A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"Liberals are often codependent, and our so-called compassion becomes suspect when it is based on the desire to use others to prop up our self-worth." -- Peter Michaelson, author, Democracy's Little Self-Help Book
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Peter Michaelson is a therapist, author and contributor to BuzzFlash.com. We were intrigued with his latest tome, Democracy's Little Self-Help Book, because it raises the issues of psychological hang-ups that many liberals have. We believe that we are doing good and making the world better, but many of us have inner psychological conflicts that prevent us from actualizing our goals effectively.
BuzzFlash would specifically point to the ambivalence and conflict many progressives -- and certainly the Democratic leadership in Congress feel -- about the use of power. The Cheney/Bush thugs have no compunction whatsoever about attaining unilateral power in any way possible: lie, cheat and steal.
Liberals, on the other hand, often have a profound ambivalence about being aggressive and assertive with power.
In many ways, we see this inner psychological conflict being played out again as the Dems in Congress pussyfoot around with a watered-down "bipartisan rebuke" of Bush's mad death warrant on our GIs through an escalation of the war in Iraq.
The Democrats are perennialy afraid of appearing partisan, of being attacked for standing up for their principles, of grabbing onto power and asserting it. To want power and wield it without regret is often seen as being -- well -- so "like them."
But if you don't achieve and utilize power to realize your principles, you end up being a victim and a patsy.
When will the subpoenas start flying in Congress? When will the Dems say enough is enough? When will they screw "bipartisanship" and stand up for sanity, democracy and the Constitution without compromising their principles?
We have a rogue, runaway executive branch that is daffy with delusional behavior, allowing thousands upon thousands of Americans and Iraqis to be killed and wounded, wasting hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars -- and calling it a success.
Yet, the Democrats on the Hill are talking compromise.
Maybe, it is time to look at our inner selves and our feelings about power, passivity, and our internal obstacles to assuming authority without guilt.
"It is important that we evolve toward greater personal authority," Michaelson notes in his latest work. "It is the framework of our sovereignty and our democracy depends on us having it."
BuzzFlash will be carrying Michaelson's Democracy's Little Self-Help Book in the future.
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BuzzFlash: Your new work, Democracy's Little Self-Help Book talks about how our inner psyche greatly influences our political beliefs, and that our personal spiritual beliefs actually have a huge impact on how we act or don't act politically.
Peter Michaelson: That's correct, in a nutshell. Spiritual beliefs are serious, but it doesn't have to be spiritual. It's more inner knowledge.
Socrates said that self-knowledge is most important. It's a strange inner world and we're not as conscious as we think about all the different dynamics that are happening in our inner space. We can be getting into different kinds of mischief or difficulty, or emotional challenges, or behavioral problems, because inner conflicts are happening, and we can't quite see it clearly enough.
The conflicts that happen on an inner level are going to be experienced by us in the world around us with our friends and our loved ones and our partners, and with ourselves. But they're also going to be experienced in terms of the whole community and the society, and the political life that we have. So there's a kind of a wholeness here in terms of what's happening inside us and what happens in the world.
BuzzFlash: You wrote on page 13: "Our psyche is our friend if we know it, but our adversary if we don't." It reminds me of the old simple wisdom, "know thyself." Is that your core argument, that as progressives we need to get in touch with our inner psyches, our deep psychological principles for how we act or don't act in the world?
Peter Michaelson: My thesis is that we will be greatly empowered by this knowledge. There are ways that we are not functioning at that highest level. And it's because of what we're not quite feeling and understanding on these inner levels.
One example is being sensitive to rejection. We begin to experience it in terms of the people that we're relating to in our life. And it creates a self-preoccupation that takes away from our creativity and our capacity to operate at a higher level in the world.
The less of these kinds of inner difficulties or conflicts we have, the more we're aligned with truth and goodness and wisdom. We're able, then, in thousands of different ways, to make those things happen in the world.
BuzzFlash: Can someone, after reading your book, become a better conservative? Could they know themselves and still retain some core political conservative beliefs? Or is it, the more you know yourself at the deep level that you're talking about, it's inherent the person moves towards a more progressive worldview?
Peter Michaelson: What happens is that we move towards truth, a sense of goodness, and what is right. We move towards compassion, and we become more appreciative of ourselves.
I think those values definitely orient us towards a more open, progressive worldview. A person who happens to be conservative could do all of this inner work and still maintain his or her conservative outlook. But he would be a better person for the inner work. He would be more open to others and willing to hear the points of view of others and not be negative and reactive. So he would moderate all those aspects of himself, but he still might be fairly conservative, and that'd be fine.
