The Negative And The Positive Life
( Originally Published 1920 )
The positive human being aims at a goal which is ahead, in time and space, and perhaps at a higher level than the one on which he presently stands. He makes plans for a future of useful activity, of beneficial endeavour and of social cooperation. He expects to encounter problems and to solve them in his own way, perhaps in a novel way.
The negative human being, on the contrary, seems fascinated by the past, seems to live in the past. He is constantly seeking some abnormal, unpleasant, painful form of regression, resorting to unsocial, selfish means, avoiding problems, and when he has to solve them himself, proving a slave to precedents.
Since all men should obviously be positive, why do so many lead a negative life? Why do so many regress instead of advancing? Why do so many destroy instead of being constructive?
Neurotics, perverts and criminals regress: neurotics ransack their past life for ready made solutions which, in the majority of cases, cannot be made to fit modified conditions; perverts seek sexual gratification in ways which are childish and imperfect; criminals revert to ethics of the primeval days, when each man or each beast, ignorant as yet of any form of solidarity, assaulted every other man or beast.
Regression is invariably due to some feeling of inferiority. Some people develop a weak heart. After which a rapid ascent up steep stairs, over-indulgence in dancing, or a hearty meal may be followed by discomfort which makes the owner of the inferior organ keenly conscious of his inferiority. Some of us have capricious stomachs or fatigued eyes, bad teeth, a bald skull, thin arms, fat legs, lungs which are too sensitive to changes in the temperature, etc.
And most of us take those imperfections as granted. We do not worry over them, we reach some crompromise between life as we would lead it if we could and the life which our inferior organ allows us to lead; the man with ,a weak heart shuns dances and avoids excitement; the man with a poor digestion may select from the bill of fare a hundred dainties which demand no gastric strenuosity; the man with poor eyes picks out books in large print; the thin person favours a fattening diet; the obese one selects a diet likely to bring him back to pleasant proportions; the bald man avoids exposing his skull to icy blasts; the person with decayed teeth uses a nut cracker. . . .
All of them, as long as they are normal, find enough enjoyment in the long list of activities which do not aggravate their condition; all of them come to the conclusion that "it cannot be helped" and let it go at that.
In certain cases the problem is more complicated. Baldness or bad teeth or palpitations are obvious facts and the discomfort they bring in their wake is easily traced to its true source.
There are many organs, however, whose location in our body is very vague to most of us, whose names we do not even know, which are not painful when diseased or deranged, and yet whose faulty functioning may cause distressing symptoms. Overactive adrenals, causing by their secretion of adrenin, a constant sense of arterial tension, may cause us to experience obscure feelings of discomfort which we express by saying: "I don't feel right, I feel out of sorts, etc." The normal man has himself examined carefully by a physician and follows the treatment prescribed, and unless the treatment seems to fail absolutely to relieve him, goes about his business and does not pay too much attention to his condition.
The neurotic, on the contrary, dramatizes his inferiority, and instead of looking hopefully at all the opportunities which are open to him IN SPITE of that inferiority, dwells constantly and stubbornly upon the handicaps which it places on him, on the pleasures, advantages, privileges, which palpitations of the heart have removed from his reach, the attitudes his bald pate would spoil, etc.
In the case of unlocalized, obscure feelings of discomfort, he may become despondent, expect death or a lingering illness, lose his desire for life, let himself drift.
At times, a sense of inferiority is forced upon perfectly normal people by an environment which they have allowed to dominate them too completely.
Healthy young men and women may develop a deep sense of sin when they find themselves constantly reproved for the "impulsive" acts, the unrestrained enthusiasm, the outbursts of demonstrative affection which are natural to strong, full-blooded human beings.
In small communities, in puritanical circles, which are only too often dominated by oldish, sexually starved, narrow-minded old maids of both sexes, most manifestations of vitality are likely to be characterized as low, animal, bestial. Young women of an exuberant nature, who crave the perfectly legitimate excitement and the active life of an actress, of a concert artist, of an interpretative dancer, are the particular butt for such attacks.
Either they leave their environment in a rash way which not infrequently entails suffering or regrettable entanglements, or they allow their environment to indicate their conduct, they judge themselves as severely as their critics judge them, they co-operate with their critics in repressing normal cravings which soon proceed to seek an abnormal outlet in the form of hysteria, headaches, torturing states of anxiety.
Or they accept weakly their environment's estimate of their character with a discouraged "I am no good" as their justification and become a plague or a plaything for the world, drifting into promiscuity, prostitution or "insanity."
