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Society as an Impersonal System
A recurring feature of my adult life, and one which intensified during my self-analysis, was alienation or estrangement. Alienation results when a person cannot feel any rewarding satisfaction from his social involvements.
Alienation can produce isolation. The person's values have become different from the norm. However, since his values (or at least some of them) are more advanced than the norm, he is not willing to level downwards so as to gain social acceptance.
is often an outsider (like the early
|Sub - Headings|
|Pressure and phantasy|
|Implications for therapy|
He comes to view all personal contacts as links in an impersonal social system. ‘ The system’ is impersonal, and so his life becomes ‘impersonalised’. There is nothing that he can take responsibility for. His work is not valued by anyone.
Alienation results from guilt that has a social origin, from guilt that is generated by the social roles that the person has to play. This guilt is generated when the person feels that he has no choice over some major aspects of his life. It is a sense of degradation produced by being forced to participate in social necessities that one hates. [¹].
For example, the economic need to take part in kinds of employment that do not fulfil a person will spawn alienation to some degree. It is the narcissistic individual who feels alienation at its greatest intensity. Unfulfilling work has no meaning for the narcissistic individual ; such work just produces high levels of anxiety.
When a person's social roles are not valued by society any more, then alienation is generated as an anti-social belief, a belief that modern Western life is unnatural in many ways. It is a protest at the mechanisation of human life: such mechanisation degrades, even neutralises, a person’s sense of identity. In modern society there is no place for the natural side of reality. In an harmonious life there would be no alarm clocks and no rigidity of life style.
Alienation makes the person despise society. He vents his hatred on the barren wasteland of materialism. Materialism is needed in order to fulfil bodily and mental necessities (the need for food, shelter, relaxation, recreation, etc), and it does no harm so long as a higher reality is being aimed at. But when society sees only materialism as the goal in life, and nothing beyond it, then that society becomes a living death.
Materialism, as an end in itself, does not go beyond having a nice job, a nice house, a nice car, a nice spouse, a nice social status. Everything nice! There is no depth, no intensity, anywhere. Alienation means that everything is bland, everything is regulated, everything is regimented. Such a life lacks vision. Such a life lacks faith, a living faith.
I indicate my attitude from my
30s to my early 60s.
I hated the necessity to have a job since I had no commitment to it. The economic need to submit to clockwork routines and non-fulfilling roles meant that the continual anxiety was slowly shattering my integrity. I was in a trap. The guilt was destroying my integrity, and without my integrity I could not escape from the guilt.
The person who centres on jealousy, instead of on narcissism, can find satisfaction in work since it is a route to power. The desire for power keeps the normal person glued to their job. For the existentialist such attitudes are dreary beyond compare.
In a caring society I can accept a caring vocation. In a caring society I can be orientated to the community. But in a world of mediocrity I am an individual. In a world of mediocrity I am an individual enwrapped in my own solitude.
When a person despises society, then alienation generates social guilt. But when the person embraces society, then alienation is replaced by shame.
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Any state of mind is always underpinned by emotional factors. I use the term ‘emotional dynamics ’ to mean the principal emotions that drive any particular state.
Now I consider the emotional dynamics of alienation.
Since self-pity and vanity form a binary, they will cancel out each other when each is equal in intensity to the other one. [²]. When the intensities are unequal then whichever emotion is temporarily greater in intensity will prevail, reduced in effectiveness by the intensity of the lesser one.
Hence the simplest form of alienation is:
Alienation = fear + self-hate
During my self-analysis I often experienced the combination of fear and hate, and wondered what it represented. I thought that the combination needed a name, and now it has one: alienation! Since the fear and the hate come from separate emotions they can be experienced simultaneously, though sometimes it seemed as if they rapidly switched from one to the other.
points to a feature of awareness training.
A person can start from an attitude or a belief, and try to discover what the underlying emotional dynamics are. Or he /she can start from the regular occurrence of a particular emotional dynamic and try to pinpoint what attitude or belief it gives rise to. [³]
Comparisons and end effects
a). When a person does not value himself, guilt is generated in the mode of self-hate. This can be called personal guilt.
b). When ‘the system’ does not value the person, social guilt is generated. Since society is felt to be impersonal, such guilt is impersonal guilt, or alienation.
When these effects are taken to extremes, curious consequences occur.
c). When personal guilt is amplified, it leads to ‘depersonalisation’. The person seems to become separated from identifying with the body.
d). When impersonal guilt is amplified, it leads to ‘impersonalisation’. Now we witness the person as complete outsider, exemplified in the writings of Franz Kafka.
