Civilization is collapsing in the Middle East. Accord between Russia and the West is in shambles. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. Political and social dissension runs high in America. Totalitarians in China tighten their grip.
This dissension, disorder, oppression, and mayhem are fueled by human passions, particularly negative emotions such as anger, fear, intolerance, and hatred. Why is such unreason still raging among us? The human race should be doing better. It’s almost 70 years since the end of the Second World War and the signing of the United Nations Charter when a new standard was unveiled for civilized behavior.
Sixty million people were killed in World War II. Was it all in vain? Why haven’t we met the challenge to live up to the reasonable expectation that we might now, finally, be smart enough to live in peace and harmony. I blame the problem largely on modern psychology. It has failed to teach people the essential facts about human nature.
Many modern psychologists promote the idea that our negative feelings and behaviors are, for the most part, attributable to social, cultural, political, and economic factors—or the malice of others. These external factors, however, are just peripheral. Sure, they play some role in how we experience ourselves. But they’re of secondary importance compared with the inner dynamics whereby, with only minor or even nonexistent provocation from external sources, we churn up anger, resentment, envy, greed, jealousy, and hatred. Such negativity arises within us, and we have to learn how this inner process works in order to bring stability and peace to ourselves and the human race.
Some psychologists also blame so-called toxic parents for the misery many people experience. Bad parenting is obviously a problem, yet many victims of such mistreatment or neglect can move forward successfully and happily with the right self-knowledge. We all need to understand how, unconsciously, we’re prepared to hold on to old familiar feelings of having been victimized, unsupported, neglected, or rejected. Even many children who were raised in a decent manner are prone—through infantile self-centeredness, irrational expectations, and highly-subjective interpretations of their circumstances—to believe they were somehow wronged or damaged. As adults, we have a tendency to transfer on to others the expectation that they will also treat us in an unkind manner, thereby alienating them with our negative reactions to them, while recreating negative feelings and expectations within ourselves. These dynamics of emotional processing need to be made conscious.
That’s not happening because, in addition to blaming outside elements for our misery and failure, most psychotherapists use superficial behavioral and cognitive methods to address our suffering and self-defeating behaviors. These methods are inadequate. To untangle ourselves from painful negative emotions, we have to become very smart and insightful about the inner dynamics of our unconscious mind.
What are the main inner dynamics? Worldwide dissension starts with our aggression, which is a natural instinct or biological component in human nature. Our ancestors, as predators, needed aggression to survive. We still need it to make our way assertively and successfully in the world, although our happiness depends on using this aggression humanely and wisely. The problem is that, in lacking self-regulation, we turn some of the aggression on others in a negative manner. We lack inner self-regulation because we haven’t learned or assimilated vital psychological knowledge.
From an early age some of our biological or natural aggression turns inward against us and forms our inner critic or superego. Sigmund Freud explained 100 years ago how this all happens. We have such an abundance of natural aggression that it can’t all be channeled outward. It becomes congested within us and forms our inner critic. The inner critic then becomes the seat of self-aggression and the hidden master of our personality. We absorb all sorts of criticism, ridicule, mockery, scorn, and abuse from our inner critic. This self-aggression, which exists in most people in varying degrees, can dominate our inner life, holds us accountable, oppress our spirit, and frequently belittle us with both subtle and overt feelings and thoughts. Yet the papers and books published by mainstream psychology seldom mention this inner aggression. Nor do the media, which depend on that literature for their reporting, say much about it.
We absorb this self-aggression, usually unconsciously, and it quickly produces a wide variety of negative feelings and painful suffering, including depression, anxiety, fear, stress, and physical tension. Self-aggression is irrational. It consists of words, messages, and feelings—again, often experienced unconsciously—that are unfair and cruel. Many people are aware that they’re self-critical and self-blaming. But they take this inner condition for granted, as if it’s somehow normal or the best they can expect of life. Neither the psychological establishment nor the media are teaching people to see their inner plight more objectively. Even modern psychoanalysis, which has become increasingly passive as a social or educational force, downplays the significance of the inner critic and the negativity it dispenses.
The more we absorb this negativity (or self-aggression) from the inner critic, the more our reason or rationality is contaminated. We’re filled with self-doubt. We start to believe falsehoods and do dumb things, leading to self-defeat and self-sabotage.
How is it that we absorb the aggression? Is there a mechanism to block it? The healthier or stronger we are on an inner level, the less troublesome is the self-aggression and the more successfully we can block it. With insight, we understand that the implications and accusations contained in the aggression can’t be trusted to represent the truth of a given situation. Unfortunately, we have a weakness in our psyche that serves as an accomplice to, or enabler of, the aggression. This is our lingering passivity—the old sense of weakness and helplessness—that we experienced so profoundly when we were infants, toddlers, and children.
This inner weakness—which I call inner passivity and which in psychoanalysis has been called the subordinate or unconscious ego—blocks us from accessing inner strength. Inner passivity actually has a kind of intelligence of its own in the sense that it expresses defensiveness, excuses, denial, helplessness, and “poor little me” or “what’s the use” messages. Inner passivity is a major player in our psychological defense system. In step with self-aggression, it does an awkward, tortured tango which constitutes the primary inner conflict in our psyche.
So we absorb aggression on an inner level, and then we attempt through our defense system to prove that we’re aggressive, not passive. We start acting aggressively toward others, but this aggression is often (1) just a way in which we are denying or covering up our underlying passivity and (2) a way we blow off steam as a result of all the aggression we’re absorbing from our inner critic.
If we‘re not quelling inner aggression, how can we neutralize aggression and violence in the world?
The more we absorb inner aggression, the more we’re absorbing self-disgust, self-rejection, self-condemnation, and even self-hatred. To the degree that we begin to experience self-rejection or self-hatred, we will begin to feel rejection and hatred toward others. We begin to believe that this negativity we have for them is totally justified by their allegedly stupid, vile, cruel, and threatening beliefs and behaviors. Wanting to hurt or attack them feels justified.
At this point, political extremists, as one example, believe that their hateful perceptions of others and reality are totally justified by actual circumstances. Their hatred also serves as a defense to cover up their participation in the unconscious process whereby they absorb self-aggression in the first place.
Terrorists see the world through this narrow focus, and the focus isn’t necessarily much bigger among those political operatives and partisans in the West who clash with one another in a mean-spirited way. People of an authoritarian or totalitarian mindset are strongly identified with the inner critic or self-aggression, and they thereby feel right at “home” (as in their psyche) in dominating and oppressing others.
As the inner conflict between aggression and passivity is eased (in the process of acquiring self-knowledge), we become attuned, through our consciousness, to that capacity or function within us that struggles heroically to resolve the conflict. This is our authentic self, or Self. Like a bright color, it’s difficult to describe in words. To fathom it, we have to begin to catch glimpses of it in ourselves. It comes to life within us as we struggle to raise our consciousness.
Metaphorically, this authentic self is a mighty oak that began life as a tiny seed. Emotionally, it centers us in feelings of peace, harmony, and equanimity. The self enables us to respond appropriately, rather than react inappropriately because of inner conflict, to challenging situations. The self is the essential nature within that helps us to tame inner chaos, disperse negativity, and expose our hidden capacity for self-destruction or evil. It connects us to our goodness and value. In the process, we become one with it.
The self is the great peacemaker of our species. However, it’s not likely to arise within us while we’re blaming others for our misery and misfortune or settling for psychological knowledge that skims the surface of consciousness, leaving unperturbed our base instincts and chaotic inner dynamics.