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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

How to Overcome Psychological Barriers

1. We humans are extraordinarily and painfully vulnerable creatures. Especially in our early years, we are at huge danger of being psychologically damaged by those around us. Damage is in one way or another always caused by a shortfall of tenderness and care. As we might put it, it’s caused by a shortfall of love.

Examples of shortfalls of love are very varied: perhaps at an early point someone went missing or someone died, someone was cruel or someone misunderstood. 

As a result of this deficit – inevitably and without exception – some kind of wound was sustained.

Detail from a picture of Christ displaying his wounds.
Giovanni Antonio Galli, Detail from Christ Displaying His Wounds, c. 1630

2. We are psychologically very ingenious creatures. In the face of any wound, we develop an array of very clever defence mechanisms. The purpose of defence mechanisms is to protect us against further damage, to help us to get through to the next stage of existence; to keep us going; in extremis, to save our lives.

For example:

3. The problem with our defence mechanisms is that they always exact a price. While they protected us very well at a certain age, the more time passes, the more they become unsuited to the conditions that we face in the here and now. What were once ingenious adaptations to a hostile environment become – over the years – the causes of behaviours that limit our chances and ruin things for us. 

For example, to return to the above table but with a new column on the right:

4. It’s in the nature of how our minds work that we generally can’t see the connection between how our defence mechanisms operate in the here and now – and the wounds we sustained in the past. These defence mechanisms give us what we call symptoms.

We have a tendency to just accept these symptoms, even if they’re very painful. Often we don’t even notice them:

— We accept that we’re not so good at love

— We accept that we’re quite lonely

— We don’t notice that we’re manically cheerful

— We don’t notice how much we’re underperforming

5. In order to heal ourselves from our symptoms (and the emotional wounds that lie beneath them), we have to learn to understand ourselves better. Our happiness relies on becoming more self-aware. The more we can work at understanding ourselves, the healthier, freer and more creative we can be.

How then can we unpick the legacy of emotional wounds? 

Self-understanding is a seven stage process.

FIRST: We need to learn to identify our symptoms. For this we need to grow more ambitious about who we want to become in the future; we need to scan the present and wonder how things could be improved. We should ask:

— What would I like to get rid of in myself?

— What fruitless habits, compulsions or areas of stuckness would I like to overcome?

— What is more painful than it needs to be?

— What patterns of difficulty can I notice, once I look carefully?

SECOND: We need to identify our defence mechanisms. These can be very hard to spot but it helps to consider a list of what some very common defence mechanisms – to see if they ring any bells. We might never have thought of these things as defence mechanisms, but we may nevertheless feel a moment of recognition when we hear of the following:

THIRD: We are used to thinking of defence mechanisms in rather negative terms. They are typically framed in problematic ways, like illnesses that have no rationale. They do cause us difficulties but to think of them negatively doesn’t allow us to understand that they actually have a logic and its only on the basis of understanding their logic that we can overcome them. So long as we continue to see them as meaningless freakish aberrations, we will never rid ourselves of them.

We must therefore learn to look at defence mechanisms as highly ingenious, very clever strategies that once would have done a very good job at keeping us safe. 

We need to look for the upside of whatever defence mechanism we recognise in ourselves. We should ask: what was this defence mechanism clever at doing for us? How did it help us? How was it – in its way – very wise and admirable?

FOURTH: Next we need to reconstruct why a defence mechanism was necessary in our life. What was it about our past that would have made it necessary to have our specific defensive strategy in place? What wounds did we sustain? What happened in the past to make life difficult?

We might not be used to thinking in this way. The past may be a long way back now. But we need to proceed like archaeologists who try to reconstruct, from the fragments in the here and now, some of the circumstances of a bygone era. Let’s add another column and try to fill it in as best as we can.

FIFTH: Now we should do something very unfamiliar: we should congratulate ourselves on having been rather clever with our defence mechanisms. Far from being some silly neurotic feature of our lives, defence mechanisms have been an ingenious way of keeping us away from devastation. Let’s take a moment to feel proud of our smart minds for devising a means of carrying us past danger onto the next stage of life. Let’s feel compassion and admiration for our defensive strategies.

SIXTH: However, having given ourselves all due congratulations, we then need to do something else: realise that our defence mechanisms are in fact past their sell-by date. They were once undoubtedly pretty clever, we can feel grateful to them, but now they don’t serve any purpose any more, now they make life worse than it needs to be. In the circumstances of the present, they aren’t required. We can afford to say goodbye to them. Indeed we must do so!

Let’s add another column to make it clear to ourselves how we are losing out because of a defence mechanism:

SEVENTH: Now that we have the following – a defence mechanism in view, its logic and its punishing price – we are in an excellent position to carry out the next step: deciding to say goodbye to the defence mechanism. Very gently, we can let our minds know that the mechanism that once kept us safe can be let go of. We can be safe in other ways; indeed, our future flourishing depends on us surrendering our hold on our former defence.

— Once it made sense to be numb, now it no longer does.

— Once it made sense to be totally independent, now it no longer does.

— Once we had to be sad and fearful, now we can be hopeful and free…

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