Gary Trosclair wears many hats here at the Jung Institute – teacher, supervisor, director of our Low-Fee Clinic and president of NYAAP – in addition to his private practice as a Jungian analyst in Manhattan and Westchester County, NY. He is also the author of The Healthy Compulsive Project Blog and two books, I’m Working On It in Therapy: How to Get the Most Out of Psychotherapy, published in 2015, and The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality, just published in February 2020. He discusses his latest book below with fellow Jungian analyst Wendy Neville Jones.
WNJ: Your book describes masterfully the downside of being overly compulsive and the benefits of modifying and channeling this personality trait. But historically, haven’t we needed highly compulsive, driven characters to move society in important new directions? I’m thinking of people like Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt or Steve Jobs, to mention a few, who sacrificed relationships, health and even longevity to pursue world-changing goals. What are your thoughts on this?
GT: Yes, I believe that many people who have compulsive dispositions have been indispensable to any progress we’ve made as a culture. I would add to your list Dr. Martin Luther King, who was driven to achieve social justice, despite the clear danger to his own life.
I consider this to be a manifestation of the teleology, the purpose and meaning, behind the compulsive personality.
As I say in my book, it’s not the people with the best ideas that direct the course of history, but the people with the most determination. Many of the movers and shakers of the world are compulsive. Part of the purpose of the book and the Healthy Compulsive Project blog are to help the people who are driven or compulsive to contribute what they can, rather than have their energy cause conflict and depression. This is also why I am making the distinction between a healthy compulsive and an unhealthy compulsive.
WNJ: You describe how compulsions can provide a sense of control in a chaotic world. Given how chaotic our country and world are right now, giving up control can seem pretty frightening. Explain the paradoxical benefits of modifying this trait.
GT: Certainly, control can be adaptive and reassuring at a time like this, when a microscopic organism is upending our entire world. In fact, I think that one of the reasons that compulsive aspects of the personality have evolved is that they are highly adaptive in situations like this. They have helped us to survive.
The problem with the way that some people use control is that they start to try to control everything out of habit. It becomes their default way of going about things in the world, and often what they really do need to control gets lost.
Unhealthy compulsivity is based on a quantitative life, rather than a qualitative life. Sure, theoretically you might be able to extend your life indefinitely now if you never touched anything again. But what for?
Jung said in The Red Book that he would not want to be a charioteer, because if he had all the control, a lot of really good things, things he would never have considered, would not come to pass. What we’re talking about here is the age-old mythological battle between the ego and the unconscious. The ego wants to maintain all the control, but without the rejuvenating qualities of the unconscious, our world contracts and dies spiritually.
WNJ: You describe compulsion as a healthy urge that has become channeled into unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. Can you explain this further, and how it relates to Jung’s ideas about individuation?
GT: Sure. The etymology of the word compulsive describes a driving urge that’s hard to resist. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact I’d argue that we need to listen to these urges to see what they are about. Coming from a Jungian perspective, I look for the seed of something meaningful in it. The problem is that the energy that comes with this urge can be hijacked for other purposes, most often the avoidance of shame or insecurity. If you’ve got the genetic predisposition for perfectionism, it would make sense that you would use it to try to stay out of trouble.
Jung wrote that we have a compulsion toward individuation—a deep, almost uncontrollable urge, to become who we have the potential to be, an urge to consciously create and evolve the human spirit. This is a powerful urge, since nature needs us to develop as individuals to prevent herd mentality. But this energy gets hijacked at times and it actually inhibits the growth of the personality instead of motivating it.
WNJ: In several places you describe the dangers of someone with a Compulsive Personality using his own body, or relationships with significant others, as “vehicles” for acting out their compulsions. Can you give an example of how this can be destructive?
GT: To be more specific, in these cases I would say that compulsives may use their body, or other people, or their energy, as vehicles to prove their worth to themselves and others. It’s not so much that the compulsive urge is acted out, but all the energy behind the compulsive urge hijacks the body or relationships or talents to reassure themselves that they are decent, worthy people.
