Friday, April 28, 2006


Freud is reported to have said that the very act of entering into civilized society entails the repression of various desires, impulses and feelings.

Biologically, the human species is hard-wired to experience certain feelings, impulses and desires, that during the rise of human civilization have been more and more controlled by the executive function of the higher cognitive levels of the brain. While the more primitive instincts still remain a part of our biology and can be accessed when needed for survival, most societal relationships--and civilization itself requires that control be the forces in our nature that are affiliative and which encourage relationships and the rise of civilization. In fact, human biology and its limitations determine, to a great extent, the nature of our social interactions--even more than we may think.

In contrast to Freud's insight, Karl Marx believed that, ". . . the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations;" and that a change in the "ensemble of social relations" can change "the human essence." Another way of saying this assertion is that social interactions have a significant role in determining biology.

From a Cato Institute Policy report, we have the perfect example of a Marxist attempt to "change the human essence", or, alter human biology:
In June 2004 the communist North Korean government issued a statement to its starving citizens recommending the consumption of pine needles. Pyongyang maintained that pine needle tea could effectively prevent and treat cancer, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, cerebral hemorrhage, and even turn grey hair to black.

Tragically, human nature isn't at all as advertised, and neither is pine needle tea. According to the U.S. State Department, at least one million North Koreans have died of famine since 1995.

Marx's theory of human nature, like Kim Jong Il's theory of pine needle tea, is a biological fantasy, and we have the corpses to prove it.

Having thus dispensed with the inverted reality of Marx's theories of human nature, we can move on to explore how it is that civilization--and human interactions-- are able to develop when our basic instinctual urges are hardly conducive to either.

If we are at the mercy of primitive instincts and destructive emotions bequeathed to us by our animal ancestors, how have we managed to, not only work our way up from the mud, but to the exploration of the stars?

Freud suggested that repression was the key, but that is an incomplete answer.

The complete answer lies in the awesome beauty, creativity, and functionality of all the psychological defense mechanisms available to humans, of which repression is only one of many available strategies. These mechanisms, for all that they also must be fundamentally biological themselves, are also presumably "hardwired" into our brains and come into play to protect our perceptions of self and reality (i.e., consciousness) from overwhelming psychological trauma that may threaten.

The most psychologically healthy of these strategies are those those that allow us to transform the primitive instinctual energy of even the most destructive emotions into works of art or entertainment that give pleasure to others (sublimation and humor); or behavior that is socially beneficial (altruism, anticipation, suppression). People who achieve optimal psychological health are those who have come to satisfactory terms with their neurobiology. They are people who have learned to accept their anger, rage and other potentially deadly emotions and, instead of destructively acting out, repressing, denying or projecting; have creatively expressed those feelings in a way that improves life both for themselves and for others.

As I have discussed in previous posts on denial, projection, and paranoia; these immature and sometimes psychotic psychological defense mechanisms represent a creative synthesis by the individuals who use them; but only temporarily reprieve that individual from the consequences of reality. These defenses almost never serve the individual's interests in the long run; nor are they beneficial for one's interpersonal relationships with others or society at large.

In between the psychological healthy and mature defenses, and the seriously immature defense mechanisms, are a group of very commonly used psychological defenses that most normal people employ at one time or another. These are the neurotic defenses, which can have short-term advantages in coping, but often cause significant long-term problems in one's relationships, work, and happiness for people who use them as their basic style of coping with the world.

One such neurotic defense that I have discussed at length in this blog is displacement, which is one of the defenses at the root of Bush Derangement Syndrome. Under stress, and threatened with psychological trauma or the disruption of cherished beliefs, even basically psychologically healthy adults may retreat to dysfunctional and immature defenses.

I would like to explore for a moment how unconscious processes can be made conscious through the development of insight; and thus alter the self-destructive path that an individual or a group may sometimes be on.

I once had a very successful female patient named Susan, who was in her late 30's and was rising rapidly in her career; but who felt dissatisfied and fairly unhappy, not only in her career, but also in her personal life. In spite of her demonstrable capabilites, she felt inadequate and like she didn't deserve her wealth or status. Sometimes she felt like she didn't even deserve to live. Susan came to see me because she couldn't understand why she felt the way she did, and --unlike most of my patients--she didn't want medication. "Why can't I just be happy?" she wanted to know; so we proceeded to talk about her life to see if we could discover what might be going on.

