It has been my dream job, descending into the psyche’s inner cosmos, hunting for relics of childhood, signs of inner conflict, and traces of our essence.
Our psyche is where our consciousness struggles to evolve. At this depth, the psyche is opaque, its ambience dim and dusky. Penlight in hand, I’ll try once again with candid prose to illuminate this hidden realm.
Depth psychology is a broad term that includes many methods and theories. I was lucky enough in 1985 to find a rich vein of it. At that time—in Naples, Florida—I began to see a therapist, Nordic Winch, known locally for working deeply in the psyche. He was a gracious fellow, an off-the-grid, first-rate teacher of classical psychoanalysis.
My weekly sessions with him became excursions into the shocking extent of my ignorance and self-deception. My wife, Sandra, who had a Master’s degree in psychology (Eastern Michigan University, 1971) and a Florida mental-health counseling license, also began doing sessions with Nordic.
We had thought ourselves well-versed in psychology, but the knowledge he presented to us revealed a remarkable new dimension of human nature. Our sessions soon began to perk me up, and I became increasingly adept at self-understanding.
I was enrolled at that time in a graduate program, and two years later I received a Master’s in Psychology and Counseling from Antioch University in Ohio. Soon Sandra and I had a thriving psychotherapy practice in Naples. Our practice offered clients our first rendering of the knowledge and method we would soon be describing in our books.
I have previously presented overviews of this knowledge, always trying to make it more intelligible. I’m at my keyboard again, telling people what they unconsciously do not want to read, hear, or think about. What sorcerous phraseology or cunning lexicon can puncture our ironclad bubble? And what sublime weave of meager words can make the invisible visible? The facts that emerge from our depths are indeed shocking, and I’ll do my best to make them coherent and palatable. Anyway, here are the basics of this depth psychology. Digested slowly, this knowledge reconfigures who we think we are.
The psyche is a cauldron of irrationality. Most of us, in varying degrees, find ourselves entangled at times in negative emotions associated with feeling 1) deprived, 2) refused, 3) helpless, 4) controlled, 5) criticized, 6) rejected, 7) abandoned, and 8) betrayed. (In this essay I repeat this list of primary emotions several times. To avoid redundancy, I’ll subsequently refer to them as the first hurts.)
Children encounter some of these first hurts, in measures slight to severe, by the time they’re six years old. These hurtful impressions are often of a subjective nature, based on how children perceive they’re being treated by parents, siblings, and others. Children are easily afflicted by the first hurts because of their insecurities, fears, limited understanding, and instinct to personalize interactions with others. Complicating matters, children can become convinced they’re on the receiving end of malice, based on how they experience shaming, reproaches, and punishments. Of course, parents who are unkind or negligent can certainly make things worse for the child.
Children are simply too inexperienced and undeveloped to process their world rationally. Even many adults are unable to think and behave rationally much of the time. It’s important to understand the nature of a child’s irrationality in order to understand our adult self. Young children tend to experience necessary socialization as infringements on their sense of privilege, as attempts to control them and defy their wishes. During the terrible twos, for instance, they typically protest loudly against attempts at socialization and toilet training. They interpret situations in terms of being refused and controlled. Malice and danger, they feel, exist in abundance outside themselves, while what is good is self-given.
At the heart of a young child’s consciousness is a primitive grandiosity known as megalomania. All the infant knows is his or her little body and sensations. Infants and babies operate under the illusion that they are at the center of existence. All that exists, they construe, springs forth from themselves. The child’s acute self-centeredness distorts the intentions of parents and misinterprets their behaviors.
This illusion of megalomania has a primitive appeal, a gratifying enchantment of the kind a medieval king or queen might have savored. The illusion is biologically based, serving perhaps to strengthen the survival instinct, while offering emotional compensation for the child’s prolonged helplessness. (The child’s consciousness, classical psychoanalysis contends, includes a mix of the illusions of both megalomania and omnipotence.)
In the first years of life, children are emotionally invested in preserving this sense of enchantment. Megalomania induces young children to believe that whatever is happening to them is what they have decreed or wished for. Of course, some of their experiences are unpleasant (e.g., waiting hungrily for mother to show up with milk or feeling infringed upon with diapering or clothing). Under the impression that all that is good is self-given, they presume in their primitive reckoning that any unpleasantness must be what they have chosen. This megalomania-induced assessment is processed in the child’s consciousness to this effect: “If this displeasure is happening, it must be wanted. Therefore, it must be good.”
