People are in psychological crisis, and masses of us, steeped in the anxiety of helplessness and futility, are feeling marginalized and victimized. Making it worse, we take our pain out on each other.
Around the world the complexity of modern life contributes to personal distress, as does the effect on us of misguided leaders and anti-democratic forces in government and corporations. Yet our psyche, like a Model-T Ford sputtering along a superhighway, remains our primary weak spot.
Psychologically, we operate according to old-fashioned principles. We’re quick to blame others for allegedly causing our pain. We want to attribute our neurotic suffering to the stupid beliefs and rotten behavior of others. The more we blame the other, though, the more we dislike or hate the other and the less clearly we see the essentials of our predicament. We also suffer more acutely from our own unresolved negative emotions.
America, the world’s best hope for rousing leadership, finds its political process mired in an uncivil war. Americans are making their politics a script for the national staging of personal dysfunction. Behind this conflict, clamoring in the bedlam of our neurosis, swarm the demons of our dark side.
As a result, millions of people vote in regional and national elections on the basis of negative emotions that, at their root, are largely unconscious. On the surface, we deceive ourselves with righteous posturing and displays of moral superiority that cover up varying degrees of fear, resentment, helpless feelings, and an instinct to be critical and negative.
We often get hung up on the feeling that our political opponents are being infuriatingly obtuse. Isn’t our hostility toward the other side justified at some point? It’s tempting to feel scornful or enraged, yet our negative feelings and reactions only intensify the conflict. If we truly want resolution, we won’t react negatively to our political opponents. Instead, we respond with detachment and equanimity, which means that we don’t get triggered emotionally and we accept with graciousness the reality of where people are at. We can still be tough and resolute, of course, in our political engagements. Our arguments can poke pointedly and jab sharply. But if we truly want the best outcome we have to engage our opponents with the awareness that they are part of us. The negativity we feel toward them can be, in large part, a contamination in our own psyche.
When we’re attached emotionally to our beliefs (which happens when our beliefs are buttressing a weak sense of self), we’re unable to practice detachment. We need to feel superior to the other side to avoid feeling inferior. Or we need to feel right in order not to feel wrong. Or we’re ready to feel defeated by the stubborn intensity of the other side. Or we simply project our unresolved negative emotions on to others, seeing them as the problem. So we plant the flag of our identity in the soil of righteousness and stand our ground behind the muzzle of our neurosis. Or we feel helpless—desperately stonewalled—as if all effort is futile, which is another version of our neurosis.
Political partisans on the Left and Right are more alike than they realize. Both sides, for instance, complain about being oppressed. Liberals and progressives are likely to believe the oppression they feel comes mainly from the rich and powerful elite. Conservatives are convinced that their sense of oppression is due to the authority, controls, and regulations of government.
Both sides can easily embellish the sense of being oppressed. While oppression and the effects of dysfunctional leadership can certainly be real, we still can exaggerate emotionally the sense of being oppressed. In doing so, we also create through this unconscious passivity the conditions that make oppression more likely to occur. In our psyche, we unconsciously look for that familiar negative feeling. That inner sense of oppression comes from our authoritarian superego which rules as the hidden master of our personality. A deficiency of insight makes us passive enablers of this authoritarian inner structure. This structure, in itself, also creates anxiety, fear, depression, and other forms of suffering. Unconsciously, we’re determined to avoid recognition of the fact that our unwitting submission to inner aggression, as dished out by our superego, finds its counterpart in our failure to protect our democracy from authoritarian forces.
This old political order in the human psyche needs to be upgraded. Life is now too perilous. We have to start operating at a higher level of intelligence and consciousness. We certainly can’t trust the elites to lead the way. We have to do it ourselves.
A default position in our psyche leads us into self-pity and a bittersweet affinity for experiences of oppression, passivity, and suffering. This underlying weakness traps us in the sticky web of willful ignorance where we can pretend we don’t know the extent of our personal and national dysfunction and the dangers facing humanity. Or else we catch glimmers of the dangers—or gawk in full-blown horror at the mounting peril—yet feel paralyzed or react ineffectively.
To avoid a dire fate, we need to see how our psyche is a cauldron of drives, wishes, defenses, aggression, and passivity. We need to become smarter in order to regulate our psyche’s byproducts: irrational beliefs, phony defenses, negative impressions, resistances to facing reality, cravings for distractions, and self-defeating reactions. Much of modern psychology is far too superficial to be of help.
When more people engage in astute self-reflection, we’ll see the futility and foolishness of mutual animosity. Negativity will be replaced by the ability to engage the other side rationally and heartily in the battle for our psyche’s liberation and democracy’s soul.
Peter Michaelson’s Democracy’s Little Self-Help Book is available as a paperback or eBook at www.AuthorHouse.com.