings, when examining the data using the median, a measure of central tendency that isn’t affected by statistical “outliers” and by comparing nations on an annual basis, the U.S. ranks as number 1. When it comes to gun violence, the United States statistically looks much more like other nations caught up in civil unrest, revolution, and war, than its kindred community of “advanced nations.”
THE SECOND AMENDMENT CONTROVERSY
Our nation’s founding fathers recognized the dangers that an autocratic government posed to its citizenry when formulating a Constitution for its fledgling democratic republic. In so doing, they enumerated a Bill of Rights, to protect the freedom of its citizens from tyranny. One of these, the second amendment, pertaining to the right to bear arms, states as follows, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Over the years, since this nation’s founding, social and legal debates have ensued largely over whether our founders intended this to be a collective or individual right.
While an earlier Supreme Court ruling (U.S. vs Miller, 1939) reflects a “collective” interpretation in supporting legislation regulating interstate commerce of sawed-off shotguns (the 1934 National Firearms Act) on the grounds that such weapons have no relevance to the preservation of a “well regulated Militia,” rulings of the Court on the subject of this debate seem to have shifted toward the right in recent decades.
Perhaps the most controversial and well known Supreme Court ruling in this regard was the 2008 case, known as Heller vs District of Columbia, in which a police officer sued the District for its restrictive policy from allowing its citizens to own and keep a handgun. The District of Columbia Circuit Court reversed the District Court’s ruling upholding the law. The upshot of this Supreme Court ruling guarantees an individual’s right to possess a firearm, such as for self-defense purpose, independent of service to a State Militia. A second case that went to the Supreme Court (McDonald vs City of Chicago, 2010) further applied that ruling to state and local governments. Most recently, this year, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs Bruen, the Supreme Court ruled that New York State law that carrying a handgun for self-defense purposes is prohibited without showing a specific need for doing so is a violation of the second amendment.
The fairness of our laws in this nation are regulated by a system of checks and balances amongst its three fundamental branches of government. Thus legislative efforts, both at the federal and state levels, have also been made to address these issues pertaining to the second amendment. In 1993, following the attempted assassination of President Reagan and subsequent wounding of his press secretary, congress passed the eponymous “Brady bill” that mandated federal background checks and a now-defunct 5-day waiting period as contingencies for purchasing handguns. In swift reaction to this year’s Supreme Court ruling and the recent tragedy of a mass shooting at a public supermarket in Buffalo, NY, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, sponsored a raft of regulations and restrictions that were quickly passed into law specifying locations where the carrying of concealed weapons are prohibited, applying stricter restrictions on eligibility and safe-storage requirements, and even adding restrictions on the purchase of body armor, something used by the Buffalo shooter. Gun control laws thus vary on a state-by-state basis despite recent Supreme Court rulings supporting applying the second amendment to the rights of an individual. Here in Connecticut, a permit is required to carry handguns, open or concealed, and must be stored securely if someone under age 18 has access to them. Connecticut is one of only eight states that allows law enforcement to deny an individual’s right to carry a gun given sufficient reason for doing so. A violation of these statutes is a Class C felony, punishable by a sentence of at least two years in prison.
Regulating the sale of firearms may also be implemented by the private sector by rendering the purchase of firearms more easily identifiable. Earlier this month, for example, the International Organization of Standards, located in Geneva, Switzerland, approved a policy to create a purchase code specific to the sale of firearms by gun shop retailers. It is now up to the banks and credit card companies to adopt this code in order to put it into operation and make it effective.
PREVENTING MASS SHOOTING
Much has been made of the presumed profile of your typical mass shooter, understandably, because of the dramatic and tragic consequences of such heinous crimes. The typical profile portrays the killer as a disaffected loner, young, male, with mental illness. While there is evidence to support this profile, it doesn’t apply in all instances, and it doesn’t apply to the majority of deaths due to gun violence which are largely related to domestic problems. Many on the political right, in efforts to support the rights of gun ownership, point to mental illness, as if to say that this isn’t a gun problem or even a symptom of a society that deems the prohibition of the right to gun ownership a sacrilege as much as it is the problem of a delimited population of disturbed or deranged individuals in whose possession a gun, used for nefarious purposes, becomes a threat to society. But even though through simple logic we all agree that guns don’t kill people, people do, the promotion and accessibility of guns makes them a much more likely and efficient weapon to “resolve” one’s problems.
A recent article in the Opinion section of The New York Times, dated July 7, 2022, by the social and political journalist, David Brooks, titled, Why mass shooters do the evil they do, offered some illuminating insights into the causes of mass shootings and their perpetrators that disabuses us from an oversimplification that fits the stereotypes or narrative that may suit a political narrative. While Brooks grants that all mass shooters suffer from mental health problems, this doesn’t necessarily translate to a diagnosable mental illness. Hence, they are not likely to be easily identifiable in this way and, moreover, the causes are more complex and subtle than we might like to believe. In citing the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, that the evil men do is more a function of indifference than malice, Brooks points to our responsibility as a society to identify and address the social ills our nation suffers from, specifically alienation. We may also infer he is pointing a finger at social media when he identifies the lack of development of social skills important for emotional adjustment as another contributing factor.
When a society enamored by the ethic of success through competition is not sufficiently tempered by compassion and resources that promote social inclusion, the malevolent emotions of envy and resentment prevail. Brooks portrays the mass shooter as a young, disaffected male, struggling in school, an outsider not by choice, subject to bullying and real or imagined ostracism. The act of mass homicide is an act of suicide, both a cry for help and misdirected effort to wrest attention and validation from others in a dramatic, vain, and violent burst of “glory.” A vivid picture of this tragic character and the decaying social fabric that contributes to this mentality was most effectively portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning performance for the 2019 film, “The Joker.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
To address gun violence and the tragic phenomenon of mass shootings is not a simple matter and thus must be viewed as an effort that requires intervention at multiple levels. First, we should focus on what preventive measures can be taken in our communities and school programs. In our communities efforts should be made to provide access of support services to families at risk, such as for financial reasons, single-parent households, and those identified as in crisis. Promoting community volunteer events may be one way to mobilize a community’s resource to aid families in need. School programs should institute policies to identify students at risk, such as those who are isolated, withdrawn, or bullied, if they don’t have such measures already in place and provide resources such as counseling services and school programs that promote inclusiveness, self-esteem building, and alternatives to violence as a means for conflict resolution, whenever possible.
Legislation at the State and federal levels should focus on laws that promote proper respect for ownership and use of firearms, making ownership of guns less easily obtained, and identifying risk factors that may be identified prior to having the privilege of gun ownership. Legislation also should limit access to the kinds of weapons that may be permitted as necessary for “self-defense” as distinct from those that can be used, such as so-called “assault rifles,” as potential weapons of mass destruction. The proliferation of illegally-obtained weapons and home-made weapons such as “ghost guns” also needs to be addressed through proper legislative efforts to limit their manufacturing capability and access where possible.
The history of the NRA has shown it has taken a decided shift over recent generations from one of promoting gun safety and responsible ownership toward a more political agenda. Likewise, during the same period advertising by gun manufacturers and merchants to promote sales of firearms, especially as targeted toward young males, has gravitated toward the exploitation of the appeal of sexual prowess and power machismo. These are problems that may be addressed through legislation not unlike those instituted for the sale of cigarettes and alcohol not long ago.
We live in a world of information. Some philosophers and scientists believe that information constitutes the foundation of reality more than what we know through our senses or in the objects that surround us. But as elegant as the patterns of the universe may seem, whether it be made up of information, material substance, or some other form of energy, we cannot take for granted how perfect it may be. When information misfires, what we call “misinformation,” the universe, in a sense, expresses its imperfection. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Without misinformation we wouldn’t be here. Evolution depends on mutations, a form of misinformation, to take place. But when the disconnection between information sent and information intended is deliberate, misinformation is cloaked by what we call deceit. Disinformation, the topic of this blog, occurs when information is deliberately "miscommunicated" to deceive its intended target and obviously this is never good news to those standing as receiver at the other end of the line.
Where Did Disinformation Begin?
When it occurs at a personal level, disinformation is called prevarication, or simply put, “lying,” which we can assume has been around as long as we humans have. Even other species, those who use decoys and deceptive strategies to capture or elude adversaries, use disinformation. They are the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” so to speak. But, according to Thomas Rid, in his book, Active measures: The secret history of disinformation and political warfare (2020), the term, “disinformation,” originated during the Cold War when the Soviet Union disseminated false information in the press and by radio to influence public opinion. So, disinformation is basically deception, or lying, that assumed status as a term of separate distinction when the technology of modern civilization became advanced enough so that it can be used on a broader scale to enhance political warfare.
"Disinformation," conceptually speaking, is sometimes confused or used interchangeably with other, related terms popularized in politics and the media. In a brief written for the International Forum for Democratic Studies, titled, Distinguishing disinformation from propaganda, misinformation, and “fake news,” by Dean Jackson, propaganda, a term often associated with Nazi Germany that originated several centuries ago, is defined as the use of “non-rational arguments to either advance or discredit a political ideal.” Disinformation, on the other hand, always involves false information, in whole or part, often using a “one-two punch” of both dismissing and distracting from an adversary’s claims, in order to further a political agenda. By contrast, “fake news” originated on the internet, especially with the proliferation of social media, using algorithms designed to amplify content-driven information to target audiences in order to promote products or conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
Distortions of Truth
Disinformation relies on our innate tendency to distort truth because of an overconfidence in our ability to discern it. In his best-seller, Thinking, fast and slow (2011), Nobel-prize laureate, Daniel Kahneman, delineated the many common ways people confuse logic with distorted beliefs, also known as cognitive biases. For example, according to Kahneman’s “availability heuristic,” people are more fearful of dying in a plane than automobile crash, even though the latter is much more likely, because plane crashes are sensationalized in the news, or climate change isn’t given the seriousness it deserves because its effects are incremental rather than affecting us on a day-to-day basis. As long ago as the 16th century, philosopher, Francis Bacon introduced a set of principles to guide modern science away from these kinds of biases inherent to human nature. One of these, called The Idols of the Tribe, is known today as “confirmation bias,” which, according to authors Caitlin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall (The misinformation age: How false beliefs spread, 2018), contributes to the proliferation of false information disseminated on the internet.
In this information-saturated world we live in today, content competes for our attention as if in a Darwinian race to influence our consciousness. In the span of little more than half a century news broadcasts in the media have transformed from the straightforward, stolid deliveries of avuncular newscasters such as Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, to the hyperbole that begin each local newscast with “Here’s what’s Breaking!” followed by a report about a "news" event of little consequence. Today many "news" broadcasts have degraded into fractious, tribal polemics that no longer resemble news at all anymore.
According to author, Richard Hasen (How disinformation poisons our politics—and how to cure it, 2022), the media have “cheapened” speech. Desensitization takes place when we become saturated with information such that it takes more hyperbole to capture our interest and news degrades into a fetishization for more graphic detail of an either violent or lurid nature. Likewise, divisiveness ensues when information is amplified within an echo chamber that incites emotions to further its cause rather than seek open-minded dialog. I would agree with the author, Hasen, who recommends greater efforts to moderate media content in order to help remedy this problem, a solution that contravenes one of Elon Musk’s purported reasons for acquiring the media platform, Twitter, viz., to free the dissemination of information from “censorship.” Opting for the word, “curating,” instead, as one author once put it, it isn’t censorship anymore when its objective is used to bring sensibility and reason back into play.
Disinformation as a Psychological and Political Tool
Disinformation, the deliberate use of information to confuse and manipulate others, has been the subject of study by those in anthropology (e.g., Gregory Bateson’s double-bind theory of schizophrenia), psychiatry (e.g., R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry movement), in literature (e.g., George Orwell’s classics, Animal Farm and 1984), and in political philosophy (e.g., Michel Foucault’s Madness and civilization, 1961). It has also inspired the development of a separate school of philosophy, known as “critical theory,” which has gained notoriety recently within the United States as a source of racial adversarial debate. In his book, The revenge of power: How autocrats are reinventing politics for the 21st century (2022) author, Moises Naim, cites the writings of the mid-20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, on totalitarian societies, in positing that we are living today in a “culture of post-truth” where there is no longer “a truth.” Naim’s dystopian vision depicts a society evolving toward a proliferation of disinformation that serves to undermine our ability to rely on our own judgments thus rendering us more susceptible to deceit and manipulation with nefarious intentions.
How to Counter Disinformation
Most people who are susceptible to disinformation rely on a very limited source for their viewpoints. They rely on half-truths, heresay, and opinions rather than more reliable sources in the scientific literature. They become identified with these beliefs such that to challenge them would be tantamount to an attack on their identity itself. Rather than challenge their beliefs head on, engaging with their reasoning process in order to understand the logic behind their beliefs may help to establish a dialog that fosters civil and reasoned discussion as opposed to simple contradiction. Set your goals modestly. In other words, try to understand their point of view and the reasons behind it rather than investing in persuading them to agree with you. When challenging their beliefs, offer a counter-argument as a plausible alternative explanation to consider rather than as an attack on their belief in itself. Remember, your purpose in challenging disinformation is to create open-mindedness when discussing controversial topics, not to win a contest.
