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On the Psychodynamics of Intrusive, Wicked Thoughts

Increase your ego-strength using philosophy to change neural pathways.

Key points

  • Ego strength can be developed to overcome obsessive thoughts.
  • Philosophical ideas can empower those suffering from moral obsessions.
  • There are certain parts of the brain that can be “rewired” through the uplifting images contained in philosophical ideas.

Through a psychodynamic interpretation of moral obsessions, I suggest that ego strength can be increased to overcome such obsessions through the use of philosophy. Based on my recent work in neuropsychology, I maintain that such philosophical reframing can help “rewire” the neural brain circuits that perpetuate moral obsessions.

By Katie Cowden / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Murder in the boudoir"
Source: By Katie Cowden / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By a “moral obsession,” I mean ruminating about a “wicked” or “evil” thought that has come into your mind, where instead of allowing it to pass freely out of consciousness, you keep recycling it. You feel a need to be certain you wouldn't do the forbidden act, and the very thought of doing it may itself be experienced as evil, leading you to question your own moral character and self-worth. For instance, you may have imagined yourself stabbing a loved one and now find yourself obsessed with this thought, causing incessant distress.

From a psychodynamic perspective, the problem arises as a result of the demand that your “superego” (moral conscience) makes on your “ego” (self) when it entertains such a thought evoked by the non-rational, amoral, pleasure-seeking, largely unconscious part of your psyche—your “id.”

"The super-ego applies the strictest moral standard to the helpless ego which is at its mercy," wrote Sigmund Freud

Consequently, your ego attempts to deal with the threatening thought by ruminating about it, trying to reconcile it with the superego.

Unfortunately, the absolutistic morality of the superego demands nothing less than certainty that you would not do the forbidden act, and thus harshly judges you for failure to live up to this standard. You may experience guilt about even thinking such a thing. However, moral certainty is impossible, so you are caught in a vicious cycle, attempting to lay the bad thought to rest by satisfying an impossible standard.

A way out of this vicious cycle is to build ego-strength (willpower) by coming to accept the idea that moral certainty is unrealistic and that human beings are, by nature, imperfect. This means embracing a new morality based on the guiding virtues of self-respect as self-acceptance notwithstanding moral uncertainty; serenity as peace of mind attained through acceptance of such moral limitations.

Philosophical ideas can empower those suffering from moral obsessions to cultivate the latter virtues. For example, from a Western religious perspective, a human being is an imperfect copy of the divine light, and only God has moral certainty. From an Eastern (Buddhist and Hindu) perspective, the phenomenal universe is a series of fleeting things, so that certainty is just an illusion. In letting go of this illusion of permanence, one can free oneself from the vicious cycle of rumination based on attaining it.

It is beyond the scope of this post to provide an account of the many different philosophical ideas that could be enlisted to promote peace of mind through self-acceptance. Indeed, the history of ideas from the dawn of civilization to the present is an abundant resource of empowering wisdom for overcoming problems such as moral obsession.

For instance, in his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche turned a jaundiced eye on traditional religions and moral constructs proclaiming that the superior (“master’) morality is one that tells human beings to create their own moral values, and not merely to imitate or blindly conform to the status quo. As for certainty, he proclaimed,

There can be a delight in uncertainty and ambiguity, an exulting enjoyment of arbitrary, out-of-the-way narrowness and mystery, of the too-near, of the foreground, of the magnified, the diminished, the misshapen, the beautified—an enjoyment of the arbitrariness of all these manifestations of power.

Thus, surrendering the superego’s moral perfectionism to the idea of finding adventure in the unknown, rather than in what is certified in advance, can, at least for some, create new avenues for finding peace of mind.

So, is it such a bad thing if you are uncertain about whether you would really do something counter to your superego? For Nietzsche, among other existentialists, accepting moral uncertainty would be a sign that you are a free, autonomous agent, and not some mindless clone or coward.

Other philosophers, for example, a stoic like Marcus Aurelius, argued that power lies in accepting that it is you who have chosen to enslave yourself in a cycle of rumination, and it is, therefore, you who has the power to stop demanding certainty, thus ending the vicious cycle:

Wheresoever thou mayest live, there it is in thy power to live well and happy.

So, can philosophies such as the latter one really increase ego-strength to overcome your moral obsessions?

There is empirical evidence to suggest they can. By philosophically reframing the demands of your absolutistic unrealistic superego, it is possible to change your ruminative brain circuits. As I discuss in this brief video, there are certain parts of the brain that control somatosensory-cortical circuits that control moral obsessions, which can be “rewired” through the uplifting images contained in philosophical ideas. As I suggest in the video, a key is to embrace a philosophy that resonates with you.

So, in freely pursuing your philosophical lights, you can harness the power within you to free yourself from the painful moral obsessions that hold you captive in relentless cycles of rumination.