Lessons about Overcoming Personality Problems from Martin Luther King, Jr.: A psychologist’s dream

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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The great orator on broad humanitarian issues like peace and civil rights also preached brilliantly about how to overcome personal problems. Nobel peace laureate and social activist leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon series during the summer of 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on the “Problems of Personality Integration.”  The topics included “Factors That Determine Character” “The Mastery of Fear” “Overcoming an Inferiority Complex” and “Conquering Self-Centeredness.” This article covers the latter two topics.

For this author, a veteran psychologist, the level of King’s psychological insight is impressive.

The Inferiority Complex

“The inferiority complex is one of the most stagnating and strangulating and crushing conditions…plunging into the abyss of inner conflict.”      

The preacher is on point psychologically that an inferiority complex comes from three main sources: lack of self-acceptance, a gap between the real self and the ideal (or as he says, the desired) self, and coming up short when comparing to others. He accurately cites causes like lack of social charm, ill health, unattractiveness or love failures, and also segregation.

The problem is vast. A psychological survey King cites of hundreds of college students reveals that more than 90% suffered from a nagging, frustrated feeling of inferiority. Great men of history were also dogged. His example in scripture is of Zacchaeus so plagued with feeling unaccepted by his small size that he compensates by becoming a tax collector and making big money.  Unconstructive ways to cope include escaping into fantasy or drowning in drink. 

King speaks like the perfect counselor in noting the fundamental way to overcome this sense of inferiority: self-acceptance. 

“Accept yourself as you actually are. Don’t try to be anybody else except yourself.” 

What helps achieve self-acceptance according to King? 

Prayer. “You count because God loves you,” he said.  Famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung agreed that such conditions can be cured by religious faith, he notes.  

 “The thing that every individual should pray to the Almighty God for is to give them that sense of acceptance of the actual self with all limitations and with all of the endowments that come as the results of our being born in this world.”

He continues. “Every man should somehow say, ‘I, John Doe, accept myself with all of my inherited abilities and handicaps. I accept those conditions within my environment which cannot be altered or which I cannot control. And after accepting these I go back to myself and see what I can do with myself’.” 

Accept your looks and limitations. Embrace your actual self.  

King admitted he once suffered in school when trying to emulate a classmate who was faster at statistics. He had to learn to “come down to the point of accepting myself and my dull tools and doing it the best that I could, and this is the thing that every individual must do.”

“A Ford trying to be a Cadillac is absurd. But if a Ford accepts itself, it can be just as durable as a Cadillac, and it can turn many curves that a Cadillac can’t even make, and park in many places that a Cadillac could never get in and can take off with a speed that a Cadillac can never take off with. And in life some people are Cadillacs, and other people are Fords. And when the Ford learns to accept itself as a Ford, it can do things that the Cadillac could never do.”

Accept what you can do, and do that well.

I have one bone of contention. While I’m impressed King refers to “modern psychological terms,” in all my years of experience I never heard the term “substitutionary compensation.”

But I certainly know about “sublimation” that he refers to. Sublimation is a defense mechanism whereby you transform an unacceptable urge into a socially acceptable action or behavior.

“You must learn that even though you are inadequate at certain points, you can take those inadequate points and transform them into something adequate. You can compensate, to use another modern psychological phrase, you can sublimate and take these inadequacies and somehow transform them into something meaningful and something constructive. So the young lady who is unattractive, who is homely, can develop a charm and an inner beauty and personality that all of the world will have to respect.”

Abraham Lincoln is his shining example of someone who was defeated so often in life (losing elections, business and a love) until he found his passionate cause – the abolition of slavery – and became President.

Conquering Self-Centeredness

Narcissism -- the extreme of self-centeredness as an obsession with self over others – is rampant in today’s world.  In his personality series, King names the causes and cures, and self-disclosure. 

“[Too many people] live a life of perpetual egotism. And they are the victims all around of the egocentric predicament. They start out, the minute you talk with them, talking about what they can do, what they have done. They’re the people who will tell you, before you talk with them five minutes, where they have been and who they know. They’re the people who can tell you in a few seconds, how many degrees they have and where they went to school and how much money they have.”

Egocentrics suffer from “arrested development,” and act like children, he says, naming his own daughter “who almost cries out, ‘I want what I want when I want it’.” 

Locked in their own “little solar system,” King critiqued, egotists seek endless admiration and attention, and do nothing.

He offers three solutions:

(1) “The best way to handle it is not to suppress the ego but to extend the ego into objectively meaningful channels…. discover some cause and some purpose, some loyalty outside of yourself and give yourself to that something.”   

Give yourself to something outside of yourself, like family, friends or a job. Find a great cause you can become absorbed in and give your life to.

You will always have an ego and basic desires, King admitted, and pointed to three famous psychoanalysts who identify the major basic desire of humans. For Freud, the basic desire is to be loved; for Jung, it is to be secure, and Alfred Adler said we all need to feel important and significant. King values doing something significant. 