We in the field and practice of psychology who do psychotherapy for a living generally work within the understanding that the problems we treat are a function of the personal difficulties we attribute to those “patients” who seek our services, especially when those problems are repetitious or “chronic” in nature. We may be inclined to think this way even though we all should know that isn’t necessarily the case. People and their problems are much more complex than that. In my previous blog, “Negative will: A philosophical concept that has found a home in today’s world,” based on a paper I published in The Psychoanalytic Review in 2009, I proposed how we may broaden the way we understand certain kinds of psychological problems associated with what is called a personality disorder by reconceptualizing these problems within an existentialist construct called “the negative will.” The negative will pertains to the relationships we establish between ourselves as individuals and the world we live in that involve dynamics of power and identity such as the politics of experience, identity politics, creativity versus conformity, and freedom versus belonging.
Negative Will, Defined
“Negative will” is a term I borrowed from Otto Rank, a psychoanalyst who was a close associate of Freud’s in the early 20th century. The concept itself which was taken from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche means the life force or power that is derived outside ourselves that we stand opposed to and yet through which we derive our purpose, power, and identity like the concept of negative space. It could refer to a toddler who is going through “The Terrible Two’s” for example but it may also serve as a framework for understanding and treating problems of humanity, including “neurotic” types of personality disorders as proposed by Rank, or when it manifests inversely in narcissistic disorders, as proposed in my paper. The dynamics of negative will may also be applied to totalitarian political systems that rely on a xenophobic ethic fomented by fear and subservient reverence to a charismatic ruler who exploits the vulnerabilities of his followers. In the latter case, one’s individual truth, identity, and power are traded to the leader in exchange for the security and protection he promises in return. In short it represents the dynamic between the narcissist and the “neurotic” personality writ large.
Nietzsche believed that this dynamic Rank referred to as the negative will is hidden because it is disavowed by modern civilization under the cloak of scientific “truths” and religious moral codes for the sake of maintaining power over “the weak” and subservient. In psychology, negative will is reactive. In other words, power and its validation are gained either through the toxic combination of self-aggrandizement and deceit that depends, as in the case of malignant narcissism, on validation outside oneself rather than creatively from within or in the “neurotic’s” case through what the object relations psychoanalysts call “projective identification” or idealization, i.e., identification of self through “the other” at the expense of empowerment and valuation of oneself. In politics, negative will is reactionary. It feeds off of distrust, resentment, envy, and scapegoating which is a “displacement” of these emotions, as well as surrendering power and truth to an autocratic ruler. Each party plays a role as master is to slave and vice versa, in mutually dependent enthrallment to one another and, thus, fusion of identification that is dialectical in nature.
The Influence of Otto Rank
My work on this topic has been inspired by the writings of Otto Rank, an Austrian psychologist, who first gained distinction through his association with Freud but who later broke away because of his differences in explaining and treating psychological disorders. He parted from Freud, first, because he posited that separation and individuation (The Trauma of Birth, 1924), not competition with and internalization of our parents’ values and qualities, represent the fundamental challenge of personality development. For this reason, some followers such as Esther Menaker (Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy, 1982) credited Rank as a seminal contributor to object relations theory, a more popular branch of psychoanalysis today. More importantly, however, Rank’s contribution has led to what is known today as “self psychology,” a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on the challenges of individual identity in an interpersonal world. To be a “self,” apart from others, as an individual, relies on the capacity, developed from interpersonal experience, to validate oneself and one’s experience as separate and distinct from others. The hero and the artist were explored in Rank’s writings as archetypes for these challenges of individuation, put front and center as core concepts in Rank’s psychoanalysis, and they later became an inspiration for the more contemporary human potentials movement in psychology spearheaded by the famous humanist and innovator in psychotherapy, Carl Rogers.
Freud and Rank Contrasted
Freud’s contribution to psychology gave us a model and a method to understand ourselves at a deeper level and use that knowledge to better ourselves in order to achieve the freedom necessary to live life to its fullest extent possible. Psychoanalysis plumbs the depths of the subconscious to exhume, and then break down, all the remnants of our instinctual heritage and scars (our defenses) that formed to contain them. This chipping away at our subconscious is achieved through an intellectual, sorting-through process. For the Freudians, self-knowledge ultimately, however, reveals the tragic discovery about the irrationality of one’s wishes and defensively-constructed distortions. Without this understanding gained through analysis the likely results of our intentions and actions suffer and our ability to adapt sufficiently to civilized society might be impaired. Healthy personality development can only be achieved, otherwise, through the internalization of our parents’ admirable qualities, a process precipitated by “castration anxiety” or “penis envy,” universal rites of passage of early childhood.
Rank’s psychology, on the other hand, restores the agency of free will and authorship of identity to its original owner, the patient. For Rank, psychoanalysis’s intellectually-sourced endeavor of introspection fails in its purpose to liberate ourselves, first, because it is “high-jacked” by Freud’s premise that limits individuation within the constraints of conformity necessary for adaptation to take place. And secondly, self-knowledge must be analyzed and interpreted as smokescreens rather than as revelations. Thus, freedom ultimately means becoming liberated from the constraints of these “irrational” ideas in order to live and thrive within what amounts to the broader confines that conformity to a “civilized” world requires. The will to live and thrive said Freud must be compromised in order to live in a civilized world. The solution to the tragically dialectical relationships between the individual and her world is, therefore, at best, adaptation. The transformation Freud called “sublimation” necessary for individuation to take place, Rank believed, ultimately entails a surrender of one’s will-to-create to a greater “truth” which is in reality that of the collective’s price to adapt to its world.
Freud’s conceptualization of individuation, therefore, falls short of human potential because its aim is adaptation, not self-actualization. What may be worse, however, are the potential iatrogenic effects that invalidation of the patient’s experience, i.e., regarding it as secondary to defensive distortion, can cause. For the Freudian analyst, assuming a skeptical attitude to the experience of the patient is the pathway to insight; for Rank it can be destructive. To any patient in analysis who struggles with an acceptance of the validity of one’s identity and experience, and there are many who do, a skeptical attitude toward one’s sense of reality erodes the confidence in one’s own experience necessary to act on behalf of one’s will, what we call “self-advocacy,” especially under those situations that require the courage to do so.
For Rank, whose perspective is existential, separation from the womb and liberation from the attachment and security needs that threaten individuality, not internalization of qualities necessary for social adjustment, represent the greatest challenges for individuation. Whereas the clinical perspective of the Freudians that personal experience, such as those that pertain to identity and acts of will, are derivative in nature because they represent defenses that thwart personal development and, therefore, must be questioned, broken down, and analyzed, are viewed instead by Rank as expression of the creative will that should be accepted and embraced, ultimately serving as the lodestar that we should follow without which our “will” will be denied and hence, indeed, ultimately will be broken.
The Abuse of Power
The study of negative will offers insight about dysfunctional patterns of personality development that inhibit the actualization of human potential. It also reveals how the dynamics and abuse of power affect human relationships by means of the politics of experience and identity. While this ordinarily applies to relationships in a patient’s life, examination of the ethics of the power differential in the relationship between analyst and patient such as the cultivation of overdependence on the relationship and subservience to the analyst’s authority about the sovereignty of self-knowledge as well as other aspects of treatment may thereby become part of the treatment process. It is acknowledged that with respect to personality disorders the diagnostic model I am proposing does also rely on clinical judgment and values are assigned. Because its conceptualizations are founded on an examination of the relationship between identity and power, however, the reasons for assigning these judgments are explained according to a relational/existential rather than an authoritative clinical perspective. Finally, and not least, the concept of negative will as it applies to human relations may be extended analogically toward broader systems of human relations that have implications for societies as a whole where inequities and abuse of power and privilege are prevalent, especially as they are obtained and held through the promulgation of disinformation and scapegoating tactics.
The Dynamics of Power and Identity
When the dynamics of power prevail in human relationships it is because they are not tempered by compassion, respect, and empathy, and the stage is set for the negation of will to arise. At the broader scale, social systems, from families to national governments, the same dynamics may apply. Social systems founded on ethical principles such as equality, freedom, interdependent relationships, active participation in policy making, and investment in maximizing the common good, are consistent with Enlightenment ideals that endorse and support expression of the will of its members. By contrast, authoritarian systems negate the will of its members because they rely on brute force and disinformation to leverage power and control in exchange for the protection and security they offer.
The principles that govern the dynamics of power in social systems also apply to the personalities of individuals such that they may be sustained by a parallel process between them. It also stands to reason that authoritarian systems rely on support from individuals whose personalities endorse divisiveness and inequities of power and that they create a culture that fosters their growth. And while, certainly, not everyone who endorses an authoritarian regime has a personality disorder per se the mentality that drives both is cut from the same cloth. Conversely, it follows that the qualities it takes to build a society based on modern principles such as justice and the common good are supported by internal qualities founded on ethics and emotionally-founded relatedness. An egalitarian society becomes self-sustaining when it is more than just an abstract principle put into action through laws and policy but from its members whose education fosters the capacity to empathize, inspiring them to invest in creating a society devoted to benefiting everyone equally.
Personality structure is crystallized through self-conceptualization, i.e., how we see ourselves in relation to others. Dialectical self/other conceptualizations foster negative will, i.e., divisiveness and fixed, disparities of power in relationships inasmuch as personality expresses how we see ourselves vis a vis others through our relationships. Personality dysfunction, then, results from a fixed pattern of relationships governed by these dynamics between power and identity. They are the consequences of an experiential history of fear, isolation, emotional trauma and detachment, and a vicious cycle of idealization and distrustful disillusionment, physical circumstances and psychological states that prevent healthy self-esteem and empathic capabilities to develop as they should.
The neurotic and the narcissistic personalities stand in dialectical opposition to one another with respect to identity and power (will). Neurotic personalities, for example, suffer from low self-esteem, unfavorable self-comparisons with others, and guilt for self-assertion and creative expression. They deny their will and relinquish power in trade for security, the need to belong and for approval from others, enabled in some instances by transforming self-effacement into a virtue.
Narcissistic personalities, on the other hand, usurp power, as Machiavelli’s lion and the fox, through force and manipulation. The narcissist’s usurpation of power is motivated by arrogance and entitlement, the bookends of self-inflation. They identify themselves with superiority and invest in denying the will of others. Hence their proclivity is to induce, rather than suffer from, the aforementioned afflictions such as guilt and self-doubt of the neurotic’s. The negativity of their will is also shown through their compulsive competitiveness and relentless pursuit of validation through others.
Identity and Experience
William James, the eminent 19th-century physician, whom many regard as a founder of modern psychology and an American brand of philosophy known as pragmatism, in his classic 2-volume text, The Principles of Psychology (1890), proposed that “the self” may be studied as constituting two parts, the Self as Knower, or “subjective self,” and the Self as Known, or “objective self.” The subjective self refers to our personal experience, a point of reference from which all experience, i.e., memories, goals, attitudes and beliefs, self-concept, etc., is unified as belonging to one’s self, what the philosopher, Immanuel Kant called “the transcendental ego.” The objective self, on the other hand, refers to how we see, define, and even classify ourselves as though describing ourselves from a distance, what we may also call “identity.” Examination of both the subjective and objective aspects of the “self” illuminates how negative will may differentiate the different types of personality disorders catalogued in the DSM classification “system” within this existential/relational framework.
The following is a synopsis taken from my 2009 article, slightly revised, that describes each personality type according to this existential/relational framework. The neurotic and narcissistic types anchor opposite ends of the spectrum, representing the dialectical patterns of dynamics between negative will and identity that have been described. The remaining personality types represent various compromise formations of the same dynamic:
The neurotic types: These include the dependent, avoidant, and masochistic personality types. The challenges they face deal with self-acceptance (identity) and lack of confidence in their personal experience such that they are especially susceptible to deception, flattery, and disinformation disseminated by narcissists, cult leaders, and “crowdsourcing” from social media.
The narcissistic types: These include narcissistic, antisocial, and sadistic personality disorders. They generally identify with a grandiose image of themselves and, contrary to the neurotic types, maintain a rigid and heavily defended concept of themselves that defies challenge or modification. Narcissistic types are the influencers who rely on deceit, manipulation, intimidation, and gaslighting to undermine the confidence others may have in their personal experience and sense of self. Their investment in an image constructed from self-aggrandizement is used for purposes of self-validation and exploitation for personal gain and power. The will of narcissistic types is “negative-inducing” because their power depends on their ability, by guile or force, to constrain or elicit in parasitic fashion the will of others to be bestowed upon them.
The robustness of the narcissist’s identity, as powerful and superior, belies how dependent it is on validation from external sources in order to sustain it, an insight about the dialectics of the psyche introduced by the philosopher, Hegel. It is also in the nature of power and dominance that, once established, cling tenaciously to keep it. These are the dynamics in narcissism that, at the expense of creative self-development, reveal the tenuous foundation of the narcissist’s sense of self and reality. There remains a deep emotional investment in grandiosity and power from early childhood that resists creative maturation outside reality as they simply wish it to be. Moreover, because of their blind devotion to this image the narcissist’s contributions to relationships fall short of empathy and, through psychic operations of projective identification, render them surprisingly susceptible to idealization of others. This is the obverse side of the contempt and devaluation normally associated with narcissistic disorders, an apparent contradiction, achieved through the psychic operation sometimes referred to as “splitting” in psychoanalytic argot and revealing the dialectical psyche pathognomonic of the negative will. So it is also that, therefore, not only neurotic types may gravitate to charismatic, autocratic rulers.