So some body-builders for instance, become compulsive about shaping their body in a certain way. Then the body become a vehicle to get them to a place of greater security. Similarly, someone who is born with natural caring, compassion and empathy may enlist that talent to reassure themselves that they are OK.
By the way, this is different from narcissism, where the individual needs to feel special. I find that compulsives are just trying to feel that they aren’t being bad or aren’t going to get in trouble, rather than trying to feel better than others.
WNJ: Your description of the Compulsive Personality style sounds similar to Jung’s concept of the Complex — a psychological node of experiences, emotions and behaviors driven by an archetypal core. You describe some of these compulsion-related archetypes, like the Hero, in your book. Can you expand on the kinds and roles of archetypes in compulsive psychology?
GT: Yes. I’ve seen a number of people whose compulsive energy gets sucked into a Prophet complex. They feel that they know what’s right and wrong and they feel a deep responsibility to tell everyone else what to do, no matter the price to themselves or their relationships.
Conscientiousness, by the way, has a genetic component and is one of the defining characteristics of the compulsive personality. And it can really get out of hand. The moral sense forms an archetypal core, and the personal experiences of childhood can shape that core into a very rigid complex.
We can also see the archetypal nature of compulsive control in literature and our contemporary mythologies; Frankenstein, Darth Vader in Star Wars, and Voldemort in Harry Potter are all trying to achieve control compulsively—and we see what it does to them. Each of these had heroic potential, and that potential was hijacked by their need to have control over life and death.
One compensatory archetype is Dionysus—the liberator—who helps to release the ego’s control and be open to more of the effects of the unconscious.
WNJ: The word “compulsion” is also used in psychology to describe a defense mechanism that the personality uses to protect the ego from unpleasant or destabilizing thoughts and feelings — as you explain in your book. As therapists we learn to respect the defenses as important — and often tenacious — structures that can keep the personality stable. How difficult is it to modify a longstanding ego defense in therapy, and are there any dangers in approaching this task? Have you had patients who are unable to tolerate moderating or relinquishing the defense of compulsion? Have you found a role for medication in managing the anxiety and other negative emotions that may emerge?
GT: Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder may be one of the most difficult personality disorders to change, partly because, as a defense, over-working is so welcomed in our culture. For many there is no motivation to change unless they get an ultimatum from a partner or a boss. You can achieve some change with that motivation, but not deep change. Deeper change comes when the individual wants to change and makes his or her personal growth the object of their compulsive energy, which — I would argue—is one of the deeper levels of what the compulsive urge is about–individuation.
Virtually none of my patients are on medication right now, but I know that some people do take it in an effort to help with their compulsiveness. I believe that medication is more effective for the specific compulsions, such as checking and washing, that often come with OCD, which is really a very different diagnosis, and one that’s often incorrectly given to people with OCPD.
I think that we do need to be realistic about what we can offer as therapists. We aren’t able to help everyone. And in some cases the defenses are so strong, and the incentive so small, that change may not occur. In a situation like that, there would be lots of resistance to the medication, and little motivation to take it.
But I haven’t seen any negative consequences of trying to modify the defense system. It seems when they truly need it, they hold onto it despite what the therapist does.
WNJ: You talk about certain compulsions — workaholism, excessive exercise, pornography use, social media checking — that seem epidemic in our culture, and are especially visible in New York City. How do we combat or modify these kinds of behaviors when they are not only socially and archetypally reinforced, but also produce endorphins, a feel-good brain chemical that can become addicting? What does your book recommend? Again, is medication helpful?
GT: While I work primarily from a psychodynamic perspective, I feel that meditation, twelve-step programs, and exercise can be very beneficial as first line defenses against some of the addictive compulsions.
Also, compulsives love to make lists and set goals, and these compulsive tendencies can be used in service of progressively diminishing the process addictions. I like to turn the compulsive energy onto the problem itself in a healthy way. My book has plenty of concrete, practical suggestions at the end of every chapter to help people set goals that can help them withdraw from the addictions.
But in the long run it comes down to recognizing and admitting that something is out of balance, and deciding what is most important. So, yes, in certain professions if you work less you will make less money. But what is the money for? If you say that it’s for your family, you need to ask what your family really needs and wants from you. In this type of case, saying that you’re providing for your family is often a rationalization for getting the hit from the achievements, status and financial payoff.