As neither normal nor abnormal people can carry happily through life a feeling of inferiority, they assume after a while a certain attitude which brings them consolation or compensation.
The best and most fruitful attitude in such cases is the following: In one respect I am inferior but in other respects, I am or can be superior.
The positive man striking that attitude will strive for some form of superiority: he may become an inventor of genius, a creator of new things, an artist, a writer. He may devise novel ways of curing his inferiority, of exercising the inferior organ (Adler has noticed that many people became chefs because they originally had a poor stomach and that many singers start singing as the best way of developing their inferior throat).
Accomplishment of some sort will restore the confidence which a feeling of inferiority may have weakened; it will compensate for the satisfactions which mere inferiority places beyond the inferior man's reach and offset the feeling that something is wrong somewhere in the organism. By accomplishment, I mean the kind of positive, creative activity which receives a measure, however small, of recognition.
Negative people and in certain cases, the originally positive people who go to extremes, may be more tortured by their attempts at compensation than they were by the inferiority for which they are attempting to compensate.
The world is acquainted with the many crazy inventors who are pestering their friends with some mechanical trifle they consider tremendous, with the cranks who would make the world an ideal place by banishing cigarette smoking, the uninspired poets, the undramatic playwrights, and too often, the true men of genius whose fame is to be a posthumous one.
Not a few merge into a deep melancholia on account of their failure to impress the world with the importance of their fad, not .a few are aroused to acts of maniacal violence by the indifference with which their "discoveries" are received.
Another attitude which the inferior human being may adopt is expressed by the statement: Other people too are inferior.
This may be a basis for a healthy and normal compromise with life. I should not take my inferiority too tragically for many other people have a weak heart and yet enjoy life; many have imperfect features and yet have found love, etc. A realization of mankind's imperfections is a good antidote for the romantic view adopted by many sentimental beings and which in too many cases leads them to idealize strangers, to make gods and goddesses of people to whom distance lends many graces.
Such a realization may be very constructive in its results, for with it may go an intelligent sympathy for fellow sufferers, more tolerance, more patience, more kindness for other members of the social body, who are burdened with the same or similar handicaps.
That understanding is often a source of definite ego-satisfaction and the inferiority is often accepted gratefully on account of the mental superiority to which it leads. "Not until I was a sufferer from . . . did I understand, etc." is one statement frequently met with, and which is uttered with a certain amount of pardonable pride.
The negative type, on the other hand, the neurotic individual convinced of his inferiority, will not have any peace until he proves to himself and to others that ALL human beings are inferior, not only in ways similar to his but in many other respects.
His level will appear to him extremely low until he has dragged mankind down to the same level or even to a lower one. Without doing himself any appreciable good and without accomplishing anything positive, he destroys his environment's equilibrium and ultimately his own.
He begins a campaign of disparagement which impugns every statement, every act, every motive, aims at dwarfing every accomplishment, attributes sordid or unethical reasons to every form of activity that comes within his ken.
He casts reflections on other people's morals, spreads vague rumours about their health, their disposition, their financial status. The gossip-monger enjoys a measure of power due to his reputation for having a sharp tongue; some, deceived by his spurious fearlessness, may respect him, some of his victims may fear hint.
But there grows around him a more or less concealed hostility which he soon capitalizes in order to lend plausibility to his scorn and hatred of the world.
Scorn and hatred may soon lead him into introversion, that is, withdrawal from human society, from social groups, which he characterizes as too superficial, from crowds, which he denounces as vulgar, from friendly intercourse, which he presents as a waste of time.
The foundation is laid for the introversion of dementia praecox in which the patient gradually withdraws into himself paying no more attention to his environment, interested' only in his own thoughts, staring at unseen things and in some cases assuming the prenatal position of the fetus in the mother's womb.
Another attitude which individuals may assume in order to compensate for a feeling of inferiority is the "sour grape" attitude. Within certain limits it is helpful. The man who fails to attain a certain object may console himself by letting his mind dwell on the advantages instead of on the unfortunate side of his failure. "That position would have been advantageous but it would have meant less freedom, etc." The jilted suitor may remember certain unpleasant traits of his sweetheart which might have made life with her a doubtful venture. The neurotic, on the other hand, proceeds to disparage all the goals which are beyond his reach. Unprepossessing bachelors of both sexes are very loud in their denunciation of the badness of men and women respectively. Ugly persons destined to be wall flowers criticize the dances at which they are not welcome and the low neck gowns which would expose their lack of charms. Not only do they deny vociferously their desire for "sour grapes" but they condemn all attempts on the part of others at reaching the goals which have eluded them. Negative in their life, they become teachers of negativism. They say "No" to life, because life said "No" to them and they avenge themselves by discouraging all those who, young and healthy, would say "Yes" to life.
