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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.


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Regression – Childish vs. Contemplative

coloring time

Jenn Vargas – coloring time via Flickr

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory regression is a defense mechanism in which the ego partially or fully revisits an earlier phase of libidinal¹ development.

This process is generally viewed as a backward step, one brought on by unresolved anxiety that challenges ‘normal’ functioning. It is also maladaptive because the person re-experiences anxiety clustered around an infantile stage of psychological development. In very real sense, one becomes fixated at an earlier developmental stage and aspects of the world are interpreted though the lens of an anxious child.

Not surprisingly, regression can contribute to negative personality characteristics. In the extreme, we get the paranoid, the grandiose, the manipulator, the pathological liar, or some combination thereof.

That’s the down side of regression.

However, consciously chosen regression – for example, creative play, reading childhood books or listening to old records – need not be maladaptive. Returning to earlier pastimes and pleasures in a controlled way can be therapeutic. It helps to integrate the total personality and possibly leads to increased awareness, experience and wisdom.

As a personal example, one of my favorite controlled regressions is listening to music from different periods of my childhood and young teen years. When I listen to my old favorites now, it’s almost like I psychologically ‘travel’ and connect with aspects of my former self. This can lead to an increased appreciation of where I was at within a given era. But this isn’t something I do on a regular schedule. For me, the right time to revisit and reflect simply arises, and discerning that time is more an art than a science. And when the time isn’t right, old tunes just sound like old tunes… stale, small and uninspiring.²

Hanging man artwork, in Husova street, central Prague, Czech Republic, a work by David Cerny intended to depict Sigmund Freud.

In a nutshell, the main difference between healthy and unhealthy regression depends on whether one

  • consciously participates in opportunities to remember, feel and reflect

or

  • unconsciously plays out old neuroses, over and over like a broken record

I touched on this in a piece influenced by the late, great sociologist Max Weber, “Childish or Childlike?

But not all childish people are necessarily fixated to something from early childhood. This is just a theory. Some believers in reincarnation, for instance, believe that we can be fixated to trauma occurring in past lives. On the other hand, geneticists would probably say that some people are simply born sensitive or anxious, and their anxiety and the resulting distortion of ‘reality’ has little or nothing to do with early childhood or past lives. Meanwhile, philosophers ask “what is reality?”

My point is that we should consider various perspectives but never get caught up in a single one, because that’s a kind of fixation too.

¹ Libido commonly refers to sexual energy or the supposed “sex drive” but for Sigmund Freud and his followers, the meaning is far more nuanced. See

See also

² Or as The Bard put it, “stale, flat and unprofitable.”


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Reaction Formation – A neurotic response to fear

Freud Quiere Bailar + OU

Freud Quiere Bailar + OU. Póster del concert a Sidecar. 31, Gener, 2008 by Wookie Sidecar via Flickr

In Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which a repressed, socially unacceptable impulse is expressed in an exaggerated, opposite way. The original impulse, perceived as bad or anxiety producing, remains unresolved in its unconscious, infantile form. This feeds the flames of a neuroses.

An example of a reaction formation would be the LGBT hater who represses his or her own LGBT fantasies. Another would be the disordered criminal who denigrates the so-called “mentally ill.”

Reaction formation isn’t always a lifelong sentence. With increased personal maturity it may lead to the successful sublimation of the original, fearful impulse. Sublimation, according to Freudian theory, means redirecting something negative into a socially acceptable channel.¹

A socially acceptable response to a fearful impulse would be, for instance, the mother who sublimates sexual desire for her son into buying him fine clothing.

English: Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia)

However, some maintain that this is not the best solution. Different thinkers each have unique solutions. But generally, they say that the optimal solution is to resolve socially unacceptable impulses through analysis, prayer or other spiritual techniques for purification. In other words, become conscious of the impulse to transcend it.

Other theorists say it’s impossible to eradicate sexual desires, appropriate or not. At best one can just “put them in the right place,” within the psyche. But this essentially medical, psychiatric view is at odds with accounts from saints like Faustina Kowalska who wrote about the divine gift of celibacy

Reaction formation has also been discussed in the context of hostage taking and other oppressive situations like the holocaust. Here the victim actually comes to like or even love their oppressor.³ This seems to be a desperate attempt to make good of a lousy situation where one or more creeps exercise physical, economic or cultic power over a victim who, deep down, really doesn’t like it.4

¹ Wikipedia says this is an unconscious process but it need not be. Many people are aware, for instance, that they redirect their anger and frustration into something positive, like housecleaning or other undesirable tasks. One “attacks” the problem.

² See also http://www.religious-vocation.com

³  The concept of reaction formation has been used to explain responses to external threats as well as internal anxieties. In the phenomenon described as Stockholm Syndrome, a hostage or kidnap victim ‘falls in love’ with the feared and hated person who has complete power over them. Similarly paradoxical reports exist of powerless and vulnerable inmates of Nazi camps creating ‘favourites’ among the guards and even collecting objects discarded by them. >> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reaction_formation

In a less extreme sense, one could ask how many wives, husbands and priests would continue in their “loving” relationship or vocation if it didn’t bring economic security. That might sound cynical but I think, in some cases, it’s a realistic question.