Be like Florence Nightingale who nursed the wounded, he instructs.  Or Albert Schweitzer “who looks at men in dark Africa who have been the victims of colonialism and imperialism and there he gives his life to that.” Or Jesus.

(2) “An individual gets away from this type of self-centeredness when he pauses enough to see that no matter what he does in life, he does that because somebody helped him to do it…No matter where you stand, no matter how much popularity you have, no matter how much education you have, no matter how much money you have, you have it because somebody in this universe helped you to get it. And when you see that, you can’t be arrogant, you can’t be supercilious.”

For King, it’s personal. 

“One of the problems that I have to face and even fight every day is this problem of self-centeredness, this tendency that can so easily come to my life now that I’m something special, that I’m something important.”

“I can hardly walk the street in any city of this nation where I’m not confronted with people running up the street, “Isn’t this Reverend King of Alabama?” Living under this it’s easy, it’s a dangerous tendency that I will come to feel that I’m something special, that I stand somewhere in this universe because of my ingenuity and that I’m important, that I can walk around life with a type of arrogance because of an importance that I have. And one of the prayers that I pray to God everyday is: ‘O God, help me to see myself in my true perspective. Help me, O God, to see that I’m just a symbol of a movement. Help me to see that I’m the victim of what the Germans call a Zeitgeist and that something was getting ready to happen in history; history was ready for it. And that a boycott would have taken place in Montgomery, Alabama, if I had never come to Alabama. Help me to realize that I’m where I am because of the forces of history and because of the fifty thousand Negroes of Alabama who will never get their names in the papers and in the headline. O God, help me to see that where I stand today, I stand because others helped me to stand there and because the forces of history projected me there. And this moment would have come in history even if M. L. King had never been born.” 

Appreciate others for their help in your life, to help you get outside yourself.

(3) “Proper religious faith gives you this type of balance and this type of perspective that I’m talking about…on the one hand, it gives man a sense of belonging and on the other hand, it gives him a sense of dependence on something higher. So he realizes that there is something beyond in which he lives and moves and even moves and gains his being.”

Arrogance is dampened to humility, said King, when you realize that “You are what you are because of the grace of the Almighty God.”

This is King’s way to the integrated personality.

Overcoming Depression 

“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Depression affects 300 million people around the world, according to the World Health Organization. While feeling low occasionally, especially in relation to real stresses in life, is normal, when sadness affects your relationships and work for weeks, it’s time to get help.   

It might be shocking to you to know that the brilliant orator and seemingly fearless leader suffered from depression. Distraught over his adored grandmother’s death, a 12-year old King even allegedly tried to end his life by jumping out of a second-story window. In later years, he has also been considered depressed – or rather deeply frustrated and burdened – about injustice, violence, poverty, and inequities. 

As debilitating or long-lasting as depression may feel, light and joy can still be yours. 

King knew this when he said in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered on April 3, 1968 at the Church of God in Christ Headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, that out of darkness comes light.

Wise lessons about solving personal problems from King, the Prophet of Peace, Justice and Human Rights. Getting your own house in order, so to speak – being as healthy as you can – fits with my philosophy that peace within leads to peace between people in relationship and then expands to peace on a broader scale among communities, societies and peoples.

 

BIO: Dr. Judy Kuriansky is a noted international clinical psychologist on the faculty of Columbia University Teachers College. At the United Nations, she is a main NGO representative of the International Association of Applied Psychology  and the World Council for Psychotherapy, and advisor to the Group of Friends of Mental Health and Well-being of UN Member States, led by Canada, Belgium and Bahrain, who partnered with  the Ambassador of Palau to the UN, Dr. Caleb Otto in the successful intergovernmental campaign to include mental health and well-being in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She moderates and speaks at many UN events, e.g., for Commissions on the Status of Women and the Commission for Social Development, the World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, and WHO World Health Day, and is a member of the Committee on Migration and others. A trustee of the United African Congress and board member of Voices of African Mothers, she has hosted a U.S.-Africa Business Expo and the First Ladies of Africa Health Summit;spoken at the Africa Diaspora Investment Forum in September 2018; co-developed a Girls Empowerment Camp in Lesotho; and provided psychosocial support in missions worldwide, including in Sierra Leone during and after Ebola, in China during SARS as well as in China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Iran, and Sint Maarten after natural disasters, and for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Her Global Kids Connect Project and Stand Up for Peace Project does trainings, symposia, and concerts worldwide. An award-winning journalist, reporter and producer on TV, radio, print and the internet, she has been a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times, the South China Morning Post and New York Newsday; hosted a top-rated radio advice show; and hosted the "Money and Emotions" television show on CNBC-TV. Her many awards include the Humanitarian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Global Peace and Tolerance. 

Books:

“The Psychosocial Issues of a Deadly Epidemic: What Ebola has Taught us about Holistic Healing”

“Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians”

“The Complete Idiots Guide to A Healthy Relationsip”

“Ecospychology: The Intersection of Psychology and Enviromnetal Protection “

 

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