The vacillating types: These include the histrionic and borderline personalities. These individuals alternately display features of boldness, impulsivity, and manipulativeness with contrary traits of insecurity, self-doubt, and dependence in human relationships. Thus, they vacillate between narcissistic and neurotic ends of the spectrum. Histrionic types tend to be more narcissistic whilst the borderline end of the spectrum is more dependent.
The ambivalent types: Here we have the obsessive-compulsive and passive-aggressive personalities. Obsessive-compulsives tend to be rigid and controlling but lacking in originality. They dominate for the sake of conformity. They are the “pedestrian enforcers.” Passive-aggressive personalities, on the other hand, manipulate, sabotage, and instigate, seeking reprisal without taking credit or responsibility. They attempt to dominate without being dominant. Whilst the ambivalent types show features of narcissism through their efforts to dominate and orchestrate, the negativity of their will is manifest by lack of creativity in the obsessive-compulsive’s case and reactivity in the passive-aggressive’s case, ambivalence that is implied by the apparent disavowal of their power and intentions to exercise their will.
The ambiguous types: These types maintain a tenuous hold on the firmness of their sense of reality and authenticity of their identity because they are built on shaky ground. The schizoid, for example, appears to maintain a strong sense of self that is in fact weakly constructed because she tends to avoid putting it to the rigorous test that interpersonal involvement entails such as affronts to self-esteem, self-doubts, and the risks of abandonment, betrayal, and bereavement. The paranoid type, on the other hand, who guards vigilantly against trusting in as well as dependence upon others, maintains an ostensibly strong sense of self through negative will because it is rigidly defined by the world set against oneself rather than creatively from within. In this case, the will is negative both because it is reactive and its source lies outside the self.
One of my favorite Woody Allen movies that few people remember today is about a man named Zelig who takes on, without effort or intention, the qualities and features of the people in whom whose presence he shares at any occasion. So, for example, at a congregational meeting of rabbis, he is suddenly seen donning the Hasidic curls (“payot”) often worn by Orthodox Jewish rabbis. Psychoanalysts couldn’t agree what to make of this phenomenon. “Was it a psychosis or a neurosis?” they debated.
OTTO RANK AND THE CREATIVE WILL
In the early days of psychoanalysis, Otto Rank, one of Freud’s original acolytes, and later, adversaries, challenged the efficacy of psychotherapy based on insight and self-knowledge alone in favor of a more active approach (Development of Psychoanalysis, Ferenczi & Rank, 1925). According to Rank, who was especially influenced by existential philosophy, the most fundamental dimension in life is driven by the will to create oneself. This entails the challenge to overcome our deep-seated needs for security to belong and to be accepted by others when they are at the expense of our individuality. By suppressing his will to create himself, Woody Allen’s Zelig could not take on an identity that was his own.
An analyst’s task, according to Rank, should be to strengthen the bond between one’s identity and this force of will by affirming the patient’s impulse to act on these creative urges. Relentless probing for self-knowledge about one’s subconscious motives, in Rank’s opinion, was tantamount to “paralysis by analysis” because it weakens the will. When our creative force is suppressed, either through external constraints such as by any social system, family, community, or governmental body that doesn’t tolerate freedom of expression, or by internal constraints, such as through painful introspection that induces guilt or shame, our will becomes directed against ourselves, what Rank called the negative, or counter, will.
ORIGINS OF THE NEGATIVE WILL CONCEPT
The negative will, as a concept, may be understood as having originated in the work of the 19th century German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel was an “idealist” so he believed that reality is composed entirely of our consciousness, which according to Hegel, is dialectical, or oppositional, in nature. This means that our beliefs, artistic expression, and historical narrative, etc., emerge out of a struggle between opposing viewpoints, such as socialism versus fascism, for example, or a controlling versus laissez-faire approach to childrearing.
Fast forward from the sturm und drung of the dawn of romanticism in Hegel’s generation, decades later strains of cynicism and pessimism emerge in the writings of the existentialists such as Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Nietzsche, “all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master” through which “any previous meaning and purpose are necessarily obscured or even obliterated” (On the Genealogy of Morals). In Nietzsche’s mind the virtues of self-sacrifice that are extolled in modern civilization belie the underlying cruelty and resentment that constitute self-sacrifice’s true raison d’etre. Hence Nietzsche was suspicious of the ethics and institutions of modern civilization because their primary purpose has become negative, i.e., toward a suppression of the will of the people. The will of modern civilization founded on resentment is negative, said Nietzsche, inasmuch as it says “no to what is outside.” In other words, rather than originating from an affirmation of self, the slave morality of modern civilization directs its view outside itself with hostility in order to define itself and its reason for being triumphant under the guise of humility.
Otto Rank, whose work was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, posited that negative will is manifest in human psychological development both as a function of the natural evolution of the will, an incipient phase of normal development per se, and a dysfunctional state of being in adulthood where one’s natural, creative urge to express oneself is inhibited. As a normal phase of development, negativity may represent the beginnings of a child’s discovery of its own power that stands in necessary opposition to its parents and the greater power of the world around it. One’s sense of self develops, like the artistic concept of negative space, firstly from its “negative” relationship to the world in which it lives before a more creative self can begin to take hold. But the negative will, said Rank, can manifest also in adult life as a “neurosis,” i.e., the self-loathing, self-doubting, anxiety-ridden character whose will is directed against oneself. The neurotic person denies the validity of one's experience of oneself that corresponds to a lack of one's sense of self-worth.
APPLICATIONS OF NEGATIVE WILL TO TODAY’S WORLD
I. The Study and Treatment of Negative Will in Childhood
The concept of negative will has found both theoretical and practical applications to developmental psychology. In the late 19th century, the developmental psychologist, James Mark Baldwin, posited that our sense of self develops in early childhood both through imitation of and opposition against our caretakers, siblings, and others with whom we are most intimately involved at an early age. Gordon Neufeld, the founder of the Neufeld Institute in Vancouver, Canada, is a developmental psychologist who provides training for parents and professionals. According to Neufeld, childhood problems such as excessive shyness and defensive detachment that arise from a child’s oppositional relationship to its parents and authority figures may be addressed with family counseling and training. Neufeld’s training program teaches that the fundamental concepts necessary for healthy child development, what Neufeld calls “The Emergent Self,” depend on fostering a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy, teaching resilience to the finalities that limit one’s power to overcome, and facilitating the capacity to integrate the countervailing motives and concerns that constitute internal conflicts.
II. Negative Will in Personality Disorders
Negative will also represents a fundamental dimension of identity in adulthood that differentiates personality disorders from a healthier, creative self. In my paper, Negative will, self-image, and personality dysfunction, The Psychoanalytic Review (2009), I proposed that when an individual’s prevailing experience and corresponding behavior are predicated on an adversarial or alienating relationship between self-interest and the interests of others, i.e., the collective interest, dysfunctional patterns of interpersonal relationships will ensue to the detriment of one’s sense of well being and creative potential in life.
In my paper, it is explained how each type of personality disorder traditionally classified in modern psychiatry may be explained in accordance with this more philosophically based concept. The purposes of this project are, first, to offer a more coherent model within which the loosely-strung “classification” system of personality disorders has been used, secondly, to establish a more comprehensive framework, specifically philosophy and ethics, by which the dynamics of self-development and personality formation and their problems may be understood, and thirdly, to extend how this concept may apply beyond neuroses to narcissistic disorders. For the narcissist, the negative will is directed outwardly rather than against oneself. For the narcissist, the animus of negative will may manifest as resentment, disdain, distrust, and the need to overpower or constrain the freedom and will of others.
III. In Today's World
The significance of negative will is not lost to the kinds of problems faced by humanity in this day and age. In a world in which the polemics of culture are straining to their limits, ideas, politics and religious beliefs have taken on a prohibitively dogmatic pitch and tone intolerant of disputation, one that vilifies rather than engages curiosity and openness to the “other.” The so-called authoritarian personality, first studied by Adorno and his associates at Harvard University in the wake of the defeat of fascism after the second world war, emerges from such dogmatic systems. They are invariably characterized by blind fealty to a charismatic ruler and renunciation of one’s personal autonomy and creative potential.
Resistance to change born of fear seeks refuge in the familiar. We are now seeing communal bonds and personal identity forged on alliances predicated on these fears. These groups seek to oppose all that threaten to destroy these hollowed traditions as a bulwark against change. The upshot of this is that civilization is increasingly governed by a culture of resentment not unlike that identified in Nietzsche's jeremiad of Western civilization, defined by what we are opposed to rather than by who we can become. The threat we face is to define ourselves by what we stand together in opposition to, acting in deference as slaves to a master, rather than from within our freedom to exercise the capacity to use our judgments and potentials creatively as individuals in open engagement with ideas not necessarily of our own.
Who can forget Hannibal Lecter, in his famous scene with the police detective, Clarice, describe his savor for the delicacies of human cuisine with fava beans and Chianti. Or the horrifying vengeful murders of the anonymous serial killer, “John Doe,” played by Kevin Spacey in the movie, “Seven,” as he plied his methodical imagination to torture each of his victims according to the papal caveats illuminated in Dante’s Inferno. Serial killers have always fascinated and when they are sadistic as well, well, all the more brio.
The “Killer” Among Us
But we don’t need to rely on fiction to find these characters actually do exist among us. Most of us are, at least in passing, familiar with infamous names such as Jeffrey Dahmer who cannibalized his victims, John Gacy, a “professional clown,” who buried his juvenile victims in his yard and basement, and Dennis Rader, the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) Strangler, who in his alternate life was a Boy Scout Leader and Church President. Then there were others . . . Robert Berdella, “The Butcher of Kansas City,” who displayed his victims’ skulls as trophies, Robert Hansen who set his victims free and naked in the wilderness of Anchorage, Alaska, in order to pursue them with a knife or rifle as if they were prey, and John Brennan Crutchley, “The Vampire Rapist,” who bound and assaulted his victims before extracting and drinking their blood.
The ”Lesser Angels” Within Us
Not everyone, thank God, is a serial killer. Yet, there may be a bit of what motivates them in each of us, hence our fascination. According to one survey, 6% of undergraduate college students report getting pleasure from hurting others. Though that’s not a high percentage, it nonetheless seems 6% more than should be acceptable. “Everyday” sadists, though not serial killers, get pleasure from hurting others or watching their suffering. Taking pleasure in acting, or even just imagining oneself acting, to inflict pain on someone else deliberately is an experience, while not something to be proud of, that might not be all that unfamiliar to most people. Vengeance, as they say, can be sweet, and who has not experienced at some time or another taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, an emotion known by the German word, schadenfreude. Though, needless to say, this experience is a far cry from Hannibal Lecter it would be disturbing to realize that it reveals something within each of us that we might share with him. It is this realization, viz., our commonality with something we instinctively find abhorrent, that helps us to understand nonetheless what motivates the sadistic personality.
The Sadistic Personality
Sadism is a concept first introduced by the 19th century German physician, Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his classic text, Psychopathia Sexualis. He borrowed the name from the notorious 18th century nobleman, the Marquis de Sade, a French revolutionary who was also a political philosopher and novelist who while incarcerated wrote his infamous stories depicting a panoply of atypical, many commonly deemed depraved, sexual practices. A sadist, according to Krafft-Ebing, is someone who takes sexual pleasure from inflicting pain on others, an aberration of sexual behavior known today as a paraphilia. Freud later extended this concept to encompass both sexual and “generalized” or what one might call, characterological, sadism.
A person who might be defined as having a sadistic personality would exhibit a host of behaviors that might include poor frustration tolerance, a harsh, demeaning manner, and a fascination with weapons or heinous criminals. Such persons might also be attracted to careers that allow them to control or punish others such as in law enforcement, the military, or the government. Roughly 90% of people diagnosed with sadistic personality disorder are men. According to the psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (The Authoritarian Personality, 1957), the sadistic personality is ultimately motivated by the need to humiliate others. While this behavior is used to exhibit power and dominance it belies weakness inasmuch as it depends on an “other” to dominant in order to feel strong. In real life, humiliation is more likely to be exhibited by social, or verbal, rather than physical means, but in either case, this behavior serves as a defense against feeling or exhibiting vulnerability.
In fundamental ways the sadistic personality looks a lot like narcissists and sociopaths, or what is technically known as the antisocial personality. Both personality disorders are classified under “Cluster B,” of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). They are characterized by behavior that is often grossly self-serving and as varying between insensitive to toward being exploitative of the feelings and concerns of others. However, the sadistic personality has, in one essential way, more in common with the average person than do the other two categories. Where the narcissist and sociopath lack awareness or concern about the impact of their behavior on others, the sadist is aware, albeit as the source of his greatest satisfaction. Whilst it is from this essential cruelty that the sadist derives pleasure from the suffering his behavior inflicts on others, his presumed “attunement to” the emotions he endeavors to elicit from his victim, however predatory in its quality, suggests that the sadist has the greater degree of empathy.
