Many of us are somewhere on a neurosis spectrum where our emotional and behavioral self-regulation is rendered unstable by inner conflict, misleading defenses, and lingering attachments to unresolved negative emotions.
Deep in our unconscious mind is a hidden dysfunction responsible for much of our displeasure and misery. This dysfunction, a flaw in human nature, weakens our inner governance, and thwarts our ability to act wisely, with foresight, integrity, and moral courage.
I’ve written extensively on this subject, and I keep trying in my writing to make this depth psychology as comprehensible as possible. However, the knowledge, when accessed at the deepest reaches of our psyche, strikes us as absurd. This knowledge is what we most hate to see in ourselves. In our unconscious resistance, we find it almost unbelievable. Here I am once again, trying to explain what we’re determined not to know. The knowledge I present here is taken from classical psychoanalysis. It was discovered by Sigmund Freud and later developed clinically by the Neo-Freudian, Edmund Bergler.
Let’s slowly work our way down to these depths, starting with consideration of the repetition compulsion, a dynamic force involved in inner conflict. The repetition compulsion is largely an unconscious tendency to repeat or recycle, through inner conflict, various negative emotions and their accompanying self-defeat, that remain unresolved within us. From depth psychology’s perspective, two primary components of the compulsion are inner passivity and the inner critic. When not mindful of these two components, especially when emotionally challenged, we are prone to repeatedly experience inner conflict. The conflict involves inner passivity (the defensive nature of our unconscious subordinate ego) clashing with the inner critic (a biological drive that inflicts upon us aggressive disrespect).
The compulsion to experience inner conflict is generated by unresolved emotions first experienced in childhood. Inner passivity and inner conflict are actively involved in how people can be sensitive, often painfully, to one or more of these first hurts (feeling deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned). As adults, most of us are compelled, to some degree or other, to continue experiencing, through inner conflict, one or more of the first hurts in the context of daily life. Our sensitivity to these hurts constitutes a deadly flaw that produces needless suffering.
Here’s an example of inner conflict: Consciously, we want to feel accepted, supported, and loved, but unconsciously many of us are anticipating feelings or experiences of being rejected (one of the first hurts). The repetition compulsion, in this context, involves an unwitting entrapment in the conflict between wanting love versus entertaining feelings and expectations of being unloved. Such conflicts apply to all eight of the first hurts. This dysfunction helps us to understand why, in the English language, far more words express negative emotions than positive ones.
Why is the repetition compulsion so powerful? Here we approach the brutal reality we’re loathe to accept. The instigator of inner conflict and our continuing sensitivity to the first hurts derives from a repressed, non-sexual masochistic instinct that arises from the oral stage of childhood development, the first 18 months of life. This masochistic instinct, identified 100 years ago by Freud, develops out of the infant’s biologically based megalomania, which is an extreme self-centeredness experienced by babies—who are, of course, totally lacking in worldly experience—to imagine or know of existence outside themselves.
Babies feel in a primitive manner that their experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, are what they have wished for: Whatever happens is what I wish to happen. This notion protects megalomania, a primitive sense of existence and agency in what is otherwise the baby’s exceedingly helpless state. The megalomania is fortified by another irrational conviction, employed instinctively by the baby’s libido (pleasure principle) to make sense of what might be experienced as unpleasant: If this experience is what I want, it must be what I like. Many of the baby’s experiences can be unpleasant—being cleaned, diapered, dressed, and waiting to be fed. Yet the baby, to protect megalomania, manages through libido to make these experiences agreeable on the “understanding” they are allegedly self-given, self-bestowed.
Later, as an adult, an individual can continue to generate bittersweet affinities for negative experiences, accompanied consciously or unconsciously by the rationalizing notion, This is who I am, this is how I know myself, this is how it is. A degree of libido-induced gratification, combined with stubborn self-righteousness, arises through this self-imposed disinformation.
In other words, the masochistic streak in human nature, a biological flaw, arises from the infant’s primitive self-centeredness (megalomania, the conviction of being at the center of all that exists). The masochism persists in the adult psyche, where recurring experiences of inner conflict and the first hurts fuel self-pity and a wide range of emotional and behavioral dysfunctions.
The more neurotic we are as adults, the more sensitive we are to one or more of these first hurts and the more prone we are to becoming emotionally enmeshed in them. We’re still producing, as we did as babies, a perverse pleasure-in-displeasure as we unwittingly protect the last traces of megalomania—our egotism’s conceit and our resistance to accepting a more humble, objective sense of self.
