Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Political System Rules Your Psyche?

Do you govern yourself with an iron fist?

Since we are not unitary selves, but an assortment of response repertoires, emotions, and goals, we need some system of government to form a more perfect union (of our sub-selves), establish justice (among them), insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. You might reflect on the system of government in your own psyche and on whether it’s working for you. When we apply a similar is-it-working perspective on actual government, we quickly find ourselves wondering who the “we” is in “we, the people.” That is, we have to specify whose benefits and costs matter. Obviously, in the Constitution, costs to slaves did not matter to the framers, nor did the costs to some other segments of society. Because Americans still do not share a common sense of heritage—we are not mainly of one tribe or culture—we still have trouble considering the costs and benefits to those Americans we don’t identify with. However, when considering your internal government, it is pure fantasy to suppose that the disenfranchised and marginalized aspects of your personality don’t count. They are part of you, and they can’t be incarcerated, executed, or deported.

When Jung said that symptoms are the guerilla warfare of the psyche, he meant that the oppressed aspects of the self don’t acquiesce; they sabotage. As in actual sabotage, things get worse when the government is totalitarian or autocratic, when it impairs the healthy modes of protest, which include free speech and the right to complain. People who banish certain thoughts are more likely to become symptomatic. There aren’t a lot of pure tyrants in the political world, but they are quite common in the individual psychologies of our fellow humans. Many people squelch any internal dissidents, any minority reports, any sign that they don’t speak for the entire psyche. This is the opposite of psychological-mindedness; it’s a self-righteous posture of being universally loved and admired, like a tinhorn dictator who claims to have gotten a preposterous amount of the vote. Living under such a regime makes people, or parts of the self, anxious, depressed, and angry. But as miserable as self-righteousness makes them, they are as reluctant to change their system of government as is an actual tyrant, because the dictator does not care about the misery of the masses, and the inner dictator does not care about marginalizing whatever is considered to be shamefully human—hunger, sex, vulnerability, love, collegiality, play, or anger. They treat observations about their varied motivations as attacks on their greatness, and this makes it difficult to befriend them—or to teach them anything complicated or to help them change in therapy. Indeed, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable ,than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Anarchy has much to recommend it in small groups of well-behaved individuals. My senior colleagues and I meet periodically to talk about life and work, and we don’t need rules to manage ourselves. But wherever there is a need for structural hierarchy, a government must be instituted. This includes any system with children in it, and one thing we know for sure about psychology is that each of us has childish impulses. Those who favor internal anarchy give vent to these impulses, often at the expense of themselves and others.

In politics, some sort of democratic republic—resting ultimate power with the people—seems to work best, not because it is an ideal system, but because, as Churchill said, it is better than all the others. Claims of superiority in non-democratic meritocracies are suspiciously self-serving, and those in power tend to accumulate it until they are serving themselves and not the populace. Within an individual’s psychology, though, a democracy is not a good system of governance. Voting in real democracies is often too self-gratifying for its own good, but in an individual, it is always so. If I held an internal referendum on whether to indulge myself, I would always do so. Honoring long-term agendas and bowing to deferred consequences is always a lonely enterprise, but sometimes it can actually overcome greed and indulgence because grandchildren and even our own future will be improved by conscientious action. But almost everyone in a democracy is capable of considering long-term consequences. Within the psyche, on the other hand, very few of the figures or response repertoires or sub-selves are so capable. The psyche is a lot more like a one-room schoolhouse or a family with lots of kids than it is like a congress of thoughtful adults, and the teacher who lets the class vote will find herself without order (and without pupils).

Many people operate in an aristocracy, letting their parents govern their minds. Others live in a welfare or nanny state, indulging every whim and soothing every hurt. Some live in a system of such remote and blind privilege that a world of make-believe replaces due consideration for what’s best for people; the government becomes insulated from the harm it does, like the governments of “populists” who starve their own people. A distressingly large number of people live in a corporatocracy, or a crime syndicate, or what you might call the contemporary university, in which the ruling class is composed of the wealthiest members of the system and the only real question that drives governing is what will make the most money.

In real life, government by the wise, the honorable, and the meritorious doesn’t work, as noted, because in real life people use raw political and military power to declare themselves to be wise, and you eventually end up with a ruling class of demagogues or strongmen. In your own head, though, this is the best system—Plato’s philosopher king or Mills’s benevolent dictator. The same figure has been called the observing ego, emotional intelligence, senex, Earth Mother, or Yoda. If you want to overthrow the government under which you live wretchedly or emptily, you will do well to empower your wisdom. Therapy can be seen as a place to develop a resilient alliance between this part of the self and the therapist. Wisdom also flows from simply recognizing the complexity and extent of the system, meaning it’s a good idea to recognize your own passions without calling them sins and without trying to amputate them. There are a lot of good ideas for improving self-government, but the ones I keep coming back to include appreciating comedy and laughter, cultivating a sense of wonder, reading literature and history, and falling in love.