WNJ: You mention that compulsive people tend not to marry other compulsives. Why is this the case and how does this tend to play out in relationships? Explain the role of Jung’s concept of Shadow in this dynamic.
GT: What I’m beginning to recognize is that there are at least four different kinds of compulsives: authoritarians, people-pleasers, procrastinating obsessives, and manic compulsives. When compulsives do marry each other, there are usually two different kinds getting together.
But more often, they need someone else who is significantly different to feel a little more whole. Usually the compulsive needs someone who is more emotional, spontaneous and fun-loving. And the partner needs someone they can depend on. This is searching for our own Shadow elements, the part of us that we don’t want to see the light, the part of us that we don’t want others to see or, often, even acknowledge to ourselves. But being split off from this other side creates a deep longing that we often try to satisfy by finding it in someone else.
If a couple with these contrasting personalities is going to work out, they would each need to develop the Shadow elements that they have had the other person live out for them. This does go for the partner as well, since they may not have claimed their own productivity, determination, reliability, moral sense, or creativity.
WNJ: You talk about the “trivialization” of the instinct toward psychological growth in our society, an important point in a culture where self-help practices have become tools of social branding. Say more about this trend and why it is so important to address both personally and collectively.
GT: There’s a constant tension in us between independent agency and community—developing one’s psychology for one’s own self as opposed to developing it so that we can be in service to the greater good. These are two evolutionary tendencies that have both had adaptive value, and we all struggle with trying to balance them.
It seems to me that in our current society, far too often what is promoted as psychological growth goes only to the level of individualism, and the third stage of the hero’s journey, returning to your community with the boon you found in the underworld, is forgotten.
There was some interesting research done on this subject in the 90s in which it was found that people who went to either extreme, either independent agency or service to community, were less physically healthy. I believe strongly that the same goes for our psychological health. This is one of those many examples of when Jung’s advice to “hold the tension of the opposites” is so valuable.
WNJ: You use the concept of “purposelessness” in helping to heal the compulsive personality, another term that might seem paradoxical. Can you expand on this?
GT: Compulsives are so goal-oriented that it is helpful for them to let go of those goals to some extent. I don’t think the deeper purposes really goes away, but the ego needs to let the unconscious take over. The ego—and I think this was Jung’s over-arching point in all of his work—wants to control it all, but needs to begin to trust the unconscious so that it can actually help it achieve the really important goals. This feels purposeless to the ego. This is really hard for many of us to do. If it doesn’t scare you to try, you probably aren’t letting go enough.
WNJ: You acknowledge that your book can be used as a self-help guide, but you strongly recommend therapy as well; describing therapy, among other things, as good practice in “delegating” for the compulsive person. Explain this dynamic further.
GT: Yes, so much of this is about control for the compulsive, and stepping into a therapist’s office feels like you’re handing over control—the steering wheel—to someone you’ve probably never met before. They tend to be so perfectionistic that they believe no one else will do it well enough. And they may not! Coming to terms with an imperfect therapist may be the most healing thing they can do.
This is one of the reasons that I like to try to explain the therapeutic process as I go along with a patient. As I pointed out in my previous book, I’m Working On It In Therapy, we don’t always explain the therapeutic process to our patients well enough. And for compulsive patients, who tend to be very independent and sensitive to control, this is a really important issue.
You can visit Gary’s blog at The Healthy Compulsive Project, and you can hear his interview with Dr. David Nay Nuys at Shrink Rap Radio here.
Wendy Neville Jones completed her Jungian training at the C.G. Jung Institute of New York and holds degrees and licenses that also include LCSW and LP. She also completed a Family Therapy Certificate from the Institute for Contextual Growth and a Clinical Hypnotherapy Certificate from the New York Society of Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Hypnotherapy, and is a certified hypnotherapist and EMDR practitioner. In her practices in Manhattan and Westchester, she works with individuals, couples, families, and hypnotherapy EMDR with a specialty in trauma and dissociation.