The Wonderful Ultimate Democracy of Our Own Mind
I have often said to patients that the ultimate bastion of democracy into which we can retreat safely, even under many conditions where our freedom to act publicly is suppressed, is the grand privacy of our own minds.
So long as my strength of will and contact with my true self are intact in my own Mind, I can think anything I want to, about anyone and any institution, and I can do my thinking in the ways that are most genuinely helpful and rewarding for me.
I value this technique so much and believe it is the best solution for a huge number of situations where we cannot or dare not talk out our anger with others. Of course I am aware that most mental health clinicians are not trained in this concept.
The same basic principle of this technique for good living I am describing about using natural anger can be applied to the legitimacy and pleasure of releasing other intimate feelings, but in this article we are going to emphasize specifically the management of angry and violent wishes. As you read this, remember that at all times we are talking about fantasy and imagination within one’s own mind along with a certainty of not doing any actual harm to another person. Without such an absolute differentiation between feelings and actions, this technique cannot be helpful and in fact could cause harm.
The ‘trick’ is also not to use this ‘medicine’ a) too often and b) definitely not bitterly or with increasing rage, though in the initial stages with definite emotional bursts of the anger and hate we really feel. The critical goal that the therapist should set for the patient who is instructed in this technique is to work towards reaching an experience of release and satisfaction, and to aim consciously at feeling less anger and rage because one is totally at home with the anger one feels. In the total privacy of my Mind, indeed the ultimate bastion of my democracy, I am able to exercise every known form of anger, hurt, hate, torture, revenge, murder, and any other atrocity that was not yet mentioned in this atrocious list.
The point needs to be made ad nauseum that the actions ‘taken,’ meaning imagined, inside the privacy of my mind, are in no way connected to any actual actions in real life. Imagining actions in our minds is in no way equivalent to taking the actions being fantasized. On the contrary the evidence is that for healthy people, exercising freedom of the mind in responsible ways actually provides significant protection against possible lapses into impulsive uncontrolled violent actions.
Despite the fact that I am repeating myself, it’s so important that again I emphasize that thinking and feeling violently can be used to provide a measure of protection against the dangers of erupting into actual violence, and to augment one’s energy and resolution to be committed to non-violence in one’s actual behavior in the real world. When a therapist teaches a patient the technique, this principle needs to be laid out emphatically from the beginning and the patient needs to confirm his/her commitment to the goals of nonviolence and reducing anger by experiencing it honestly.
An example of the technique at work:
He hated his father for being a brutish, bossy, dominating, tyrannical figure. As a child he remembered lying in bed at night literally fearing his father’s gruff return from his day’s work.
In therapy he learned first to give full verbal bent to his intensely angry free associations of taking revenge on his father, beating him up, even killing him and watching him die with satisfaction. From this work in therapy sessions, it was a logical leap to take the same capacity home and engage in fantasies of murdering his father gleefully as desired and needed. Slowly but surely he perfected his technique, overcoming his fear, guilt and moral qualms, and then to his amazement and pleasure he began using the technique — silently, of course! — when he was actually present with his father. He was now able to engage fully in whatever conversation or interaction with his father while at the same time silently rehearsing — enjoyably! — his inner fantasies.
The results were even spectacular. He began to enjoy himself so much in his inner freedom to be his real self in a perfectly ethical way that he also relaxed to enjoy more and more the nice and interesting parts of his father. The visits between them took on a more relaxed and even jovial character. Over the years the father, who was already respectably retired when this process began, aged and became more dependent on his son who now thoroughly enjoyed taking care of him as well as continued to take pleasure from their conversations and being together. At the same time, all along the son continued silently his personal Mind exercises of killing his father and enjoying doing so.
The ultimate moment came when the son was present at his father’s terminal illness and death at a ripe old age. He was totally relaxed and devoted as he cared for father before he died. The son reported now feeling virtually simultaneously a wave of the most exquisite compassion and love for the dying old man, along with a recapping of his silent and pleasureful murdering of father for his emotional cruelty to him. The two sets of feelings simply co-existed quietly and validly for him in his heart as he went about caring for his father respectfully and reducing his discomfort as much as possible.
Many Therapists Don’t Know This Technique and May Will Reject It
I am not unaware of some psychological research that has shown that thinking–imagining violence will increase a readiness to be actually violent. There is no doubt that unchecked rumination of anger and planning and rehearsal of violence precede and become inducers of violent actions. Thus, one research in three London schools showed that “male street gang affiliates who think continuously about provoking or negative situations have the greatest tendency toward displaced aggression against innocent others… angry rumination can provide an opportunity for revenge planning and fantasizing, as well as justifying the anger that a person feels… the desire and motivation for revenge is maintained, prolonged or exacerbated.”
But if such thinking-imagining is accompanied by and framed as an effort to release one’s violence without doing any actual violent harm to the hated object, it helps to control violence and not increase it. The key difference in our point of view is that the fantasy of aggression is expressly for the purpose of releasing and overcoming the aggressive feelings. And that is why it lays a basis for reducing and overcoming the prospects of actual violence.
Many mental health professionals will go along with accepting angry ideas and feelings as quite human and not deserving of guilt reactions when patients come in and report that, at their own behest, in the flow of their natural minds, they have unwittingly experienced such ideas and feelings, certainly in dreams, but even in waking fantasies. But many of the same clinicians will object to any notion of therapists prescribing such fantasies as elective experiences to be pursued and celebrated by choice.
It is sort of funny that psychoanalytic therapists in particular generally display a good deal of comfort about violent fantasies by patients in dreams or in free associations, but they too often tilt their intervention towards a goal of recovering from the anger to not experience it further. Similarly, New Age psychologies are all over the place in recommending experiencing and releasing feelings in general, but rarely do so about anger. When anger is the subject, the focus frequently is placed on getting rid of the hot potato more than on releasing it and using it to become a more constructive and less angry person.
Personally, I believe the method is a highly effective one, and that it is grounded in psychological truth and philosophical integrity.
Intriguingly one might link the subject to the tradition of telling children fairy tales in which often grim figures and threats and even very horrible actions are described. There are many who interpret this seemingly strange custom of exposing children to evil as training for life – among other things to teach children to expect evil and to be able to recognize evil when it comes their way, and to retain a stamina, including keeping hope alive that they can overcome it.
The technique is also reminiscent of the old punching bag many parents arranged for their children (or for themselves), but here the bag is inside our own minds.
In conclusion, we are proposing a surprising dialectical concept:
Be angry in your mind to release it and become both a more assuredly nonviolent person and a more positive person. Be angry and hate and go all the way in your fantasies of revenge to ensure being nonviolent, to become less and less agitated and angry, more constructive in relationships that anger you, and by extension also to other life experiences and relationships.
Oh, and put away those meds you were given to reduce your anger and prevent violence. They simply don’t ‘get it.’
This subject of imagining and fantasizing impulses, including violence, but not acting on them is described more fully in a chapter entitled, “Treating Violence and Evil” by the author in his new book, “Psychotherapy for a Democratic Mind: Treating Intimacy, Violence, Tragedy and Evil” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books).