THE BLOG
03/04/2009 07:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Economic Crisis Is an Emotional Problem

2009-03-05-foreclosure.jpg

A provocative documentary made in 2003 asked the question, if a corporation were an actual person, not just accorded the legal rights of one, what kind of person would it be? The answer, based on the maniacal corporate pursuit of quarterly profits at the expense of all other values, was a sociopath.

At such a crucial time in our nation's history, it seems relevant to ask a similar question. If America were a person, with its recent cycles of destructive boom and bust, and its almost slavish dependence upon consumption, what kind of person would the country be? The answer, inescapably, is an addict.

The key feature of an addict is emotional denial. An addict enlists substances and activities to help mask and suppress emotions festering within. When no such emotions are festering within, people don't become, or remain, addicted.

While it's tempting to argue about what we're nationally addicted to - money, oil, perhaps entertainment - the more important pursuit is identifying which resisted emotions are at the source of our disease. Not only will this help us understand how we got into our current mess, but it's also essential if we're ever going to get out of it.

The first obvious culprit is envy. Americans have a hard time watching others prosper while life seems to pass them by. When everyone else was trading up for a bigger house, or flipping second and third homes, many people found it impossible to refuse the too-good-to-be-true mortgages that were dangled before them. Only if one's envy isn't intolerable is it possible to say, "No, thank you, I like the house I'm living in just fine."

The second culprit, related to the first, is entitlement. Most Americans don't merely believe in the dream of prosperity for all, they also consider themselves entitled to it. It doesn't much matter than most of the world lives on less than five dollars a day. It also doesn't matter that most of us are only Americans by luck of birth. We want what we want, when we want it, and we're firm in the conviction that we've each got it coming to us.

When it does come, we have no problem feeling entitled. But when it doesn't, the disparity between what we want and what we have makes our entitlement feel like a slap in the face. The sting of that slap takes the form of the third culprit - deprivation. Feeling deprived fuels the motivation to reach beyond our means, and to ignore all the possible consequences of doing so.

What about plain old greed? It could go on the list, but the urge for more, more, more seems universal rather than specifically American. While greed may have been a big factor in the creation of shiny new financial instruments like mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps, it doesn't appear to be the driving force behind most of those Americans now saddled with "underwater" houses and mountains of credit card debt. Of course envy, entitlement and deprivation are also universal, yet together they form a trident that's as American as a home makeover.

So what if we hadn't been engaged in our collective denial of these three emotions? What might've been different? For starters, we would have been able to feel their actual sensations in our physical bodies, which is where all emotions arise. Next, since felt emotions dissipate quickly, we would have been cleansed of their pain and left with a greater sense of well being, along with a brain re-set for peak performance. Finally, with the insight and vision that are natural by-products of a high functioning brain, we would have easily seen right through the housing bubble early on, and popped it intentionally, rather than engorging it for years until it inevitably collapsed all over us.

The latest neuro-scientific research confirms that feeling our emotions directly, rather than repressing them with addictions or compulsions, is precisely what leads to optimal thinking. And we need to do that feeling first, before trying to solve our problems with reason, despite an entrenched cultural bias that pits the supreme virtue of rationality against all those messy, primitive, infantile emotional urges.

In other words, a little "touchy feely" goes a long way.

Which naturally leads us to wonder what emotions we need to be feeling right now, in order to end the financial nightmare that's terrorizing millions. Tops on that list, not surprisingly, is terror. When F.D.R said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he didn't mean not to feel it. He meant that we should refrain from acting it out in the form of rash decisions, a rare form of wisdom that is only possible after fear has been fully felt.

Another emotion just waiting for our attention and receptivity is despair. Many of us beat ourselves up for experiencing despair, even though like most emotions it arises unbidden, completely on its own. We're often admonished that we can't afford to despair, and instead must cling to hope at all costs.

This advice is terrible. It presumes that one emotion is the enemy of another, when all emotions want the same thing - simply to be felt. In fact, the fastest road to hope runs right through despair, or any other emotion we're currently feeling. Hope, just like insight and vision, is the natural outcome of a body with no emotional backlog.

Finally, there's grief. For all we've lost and may yet still lose. Unfelt grief turns to bitterness, rage, and most of all depression. In the process it saps the very energy we need to surmount our daunting obstacles.

To heal our national addiction in time, before the American dream becomes quaint nostalgia, we'll need to welcome fear, despair and grief with the same vehemence we brought to our previous denial of envy, entitlement, and deprivation.

Those emotions won't feel good, but they won't last long either. In their wake, along with hope, will reemerge the can-do spirit that marks our country at its healthiest. So join with me, my fellow Americans, or tarry at your peril. If you truly want to stave off foreclosure, get your emotional house in order.

Note: This article first appeared in The Detroit Free Press. To read it there, click here