Mental Health — What Freud Got Wrong

what freud got wrong

Much of modern psychoanalysis, the methods by which we judge mental health, is based on the ideas established by Sigmund Freud during the 1920s.  The term “Oedipus complex” might come to mind, as it should, for Freud’s thoughts about the “Oedipus complex” form the core of his theory and legacy. Few people, however, really know what the Oedipus complex is or how it shapes the ideas of so many of the therapists and psychologists that we blindly trust.  So what is the Oedipus complex? And is the premise of modern psychology an accurate or useful way to analyze the metal health of individuals or society as a whole?  The present state of mental health in America, the West, and many other parts of the world seems to be in dire straits, making this an important issue.

The Oedipus Complex and Modern Myth

For those who aren’t familiar with the story Oedipus Rex, it’s a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, written in the 5th century BC.  The basic plot of the story is that King Laius has a child named Oedipus, but the child is abandoned because of a foreboding prophecy that the child would kill his father and take over the throne.  Then in a twisted turn of events, Oedipus survives into adulthood and kills his own father (like the prophecy predicted) on a country road (not knowing it was his father that he killed). Oedipus is then made king in his father’s place (still not knowing it was his dad he killed) and takes the hand of his own biological mother in marriage. The theme and underlying meaning of the tragedy, along with many other similar tragedies and myths, is the nature of rivalries between close relationships. Freud’s interpretation of this rivalry and the violence between father and son, as told in Oedipus Rex, is the basis of his psychoanalytic theory.

Basically what Freud tries to answer with the “Oedipus complex” is the question of the origin of desires that cause human conflicts. For example, why is it that a child desires the same objects that his parents desire?  In the exaggerated case of Oedipus, the underlying implication is that a boy desires his own mother. But why? In his earliest works, Freud places the origin of this desire with the child’s identification with his parents. In other words, a child learns desire based on seeing what his parents desire and wanting to be like them. Later, however, Freud hypothesizes that desire arises from innate, physical desires, rather than from imitating a model (such as a parent). Ultimately Freud comes to the bizarre conclusion that at some point, a boy will suddenly become conscious of an innate desire for his mother, which he will then suppress in his subconscious mind. This suppressed consciousness, however, is supposed to influence other aspects of life and desire.

The upshot is that modern psychology is built on a couple of underlying Freudian assumptions:  For one, it’s believed that desires, even desires beyond basic biological functions, are primarily innate and focused purely on an object. A healthy, socially-adjusted individual then is one who successfully recognizes and suppresses his or her desires for socially inappropriate objects (whether actual objects or people). Secondly, innate desires are considered highly individualistic, and individualism just so happens to be highly praised in Western society. Scholars, businessmen, artists — we all strive to be unique individuals, and we tend to deny the dynamics and influences of the group. Such denial, however, makes us even more susceptible to group think, advertisements, and propaganda.  Personally, I’m convinced that for those in therapy, these two assumptions can also cause a deterioration rather than an improvement in mental health!

Mimetic Desire and Ancient Knowledge

In his work Violence and the Sacred (which this article is largely based on), the renowned scholar Rene Girard argues that the real origin of desire and the cause of human conflict (whether mental or physical) is something he calls mimetic desire.  While the idea of mimetic desire isn’t really new (it can be argued that it’s something the Bible refers to as sin or covetousness), Girard provides a scientific explanation of the formation of desires, rivalry, and even what might be referred to today as “poor mental health.” Essentially, mimetic desire is as old as Adam and Eve or Cain and Able.  

Ancient stories, such as Cain and Able, teach us that desires come from an outside source, from a model, someone that can be imitated (hence the word mimetic in Girard’s theory). In other words, our desire for a particular object isn’t innate and doesn’t come from the appeal of the object itself, rather an object is made desirable by the person that possesses it. If you don’t think that’s accurate, think about any of the most effective television commercials. They’re never really selling an object; they’re selling the appeal of who one could become by acquiring possession of a particular object. For example, with the right luxury watch, any man might become as successful, rich, and handsome, as the man in the commercial.

The next truth stories like Cain and Able teach us (and human history will attest to), is that desire creates conflict. The reason desire creates conflict is because we don’t just desire the same object that our model possesses, we desire to actually become the model. The problem is that there are two obstacles to becoming or becoming like the model: the model himself and the model’s possession of the desired object. Mimetic desire, fully played out, thus results in depression, jealousy, rivalry, covetousness, and ultimately murder (all consequences of a disturbed mental state). In order to become like the model, the subject has to either steal the object from the model and/or murder the model; the model is the chief obstacle preventing the subject from obtaining the model’s elusive state of being.  

The psychological implications of mimetic desire are paramount. If our desires are not innate physical whims but formed by the imitation of role models, then more often than not our desires are neither fixed nor reasonable.  They’re not fixed because a role model’s possessions and interests may change over time, and they’re not reasonable because one can never obtain the state of being of another human. These two obstacles result in continued frustration, depression, high and lows, violence, and generally “poor mental health.”  Thankfully there is a solution to the primary cause of most our mental dis-ease.  

The Real Cure to Many of Our Mental Health Problems 

Girard argues that there are essentially two solutions to mimetic desire, though the first solution is really more of a band-aid than a cure. First, the relational distance between a subject and his role model has a direct affect on the amount of mental stress and physical violence that might result from a given relationship. Relational distance might explain why the fiercest jealousy or violence often occurs between the closest friends or the most intimate lovers. If one chooses role models that are at a greater distance, however, like a sports hero on a professional team instead of a high school teammate, the tension caused by mimetic rivalry is lessoned.  Our society tacitly acknowledges this benefit by constant emphasizing the importance of positive role models for children.

The second solution is receiving and following in the steps of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love.  Instead of turning to violence and being controlled by the crowd, Jesus revealed that laying down one’s own life brings freedom and escape from the mimetic cycle. The ability to lay down one’s life, to surrender one’s desire (formed by imitation and ultimately resulting in a hatred for others), is only obtained by believing in the unconditional love of Jesus.  Love, which is sacrificial, can only be given after it is received.  In other words, those who believe, Jesus sets free from a mimesis that spirals towards death and leads into a mimesis towards life. Sacrificial love brings freedom from mental anguish, fear, jealousy, narcissism, concern over what people think, anxiety, depression, and a plethora of other mental health problems.

This isn’t to say that all mental health problems are solved by escaping mimetic desire, or that we’re ever fully free from mimetic desire. Looking to others for the cues for our desires is a constant struggle, one that requires daily returning to the love of Jesus and remembering his sacrifice through sharing communion with others. It’s also important to note that some mental health problems are caused by biology or the physical environment, such as when depression is caused by being inside for too long or when bi-polar disease is triggered by a nutrient deficiency.  But this brings up another point, most mental health problems, in one way or another, are  a result of not living the way God created us to live. The first and most important aspect to life and good mental health is love, after that, exercise, sunshine, fresh-air, and healthy foods all have a substantial impact on mental health.

The take away: It’s a Western myth that we are complete individuals with innate and unique desires. While the idea of the “stalwart individual” might be appealing, our mental health is intimately tied to our relationships with others.  We get our desires from the people around us (whether friends, family, peers, advertisers, movies, etc), and our ability (or inability) to realize these desires is the principle cause of mental dis-ease.  The only way to escape the bi-polar high and lows of desire is unconditional, sacrificial love.

What are your thoughts on mental health? 

Do you have any questions about mimetic desire?

Primary Reference and Suggested Reading: Violence and the Sacred, by Rene Girard.

Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard recommendation review 

Your thoughts are important.