Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The anatomy of human self destructiveness

It has been postulated by many over the years, none less so than Freud, that we all have a life instinct (Eros) and a death instinct (Thanatos). These two interact in our lives effecting it in various ways at various times. It can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. 

Physically people will do things like exercise and set about eating a good diet. These are of course heath promoting and could be seen as an expression of the eros force within the individual. However for most there will be times, sometimes many times where the person will not exercise in such a way that is best for them, eat foods that are physically damaging to them, drink excessive alcohol, smoke cigarettes and so forth. The person will do these things repeatedly whist clearly knowing it is bad for them. This it could be said is an expression of the destructive forces in them, known as thanatos. Many people will spend their lives doing these contradictory set of behaviors over and over again. This strongly suggests there are two contradictory motivations inside them.

Weight lift

Psychologically people will do the same, perhaps even more so. Entering into a relationship can be very life giving and a positive thing for oneself. It can provide a sense of connection, fulfillment and strokes that are life giving in a powerful way for both the individual and the relationship. However thanatos can also be active in the way we relate to others. People can get into repetitively destructive relationships, some women can fall repetitively for unavailable men and then we have the idea of psychological games as was presented by Eric Berne.

A psychological game can be defined as a repetitive series of self destructive behaviors and games form part of almost all relationships in varying degrees. One reason for this may be due to the force of thanatos, inside each and every one of us. For such large numbers of people to repeatedly do things which they clearly and consciously know are damaging for their relationships, strongly suggests there is something at play that is central to human nature. The idea of thanatos could be an explanation for this.

Hand stand

Many psychology and psychotherapy approaches over the years have tried to deal with these two forces in a similar way. Essentially it is to rid self of the thanatos and to encourage the the eros.

For example in transactional analysis one talks about being ‘game free’. That is, the goal of treatment is to become game free and no longer play any psychological games in ones relationships. Relationship counselling is usually the same, about identifying the destructive behaviors in the relationship and making contracts not to do them. On an individual level the same tends to happen. Carl Rogers with client centered therapy had this at the core of his approach. It was assumed that if you provided the client with unconditional positive regard then their natural life force would be stimulated resulting in a natural growth towards health and any neuroses would diminish. The gaol was to increase the life force (eros) and diminish as much as possible the thanatos within the client.

This is common in a wide variety of psychotherapies and psychological theories. They use techniques to increase eros and diminish or extinguish thanatos within the psyche of the individual.

Man & pig dog 2

In my workshop on the psychology of human destructiveness I present a new approach. Like many other therapies one encourages the development of eros in the client’s psyche. Regarding thanatos, we all have it, we are all born with it and we can never get rid of it. It will be with us each and every day from birth to death. One does not try and get rid of it as so many other approaches attempt. 

Key to this approach is one does not deal with the behavioral or emotional consequences of thanatos. For example a psychological game is a behavioral consequence of thanatos, it is not the thanatos force in itself. One can use various techniques to access thanatos in the personality directly. One then has the opportunity to build relational contact with it. I cannot stress enough the importance of doing this. To be able to have direct contact with the core of the client’s self destructiveness is a most valuable therapeutic task indeed.

Workshop on thanatos


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