This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 10: Psychological self-criticism: The techniques of self-assertion

Also without content is the self-criticism that follows on the heels of the effort to assert oneself, and for good reason. This practice also comes to no good end, and many a person sees the absence of any ability to cope with reality in the judgment that he is simply a failure.

This very total judgment indicates that those concerned take the liberty of completely disregarding the real barriers to their success. It is clear to these self-incrimination enthusiasts that they are doing nothing wrong because they just can’t help it. They have also ceased being content with some limited sphere where they hold their own in their own way and earn recognition. The consolation of having kept their nose clean also appears to them to be of no use. Their “insight” runs: I can not assert myself, my will is unable to satisfy the standard of righteousness. Summoning up his entire intellect, the individual starts citing defects in his own self as the “explanation” — and for these defects he demands recognition. This self-condemnation, which poses as knowledge, gets its justifications supplied later that achieve only one thing: they remove the spur that normally lies in seeing one’s mistakes, the spur to rectify them. The theory is one of impotence: the particularity of a damaged self becomes an excuse for being incapable of that which matters so much. This very free way of regarding one’s own will as a defective identity that is dragged down by all kinds of inhibitions has, in psychological justifications of “being unable to rebel,” taken up the fight against any rational discussion of reasons for class struggle — and it goes around as a new type of self-assurance in other areas as well. As a weapon in “interpersonal” relations that is accessible to everyone, the pose of considering oneself a screwed-up moron is good for generating attention. It is a way to get others who master the grace of compassion and psychological thinking to appreciate one as an exquisite problem case and take one to bed with them.

Psychological hypocrisy involving one’s excellent damaged psyche becomes most productive when “rational” individuality gets itself help in the fight against its hard-to-overcome irrational side. The aim is peaceful coexistence between the love for one’s own “problems” and the desire to prove oneself in the world of “achievement.” Psychologists of all schools appreciate this mission, and the fulfillment of society’s need for caring for the mistakes made by abstract free will on a massive scale creates jobs. Counseling is provided, and wrongly dealing with oneself is practiced at all kinds of meetings, where suffering from oneself is downright cultivated.

Professional psychologists are thus quite open about admitting that, for them, the “defects” that bourgeois individuals make up for themselves are something that is simply a part of human nature that requires orderly, expert handling. They celebrate themselves as a branch of life counseling by declaring the techniques of morality — with which bourgeois character masks seek recognition — to be the secret, penetrated by them, of every act. And, with this modern valet’s perspective, they enjoy the good reputation of a widely popular weltanschauung.

10.1. Contentless self-criticism: “I’m a failure”

The righteous person demonstrates with his character his ability to succeed, his individual method by which he is equal to the adversities hitting him from politics, job and private life. He acts in all seriousness as if he had discovered in himself the means for meeting the requirements of decency and performance, as if his special tailoring of himself provided the stratagem for wresting from the world the concession of letting him make his fortune.

In light of that, if these characters have the experience that their ability does not lead to success, that their methods are not rewarded, it is only consistent that they do not consider the adverse circumstances that make life difficult for them, but rather hit on themselves as the origin of deficient skill. Anyone who resorts to cultivating his suitability separately from, and in addition to what he continually does and takes upon himself, simply holds himself responsible for his unsuitability as well.

This admission is over and above a moral reflection on one’s own person, in fact. While a sense of shame and a bad conscience express that one requires oneself to better meet recognized criteria of goodness and performance — i.e., they show a wrong self-criticism — the ‘thumbs down’ the character mask gives himself turns into an excuse. The negative judgment is not aimed at one’s own will but at an imaginary precondition for this will: this precondition is missing, so goes the diagnosis, and that’s why just about everything is in vain. The moral verdict of failure appears in the form of a judgment about the fitness of one’s own character; the person claims to have discovered a reason, existing independently of his will, that prevents him from carrying out the acts he intends — discovered not, however, in bourgeois society and what it imposes on him, but in his character. He announces that he is devoid of the desperately required abilities and methods that make up a proper person; “That’s the way I am!” goes the self-incrimination that no longer refers to mistakes or weaknesses in the fulfillment of accepted standards, and there is certainly no further mention of actual deficiencies in expediently carrying out plans to which one attaches importance. Psychology thus works as the procedure, familiar to bourgeois individuality, for turning one’s own mind from the moral burden it brings into the world to the search for “objective” causes for one’s failure — for causes that remove the odium of accusation from the conviction that one is a loser. Now one is a loser and has to see to handling one’s defects, because otherwise one’s will is good for nothing — if it can be assumed to exist and be effective at all.