Some weeks later, in a casual comment, Susan mentioned that she had never liked her younger brother when she was growing up. I looked up from my notes, surprised, because she had never mentioned her brother before.

"I didn't know you had a brother," I said. "Oh," she commented lightly, "he died. That's why I don't bring him up much."

Obviously she wanted to drop the subject, but I persisted. The brother who died was two years younger than she was, and had died when he was 16.

"How sad for you and your family! That must have been terrible for you."

Susan shrugged. "It was a long time ago now," she said.

I considered whether I should pursue this further, since she clearly didn't want to talk about it. I asked her if it bothered her to talk about it.

"Not really."

"Could you tell me what happened to him?"

What followed was a dispassionate account of a family trip with the two parents in one car; and the patient and her brother in the other on their way to the family cabin in the mountains. The brother became tired, and went to the back seat to sleep. Susan, who was new to driving, misjudged a curve and went into it far too fast, causing her to lose control. The car slid off the road, and rolled over twice. My patient was uninjured because she had been wearing a seat belt. But her younger brother, sleeping in the back had been thrown from the car and died instantly.

I was stunned. This was serious stuff, and I knew it could be and probably was the origins of Susan's disabling guilt about her life. Yet the patient had never mentioned it in the weeks before as we had talked about her life, and seemed completely unaware that it could be linked to the very situation for which she had consulted me. Even now, while telling me the story, she sounded like a disinterested observer, rather than an intimate player in the drama she described.

"That must have been so awful for you," I said gently.

She smiled brightly at me. "Well, I guess I only did what every big sister really wants to do to an obnoxious brother!" Her laugh was rather forced.

"I suppose its natural for an older sister to feel very upset and angry with a rather trying younger brother--I have two of them, so I certainly know about that.... But I don't believe for a moment that you would truly want him dead or that you would deliberately kill was just a horrible accident, wasn't it?"

She stared at me for a moment, then burst into tears, with great gulping sobs that went on for more than 15 minutes, as I tried to console her the best I could. Yes, the accident was her fault. She had made a mistake and it resulted in her brother's death. But she hadn't wanted him to die; and she hadn't deliberately gone off the road in order to make her childish and angry feelings toward him come true.

For years she had carried around the terrible burden of guilt about her brother's death, telling herself that she had killed him, feeling that her anger toward him made it deliberate. Her parents, grieving themselves, had never thought to absolve her of the accident.

As you might expect, her unhappiness with her life and her overwhelming feeling that she didn't have a right to live was tied to this traumatic incident in her life. What followed in the weeks after her revelation and sudden insight into her unresolved guilt and grief was the beginning of a cure for the inexplicable unhappiness she suffered in her life.

Her belief that she didn't deserve to live was tied up with her childish --and normal--sibling feelings about her brother. But what had sealed her fate was magical thinking--a belief that just because she had some negative feelings about him, those negative feelings had been responsible for the car accident. It was difficult for her to come to the realization that even if she had had uniformly positive and loving feelings toward her younger brother, the accident in which he was killed because she was an inexperienced driver would have still taken place.

With time, she moved from this dramatic insight, to accepting that, while she might have been a poor driver, she wasn't a murderer. And that also, if her brother had made other choices (e.g., used his seatbelt; waited for another hour to go to sleep; etc.)he too might have survived the accident. Some guilt was appropriate for her to deal with. But the life-destroying guilt she was experiencing was far more than she deserved.

Her insight actually gave her back her brother. Since the accident many years before, she had avoided thinking about him, and had psychologically banished all thoughts--both good and bad--about him from her life. For the first time in many years she could remember happy times with him, and finally appropriately mourn him.

Insight is a wonderful thing. The power or act of seeing into a situation and apprehending the inner nature or motivation of one's self--especially the why--can be extremely liberating, as it was for Susan. Only by being aware of these kind of hidden truths and inner motivations can a person gain control over them and correct the behavior that they generate.

But insight can also sometimes be devastating. Susan's insight freed her from a life of unhappiness and made her guilt over her brother's death much more bearable. But there are situations where achieving insight and understanding the motives behind one's behavior (as well as what one can and cannot control) can generate deserved guilt and shame. That is when such emotions can be productive and initiate a change in behavior for the good. While it is painful to acknowledge horrible truths--but truths nonetheless-- such understanding of one's self is essential for personal growth and normal personality development.