As mentioned, the displeasure or suffering is experienced in conjunction with inner conflict. Inner conflict includes inner passivity’s defensiveness and its resort to a wide variety of misleading psychological defenses. Inner conflict arises because inner passivity’s weak nature and masochistic disposition makes itself a target of self-aggression from the inner critic. The inner critic attacks our integrity and mocks us for inner weakness, especially for our unconscious ego’s passive willingness to recycle the first hurts masochistically. This accords with Freud’s finding that the inner critic (superego) is a primitive intelligence or drive, a biological function for the release of aggression, that disperses some of its energy against the nearest or weakest target—one’s own receptive unconscious ego.
Our challenge is to become aware of this congenital weakness. Inner conflict, we become aware, is energized by our unconscious, masochistic willingness to replay and recycle whatever is unresolved (the repetition compulsion). Self-pity (experienced often as a sorrowful conviction of one’s innocent victimhood) is usually the first painful symptom to arise from this hidden dynamic. Other primary symptoms are indecision, anxiety, confusion, mediocrity, depression, procrastination, and flawed judgment.
Consider how much passivity is involved in those who seek to feel helpless and controlled (two of the first hurts) in sexual masochism. Sexual masochism is the surface eruption of libido’s power to produce perverse gratification from otherwise painful experiences. With much greater subtlety in everyday life, we unconsciously produce an alluring, bittersweet indulgence in the first hurts, though the conscious pleasure here is minimal. Evidence for this dysfunction is seen in humanity’s penchant for feeling victimized (or identifying with victims), then covering up the hidden indulgence with the psychological defenses of resentment, bitterness, anger, passive-aggressive reactions, righteous protests, or violence.
The passive, defensive side of inner conflict is typically preoccupied with fending off, with limited success, the inner critic’s aggression and mockery concerning the person’s passive, masochistic entanglement in the first hurts. The inner critic is attuned to the nature of our inner weakness and uses this instinctive awareness to its advantage in fulfillment of its own agenda. It mocks and punishes us for being entangled masochistically in one or more of the first hurts. The passive side of the conflict often accepts some degree of punishment—typically guilt, shame, anxiety, moodiness—as a pound of flesh offering to the inner critic to get it to back off.
People benefit greatly when, through deepening recognition of this aggressive-passive inner dynamic, they’re able to replace their inner passivity with healthy assertiveness and aggression, which is experienced on an inner level as the power to neutralize the inner critic and trust one’s better self for guidance and a sense of truth. This ability to displace inner passivity with a strong, more conscious sense of self occurs largely automatically over time, as long as we’re recognizing and tracking our inner passivity.
Here’s one example of the insight we acquire in the process: Even when we’re absorbing aggression from the inner critic, we often find it difficult at such times to recognize this inner assault. We can detect it, however, by tracking our thoughts and recognizing their defensiveness over some issue or situation in our life. We can then backtrack to understand why we’re being defensive. Typically, our inner critic has been attacking us for some (often just minor or alleged) wrongdoing, usually something that occurred in the preceding hours or days. We now bring into focus these illegitimate intrusions from the inner critic. This enables us to neutralize these intrusions by exposing their irrationality and cruelty and thereby not taking them seriously. Insights such as this constitute a growing body of vital self-knowledge.
Inner Passivity’s Prime Role
Our lingering sensitivity to the first hurts derives largely from inner passivity, where the masochism lurks. The primary psychological weakness here is inner passivity’s receptivity to the inner critic’s aggression. Often, this involves the tendency to accept unchallenged the inner critic’s condemnation and punishment. The first hurts all present unconscious opportunities to engage in the miseries of unconscious masochism and to take the hurts deep inside oneself to be freshly experienced, even with memories decades old.
The hurts are usually triggered by events in the world around us through transference and projection. Through the powerful allure of masochism, adults then passively take the hurt deep into their own emotional life and unsteady sense of self to be painfully recycled and replayed.
A person under the influence of masochistically contaminated inner passivity (with its accompanying inner conflict and menacing inner critic) will have some deficiency of self-regulation and a tendency to be easily triggered. Inherent in inner passivity is some experience of weakness, particularly in being willing to absorb the inner critic’s aggression and unconsciously fearful of it. People are resistant to seeing and appreciating the existence and influence of inner passivity, so our willingness to try to see it (and keep it in sight) represents us being at our best. People usually do best by trying to understand and perceive their passivity through a deeper feeling sense of it rather than strictly intellectually. Keeping an informed eye, in a consistent manner, on inner passivity’s many influences upon us, we eventually begin to liberate ourselves from it.