In consideration to this qualitative distinction of diagnostic conceptualization, the American Psychiatric Association’s revisions to its third edition in the 1980’s proposed adding Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD) to its diagnostic taxonomy. Diagnosis of this disorder, according to the manual at that time required meeting four of the following eight criteria:
SPD was not, finally, adopted in the DSM’s fourth edition because it was not supported by statistical evidence to sufficiently differentiate it from antisocial personality disorder. Moreover, there was concern that establishing a clinical diagnosis for behavior that is categorically destructive to others might, by assigning it to a “medically” diagnosed condition, diminish its social and legal culpability. While some, such as Theodore Millon (The Assertive to Sadistic Personality Spectrum, 2009) believe there remains sufficient evidence to recognize its clinical distinctiveness, it was proposed instead to consider SPD as, at best, representing a possible subset of antisocial personality disorder.
Origins and Treatment of SPD
While there is evidence as with most clinical phenomena of hereditary contributions to SPD, such as impulsiveness and dominance, for example, the pathological dimensions such as cruelty and taking pleasure from someone else’s pain likely originate from social learning and early life trauma. There is some evidence that exposure to role models, whether from one’s family, community, or social media, can contribute to sadistic behavior. However, even in such instances, it remains compelling that what differentiates sadistic from antisocial personality, viz., taking pleasure, originates from the painful experience of victimization and the vain attempt, either in fantasy or cruel behavior itself, to overcome these helpless feelings through the role reversal necessary to transform traumatic experience. It is a tragedy that beyond the suffering such behavior inevitably inflicts on its victims the repetition of sadistic behavior fails to diminish the force with which it continually influences the emotions that drive it in compulsive fashion. In fact, empirical research has suggested that, paradoxically, rather than assuage the need to cause suffering in others, for the sadistic personality, cruel actions are more likely to result in an exacerbation of dysphoric feelings.
Psychological treatment for SPD, as for all personality disorders, normally requires intensive and prolonged psychotherapy. These persons are not likely to enter therapy for reasons that are most likely obvious to others. Instead, they either are referred because of the consequences of their behaviors, such as from law enforcement or from family members. Intervention often focuses on helping the patient better understand how the consequences of their behavior originate from their behavior while at the same time establishing a sufficiently trusting relationship with the patient to allow such insights to be accepted. Working with a patient’s trauma history and probing insights that may be derived from the psychodynamics of trauma often constitute an essential part of therapy for this particular disorder as well.
,We live in a society in the Western world that teaches us to be all that we can be, to strive for the best in life, to rise above adversity. And while we are also taught to be good citizens, kind and generous, thoughtful and compassionate, it is generally regarded to be a good thing to empower ourselves in order to achieve at least some respectable degree of status in life. How is it, then, that not everyone follows this path always. In fact, it is as though some of us live contrary to these dictates, sabotaging opportunity, and inviting instead, disappointment, misfortune, and pain.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association’s task force to revise the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), its standard reference guide to help practitioner’s diagnose patients’ problems, was deliberating whether to include a category in its taxonomy of personality disorders referred to as “self-defeating personality disorder (SDPD).” The following criteria were listed in order to make this diagnosis:
In order to assign this diagnosis, the patient must meet at least five of the above criteria. This category, which derived from a more classically-named disorder, “masochism,” was controversial because of its clinical origins associated with a kind of sexual deviance. When the manual was revised again in 1994, even with a new name, the category was dropped altogether largely because of its sexist connotation.
Even though “masochism” hasn’t stood the test of inclusion in psychiatry’s official taxonomy of disorders, it has a richly explored history in the psychoanalytic literature that continues to the present day. For this reason, some such as psychoanalyst, Mark Ruffalo (“Masochistic personality disorder: Time to include in DSM?” Psychology Today, March 23, 2019) question whether psychiatry should reconsider its decision.
Masochism’s Origins in Sexual Deviance
The first modern textbook on sexual deviance (known today as “paraphilias”) was published by a physician, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in 1886. Krafft-Ebing is the one responsible for introducing sadism and masochism as medical terms that have become part of our everyday language today. The term, “masochism,” was taken, despite the author’s understandable objection, from his name, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian nobleman, who wrote a novel, Venus in Furs, 1870; eventually made into a play by David Ives and, later, an award-winning film in 2013, directed by Roman Polanski) about a man who solicited a relationship with a woman in order to become her sex slave.
The theme of masochism has fascinated many authors since (e.g., The Story of O, Fifty Shades of Gray), served as the study of social scientists such as Tom Weinberg (Studies in Sadomasochism, 1983), and as the source of confessional memoirs and political activism for the LGBTQ community found in the works of Patrick Califia, for example. While masochism as a sexual practice historically has been regarded as a form of deviance, this opinion has not been shared by everyone, including those in the professional community. In his analysis of this sexual practice, social psychologist, Roy Baumeister (Masochism and the Self, 1989) concluded that masochism is a relatively modern phenomenon because it has served to offer an escape for some people burdened by expectations to live up to an identity in a culture that has become highly individualized.
Masochism as both a sexual and personality disorder have often been associated with one another, especially in its early days of study such as by Freud and some of his followers, in an effort to understand how one can seek pleasure through pain. It was then that the sexist association between passivity and self-debasement with the female gender were propounded by the psychoanalytic community. However, today masochism as a personality disorder is not so much understood as a pleasurable phenomenon or as associated with the sexual practice of masochism as much as it is as a function of a failure of ego development and healthy self-efficacy.
Some of the well known quotes of wisdom in our culture are stated in paradoxes. For example, “Not everything that feels good is bad for you.” Another popular aphorism that involves pain, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” is a paradox accredited to the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Although it can constitute a part of what masochism entails, suffering, it is implied, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ancient Greek stoics, for example, taught forbearance as a means to find greater happiness and peace.
How we construe suffering, however, may be influenced by gender bias, cautions psychologist, Paula Joan Caplan (The Myth of Women’s Masochism, 1993). According to Caplan, what we regard as stoicism in men is often seen, when applied to women, as masochism. Therefore, clarifying the distinction between when suffering is healthy and it isn’t is important. The psychoanalyst, Theodore Reik, offered insight to help identify when suffering is a good thing by observing that when it is consciously experienced and mastered, it can give us wisdom. Conversely, the masochistic personality subconsciously uses suffering to cope with stress, avoid self-assertion, and manipulate others in order to avert the challenges and assumption of responsibility necessary to confront challenges in life.
Suffering as Masochism
In modern times, the first psychoanalyst to write about masochism as a character type was Wilhelm Reich in the early 20th century. According to Reich, masochism represents a subconscious suppression of the expression of pleasure, joy, and self-assertion. The psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, who disagreed with the sexual explanations of the Freudians, explained masochism as a dysfunctional character adaptation to resolve one’s inner conflicts. According to Horney, the masochist suffers from preponderant feelings of helplessness and lack of self-confidence which are used as proximate means to gain power and to meet one’s needs instead, although she also grants the “Dionysian” aspects to masochism that entail a relinquishing of the ego found elsewhere in cross-cultural religious rites and meditation.
In his magnum opus, Masochism and Modern Man (1941), Theodore Reik posited that masochism serves both object-related and narcissistic purposes. With respect to object relations, he claimed that masochists degrade themselves for one aim, to be loved. But it also may serve a narcissistic need as well inasmuch as he also believed that all erotic or romantic love is founded on a basic dissatisfaction with oneself. Masochism in this sense, according to Reik, represents an attempt to escape from oneself in order to identify with a better “self” embodied in a relationship.
Nancy McWilliams, in her book, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (1994), offers a comprehensive explanation for and description of the origins, dynamics, and treatment of the masochistic personality. As with others in her field, she posits that the masochist is motivated by dependency, insufficient ego development, and the fear of being alone. In cases of the “Battered Woman Syndrome,” for example, the victim would prefer risking their physical safety to being abandoned. She compares the paranoid personality who prefers power over love to the masochist for whom it is the other way around.
The origins of masochism may be found in dysfunctional or abusive relationships with caretakers in childhood. Masochism may also arise when the roles between parents and their children are reversed or when emotional support is provided only when they as children were ill, helpless, or in dire need. When abuse is present in a masochist’s current or early life history, dissociative states such as emotional numbing may occur under circumstances when the reenactment triggers memories of abuse. These dissociative experiences can subsequently elicit masochistic self-inflicted wounds or other behaviors to recover a feeling of being alive.
People who present with masochistic personality disorder or many of its features usually should seek professional help from a qualified mental health clinician. As with many personality disorders, the symptoms by which they are defined are not identifiable to those people who exhibit them. Therefore, they are not likely to be properly addressed except in the hands of a qualified professional.
Masochism may be understood as arising from a state of learned helplessness such that coping strategies associated with it are characteristically passive in nature. When confronted with power, the masochist is inclined to identify with rather than fight against an aggressor. For this reason and because of other, related qualities such as self-sacrificing tendencies, overscrupulosity, dependency in relationships, and a tendency to accept blame, they are often at risk of choosing or being victimized by people who are predatory or exploitative, such as pathological narcissists and cult leaders.
Today, more than ever, it seems, people are concerned about boundaries. This concern undoubtedly has always been there to some degree as we have always valued privacy, freedom, and the psychological space to be ourselves. I am reminded of Robert Frost’s popular poem about how good fences make good neighbors. Boundaries help us affirm our identities. According to the psychoanalyst, Vamik Volkan, in his book, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies (1985), setting boundaries is a fundamental process of identity development that ultimately manifests in the grand geopolitical sphere. On a more benign scale, many of us have our favorite sports teams toward whom we become deeply loyal, and their rivals our bitter enemies. But boundaries also can have a “downside.” The philosopher, Ken Wilber, once observed, for example, that when “we set the boundaries of our soul we set the battles of our soul” as well. Perhaps it is something in our physiological constitution. There is some empirical evidence, for example, that has drawn a correlation between distrust, or xenophobia, and testosterone.
The need for boundaries may serve an ordinary function to protect and identify who we are but the possibility that it is becoming more salient in today’s world may be a warning sign. In my recent blog on Malice, Apathy, and the Meaning of Psychological Health in a Shrinking World, I observed that the psychological effects of living in a smaller world today because of population growth and advances in technology may be contributing to a greater prevalence of hostility and moral injury. The porousness of our existence today resulting from internet communication and social media heightens our sense of vulnerability because we have lost an important layer of privacy from those who at the same time are protected by a greater degree of anonymity. “Road rage,” as an analogy, arises from the protection venting one’s anger from the seemingly safe anonymity the confines of one’s automobile provides. Internet bullying, trolling, and ghosting, may be, likewise, encouraged by the safe confines of anonymity. The psychological sense of boundaries generated by anonymity in cyberspace, however, may be further enhanced by the dehumanizing interface of electronic media when human interaction is digitalized.
Boundaries serve an important role to establish and maintain psychological health. They give us sanctuary from the demands of everyday life, our jobs, our neighbors, the media, even our loved ones at times. They allow our private thoughts and emotions sufficient time to incubate before we are ready to act on them or make them public. By the same token, establishing boundaries between thoughts and actions helps us distinguish between which aspects of our behavior for which we should be held accountable.
Boundaries also serve to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Many of my patients raise concerns about “codependency” in their relationships with lovers and spouses. Maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships breathes vitality necessary for a relationship to grow stronger and in dimension. I have also seen, on the other hand, instances when setting boundaries ostensibly for this sake can serve as a defense from establishing emotional intimacy and risking the vulnerability necessary for a relationship to grow. Maintaining healthy boundaries then is distinguished by the degree to which we affirm our need for space and individuality without sacrificing our willingness to communicate and openly respond to the concerns and needs of our partners.
Boundaries are also important to establish and maintain between parents and their children. This is so because parents need to cultivate their personal investments outside their roles as parents and, by the same token, children need the psychological space to establish their identities apart from their parents in order to become healthy adults. Boundaries are also important in professional relationships. It is especially important in my field of practice in order to maintain the necessary objectivity that could otherwise compromise my effectiveness as a therapist. Healthy boundaries also serve to preserve the distance necessary both to limit the extent of my power and influence that could otherwise violate my patient’s trust in me as well as the safety that the delimitations of my patient’s access to my private life and thoughts would afford.
Unhealthy Boundaries in Personality Styles
Our characteristic ways of relating to others are what mostly define our personality style. This is true especially when the demand characteristics of the situation, such as social convention or protocol, are minimal so that we may be ourselves as much as our defenses will allow. Those behaviors that violate interpersonal boundaries, by the same token, may be explained by the dynamics associated with each personality style. A person with narcissistic features, for example, is likely to breach the boundaries of others for the sake of power or as an expression of entitlement. Those who have dependent or anxious-attachment difficulties, on the other hand, violate boundaries out of a fear of being alone or abandoned. Individuals who are antisocial in nature might violate boundaries surreptitiously in order to gain an advantage or to exploit others.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who reinforce their boundaries from others. For example, the schizoid personality isolates him or herself in order to protect themselves from the risks or difficulties of intimate relationships. The paranoid person, on the other hand erects interpersonal boundaries because they are guarded and distrustful of others’ intentions. How boundaries are negotiated, therefore, often reveals key aspects of each personality style.