BuzzFlash: Some time ago, I read an interesting book by writer Steven Pressfield called The War of Art. And the entire thesis of his book is this concept of resistance, what he called a palpable force -- he even called it evil -- that inhibits people from taking meaningful action.
You mentioned in your book this concept of resistance, which to me is a very powerful idea. Is that the same thing as inner passivity that you write about -- the sense that there's a powerful force that we cannot break through to really be intimately involved in taking action and taking control of our lives?
Peter Michaelson: It's not exactly inner passivity. Resistance is the difficulty we have in looking more deeply into ourselves and recognizing the parts in ourselves that we are reluctant to look at.
It's very strange, but we have some aversion to seeing more deeply into ourselves. The deeper we go the more resistant and the more frightened we get. And it's because it's such a huge unknown, like the deeper we go, it's like dropping off into the abyss. And we have some resistance and that's what resistance is about.
Inner passivity is that part in us that is not manifesting, that is not coming forward, that is not really alive. It's like non-being. It hasn't taken on an intelligence and a perception, and a sense of self. It's a part of us that hasn't grown yet. It's laid there in the background and isn't moving forward.
BuzzFlash: You talk about two polar factions in the psyche, one being aggression, the other submission. Aggression is represented by an inner critic which we project as disrespect for other people. So in terms of aggression, how does that manifest itself in what we'd call the liberal psyche?
Peter Michaelson: Whether we are liberal or conservative, we have what in psychoanalysis we call the superego, or what I call the inner critic - it's just a negative energy that operates in our psyche.
It assumes to have authority and assumes to hold us accountable. It's like an illegitimate power in our psyche, and it can get away with it if we don't become more conscious of it, and if we don't stand up to it.
The part of us that doesn't stand up to it is our inner passivity. In other words, through our inner passivity, we're not tapping into our own power or our own inner resources, and standing up to that negative inner critic in our psyche.
The inner critic is a model of how the right wing operates. It's dogmatic, it's irrational, it's cruel, and it's insensitive. It's just aligned with its own desire for power. And it just comes after us. It's tricky to see it but the more we're aware of it, the more we are really representing ourselves and standing up for ourselves, and actually seeing our own inner authority and feeling a lot more powerful as a result.
BuzzFlash: How does someone awaken the aspects of ourselves to really confront inner passivity?
Peter Michaelson: One way is that we start to become more attuned to our defensiveness. Sometimes people are very defensive in their work environment or in their relationships. And inner defensiveness means we're reacting to the feeling of being criticized and judged. So if we see ourselves being that way, we can begin to identify that as inner passivity.
BuzzFlash: Let me read you a brief quote from page 29: "Liberals are often codependent, and our so-called compassion becomes suspect when it is based on the desire to use others to prop up our self-worth." Many liberals, deep down, although they're compassionate, carry a certain guilt -- that people have to make up for in their compassion towards other people.
Peter Michaelson: Liberals often keep doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. In other words, we can be supporting the “save the whale campaign” and aligning with a good cause. But often we’re identifying with the victims, and taking on some of the issues that the victims might feel.
For instance, the victim can feel that he or she isn't being appreciated or valued. Or the victim can feel helpless and in a position where he or she can't do anything about their circumstances. And those can be issues that are unresolved in us, deeper in our psyche. We can be functioning at a high level in the world, and yet still have these pockets in our psyche of dysfunction.
Then if we become aligned with a cause -- a good liberal cause -- part of it can be our genuine goodness and our compassion that finds us aligned with that cause. But we can also be tangled up emotionally in it, and become, as you said, a martyr or somewhat ineffective.
BuzzFlash: How do people negotiate between healthy levels of reflection and self-doubt, on the one side, and on the other side, inner passivity? Because obviously self-doubt and reflection are strong virtues that would lead someone to a good life. So how does someone negotiate between the two poles?
Peter Michaelson: Self-doubt can often be very appropriate but it depends on the degree of it. We wish George W. Bush would have more self-doubt about his positions in the world, and more capacity for inner reflection. So self-doubt can be okay as long as it's not painful, as long as we're not suffering through it.
The more inner passivity we have, the more self-doubt becomes a form of suffering. It becomes more acute. We're more at the mercy of our own psyche and our inner critic. And then we are at a great disadvantage. We don't really know ourselves.
We're not acting from our own sense of truth. We're just not as effective out there in the world in representing what we believe in and what our positions are, because we can be more easily undermined by that negative energy.
