Category Archives: Unconscious

Why People Often Choose Misery Over Change

Human beings are constantly faced with making the choice between two paths: One path that keeps them in the safe and comfortable straits of what they know, and another that entices with a different way of being, less restricted and more promising.

Which way should I go? Should I stay in my comfort zone or venture down the path of novelty?

This question becomes heightened for every person who chooses to come to therapy.

The Price We Pay for Staying Safe:

The decision to see a therapist is by definition the decision to heed the murmur from deep inside that begs of the person to leave the safety of the familiar and take a turn towards something new.

Why does the person want to do this? 

Because the familiar, for all its safety, is often also a great source of suffering.

A few examples will illustrate this:

  • I live most of the time in my head where I can plan and feel in control of my life, but this is also my curse, for I cannot really surrender to my feelings and cannot really feel much passion or excitement in my life.
  • I live most of my life in the pursuit of achievements so I can finally become popular or accepted by others, but this relentless striving is also the source of my sense of being a failure and not being good enough or lovable just the way I am.
  • I bottle up my emotions and consider sadness and the need for others a sign of weakness, but this also keeps me isolated and alone and causes anxiety whenever my sadness is never far around the corner.

In these examples, the Faustian bargain to preserve my integrity, my self-esteem, my pride, or my security, came at a price and this price is what brings me to therapy:

I am not happy, I am not at peace with myself, I worry about unknown threats from the inside, or look around me and find that my life looks more restricted than that of my friends or my neighbor.

I am growing tired of the price of safety. My desire for growth and for change now has the upper hand.

Why Do We Often Choose Misery over Growth?

However, as I enter the therapy room, my sense of safety comforts me where novelty frightens. I feel new things, but these feelings are strange and alert me of a danger. My therapist gently asks me to get out of my head and into my body where feelings live, and I all of a sudden feel out of control, unsure of my direction, and vulnerable to harm.

I start to think, maybe my Faustian bargain was not so bad after all. The path of novelty is filled with dragons. Better the devil I know!

It is tempting at this moment to retreat and to make peace with a lesser life.

As the Danish existentialist philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard rightly says in one of his essays:

“In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known — no wonder, then, that I return the love”

Kierkegaard’s depression, like my anxiety, or your deadness have been the bedfellows of our lives. For all the misery they bring to us, they are after all compromises intended to ward off something worse, and protect us from the dangers of a life without them.

Sound strange?

Well, it is more logical than one would think.

Why Are We Reluctant to Give Up Misery?

Every person who comes to therapy has an innate need for self-preservation and an innate need for growth.

The need for self-preservation got activated early on in life to help us deal with unpleasant experiences and ruptures in our relationships with others.

We went into our head, numbed ourselves to sadness, or befriended our self-critical voice, because we needed to do so to stay safe and minimize the risk of harm.

However, now as adults, what we could not deal with as children or as adolescents, is no longer the same kind of existential threat to us, and yet we continue on with the same old coping that helped us survive when we knew no better.

Now in our therapy when our therapist wants us to venture outside our customary coping to see if the dragons are still there, we instinctively want to coil back and stay inside the cardboard box we have constructed to stay safe, but which has also become our prison.

We all Resist Change at Some Level:

In therapy, we have a word for this desire to sacrifice our growth for a life of a certain kind of misery. We call it resistance.

Resistance is not a conscious decision. It is the decision our organismic need for safety makes for us, even if we consciously complain of the very life patterns we secretly gravitate towards.

Resistance keeps us away from the real pain, the real fears, and the real sacrifices we have made, and thereby prevents us from having new experiences that would help us resolve old wounds and make us leave therapy transformed.

We all Want Change at Some Level:

Luckily, we have another voice inside, another striving or drive that will not be silenced and will continue to remind us that we are limiting ourselves, until we aren’t anymore.

Psychologist Diana Fosha has named it our transformance striving, and it is just as powerful of a contender as our resistance. If we don’t heed it, it will nag us like a kind of existential guilt, the kind that will make us filled with regrets about what we could have done or should have done when we look back at our life in old age.

How Therapists Help People Grow:

The role of the therapist is to appease the resistance while allowing more room for the transformance.

The therapist does so by providing enough safety and comfort for the person to attempt something new, and helps the person reflect on and experience the benefits of their little excursions outside their comfort zone.