A craving for safety is natural in all living things and constitutes one of the essential conditions of individual or group survival. The race which is not afraid of other, more aggressive races, which disregards the dangers accruing from epidemics and does not insure its future by permanent agencies of welfare, the individual who fails to stop, look and listen at crossings and never looks before he leaps, has an interesting but abbreviated career.
It is especially when our organism is not absolutely perfect that we must exercise very special care to offset that handicap. The man with a weak foot should not take chances and cross avenues in front of swiftly moving vehicles. The man with weak eyes should not jump until he has estimated very accurately the distance between starting and landing points; the man with weak kidneys should avoid strong beverages, etc.
Normal and inferior persons can indulge their craving for safety in perfectly positive ways, arriving at a compromise between what they would like to do and what they can safely do without injury to life and limb, without loss of money or of social prestige, etc. The positive person asks: "How can I safely do a certain thing?"
The abnormal neurotic person on the other hand will ask: "What shall I avoid in order to be safe?"
In other words the positive person stresses the accomplishment, the negative lays emphasis on safety.
Here again, instead of looking into the future, the negative neurotic looks into the past for precedents. "How did I once find safety?"
This means, as usual, a regression to a younger and younger stage, to one in which safety was assured by the parents, guardians or teachers, who solved all problems as soon as they arose, constantly created precedents for conduct and made all planning for the future unnecessary. Thousands of neurotics thus run back to father or mother in a symbolic way.
We are all acquainted with the man who uses as a criterion of his and other people's actions what "his poor father" would have thought of them, with the woman who does a certain thing because "it would have made mother happy," and also with the men and women who refrain from doing perfectly simple, legitimate, harmless things because their father or mother disapproved of them. Thousands are Democrats or Republicans because of their fathers' political affiliations and for no other conscious reason.
Such people are naturally hostile to every change, be it in fashions or in government, because, very naturally, there was nothing in their past which constitutes a precedent for harem skirts or municipal ice houses, for cubism or original surgical methods.
The feeling of strangeness experienced by many neurotics is easily explained as a regression to the past. Life goes on, but they either linger at one level or sink to a lower one and reality is to them a more and more puzzling phenomenon.
The old-fashioned type is often the product of a sense of inferiority, lack of adaptability and elasticity, low power of assimilation, coupled with an abnormal desire for safety.
This attitude very often assumes a sexual complexion which may deceive superficial observers.
The inferior male, who obscurely fears that he might not come up to the expectations of a sexual partner, disparages all women and seeks safety on the pedestal of his self-assumed masculine superiority. The inferior female pretends to scorn all males. The inferior husband surrounds his wife with varied protective devices which are ostensibly meant to protect her, and imply her inability to protect herself. He dictates what she may read, whom she may properly meet, what she should wear, in reality, isolating her as completely as possible from other more attractive and perhaps more virile males.
The inferior wife nags her husband into giving up "habits," friends, clubs, membership in associations likely to supply him with alibis; in brief, she protects him from women more attractive than she is by constantly asserting her ownership of him and excluding from his circle of acquaintances all sources of possible temptation.
Inferior persons of both sexes only feel safe when the opposite sex has been humiliated. Men and women alike have contributed to the hostility between sexes as a consequence of which the masculine domination which is now gradually yielding to the onslaughts of feminists, implanted itself for many centuries.
And this leads us to a consideration of the will-to-power from its positive and negative sides.
The will-to-power is a normal striving of the living being for the natural result of regular, un-hampered growth, physical and mental, of the perfect functioning of all the bodily agencies of acquisition, assimilation, metabolism and elimination: power.
Health and power are synonymous; power to resist death, power to do one's tasks without a feeling of exhaustion; power to join in all the world's activities; power for enjoyment; power to be used in emergencies. Every normal man or woman de-sires .and seeks that form of power.
The will-to-power, on, the other hand, becomes negative when the craving for it is synonymous with a desire to destroy, not to create, to overpower others, not to be their equal in every respect.
Instead of the positive statement: I must be strong, the neurotic says, unconsciously: "I must appear as though I were strong."