Now the child’s megalomania enlists libido, the drive or desire for pleasure, to turn what would normally be an unpleasant experience into a megalomania-protecting satisfaction or gratification. Libido is a powerful instinctual energy or force, easily capable of turning displeasure into pleasure, as is apparent in adults who engage in sexual masochism. Again, the child’s irrationality, having enlisted libido, proceeds in this vein: “Because it’s happening, it’s what is wanted. If it’s what is wanted, it must be good. Yes, it does feel acceptable. This is what is wanted.”
This primitive emotional reasoning foreshadows the adult’s susceptibility to irrationality: Young children are highly subjective, and many adults are relatively easily swept up in fundamentalism, conspiracy theories, and crackpot notions. When rejecting facts and reality, adults can experience a primitive gratification in “knowing” what is true, thereby activating (as they once did as young children) a consoling sense of power or certainty: “Reality is what I say it is, or what I say it should be!” The childhood illusion becomes the adult delusion, secured by anal stubbornness.
To repeat, when babies and toddlers falsify reality, they can continue to feel the gratification and pleasure associated with the illusion of megalomania. When we see the residues of megalomania in the adult psyche, we’re able to understand—in the political sphere, for example—why an authoritarian figure can find popular support. (I make political and social observations in this essay to show the carryover of infantile traits into adult thinking and behavior. These examples from modern life also provide evidence for the veracity of what’s said here about the psyche.)
The authoritarian offers his followers and supporters, through himself, the opportunity to identify with him and his claim to power, thereby enabling followers to savor the glory of being emotionally associated with a “superior” being who does “what I damn well please.” This bombast resurrects within followers, through the remains of their own megalomania and omnipotence, the old infantile thrills and gratifications associated with the defiance of reality.
As an allegedly all-powerful figure, the authoritarian presumably protects his followers, as well, from the malice that is felt to be rampant outside themselves and their circle. Again, this mirrors the infantile compulsion to see the good as self-generated and malice as an external threat.
Loyalty to the authoritarian as a presumed superior man or woman can generate an electrifying uncanniness and exuberant grandiosity that overrides one’s self-interest and rationality. This psychological reaction is also the underlying dynamic in any cult: The greater the loyalty, the greater the identification with the supreme leader, the greater the old thrill of megalomania.
The consciousness of such followers is entangled in passivity and disconnected from their better self. This passivity, however, triggers an impulse to act aggressively, as it does with a two-year-old. Because of their disconnect from their better self, the reactionary behaviors of such adults are often the only sense of power or self-assurance they can muster. Reactive aggression and stubborn defiance, rather than healthy self-regulation and self-possession, become their instinctive expressions of power.
Young children are able for several years to extend the life of megalomania until, with reluctance, they largely abandon its most irrational features in the face of overwhelming reality. Still, megalomania’s residues linger as egotism and narcissism in many adults. This self-centeredness is certainly apparent in those who value wealth and power (as instruments of grandiosity and omnipotence) over the common good. Self-centeredness is a factor, too, in everyday people who lack empathy, generosity, and open-mindedness.
Having enlisted libido in one category of experience, young children proceed to enlist it in another. They first turned unpleasant physical sensations into gratifying experiences, and next they proceed to enlist libido to repeat the process, this time with emotional experiences. Unconsciously, they enlist the pleasure function, whether in the brain or psyche, to sugarcoat (libidinize) feelings associated with real or perceived refusal, helplessness, criticism, rejection, and so on (the first hurts). For instance, a child experiences grim satisfaction in the sense of power associated with feeling that, “I, through my naughty behavior, cause Mommy and Daddy to refuse me.” This claim to power denies or covers up the child’s underlying helplessness and passivity.
Baby fears, especially fears of being unloved and helpless, can be processed through libidinization, which then makes irrational fear more difficult to dislodge in adults. The lingering effects of libidinized fear can be observed, for example, in the chilling pleasures adults experience from horror stories and book and movie thrillers, as well as in the manner in which guns are fetishized as a necessary protection from alleged danger.
We become hooked from a young age on the first hurts. Our enlisting of libido to turn displeasure into pleasure means that experiences of refusal, deprivation, helplessness (the first hurts) become emotional attachments. As adults, we remain sensitive to these emotions and easily become entangled in them. The worldwide plague of neurosis is underpinned by these emotional attachments. It’s no stretch to say the first hurts become emotional addictions.
