The older I become, the more aware I become. I think this is a sign that I may actually be a normal human; if there is such a thing. When I speak of becoming aware, I mean seeing things, realizing things, or understanding things differently than I did when I was a younger person, for example. I’m 31 years old right now. Looking back, it’s easy to see how my thought process was so much different 15 years ago, compared to today. What pains me though, is that my young brain and self were loaded up with circumstances that should be considered unbearable for a child or young person to have to endure. I’m able to look back and see that now. I knew then that many things were wrong with certain aspects of my life.
As a child, you use your peers or childhood friends and playmates as a comparison. I’d often look at the other kids I knew, and view their families through a very observant lens. Comparing, and contrasting, and even as far as discussing the differences between families. We’d talk and say things like, “Do your parents smoke too?”. Basic and simple observances were made to figure out ourselves and our own community. The difference now though, is when you make certain comparisons as an adult – you are able to find more reasoning behind why certain situations happen. Instead of, “Do your parents smoke too?”, it becomes – Why? (A very in depth “why”, if you think on a critical level).
As children, and humans, we are able to observe and see. We are able to absorb. But we don’t question the depths of what we are seeing. In my adult life, I’m able to dig deep. I’m able to fully analyze and comprehend things in my day-to-day life, and things about my childhood too. The fact that my knowledge and experience have increased over the years has helped me tremendously to process events that many consider painful. Of course, not everything in life is so gloomy or down. Don’t be fooled completely by my words. But the topic I want to discuss is in fact, not so bright – but may lead people to a better understanding of what is happening in their own lives, or around them; which in return can create a figurative or metaphorical brightness.
Over the last several years, I’ve been really trying to find myself more so than ever before. There’s been many things I’ve done to try and better myself and my life. I feel like, considering my earlier years, I owe it to myself and to my child to be the best version of me that I possibly can. I enrolled back in school, and I studied Psychology/Social psychology initially but changed my major to Creative Writing and English instead. The change came this year after some tough thinking, but it was a decision that I felt was best for me and the lifestyle I’m trying to create for myself. I was unsure what it would be like trying to obtain a Creative Writing and English degree, but now I’m finally experiencing it. “Words are magic”, is a belief that I will always hold true and near to my heart and my life! Of course, they are! How can they not be?
This term I am currently taking a World Mythology class, and a Critical Approach to Lit class – which is basically a class about different types of Literary Theories. Literary Theory is a term that I’d like to think is a title that we use to describe different ways of analyzing literature. Some have written books on “Literary Theory”, itself, stating that it can be a number of things. I can’t give you a book on the subject at this time, so I’ve only provided a short definition written in a simple way that makes it easy to understand. At first, I really disliked this class. It shocked me to dislike this class. I thought to myself, maybe something is wrong with me? I’m obsessed with books, and stories, and fairy tales, mythology, and legends of all kinds; but this Critical Lit class was boring me more than anything. That is until we started talking about the Psychoanalytical approach of criticizing and viewing literature. I did not care about Structuralism, Marxist theory, Formalism, or New Criticism. I’m not downplaying their importance, they just were not something I was immensely interested in. The Psychoanalytical approach, however, piqued my interest instantly. I’ve studied the works of Freud before, and of course Jung. I studied them before I was even in school again and I admire their thoughts as well as their contributions to humanity. Studying this psychoanalytical approach and how it can be applied to literature was eye-opening for me. Not just due to the way this approach can be used in literature, but because of how this psychoanalytical approach could be applied to life and many of those situations that just leave us thinking: “What the hell just happened?”
You know, those situations, don’t you? The ones where you are experiencing a moment with a person and although it’s a memorable moment, it’s not necessarily a good one. If you have seen some of my poems on my blog, you will realize that the majority have a certain theme. The theme is not something that I have entire control over. Most of it stems from my unconscious as I’m just simply writing experiences that I’ve witnessed in some form or another that have tremendously impacted my life in a significant way.
Applying the Psychoanalytic approach was genius to me. I’ve always wondered why people do the things that they do. People, or characters! I feel like every action we take, or every single thing we do is caused by a deeper thought or feeling inside of us that we may not consciously even be aware of. Freud was able to prove this theory, and I think this is why I fell in love with his ideas. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only halfway read through, “The Interpretation of Dreams”, by Sigmund Freud. Someday I hope I can finish the book all the way through, in between my studies. I can only hope to read all of the books on my to-read list, in this lifetime! Freud, the creator of the psychoanalytic approach, left us with some amazing and valuable information. So much that I can only fit a tiny bit into this blog post.
From him, my own viewpoints have been confirmed and reassured. He believed that our minds had a way of pushing unconscious feelings to the surface through a variety of actions or circumstances. This goes back to the “Why?”, that I mentioned earlier. When thinking of Literature in general, and analyzing characters or stories, we ask the same question – “Why?” Why is a character doing or saying ______? Literature is full of stories that are left to our own interpretation and this is where critical literary theories come from. Freud taught us that, “the conscious mind often performed significant transformations on unconscious material”, (Michael, 2017) I want to dig a little deeper into what this actually means. Our conscious behavior is highly influenced by thoughts, feelings, or emotions within us that we simply cannot even grasp because they are stuck in a realm of our unconscious. So even if we do not realize something is affecting us, it certainly can be.