Related  » Reversal

References

  • Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, pp. 136-137.


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Sadism – Another one of those old “disorders” turned “alternative”

The drawing dates to 1760, when the Sade was n...

The drawing dates to 1760, when the Sade was nearly 20 years old. It’s the only known authentic portrait of the Marquis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sadism is a Freudian term denoting a sexual perversion in which erotic pleasure is gained by inflicting pain on another.¹

The term is derived from the surname of the French nobleman Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), who candidly wrote about the alleged pleasures of pain and sex in works like The Philosophy in the Bedroom.

The term “Sadistic Personality Disorder” was included as an appendix in the American psychiatric manual for mental disorders (DSM III) but disappeared in subsequent manuals (DSM-IV, DSM-IV-TR, DSM-5).

Wikipedia explains:

The current version of the American Psychiatric Association‘s manual, DSM-5, excludes consensual BDSM from diagnosis as a disorder when the sexual interests cause no harm or distress. Section F65 of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) indicates that “mild degrees of sadomasochistic stimulation are commonly used to enhance otherwise normal sexual activity”. The diagnostic guidelines for the ICD-10 state that this class of diagnosis should only be made “if sadomasochistic activity is the most important source of stimulation or necessary for sexual gratification”.²

Sigmund Freud by wordscraft

Sigmund Freud originally uploaded by wordscraft

Here we have another example, along with homosexuality, of a preference and associated behavior once pejoratively described by psychiatrists as a “disorder”only to be later designated as “normal.”

It doesn’t take rocket science to see that social and political factors come into play here. Some regard this historical change as evidence that psychiatry is a pseudo-science. Others maintain that psychiatry’s willingness to change is scientific and evidence of its strength.

Strength or weakness, one thing seems clear. Psychiatry reflects and informs the status quo. It is both an indicator of, and influence upon, social attitudes, beliefs and practices at a given point in history.

Lasting innovation in psychological theory is usually spearheaded by individuals holding fast to a vision,³ those willing to withstand the inherent inertia of a social institution that seems to follow and, by virtue of its legal power, shape how everyday people tend to see themselves.

¹ Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 145.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadomasochism

³ From a theological perspective, it probably helps if God is on the innovator’s side, this being a perspective usually dismissed by the worldly wise.

Related » Sigmund Freud, Koan, Masochism


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The Future of an Illusion – Freud and Beyond

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking cigar. Español: Sigmund Freud, fundador del psicoanálisis, fumando. Česky: Zakladatel psychoanalýzy Sigmund Freud kouří doutník. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Future of an Illusion is Sigmund Freud’s work of 1927 where he states his psychoanalytic view of religion. Freud is a staunch materialist who sees all religious ideas as illusory:

Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tells one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.” Religious concepts are transmitted in three ways and thereby claim our belief. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.” Psychologically speaking, these beliefs present the phenomena of wish fulfillment, “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.”¹

When I was a teenager I probably would have agreed with Freud on many points. But when I first realized that there’s more to life than sex, aggression, society and internalized norms, I came to disagree with Freud. I remember thinking how his reductive thinking could literally be dangerous to a spiritual seeker. I also recall talking with an employee in a spiritual bookstore who said, “Freud will drive you crazy, Jung won’t.” This was when I was beginning my PhD program and purchasing some core books by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who figured prominently in my doctoral thesis.

Today, my view of Freud is not entirely negative. After converting to Catholicism I realized, from direct observation and interaction with some Catholics, that religion and neurosis, perhaps even psychosis, can coexist. While I was converting to Catholicism, the elderly priest who guided our RCIA suggested that “some insane people hide out in religion.”

I thought he was being a bit harsh at the time. But recently a Catholic parishioner whom I’ve known on and off for over a decade has started cursing and swearing at others in the Mass. Just the other day I was the recipient of her verbal attack, which was unsettling, to put it mildly.

Funnily enough, this person seems to be convinced that she knows better than everyone else. It was okay for her to swear in Church—I just didn’t understand. And after I gently suggested that she need not swear at people in the Mass, she said I was a %$%$#@$#@!

Not too holy. More like angry and conflicted.

This just goes to show that Freud and the RCIA priest weren’t entirely wrong. Some religious people really are quite borderline. And they do seem to hide out in Church instead of getting the help or spiritual direction they need.

So these days I can see that Freud, indeed, had something to say. However, I still disagree with Freud’s ideas in the sense that spiritual influences, as I see it, qualitatively differ from biochemical and social influences.

For me, the main questions concerning religion and psychology are:

  • Is one’s approach to religion healthy or unhealthy?
  • Could excessive prayers and countless Rosaries be a way of avoiding unresolved complexes?

With regard to the second point, I think in some instances this might be so.

