Terrorists' Favorite Psychological Defense

In our search for an understanding of terrorism, we have studied political, religious, economic, and cultural factors. It may be, however, that terrorism can best be understood through psychology.

Terrorists of all stripes are steeped in a victim mentality. In the case of Islamic terrorists, they feel violated and oppressed by Western power and culture. They experience the social and political dynamics of the West through feelings of deprivation, helplessness, domination, disrespect, and defeat. Their unconscious interest is not in reform or progress but in the ongoing experience of themselves as victims of alleged injustice and oppression.

The Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, identified as the inspiration for recent attempted attacks on American soil, appears to have a persecution complex. (This diagnosis is based on the sense of victimization he displayed in comments attributed to him in The New York Times.) Someone with this disorder unconsciously lives in the expectation of being on the receiving end of aggression. Such individuals typically don’t recognize their unconscious willingness to experience and recycle the feeling of being controlled, harassed, dominated, or persecuted.

Rather than acknowledge their emotional weakness, they resort to blaming others. In using blame as a psychological defense, Mr. Awlaki has produced distorted views of the world, with dogma and reactive behaviors to match, that enable him, on an inner level, to plead innocent to his participation in his own sense of oppression.


The Crash of 2008 as a Learning Experience

The blame-game hasn't stopped. Was the crash of ’08 the fault of bankers, Congress, regulators, the media, or the people? Blaming others feels good when it defends against our participation in the fiasco.

Even though bankers may have broken the law and need more regulation, we’re all part of the problem. Deficiencies in human consciousness caused the crash. Our intelligence is impaired by unresolved negative emotions that produce collective occurrences of self-defeat or self-sabotage.

Even if we regulate the banks more stringently, as we should, we’re in danger of acting out our propensity for self-defeat in other areas of life, notably with nuclear proliferation, genetic manipulation, and environmental degradation.

We’re not to blame for being dysfunctional or neurotic. Human nature has fundamental flaws, though these can be resolved. It’s obviously crisis time on planet Earth, time to answer the call to become more conscious.

We can start by seeing and acknowledging our own contribution to the problem. We can’t prevent institutional corruption or overcome passive inaction when we neglect to address personal dysfunction and our negative emotions such as anger, distrust, dissension, envy, fear, and hatred. These emotions corrupt family, community, and national life, as they also block us from having the power or will to achieve reform.


What is Humanity’s Greatest Weakness?

A lot of experts tend to blame social problems on the cruelty, malice, and ignorance of other people. For instance, the materialistic and selfish aspects of contemporary life are often blamed on a financial elite that has been pursuing its narrow self-interest.

Author and scholar Tony Judt says as much in his new book, Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Press, 2010). Much of today’s social dysfunction is not inherent in the human condition, he writes. It dates from the 1980s and includes an obsession with wealth creation and privatization. These developments featured a growing disparity between rich and poor, uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, and the delusion of endless growth.

These changes Judt mentions did indeed occur over the last three decades. Nevertheless, the author is wrong on a critical point: it was a weakness in the human condition that facilitated these undesirable changes. This problem may be humanity’s greatest weakness, though the substance of that weakness remains unrecognized by most experts and observers.

Humankind is still strongly under the influence of a psychological condition called inner passivity. I describe this condition in detail in my book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity. The book explains why inner passivity, which produces self-defeat, is an inherent and universal human weakness. Inner passivity is a result of a lack of self-awareness. It refers to our inner state of nonbeing, the inner zone of dissociation, that is the central aspect of our subordinate or unconscious ego.


Roots of the Victim Mentality

The first song written and directed by the Eagles when the band reunited after its 14-year breakup was “Get Over It.” It’s a song of protest against the constant whining and complaining of the victim mentality. You might know these opening lyrics:

I turn on the tube and what do I see
A whole lotta people cryin' "Don't blame me"
They point their crooked little fingers at everybody else
Spend all their time feelin' sorry for themselves
Victim of this, victim of that
Your momma's too thin; your daddy's too fat
Get over it
Get over it
All this whinin' and cryin' and pitchin' a fit
Get over it, get over it.
We can “get over it” more easily when we understand the unconscious compulsion that many people have to experience themselves as a victim. We find it easy to play the victim role in life and even to indulge in the feeling of it. Often the problem starts with our temptation to blame our parents for our problems.


Freeing Ourself From Creative Blocks

A creative block, or simply a block to self-expression and more satisfying achievement, is a symptom or a consequence of one or more unresolved psychological issues in one’s life.

The challenge is (1) to solve the mystery of whatever is blocking you, and (2) to have the will to move forward against the resistance you will feel in working through the issue or issues.

Even talented, successful people can bring their work and achievement to a new level by recognizing and dealing with subtle emotional issues that are at play in their psyche.

Breaking free of blocks to creativity requires that we uncover our psychological entanglement in unresolved negative emotions.