10.2. The impertinent self-assurance of the damaged ego

The distressed conclusion that one — the way one just happens to be — is incapable of being able to do anything, actually continues the strategy of self-assertion embarked on in character traits. Like the methods of self-promotion that serve to convince others and oneself that one knows what one’s doing, the psychological technique of self-pity really accomplishes something for one’s self-assurance, even if it is fraudulently obtained by the assessment of permanent damage. After all, living with this damage, proving oneself in the struggle against it, is also a program for whose difficulty one owes oneself all due respect. One now “knows” for sure that one need not be ashamed, but may shamelessly be plagued by the damage one just can’t do anything about. For even if one otherwise doesn’t want to know anything about the bourgeois world, because one is keen on finding one’s way in it, one holds the “conditions” responsible under the headings of “environment” and “upbringing” — responsible, that is, for the defects one worries about: one counts oneself among the helpless victims as damaged ego, and even imagines oneself a social critic when one sees capital and state transformed into nothing but repressive, manipulative, ego-destroying “repression” that breaks the backs all people of good will, depriving their good will of its effects. Adult people maintain, without any substantive objection to the teachings of their parents and teachers, i.e., preferably without even the slightest appearance of priding themselves on having different views, that they were determined by others from childhood on and that’s where they got their character defects. The same people who lament their lack of “self-confidence” — the ideal of a psychologizing citizen being, of course, the useful and self-asserting and recognized person — and sigh for “ego strength” give themselves credit for having noticed how the world denigrates them as conformists! In leftist circles, the revision of Marx by Freud was such a big hit that college-educated people excused themselves “for the time being” from organizations that were out to change things — with whom they agree “on a lot of points” — on the grounds that they are attending to themselves first, naturally for the sake of achieving an ability to take action. This doesn’t mean they stop “acting”: on the one hand, they apply themselves, complete with their psychological self-assessments, to what everyone else is doing too — the necessities of their education and job as well as their pleasures — and, on the other hand, they find time and energy for activities devoted exclusively to cultivating their helpless ego.

10.3. Psychology in everyday life

The ordinary tasks of bourgeois life are not performed any better or worse by people who have discovered their individuality to be a problem than by those few who simply go their righteous way (from the advice pages of magazines, it emerges that nowadays children, housewives and mothers-in-law from all walks of life shrewdly go on about their character flaws and strengths). All the same, they do their daily bourgeois stint with the conviction that it’s always all about something completely different — namely, about them, about the prevention or promotion of their personal progress from a subject utterly devoid of “self-confidence” to one who is “finding” himself and “expressing” himself everywhere.

Even high-level politics, which is about obtaining the usefulness of people by rule, cannot escape the judging and sympathy of self-determining citizens — and its men of action have long since prepared themselves to take account of the psychological needs of people who no longer make any material demands. In all seriousness, people offer as “criticism” of the political work done by state-supporting parties that one doesn’t feel in very good hands with them. This makes voting for the lesser evil agreeable, because it can be decided so nicely according to the criteria of personal trust, according to the self-image manufactured by certain personalities, so that one is no longer giving the state one’s blessing but supporting a personality who comes closest to one’s ideal of a good father of the people. Out of a need to be “active” in a respected way, instead of “passively” always being only “affected but not involved” — that is, out of the highly individual “criticism” that politics should really exist for the people, oughtn’t remove itself miles and miles away from the citizen, thus also requires his involvement, that his criticism may ultimately be just as credible as the state, etc. — on the basis of objectives like these, grownup people decide on joining up, and then later against joining up, with a local branch of a social democratic party, the Greens, or some other initiative. What actually matters to the crowd in question is an easily neglected factor for people who think they have to “do something” in the interest of their self-respect; alternative-type citizens are at home in a crowd that appears somehow oppositional, where they are spared a discussion about well-founded goals and are allowed the other one, the one about “the way they see themselves”: the internal forms of intercourse, the “authoritarian” and “democratic” structures, the back and forth about mere theories and genuine practice (which is “fun”) — these become their preferred occupation.