There is an inner courage required to look at one's self in the mirror of insight and truly know the person looking back. All of us are capable of the most horrible behavior; just as we are capable of finding ways to rationalize it and cover it up or blame others for it. Psychological health requires that we look into that mirror frequently and understand our own motivations and behaviors and not flinch in recognizing the truth about ourselves.

That is the only way we can begin the process of change that leads to solving problems and personal growth. Recognizing the problem by looking at ourselves in the mirror is the first hurdle that must be overcome. Admittedly, it is not the only hurdle; but without it individuals and societies go off careening off in all the wrong directions--directions that will never lead to the recognition or acceptance of reality, and so can never lead to effective solutions. In psychiatry we refer to this abiiity to look in the mirror and see what and who is reflected back at us truly as "insight". Ultimately, the development of self-awareness and psychological insight are the keys to solving most human dilemmas that lead to our own unhappiness and misery--both in individuals and societies.

It is likely that true evil never looks into that mirror; never questions their own motivations and always sinks to using the most immature and infantile coping mechanisms. That inability to acknowledge any degree of responsibility for their behavior; or to see clearly into their own souls--particularly on a societal level is responsible for much of the human misery, genocide, and brutal behavior we witness all around the world.

And that is the ultimate purpose of, and necessity for, Justice -- to impose insight on the blind; force awareness of the consequences of behavior; and to reflect reality for those who refuse to look in the mirror. Susan was not guilty of murdering her brother; yet she was punishing herself anyway for having had the kind of negative thoughts any normal person has about someone she is close to. Like most normal people, she had mixed feelings abaout him--loving and hating him simultaneously. In her case, she needed to look into that mirror to see the good--her love for him--which had been blocked out by her guilt at his death.

Gagdad Bob in discussing infantile omnipotences and its consequences when one is no longer an infant (i.e., when one is a member of the left), makes this cogent observation:
What sets humans apart from the animals is not just our ability to know reality, but our even more striking ability to not know it--to create patently erroneous systems of thought that we then inhabit, and which actually compromise our survival prospects. No lion ever entertained the idea that it might be healthier to live on grasses rather than flesh. Penguins don’t decide to live near the equator, where it isn’t so cold. But the UN thinks that lots of talks and meetings will make the threat of a nuclear Iran go away. Liberals really think that Saddam and his satanic spawn would never, ever, have obtained nukes.

Only human beings can hold ideas that are completely illogical and self-defeating.

We may not be able to help which defenses our egos deploy in every situation. Sometimes, when reality is threatening enough or our conflicts are intense enough, even the most mature individual may find him or herself using the more immature defenses like denial and projection. What matters is that we make a practice of examining our own behavior and appreciating the underlying issues and motivations that drive it. Or to put it another way, we reflect on those subtle factors that may be controlling our behavior outside our completely conscious awareness (and therefore our control) and make them fully conscious. This is looking into that mirror of the soul and when done honestly leads to insight and self-awareness. This process is the "holy grail" of psychotherapy; and we mental health professionals are forever encouraging our patients to go on such quests of self-discovery--even if they can sometimes lead to emotional pain.

Because, by making the unconscious conscious, we gain control over our lives and are able to make choices and attack problems based on a clear view of reality. Yes, we may make the wrong choice, or screw up in dealing with the problem even so; we may even discover some unpleasant truths about ourself. But when our psychological defenses are distorting or obscuring reality to begin with, we are far more likely to ignore a problem or pretend that it doesn't exist and then suffer even more serious consequences.

Even the most maladaptive and/or primitive psychological defenses that bring us and others a great deal of unhappiness and misery, through insight, can evolve into mature and adaptive responses to the world that both enhance and protect our lives.

Human beings are remarkable creatures. Sometimes their capacity for self-deception and delusion seems unlimited; and sometimes their incredible creativity and ingenuity in coping with all the trials and travails that life throws at them is worthy of appreciation and even awe.

UPDATE: If you want to see the primitive psychological defenses at work, follow this link to an interview with Robert Fisk--who is in so much denial (among other defenses) it is simply ludicrous. He manages--all on his own--to give himself a thorough fisking. (hat tip: Tim Blair and The Corner)

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