They align with the transformance striving which gradually becomes loud enough to defeat the resistance.

When the resistance is no longer keeping the person stuck on the same fearful path that have limited their lives for fear that they could not cope with the alternative, the person realizes that they have more resources and capabilities than they previously thought.

They are now free to choose the path of growth over the path of safety at the cross roads of their lives.

Why Is It So Difficult to Change?

When people come to therapy it is usually because they have identified some behavior, some feeling, or some aspect of their life which they find problematic and want to change.

Yet psychotherapists have long known that clients usually resist the very changes which they consciously claim they want.

For example, I know I should not procrastinate in school or at work, but even though I can list all the rational reasons why procrastination works against me, I still cannot simply make a rational decision not to procrastinate anymore.

Resistance to Change:

In therapy this force within me that is working against myself is referred to as my resistance.

My resistance confronts me with the fact that I am not always the master of my own house. It tells me that all the logic, reason, and will-power in the world often isn’t enough to bring about change. It reveals to me the presence of motivations within me that do not fall under the purview of my rational self.

These motivations that work against me oftentimes do their work outside my conscious awareness. They are not parts of my personality, which I identify with. It is this that makes them my most formidable adversary, for how can I win a battle against forces that are mostly invisible to me?

The Benefits We Derive from Symptoms:

The part within a person that resists change is considered by psychodynamic therapists to be motivated by secondary gain. It derives comfort from the very symptom the rational part of me wants to get rid of.

When looked at from the perspective of the rational mind this of course does not make any sense. Why would I for example not want to stop procrastinating? What possible benefit could I get from sabotaging myself?

The secret to understanding this conundrum is to begin to unlock the unconscious logic that makes procrastinating a successful bulwark against greater fears or threats to a person’s psychological safety.

Could it be that I am afraid to succeed because I at some level don’t believe I am worthy of success? Could it be that I am afraid that if I truly try and ultimately fail, I will get affirmation of this fact? Or could it be that a part of me resents the fact that I have taken on a career or a field of study which I thought would make my parents proud, a fact that I cannot openly acknowledge to myself, or which would require me to live with the guilt of openly disappointing my parents?

From the perspective of the unconscious, these would all be excellent reasons to procrastinate. My resistance to change is here the last bulwark against an unconscious and unacknowledged conflict, which must be kept out of my awareness to spare me much psychological turmoil and anxiety.

Keeping Unconscious Conflicts at Bay:

Oftentimes when we seem to not be able to wrest ourselves free of a depression, or change a self-destructive habit that keeps us stuck, it is because of the presence of an underlying unconscious conflict, which motivates us to resist a change to the current status quo.

Although being depressed, for example, is pretty miserable, it is often unconsciously preferable to being assertive and risking other people’s rejections or wrath, or confronting the realization that I need to change career or get a divorce. Depression sometimes keeps me from drawing the unpleasant conclusion of a realization that would cause too great of an upset to myself or to others.

It is often safer to stick with the devil we know.

And so it is that approaches to change that only address the conscious rational side of a person are almost always destined to fail. Although willpower and logical reasoning can get us far in life, they cannot win the battle over our secret fears and unacknowledged conflicts. To truly change oneself is thus ironically to first truly accept oneself: to honor our resistance and let our resistance reveal its logic to us, which means to become more aware of who we truly are and what is truly motivating us not to change.

Perhaps we should become a little more like Soeren Kierkegaard who instead of declaring warfare on his symptoms, acknowledged with a degree of self-compassion: “My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known — no wonder, then, that I return the love”.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston, TX. To read more about my approach to therapy, please visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com

 

Extra-Marital Affairs: Why Do People Cheat?

Infidelity and Cheating is Widespread:

Statistics show that between 35-50% of all women or men in a relationship have had an affair. With such widespread occurrence of infidelity, affairs cannot only be attributed to some act of deviance or amorality, but must be looked at as a normal fact of life.

This begs the question “why do so many people cheat?” And, “What are the challenges to staying faithful and monogamous in a relationship?”

Is There Something Wrong with Cheating?

Over the years psychologists and sociologists have advanced many viewpoints on this matter. The current stance of many couples therapists seems almost naively moralistic and judgmental, focusing mostly on the “victim’s” right to feel angry and the perpetrator’s need to atone. They implicitly turn cheating into a simple selfish act, a violation of social norms, and a sign of immaturity.