Someone will ask to speak in order to say how hard he finds discussing things, but he would like to be able to do it just like someone else, who is holding him back just by this ability of his. Meanwhile, he is merrily discussing away, not about the world and the politics being pursued or to be pursued in it, of course, but about himself. The psychological art of self-assertion is not to be denied at least one achievement: it is an act of emancipation — from the reality of bourgeois life, from which one takes the freedom to worry exclusively about oneself while going along with everything.

Working life, for a subject committed to his individuality, is all about consistently reviving the childish illusions harbored particularly about one’s choice of occupation: about an activity suiting one’s temperament, a terribly creative activity that occupies and fulfills one’s ego, and turns one’s little career into a path of self-discovery. The “feeling of being socially recognized” carries at least as much weight as pay and job burden; and if someone is unemployed, he loses not only meaning in life but also enthusiasm for living. Everything “socially conscious” is better than the dull professions, which are so unmotivating. According to the psychological view of everyday life at work, the tough business of the competition one has to face evaporates into the deeply human task of doing right by oneself — and the full force of this self-righteousness hits colleagues, subordinates and superiors: everything they do is subsumed under a spitefully suspected objective, namely, that they are doing it out of a sheer “need for admiration.” They are “desperately” eager for confirmation of their vanity, which is why they make one’s life difficult, and solidarity is a foreign word to them. So competition functions splendidly with the help of psychological “egoism,” which, firstly, is not materialism and, secondly, treats the ideals of competition as character traits. The impression from one’s experiences at work, that other people’s attitudes aren’t much use — which is why one’s plans for self-realization continually fail — may then be safely taken home.

There, in private life, the program of solving the problems of one’s own personality really gets going. The thing that is still disturbing about political and job concerns — that it’s about being forced by others into submission, “unfortunately” unavoidably so; the whole time with the painful reminder that the individual is barred from coming into his own — this can be safely forgotten here by a self concerned with surmounting his own barriers. He is in the world of his completely personal concerns and devotes himself completely to the problem of how to produce out of himself a subject capable of happiness, love, communication, lust, and pleasure. For this much is clear to a seeker after happiness who shows character while being continually disappointed, who misrepresents the world as an environment for his self-gratification: if it doesn’t work here, where only he is the one in demand with his needs and dreams, then he alone is most certainly responsible for the poor results — by which he does not mean his will, but his ability. Question after question overwhelms him: Why can’t I make anybody happy? And vice versa: Why do I have so little faith in myself? Why am I afraid? Am I inhibited? Doesn’t anyone understand me? Why can’t I do it twice a day? What happened to your orgasm? What’s wrong with me? etc.

Personalities suffering from themselves greatly enjoy struggling with questions of this caliber, which is no surprise. After all, such questions are answers, and they make an individual made unsure by his fears and screw-ups very sure of himself. Someone who argues this way has actually chosen himself to be the sole object of both his theoretical and his practical efforts, and he wants his whole attitude toward the world to be devoted to “solving his problems.” This is what has to be discussed and to be responded to. The other person should be aware of what a complicated character he has in front of him, and he’d better realize what special consideration this requires. This is how easy it is to transform self-incrimination, the invocation of one’s own defects, into the demand to be recognized, understood and unutterably loved and looked after with and because of one’s damaged character nature. And when the demanded recognition fails to materialize, one may safely proceed from condemning one’s own inability to revealing the disorders of the other person, who “represses” and “displaces” his complexes, actually constantly denying his screwed-up sensorium. The confession-happy psycho, who wants every lie about himself to be appreciated as his nature, which he blames on his upbringing, then turns into a model of “honesty” and “self-knowledge,” a person who doesn’t fool himself and struggles to get rid of his weaknesses. This makes for lovely hours of discussion in which fragile identities are fully appreciated. And when at regular intervals the participants are fed up with the experimental psychological activities because, as methods of “understanding oneself,” they fail to bring about the desired service of love, one may celebrate one’s messed-up private life as an extremely difficult matter which cannot be mastered “in isolation” but at best by “political activity.” This matches the domestic nonsense when it takes place “in a group” as compensation for it — a luxury that definitely not all people allow themselves!