One of civilization’s great liabilities is the widespread masochistic willingness of people to linger emotionally and cognitively in the sense of helplessness and unworthiness. People go back and forth in inner conflict, stuck emotionally and mentally in naïve, unhelpful considerations of their psychological predicament. Often the conflict involves one’s determination to establish that he or she is strong and aggressive, thereby denying or repressing one’s identification with the passive side of the conflict. Self-defeating, reactive aggression is often produced through this conflict. For instance, people will identify with reactive, aggressive political leaders, finding gratification in mimicking the politicians’ aggressiveness while denying or covering up their own underlying passivity. People can feel fully righteous in these reactions, though underlying guilt and shame often accompany this unhealthy acting-out.
An emotional entanglement in any one of the eight first hurts creates some degree of passive disconnection from one’s better self. A sensitivity to feeling criticized, for instance, involves the experience of resonating emotionally with being criticized. Often, the hurt arises from the slightest implication of criticism or from criticism that is simply imagined. This illustrates how disconnected an individual can be from a better, stronger sense of self. It’s also evidence for the likelihood the person’s suffering is masochistically fortified.
This disconnection from a better self involves a deep, often repressed lack of self-assurance and the sense, in certain circumstances, of lacking inner strength, being easily overwhelmed, unable to see or develop a successful path forward, unable to make meaningful connections with others, being easily discouraged, and unable to complete worthy projects.
It’s up to individuals to determine which of the eight first hurts are involved in their emotional suffering. Having a psychotherapist helps, but few therapists work at this deep level. The more precise the self-knowledge or significant the insight, the sooner the masochistic affinity for that form of suffering can be overcome.
Chronic self-doubt is another common symptom of inner passivity. It’s also a direct sense of being passive. Chronic self-doubt is experienced both consciously and unconsciously. It’s often a symptom of how, through inner conflict, people passively allow their inner critic to get away with mocking and demeaning them, thereby raising the degree of one’s self-doubt. Self-doubt, when more intense and painful, can be understood as self-alienation, which describes the disconnection of people who passively betray their better self and become enablers of the primitive, negative inner critic, masochistically attached to it while living in acute, repressed fear of it. Such people readily become supporters of authoritarian leaders because, in being disconnected from their better self, they can’t feel the values that a higher sense of self shares with democracy. They also feel rescued personally from their inner critic’s self-aggression and their subsequent self-doubt (and even self-loathing) through their surrender of their will to an authoritarian politician or cult leader, who represents their inner critic.
Self-doubt refers here to the difficulties people can have accessing their strengths and feeling their value. This self-doubt has its origins in inner passivity and in the degree to which, during inner conflict, the passive side serves as an enabler of the inner critic and allows the inner critic to get away with its abusive antics. These processes are mechanistic in a sense, though not hard-wired. The more we acquire the correct self-knowledge (inner truth), the sooner we’ll stop taking the on-ramp into the stream of inner passivity.
Another player in the psyche, the id, is a primitive instinct concerned with the satisfaction of drives (for sex, power, aggression, survival, self-aggrandizement, destruction). I don’t say much in my writings about this aspect of the psyche because its role in inner conflict, as I see it, is secondary to what I have described in this essay. The primitive id is a biological inheritance we can subdue through our progress in resolving inner conflict. The id is “civilized” as we acquire greater self-regulation and become more conscious. When we succumb to the id’s impulses, our inner critic will condemn the weakness. Still, recognizing and overcoming inner passivity—with its deadly masochistic allure—is the most important step because it directly liberates our authentic self.
In my writings, I have usually avoided reference to the heavy-duty word “masochism.” I have instead used euphemisms that I believe slip more easily past my readers’ and clients’ resistance. These euphemisms include references to the repetition compulsion, or emotional or secret attachments, or a “deadly flaw,” or the unconscious willingness or determination to replay and recycle unresolved negative emotions. I often say we “cozy up” to unresolved negative emotions, or indulge in them, or unwittingly “get into mischief” with unconscious choices we make to “go negative.” Often, I simply stress the idea that inner passivity, as an unconscious identification, is powerfully alluring as a limited, self-defeating experience of self. Sometimes though I just come out and say it—the ugly M word—and listen for the thundering silence that follows.
Peter Michaelson’s latest book, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), is available here.