These personality styles should not be confused with difficulties discerning appropriate boundaries as often found in individuals with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum and other neuro-atypical disorders. In these instances, boundary difficulties may be attributed primarily to cognitive deficits that impair social discernment rather than interpersonal disturbances at their source.
Tips for Establishing Healthy Boundaries
There are several books that offer helpful advice about how and when to set boundaries. Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, by Nedra Glover Tawwab (2021) a licensed counselor, was on the New York Times Bestseller list and offers tips based on cognitive-behavior therapy methods. Another book, recommended by some of my patients, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (1992) is also very good although it has some religious overtones some might find off-putting.
Here are some tips to help you set healthy boundaries:
A congressman who taunts a colleague with allusions to the potential for violence associated with her religion and ethnicity, an executive leader of a nation who favors humiliating insults to reasoned arguments; popularity and mean-spirited competitiveness played out on ubiquitous social media. It seems our society has been becoming an increasingly hostile place to live. Is it becoming so or are we just less tolerant to the differences amongst us that have always existed?
These two possibilities needn’t be mutually exclusive; in fact, it seems quite likely they are causally related. As the world grows painfully smaller by the decade, it is becoming more and more difficult to disregard the ramifications of our attitudes and actions, from ethnocentricism and the political correctness of identity politics to the neglectful management of limited resources and disposal of its waste. We are living in an echo chamber, an age when the adage, “what goes around comes around,” is becoming more real.
A New Self in a Shrinking World
The tensions brought on by population growth that are “real,” such as competition for diminishing resources and clashes of political and religious ideologies, though problems in and of themselves, may belie the more trenchant psychological effects of living in a smaller, enclosed lifeworld. Research has shown that rats living in tight confinements quickly turn on one another, perhaps not just to protest what looms as a potential threat to survival it poses, but in response to the pressure and antipathy forced, tight quarters engender. The invasion of privacy and voyeurism of everyday life, the dramatization of world events in real-time broadcast across pan-telecommunications networks of news and social media, and a health pandemic that accentuates not just the inequities among race, class, and political divisions that mark deep-seated culture wars, but also how easily we can transmit disease to one another; living in a shrinking world isn’t the panacea Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” of the 60’s envisioned.
It is time we come to terms with our shrinking lifeworld to rethink how we define psychological health and what constitutes a disorder in the mental health field by rediscovering our fundamental relationality as beings. As such the realm of the “mental” per se transcends our individual minds to encompass a field of thought and behavior that exists amongst us. The psychoanalyst, Harry Stack Sullivan, proposed a term fairly synonymous with this idea he called a “dynamism” when referring to the emotional and behavioral forces that can ensue between any two individuals, an approach that extends the conventional study of personality and its disorders from a strictly individualistic perspective. And the late psychologist, Edward Sampson, coined the term “ensembled” as opposed to “bounded” in an effort to broaden our understanding of how the self may be defined in a more communal way. This paradigm shift represents a rediscovery in that as we begin to confront the world as it is becoming, the more necessary it will likely be to develop qualities, as societies and individuals, that are more communal in nature, broadening the scope of our sense of kinship. Thusly, our sense of responsibility is reinforced by the emotional byproducts of kinship that include identification and empathy.
Much the same as we are compelled to respond to a climate crisis of our planet, we face a spiritual crisis amplified by our thoughts and actions in a shrinking lifeworld. In order to meet this challenge, our psychological health as individuals should be judged not solely on the basis of conventional criteria, such as mental distress, impairment of function at work or in relationships, or distortion of thinking and emotional functioning, but also the extent to which we are engaged in a responsible and empathic way to the world in which we live.
Let us take, for example, malice. Malice, by definition, is the intention or desire to inflict harm toward others. When these emotions are held inside (see my blog on Hatred: Its Nature, Its Origins, and Its Transformation) it can be toxic and when acted upon, untoward consequences are likely to follow. Years of research on interpersonal behavior have made it clear, hostile behavior elicits the same in response. When the “other” is the enemy, often a projection of our own fears, ghosts, and unassimilated selves, the ramifications of this dynamic in a world fitted with nuclear weapons and amplifying social media can spell disaster. Malicious behavior runs the gamut from bullying to sadism. When manifest as a repetitive pattern in a person’s behavioral repertoire we might consider how it can constitute a disorder understood as a spectrum of malicious behaviors that differ with respect to their relative severity.
Apathy and Willful Ignorance
The 20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, once observed that the nature of evil is banal. In other words, when we turn a blind eye or become inured to the harm inflicted on others it becomes a moral transgression. An article by Ezra Klein in the New York Times (December 19, 2021) titled, The Gross Cruelty of Factory Farming, brings to our attention how easy it is and, therefore, morally negligent to ignore the banal atrocities of slaughterhouses. The degradation of the environment and toxic influence on our diets are only added-on “real world” effects beyond a much greater cost, the moral injury it should produce.
In a shrinking world the effects of willful ignorance, apathy, and inaction are compounded because we are closer to those whose welfare we ignore, increasing the likelihood that our failure to respond will ultimately come back to punish us for failing to act. Apathy, hence, becomes not just a moral but a psychological disorder when the ramifications of our failure to respond to the concerns of others becomes a self-destructive “act” in two ways: First to our material selves as individuals, for example, when negligent disregard creates resentment and vengeful actions by others toward us or when selfish disregard, such as hoarding vaccines in a pandemic, prolongs the disease for everyone. Second, we do harm to our spiritual selves when we fail to expand our sense of belonging and engagement with a world that is increasingly making it difficult to ignore. Here the price to pay is the failure to mature as human beings through the development of character, generosity, and empathy, qualities of “the mensch” that seem in short supply today. A shrinking world may render what has hitherto been regarded as a virtue of character into becoming a trait that is necessary to adapt to this world and survive.
A World at War with Itself
Citing the 2008 Heller decision that influenced how the second amendment is interpreted today as an example, Linda Greenhouse (The Supreme Court, Weaponized), New York Times, December 19, 2021, raises a concern about how “the long-established understanding that. . . protected a collective right” has been supplanted by an individual one. We needn’t look far to the cultural wars over mandates for wearing masks and vaccinations to find the same moral battles over what constitutes a right being fought. While freedom is one of the sacred precepts upon which this nation was founded, in a world whose population exceeds just one person, freedom without responsibility is tantamount to anarchy. Extending our understanding of what constitutes the psychological self beyond our individuality and its disorders, as has been the tradition in the field of mental health thus far, would promote the likelihood that these moral imperatives, i.e., freedom with responsibility, are followed insofar as they thus become identified as constituting what “we” are about as opposed to us versus them.
Mental Health as a Societal Condition
Equal weight ought to be given to the corresponding influence and responsibility our cultural institutions bear on the psychological health of its constituents as well. This would include the inhabitants of its lifeworld, we the individuals who live in and are thereby affected by its power to influence how we think and live our lives. We might, therefore, measure the “mental health” of a culture by the degree to which that culture either endeavors or succeeds in its stated purpose to sustain our quality of life, such as prosperity, freedom, equality, etc., an idea I had first proposed in an article published in 1997 titled, “Collective Will: A Reformulation of Otto Rank’s Theory of Personality Individuation,” in The Psychoanalytic Review. Such a proposal would serve not only to hold society accountable for its moral obligations according to the ramifications of these judgments that would be assigned to them on psychological grounds, it would also serve to destigmatize mental health because, historically, it has been predicated as a problem belonging solely to individuals. Removing stigma would promote receptivity to mental health services, especially for those who refuse for these reasons.
Morality as a Psychological Concern
Purpose, knowledge, recklessness, negligence. These are the dimensions by which culpability may be judged. Their assigned levels of putative intent have traditionally been the concerns and domain for both our criminal justice system and religious institutions. These institutions have always served society by helping to regulate human behavior that honors our sense of responsibility to one another as members of a civil society. However, the power of these social institutions to regulate human behavior relies primarily on punishment and guilt. While guilt might represent a more evolved form of self-control because its source is internal, both are punitive in nature. And while religion also sends a message about universal love and understanding, its dogmas throughout history have given us reason to question whether this message is as powerful as the divisiveness they sow. Assigning these moral qualities instead to a judgment about psychological health by situating moral behavior more firmly within our breadth of identification, unfettered by the divisiveness of ideology, promotes our evolution as a species even further. Empathy represents a more evolved form of self-control inasmuch as it relies on kinship, i.e., identification, and understanding. Moral behavior may follow organically, therefore, as a function of how we are able to extend our sense of identity toward “the other” and the whole world in which we live of which we ultimately are both a part and that exists in us.
To act, as such, in malice, with purpose and knowledge is to act with intent. Thus, moral judgment may be easily assigned. Even though willful ignorance and apathy, by contrast, imply negligence with respect to any conscious intention, culpability may be assigned here as well because it still remains that one chooses not to be aware, much less, even, not to act. In today’s world the consequences of the choices we make as individuals or by society become magnified, if not urgently forced upon us. For this reason, the inferences about how responsibly we choose to act, whether intentional or not, should be understood as a function of our state of psychological health in those respects that make us accountable to ourselves and others, first, and then to raise our awareness so that we can appreciate the far-reaching ramifications of these decisions for the rest of the world and our futures. This is so not just because it is more plausible but evident for the sake that we as practitioners and policy makers must realize this, more than ever, is the most productive source from which we may begin to address our problems.
Jealousy is a paradox. Think of a mirror. A mirror helps us perform physical tasks, such as shaving or combing our hair, but when a second mirror is needed to perform a task that cannot be accessed with just one mirror, such as when attempting to view the back part of our bodies to negotiate a clothing fastener, for example, and no one else is available to help, it’s not so easy. Not only are we encumbered by losing the use of one of our hands in order to hold the mirror as we perform the task, we find ourselves challenged when tracing our movements because in order to do so we must move in the opposite direction shown in the mirror. This is so difficult because our natural inclination is to align our movements in parallel with what we see. When we must perform tasks through a second mirror, doing so thus produces movement in the opposite direction of our intention. Jealousy, like the second mirror, confounds us because when it gets “out of hand” it produces the opposite of what we most desire to happen.
Natural and Destructive Dimensions of Jealousy
Jealousy is a social emotion, a natural part of being human because we are social creatures. Therefore, inasmuch as it would be healthy to accept that we are human, it follows that it is natural to be susceptible to becoming jealous. It is just who we are. We all want to be desired and admired, at least to some degree if not moreso. However, when it gets out of hand, viz., becomes chronic or excessive, it can cause us to obsess and behave in ways that diminish our stature and drive away those whose opinions and feelings we care about most. Paradoxically, jealousy creates the opposite of our deepest wishes and longings.
Jealousy is a 3-person phenomenon. When we feel jealous, we want someone to feel toward us what we fear they feel toward someone else. It could be attraction or romantic interest from someone we care about or someone toward whom we are interested. The subject of jealousy can even be generalized, such as a feeling of competition with someone who we feel is more popular, attractive, successful, etc., than we are. In this case the third person is generalized as represented by a group of people or the population, so to speak, in general.
Jealousy, when excessive, is destructive. Shakespeare, the 16th-century playwright whose greatness stems largely from the psychological insights of his work, illuminates in the eponymous play through his character, Othello, how jealousy can fester and grow insidiously toward a violent and tragic demise of a relationship and end of a life. Famous authors, such as Dostoyevsky in his novella, The Eternal Husband, D. H. Lawrence in The Fox, and other playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Betrayal, have keenly shown how the undercurrents of jealousy in love triangles reveal that which within us can take on the dimension of a morbid, and in some cases, masochistic, preoccupation.
The Origins of Jealousy
When we feel jealous, we are threatened by someone who we believe is better than we in ways we deem important to our sense of self-esteem and security in relationships. It is not unusual for jealousy to arise, therefore, when someone enters our world, or the world of our loved one, who is attractive or notably held in high regard for different reasons, when we are in an insecure place in our lives currently, such as Othello was as king in a far-away land, or if we have deep-seated insecurities within us that derive from our childhood experiences. Probably more often than not, it is when more than one of these factors come into play that jealousy can take on the dimension of a preoccupation.
In childhood, jealousy can be elicited when a child is compared unfavorably with a sibling or is pitted, unwittingly or otherwise, in competition with others, such as a sibling, a schoolmate or peer, or even a parent themselves. Competition, rivalry, and social comparison are natural parts of what it means for us to be social creatures. If these tendencies aren’t balanced with the necessary attention, emotional support, and validation to keep these emotions in check, however, low self-esteem, resentment, and chronic or excessive jealousy can ensue. Conversely, children raised with a sense of entitlement or for whom a sense of responsibility toward others isn’t cultivated will come to see other people as rivals, potential competition and, therefore, a threat to their sense of security and self-worth.