10.4. Psychological training

Whether demonstrated as a political issue or not: the special activities for cleaning up one’s defects, the group fuss of people who want to procure, in addition to their duties, the pleasure of staring into the supposed darkest depths of their own ego and “emancipating” themselves, while everything is taking its regular capitalist course in the world — these do pack a punch. They are aimed at the extremely positive purpose of practicing and accomplishing all the things that constantly fail in accordance with the rotten marks one gives one’s character. The buzz of activity this triggers is therefore pure method — separate from real life where one considers oneself a failure.

To learn how to discuss — which one wants to be able to do in order to gain recognition and thereby gain self-respect again — one practices discussing by submitting to the duress of an encounter group, where, first of all, everybody gets to tell a whole lot about his feelings and disappointing encounters: here one learns to be quite daring, starts every sentence with “I think,” can be pleased to have stuttered it out, and raptly attends to the analogous attempts of the other participants, who think what they think. This kind of thing has become the custom right inside academic education, so that before dealing with any subject, the participants of seminars torment each other with admissions of failure of the most embarrassing kind. In this setting, group games are played in which the audience watches out that others avoid dogmatic expressions, which are understood to be all modal expressions that signal some bit of necessity in a thought; quite as if a logical connection robbed another person of the honor of being respected in his sacred individuality. Recognition — unconditionally and without the heartless path of judgment — is feigned and emotionally affirmed, which goes like this: encounter team participants, who are completely unknown to each other, paw each other, let it show how difficult this is for them, bursting into tears if necessary — and have the examining psychotechnician confirm how much they are obviously “still” encrusted in completely unfounded inhibitions! In exercises of this kind, in which grownup people train their sensitivity, emotional affection for others becomes an order of the day, which one can only carry out properly by tinkering around with oneself until one has freed oneself from one’s “inhibitions.” Completing the relevant rituals initially means learning skills — and afterwards the technicians of groundless and contentless understanding go after their fellows accordingly, that they can demand the same “understanding” without the semblance of a criterion.

10.5. Bourgeois psychology: A scientific parasite of self-assertion

In the transition to individual psychological care — which many a person will go through all alone, that the specialities of his problem be done justice — the psychological self-help program realizes its essential nature. After all, it is a blatant contradiction if somebody declares himself to be a fairly permanent crisis case and at the same time wants to play crisis manager. It’s definitely better to put oneself in the care of a stranger, where one is the “case” and the other person is the expert in problems of failing individuality. The expert is not the least bit distracted by the circumstances in which one is placed and in which one sees oneself repeatedly coming up against one’s own inadequacies. For him they are “reality,” so he can concentrate totally on the damaged “ego” that is consulting him. He is entirely taken up with interpreting the defects that are brought to his attention, thus seeing at first glance that a character disorder is presenting; and at second glance he discovers the nature of the disorder, which its owner was unable to determine so exactly. He thus helps the patient “identify” the weaknesses that the latter accuses himself of.

The way this “identification” takes place may be taken as felicitous evidence that psychology is a “socially useful” science — though also as an indication that the usefulness of a thing in class society, even when adorned with the general sociological compliment of “social,” represents nothing desirable. The results of an analytical treatment — whose “success” the therapist maintains from the start does not lie in his hands or words — consist in the patient’s self-incrimination, his declaration of incapacity, being taken very seriously, no matter how serious or slight it may be. But it is not taken as what it is, but rather as a real shortcoming in the analysand, with an origin that, on the one hand, he admits to himself only in dreams and on the other hand would not even dream of. The psychologist discovers reasons for his client’s notorious failure, which suit the latter only all too well because they can all be found in his “life story,” i.e., do not accuse him of dealing idiotically with his rights and duties, but excuse him for traipsing through the world like such a moron. He is respected as a victim — of having been forced to wrongly cope with borderline situations of childhood in areas of conflict between self and mother, father and lust, reality and Oedipus, etc. — a victim who is plagued, quite consistently and through absolutely no fault of his own, by conflicts which are definitely not his. It is simply held to the patient’s credit that he can’t be aware of the world behind his self-doubts — and Freud’s list of dream symbols gives some information about what this mysterious world known to the psychoanalyst looks like.

Psychology of course consists of various schools, as is appropriate for a bourgeois science. But they all hand out the nasty advice of classical psychoanalysis: to strike a balance in oneself between what works and what doesn’t work, to steer a middle course between what is detrimental to one’s self-esteem and what is necessary for it, to generally live neither beneath nor beyond the means of one’s character. And this advice also functions, in the indicative, as a theory of people’s mental infirmities. Some equilibrium, some unity in the personality, is always out of order.

