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Traveller with a staff leaning into a stiff headwind.

Trying to press on when you want to do something else can feel like battling a stiff headwind. You are waging war on yourself.

For all the blocked writers and troubled individuals out there, here is something useful from Susan Quinn’s biography of psychologist Karen Horney. The book is titled, A Mind of Her Own. Quinn writes, “Only guilt feelings toward repressed wishes have an inimical influence on life, restrictive, making for illness.” In other words, all other psychological (as opposed to medical) scenarios are not severe enough to generate mental illness. Anyone who enters psychoanalysis is feeling guilty about repressed wishes. Many people not in analysis have the same problem.

Once someone has entered analysis there are four key aspects to the procedure:

  1. Repression of unacceptable thoughts, wishes, and personality traits
  2. Acting out of repressed material
  3. Transference of behaviour and attitudes from their rightful recipient onto the analyst
  4. Associations which reveal unconscious contents

How do you feel guilty about repressed wishes (desires)? By definition, if a desire is repressed then you are unaware of having it. As I came to grasp it, the mechanism works like this: first, you have the desire, and then, finding it unacceptable, you swiftly repress it. The desire still exists, you still find it unacceptable, and so, at some level, you feel guilty for having the desire. The entire mechanism can be unconscious yet extremely troubling. The guilt literally comes back to haunt you.

The aspects of psychoanalysis listed above come in here. With the desire and its associated guilt repressed, you already have point one. Inevitably, the guilt will affect your behaviour, thus taking you to point two. When things get bad enough, you end up in the psychiatrist’s office where you run into point three. That is, during analysis, a patient will start treating the practitioner as if he were someone else, someone more appropriately associated with the patient’s difficulties. How the patient behaves towards the practitioner can be revealing. Psychiatrists deliberately deploy point four by setting up situations where they can study their patient’s associative responses. In theory, through those responses all is eventually, albeit indirectly, revealed. In my experience, the technique does work.

Feeling guilty about something you truly want (but are not repressing) can make you unhappy without pushing you all the way into psychopathology. Writers sometimes get into trouble in precisely this way where their work is concerned. Writing is a complex and lengthy process. At times, writers may want to change course but not allow themselves to do so because they have a fixed plan or schedule for getting the work done. They feel guilty for wanting to abandon the original plan. To do so seems undisciplined, wasteful, or unfocussed. Troubled individuals who are not writers get into hot water this way for any number of reasons.

The remedy is to trust your inner guide. Recognize that you are not going to get very far trying to continue on if your genuine will is to change course permanently or make a temporary detour. By consciously deciding to press on, you are waging war on yourself.