When jealousy arises as a problem later in life it may reveal either deep-seated insecurities already there or result from one’s current situation in life, such as when matters aren’t going well in our personal lives financially, socially, or in other life circumstances. When these kinds of situations lower one’s sense of stature or attractiveness, feelings of insecurity and susceptibility to jealousy may ensue, even when these judgments aren’t necessarily shared by others. The nature of an intimate relationship or even friendship can also be a source for chronic jealousy. A relationship with a partner who might be highly attractive, successful, or popular, can despite its benefits, challenge the limits to jealousy one can tolerate. If, however, they are also excessively flirtatious or, worse, unfaithful, toxic jealousy seems almost inevitable, even in the absence of jealous tendencies that could have existed previously.
How Do We Deal with Jealousy?
There are many self-help books that offer advice for chronic or excessive jealousy. The Jealousy Cure: Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness, and Save Your Relationship by psychologist, Robert Leahy, offers insight and advice using cognitive-behavioral therapy principles. For those troubled by their partner’s past relationships, a book by podcaster, Zachary Stockill, who also offers an 8-week course, Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy: A Guide to Getting Over Your Partner’s Past and Finding Peace, may be helpful.
Here are some tips:
Envy is the misunderstood emotion, often mistaken for jealousy, its mutually baleful sibling. There is a difference. When we are jealous, there is a third party involved, e.g., I feel threatened by Sue’s feelings toward Jared. When someone, anyone, whose positive feelings such as attraction, admiration, or love, toward someone else threatens our receiving the same from those persons we feel jealous. Or it may simply stir in us that which we might feel insecure about in ourselves. Envy, on the other hand, is a two-party emotion. I want, e.g., power, beauty, wealth, good fortune, etc., what someone else has. These two emotions are often confused partly because sometimes both emotions are activated by a given situation. For example, I feel jealous about Sue’s feelings toward Jared because he has certain qualities I believe I lack which makes me feel envious. Feelings of jealousy can elicit feelings of envy and vice versa. It can be complicated.
The psychological sources and effects of envy
Where does envy come from? Mankind has acknowledged envy’s destructive influences since the beginnings of civilization. We find envy in Moses’s ten commandments and identified as one of the seven deadly sins by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. In the twentieth century, the object relations theorist, Melanie Klein, proposed that envy develops in malevolent opposition to gratitude beginning with the infant’s relationship to its primary caregiver. According to Klein, when the infant’s needs are frustrated, destructive impulses ensue. Envy develops from the impulse to destroy something someone else possesses, in this case the caregiver’s love and comfort, if it isn’t shared or offered. Gratitude arises instead when the relationship with the desired “object” is generous and offers gratification. While Klein believed these emotions arise from innate drives, one needn’t accept this is true to understand the logic behind how this emotion arises out of relationships that begin with our primary caregivers.
Envy potentially exists in any given relationship but is especially problematic when it develops between a parent and child. The child’s envy toward its parent is presumably the source for patricide in the classic Greek play, Oedipus Rex, that inspired Freud who regarded the resolution of this conflict as the crucial rite of passage in order to achieve psychological maturation. According to Freud, resolution is achieved when envy and jealousy are replaced with identification with one’s rival, in this case one’s parent. Envious rivalry between mothers and daughters and from a parent toward its child, on the other hand, is portrayed in children’s stories about witches, beldams, and aging beauties.
The sociopolitical influences and uses of envy
Envy has also been identified as a source of influence in society at a broader scale. Philip Cushman, in his book, Constructing the self, constructing America (1995), has proposed that a capitalist society such as the United States manufactures feelings of insecurity such as envy, what he calls “the empty self,” in order to promote its economic agenda to sell products, including popular self-improvement books and instructional programs, even psychotherapy, to its constituents. What more compelling case for Cushman’s claim is there than what is found today from the effects of social media on the internet and the recent congressional investigations and revelations from the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen?
It has been proposed by others such as the sociologist, Helmut Schoeck, in Envy: A theory of social behavior (1966), that liberal political systems of modern civilization, such as democracy and communism, were generated as a common force in society for the purpose of diminishing feelings of envy by those less able to enjoy the benefits of wealth and prosperity among its members. Schoeck’s contribution was to propose envy as the source of a common critique of so-called liberal political systems based on the rationale that they promote mediocrity.
These critiques of collectivized liberalism may also be found elsewhere from such disparate theorists as the psychologist, Raymond Cattell, who in his “law of biosocial coercion toward the mean,” decried the leveling influence “the environment” may have on innately determined capacities such as intelligence and personality, the existentialist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who took a jaundiced view of the influences of sacred institutions of civilization, such as religion and science, on human potentials, and for the 19th century journalist, Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinist ideas that led to the eugenics movement. Even the sentiments of erstwhile presidential muse, Steve Bannon, represent further examples of those who have made claim to the stunting effect such political systems can have on a society to which Schoeck attributes envy as the culprit.
A more generous reason given for liberal political systems such as democracy and socialism would, of course, posit man's basic goodness to create a more altruistic, egalitarian society; a more sanguine perspective on capitalism would acknowledge how it promotes industry, initiative, and progress. Regardless of one’s political sentiments, in either case, envy has been identified by some experts as a malignant influence that either can inhibit human potential or exploit human behavior even at a broader, societal level.
How do I deal with feelings of envy?
Here are some tips if you are struggling with envy:
Life is hard. We can be busily caught up with our responsibilities of life, our jobs, our families, daily chores and obligations, so that when we do, we long for time to relax, kick our feet up, and savor the freedom not to oblige these dictates. Experts tell us to develop a sense of mindfulness to help us appreciate being in the moment. We live in a culture that extols the virtue of hard work, too often to the detriment of our personal needs and concerns; mindfulness, like other remedies to soothe our aching souls, serves as an antidote to these cultural presses. They may indeed help us to counter the effects when hard work and effort become meaningless or oppressive. For some, however, hidden beneath the renunciation of hard work may lurk a hidden defense that colludes against facing the challenges of life necessary for us to become all we have the potential to be.
Is It Necessary to Live Up to Our Potentials?
In his classic text, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, the 19-century sociologist, Max Weber, wrote about how our nation’s politico-economic system was driven by the Calvinist religious philosophy that hard work pays off in the afterlife. Since then, religion has lost its cache as a driving and integral part of our culture. Capitalism has become secularized and thereby sustained itself on an alternative ethic of self-actualization, an apostasy in a hitherto Christian-centric world.
Self-actualization, a psychological concept first popularized by the humanist psychologist, Abraham Maslow, promised a hopeful and “positive” alternative to the assumptions about the baseness of human nature offered by Freud and the dehumanizing conceptualizations of behaviorism. However, when the institutions, such as family, community, and religion, that otherwise can sustain an individual’s quest to become themselves begin to fragment, or even disintegrate, a culture of narcissism and anomie emerges instead. Without investments in communal purposes that transcend self-interest, the quest to become all we can be is stripped of character by the narcissistic imperative to be better than or to have more than, etc.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed that living life to its fullest doesn’t merely improve one’s quality of life, it is an ethical responsibility we have to ourselves to live in accord with this principle. Without doing so we are cheating ourselves of all we are gifted to use to make the most of our lives. Self-actualization enhances the quality of ours and the lives of others. Narcissism, on the other hand, distorts this philosophy of self-care to one of self-aggrandizement. Eventually, the vacuousness of this philosophy of life leads to disillusionment and disappointment.
How We Turn Away from Reaching Our Potentials
Some people choose, consciously or not, to turn away from the quest to be all one can be to follow the path of settling into a life of “quiet desperation.” This may take many forms, such as what we sometimes disparagingly refer to as the “worried well.” I see many of these patients in my office, people who by all accounts appear normal, happy, well adjusted, but miserable, anxious, and depressed inside. Who would know? The price one pays for “settling” for a life not fulfilling. Many use addictions to assuage the pain of this pact of resignation with life but there is no escape without coming to terms with the fact of it.
The challenge of the psychotherapist for those who live beneath their potentials is to address the patient’s defenses against confronting this issue in themselves. Here are some of these kinds of defenses:
It is necessary to work diligently and to take risks in order to reach our potentials. It can be daunting when we look at our goals from the perspective of where we are now in relation to where we want to be. For this reason, following basic principles such as setting modest goals toward reaching grander ones, being accountable for our intentions, and mindfully becoming appreciative for what we may be grateful for help make the quest to reach our potentials reachable.
Our relationships with our parents and our children can be complicated, difficult, and at times strained whilst these relationships largely are regarded, across history and cultures, as relatively sacred. They form the foundation for the stability of the family and its potential legacy for the future. In recent times, however, a trend has been developing as noted by psychologist, Joshua Coleman, who specializes in the treatment of estranged families, where this sacred bond is being threatened. In a recent article published in The Atlantic (January 10, 2021), titled A shift in American values is fueling estrangement, Coleman reports that more and more adult children today are estranging themselves from their parents. Why is this?
Since World War II, the United States has enjoyed a level of affluence associated with having achieved status as a supreme world power. But the price of this affluence along with the mechanization of industry and the burgeoning of the corporate world has cost society the stability of social institutions such as family and organized religion it has hitherto relied upon as sources of identity, values, and morality. According to psychologist and historian, Philip Cushman (Constructing the Self, Constructing America, 1995), Post World War II United States has commodified our relations with ourselves, resulting in an elevation of the self as bounded and hence less invested in our relationships and responsibilities to one another. This increasing isolation of our identities and values on which the self is predicated in the past several generations has been the subject of concern cited during this time period by social scientists such as Riesman, Glazer & Denny (The Lonely Crowd, 1950), Jules Henry (Culture Against Man, 1963), Christopher Lasch (Culture of Narcissism, 1979) among others.
The empowerment of the self that resulted from these changes in society coincided with cultural shifts in gender roles and reckoning with racial issues, the emergence of a more psychologically-minded populace, and identity politics. The culture wars that have ensued have understandably strained relations between these groups, including those between parents and their adult children whose values reflect these differences between them. As one of the consequences from the influence of these cultural changes on the family, not coincidentally, divorce has become commonplace.
Current Family Trends
In a more psychologically-minded generation that places greater value on the sanctity of the self and its concerns, such as self-esteem, self-other boundaries, and the denigration of dependency in relationships, and that, moreover, is less beholding to the sanctity of the conventions of marriage and family, adult children have become less respectful of the authority that traditionally has held families together. At the same time, the attenuation of the marital bond associated with an increased divorce rate has created a shift in the alignment of devotion within family relationships such that boundaries between parents and children have become more diffuse. Thus, we see more “helicopter parents” and enmeshment in families that crosses generational boundaries. As Coleman points out, this “. . . creates a higher dependence by parents on their children to substitute for the loss of a spouse,” in other words, parents who want their children to be their best friend. At the same time, an exaggerated importance given to their children by such parents may contribute to narcissistic trends in the younger generation.
It is a paradox that greater enmeshment between parents and children often results in children themselves setting boundaries from their parents instead. Even when this doesn’t occur, parents may alienate themselves from their children by unwittingly enlisting their children in marital battles to leverage divided loyalties as often can happen in families of divorce. The upshot of all this results in adult children inclined to blame their parents for their difficulties while failing to develop a sense of faith in themselves instead. Estrangement often results from the dynamics of these dysfunctional cross-generational relationships. Parents are left feeling they have raised ungrateful children while children feel exasperated with “clueless” parents.
What are the Solutions?
For parents of estranged adult children, it is important to listen to their children’s grievances even if they don’t agree with their reasons for them. Acknowledging their role in creating the reasons for their children’s grievances, when sincerely granted, can undoubtedly pave the way for rapprochement to follow even if it isn’t guaranteed. However even when an agreement cannot be reached, open communication may be all that is needed, a solution that could address what might have been part of the problem in the first place. Respecting boundaries when reasonable helps the adult child feel heard and grants the “sovereignty of self” adult children may be seeking in order to feel that their status as an adult is recognized. Parents are advised to seek their emotional intimacy needs elsewhere when cross-generational enmeshment is the source of the problem.
For adult children estranged from their parents, it can be helpful to distinguish between situations where their issues reside in the past, such as when they were raised as children, from problems that are current or ongoing, such as when dealing with a “difficult” parent. When grievances about the past are at issue, validation of experience would be ideal. However, more often than not, when this isn’t forthcoming, once again, the goal should be to be heard and, if not one’s memories is possible, to have one’s feelings validated. In either case, such discussions are inherently difficult. Two books that offer advice about how to prepare for these discussions are Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen, and Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2012) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler.
These have been difficult times; a once-in-a-century pandemic, democracy, our government whose trust we once held sacred shaken to its foundation, climate change, cyberattacks and threats of more to come, and world migration the likes we’ve never seen before. So much all at one time. Some see in it apocalyptic visions that the end is near. Others view this time of upheaval as a cyclical cleanse as did the ancient Greek cosmologist, Empedocles, who viewed existence as an eternal oscillation between chaos and harmony in accord with the forces of love and strife.
