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The Psychological Ghosts That Haunt Us

Anxiety and unresolved attachment issues.

Key points

  • Ghosts are a timeless representation in our culture commonly revealing unresolved feelings of guilt and projected anger.
  • Facing attachment issues rather than denying them would soften our images of those who've died.
  • The pandemic has likely increased the tendency to imagine spectral hauntings because grief rituals were often inhibited.

We just passed a holiday that featured ghosts in every form and in almost every venue. The images are sometimes exaggerated but basically frightening.

What is truly uncanny is the prevalence of belief in ghosts in this country.¹ Why? Many theories have been offered. Paranormal explanation is inviting when science seems to leave us perplexed about many phenomena. Morevoer, three-quarters of Americans believe in the afterlife, though religious affiliation has decreased substantially, and thus ghosts are acceptable representations of another reality.

Perhaps belief in ghostly presences has increased during the pandemic, during which the opportunity to say goodbye was absent and collective ritual was severely limited.

Psychologically, ghosts perhaps embody, in an external form, our internal anxiety. What is the source of anxiety? We are anxious and guilty about failing those we’ve lost. Some of us experience a residue of anger that only induces guilt in us, and then becomes a justification for the dead returning to punish us. We should note that rarely are there kindly, protective or helpful ghosts imagined.

In a seminal psychoanalytic paper, Ghosts in the Nursery, Fraiberg et al describe how the unacknowledged trauma of childhood invades parenthood . Their conclusion is that parents who can access their childhood pain will not repeat it and inflict it upon their children: “There are many parents who
themselves lived tormented childhoods and do not inflict their pain upon their children. These are the parents who say explicitly or in effect, 'I remember what it was like I remember how afraid I was when my father exploded, I remember how I cried when they took me and my sister away to live in that home. I would never let my child go through what I went through.'"²

Absence. A girl holds the hand of the spirit of her deceased mother.
Source: Ure/Shutterstock
Horror forest landscape, surreal haunted woods.
Source: Andreiuc88/Shutterstock

We know that some pain and guilt is simply too frightening for us to access. However, it's essential to try to face the mixed feelings of loss: along with pleasure and richness, there can be regret, and the pain of unresolved issues. Unfortunately our most important relationships evade what are today lauded as best procedures. Crucial relationships are inevitably pocked with some failure. We have to try to accept it as a feature of the complexity of attachment

We haven’t adequately intensified our need for self-compassion in grief. If we did, we might find that our cultural images have changed. It might even be that we can feature some ghostly images as beneficent and embracing.

The human face on a dark background of gold glowing particles
Source: Lidiia/Shutterstock


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