When people become more conscious of where their attention goes, they can recognize the powerful pull of negative emotions. Inner conflicts can now be observed. On one side of such conflict, we desire to feel fulfilled and self-satisfied. On the other side, we can sense being drawn to, if not fixated upon, impressions of being deprived, refused, helpless, (the first hurts).
Inner conflict largely consists of our conscious desire to be free of painful emotions versus our unconscious readiness and willingness, through emotional attachments, to replay and recycle the unresolved first hurts. Meanwhile, our psychological defenses operate on a hair-trigger, primed to deny and coverup our unconscious willingness to indulge in one or more of these first hurts.
Now we arrive head on at one of the shocking secrets of our psyche: the existence within us of unconscious masochism. I usually avoid this cringeworthy term, preferring instead to write of our unconscious attachments to the unresolved first hurts or to our compulsion to self-punish. People have a strong aversion, the psychological equivalent of a gag reflex, to acceptance of the possibility that such unconscious masochism is active within us. There’s plenty of evidence, though, for its existence. For starters, there’s the persistence of the first hurts which frequently haunt people throughout their life, often becoming more painful over time.
Neurotics are entangled in these negative emotions in a manner that is ultimately masochistic. To a chronic degree, they make unconscious choices to indulge in, and even to provoke, experiences of these first hurts. They then experience the following consequences of this masochistically-saturated inner conflict: self-pity, regrets, grievances, anger, cynicism, indecision, blaming, loneliness, along with convictions of failure, weakness, unworthiness, and many other hurts and indulgences. They become distorters of reality and chroniclers of victimhood—blaming others, collecting injustices, and complaining of mistreatment.
Self-defeat and self-sabotage are driven by the compulsive power of masochism. Its intensity is readily apparent in sexual masochism. A masochistic allure is certainly a factor in the thrill of certain sexual fantasies and in some sexual role-playing. Pure masochism is perhaps the main instigator of the wars, nuclear-weapons proliferation, and environmental degradation that portend the existence of a death drive and threaten our head-first plunge into extinction.
Neurosis exists on a spectrum, and most of us are somewhere on it. Through self-knowledge we can understand our inner conflict and the allure of our negative side. Self-knowledge and inner watchfulness fortify our intelligence. We develop an attunement to inner talk, recurring feelings, and tension and stress in the body that reveal the presence of inner conflict. Each person is challenged to recognize the specific negative emotions (among the first hurts) that he or she is compelled to act out. Insight and mindfulness become the cure.
These revelations from depth psychology, while welcomed on one level for the ability to relieve suffering, do expose, to our initial chagrin, the conceits of our ego. The ego pridefully assumes to be fully informed about our inner life. On first hearing about unconscious masochism, the ego shudders and exclaims to itself, “How come I don’t know this!” This reaction is very humbling. Now our resistance to the knowledge flares up, producing a stubborn loyalty to our old suffering self. The thought now is, “This can’t be true! Me, a seeker of suffering! Forget about it!” We tend to shun our inner depths, particularly any intimations of unconscious masochism.
Sigmund Freud alluded to underlying masochism in a few papers and with his discussions of the repetition compulsion, the death drive, and our penchant for “crying over spilt milk.” The repetition compulsion usually concerns negative experiences, often involving an impulse to inflict upon others, despite what misery that entails, what one has passively endured. Recognizing this compulsion and taking responsibility for it involves dethroning our ego. We are stubborn creatures, resistant to inner progress, practitioners of ego-fundamentalism and protectors of an ego-ideal, who believe in the supremacy of common sense, our innate capacity to discern reality, and our superiority over other animals.
Being told in 2021 that we’re pawns of a primitive condition, a blockage in our evolvement comprised of unconscious masochism, is equivalent to the shock in 1860 of hearing, by way of Darwin’s “heresy,” that we’re descendants of primitive animals. Our instinct is to retreat into resistance and denial.
Depth psychology is the art of seeing into the nature of our being. It helps us to see that we largely co-create—with chance, nature, and the laws of science—our experiences and achievements. Acquiring this perceptiveness means we have to let go of our ego and its precious victim mentality.
Back in Florida
In south Florida in the 1980s, Sandra and I had initially felt resistance to this psychological knowledge. When told by our therapist that we were emotionally attached to feeling rejected, helpless, and criticized, we had absolutely hated to hear it. However, we soon accepted this knowledge as being true because, as we applied it to our daily experiences, we became stronger and less reactive. We experienced benefits far beyond what other methods had provided.
