What’s the big deal? Thoughts on resistance

I’ve recently been led to reflect on the question of what it is that makes us so afraid of looking inside to the circumstances which lie historically at the origin of our neuroses – frequently to the point of utter terror and/or total blindness even to the fact or possibility of repression. After all, we frequently face much more objectively threatening circumstances in life, like major illness and operations, with much more stoicism.

It is not a question that I think standard psychoanalytic theory really has an answer for. Sure, we are afraid to dismantle the ego. However, this unremarked importance of the ego simply appears as exogenous or as a mere mediator between the pleasure and reality principles. Its apparent tendency to calcify very early on is not really explained. One might link this to a biological developmental calendar, but then the apparent successes of therapy in sometimes bringing down the edifice would be very surprising. Why then do we freeze emotions in the body and hold them down long after the apparent, original need to do so is past? Why can’t we (or at least why don’t we), like the animals, just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move on – years and decades after the event? When you think about it, it is really, really strange that humankind is the only species that appears to have this strange dysfunction of its innate healing capacity. And even if we have some idea of how to unblock it, we have little idea of what gets it blocked in the first place.

I can only offer some clues as to how it appears to me.

At the basis, we need to remember that our species has evolved in small, interdependent tribal groups, and what mattered for the survival of our puny organism was being smart and acting in concert. This has led, via mechanisms which I shall perhaps discuss on another occasion, to an unparalleled emotional attunement to other members of the group. Most of this, of course, is a deep mystery – we do not know why we have a spiritual instinct and in what ways it differs from other species, and we do not know why it is so important for us to receive and to give love. These things I will have to take as a given, at least for now.

The Rousseauian view, expounded also by Osho, and perhaps bought into by Reich – all for their own reasons which I understand – that “observed” man is the product of social processes which have perverted the pristine and beautiful natural state of man, has, I believe, to be dismissed as naive. Freud was not wrong in believing that civilization required a sort of suppression of natural drives. On the contrary, the mechanism of acculturation is innate in our species and even what most defines it; it is not maladaptive; it is just misfiring under the conditions of modern life.

If we are happy enough to trace cerebral patterns back to reptilian times, I believe we should be a bit more accepting of our less remote ancestors and what they have bequeathed us. A scientific view of our, or of any, species cannot consist in simply choosing (and idealizing) one forebear over others. Thus, we cannot identify with certain bonobo traits merely because we do not like those of chimpanzees. That we do not like the warlike, selfish part of our nature certainly tells us something, but it does not disprove its existence – only the lengths to which the acculturation process goes to redefine and rechannel this truculence through mechanisms which are entirely social – social learning processes which result in the transmission of norms of behavior from generation to generation and group to group, norms which constitute as important, though far more diverse, a part of our patrimony as what is chiseled on our DNA.

If Darwin, evolutionary psychologists and classical economists have all made a mistake, as argued in Sex at Dawn, it is a perfectly understandable mistake, deriving from first-order principles which one may not like (for the reasons I just mentioned) but must defer to. In all higher species we see collective behavior which is imposed by social mechanisms on instincts which are far more egoistic. And ultimately, this process of acculturation is what has led to the second stage of evolution and the emergence of a creature such as man. Indeed, only social learning processes can result in cooperative behaviour – it cannot be innate.

So: guilt and shame are primary emotions and manipulation of them is a primary process.

Seeing this helps enormously, because there is no need any more to feel – well – guilty about feeling guilty. It is hardwired into our species to feel guilty when we fall short of social expectations, as it is hardwired to manipulate this feeling in order to obtain and maintain group cohesion.

I guess we would all like our children to be generous and patient. But that is not their natural state. Even allowing for incipient neurosis at the earliest stage, I do not believe any child anywhere on the planet has ever been born naturally sharing and thinking of others. Indeed, this is implicit in the standard developmental model, and pretty much a logical evidence: the child first has to develop a concept of self before it can develop a concept of others; the concept of the other can never be ahead of the concept of self and there is thus always a self-bias. So, the younger child must learn, and the adult or older child must teach.

