Taming the Emotional Tsunami: Self-Analysis vs. Self-Awareness

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What is one to do when emotional pain comes on strong and unexpected? Many people regularly experience a chaotic mixture of pain and pleasure, joy and despair, that makes them ask what the hell is going on? Why do I feel great one moment and completely blitzed by painful emotions the next, and for seemingly no obvious reason at all?

The mystery of it can force one to self-analysis in an effort to figure out how to prevent the emotional tsunami from happening in the future. Just as ancient man must have been mystified by tidal waves that came from nowhere, tsunamis of the emotions can be just as odd. Self-analysis seeks to expose the imperceptible landslides and earthquakes happening below the surface of the sea (below consciousness) to explain the sometimes wild movements of emotions. But using self-analysis as one’s only means of combating the tsunami has some serious flaws.

The deep inner workings of the mind are a labyrinth of blind turns which self-analysis makes sense of, if ever, by sheer accident. Carl Jung once lamented that he did not have a Carl Jung to analyze his dreams. Jung was by all accounts one of the greatest psychoanalysts in history, yet by himself, working on himself, he was unable to escape the inevitable biases and blind-spots in his self-knowledge. Successful self-analysis is not just difficult, it’s nearly impossible.

Self-awareness is completely different. Self-awareness does not require one to know precisely what causes psychic pain; rather it remains attentive within the immediate experience and through the experience comes to gain an acquaintance with oneself, which in itself is healing. By comparison, self-analysis ironically takes the knowing subject out of the process in order to know the knowing subject. It requires first that the knowing subject exit the immediate experience, abstract the experience into mental concepts, and then take them apart bit by bit to discover which bits have gone awry. As in all scientific processes, this is a process of objective distancing, which when related to self-inquiry is also a short cut to neurosis.

Why neurosis? Because by treating oneself as an object of inquiry – by attempting to exist in a mode foreign to the human mode of existence (what Kierkegaard mused as becoming a “phantom of pure reason”) – one becomes disembodied, or dissociated. Self-awareness corrects this disembodiment by drawing all of oneself to the immediate experience, which is where everything is happening during the tsunami; all of one’s past and present wrapped into one.

How then is psychoanalysis still useful? It is useful because it is not the self trying to analyze the self, but rather another interested person making observations from, hopefully, a well-informed point of view, bypassing all of one’s built-in blind spots and biases and opening up those areas of the self which are truly veiled to the self. This input from the ‘other’ is irreplaceable and absolutely necessary in one’s journey to healing. Traditionally this role was played by the priest, the rabbi, the shaman, the elder, etc., and today for those who have lost tradition this role is played by the psychoanalyst or therapist.

Let us distill the terms psychoanalysis and psychotherapy down to a more tolerable term like counseling (something shared in both secular and religious milieu) and say that self-awareness and counseling are together the best way to tame the emotional tsunamis of life. Be a self-aware individual that is deeply connected to the helping other and the battle is mostly won.

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