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STAYING THE COURSE: Following in the Footsteps of Freud and Bergler

A Review of Peter Michaelsons Why We Suffer by John Riddell


"Our fate as a species, I believe, is to be defeated by this quirk of human nature, while our destiny is to overcome it." -- Why We Suffer

In his "Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness" (2011) Peter Michaelson, an American author and psychotherapist, outlines his thesis of a deadly flaw, which he claims exists, to a greater or lesser degree, in each and every one of us. Michaelson: "This book reveals the deadly flaws configuration, provides evidence for its existence, explains how it develops inside us, suggests why it has eluded the smartest people, reveals how lethal it is, and shows how we can overcome it." These are ambitious claims. But Michaelson is persuasive. "This thesis", he says, "is based on the work of Edmund Bergler...In some sections of the book I don't mention him at all, though he is behind the scenes all the while." That being so, let us first take a look at the work of Bergler, a psychoanalyst who worked with Freud as his assistant director at the Vienna Clinic during the 1930s. Several of Freuds disciples developed their own brand of psychoanalysis, and eventually split off from Freud, but Bergler did not. He followed and extended Freuds work. He immigrated to the United States in 1938, where he worked as an author and psychoanalyst until his death in 1962. During that time, he wrote 24 books and hundreds of papers. According to Delos Smith, science editor of United Press International, Bergler was "among the most prolific Freudian theoreticians after Freud himself." The International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (online) notes: He extended and made clinically usable several of Freud's later concepts, including superego cruelty, unconscious masochism, and the importance of the pre-oedipal oral mother-attachment." Yet in spite of these significant achievements, Bergler's work has vanished! Any references to him have been expunged from most, if not all psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic institutions and associations. There is no mention of him in Morton Hunt's The Story of Psychology (1993), nor in Peter Giovacchni's A Narrative Textbook of Psychoanalysis (1987), though both books discuss the contributions of scores of lesser contributors. Why has this happened? In her introduction to "The Quiet Revolution in American Psychoanalysis (Arnold Cooper, 2005), E. L. Auchincloss writes: "Edmund Bergler [was] a brilliant intellectual figure whose abrasive personality and originality led to his being largely banished from official analytic publications...Bergler's emphasis on pre-Oedipal development, the importance of narcissism in individual development, the role of the superego, and the broad use of various masochistic defences, were significant precursors of Kohut, Kernberg, and other innovative psychoanalysts."

Michaelson comments: "Many PhD graduates in psychology from leading American universities have never heard of him. No biography of him has been written... I take this extraordinary avoidance of him as evidence of the great significance of his findings." Perhaps Michaelson is right. Let's take a look at Berglers work. _____________________________________________ Bergler extended both the Genetic and Clinical Pictures developed by Freud. The Genetic Picture has all infants being born with three primary drives: aggression, megalomania, and libido. As infants, we do not recognize the outer world as seperate from us. That is our infantile megalomania. We have drives as infants, arising through libido; and expressed through aggression. Bergler argues that, contrary to popular belief, the infant does not try to figure out reality; rather, he actually denies reality through attempts to preserve 'the world' as he knows it. What is the infant's world, according to Bergler? He claims that this period is rife with turmoil, and that there is a sequence of events which every child experiences during this pre-oedipal (oral) phase of development: 1. first of all, sooner or later, there will be offences to infantile megalomania (equivalent to feeling/being refused)... 2. ...resulting in fury- aggression- which is initially directed outwards 3. but, says Bergler, the outbound aggression cannot be resolved... 4. so it rebounds inwards, becomes directed against the infant himself. But this doesn't work either! So what does the child do? According to Bergler, the infant libidinizes "the boomerang aggression by making it an unconscious pleasure [which Bergler defines as psychic masochism]. Nobody can go through the protracted helplessness of childhood without acquiring some traces of this psychic poison. Psychic masochism is a universal human trait..." (All quotes by Bergler are from his Curable and Incurable Neurotics, 1962). Let us be clear here. This unconscious masochism, Bergler says, developed in the first 1824 months of life, will likely remain active and unaltered throughout the rest of ones life- unless challenged by an effective analysis (more on that later). We may become more conscious, learn more, develop skills and talents. But one's emotional reaction patterns are, in Bergler's words, 'codified, stenciled, and set' in the first few months of life. This is of course difficult to believe. In fact, it's an affront to our intelligence. It is downright repugnant to consider that, to a greater (neurotic) or lesser (normal) degree, we (unconsciously!) enjoy suffering. It strikes at the very core of our sense of who we are. Yet, as unfortunate as the development of psychic masochism may be, as preposterous as its origins may seem, as ridiculous as it may be to consider that adult behaviour is 'codified' by an unconscious dynamic established in the first few months of life-- and effectively in play throughout life the question must be asked: what if Bergler's right?