BuzzFlash: Mike Gecan, a social justice advocate in Chicago, wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 28th of this year. He noted that when people look to a celebrity, or buy a new phone or shop at the GAP to support global health, they're seemingly participating in helping the world, but Gecan said that it's really more of passivity. It's a form of faux political involvement by buying a product that alleges to help some cause. It's not really engaging in any problem solving in the community. It's putting the responsibility on something or someone other than ourselves.
Peter Michaelson: Yes, that would be a very good example of passivity where we look to the celebrity to try and get a sense of ourselves. The celebrity has such standing in the world. The celebrity is our ideal of someone who we imagine really knows who he or she is. And so we gravitate towards that.
The less inner passivity we have, the more we're in touch with ourselves when we see a celebrity -- the celebrity is no different or no better than we are. The celebrity is just another person. They might be quite an interesting person, so it might be kind of fun to hang out with him or her. But there's nothing special in that sense about that person, because we are so much more grounded in our own value and our own goodness, and our own strength. So the celebrity then doesn't influence us or mesmerize us in really the same way.
BuzzFlash: You said that the right wing, although it says that they're fighting for freedom or freedom's on the march, in reality that's the last thing the right-wing wants is people feeling the deep sense of personal freedom. Is that correct?
Peter Michaelson: That's correct. They don't see it themselves. They're more repressed. They're more aligned with authority and use that sense of authority to give them an orientation of the world, and a sense of how to maneuver in the world around those parameters, so freedom is not something that they're comfortable with.
They believe in freedom to a point, of course, but we're looking for deeper levels of freedom, that's what we're talking about here. If you try to expand our democracy and move through this impasse that it's a dreadful place where we're stuck here, we have to develop a whole new sense of freedom. Even the example of the celebrity is an example of freedom. You have the freedom to stand your own ground, and you can experience your own self as being as good as the celebrity. So that's a whole new sense of inner freedom. It's a whole new quality about who you are.
BuzzFlash: Fear is such an irrational and emotional state that it's really hard to get past that. It's so immediate and so all-consuming. How does someone disconnect themselves from these fear campaigns that the right-wing perpetuates to make people passive?
Peter Michaelson: Well, one of the great sources of fear is the influence of the inner critic, because the inner critic is very intimidating. And when we're in a position internally where we have to answer, or we feel we have to answer, to this rather fearsome inner critic that holds us accountable, we have a certain amount of fear with respect to that.
Right from the get-go here, we have a certain level of fear. The more perceptive we are, the more we're going to experience inner fear, because you don't know when the next episode of the heightened inner conflict is going to occur, which creates anxiety or distress or tension.
We have some inner fear of situations or contexts that can arise. We go to the degree where we see that much of this fear, 99% of it is irrational. It's not based on anything that's real. It's just all of this activity going on inside of us that was a conflict.
However, we can become quite fearless. And that's a wonderful place to be because there's no more rational fears, and we can move forward in the world with more confidence and more wisdom.
BuzzFlash: How would you advise people to free themselves from their inner passivity?
Peter Michaelson: The exercises in my appendix will certainly help. Most of us have no idea of our inner passivity. My previous book is called The Phantom of the Psyche, Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity. And I call it the phantom of the psyche because most of the time it's quite invisible.
The more you start to think about it, the more we get some inkling and some knowledge about its existence, and we will begin to see how it functions and how it operates. And that is knowledge, very valuable knowledge, that sort of grows as we reflect on it. So the knowledge, plus the exercises that are in the back of that book, are all part of the process.
BuzzFlash: Your conclusion is that, regardless of what's going on politically in our country, people should retain some sense of balance, regardless of who's president, what President Bush does, or how the war's going. People still have the ability to maintain a sense of balance through it all, and that's part of defeating that inner passivity.
Peter Michaelson: Yes, as progressives, we're really concerned about what's happening in the world. Our inner passivity can then become quite painful for us because we can feel as if there's nothing we can do about it, that it's a hopeless situation. And we can feel rather powerless and ineffective, so it can become painful for us.
So we ought to try and operate on two levels. One, where we have a certain amount of equanimity in the world -- we enjoy ourselves and we want to have fun and have a good time and do the right thing.
On another level, we want to be engaged in what's happening. And the engagement can be quite exhilarating if the inner passivity is not bothering us too much. We can feel confident in it. We can enjoy it. It's very creative. We can have lots of friends through the process. It doesn't have to be painful at all. It can be quite an adventure, and a lot of pleasure and satisfaction in knowing that we are really patriots for our country.
BuzzFlash: Peter, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Peter Michaelson: Thank you.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Senior Editor Scott Vogel.
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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW