Sunday, December 29, 2013

Psychoanalysis and the Art of Misery

I don’t know how I missed it, but Cloe Madanes’s article about the art of misery is an instant classic.

The article is long, detailed and positively brilliant. I cannot summarize it adequately, but Madanes begins with the idea that some people might actually want to make themselves miserable. Or better, that some people have cultivated and mastered habits that are guaranteed to produce misery.

For my part, I cannot help but see that these habits coincide perfectly with Freudian psychoanalysis, at least, with the French and Argentinian versions of same.

We assume, Madanes says, that everyone is seeking happiness or at the least some form of contentment. But then, she continues, we discover that some people seem to be hard at work at making themselves miserable. Perhaps they do not think of it this way.

They might be so unconscious that they do not even know that they are following a set of rules. Nevertheless, their behavior is so perfectly comprised by Madanes’s rules, that the conclusion is inescapable.

Madanes writes:

After perusing the output of some of the finest brains in the therapy profession, I’ve come to the conclusion that misery is an art form, and the satisfaction people seem to find in it reflects the creative effort required to cultivate it. In other words, when your living conditions are stable, peaceful, and prosperous—no civil wars raging in your streets, no mass hunger, no epidemic disease, no vexation from poverty—making yourself miserable is a craft all its own, requiring imagination, vision, and ingenuity. It can even give life a distinctive meaning.

If everyone is pursing happiness and you are pursuing misery, you become distinctly and uniquely individual. You become one of a kind. You might be attracting the wrong kind of attention but you will be attracting attention.

Some people will hold you up as an example of what not to do, but they will be talking about you. They will be interested. They will be concerned. They might even want to help. Unless they become so fed up that they tune out.

Madanes excludes the more obvious ways of making yourself miserable: like drugs and crime. She is too sensitive to say it, but people who use drugs and who commit crimes are not working to make themselves miserable: they are seeking a semi-permanent state of bliss.

To perfect the art of misery you need to make it appear that you are not seeking it:

Subtler strategies, ones that won’t lead anyone to suspect that you’re acting deliberately, can be highly effective. But you need to pretend that you want to be happy, like everybody else, or people won’t take your misery seriously. The real art is to behave in ways that’ll bring on misery while allowing you to claim that you’re an innocent victim, ideally of the very people from whom you’re forcibly extracting compassion and pity.

Naturally, you will be sharing the pain. Misery loves company, so it begins by alienating those near and dear to you.

Madanes writes:

It’s inevitable that as you make yourself miserable, you’ll be making those around you miserable also, at least until they leave you—which will give you another reason to feel miserable. So it’s important to keep in mind the benefits you’re accruing in your misery.

She lists some of the advantages that accrue to those who make themselves miserable.

First, everyone around you will feel sorry for you. Better yet, some people might feel guilty about your condition, as though they were responsible. If they do, you will have helped make someone else miserable.

Second, if you never expect that anything good will happen to you, you will never be disappointed. A fair point, we all agree.

Third, and perhaps most importantly in some circles— I know them well— misery will make you feel morally and intellectually superior to those who are happy.

Madanes describes this character type accurately:

Being miserable can give the impression that you’re a wise and worldly person, especially if you’re miserable not just about your life, but about society in general. You can project an aura of someone burdened by a form of profound, tragic, existential knowledge that happy, shallow people can’t possibly appreciate.

I cannot, in the short space of a blog post, summarize all the habits that Madanes suggests, but here are a few.

Surely, fear of loss, especially fear of financial loss must top the list. If you are contented with what you have, you might feel good about yourself. So, go out and focus on what you can lose.

Or, as Janis Joplin once sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

It helps if you can perfect the art of wasting time, of feeling useless. Television and some social media are at the ready to help you out here. The less you accomplish the more miserable you will feel.

And then, give yourself a negative identity. Madanes explains how you can cultivate this habit:

If you feel depressed, become a Depressed Person; if you suffer from social anxiety or a phobia, assume the identity of a Phobic Person or a Person with Anxiety Disorder. Make your condition the focus of your life. Talk about it to everybody, and make sure to read up on the symptoms so you can speak about them knowledgeably and endlessly. Practice the behaviors most associated with that condition, particularly when it’ll interfere with regular activities and relationships. Focus on how depressed you are and become weepy, if that’s your identity of choice. Refuse to go places or try new things because they make you too anxious. Work yourself into panic attacks in places it’ll cause the most commotion. It’s important to show that you don’t enjoy these states or behaviors, but that there’s nothing you can do to prevent them.

To advance your cause, you should learn how to mistreat other people. The more people you can alienate the more you will feel rejected.

So, you want to take every opportunity to fight and bicker. You want to criticize people mercilessly for their faults, real and imagined. And you must also think the worst of everyone by impugning their motives. And you want to perfect the art of whining and complaining. It also helps to be late for appointments, to fail to return messages and to be rude to those you come into contact with.

If you succeed, you can feel that you have good reason to be an ingrate and to care only about yourself.

If you should be involved in a romantic relationship, do not be satisfied with your lover as he or she is. Set out to change him or her.  

Naturally, it helps to blame other people for everything that has ever gone wrong. Start by blaming your parents; surely, you had a miserably upbringing. Now, that makes you feel worse already.

It is also good to withdraw into your mind and introspect:

Spend a great deal of time focused on yourself. Worry constantly about the causes of your behavior, analyze your defects, and chew on your problems. This will help you foster a pessimistic view of your life. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by any positive experience or influence. The point is to ensure that even minor upsets and difficulties appear huge and portentous.

