The world’s mental-health dysfunction derives largely from psychological ignorance and self-deception. Why do you think so many 21st Century people are still hateful, violent, and murderous—or so depressed and despairing. Why are so many of us unwilling to protect our planet or save democracy?
We’re more like first cousins to trolls than seekers of a better self—and I’ll tell you why. Our psychological naïveté, our ignorance involving primitive, self-damaging dynamics in our psyche, has us trapped in a personal, self-centered identity that frequently dispossesses us of generosity, compassion, and the higher reaches of human intelligence.
What aren’t we understanding about ourselves? Our psychological shallowness can be recognized on two levels. The first level is revealed in two excellent books, Desperate Remedies: Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness (Harvard University Press, 2022), by Andrew Scull, and Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (W.W. Norton, 2019), by Anne Harrington. Both these books tell the horror story of a mental-health establishment that has, despite its initial hopes and promises, failed in determining and addressing the causes of our suffering and self-defeat.
Both books chronicle a collective process over the last four decades whereby vanity, greed, and stupidity contributed to the failure to significantly advance psychological knowledge and treatment. This professional infertility is well documented: Desperate Remedies has 86 pages of endnotes and Mind Fixers has 68.
Neither of these books, however, discusses the second, deeper level of our obtuseness. To see deeper, let’s go back 100 years. Sigmund Freud, then in his sixties, stumbled upon what he considered a strange idea. He was becoming aware of how one aspect of the psyche, the superego, presided in an authoritative, aggressive, and cruel manner over a passive part of the psyche, the subordinate, unconscious ego. Later, in his seventies, he wrote of this inner conflict in his famous book, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930):
The fear of this critical agency (a fear which is at the bottom of the whole relationship), the need for punishment, is an instinctual manifestation on the part of the ego, which has become masochistic under the influence of a sadistic super-ego; it is a portion, that is to say, of the instinct toward internal destruction present in the ego, employed for forming an erotic attachment to the super-ego.
For sure, that’s a mouthful. It means, essentially, that a passive aspect in our psyche is ready and willing to cozy up to, and indulge in, feelings of being oppressed, victimized, disrespected, and punished by our superego (inner critic). In other words, we are, when neurotic, prepared to feel subordinate to a harsh inner critic and willing to absorb punishment from it.
This deadly flaw (or basic disorder) contributes to neurosis, a malady that’s more widespread than we care to admit, Even the best among us have occasional neurotic flings. Neurosis, a byproduct of our psyche’s chaos and conflict, is a disease of our intelligence and an appetite for needless suffering. It’s a form of slavery that curtails our ability to live free of emotional suffering. Neurosis is also a form of stupidity, an inciter of blaming, an enforcer of ill-will, and a booster of narcissism.
Neurosis originates biologically when, as Freud noted, our specie’s aggressive instinct is unable to expend itself fully into the environment. Even a child’s temper tantrums can’t shake off all this aggression. Biological aggression is redirected against the child’s unconscious ego, giving rise to the formation of the superego (inner critic). The biology of human nature fosters inner conflict and with it a compulsion to produce and absorb self-punishment.
Can this be true that we are pin cushions for inner abuse? Is this the Achilles’ Heel of the human race? Here we are, desperately in need of a new paradigm. Could this be it? (This essay, along with this previous one and my latest book, makes a compelling case that nonsexual masochism instigates our personal and collective dysfunction.)
This is a disconcerting concept, and I’m trying here to make it emotionally and mentally digestible. Freud struggled to bring this idea into focus, and he initially formulated it, somewhat vaguely, in terms of a primitive death drive, Thanatos, that engages in a conflicting manner with Eros, the will to thrive. Doesn’t this concept ring true given our history as conflicted creatures who manage both to destroy worlds and to elevate civilizations?
In his biography, Freud: A Life for Our Time, historian Peter Gay referenced Freud’s struggle to comprehend the possibility that the human race harbored a fateful inner conflict, on the scale of death overpowering life, saturated in nonsexual masochism:
Freud seemed a little uncertain in 1920 whether he really believed in the awesome picture of combat he had sketched, but he gradually committed himself to this dualism with all the energy at his command. … “At the beginning,” he later recalled, “I advocated the views here put forward only tentatively, but in the course of time they have acquired such a power over me that I can no longer think differently.” In 1924, in his paper “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” he employed the scheme quite casually, as though there were nothing controversial about it, and he retained it unaltered for the rest of his life. … Yet, though he was convinced of his stern vision, he was not invariably dogmatic about it. (Freud: A Life for Our Time, W.W. Norton, 1988. Pp 401-02.)
Psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler (1899-1962) followed up on Freud’s discovery, writing many books and articles that elaborated clinically on the subject. He offered an extensive thesis on the dynamics and symptoms of what he called psychic masochism. My understanding of psychoanalysis is based directly on Bergler’s findings, and I was a client for many years of a Berglerian analyst. An overview of Bergler’s work is provided in my book, Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness (Amazon, 2015). He wrote in The Superego (Grune & Stratton, 1952), that, “At best, fifty percent of man’s psychic energy is unproductively expended in his attempts to ward off the constant avalanche of torture flowing from the superego.” This waste of energy, he believed, accounted for much of the world’s folly and stupidity. He added, “Man’s inhumanity to man is equaled only by man’s inhumanity to himself.”
Bergler exposed the nature and dynamics of the irrationality that carries over from childhood to burden the adult psyche. He claimed that unconscious nonsexual masochism, experienced often as bittersweet self-pity, is essentially a psychological defense. The defense arises from the unconscious ego, which strives to cover up its masochistic receptivity to the self-aggression. The defense largely consists of a claim (made unconsciously, though with “evidence” that registers consciously) to the effect that, “As the victim of the malice of others, my suffering is legitimate.” For this defense to work, however, suffering associated with the “malice” of others must be endured unremittingly.
Other times, in continuing self-deception, the claim (defense) is rationalized in this unconscious way: “Yes, I am at fault. I accept guilt and shame for my lapses or misconduct, though others and bad luck have failed me, too.” Again, one’s mind generates much “evidence” for why one’s emotional suffering is a legitimate reaction to events and situations in the external sphere. Bergler coined the term injustice collecting to signify the degree to which neurotics use real or alleged mistreatment or neglect for masochistic purposes. (Sometimes neurotics do blame themselves entirely—but usually for the wrong reasons, namely for reasons that are themselves defenses covering up the deeper basic disorder.)
All this insight runs counter to the prevailing paradigm, which blames much of an individual’s misery on the greed, folly, and cruelty of others, and on the deviltry of fate. This impulse to blame is a continuance of an infantile mentality that blames displeasure or suffering on malign, outer influences. Even mother at one point becomes “bad mother,” an impression produced by the child’s projection on to her of the child’s own aggressive instincts. A child’s acutely self-centered mentality, reinforced by instinctive baby fears, determines that the bad (experienced initially as a sense of deprival, refusal, and control) comes from outside, while the good comes from within. Adult neurotics project their disowned “bad” (their sense of wrongness, guilt, and shame that arise from self-damaging inner conflict and masochistic attachments) on to those “bad” others in the world around them.
Young children experience an inner conflict between their wish to retain pleasant illusions of self-centeredness (megalomania) and magical powers (omnipotence) versus their growing recognition of the extent of their helplessness and dependence. They are biased in favor of the irrationality that supports “evidence” of their special place at the center of their world. According to Bergler, the unpleasantness of this conflict is mitigated through a narcissistic pretense, namely the child’s assumption that any inner sense of emotional or physical displeasure is willingly self-bestowed. Such displeasure, the child deduces in a primitive and instinctive manner, is what the child has decreed and therefore willingly accepts.
Again, this misleading sense of reality is based on the “understanding” that the good comes from within, the bad from outside. This irrationality manages to corrupt the pleasure principle. The child’s displeasure is libidinized, thereby experienced as a pleasing triumph of narcissistic righteousness, along the lines of “What I experience is what I have wished for.” This conception can later be amended by adults as, “What I feel to be true is true.” (This is the wellspring of QAnon absurdities.)
There seems to be, Bergler wrote in The Superego, “a universal human tendency to accept the painful, provided narcissistic safeguards are installed.” We can see this, as one example, in those people who, painfully convinced they are sinners, find consolation in the “fact” they are made in God’s image.
A young child also feels narcissistic gratification in not being powerless to the primary “violator” of that narcissism, the mother figure. In primitive, emotional reckoning, the child claims: “She does not punish me. Through my actions, I make her punish me.” Self-punishment now merges with masochistic self-satisfaction. This is a highly passive “solution” to protecting one’s narcissism, one that later haunts many of us with unregulated thoughts and emotions through which we identify with the passive, weak, and victim side of inner conflict.
In his book, The Basic Neurosis (Grune & Stratton, 1949), Bergler wrote that psychic masochism is “an insatiable unconscious craving for self-damage.” In his magnum opus, Principles of Self-Damage (1959), he stated in the Foreword: “Personally, I accept Freud’s concept of life and death instincts simply because it clarifies for me one of the most amazing phenomena in human beings: the ease with which aggression is turned inward. This ‘boomerang-tendency’ is the prerequisite to masochization of the total personality.” Bergler said psychic masochism is “the basic neurosis,” the title of one of his books.
None of his 27 books are currently in print and their availability is limited in the used-book market. Four of his titles deal directly with homosexuality, which he discussed as a symptom of neurosis, an error on his part which now makes the task of championing his work more onerous.
Just as psychoanalysts and others didn’t want to hear from Freud on the subject of masochism, they paid no heed following Bergler’s death to his research and writings on the subject. An appreciative obituary appeared in The New York Times (though it did not address the essence of his work), yet now he is rarely cited. No biography has been written. PhD graduates in psychology are unlikely to have heard of him. He did see this coming, predicting that more than a century would pass before the inner reality he and Freud uncovered would become common knowledge. “A very powerful ‘something’ in each of us,” he wrote, “rejects the disagreeable and terrifying fact that there is allure in pleasure in pain, defeat, humiliation.” When considering this possibility in reference to themselves, people often experience brain fog or mild dissociation as part of their instinctive denial and resistance. People also find it embarrassing to discuss this subject.
With neurosis, we remain emotionally attached to the first hurts of childhood—refusal, deprivation, control, helplessness, criticism, rejection, betrayal, and abandonment—because these attachments facilitate the inner conflict through which we accommodate unconscious masochism. These first hurts of childhood become masochistic attachments in the first five years of life, as refusal and deprivation in the oral stage (the first 18 months), as helplessness and control in the anal stage (18-36 months), and as criticism, rejection, betrayal, and abandonment in the oedipal stage (36-60 months). As adults, our default reaction is to misinterpret everyday situations so as to recycle and replay these unresolved hurts. Then we cover up this “game” we play with ourselves through reactive defenses and symptoms such as blaming, anger, and self-pity.
The bedrock of the victim mentality is our unconscious willingness to misinterpret reality for the purpose of recycling emotionally the first hurts of childhood, our inner critic’s harassment, and our passive, defensive side’s indulgent self-pity. This inner proclivity makes us highly susceptible to guilt, shame, moodiness, and depression.
Beginning in the 1970s, the principles of psychoanalysis were abandoned by psychiatrists who claimed a more scientific approach was needed. Individually and as a profession, psychoanalysts themselves lost power because they abandoned their discipline’s revolutionary covenant. Through their own psychological resistance, they ignored Freud’s and Bergler’s great finding. They failed to plumb the deeper reaches of their own psyche. Paul E. Stepansky, in Psychoanalysis at the Margins (Other Press, 2009), describes what followed:
As Managing Director of The Analytic Press, I experienced the decomposition of American psychoanalysis firsthand. My authors, all psychoanalysts…often seemed to live in different professional worlds. Their divergences were basic and profound. As representatives of one or another psychoanalytic school of thought, they gathered into small enclaves with like-minded colleagues; offered up their own exemplars of great analysts and great analytic work; defined their own standard literature; published their own journals; hosted their own conferences; trained their own successors…Correspondingly, they expressed, to varying degrees and in various combinations, condescension, irritation, anger, disapproval, and incomprehension of colleagues who inhabited different psychoanalytic worlds…Their disputes, played out at conferences and in the pages of their journals, could and did become personal.
What tragedy! Their own unresolved inner conflict spilled out in ugly fashion upon one another. Through unconscious resistance, they had declined to take the plunge into the deep end of their psyche. There, beneath the masochism, they would have found their better self, their true essence—and with it liberation from tribalism and acrimony.
Our political follies and economic miseries are, in considerable measure, the plagues of neurosis. Democracy is fragile to the degree that political leaders and the general population are neurotic. Neurosis with its unresolved inner conflict makes us the subjects of an authoritarian, emotional-mental system of inner governance. This inner dearth of justice, compassion, and freedom will set the terms for the world order if we don’t wise up.
My previous post, “The Hidden Dysfunction Behind 50 Common Symptoms,” provides many examples of inner conflict and the masochistic strain that lurk in the psyche of neurotics as well as everyday people.
My latest book, Our Deadly Flaw: How Inner Conflict Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), is available here at Amazon.