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After five years of my psycho-analysis I left my job and lived for a time on my savings. A few months later I noticed that my incessant need to daydream and phantasise had greatly diminished.
it is alienation
that causes the
pressure to phantasise.
This pressure is as literal and real as are the pressure of catharsis and the pressure to romanticise sorrow by dramatising it. 
Alienation degrades narcissism and pride ; the need to phantasise arises as an antidote to guilt and alienation. Also phantasy is a means of creating excitement to offset moods of depression. Alienation, as social guilt, renders life so boring and depression-inducing that only by incessant daydreaming can I generate excitement and meaning. Passion requires stimulation, and the narcissistic individual uses phantasy for this purpose. When alienation is no longer prominent then daydreaming is practised just for the fun of it.
However, alienation is not just applicable to employment. I began to daydream incessantly well before puberty ; I always needed a very long sleep time even as a child and stayed in bed (even when awake) as long as I could. This was not laziness, but the need to daydream. Hence alienation as a concept relates to the family and even to the educational system too.
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This discovery that phantasy, as a need, is a response to alienation has psycho-therapeutic implications. Take a schizophrenic patient out of the debilitating, alienating, demoralising situation of a locked ward and put him /her into more congenial circumstances (with caring staff) and their phantasising will fade in intensity. This step will not of itself ‘cure’ mental disorder, but it can be a valid alternative to long-term drug manipulation of the person. Otherwise it will be very difficult to rehabilitate, or even ‘cure’, schizophrenic patients if they are kept incarcerated in dreary surroundings.
Many years ago I read about the ideas and work of an unusual Scottish administrator during the last part of World War II. He had charge of a rehabilitation unit, in north Africa, for shell-shocked soldiers of the north-African campaign. He had a forestry and ecology background that gave him the mental flexibility to bypass bureaucratic orthodoxy. The rehabilitation unit was set on a farm, using happy-go-lucky Italians to work the farm. The patients were free to roam around among the animals and the singing Italians. This freedom in pleasant surroundings produced significant therapeutic results. The rate of rehabilitation of these soldiers was twice as fast as the normal rate within a conventional institution.
Any feeling of alienation always slows down the rate of recovery.
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Alienation produces another phenomenon as well. For years I had experienced a particular type of dozing consciousness, where I was neither asleep nor awake. I characterise it as being three-quarters asleep, one-quarter awake – no desire, no apparent emotion, very little thinking. It came on after an exhausting day at work, when fear and hate had been strong.
I could spend hours in this state but it is a useless one. I tried to use it for relaxation (because of the seemingly quiet state of the mind), but after coming out of it I was still as tired as I was before I entered it.
The feeling that I had in this state was like having a thick head, reminiscent of the times when I was too much stoned on cannabis or alcohol. So I thought of it as a ‘withdrawal effect’ from fear and hate. The best way to clear the state is to do physical exercises that make the blood and the lungs move. Because the thick head condition is like a strongly viscous feeling, I came to call it ‘treacle consciousness’. Sleep only becomes refreshing when fear and hate have faded away.
What is treacle consciousness ?
I found a clue by reading a biography of a person who suffered from kidney trouble and uraemia. Uraemia is characterised in its later stages by apathy, drowsiness, and stupor. This description sounds to me like a chronic condition of treacle consciousness. The treacle consciousness is produced by acute stress at work. This stress physiologically affected my kidneys (my dreams of that time indicated that my left kidney was in trouble), and they repeatedly generated referred pain in the lower back (pain that originated in the kidneys but was felt as back pain).
In other words, treacle consciousness is a mild form of stupor ; if perpetuated then, in my view, it may lead eventually to uraemia.
chronic alienation can generate mild stupor,
and perhaps even uraemia.
The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.
[¹]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. 
[²]. The binary nature of emotions is described in the first article on Emotion. 
[³]. For developing awareness, see the article Self-Awareness on my website The Subconscious Mind. 
. These two pressures are aspects of the process of abreaction. The pressure of catharsis is described in the third article on abreaction : Catharsis and Suggestion. The pressure to romanticise sorrow is described in the fifth article : Forgiveness and Acceptance. 
The articles in this section are :
Confusion - snags and pitfalls of the idealist ; beginning a new quest.
Antithetical Thoughts - voices and unpleasant thoughts.
Alienation - effects of living in a society which is spiritually poor ; stupor.
Justification - from old identities to new ones ; causality & motivation.
Character Transformation - from instability to stability to flexibility.
Reversal of Values - disjunctive states of mind ; ideal mother image.
Rites of Passage - escaping nihilism by using emotional rituals.
The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.
© 2002 Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved
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