Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Sociology

Treating Mass Psychosis

From the hateful and incendiary rants of the Tea Partiers, the unrelenting, the over-the-top behavior of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, to the continual paranoia of the extreme left with regard to business, what little remains of rationality becomes more fragile with every passing day. To understand, let alone treat, the sickness that is rampant, one needs to dig beneath the surface of everyday thought and action to get at the real forces that drive behavior. In short, the near virtual collapse of rational discourse cannot be explained wholly in rational terms.

Over 60 years ago, Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, two of the pioneering giants of psychoanalysis, made fundamental and lasting contributions to our understanding of psychotic behavior. In brief, if Freud discovered the sexual child that was in the adult, Klein discovered the extraordinarily violent infant that was in the child. And, Bion discovered the psychotic part of everyone’s personality.

One of Klein’s first discoveries was splitting. Splitting is how very young children cope with a reality far beyond their ability to comprehend. The minds of infants and young children are not developed enough to grasp that the “good mother” and the “bad mother” are one and the same person. Therefore, they split the mother into two distinct and separate beings.

The “good mother” is the one that not only nourishes the child, but caters to its every demand. In contrast, the “bad mother” withholds nourishment, not because she is inherently wicked, uncaring, or unfeeling, but because she cannot be present at the every whim and fancy of the child. Since the notion of the bad mother is too disturbing to be contained within the young mind, the child “expels” (“projects” is the technical term) all the “bad parts” that it feels onto the mother. The young mind is not yet able to realize, let alone accept, that the “bad mother” is of its making.

If the mother understands that splitting is an inevitable and natural aspect of human development, and further, that the “bad aspects” are those parts of the child that it disowns and projects onto the mother, then she helps the child to accept eventually that the “good” and the “bad” mother are one and same person. In this way, the child also comes to accept that the “good” and the “bad” are parts of him or her as well. If, on the other hand, the mother reacts with anger, horror, or revulsion at the child’s projections and punishes him or her, then the child does not learn to tolerate frustration and hence develops an early “propensity” for psychotic behavior. In the extreme, the mind disconnects entirely from reality because it is too painful to acknowledge and face.

The key word is “propensity” for complete causation for psychosis cannot be laid at the feet of the parents. Traumatic events such as war, physical and psychological abuse by the members of one’s extended family, clergy, etc., obviously play an important role as to whether one develops psychosis or not.

Another key discovery of Klein was “projective identification.” Humans have an amazing ability to take in and identify with the internal mental states of others. If the mother is subject to projective identification, then she unconsciously takes on the persona of what the child projects onto her. (This also happens in adults as well as when a celebrity or politician becomes what others project on to him or her.) If she assumes all of the negative emotions associated with the “bad mother,” then she is unable to teach the child how to contain the powerful and unsettling emotions that are constantly gushing through him or her. In short, the mother is unable to serve as a positive model for handling frustration and anger. From the very beginning, the parents are the “containers” of the child’s emotions. They “contain” what the child cannot at this stage of development contain for him or herself.

The entire early stage of human development is what Klein and Bion referred to as the “paranoid-schizoid condition.” “Schizoid” refers to the fundamental process of splitting; “paranoid” to the child’s overwhelming fear—outright terror—that the “bad mother” will viciously attack and injure the child.

Because the language that Klein and Bion use is so provocative, and therefore, the tendencies are great to blame the parents, it bears repeating that there are innate, inborn propensities to psychoses such as paranoia, schizophrenia, etc. Further, unintended traumatic events play a significant role. Nonetheless, the parents are exceedingly critical to subsequent development. In short, the parents are crucial in laying down a model for lifelong trust or suspicion.

Another fundamental discovery of psychoanalysis is that splitting occurs throughout all of life. For instance, we regularly split the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” “friends” versus “foes.” As a result, from time to time, our projections get out of hand as when, for example, one views all Muslims and immigrants as inherently dangerous and evil. For another, we constantly project our unconscious dreams, hopes, and fears onto our leaders. To live up to the projections of others is one of the most taxing demands of being a “leader.”

Even stronger, projections are highly contagious. To be a member of a group is to share its mutual projections. This more than anything else helps to explain the phenomenon of the Tea Party. By itself, the mere opposition to President Obama and his policies is not sufficient. Nor is the intensity of the anger directed towards him. Instead, it is the sheer viciousness of the attacks, including such extreme allegations as “President Obama is a socialist,” he “hates white people,” and he is comparable to Hitler. In short, groups accentuate the best and the worst of our impulses.

Does this mean that every member of the Tea Party therefore suffered from poor parenting? Of course not. It does mean that somewhere along the way, the members of the Tea Party did not develop the means to understand and to tolerate the frustration that is an inevitable part of complexity and massive social change.

From the standpoint of psychoanalysis, how then should any president or leader respond to raw and hateful projections? In short, how should one respond to mass psychosis?

Bion discovered a long time ago that one couldn’t reason with psychotics. Psychotics literally hate thought itself, for if one had to engage in rational thought, one would then have to face the true, underlying reasons for one’s immense pain. Instead, they choose unconsciously to run away from pain by avoiding thought altogether.

The task of a leader is not merely to seek out and reason with those who can bear rational thought, but more taxing, to live up to our positive projections.

Projections are never stable. They are not only fragile, but constantly in flux. If a leader does not constantly live up to our initial positive projections, then they can quickly turn negative. When this happens, we feel betrayed to the deepest recesses of our minds. The feeling is so deep that we are unable to articulate clearly why we feel betrayed.

In abandoning the soaring thought and passion of his campaign for compromise, President Obama has not only lost the enthusiasm of his supporters, but far worse, he has lost the moral authority that is necessary to stand up to mass psychosis.

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