Originally published 10/25/2017 on The Huffington Post
We live in deeply disturbing times. They defy normal explanations.
America is beset by the confluence of three powerful forces. Any one of them by itself is overwhelming. But all three acting together and reinforcing one another have made us especially vulnerable. They are: 1. Massive Denial; 2. Splitting; and, 3. Unmistakable Pathology emanating from the highest office in the land.
One of the strongest examples of Massive Denial is the fact that ardent gun proponents are generally not just dismissive, but contemptuous of the fact that owning a gun increases substantially the occurrence of a homicide and/or suicide in one’s household. The preponderance of studies is unequivocal in this regard[i]. Indeed, those states with looser gun laws have substantially higher rates of gun homicides and suicides. Guns, the things that are supposed to make us more secure and safer, have just the opposite intended effect. They pose extreme dangers to their owners, and not by just a small margin. And, this is only one of the many things of which Americans are in denial.
Splitting is evidenced by the fact that the present occupant of the Presidency constantly proclaims to the sentiment “You’re either with or against me.” The world is thereby sharply split into “good versus bad guys,” with nothing in-between. But then so does the NRA by ignoring the fact that “good guy guns” are substantially at fault in home homicides and suicides.
Unmistakable Pathology is evidenced by the clear signs of disturbance that emanate daily from the President: little if any impulse control as indicated by a never-ending series of rambling tweets, if not the overuse of tweets themselves to convey the “thoughts” of the President; dangerous bluster that threatens nuclear annihilation; sheer and utter contempt and disregard for America’s critical institutions, etc.
If Sigmund Freud had discovered nothing more than the phenomenon of Defense Mechanisms, it would have been more than enough to ensure his lasting fame.
On occasion, everyone uses various devices to protect their psyches from disturbing, unpleasant ideas, thoughts, and realities. These range from out and out denial to compartmentalization, grandiosity, idealization, intellectualization, projection, and projective identification.
If an event or situation is highly disturbing or unpalatable such as directly witnessing the death of a loved one, becoming a victim of incest or a serious crime, experiencing the horrors of war, etc., then one’s mind can literally shut down and refuse to register the event, or at least not to do so consciously. This is an example of outright denial. But since denial is never perfect, unpleasant experiences often resurface in the form of dreams, nightmares, and severe anxiety attacks in response to, say, loud noises that are mistaken for gunshots.
America is in denial of so many things that it would take a legion of articles to cover them all. The most potent example is those who not only voted for Trump, but continue to defend him. They are in Massive Denial when it comes to the dangers he poses daily.
Compartmentalization occurs when one part of the mind registers one aspect of a horrific event—say, the sounds—and others register the sights and smells associated with it. But since it would be too overwhelming, and hence traumatic, if the sights, sounds, and smells were brought to together as parts of a single unified experience, the mind unconsciously keeps them apart. One of the clearest examples is the oft-expressed rationalization by those who voted for Trump. Namely, “We wish we would say things better, but at least he’s saying what needs to be said.”
Grandiosity occurs when one believes that one is all powerful such that he or she can defeat any force however strong it is. To say that Trump suffers from delusions of grandiosity is a gross understatement.
Idealization occurs when one takes on the attributes of perfection such that one is without any imperfections whatsoever. For example, one exaggerates one’s abilities to meet and surmount any challenge however onerous it is. Count Trump here again! ! It also occurs when one is unwilling to acknowledge and thereby apologize for any discretion whatsoever.
Intellectualization occurs when one overly uses and hence becomes lost in abstractions that have little to do with the realities of everyday lives. A prime example is Secretary Clinton’s oft-repeated assertion during the 2016 Presidential campaign that she had a “policy for attacking unemployment”—if not for every problem we face—that people could look up on her website. This may have worked well with elites, but it failed miserably to connect with ordinary workingmen and women. It only reinforced the impression that not only did liberals not care about ordinary working people, but held them in contempt.
Projection occurs when we disown parts of ourselves that we don’t like and project them onto others. Thus, the media “lie” but not those who are making the accusation. Projective identification occurs when we accept or identify with—“own”— the projections of others.
The highly influential child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is generally credited with discovering the phenomenon of Splitting. It’s said that if Freud discovered the child in the adult, then Klein discovered the infant in the child. She thus pushed back even further our understanding of the roots of human behavior.
Klein discovered that under the age of two or so, children believed that there were two distinct and separate mothers: the “good mother” that catered to the child’s every need when he or she wanted it, and the “bad mother” that couldn’t always be there when the child demanded it, and even more, had to discipline the child. In short, the child’s mind was not yet mature enough to accept that “both mothers were one and the same. “
In a word, Splitting is one of the earliest and most primitive Defense Mechanisms available to humans. It protects very young children from the frightening experience and thought that the caretaker on which one is totally dependent is a threat to one’s very existence.
Most children typically develop out of Splitting as part of the normal process of development, but some form of Splitting stays with us our entire lives. It’s especially prominent in times of great stress and danger. Thus, Splitting is responsible for the sharp division of the world into “good versus bad guys and forces.” In other words, in times of great stress and danger, we revert to one of the earliest, most primitive Defense Mechanism. With his continual sharp division of the world into “good versus bad guys” –those who are completely with him versus those who are opposed and thus the enemy—President Trump is under the grips of Splitting.
Psychoanalysis is one of the few fields that offer deep insights into the human condition. For instance, all of the various factors that have been identified by psychoanalysis are capable of acting both as the causes and the effects of major crises. Causes become effects, and effects become causes. At the very least, they are deeply intertwined. Thus, a preexisting tendency towards paranoia not only makes one more susceptible to anxiety as the result of experiencing various threatening events, and thus paranoia fuels, if not causes, tremendous anxiety, but paranoia is often one of the major effects/outcomes of intense anxiety and trauma as well. Such is also the case with other factors such as being predisposed to as well as experiencing the effects of illusions, delusions, psychotic breaks, etc. These in turn are capable of leading to one’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, being a member of White Supremacist and Neo Nazi groups, etc.
If the goal of psychoanalysis is always the same, this doesn’t diminish its importance one iota: the weak Ego of the individual and society need to be strengthened so that both individuals and groups can withstand the growing threats of an increasingly hostile and unstable world. In brief, the Self needs to be strengthened so that it’s able to face, thus withstand, increasingly complex and dangerous realities.
This is the difficult task facing us. I pray fervently that we can rise to it.
[i] Melinda Wenner Moyer, “Journey to Gunland, “ Scientific American, October 2017, pp. 54-63.