Sandra needed a respite from the heavy workload of our Florida practice, so we moved in 1993 to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we had several times visited on vacation. We started up another practice and kept writing. Three more of our books came out in 1999.
All our books were self-published. During the 1990s, I had two literary agents in New York City, one after the other, trying to find a publisher for my third book. The content and writing were good enough, the agents agreed, but the implications about humanity’s unconscious appetite for suffering were too gruesome for modern tastes.
Sandra died of breast cancer, in 1999, one week after her last two titles came back from the printer. She had been diagnosed two years earlier, yet she kept talking to clients and writing until the last few months. With a shaky hand, she signed a few copies of her last two titles. I can’t imagine going through the stages of death with more dignity and grace than she did. She was far ahead of me in her kindness, generosity, and consciousness.
We had worked closely together, discussing our projects and helping each other with the writing. I wasn’t sure I could keep it up without her. I went back to her gravesite the day after her funeral. There in the loose earth lay a ballpoint pen, a black and silver Paper Mate. The pen now sits on the base of my computer monitor, still able to release little scratches of ink.
I did carry on, this time with new insight. I described how this insight came to me in the Introduction of my following book, published in 2002. (I have produced a new edition of this book and others in recent years.) The insight followed an accident. In early 2000, I toppled backwards while ice skating and fell on my hands, badly straining my wrists. They took six months to recover full strength. For two weeks following the accident, I was besieged with recurring dreams of pathetic, passive people standing around in misery and disengagement. I had been, relatively speaking, rendered physically weak and helpless, so it was no surprise to be having such dreams. They were exposing deposits of inner passivity still active in my psyche. Reflecting on these dreams, I began to understand more fully the significance of inner passivity as a singular player in our psyche. (Some of my more recent writing on this universal aspect of human nature can be found here, here, here, and here.)
Inner passivity, I realized then, presented a new and improved way to communicate to clients and readers the essentials of depth psychology. This passivity is a major participant in inner conflict, especially in its role as the primitive “intelligence” behind our psychological defenses. The concept of inner passivity can also be helpful as a means to sense and access, mentally and emotionally, the existence and experience of unconscious masochism. Inner passivity can be detected, strongly or subtly, in our chronic replaying and recycling of the first hurts.
Understanding inner passivity and appreciating its influence can be achieved by sensing it as a presence in one’s mind, feelings, and body. Inner passivity’s favorite sentiment is, “What’s the point?” Its primary lament is, “Why didn’t I think to do that?” Its most common behaviors include indecision and procrastination. Its most common experiences involve feeling disengaged, overwhelmed, disconnected, and directionless. Under the influence of inner passivity, people will “spin their wheels” over some particular issue or challenge, or feel oppressed and overwhelmed by everyday life, all for the unconscious purpose of recycling the helpless, passive feeling. On this website and in my books, I have shown correlations between inner passivity and a hundred or more distressful symptoms and forms of self-defeat.
The term “inner passivity” is found in classical psychoanalysis, sometimes in reference to the unconscious or subordinate ego, and my writing has been giving it new perspective. In its elusiveness, inner passivity is the phantom of the psyche, as the title of my 2002 book denotes. The phantom, channeling Darth Vader, extends an open invitation to “come over to the passive side.” Inner passivity can usurp our mind, all while enabling and accommodating our harsh inner critic.
The inner critic is a primitive force or energy of self-aggression operating in the psyche. Its assessments of us (especially “You idiot!” and “You fool!”) are not to be trusted. Our challenge is to neutralize its aggression and establish our own healthy or natural aggression. Healthy aggression is marked by an ability to advocate for oneself, and it’s grounded in a trust in our integrity and compassion. The inner critic’s primitive aggression, along with the previously discussed megalomania and libido, are the trio of inborn drives that can wreak havoc when we’re blind to our psyche’s dynamics.
Our inner critic instinctively treats us with disrespect, sees us in a negative light, and directs malice our way. It is the source, through the psychological dynamic of transference, for our feeling of being treated with malice by others or for our impression of being seen by others in a negative light. Our inner critic is also the “inspiration” for our tendency to see others in a negative light or for our willingness to direct malice and hatred toward them.
When we see others judgmentally, we can detect through inner mindfulness a smug, masochistic gratification lurking in our emotional background. At such times, we are identifying with those we project our disdain upon, thereby unwittingly taking this pain deeply into ourselves and recycling the hurt of self-abandonment or self-alienation. This produces inner guilt and shame, as it disconnects us from our better self in a way that is passively masochistic.