If he is, then there can be little doubt as to why he has been removed from the roster of conscious evaluation. Jekels, a student of Freuds, who lived to see Berglers work supressed, was asked by Bergler how generations of analytic investigators could have overlooked the central importance of psychic masochism based on oral regression. Jekels answer was succinct: the fourth narcissistic hurt. Bergler explains: Jekels alluded to Freuds famous statement that humanity had suffered three narcissistic mortifications: Copernicus proof that the earth is not the center of the universe, Darwins demonstration that man is not the unique crown of creation, and Freuds revelation that he is not even master in his own house. Now, the fourth narcissistic hurt: a deadly flaw: psychic masochism. By way of contrast, self psychology views the journey from infancy to adulthood as an act of an independent, assertive, strong being who is pschologically complete so long as it breathes the psychological oxygen provided by contact with empathically responsive selfobjects. (Kohut, Summarizing Reflections in Advances in Self Psychology (1980). Cooper (Op. cit., p. 28) puts it bluntly: Kohut is explicit in rejecting Freuds views on human nature and development from infancy to childhood. Since Bergler extended Freuds work, it is likely Kohut would reject his views as well. There is little doubt that the self psychology perspective is far easier to accept than a fourth narcissistic hurt. Bergler defines neurosis as "an anachronistic disease of the unconscious, preserving repressed infantile wishes, defence mechanisms, guilt. In normality these tendencies are given up or at least modified; in neurosis they are unconsciously perpetuated." Michaelson agrees: "...our deadly flaw (he prefers this term to psychic masochism) is created in a kind of fusion of aggression, megalomania, and libido-- all inner biological dynamics with psychological aspects." Fifty years ago, Bergler wrote: the psychotherapist who takes the superficial defenses at face value, disregarding, or being uninformed of, the masochistic substructure, acts like the detective who falls for false clues planted by the criminal to confuse him and put him on the wrong track. Without analyzing the basic masochistic substructure the neurotic cannot be changed. If he's right, then there's a problem here. A big problem. The 'basic masochistic substructure' Bergler posits is given short shrift in psychology today. From Bergler's perspective, 'the neurotic cannot be changed' by most current treatment methods (more on this below). But even if what Bergler says is so, since all these alleged infantile reaction-patterns take place in and remain active in the unconscious (occurring prior to the formation of the conscious component of the human mind), how could these claims be proven scientifically?

In Bergler's Clinical Picture (of the adult neurotic), unconscious psychic masochism manifests in conscious symptoms through what Bergler calls the Mechanism of Orality. This mechanism, he claims, provides the clinical evidence which verifies the genetic picture: every therapist dealing with neurotics, whether aware of it or not, bears witness to this 3-stage Mechanism: Stage 1. Unconsciously, the neurotic provokes disappointment or refusal, through his behavior or his misuse of an external situation. He has stabilized on the rejection level. This unconscious genetic dynamic is continually in play through repetition-compulsion (Freud). THIS NEVER CHANGES. When (not if) disappointments or refusals materialize, the outer world is unconsciously identified with the infantile dynamic of refusing (i.e., establishing a refusing world, which, unconsciously, is enjoyed masochistically). This faulty 'resolution' (the deadly flaw) of infantile aggressive drives comes to be early on, in the preOedipal, oral phase. Stage 2. The adult neurotic reacts with Pseudoaggresion, (not healthy aggression), offered as an alibi for his 'innocence'; that is, on the surface, the pseudoaggression seems to be the product of righteous indignation, and a move made in self-defence against the external enemy (whoever, whatever it may be). The neurotic remains unaware of the part HE has played in bringing about his disappointment. Stage 3. Still unaware of the part he has unconsciously played, the neurotic consciously pities himself for his defeat and humiliation ("poor me..."); while at the same time he unconsciously enjoys masochistic pleasure. _____________________________________________ According to Bergler, neglect of the pre-Oedipal period leads to errors in analysis: the ability to see psychic masochism in the patient presupposes that ones own masochism has been thoroughly aired in ones own analysis, and (at least partially) made ineffective. Since in most cases psychic masochism is not given the distinction of being analyzed, the analyist who did not hear of it in his own analysis does not transmit knowledge of it to his patients either. Michaelson agrees. "When it comes to learning about this inner condition, we can expect little help from the experts. Most psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts in academia and in the mental-health professions have not recognized this flaw, and many of them will denounce any claims to its existence. These are smart people, but they are not necessarily any more conscious than the rest of us, which means their self-knowledge is no greater than ours."