When you introspect, you must focus on the past. You can tell yourself that your past has been filled with insurmountable and crippling traumas. Or else, you can believe that it was so wonderful that you will never see its like. Either way, obsessing about the past is a good way to make yourself miserable.

If this list does not remind you of Freudian psychoanalysis, you have, as Lacan used to say, completely misread Freud.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to be particular but "Me and Bobby McGee" was written by Kris Kristofferson, not Janis Joplin.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks... correction made.

Anonymous said...

Every Xmas season I think of Ma. She died in 06. (have I written about this before?)

I grew up w/her (Sis & Pa stayed away much as possible), and lived w/her for several years.

Xmas drove Ma crazy. She made horrible screaming scenes about nothing, was a Mean Drunk, and in other ways made everybody miserable. I dreaded coming home from work when we lived together.

Long story short, it was the symbol of her life. She was agelastic, and got mad when I laughed.

I have other horror stories I won't bore you with.

She was a good woman in many ways, and I loved her. Now I'm sure I know the cause of her misery.
I've read books, searched the Web, chatted online.

Ma was Borderline Personality. Nearly every symptom was there. Including relationship w/ children.

I'm dubious of a cure for that mental illness. Poor Ma. She was so unhappy. It wasn't her fault.

I'd be glad to read contrary opinions. -- Rich Lara

Ares Olympus said...

I've observed self-destructive choices, and there's probably many categories to consider, but I'm not convinced of the idea of intentional misery or how we should judge that.

I think of the "Drama triangle" in transactional analysis, with 3 roles, victim on one side, and caught bipolar roles of persecutor and rescuer.

So when I hear an conclusion "Some people want to me miserable" I imagine that's the cynicism that arises from a would-be rescuer who tried to save people from their self-destructive choices, and is frustrated all their wise and pragmatic advice has been rejected or found lacking.

I've done enough would-be rescuing to see this reaction, most recently, my brother's ex-wife just finished her third divorce, and I helped her with some money. She concluded she has to work extra hours to cover her lease by herself and all her bills, while after christmas I hear from my niece her mom is planning to use some of the extra money from her weekend job to buy new furniture, apparently because she can make payments.

My brother's only marriage lasted three years, and I couldn't understand how they could both work so long hours and never get ahead, so I concluded (17 years ago at their divorce) that people who work too hard feel deprived, and then justify spending money on themselves to feel better. So is that the Art of Misery? I'd say so, but she's got her goal that makes her feel better. And she likes working, and doesn't like quiet reflection on the nature of her choices.

So my Rescuer now wonders if I have any influence on my 19 year old niece, or if she's just going to follow her mom's bad choices? She tells me proudly that she paid her own way with her recent new boyfriend, and that's great, but then she admits she's doing minimum payments on her current $500 credit card balance to get a credit history, while also proud she has $500 in savings. I tried to correct her misinformation, told her a credit history is best accumulated by charging a little each month and pay it off each month, but she was hurt that I wasn't impressed by her dating and savings skills.

So does she love misery, or am I just projecting my concerns, and she has to learn her own lessons?

Would introspection help my niece or her mom? Somehow there's a problem that there are "right lessons" and "wrong lessons" from experience, and introspection in itself can not guarantee wisdom.

Myself, I never knew I had moods until after I graduated from college, and my mom died of cancer later that year, and I started journal writing, and discovered that how I saw the world, the same facts CHANGED, daily, or hourly, even when the facts changed, so that seems a worthy reflection.

Trying to understand life, I've wondered about the idea of "souls", and specifically "young souls", the idea that some people come into life wanting to experience everything and keep moving so fast that their responsibility never catches up, and if they're lucky they find a passion that gets them success in life, and yet perhaps 90% of such young souls end up with serial fantasy and failure, and can't escape the consequences, and then perhaps become bitter, and take out some of that on others for not being so misfortunate.

Well, that's as good of a theory as any. And if its true, it might mean to all the would-be Rescuers, to stop their own compensation games of judging other people's failures?

I might not even mind those who love misery, at least as long as I don't feel responsible to fix them, which is my choice, and not their problem.

Anonymous said...

Sure, feeling pain is better than feeling nothing.
If a miserable person has a clear choice between misery and contentment, they will chose contentment.
Obvisously, once someone gets locked into the traits described, they don't have a clear choice.
We don't know the mind well enough to truely explain how to switch cognitive gears.

Andy said...

Hi there

I have never commented on your site before but have looked in from time to time.

I would like to add that I sometimes think I am odd (when comparing myself to others )when I don't have an urge to commemorate the deaths of both my parents or ruminate on them (both cancer and protracted). I can't actually remember the exact dates of their deaths (I can get it to the month and year). They just died after all. On his deathbed my dad hit the nail on the head when he informed me not to fuss as he isn't going anywhere I'm not going.

We are all quite humanist in my tribe and have similar outlooks. My own brother is currently going through the process of early onset dementia before he expires. I'm saddened by this but have no urge to cut myself or wail at the injustice of it all (after all he isn't going anywhere I'm not going) and besides, happiness for him now consists of a full stomach and a dry nappy so he has more than most at this point.

Just to stress that we all love each other and would do all the things other "loving" families do. There is no psychosocial/developmental traumas of note to make one formulate a diagnosis of schizoid or cluster B tendencies etc....There is a fairly strong whiff of autism in the family however but nothing dysfunctional (by any means).

Am I weird or just well integrated?

Only partly a rhetorical question.

Thanks for reading.