Self control replaces obedience

by Alain Ehrenberg

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


Guilt lies at the heart of neurotic conflicts. According to Freud, neuroses originate “from the submissiveness to social cultural demands,” with cultural demands being seen as the main source of suffering. The feeling of guilt is therefore caused by the Oedipus conflict between permission and prohibition and manifests itself in compulsive, hysterical or phobic symptoms. Guilt, therefore, is an indispensable part of our societies. At the same time, however, guilt is also the source of psychological suffering and mental illness.

Freud developed his thoughts in a society in which Victorian taboos and bourgeois prohibitions prevailed. Children were brought up with punishments, viewed as an indispensable tool for imposing discipline. At the same time, work hinged on mechanical obedience. But after the Second World War not only living conditions changed, but also lifestyles: authoritarian educational and social models were discredited, access to consumer goods, the length of studies and the hope of social advancement increased. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, a new dynamic emerged: Everything relating to individual autonomy was declared to be of the highest value and the era was marked by a strong revaluation of freedom of choice and initiative, innovation and creativity. All these ideals emphasize the individual's ability to act. We are now dealing with individualism permeated by the ideas, values and norms of autonomy.

The transition from the division of labour to flexible work is central. The discipline changes its meaning: it is now subordinated to the goal of attaining self-control. The ability to motivate oneself, be it to work or to find work, is becoming more important. Discipline thus became self-discipline. All this underlines the responsibility of the actor for his or her own actions. This change on a global scale is reflected in our societies in the spread of new rules of conduct belonging to autonomy, just as mechanical obedience once belonged to discipline. Whereas in the past it was a matter of making individuals useful by making them submissive, now it is a matter of promoting the abilities within the individual. In other words, promoting emotional self-control.

Against this backdrop, many psychoanalysts stress that the former oedipal pathologies give way to narcissistic ones. Today it is less about the conflict between permission and prohibition. Instead, it is about identity disorders, somatization and dependencies. Depression dominates the clinical picture. Instead of a controlling superego, we are now dealing with one's own inner ideal self, which triggers a feeling of inadequacy. So the style of unhappiness has shifted: Now there is fear of betraying expectations, of not being able to successfully employ one's own abilities. A feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy dominates everything – embodied in depression.

From neurosis to depression, from the illness of conflict to the illness of the ideal: the place of guilt has changed, but the questions of emotional and drive-induced self-control remain just as crucial as they were in Freud's day. And with them they bring accompanying symptoms including fear, shame, guilt and depression. Today's society is very demanding. 

transcribed by Stephanie von Hayek



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