While we currently remain in the midst of these changes in the world, including the pandemic, here in the United States, there is a general sigh of relief and hopeful anticipation, thanks to the wealth of our nation and a concerted effort on the part of this administration, that we are beginning to return to normal. It was a little over a year ago (Coronavirus pandemic anxiety and how to manage it, May 3, 2020), I wrote my blog about how this new and dreadful virus was impacting our erstwhile familiar sense of security.
So, how are we doing? The answer is not so simple as it appears that it depends on who you talk to. While our economy, especially the service sector, was devastated, our government helped ease its effects with loans, unemployment checks, and moratoriums on rent. And in addition to the tragic loss of well over half a million lives here in the U.S., many who have contracted the virus have suffered prolonged effects of the illness that may include fatigue, brain fog, persistent cough, painful joints and muscles, headaches, loss of taste or smell, or a panoply of symptoms known as multisystem inflammation syndrome.
Perhaps the most enduring impact the pandemic has had on the human race has been on our mental well-being. How it has affected each and every one of us depends on many factors, the pre-existing stresses in our lives, whether we lost friends or family, how it affected our jobs, businesses, or income. Here are some of the ways it has affected us and how people have coped with this crisis differently:
(1) The Great Renewal: A Wall Street Journal article, published May 30, 2021, titled, The Great American Reunion, describes the exhilaration and relief families, friends, and co-workers have felt as the restrictions with the abatement of the pandemic have slowly lifted. Some talk about a renewed appreciation of life, the people they love and a deeper appreciation of life and gratitude for our health and blessings.
(2) Anxiety, Doom, and Gloom: As of mid-May this year, nearly a third of Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a study cited by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times, June 1, compared to 11% in November 2019. In March of this year, the American Psychoanalytic Association identified a shared global response to the pandemic they call PTSE (Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience) that consists of a host of different kinds of psychological effects the pandemic has had on people having to adapt to a life filled with uncertainty, loss, and fear. Symptoms of PTSE may include fear of contagion or passing it to others, worry about the future, fear of strangers or violence, hypervigilance to loss, injury, or illness, fears of dying alone or of isolation. Some of my patients have been coming in with frightening dreams or fantasies of being burglarized, assaulted or victimized by ransomware cyberattacks. Rather than dismissing these apprehensions as neurotic distortions, my response is to reassure them their fears are grounded in reality, the perils we have been faced with recently and continue to face, and how to find solace and gratitude within this maelstrom of real concern.
(3) Languishing: Some of the patients I see in my practice have described a paradoxical calm as a result of the forced suspension of everyday life the pandemic has imposed on us. Some have felt a relief from the demands of social and family obligations. Others, such as those who suffer from depression or social anxiety reported feeling a greater sense of belonging as the isolation the pandemic had been imposed on us created a shared experience albeit for different reasons. Conversely, a return to normal has brought back the acute sense of loneliness and anxiety for those who have been constrained by their emotional difficulties while for others a degree of dread of the bustle tempers the joy of reconnecting with family, friends, and work.
“I have gotten acclimated to a different existence,” proclaims Tim Kreider, writer and columnist for The Atlantic in his article published May 30, 2021, titled, I’m not scared to reenter society. I’m just not sure I want to. Kreider compares his experience in the pandemic to Thomas Mann’s classic novel, The Magic Mountain, in which the protagonist, Hans Castorp, whose intention to visit a relative in a tuberculosis sanitarium for only a few weeks eventuates into a timeless lingering for seven long years. Kreider ponders what insidious lure of indolence living within the confines of a pandemic's bubble can breed. His essay begins as a reflection on the effects that the pandemic’s extraordinary constraints can have both on one’s daily life and mental state. It evolves, however, into a philosophical musing that reexamines the ethics of ambition and industriousness contra laziness and lotus-eating. As such, the message implied in the title of Kreider's article becomes clear, the confining experience imposed by the suspension of time may be transformative when we realize what may be gained by being liberated from the less transparent constraints of daily life. While I have encouraged, for good reason, many of my patients engage with family and friends and to create structure in their daily lives to offset the disorienting and isolating effects of the pandemic, there is wisdom to Kreider’s insights not to allow these necessities of life to control our lives.
It has been some time since I wrote my first blog on the effects the pandemic has had on us, our daily lives, and the dissolution of our basic sense of security. For me, personally, it has been a test of endurance of isolation to create hope, purpose, and connection that at the same time helped me manage my anxiety. Sometimes it worked better than other times. The pandemic has affected each of us in different ways, either from different circumstances or by virtue of how each of us copes with crises and stress. If, however, we can accept how deeply it has affected us, the pandemic may become more than an ordeal of fear, loneliness, and intimate encounter with the fragility of life itself. We may instead use this opportunity to strengthen our bonds, listen and respond more acutely to the urgent calls of this endangered yet resilient planet, and become more discerning and proactive about setting priorities that should govern how we live. It is our choice to make.
The mystery of dreams has fascinated man since the beginning of time. The ancient Zuni civilization believed that while we are dreaming spirits are visiting our souls. The oracles of ancient Mesopotamia believed in the prophetic power of interpreting dreams and the aboriginal people of Australia believe that dreams represent spirits that once inhabited the Earth. While for some people dreams are nothing more than random thoughts that occur while we are sleeping, mankind by and large throughout history has tried to make sense of this universal experience that occurs every night.
Why Do We Dream?
While we are sleeping our brain shifts its patterns of neuronal firing in what has been identified as the four stages of sleep that correspond to how deeply we descend into a state of unconsciousness over a frequency of roughly five cycles each night. While research has shown that we may be dreaming during any of these stages, the vivid quality of dreams as story-like episodes occurs specifically to one of the stages, Stage I, also known as “REM sleep.” REM, as most of us know today, stands for “rapid eye movement,” a discovery made by sleep researchers, Aserinsky and Kleitman, in 1953.
While it is not yet certain why we dream, scientists, such as Hobson and McCarley, speculate that it is during this period that memories and the associations they generate are recalled during this period for the purpose of sorting through and reorganizing experience, sort of like running your computer through a disc cleanup exercise to improve its efficiency. The purpose of sleep isn’t just a restoration of energy and alertness (see my blog on Why We Sleep, Why We Don’t, and How to Sleep Better), but also, according to what they call the activation-synthesis hypothesis, to think more efficiently and to be able to better organize our thoughts as a function of dreaming. Dreaming is so important, in fact, that if we don’t get enough of it while we are sleeping not only are our thoughts fuzzier but our brains will try to force us to make up for what we lost the next time we fall asleep, a phenomenon known as “REM rebound.”
Theories of Dream Interpretation
While scientists who study dreaming generally believe that its purpose is primarily physiological in nature, mankind has always had a fascination with dreams and what significance they might have to the lives we live. Perhaps the most well-known of these was Sigmund Freud who published in 1899, The Interpretation of Dreams, the book that made him famous. Freud believed that the absurd nature of dreams reflects the psyche’s capacity to camouflage our deepest wishes for the purpose of avoiding anxiety that would disturb our sleep.
Carl Jung, one of Freud’s most eminent colleagues, offered a slightly more sanguine interpretation that dreams illuminate parts of our personality that strive for expression. He also believed that certain dreams and their symbolism represent deeper struggles of human existence that evidence the presence of a collective unconscious. Alfred Adler, another of Freud’s erstwhile associates, had a more practical nature. This was reflected in his belief that dreams serve the purpose of revealing our goals in life and thus help us in preparing and planning for our future.
A more contemporary theorist, British psychologist, Ann Faraday, proposed that dreams should be interpreted in step-wise fashion. Our first thoughts should look to whether they should be interpreted literally. For example, if we dream that our teeth are falling out, we should make an appointment with our dentist. If we get a clean bill of health from the dentist, can the dream’s content have symbolic significance? Finally, repeated dreams along the same theme can indicate deeper personal or existential issues. The psychoanalyst, Montague Ullman, explored the healing as well as illuminating benefits of dream sharing and interpretation in group settings.
Alternative Methods of Meaningful Use of Dreams
While most of us know how dreams are made useful by interpreting them, certain individuals have published research on alternative approaches that make use of their meaning as well. Patricia Garfield, in her book Creative Dreaming, explored the less well-known phenomenon, lucid dreaming, as a means to achieve personal change through active transformation of dream content. Lucid dreaming occurs in a twilight state of consciousness some of us might recognize as having experienced that enables the dreamer to direct the script of the story and outcome. The psychologist, Gayle Delaney, has constructed a methodology known as “dream incubation” in which the dreamer is instructed to ask questions before going to sleep in order to formulate answers to difficult or important questions that more rational methods have, otherwise, failed to achieve. And the parapsychologist, Stanley Krippner, has spent a lifetime researching the possibilities that dreams reveal telepathic powers.
Common Dream Themes
While I am generally skeptical of so-called dream dictionaries or interpretation guides, they are legion, there are certain dream themes that seem fairly prevalent and universal. Here some of the most common of those:
A brief listing of common dream themes, such as this, bears witness to the fact that most dreams are related to or elicited by anxiety, though not all. Many people report they have had very pleasant dreams about flying like a bird that can reflect an elated sense of power and freedom. Sexual dreams that are pleasurable are not uncommon, and some dreams can elicit powerful feelings of joy, love, and a deep connection with others. While I agree with scientists that dreams serve an important function to restore the brain to operating capacity I believe just as importantly that examining their meaning can serve to help us tap into a wellspring of thoughts and emotions so that we may understand ourselves and our concerns in a deeper way.
Why We Sleep:
Sleep is not an option. It is a necessary and vital dimension of what is essential to keeping ourselves healthy and alive. As we age, we generally need less of it. On average, newborns require 16 hours of sleep every day and the fact that infants and children need more sleep is evidence of its important role in promoting growth and health. Still, the average adult over 65 to remain optimally healthy requires seven hours of sleep each day.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation:
The specific reasons we sleep are to restore equilibrium to our bodies and minds. While we are sleeping our brains are eliminating proteins such as amyloid beta that build up throughout the day. In postmortem analyses an abundance of these proteins has been associated with certain kinds of dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Sleep is vital to maintaining a healthy immune system and as most of us know from personal experience insufficient sleep compromises our mental functioning such as alertness and memory, our mood, and our motor equilibrium and coordination.
There is more. Over time insufficient sleep increases our risk of developing cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke and its effects on our alertness increases our proneness to accidents. For example, drivers who get six hours of sleep or less are 33% more likely to have an accident on the road than those who get seven or eight.
The Causes of Sleep Deprivation:
Despite its importance to our functioning, sleep can be disrupted or deficient for various reasons, stress, travel, anxiety, depression, physical illness or chronic pain, life transitions and the demands of our daily lives. In today’s world, especially here in the United States, sleep deprivation has become increasingly prevalent. Here are some facts cited from The Center for Sleep Medicine (www.sleepmedcenter.com):
(1) 40% of Adult Americans and 70% of adolescents are sleep deprived.
(2) The average American sleeps less than seven hour a night Monday through Friday. 30% of all working people in the U.S. sleep less than six hours a night.
(3) Fifteen million Americans work the night shift and 40% of them get fewer than six hours of sleep per day.
(4) “Short sleepers” eat 500 calories more per day and are likely to eat more fatty foods and carbohydrates than normal sleepers.
The reasons for this growing problem in our society are a product of several factors, economic, cultural, and technological. Today’s families in the United States rely on income from both heads of the household in order to meet the demands of trying to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with their dreams of success, or worse, just to make ends meet. On average, Americans work 137 hours more every year than Japanese workers, 260 hours more than British workers, 394 more hours than German workers, and 499 more hours than the French. Some of this disparity may be explained as the general decline of the American middle class as more and more American adults find it difficult if not impossible to keep up with the standard of living they grew up with in their parents’ generation.
Sleep deprivation may also be explained as a function of a cultural heritage that regards sleep as tantamount to laziness and lack of ambition. As such sleep is devalued for fallacious reasons as being a relatively unimportant part of life that stands in the way of success.
Finally, we live in a world rife with technology, stores that stay open all hours of the night, television whose hours of operation at one time conformed to the normal schedules of daily life broadcasting programs all hours of the night, and electronic devices such as computers and smartphones with unlimited access to text messages, the worldwide web, and social media anytime of the day or night, projecting sleep-inhibiting wavelengths of light from these devices.
It is normal for sleep to be disturbed or disrupted for various reasons but when these disturbances become persistent they can have deleterious effects on our well being. When this is the case, intervention might be necessary to treat what is known as a “sleep disorder.” Here are some of the most prevalent kinds of sleep disorders:
(1) Insomnia: It is estimated that anywhere between 10% and 60% of adults suffer from chronic insomnia. People who are most susceptible include older adults due to chronic pain or medical conditions, social isolation, or medication, adolescents, and pregnant women. Some people with insomnia have difficulty falling asleep. The most prevalent causes are stress and anxiety, caffeine or stimulants, or irregular sleep habits. Others have difficulty maintaining sustained sleep which is often associated with chronic pain or medical conditions, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnea, and some tend to wake up prematurely, often a sign of clinical depression.