Ferenczi cites the very striking case of a weak, neurotic clerk who, when submitted to some humiliation by his employer, went out to seek some male prostitute. Instead of being strong, manly, and either meeting the insult with proud rebuff or making himself more valuable and more worthy of respect, the poor neurotic spent some money, rep-resenting power, in order to subdue to his will and to humiliate some wretched man of the gutter.
And indeed, that psychology is not as rare as one might think; to many a neurotic, physical relations are symbolical of a humiliation of the woman; many a jealous neurotic has confessed to me that his worse torture was not the suspicion that his wife's affection was growing less but that some other man might subject her to his will even as he himself did.
Innumerable neurotic disturbances, epilepsy, sick headaches, dizziness, fainting spells, are expedients enabling the sick to indulge their will-to-power in a negative way. Instead of accumulating strength, they wear out the strength of those with whom they come in contact and who have to take care of them. Many an epileptic, facing de-feat, "throws" a fit and thus gains an advantage he could not claim justly.
The woman with a sick headache silences the entire household; the dizzy person suffering from agoraphobia, requires an escort; the person who faints commands the services and the attention of all those present. None of those neurotic sufferers is conscious of that procedure but almost all of them confess na´vely some time or other to the pleasure vouchsafed them by the prompt succour offered them.
And in that na´ve avowal there is concealed one more egotistical satisfaction: "You see how appreciative I am. . . ." This is one form of unconscious hypocrisy very noticeable in people with a weak heart. They promptly exploit the popular superstition which makes the heart the centre of all the tender emotions and boast of their sensitiveness which naturally makes them more sympathetic and places a new duty upon those whom they unconsciously victimize.
Self-knowledge as acquired through analysis or self-analysis, is the only protection against a negative orientation, against an attitude which is disastrous to the sufferer and his environment. For while the neurotic derives infinite unconscious satisfaction from his abnormality he consciously goes through the tortures of hell. His spurious superiority and power do not satisfy him consciously. And this is one of the reasons why he is so easily aroused, so vituperative and insulting in disputes. From this he again derives a certain superiority. People are afraid of discussing any subject with a neurotic and oftentimes yield point after point in order to avoid unpleasantness.
The neurotic obscurely feels that his arguments are not valid, that his position is untenable, that his evidence could not stand any test and his anger at his own powerlessness is projected on those who cross-examine him. He is like a man who has been hypnotized and unconsciously invents very plausible reasons for proving that he did of his free will what the hypnotist commanded him to do.
Insight into our unconscious, like the gradual and detailed explanations of the hypnotist to his subject, allows both neurotic and medium to realize that they were subjected for a while to an abnormal influence and that to a certain extent "they were not themselves."
The problem to solve constantly in human conduct is: "Am I myself, is it I myself who am speaking and acting or is it my unconscious self, attempting to follow the line of least resistance, leading me toward regression instead of progress, toward the past instead of toward the future?"
Conduct based upon that system alone might not be perfectly normal. Introversion and extroversion, that is the fixation of our attention upon ourselves or upon exterior objects, can both be normal and abnormal. Extreme introversion, the detachment of our interest from the entire world and its fixation on ourselves alone means absolute negativism; extreme extroversion, the constant chasing of a new butterfly, exaggerated interest in every passing fad or detail of life, means the squandering of our resources, mental and physical, on a hundred goals none of which is ever reached.
He who attempts too many things is almost as unproductive as he who withdraws from reality.
Our reactions to stimulus words and our dreams alone can give us a clear picture of our orientation. Introversion and extroversion are easily determined by even a superficial examination of the first and our dreams reveal to us accurately what our unconscious is trying to make us do.
The Aschner test described on page 40 is a simple way of confirming the diagnosis.
He whose reactions reveal him as extremely self-centred and introverted should be on his guard against that tendency and force himself to adopt attitudes which will lead to fewer conflicts with his environment.
The overmodest person burdened with a feeling of inferiority can go through a systematic training of ego-building and personality development.
In other words, those who have been deceived by their unconscious and who know to what extent the deception has gone, may discount their first impressions and withhold final judgment until they have ascertained whether their conscious I or their unconscious I is responsible for that first impression and is dictating their judgment.
We must now and then go through the process which the Catholics call examination of conscience and submit our attitudes to a test based upon the following five propositions:
A tendency to constantly disparage is negative and should put ourselves on our guard.
Desire for power that exalts us at the expense of others is also negative.
The constant search for precedents is negative.
In brief, whatever enables us to harmonize with our environment and to help it toward its goal is positive,
Whatever creates disharmony between ourselves and our environment and retards its onward march is negative.