In fact, the state of psychology and psychotherapy today appears to reflect general confusion on even basic issues: TALK THERAPY: The two most commonly prescribed therapies are cognitive-behavioral therapy and 'interpersonal' therapy, which teach techniques for improved functioning but do not penetrate the unconscious mind. The myriad 'schools' of psychotherapy may well reflect 'diversity'. But they may also indicate outright confusion. This confusion, and a high failure rate, do not inspire confidence. Michaelson notes that: "[Academic] pschologists are ...declining to undergo a full examination of their own issues and weaknesses. In so doing, they only half-heartedly fulfill the calling of their profession." MEDICATION: Use of medication for psychological problems is increasing, despite their widely disputed efficacy. Moreover, the use of pharmaceuticals can be driven by economic forces, and, as we know, can cause damaging side-effects; and, of course, do not address unconscious dynamics. DIAGNOSTICS: There is considerable controversy today over DSM-5's ever-expanding listings as to what does or does not constitute a 'mental disorder'. DSM-3 eliminated all psychoanalytic concepts in an effort to be 'theory neutral'. One wonders: is the ommission of acknowledgement of the unconscious in all these areas a signal that knowledge of the unconscious dynamic in every human being (Freud); and the nature of that dynamic (Bergler) is to be downplayed or even, eventually, to be discarded by the profession? Cooper (Op. cit., p. 44): "Embedded in debates between schools or points of view are such controversies as:

the relative importance of nature and nurture the nucleus of neurosis- Oedipal or pre-Oedipal? the nature of man - tragic (Kohut) or guilty (Freud)? the nature of our inquiry - scientific or hermeneutic? the appropriate language of our discourse - metapsychological or clinical? the origins of motivation the intrinsic nature of the mind- unified or conflicted? the nature and source of therapeutic effectiveness the question of our identity and the limits of technique One could add to the list..."

Could these issues, important though they may be, be essentially sidebars, ways to ward off (defend against) a reasoned assessment of Berglers genetic and clinical pictures?

_____________________________________________ This, then, is the historical context within which Michaelson's book is set. In "Why We Suffer" he successfully 'translates' Bergler's (and Freud's) terminology into lay terms; and by so doing, moves the debate forward into the 21st century. Bergler believed that clients needed to be educated about the nature, constituents, and effects of psychic masochism. Michaelson agrees, and throughout the book attempts to educate readers. In particular, he devotes a chapter to the subject "To assimilate the knowledge of the deadly flaw, Michaelson says, "I believe these rules [given in chapter 19] are helpful even when we don't have an analyst or a therapist." Further, Michaelson appears to extend Bergler's Genetic Picture by claiming there are two dominant negative voices: "Two aspects of our psycheinner passivity and inner or selfaggressionare primary ingredients of the flaw thats at the heart of human dysfunction... I quote Michaelson at length here. He explains: "...For most people, their primary inner conflict is between their inner critic (inner aggression) and their inner passivity. We can detect the conflict by consciously registering the inner voices that represent one side or the other. As mentioned, the inner critics voice is likely to be mocking or scolding. The inner passivitys voice is typically seductive or defeatist." Michaelson believes that "the self emerges out of inner passivity, and then becomes the power that subdues the aggression of the inner critic. The more clearly we see and feel our inner passivity, the more we also make ourselves conscious of the illegitimate authority of the inner critic. With this new intelligence, we feel, with a new understanding of what we are feeling, the negativity of the inner critic and the negativity of inner passivity. Michaelson says that When inner passivity is overcome, we represent ourselves (instead of defending ourselves) creatively and effectively. When we cant manifest the power of natural aggression, we will lack self-regulation, and we can become quite indifferent to our own health. We become sedentary and avoid exercise. We eat and drink food that has nutrients manufactured out of it. We trash our minds with trivia and commercial rubbish the way we trash the planet with garbage and toxic substances. When we don't care about our own health, we don't care about the health of the planet. A common symptom of inner passivity is ones difficulty believing in oneself and feeling ones value. Inner passivity clouds discernment and wisdom, makes it easy to weave illusions and dreams, and makes it hard to stand against the crowd. It also makes us afraid of life, so that, in survival mode, we embrace a dog-eat-dog mentality and pursue selfaggrandizement as a means of protection.