And yet, aren’t we all fascinated by the forbidden? Doesn’t the forbidden actually enhance our eroticism? Have we not all been tempted by the lure of what might exist on the other side of the fence?

If we dig deeper into our unconscious we will find that most people, whether they admit to it or not, have been tempted to cheat, have fantasized about somebody else than their spouse, and have found secret emotional fulfillment with others without wanting their spouses to know.

Judging Our Desires Can Lead to Cheating

Oftentimes what propels a person into an affair is ironically their lack of ability to talk to their spouse about their deepest darkest fantasies. The prohibition against having an affair is thus often what makes it happen. The affair becomes the actual outlet, for what cannot be talked about within the existing relationship. What gets denied, goes underground, only to become expressed through actions and impulses in another setting.

A chronic problem in intimate relationships is the inability to openly admit to and share fantasies and urges that are not considered “right” or “proper”, and that one does not feel a decent human being “should” have. Because there is then no room for it within the relationship, there is also no room for a part of the person. This part is then forced to exist in secret and to be siphoned off to a parallel reality, whether it be internet porn, a secret lover, or a clandestine emotional encounter. People’s fears of confessing and being a 100% themselves within a relationship thus leads to a pressing need for more than one relationship to contain all parts of oneself.

In some relationships, this fact of life is openly embraced. Hence we have communities of swingers, people who agree to have open relationships, or people who agree to have threesomes. Some report that this greatly spices up their life and reduces the need for their partner to secretly cheat, but others suggest it comes with its own dangers, and leads to unmanageable jealousy that tends to ultimately break people apart.

Why Do People Have Affairs?

People who have been cheated on and have felt the betrayal of an extra-marital affair, may end up blaming themselves, thinking that they were deficient in some way. Oftentimes, however, partners who cheat are struggling with their own issues (like all of us), which make it difficult for them to get all their needs met with one partner, no matter who that partner is.

A common problem encountered by men is the “Madonna – Whore” complex, by which tender feelings originally felt toward a person’s mother, cannot be reconciled with a person’s “dirty” sexual desires. In this case, a person will thus have a need to relate to their spouse as a good friend and revered mother, and live out their sexual fantasies with a “lover” whose only function is to serve as a sexual outlet for these unaccepted desires. It is for example not uncommon for someone to not be able to have great sex with a person they respect, and to have great sex with someone whom they don’t really respect much as a person.

Another common situation is for a person to recreate a relationship with their spouse that makes them feel trapped, stifled, and in need of an escape. A person may for example unknowingly contribute to a relationship where they feel lonely and unloved, and find themselves in need of getting those needs met elsewhere. It is thus not uncommon to find that the person feeling lonely has withdrawn themselves and stopped sharing the personal thoughts and feelings that would have made them feel more loved and intimate. At the end of the day, we therefore sometimes unconsciously create the very types of relationships, which we then find insufferable. A true test of this is whether or not the next relationship tends to end in the same situation, making break-ups and infidelity a sort of coping mechanism that substitutes for dealing with one’s own barriers to establishing a fulfilling intimate partnership with someone.

A Common Factor that Leads to Infidelity:

The list of why we cheat is long and often involves complicated personal and interpersonal dynamics. But one thing seems to be true across the board: Cheating seems to happen when a part of the person cannot be expressed within the confines of a single relationship. There are many reasons why this cannot happen, but the root cause is often the lack of ability to create, and tolerate, intimacy, and the inability to be completely oneself within one’s existing relationship…

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I use a non-shaming and non-blaming approach to working with individuals who feel guilty about having an affair, and couples who are struggling with issues of infidelity. Click on this link to read more about my approach to couples therapy…

The Zoo in Our Psyches: What Marius can Teach us About our Unconscious

The Copenhagen Zoo Debacle:

This week, the debacle about Copenhagen Zoo and the killing of the healthy giraffe Marius really got people’s passions riled. The bloodied image of a cute giraffe was hard to watch and I have to admit my own first reaction was to go and like the Facebook page for “Animal Activists against Copenhagen Zoo”…

The Other Side of the Story

A few days later, however, I watched a television interview with the Danish Zoo director who explained why the giraffe had been killed. He explained why killing the giraffe was necessary out of love for the species and how it was essentially no different than killing a cow or a chicken. Nature too is ruthless, he said, and the natural course in the wild would have been for the herd to fulfill the function of the zoo-keeper and for Marius to meet a similar faith. He went on to defend the dissection of the giraffe in front of children as an educational experience, for why shield children from reality? Feeding the giraffe to the lions was also spoken about in a matter of fact way, for how do you think lions survive in the wild?