As we explore our psyche, we recognize our masochistic willingness to feel ourselves to be weak, passive, and defensive in our relationship with our hard-nosed inner critic (superego). The inner critic’s self-aggression is, at its worst, an authoritarian, even fascist, force within us. Our inner critic attacks our integrity, and we, through inner passivity, libidinize our receptiveness to this self-abuse.
We also libidinize the guilt and shame that we unwittingly produce through our passive acceptance of punishment from the inner critic. This accounts for why guilt and shame are so difficult to expunge from our emotional life. Unconscious masochism, in addition to its perverse nature, serves (rather shockingly, I would say) as a psychological defense—an especially self-defeating one—intended to ward off the self-aggression of the inner critic. Our unwitting use of a defense that libidinizes self-aggression serves as a passive way to reduce to absurdity the inner critic and the trips it lays on us: The inner critic supposedly cannot effectively punish us when we’re able to libidinize the punishment.
Yet the protection we reap from this defense is minimal. As a countermeasure, the defense is porous and feeble. The belittlement and punishment doled out by the inner critic still accumulate in our psyche, contributing to mood disorders, clinical depression, money troubles, and a wide range of emotional reactions and self-defeating behaviors.
As well, the masochistic gratification this defense offers is slight, especially compared with the overall self-damage that accrues as this inner conflict persists. Despite the self-defeat, the defense, as an expression of our perverse stubbornness, is a success in preserving the remnants of childhood megalomania. People trapped in such inner conflict tend, very much, to be self-centered and stubbornly defensive.
Our basic self-doubt—our sense of being wrong, bad, a failure or disappointment—is due to both the inner critic itself and to the libidinization, through the ploys of inner passivity, of the inner critic’s aggression. This is the primary inner conflict in the human psyche, the one between self-aggression and inner passivity.
This inner conflict, when unresolved, sacrifices our better self to the authoritarian prerogatives of the inner critic. This weakening of self, along with an accompanying semi-conscious gratification, is a widespread phenomenon that can be observed, as just one example, in the moments when bittersweet self-pity is eroticized through the lamentations of country music and the blues.
Inner passivity is also in play, this time with acute suffering, in incidents of bullying and domestic abuse, when one person’s unconscious passivity triggers a reactive, unhealthy aggression from another unaware person. The driving force on the aggressor’s part is his secret willingness to identify with the passivity of the victim, an identification that resonates masochistically with his own passivity but which he unconsciously denies and covers up through his aggression: “I don’t want to identify with his or her passivity. I want to be aggressive. That’s what feels good and righteous—being aggressive!” As mentioned, employing abusive behavior is a common coverup for one’s own passive side.
The writings of Edmund Bergler M.D. (1899-1962), a Neo-Freudian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, have been for me a major source of psychological knowledge. Despite being a prolific author (27 books, some of them published by New York City’s leading publishers, along with hundreds of articles in medical and psychiatric journals), Bergler has disappeared from the pages and citations of modern psychology. He’s almost never mentioned, not even in encyclopedias of psychoanalysis, not even as someone accused of getting it all wrong.
An appreciative obituary did appear in The New York Times, yet present-day PhD graduates in psychology are unlikely to have heard of him. He coined the term “writer’s block” and wrote that humanity’s basis neurosis consisted of “psychic masochism.” Since Bergler’s work is central to my writing, I need to make one disclaimer. He made the mistake, common to psychiatrists of his era, of categorizing homosexuality as neurotic. He ought to have acceded to Freud who wrote that homosexuality “cannot be classified as an illness.”
Nevertheless, the bulk of Bergler’s writing deals with the psychological challenges that confront all humanity. His current anonymity reflects what our own resistance succeeds in doing: When challenged to consider the essence of our dark side, the very black soul of it, we run for cover. Yet we cannot reasonably deny that a darkness haunts the psyche, perhaps an innate masochism that cozies up to evil. Is evil not apparent in humanity’s passive acquiescence to a nihilistic mentality that’s been desecrating our planet? Wouldn’t evil get a lot of its traction from psychological ignorance and resistance?
Depth psychology attacks and scatters the darkness within. It liberates us from our attachment to the negative emotions that pull us in the direction of evil. This knowledge from depth psychology, should it gain traction, would inspire a rebirth of rationality. Reason and courage are braced and bolstered by inner truth, which in turn empowers us to resurrect our authentic self and to become enlightened stewards of the sanctity of life.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.