Here are some of the issues, all of which are interrelated, that produce blocks:


The Importance of Psychological Truth

The social science of economics produced a trillion-dollar bust when the American financial system went over the edge in 2008. The financial chicanery engineered by Wall Street was staged and directed by a circus troupe of economists who graduated from (and taught at) America’s top universities. Will some of these economists do the honorable thing and, before they pack up their tents and pet theories, tell us exactly how their so-called scientific discipline produced so much falsehood?

Yes, we have a legitimate gripe with economics. But we can be equally 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.

Academic psychologists have borrowed their knowledge from books. They have not plunged into their own unconscious mind to discover essential truths about human nature. Instead, they have run off with their so-called scientific method to count all the correlations dancing on the head of a statistic. Hence, they flood the marketplace of ideas with second-rate and misleading information.


Society and the Inner Progress of the People

“The United States is becoming a broken society,” writes The New York Times columnist David Brooks. America needs a fresh political wind that would empower community leadership and restore trust in neighborhood associations. “The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up,” he concludes.

That conclusion is too simplistic. Human nature being what it is, people carry around a lot of unresolved negative emotions. These emotions are acted out just as easily in a family or community as they are in society at large. To create real progress we have to grow beyond this negativity. We achieve that by becoming more self-aware. That means we discover and then address the issues within ourselves that induce us to be selfish, greedy, fearful, and complacent. We also learn in an in-depth way why it is that we’re lacking in wisdom, compassion, and self-regulation.

It would be nice to restore trust in the local community, as David Brooks writes. But we also have to establish trust in our own self so that we can refrain from personal and national self-defeat or self-sabotage.

While most of us do have a positive, generous, and loving side to our nature, we also have a dark side that we’re reluctant to explore.


The Emotional Roots of Addictions

Behind addictions to alcohol or drugs are addictions to unresolved negative emotions. That’s a revolutionary idea, yet true nonetheless: Physical addictions are just symptoms of emotional addictions.

We know what it means to be addicted to alcohol or drugs. So what does it mean to be addicted to negative emotions?

By way of explanation, let’s begin with an axiom of psychology: Any unresolved inner conflict of ours is determined to be experienced by us, no matter how painful that is. Here are common inner conflicts: “I hate to feel deprived—I expect to feel deprived;” “I hate to feel powerless or helpless—I expect to feel powerless or helpless;” “I hate to feel criticized or rejected—I expect to feel criticized or rejected.”

These conflicts and others like them pervade the human psyche, and they are usually semi-conscious or unconscious. They create unhappiness and suffering, and they also constitute emotional addictions. How so? The expectation of feeling deprived, for instance, is actually an inner readiness or willingness to feel deprived or refused. This is because we keep getting tangled up in whatever is unresolved. Although it’s painful, an emotional attachment or emotional addiction is established to the negative feeling of being deprived or refused. Unconsciously, we’re willing to indulge or wallow in it, producing self-pity along with a victim mentality.


Chapter 1 -- The Essence of the Deadly Flaw

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my latest book, The Best-Kept Secret in the World: The Hidden Source of Unhappiness, Conflict, and Self-Defeat (2010, 280 pages). This book can be purchased as a PDF file at

Thinkers over the ages have speculated about a flaw in human nature—whether in the form of original sin, an enemy within, or a death instinct. My thesis contends that a hidden flaw does indeed exist. It was discovered in the last century by a relatively unknown psychoanalyst. Only a tiny percentage of the population have recognized or understood this flaw or even heard of it.

The innocent of the world, the good people, are carriers of this emotional quirk, as are the less noble among us. This flaw, however, gets the best of us only when it remains unconscious, hidden from our awareness in our psyche. It is analogous to a sabotaging virus, bug, or worm in a computer system. Even an excellent system is compromised by a troublesome quirk. Such a system operates at its best once that problem is removed. Obviously, the problem has to be identified before it can be removed. Here, briefly described in the next two paragraphs, is the essence of the problem.

It does feel like blasphemy to say that we like our suffering. It is outrageous to suggest that we are secretly interested in holding on to our negativity. Yet this is the paradox of this deadly flaw. It compels us to recycle our old hurts from our past, as it tricks us through our defenses into covering up our collusion in our suffering. These hurts consist of unresolved emotions associated with deprivation, refusal, helplessness, criticism, rejection, betrayal, abandonment, and a sense of unworthiness.

Uncovering Vital Self-Knowledge

The trick to becoming a happier and healthier person is to understand exactly how we contribute to our emotional and behavioral problems.

Sure, the world around us can be a difficult and challenging place. Yet most of our suffering and self-defeat are caused by chaotic dynamics in our mental and emotional processing. Up to this point, the human race hasn’t understood these dynamics clearly enough.

For starters, we want to expose the operations of our inner critic. That part of us assumes to be our voice of authority. It pretends to represent our best interests. But this part of us is inappropriately aggressive, and it is a source of negativity.

Another source of negativity is our inner passivity. This part is often represented by an inner voice of self-doubt. It is through inner passivity that we allow our inner critic to harass us, intimidate us, and hold us accountable. Inner passivity makes it very hard for us to self-regulate.