For example, the pursuit of unhappiness is often driven by oral issues. These issues compel us to feel that our needs and desires are constantly unfulfilled. Adults contend with oral issues on a physical levelas in cravings for junk food, sugar, alcohol, and cigarettes. Oral issues also confront us on an emotional levelas when we feel deprived, refused, and distressed about not getting in relation to love, excitement, material objects, and social connections. Our deadly flaw is our secret determination to recycle negative emotions not for resolution, but because we are compelled to experience repeatedly what is unresolved. This determination to suffer represents much of the resistance and the difficulty we have in achieving personal growth and social progress." Michaelson goes on to say that we can see this dynamic at the personal level in operation at the social level. This seems a logical extension: if the deadly flaw exists; if it is unconscious; and if it is not acknowledged by the profession, it is likely a primary constituent of the societal collective unconscious. That is, as well as a Genetic and Clinical Picture, Michaelson describes a Collective Picture. In chapter 20, 'Society as an Extension of the Psyche', he presents an analysis of society from a psychological perspective (Much as Freud used psychoanalysis as a base for his Civilization and Its Discontents). _____________________________________________
"The growth of democracy is a measure of human evolution." -- Why We Suffer

Michaelson: "In the bigger picture, regulatory reform of our banks isnt sufficient in itself. Human nature has to be reformed as well, or we wont stand up for ourselves en masse when neurotic bankers and psychopathic speculators find new ways to cheat the system. Human dysfunction creeps into all our endeavors. Were in danger, for instance, of acting out our propensity for self-defeat with nuclear proliferation, genetic manipulation, and environmental degradation. An example is the behavior of economic experts and government regulators, along with political and financial leaders, who stood by passively as the U.S. financial system was gearing up for a collapse in the years leading up to 2008. The financial chicanery engineered by Wall Street was staged and directed by economists who graduated from (and taught at) Americas top universities. How many of these economists have done the honorable thing and told us exactly how their so-called scientific discipline produced such falsehood and delusion? We have a legitimate gripe with economics.

But we can be even more disgusted with the field of psychology. It is producing its own brand of second-rate information and subprime factoids that are preventing us from getting to the heart of our personal and national dysfunction." Michaelson puts forward an interesting psychological analysis of the political 'left' and 'right'. People on the Right need to address their hostility, irrationality, fear of change, and, ultimately, the deep unconscious fear of death that drive them to militarize the nation, stock up on handguns, and fantasize apocalyptically about salvation. On the Left, people can become more effective reformers by recognizing and addressing their forms of negativity, which include defensiveness, as well as feelings of victimization, oppression, criticism, and disappointment. Both the conservative and the liberal mentalities have psychological weaknesses that have been completely unconscious. _____________________________________________

Overall, Michaelson's book is a stimulating, thoughtful read. He breaks open new ground. He arguably extends Bergler's Genetic Picture by clarifying and 'naming' the passive inner voice as being just as dangerous as the ruthless inner critic- and yet, possibly, the gateway to the true self. He takes the psychology profession to task; he offers educational materials to the public by providing guidelines, and through examples; he extends Bergler's Clinical Picture towards society-at-large, essentially putting society on the couch': a kind of social therapy, if you will--a psycho-social anlaysis long overdue! Michaelson is to be commended for staying the course: for not being sidetracked; and for having the creativity and the courage to follow in the footsteps of Bergler and Freud.