Psychology makes itself useful in that it quite simply meets a social need. It acts as an advocate for the moral subject, who regards himself as more or less suitable to the task of practicing good behavior that pays off; it is thus very partisan: it goes into action in an advisory capacity for the mistakes of the individual ready to submit to the constraints of bourgeois society, just as it promises to guide him when he gets down to using his mind exclusively for “learning” this readiness. This is a case of a scientific discipline committing itself without further ado to a point of view that supplies the guiding thread to a science merely by existing in society, a society that indulges in the luxury of a theoretical inspection of the world conducted separately from society itself — psychology repays the state for the means to maintain itself by defining as problems of human nature that which well-behaved bourgeois subjects do to themselves because, and as long as, they want to satisfy the requirements of their rule. Psychologists are also not too shy about offering their teaching as the universally applicable teaching of the era, serving up the quid pro quo of the bourgeois mind, which follows the dodges of moral thinking, as the explanation for state, economic, and private events. They present the valet’s perspective as a modern weltanschauung for everything and everyone, the interpretation of any event by means of their passe-partout, individual motivation, which affords such immensely interesting peeps through the mental keyhole behind the scenes of the Führer’s headquarters or the neighbor’s living room.

And to this end, this science need only follow a few basic rules “borrowed” not only from the mental efforts of bourgeois characters; these rules show it to be the theoretical imitation of the practical opportunism that it will neither do without nor comprehend as its object.

For the first principle of psychological thinking and interpretation consists in divesting every explanation of its object. No psychologist would designate the bourgeois subject as his object, although he deals with and draws his examples from nothing other than moral individuals who have committed themselves to the ideal of coping in the crazy, common, and therefore also “normal” form of being allowed to be pleased with themselves. Psychologists talk about the purpose of self-assertion, -realization, -discovery, etc., as if it were the most natural concern in the world to every human being; and the complete lack of content of all such crushing motives, which do not even induce a psychology professor to give his lectures, does not bring the mind expert to ask why people claim to have such motives, but, at best, to take a look at the animal kingdom, where everything is so similar somehow. How self-assertion works best — that is what a psychologist asks. And with that, he is claiming to be putting his theory wholly at the service of that fictitious object, the human being. The world is to understand his science as a helping hand for a functioning inner life.

This helping hand without knowledge is firstly not one, of course, but secondly, it is not unselfish. After all, with its offer, psychology claims nothing less than that it not only has discovered the actual problems of all individuals, but is also absolutely essential for handling them properly. Its parasitic position toward the mistakes of bourgeois character masks, with which position it “constitutes” its object for itself, serves it as proof that its opinions, advice and therapeutic efforts are terribly important. Because bourgeois individuals let themselves in for a struggle with themselves when they dedicate themselves to the ideal of righteousness, psychology celebrates itself as the indispensable tool for a successful inner life. This is what makes for its instrumentalism, and is the principle of its partisanship — which truly stands above the classes.

Thus, as little as this science explains any of the practices of a modern, moral inner life, as little does any object of world affairs, be it ever so far removed from the techniques of fiddling around with one’s character, remain exempt from its interpretations. Despite all its qualification of its specific findings, it rather immodestly takes upon itself the theoretical responsibility for announcing what is decisive when it comes to the reasons for and purposes of capital and labor, state and revolution, marriage and family, fact and fiction, anything and everything. Just as Freud conveyed his very definite and, for seventy years, popular views about war and love — of course within the framework of his three-province theory of the mind; just as Skinner put forward very definite but wrong principles of state and religion — of course within the framework of his doctrine of conditioned reflexes, operant behavior, etc.; so today have all university- and radio station–resident psychologists the audacity to go on little excursions in the fields of sociology and epistemology, which for them are the same thing anyway — of course completely within the framework of a theory of perception and consciousness and, derived from that, their search for the actual object of psychology.

To conclude, here is a materialistic psychological judgment. Professional psychologists and amateurs of this discipline alike are cynical enough to accuse anybody who doesn’t share their point of view of, firstly, not having a clue; secondly, not caring about suffering humanity; and therefore being totally screwed up himself. This falls under the impertinence of the democratic scientist’s servile consciousness.