The other day I received a disquieting video email. A clip from a local broadcast news segment illuminated, for any petty crook who might not have already known, the proper use of an interesting adaptable key that fits easily into almost any lock.
The innocent newscaster, himself, aptly demonstrated how to properly manipulate the device. There was an antidote, however. An eighty dollar investment and probably twice that for the handyman to install it would ostensibly secure your safety.
I can’t imagine what happens if you lock yourself out. Find a crook, I guess. So much for hearth and home. While attempting to incorporate an inconvenient trip to Home Depot into my list of weekend errands, it occurred to me that this key has probably been around a long while. Why was it suddenly newsworthy?
When inside and outside collide
You don’t have to be Ben Bernanke to recognize that the present economy is rather unstable. You probably knew this long before Ben tried to augment a correction by manipulating interest rates. By sanctifying loans they knew couldn’t be repaid, unethical mortgage lenders have precipitated something of a margin call, reminiscent of the 1929 crash when people couldn’t discharge their stock market debts. Very scary.
You also know the economic carnival ride has always been more like the Cyclone than the Tea Cups. Just strap yourself in and let it rip. Now, I’m hardly an economist. Balancing my checkbook constitutes a vigorous aerobic event at my house. But I do have some thoughts about what happens when inner and outer worlds collide.
As economic insecurity becomes more pervasive, stirring actual survival fears, inner fears originating in early childhood are reactivated. These fears are reflected and amplified by the media, as if a good lock will soothe the disturbed mind.
Intellectual awareness of economic vicissitudes is hardly comforting when deeper fears gnaw from the inside out. Echoes of the Great Depression reverberated through my father’s mind and behavior well into advanced age.
Uncertainty provokes anxiety
While it’s certainly true that what goes up eventually comes down. And goes up again. We just don’t know exactly when. That’s the scary part. The element of not knowing provokes anxiety. When forced to accommodate uncertainty, we devise interesting protective measures to contain encroaching apprehension that threatens to engulf us.
An external environment that appears less than supportive elicits feelings of endangerment, sometimes even persecution. These perceived assaults awaken inner insecurities that slumber nicely when everything “out there” is operating smoothly.
Like a crook’s passkey, they tumble our inner locks. Personal fears linked to hiccups in our early interpersonal environment are inflammatory, so the first line of defense is to get rid of them before they raise an emotional welt. We eject them before we’re even conscious of what we’ve done.
Imperceptibly bypassing awareness, defensive stratagems can be quite successful, at least for a short time. Once jettisoned, inner fears needn’t be identified or managed from inside, but they still exist. It’s simply that “me” has conveniently become “not me,” and now the world becomes threatening. Externalized fears threaten from “out there,” so that’s where we attack them.
Here’s an example. A friend of mine at Cal Berkeley lived in a somewhat dilapidated but charming apartment building. Built early in the 20th c. when it was common to name dwellings like pets, it was called the Charlotte Arms. We called it the Charlotte Armpits. I imagine it is still there. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows.
Despite heroic domestic interventions, it was always slightly dingy. However, during finals week, hers was the cleanest apartment in Berkeley. When academic tensions and fears about acceptance to graduate school ran high, her floors sparkled as if irradiated.
It was easier for my friend to clean up her external mess than manage her internal one. Alas, she still had to study. But she had nice clean mugs from which to drink gallons of strong, hot coffee. Fortunately, she was a very capable girl and did just fine. I tended to default toward cleaning closets.
Anxiety is contagious
Economic instability elicits this same defensive dynamic but on a larger, collective scale. Anxiety is contagious. As external insecurities unlock inner threats that are quickly dispatched outward and away, rigid and compulsive efforts to control external variables increase. Most of us do this when under duress. We buy new locks. We clean the garage. Those who do it all the time are trying to manage thinly veiled inner terrors but are failing miserably.
When I was a school girl, my favorite-friend-across-the-street and I used to idle away Saturday afternoons watching televised monster movies from the 50’s. The Queen of Outer Space. House on Haunted Hill. Though we’d seen them many times, we couldn’t resist watching that rubbery creature from outer space eat Manhattan again and again. With stricken people running willy-nilly up Madison Avenue, they were too silly to be scary, but they obviously had enjoyed box office success, because there were so many of them.
This is no mystery when you consider the political climate of that era, rife with communist plots, threats to democracy and malignant blacklisting in the entertainment industry. Unlocking inner terrors, they were jettisoned all the way to “outer space,” where they returned as the creature from the black lagoon that looked exactly like one of my brother’s stupid toys.
Delving into the unconscious mind
The lagoon, a darkly opaque pool of water, is nothing more or less sinister than the unconscious. Our most threatening fears arise from within. The simultaneous arrival of Superman should surprise no one, as his heroism offset all that amorphous fear.
Analytic therapy is curative in many ways. Of importance are the ways in which it calls home all the projected monsters, so they can be thoughtfully examined, rendered less dangerous and afforded their proper historical context.
The goal is not to nullify or annul early experiences; that’s what unconscious defenses try vainly to accomplish. Rather, the task is to render them less immediately harmful, perhaps reducing an intergalactic missile to the size of a child’s toy. The result is that head space is liberated for more creative and productive endeavors.
This is not a quick process. Intellectual or cognitive knowledge cannot produce emotional resolution. That requires psychological focus and work. It is only when head and heart interact, when thinking and feeling occur simultaneously, that we acquire a maturely organized personality.
Certainly, the economic climate is volatile. Failure to recognize or acknowledge potential dangers suggests denial, another protective maneuver. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting the locks now and then.
Sailing on emotional tides
While you’re tending to worldly business, though, observe the ebb and flow of your inner emotional tides. By actively linking feelings, thoughts and personal reactions, self-awareness expands and with it healthy behavioral options. Increased intimacy with your inner world, the source of authentic initiative and direction, crystallizes a reliable personality core, stability in an always fluctuating surround.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975