The Freud family gifted us with the concept of defense mechanisms. Finally, as an adult, I have learned what to call these mechanisms that I’ve witnessed for so many years from a multitude of situations and human experiences in my life. The defense mechanisms that we are all too familiar with are actions that come from thoughts that have been repressed within us. It shook me to learn that these behaviors are actually named. These behaviors, many of us have witnessed, and some of us of course have even acted out. It is human nature, and none of us are perfect. If the behaviors are witnessed by a child, you have to realize that those experiences are locked away within the child and may influence behaviors as an adult. Making this connection of literature, psychology, childhood and adulthood, is kind of like the same feeling you get when you walk into your own surprise birthday party, or unwrap a special present that was unexpected. It was a wow moment! I will now discuss in a bit more detail, intellectualization, projection, reaction formation, regression, suppression, sublimation, and rationalization. These are the defense mechanisms that humans use in a variety of situations. If you are unfamiliar with these, you may experience that surprise birthday party feeling I was mentioning. Now let’s unwrap this gift.
What is projection? – Projection is a defense mechanism in which an individual will reflect their own thoughts or actions onto someone else. An example of what this could look like would be an extremely jealous partner who is a cheater, but accuses their spouse of cheating. The cheater is projecting what he dislikes about himself, and what he/she knows is wrong onto their significant other. Another example of projection could be a person who is overweight, but is constantly ridiculing how other people look, or the eating habits of other people. Projection comes in many forms and can be found in romantic relationships, friendships, and even family dynamics. Projection takes place most often when a person has a serious dislike about something within themselves, but tries to put a spotlight on another in order to deflect their own thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
What is reaction formation? – Reaction formation is when a person wishes to hide their true thoughts or feelings on a subject; and instead, they display opposite thoughts and feelings in response to what they truly think. An example of this would be a person who is homosexual in secrecy, but on a surface level, they preach to everyone they know about how they despise gay and homosexual people. Have you ever heard the term, “Kill them with kindness”? This is another example of reaction formation. Instead of literally killing a person you don’t like, we use this term to cover up true feelings and insist that we are nice to them; so nice to them in fact that it may make them sick! That is reaction formation.
What is regression? – Regress means to return to a previous or lower state. When regression is at hand, it means we are reversing into a backward or more immature mind state or thought process. When this occurs, a person may display behaviors that seem juvenile in comparison to their actual age. An example of this would be an adult who has a major meltdown over something that is not so major. A parent has just got home from a hard day at work, they are tired, angry and unhappy with their day – and maybe even part of their life; their child accidentally breaks something or spills something. The parent reacts in a big way, when in reality the problem is quite small and can be fixed or cleaned up. This is regression. We return to a thought process that has us respond quickly, often angrily, or temper tantrum like – without thinking. What kind of people have temper tantrums? Toddlers. The answer is toddlers. We are all guilty of this in some way or another perhaps.
What is rationalization? – Rationalizing involves trying to make sense of a situation. Rationalization as a defense mechanism is when an individual tries to explain or justify their behaviors in a logical way. Think of this: Person A. slaps Person B.. Person B. then says, “Why did you do that?”, to which Person A. responds with, “YOU MADE me mad, so that is why I slapped you. It’s your fault.” Person A. is trying to rationalize their abuse by blaming Person B. the one who actually received the abuse. Person B. does not control Person A, and has zero control over the thoughts or actions of Person A. Person B. is not responsible for this behavior, no matter what Person A. says. Rationalization can include blame shifting, and Person A. will try to make sense of their behavior by reassuring themselves that they have a good reason for acting as such, even if the reason is incorrect. This is, according to Freud, an attempt to make the action acceptable according to the ego.
There are more defense mechanisms that we, as human beings use whether we realize it or not. Intellectualization and suppression are also on the list. Suppression obviously includes suppressing thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. When you suppress something it is bound to come out at some point or another. This can lead a person to “bottle up” and then “explode”. The worst part of this, is since we are all different, there is no telling exactly how or when a person will “explode” and what their actions will consist of. Intellectualization is a more logical defense mechanism, and leads us back to that question: “Why?” When you use intellectualization as a defense mechanism, you try to think of a logical and accurate reason as to why something has happened. When you intellectualize a situation, you will be better off because you will be using logic to find an answer, instead of reacting in such a way that leads you to something else, like, regression, for example.
If you are still reading, thank you so much. Now that we have covered these, I hope you are able to see how the psychoanalytic theory can not only be applied to literature but of course, also to life itself. Literature is a big part of our lives and every time we read a good work of literature, we are using our mind to piece together the story, and make sense of it in our world. Just like we are doing with our day-to-day situations. Most of our actions, or the actions of others have a tendency to come from our unconscious mind. To tie this back in with literature, Macbeth, by Shakespeare shows us exactly what Freud is talking about when it comes to the unconscious mind playing a part in our conscious thoughts and behaviors. In Macbeth, handwashing is a symbol of trying to cleanse what subconsciously cannot be cleansed. I won’t go into much more detail than that, but if you know the story, you will know what I mean. The handwashing soliloquy has also become a meme, thanks to coronavirus.
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Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Available from: MBS Direct, (3rd Edition). Wiley Global Research (STMS), 2017.