Notes Psychology

Chapter 10: A General View of Mental Illness (The Denial of Death)

This chapter is an attempt by Becker, who is not a psychologist, to distill what we have learned about mental illnesses in a simple and general way. So far, we have learned about the neurotic, who has failed to surround his anality with convincing illusion, he could not stand his own creatureliness.

Adler taught us that low self-esteem was the main cause of mental illness. And we know that a person has the most trouble with his self-esteem when he feels that his life would not make any cosmic difference.


To understand what these statements mean, we must go into the specifics. Depression and melancholia develop in people who are afraid of life, who live in complete servitude to others. These people have lived lives of “systematic self-restriction.” And the problem is that the less you do, the more helpless you feel, and the lower your self-esteem becomes.

Becker acknowledges Adler’s contribution so far, but he makes a mistake when talking about how the depressed person or the “spoiled child” is too pampered, that they refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their lives. Of course, there is some truth to this, but Adler knew that man was a weakling in nature. By stressing the “life lie” that people use in order to live, we overlook how necessary these lies are for some men, and how men do not have their own powers to depend on.

When we remember that giants like Freud and Jung faint while buying travel tickets, we should feel more sympathy for poor Mr. Average Man, trying to negotiate some measure of heroism every day by serving others. When these tactics fail, and the life-lie is revealed, it is no surprise that he is bogged down in depressive withdrawal.

Depression sums up the terror of life and death, and the hunger to perpetuate oneself. It is natural for someone to try to be heroic in the safe, small circle of their family or in front of their loved one, to give in to a “silent retreat” to keep this heroic secure. Not many people have an independent gift to give to the cosmos to earn their special immortality, not unless they are creative.

Another insight is the depressed person fails to live their life, because they are too concerned with looking good in the eyes of others. But for some people, it is better to feel guilt than to burden oneself with freedom and responsibility, especially when the choice comes too late to be able to start over again.


It seems like a puzzle, how willingly the masochist experiences pain, but what they are doing is simple. The pain calls the body to the forefront of experience and turns the person into a feeling animal – it is a natural complement to sadism. Both are ways to experience forceful self-feeling. Both give intensity in place of emptiness and vagueness. More than that, to experience pain means to use it with the possibility of controlling it and triumphing over it. The masochist does not want pain, he wants to be able to identify its source, and so control it.

Masochism is a way of taking in small doses of the anxiety of life and death. The sadomasochist combination is the perfect way to triumph over death, and as Rank observed, masochism is the “small sacrifice” or the “light punishment” that allows a person to avoid the larger evil, death.

In sexuality, masochism is a way of taking in pain and suffering (ultimately symbols of death) and turning them into pleasure. Henry Hart observed that the ego controls total pain, total defeat, and total humiliation by experiencing them in small doses as a kind of vaccination.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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