We’re often the dupes of our defenses which render us blind to our emotional life and mislead us about the sources of our suffering. For starters, we don’t see that common varieties of suffering are both symptoms of mysterious dynamics unfolding in our psyche as well as defenses covering up our participation in our suffering.
To understand this, take a look at the following painful experiences (List 1) and see if you can tell what they have in common:
Anger and rage; sadness, grief, depression; worry, anxiety, guilt, and fear; envy, jealousy, and loneliness; resentment, humiliation, and shame.
These painful experiences are all symptoms and defenses of deeper dynamics in our psyche. Our ability to avoid these unpleasant states is hampered when we fail to understand the deeper processes that instigate these forms of suffering.
What are we defending against? Deeper down, we remain entangled in unresolved negative emotions first experienced in childhood. Through psychological defenses, we cover up our willingness to remain entwined in these painful emotions. The emotions (List 2) include the sense of being:
Deprived, refused; helpless, controlled, and dominated; criticized, rejected, and abandoned; unloved, seen as unworthy.
Image yourself as a child and read over again these emotions in List 2. As you do so, you’re apt to recognize painful memories associated with them. As adults, these negative emotions continue to trigger us because they remain unresolved in our psyche.
In fact, we make unconscious choices to continue to replay and recycle these painful emotions in List 2. The emotions are still part of our identity. We haven’t yet broken free from them. It’s as if we know and recognize ourselves through them.
I know, it defies common sense that we would be willing to replay and recycle painful emotions. Who in their right mind would want to suffer like this? What can I tell you? This is how it is. Our emotional side has a logic all its own. It doesn’t listen to common sense.
When these core emotions (List 2) are triggered by everyday situations, we often suffer more from the symptoms (List 1). Remarkably, the symptoms also serve as psychological defenses. That’s right, we use one form of suffering (List 1) as a defense to cover up our deeper suffering (List 2). We’re always erecting defenses without even knowing it. Any one of the symptoms listed above can serve as a defense. Take jealousy, for example. The chronically jealous person is likely emotionally attached to feeling rejected, abandoned, or unworthy. His jealousy, when used as a defense, makes this unconscious claim: “I’m not looking for the feeling of rejection (or being abandoned or unworthy). Look at how jealous I am! That proves how much I hate feeling rejected (or abandoned or unworthy).”
All it proves, though, is that this person is being fooled by his defense. Seeing through our defenses is a vitally important step in overcoming the influence of the primary negative emotions (List 2), freeing ourselves from the resulting suffering (List 1), and keeping evolution on track (rising consciousness helps humanity safely navigate the world’s troubled waters).
Let’s look at an example. George is angry at his friend Jack. The previous evening Jack had invited him to join a group of friends going to a ball game and said he would pick him up. But Jack never showed up. George is deeply hurt and offended, and he believes his anger at Jack is justified. True, George is entitled to be angry. But if he holds on to the anger and allows it to fester, he may be indulging unconsciously in feelings of being rejected and unworthy. At that point, George’s real pain (beneath his anger) comes from within his psyche, specifically from his emotional entanglement in feeling rejected and unworthy. He has personalized Jack’s behavior and taken it as a measure of his own value. George now uses his anger at Jack to cover up his readiness to plunge into his own unresolved negative emotions (feeling rejected or seen as unworthy—or even abandoned) from List 2. In his anger, George decides to “unfriend” Jack. Yet he might have been wiser to talk to Jack about what happened, with the intention of trying to save the friendship.
A few days later, George is angry at Judy, a coworker. But now George’s anger can be traced to a different emotion in List 2. Judy made comments at an office meeting that George interpreted as criticism of him. George is sensitive to feeling criticized. In fact, he sometimes chooses unconsciously to feel criticized by misinterpreting comments as if criticism were intended.
George uses his anger as a psychological defense that prevents him from being aware of his unconscious willingness to indulge in negative emotions from List 2. In the encounter with Judy, he gets triggered by criticism which is an unresolved hurt (and therefore an attachment or emotional addiction) from his past. Because the hurt is unresolved, George is tempted to feel criticized when opportunities arise for him to adopt that emotional interpretation. To protect his ego and self-image, however, he refuses to look deeply enough into himself (or his psyche) to see that he is the one who is choosing unconsciously to feel criticized.
George holds a grudge against Judy and tosses his friend Jack overboard rather than acknowledge how he produces his anger as a cover-up for his willingness to indulge in negative emotions from List 2. (In cases of divorce, husbands and wives are typically tossing each other overboard rather than acknowledging and addressing their own contributions to the disharmony.) So George is using his anger as a defense: “I don’t want to feel criticized—Look how angry I get at Judy when she does that to me!” The anger allows him to blame others while covering up his determination to hold on his emotional attachment to criticism.
It may appear that George, in getting angry over two days at two different people for two different reasons, is an exceptionally unhealthy guy. Yet the neurotic behavior he exhibits is no worse than what is acted out by a large percentage of the world’s population.
Sometimes people get angry at themselves, but even then they are likely to be using anger as a defense. Adele is absorbing criticism from her inner critic for making a careless mistake on an important project, and she starts to feel angry at herself. In this process, her unconscious defense claims, “I’m not willing to absorb the negative aggression coming at me from my inner critic for this mistake. Look, I’m mad at myself for getting this wrong. The mistake was very costly. I deserve to be punished for screwing up so badly.” Now, the more Adele punishes herself the more she can claim she is not willing to feel criticized but, rather, is deserving of being criticized. Many people do, over time, become clinically depressed because they allow their inner critic to go on passing negative judgments on their performance in everyday matters.
People unwittingly employ thousands of different tricks and defensive maneuvers to cover up their willingness to cozy up to the unresolved negative emotions from List 2. Over time, as we observe ourselves with this understanding, we can break free of these emotional attachments that linger from our past.