To be fully aware and embracing of all that is within us and consciously seeking to be all that we can be is our most noble quest.
When I was in graduate school, one of my professors started off one class with a provocative question about what what we students thought about a quote from one of the founding founders of the psychoanalytic school. The quote he gave us to consider was “Guilt is a cheap substitute for legitimate suffering.” He also attributed the quote to Alfred Adler. At the time, I thought the quote represented a ridiculous notion. Later I came to see wisdom in it. I also learned that the saying was both misquoted and wrongly attributed to Adler. (And I regret those times that I unwittingly perpetuated this misquote and erroneous attribution myself.)
The quote actually comes from the eminent psychologist Carl Jung, who said that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” (The passage comes from his 1938 Psychology and Religion. ) Guilt, of course, can be a manifestation of neurosis. And, it can indeed be a substitute for legitimate suffering. But with his famous quote, Jung was trying to say something much more profound about the nature of human suffering and the condition we call neurosis.
Jung was an early advocate for character development in its most pure sense. He knew that we can only really be happy, fulfilled, and socially productive when we have not only come to know but also come to terms with our biggest challenge: ourselves. That means not keeping anything about ourselves hidden from consciousness (including our darkest sides). To be fully aware and embracing of all that is within us and consciously seeking to be all that we can be is our most noble quest.
But really coming to terms with oneself is very hard and painful work. It’s actually much easier to blind ourselves to our inner conflicts and to suffer various neurotic symptoms than it is to carry the ultimate cross of becoming an authentic and healthy individual. In my years as a therapist I counseled hundreds of individuals who were in a great deal of pain because of their chronic self-defeating behavior patterns and the anxiety, guilt, shame, denial, etc. that accompanied these patterns. And it would be impossible to count how many of these folks appeared to want me not only to empathize with them but also to absolve them simply because they “felt bad” about things they’d done. Most of these individuals were far too willing simply to vent about their pain and continue their destructive patterns than to take up the inordinately more arduous task of constructing a self and a life they could really live with.
Far too many people these days do things they later regret and feel badly about, but continue to do anyway. Feeling badly for a moment helps them assuage guilt, which seems a fair price to pay for their misdeeds. If only this were enough. But in fact, it’s not. People often stay “stuck” because at some level they know that the really heavy lifting comes when one decides to face and labor to correct the destructive patterns they’ve allowed to become ingrained habits. In the end, their neurosis becomes a poor substitute for the noble suffering it takes to become a person of real character.
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