Like myself, Jung didn’t reject Freudian ideas outright but came to see Freud’s view of religion and, especially spirituality, as lacking. At one time a key player in the Freudian school, Jung eventually went his own way and expanded Freud’s reductive view of spirituality with concepts like archetype, synchronicity and numinosity.

¹ Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, New York: W.W. Norton, 1961, p. 38. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Future_of_an_Illusion


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Superego

English: visual representation of the Freud's ...

Freud’s id, ego and super-ego and the level of consciousness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalytic theory, the superego is the conscious or unconscious element of the ego that is formed from the child’s internalization of parental values, beliefs and prohibitions.

Because the superego is internalized in childhood, its moral injunctions are partially based on imagined rather than actual parental demands.

Modell of the human psyche according to Sigmun...

Model of the human psyche according to Sigmund Freud. The id, ego and superego are shown (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

A common mistake among popular psychologists is to equate the superego with the conscience.

Although influencing moral attitudes, the superego differs from the conscience. Internal conflicts can arise between the superego and the conscience or between the superego and more recently acquired attitudes and beliefs.

Later in his career Freud talks about a “cultural superego,” as he becomes a budding sociologist. Wikipedia explains:

In Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), he also discusses the concept of a “cultural super-ego”. Freud suggested that the demands of the super-ego “coincide with the precepts of the prevailing cultural super-ego. At this point the two processes, that of the cultural development of the group and that of the cultural development of the individual, are, as it were, always interlocked.”[32] Ethics are a central element in the demands of the cultural super-ego, but Freud (as analytic moralist) protested against what he called “the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego … the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego. It does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings.”¹

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Id,_ego_and_super-ego#Super-ego

Related Posts » Censor, Defense Mechanism, Dreams, Electra Complex, Introjection, Psychopath, Repression, Totem


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Stages of Psychosexual Development

Freud, explícame tú esto: tnarik / Eduardo

Freud, explícame tú esto: tnarik / Eduardo via Flickr

The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud outlines five early stages of psycho-sexual development in which the ego and libido are developed. Sam McLeod does an admirable job in explaining this often baffling theory:

These are called psychosexual stages because each stage represents the fixation of libido (roughly translated as sexual drives or instincts) on a different area of the body. As a person grows physically certain areas of their body become important as sources of potential frustration (erogenous zones), pleasure or both.¹

The five early stages are:

  1. The oral stage of 0-1 years where infant gratification is achieved through sucking the primary object of the mother’s breast (or substitute objects)²
  2. The anal stage of 1-3, in which sexual gratification is achieved through the child’s control over and actual production of feces. From his or her toilet training the child first learns the reality of restrictions from the external world
  3. The phallic stage of 3-6, where the body and especially genitalia become important. The child learns sexual and gender differences, and may explore with self and others by playing “doctor” and other childhood activities
  4. The latency period – occurring between the phallic stage and adolescence – in which the child pays less attention to the body and more to the acquisition of essential life skills
  5. The genital stage at which time the adolescent’s attention is oriented toward developing mature, loving human relationships with others

English: Shakira during the Oral Fixation Tour...

Shakira during the Oral Fixation Tour 2006, La Coruña-Spain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Freud’s theory, so-called normal individuals proceed through these stages without major difficulties while some become fixated at a given stage. Fixation in this sense refers to an unconscious attachment to a particular object of libidinal gratification.

Again, the actual body areas involved in the psycho-sexual stages can be symbolized.  So the the adult alcoholic fixated at the oral stage substitutes liquor and the bottle for the mother’s nipple. Whereas those disregarding or, perhaps, obsessed with cleanliness, order and regularity would be fixated at the anal stage.

In general, fixation manifests in excessive behaviors like excessive housecleaning; it may involve extreme emotional states of depression, fear, anxiety and forced elation.

For Freud, normal human development pretty much ends at the genital phase. Behaviors like celibacy, fasting and prolonged solitude may be viewed as pathological by Freudians. However, more holistic thinkers see this as a reductive and potentially dangerous approach, one suggesting spiritual ignorance, immaturity and perhaps sin.

The International Institute for the Advanced Studies of Psychotherapy and Applied Mental Health sums up Freud’s theory as follows:

Although Freud’s theory of psychosexual development was extremely influential and continues to be taught in professional psychology programs today, empirical research has failed to generate significant support for these ideas and it is generally not an accepted model among practicing psychologists. Additionally, this theory has drawn criticism for being constructed on sexist ideas. Regardless, terminology associated with the stages of psychosexual development has found wide popular usage in a variety of registers and fields of activity.³

¹ http://www.simplypsychology.org/psychosexual.html

² Freud’s usage of the word ‘object’ includes other people.

³ http://www.psychotherapy.ro/resources/constructs/psychosexual-development/ (since the time of this entry’s last update, the link has been generalized to http://albertellis.org/the-international-institute-for-the-advanced-studies-of-psychotherapy-and-applied-mental-health/ )