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Freud and Positive Psychology
Positive Psychology and Freud
Many people today would have people believe that Freud's only contribution to positive psychology would be his demonstration of what not to do and how not to view the human psyche. In other words they mistakenly take all the stereotyped Freudian standards, without regard for his whole contribution to psychology, which does actually offer a great deal of positives, and equates it to negative and problem-based standards. Yet, in truth Freud offered a few things up to positive psychology which cannot be extricated. Freud first contributed to positive psychology by theorizing the perception is not necessarily reality. What I mean by this is that he was one of the first to assume that people don't always know the reason they act or think as they do. This assumption, though surrounded by negative connotations today, was extrapolated on by other theorists who decided that the only way to think (normally or healthily) is to think rationally and see the world exactly as it is. The problem is that for most of positive psychology this extrapolation has been entirely attributed to Freud, when in reality though he struck the rational thinkers as superior, he also theorized that most people were not thinking in a purely rational (truthful) way about the events in their lives.
Freud had a general sense in his work that negative events and negative thoughts could and would do lasting harm to the human mind. This in and of itself is one of the most important tenets of positive psychology, that negative thoughts and negative events can do harm to the human psyche. Though Freud, unlike positive psychology mistakenly theorized that those early negative or even benign events and stages (often not even remembered) would possibly greatly affect individuals in a negative way from childhood to adulthood. Freud did not however assume that this was the case for everyone, as many would have us believe.
Freud is often credited with the idea that in everyone there is a little bit of psychological pathology, and is often taught in this way, his works to some degree are far more neutral than this seeking to allow the student to see the potential for psychological pathology as a way to better understand why we are the way we are and why we seek reconciliation or treatment. In other words Freud made a lot of assumptions, placing templates over healthy people that might not have really applied to all but in so doing he made some important points, one of the most important being that to some degree we are all driven by unconscious desires. In positive psychology the psyche really goes wrong when the unconscious desires are seated in desires that do not end in our happiness but instead end in our sadness or in anxiety. The context of Freud's work, as well as the pessimistic society which he was a contemporary to may have contributed significantly to his more pessimistic take on why people are the way they are and do the things they do.
Freud also offers a great deal, to positive psychology, by adding to the concept of keeping one's mind positive, even to the point of tricking oneself into believing a positive over a negative schema. Freud's defense mechanisms are really the very first example in psychology where the phenomenon of self-thought alteration to sooth the mind is seen. What Freud basically said is that the human mind will reconstruct events and especially interpersonal events and communication to keep ourselves happy and in a good light in our own minds. Though Freud is often credited with applying these defense mechanisms in a negative frame, i.e. that lying to oneself to make ourselves feel better is not a constructive but a destructive mechanism, when taken out of context defense mechanisms can also be thought of, as long as they are not truly harmful as a constructive state of mind, where the individual seeks reconciliation over complicated and troubling social interactions to better his own frame of mind. Therefore in the end the individual is usually happier than he or she would have been if he or she had not deceived him or herself a little bit to construct reconciliation and reduce anxiety and tension. No individual can say or do everything right all the time and having demonstrative and even instinctual ways of mitigating tension, anxiety and even guilt is not a wholly destructive circumstance.
Defense mechanisms relate to us in general life because they, to a large degree drive our personal interactions. If as positive psychology is correct and most people are using defense mechanisms to seek internal happiness this can create conflict, hence the assumption that defense mechanisms are bad. Conflict can arise when the retelling of the story through defense mechanisms goes beyond thought and is transferred into word or deed. If say an individual retold a story about the impetus for an interaction over and over to the point where it was believed by him or her then if they then reiterate that new story to the second party or even a third party the other party in the event might have reenacted the event in completely the same way (using a defense mechanism to make themselves feel better) the story would be a wholly different event and there could be conflict between the two. Hence the old adage there are three sides to every story your side, their side and the truth, comes into play.
Though this may seem like a simplistic explanation try to relate it to something that has happened to you in your life; for example using Freud's rationalization defense mechanism I can construct a scenario from my own experience. Rationalization is creating false but credible justifications for actions, thoughts or deeds. Rationalization is also probably one of the most common defense mechanisms that people use, innocuously and in conflict in daily life, again especially in interpersonal relationships. Having said this I will then offer a couple of examples:
I was told by a friend a private piece of information (a rather common event in most people's lives). I then retold the private information to a 3rd party, despite being asked not to by the 1st party. I probably did this in good faith, thinking it would be helpful for the other person to know or I may have had more dubious intentions like trying to find out what the third party thought of the 1st party's situation. Either way I rationalized the telling of the 1st party's personal information to the 3rd party by convincing myself that I had done it to try to be helpful to the 1st party, help her to communicate about her feelings and help resolve conflict yet what ended up happening was the opposite, the whole situation created more conflict. Yet, either way the result is an example of how I used rationalization to help mitigate my negative feelings of guilt regarding telling the 1st party's personal information to another. Had the situation ended there (which it rarely does) the rationalization would have been very effective at helping me feel better about betraying the confidence, and in fact I distinctly remember the feeling of satisfaction as if I had done the right thing when the conversation with the 3rd party ended.
Another example of a way that the same defense mechanism can work in a more productive way would be to consciously redirect bad thoughts or thoughts of learned helplessness to thoughts of opportunity and positive future outcomes. In other words here is an example of consciously using rationalization to build rather than degrade a learning process. In my personal experience, probably not unlike many others' unemployment has been a frustrating and mostly negative experience coupled with a lot of missed opportunity and a good deal of direct (but mostly indirect) rejection. Neither of these things feels very good. For myself I looked at unemployment like an opportunity. The work I had been doing all but disappeared, but I had been very unhappy doing it for a long time and only continued in desperation. I wanted to completely change directions and this loss of work was a way to do that. So then I reframed the way I was thinking about being unemployed and looking for work. I broadened the kind of work I was looking for to work I was more interested in and rationalized that I had the skills and qualifications to get any job I wanted. Ultimately I did not get one of those new jobs but completely revamped what I was doing to better meet my own needs of happiness and to achieve more success. Now I am happier and learning more at the same time. Applying positive psychology offered me a chance to reformulate how I was looking at the situation and to avoid learned helplessness and negative thought.
Lastly when discussing Freudian defense mechanisms and their application to positive psychology one…[continue]
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