What drives the young child to accept the social yoke, and what approach to childrearing optimizes the transmission of needed social norms? On the child’s side, this can only be the need for love and acceptance. I do not see any other candidate. That the sense of self is impacted by social disopprobrium – for when being reprimanded, however patiently and lovingly, the child will feel such disopprobrium – is natural. From its standpoint, love and acceptance are maximized and guilt is minimized when the child is aligned to social norms. In fact, I would even go further than this – it is not just the sense of self which is impacted, but the very fact of self. A human being living in isolation is not human.

Trying to bring about such alignment must, however, take account of the child’s natural rebelliousness and nascent sense of self. If the primary motivation to align is love and acceptance, it is obvious that bringing about long-term alignment through fear and violence is an inferior and unstable recourse, because love and acceptance create bonds which fear does not. However, fear and authority are not maladaptive either – they are highly adaptive to situations of stress and highly effective in such situations. The balance has just been lost because the circumstances in which we have evolved to exist are no longer those in which we do exist – and this estrangement becomes self-reinforcing. The child learns to suppress aspects of its behaviour which are perfectly healthy and unthreatening to the group, just because the former-child-now-adult can’t handle them. This repression and these patterns of behaviour maximize its payoff in terms of acceptance under the circumstances which it is powerless to change. However, they do so at a tremendous cost in terms of vitality, which is passed on to the next generation.

So to return to the question with which I started, it must be that the energy which cathects the fear of confronting our inner traumas when we start to do so, i.e. the energy of resistance, is the same energy which holds the neurosis in place at other times, i.e. when it is unchallenged. In other words, our fear is our neurosis. It follows that it is functionally identical to the fear experienced in response to the primal events – ultimately, in almost all cases, the fear of losing the sense of belonging and thereby of what it is that defines our nature as human.

And yet: we will not. Objectively, no such risk exists as adults, certainly in a therapeutic situation, when all the traumatizing factors belong to the past. Why is this not obvious?

I think I detect the reason, and it is this. In fact, our desire for love and acceptance is never met. It was not met during our formative years, and it is still not met today, because the endemic character of neurosis means that there is almost no-one able to love as we are meant to be loved and as we need to be loved. This is why we cling on to the strategies we learnt as children, although in no absolute sense did they work either then or now – they merely optimized subject to inordinate constraints. In fact, we are not failing to substitute them by a better strategy: there is no better strategy available to us. We have also chosen partners subject to the requirement that our strategies to gain acceptance initially worked with those partners. We have grown up emotionally paralyzed because of a lack of nurturing and we realize that we, all of us, continue to face the same situation, and whilst the needs of an adult are not those of a child, the meeting of those adult needs is the only thing that can start to demine the unexploded ordinance buried in our past.

It’s Catch 22.

The notion that we as adults are sufficient unto ourselves and can get all the sustenance we need from our physical environment, with no need for comfort, touch, contact is just a perpetuation of the lie and the violence at the heart of humanity’s traumatized existence.

Love and compassion are necessary to our physical and mental health as a species, and they are necessary to the therapeutic process and personal growth. Our mind, that place where we feel in control, because it works so well without others, strives after technique, but such technique is meaningless and ineffective without compassion, and secondary when compassion is present.

Facing our traumas is terrifying because we are innately afraid, under prevailing and persistent conditions of emotional starvation, to lose the little acceptance we have won in the world, and with which we reluctantly content ourselves. We lose sight and faith that anything more is possible, even though we know, deep down, that this way of existing is impoverished, is not satisfying and is not human.

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6 Responses to What’s the big deal? Thoughts on resistance

  1. Hi,

    This is tangential to the heart of your essay, but since you say:

    “Why can’t we (or at least why don’t we), like the animals, just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move on – years and decades after the event? When you think about it, it is really, really strange that humankind is the only species that appears to have this strange dysfunction of its innate healing capacity.”

    I feel compelled to point out that animals do suffer psychological trauma. If you’ve ever known a dog that was abused by a former owner, however much love and caring you devote to the animal, the scars and their effects never disappear.

    For the rest, your article is far over my head, so I won’t presume to comment. But I’m glad that you are still writing.
    Best wishes,


    • Jangali says:

      I have no experience of that but perhaps it is so. The resilience I refer to would be with respect to situations arising in the wild. Aside from that, I have a hard time believing the article is truly above your head. You are quite smart enough. Best,

      • What I understand is that you are looking for redemption and that you are seeking it in love, and in love you will certainly find it.

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