Guilty as Charged!

The media, however, would hear nothing of it. In the most dramatic display of contrast to the zoo-director’s story, they displayed the gory details of the event as an act of unspeakable violence and moral depravity. They focused on Marius as a singular individual that we could all imagine keeping as a pet, and not as livestock or a member of a species. They also carefully picked out one child in the crowd who could not bear to watch the dissection and played the clip in slow-motion for dramatic effect. In subsequent interviews on Anderson Cooper 360, the zoo-keeper was invited to speak, but really only to ridicule his point of view after he went off the air. This was a trial where the Danish zoo-keeper was guilty and where the morally indignant needed no proof from the defense to arrive at a common sense conclusion.

A Confrontation with the Unconscious?

What struck me about this whole debacle was that the zoo-director’s truth could have no place in the American psyche. His viewpoints and actions spoke to a different kind of reality that was as real as it was raw. His was the reality that could not be considered without making us uncomfortable. And yet, when it came to talking about the need to feed lions animal meat, the natural ruthless herd behaviors in the wild, the educational value of not shielding children from experiencing reality, or the view of Marius as a member of a species rather than an individual with a name, did he not have a point?

In my opinion the drama of the Copenhagen Zoo and the strong reactions it elicited indicates that it tapped into an unconscious conflict and confronted us with something real that we would rather repress. Hence the strong moral reaction that could not even give room to consider the zoo-keeper’s perspective. The zoo-keeper reminded us of something we would rather not know, and our moral outrage shielded us from knowing that we would rather not know it.

Speaking an Unpopular Truth

And, yet at the end of the day, I could not but admire the courage of the Danish zookeeper to speak a truth in spite of death threats, moral outrage, and judgment without trial. In his insistence on confronting us with a different perspective, he forced us to confront something about life that has no room within our everyday self-understanding: The fact that we are killing animals every day to manage animal populations in the wild and to feed ourselves, the reality of seemingly unkind actions that are undertaken for the sake of a supposed greater good (such as going to war, executing people on death row, spying on other people and countries without permission, or even keeping animals in zoos in the first place). The Danish zoo-keeper forced us to look at ourselves a little deeper to confront a reality which we would rather have happen behind closed doors, and out of sight.

So What Does All this Have to Do with Therapy?

The Copenhagen Zoo debacle reenacted a psychological drama within every human being between Eros and Thanatos, or the forces that bind and bring together and the forces that separate and confront us with limits.

As a psychologist these kinds of uncomfortable truths are what my work is about. People do not come to therapy because they feel all the right feelings. If that were so, they would probably be quite at peace with themselves. No, they often come because they feel wrong for having their feelings or cannot accept certain impulses, thoughts, or wishes that are deemed morally depraved by themselves and by society at large.

A person who has just lost his father, may for example not feel grief, but may feel anger at his father or relief. However, because these feelings are not morally acceptable, he will develop guilt about them, and do his best to suppress them.

Hence, in her book about the psychoanalytic community in New York, Janet Malcolm talks with a psychoanalyst who says that he does not offer condolences to a client who has just lost an important person. Why? Because he does not want to assume that the client is sad, and does not want to suggest that there is one right response to a given event.

Psychology as a Pursuit of Truth

A good psychologist does not approach a client’s emotional life through the lens of commonly accepted truths or expectations, but seeks to provide an opportunity for the less acceptable truth to be spoken. A psychologist, in other words, wants to access rather than silence the metaphorical zoo-keeper from within. Similarly to the drama played out in the social media and in the news, this truth may initially be violently defended against, and might invoke the client’s discomfort or disgust.

My identification with the Danish zoo-keeper who speaks an unpopular version of the truth, is therefore not a justification for the killing of Marius, but an appeal to more closely examine every voice inside of us that is too distasteful to be heard, too violent to our preference for harmony, and too at odds with the prevalent moral consensus.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist and therapist in Houston, Texas. Click here to visit my website.