(2) Obstructive Sleep Apnea: It is estimated that one in fifteen adults has sleep apnea and only 15% who have it have been diagnosed. Common signs include excessive drowsiness during the day, snoring, and irregular breathing patterns during sleep. Sleep apnea is associated with obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and is imputed as a possible cause of heart disease. A referral to a sleep specialist is needed to diagnose this condition which is usually treated with a breathing device known as a CPAP machine.
(3) Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder: Adenosine is a neuromodulator in the brain that plays an important role in regulating our normal sleep/wake cycle, known as circadian rhythms. The sensation of drowsiness is a function of adenosine building up during the course of the day. Ingestion of too much caffeine or late in the day can interfere with this process. When our normal cycle is disrupted we may have difficulty falling asleep or feeling sufficiently rested when we normally get up. The most common causes for this disorder include jet lag, shift work, a mood disorder, medication, pregnancy, or chronic pain. Adolescents are often susceptible because of a delay in the brain’s production of melatonin which otherwise promotes sleep and older adults who have a tendency to nap during the day.
(4) Restless Leg Syndrome: This disorder is described as sensations of crawling, tingling, itching, or muscular cramps that are sometimes relieved by getting up and walking around. It can be inherited but often is caused by medical conditions such as diabetes, iron deficiency, and peripheral neuropathy, or by prescription medication. The most common onset for this disorder occurs in middle age. Women are twice as likely as men to develop restless leg syndrome which is usually treated with medication and sleep hygiene.
(5) Parasomnias: These are unusual behaviors that occur either while asleep or while transitioning in or out of sleep. Parasomnias, characterized as incomplete awakening and responsiveness to other people while in a sleep-like state, can originate from different sources. There are two types, NonREM and REM-related. NonREM parasomnias include confusional states of arousal, sleepwalking, and night terrors most often found in children. They may also include sexual behavior, talking, eating, which can be dangerous if it involves cooking or ingesting harmful substances, and even driving! REM parasomnias include REM sleep behavior disorder characterized by excessive, violent movement while dreaming that most often occurs in older adults, sleep paralysis, a prolonged period of paralysis while falling asleep or upon awakening, and recurrent nightmares often brought on by psychological stress or trauma.
Other parasomnias include “exploding head syndrome,” in which the sleeper experiences a loud noise or bright light upon awakening, sleep-related hallucinations, and nocturnal enuresis, or bedwetting, the latter most often found in children. Parasomnias can be brought on by stress, trauma, certain medications, irregular sleep schedules, and certain neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. When they occur in children they are likely to be transitory and neurological in origin though they can also be induced by stress. A parasomnia should be diagnosed by a specialist in sleep disorders and the treatment may include medication or cognitive-behavior therapy.
How to Sleep Better:
Here are some general guidelines to help you get a better night’s sleep if you are suffering from a temporary sleep disruption or a sleep disorder. If the condition persists, you should seek consultation with a sleep-disorder specialist:
1) Reduce the stress in your life if possible and, if not, learn how to live with stress better, such as with exercise, meditation, and cognitive therapy.
2) Practice meditation or autogenic training on a regular, if not daily, basis. Learn how to tame those runaway, worrisome thoughts.
3) If you have difficulty falling asleep, read a relaxing or boring book. Your focus should be on relaxing instead of trying to force yourself to sleep.
4) Exercise on a regular basis. Aerobic exercise such as running or walking improves mood and creates a calming effect.
5) Practice good sleep hygiene. Go to bed and get up on a regular schedule, don’t engage in stimulating activities the last two hours before you go to bed, engage in rituals that prepare you for bedtime, avoid bright lights, turn off electronic devices, including television before bedtime, reserve your bedroom for sleep or sex only, make your sleep environment conducive to sleep, i.e., sufficiently dark, free of noise, cool temperatures, a firm mattress, and aromatherapy scents such as lavender.
6) Limit your intake of caffeine, stimulants, or alcohol.
7) Avoid late night meals, sugary foods or spicy snacks.
8) If you have a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, try getting up earlier each morning and consider taking melatonin an hour or two before you go to bed.
9) Avoid napping during the day.
10) Get as much sunlight during the day as you can. If the sunshine is limited where you are, consider getting a sunlight-simulating lamp.
The late, curmudgeonly comedian, George Carlin, once gave a humorous skit on what he thought of the “me” generation and its absurdities. According to Carlin, in today’s world everybody has to be “special” but if you think about it if everyone is special, the word, “special,” no longer has any meaning. Some experts believe the profession of psychology itself, here in the United States has, ironically, contributed to this trivialization of “specialness” by unwittingly fostering a sense of entitlement and a malaise of self-esteem issues it supposedly has been designed to treat. According to the psychologist, Philip Cushman, the affluence of post-World War II America created a burgeoning market of psychotherapists promoting self-help books and services that promised to cure all that ails us in our emotional lives by helping people build self-esteem. This enterprise, paradoxically, has created instead for consumers of psychological services a greater sense of insecurity because it has either neglected to heed the superficial and narcissistic way the self is conceptualized in our consumerist society which fails to support healthy self-esteem or, worse, exploited this condition for their benefit.
Building on Cushman’s critique, it isn’t the emphasis given to self-esteem per se as an important aspect of mental health that is the problem but rather how the self and its epiphenomenon, self-esteem, are understood. The well-known cognitive therapist and former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, has admonished parents of children of the so-called “me” generation not to shelter their children from the experiences of failure, disappointment, and averageness that parents mistakenly might believe are the bane of developing self-esteem. To expect oneself always to be special or the best, to win all the time sets children up for disappointment later in life and the complications that growing up with a sense of entitlement eventually creates. The key to building healthy self-esteem instead depends on the ability to take risks and, when matters don’t end well, those disappointments aren’t taken to heart as signs of what is deficient in oneself. Self-esteem is predicated on positive expectations of oneself which in turn relies on achievements which cannot be accomplished without the ability to take risks.
Where Does Self-esteem Come From?
As with most matters psychological, our earliest influences are often the most crucial. A healthy self is fostered within a secure and emotionally supportive environment that balances sufficient attention and unconditional love with expectations and responsibilities that encourage a child to grow beyond the safe confines of its home and all that concerns oneself alone. Perhaps how self-esteem develops may be better explained by walking this backward: In order to have self-esteem or positive expectations of oneself one must succeed in life but in order to succeed one must take risks and assume responsibility, and in order to do these things one must accept oneself implicitly so that failure and disappointment don’t crush one’s spirit. For many, unfortunately, one or more of these elements is missing. When it is, low self-confidence, learned helplessness and resignation, and resentment and blaming others or life in general are likely to ensue, all cardinal signs of low self-esteem.
The Building Blocks of Self-esteem
William James, one of the founders of modern psychology in the United States, suggested that self-esteem is the function of a simple ratio between what he called sympathy and stoicism. "Sympathy" is the degree to which one grows beyond oneself through one's accomplishments, generosity, and capacity to empathize with others. "Stoicism" is the degree to which one is able to relinquish one's pretensions or to realize what one doesn't need in order to be happy and successful. Self-esteem, therefore, is a function of (1) Accomplishments. In order to achieve one must be able to take risks and, once again, in order to take risks one must not personalize failures and disappointments, in other words, to accept oneself as less than perfect, (2) Growing in dimension as a person with empathy and generosity of spirit as opposed to selfishness, jealousy, and envy toward others, and (3) The ability to let go of things one doesn’t need such as unrealistic expectations of oneself, others, and life. Although the Dalai Lama emphasizes in his book, How to See Yourself As You Really Are, that self-knowledge is the key to happiness in life, in order to know oneself one must first be able to accept oneself, a building block of self-esteem. Self-acceptance depends on one’s ability to accept disappointments and relinquish unrealistic self-expectations.
It might seem a bit of a paradox to have unhealthy self-esteem but it does exist. When one or more of the aforementioned building blocks are missing, self-esteem is predicated on a shaky foundation, and what presents as healthy self-esteem belies elements of low self-esteem underneath. For example, those who maintain unrealistic expectations of themselves might seem confident or highly accomplished when deep inside they suffer from the anguish of never feeling good enough. Others who are arrogant and self-centered in nature, such as narcissists and sociopaths, may appear supremely self-confident but deep inside may suffer from a lack of depth and inadequacy about which they are likely to be unaware and adept at hiding from others. When not all the building blocks of self-esteem are working together, psychological problems are likely to develop, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and problems of intimacy, and often these can be outgrowths of a personality disorder associated with problems of self-esteem.
How to Build Self-esteem
Here are some tips on how you can build self-esteem:
I’m dating myself by reciting a favorite story told by the late comedian, Myron Cohen. A man comes home to his wife and upon opening the door smells the odor of cigars and asks, “Since when did you start smoking cigars?” Her puzzled response prompts him to say in an accusatory voice, “Well then there must be a man in the house.” He immediately proceeds to bolt through the house opening one door after another and lo and behold, upon opening the bedroom door, as a man appears, the husband blurts out, “And what are you doing here?!” to which he replies with a shrug, “Everybody got to be someplace.” In each and every place that there is a person, there is not just any person but A person. As much as there is a place that each of us occupies at any given moment it is our place and no one else’s at that moment. Each of us is a singular entity that no one can replace.
The Objective and Subjective Self
What is the self? And who are we? Up until the 19th century it was generally accepted that what makes us unique is our soul, or psyche, something immaterial that transcends our earthly existence. However, at about the same time that psychology became a science of its own, the self was understood instead as manifest from our interpersonal relationships. The early developmental psychologist, James Mark Baldwin, posited, for example, that children identify themselves in relation to others in their world through observation, imitation, and empathy, as well as through conflict and assuming complementary roles. Through “reflected appraisals,” according to the psychoanalyst, Harry Stack Sullivan, children learn to see themselves as their parents see and treat them. So, who we are is a sum of our experiences from our relations with other people, especially those such as our parents to whom we are closest and most deeply influenced early in life. Later in childhood and thereafter others can serve as mentors who help further guide and serve as “role models.”
How we see ourselves, or what we commonly call “identity,” is sometimes referred to as the “objective” or reflected self. However, there is another part of who we are that probes more deeply into our essence that has to do with agency. The psychologist, Gordon Allport, called this part of the self “the proprium.” This is the part of us that organizes our experience, that says to ourselves, “This is me, and no one else.” It is also the part that makes decisions, carves a path to follow in life, and that creates meaning from experience. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had a word for this he called the “transcendental ego.” Without it we are merely the sum of our memories like going through a photo album of our lives. An album says a lot about who we are yet something deeply fundamental is missing without a narrator. Pictures and memories tell a story about a life, but the “self as agent” lives a life that has purpose, understanding, and intention.
Western and Eastern Notions of The Self
Conceptualizations of self historically have differed between Eastern and Western civilizations. Here, in the West, with our traditions in freedom and self-reliance identity is more individualized, whereas in the East a more collective sense of self prevails. Buddhism with its lessons about the destructive illusions of the ego is a good example. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, created a model of personal development that fits the Western notion of the self within Eastern philosophy’s broader framework. According to Jung, the ego or Western conception of self is just a small part of who we are. We must integrate all the existential dimensions of what it means to be human, such as “the shadow,” and “the syzygy,” which refers to our relative masculine and feminine aspects, over a period of a lifetime in order to “self-actualize” or reach our full potentials.
The Bounded and The Ensembled Self
For Carl Jung, the self of the West is more individualized and egoistic whereas the Eastern notion of the self is broader and collective in nature. In Buddhism, the self disappears altogether as just an illusion. The Western psychologist, Edward Sampson, has proposed a distinction between these two ways of conceptualizing the self he calls the “bounded” and “ensembled” notions of the self. While a bounded self has served Western civilizations by promoting self-reliance, autonomy, and free enterprise, an ensembled notion of the “self” tempers the hubris, unbridled avarice, and willful ignorance to which an ego devoid of its collective conscience may be susceptible. A collective consciousness also can assuage the existential dread of alienation and finiteness living in a world without meaning and purpose can bring. It is through our collective identity and by discovering the limits of our ego that spirituality is born at a personal level.
The Harmonious versus the Disordered Self
These and other influences from my life, clinical work, and education have led me to propose that a healthy “self” is reliant on a harmonious and integrated relationship between these two fundamental aspects of the self that is both bounded and ensembled in nature. As a corollary to this proposal, when this relationship is antagonistic instead, as in a zero-sum game, problems in living ensue that parallel what mental-health professionals in the West call disorders of personality. For example, a healthy person is a person with strong self-esteem but only when the foundations of that strength do not have disastrous ramifications for the welfare of others. By the same token, generosity and compassion enhance our sense of self and security but not when they eventuate in destructive ways to our sense of autonomy and ability to advocate for ourselves when necessary.
The concept of the self has been and perhaps will always remain a mysterious and difficult idea to pin down. It isn’t something we can see with our eyes and feel with our fingertips yet it has emerged in human history as one of the most fundamental notions that demands attention as we humans endeavor to understand who we are and what makes us tick. As the psychologist, Raymond Cattell, who was known for his fondness for studying the human personality through psychometric analyses once observed, our attitude toward ourselves is the most powerful factor in determining who we are.
Robert Hamm Ph.D