Professional help can certainly speed up the process of overcoming painful difficulties with career, relationships, and daily living. However, most therapists will not address your deeper conflicts, defenses, and attachments. It grieves me to say it, but many therapists only succeed in comforting you in your pain. They don’t help you to vanquish it.
Many people can, on their own, make inner progress with the method and knowledge that I describe in my books and at this website. People acquire knowledge by studying the material and learning how it applies to them directly. In the discussion here, I offer the essentials of how this can be done. (The previous post—“Does Inner Growth Require Practical Steps?”—also covers this topic.)
I’ve written earlier about this essential knowledge, and it bears repeating in this new context. Two distinct levels of negative emotions need to be recognized. One level consists of the symptoms. These symptoms are the result of inner conflict that’s occurring at a deeper level in our psyche. The symptoms tend to be more conscious, while the deeper level of emotions is mostly unconscious. The challenge is to go deeper and become more conscious of the source of the symptoms. This is how the problems can be fixed once and for all.
Let’s start by listing some of these symptoms. They consist of negative emotions as well as self-defeating behaviors.
They include anger, worry, anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, self-pity, boredom, insomnia, cynicism, addictive behaviors, chronic patterns of failure, feelings of being overwhelmed and trapped, psychosomatic ills, and so on (list 1).
The source of these symptoms, as mentioned, resides at a deeper level in our psyche. These are unresolved negative emotions, and they include feelings of being deprived, refused, controlled, rendered helpless, criticized, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and unloved (list 2).
At this deeper level, the negative emotions of list 2 remain unresolved from our childhood biology and experiences. We tend, unconsciously, to hold on to these emotions, in part because we aren’t recognizing our attachment to them. We’re not seeing how identified we still are with those old painful ways of experiencing ourselves. Unconsciously, we’re determined to recycle and replay these negative emotions in situations that develop in our present life.
Look closely at list 2. You’ll see that these emotions are common to toddlers and young children. Even when we have good and decent parents, we can, in part, experience the world around us through these emotions because our childish interpretation of what’s occurring is so self-centered and subjective. As we age, these emotions can become addictive. In other words, we’re unconsciously determined to continue to experience them.
If emotional and behavioral problems weigh you down, you likely remain entangled in (or attached to) these deeper negative emotions. You need to determine which of them reside in your psyche. A typical person is attached to three or four of the negative emotions in list 2. Usually, one or two of these will be more problematic. I believe that two of these—feelings of being helpless and being controlled—are universally the most problematic. Throughout this book I have described these attachments as inner passivity. However, the other attachments in list 2 also have elements of inner passivity. For instance, the attachment to feeling rejected also incorporates a feeling of being unworthy and lacking in value, which are symptoms of inner passivity. The attachment to feeling betrayed, as another example, incorporates a feeling of being isolated and victimized, which are symptoms of inner passivity.
Life is often a struggle between negative and positive experiences. In our psyche, this struggle is reflected in our tendency, even willingness, to continue to recycle and replay those negative emotions (list 2) that remain unresolved from childhood. We use a variety of psychological defenses (unconscious expressions of our refusal to recognize inner truth) to cover up our readiness to feel these old attachments in various new contexts.
Anger is one of the most common defenses. As an example, someone who is attached to feeling rejected, criticized, or controlled is easily triggered, and he or she might get angry at the person who’s doing (or who appears to be doing) the rejecting, criticizing, or controlling. The unconscious defense contends: “I’m not looking for the feeling of rejection (or criticism or control). Look at how angry I get at him for rejecting (or criticizing or controlling) me.” Self-pity also serves as a defense: “I’m not looking for rejection (or criticism or control). Look at how bad I feel, how much it hurts, when I am rejected (criticized or controlled).” Notice in these two examples how the painful symptoms (from list 1) are also simultaneously being employed unconsciously as defenses.
There are hundreds of ways we use defenses to cover up inner truth. You have to expose your defenses if you want to make progress in this method of depth psychology. It’s a tricky business doing so when you don’t have a skilled therapist to assist you. If you keep studying yourself in this light, however, the insights should eventually come to you. (Meanwhile, I would be pleased to train as many therapists as possible in this method.)
Here’s a procedure whereby you can identify and work through an emotional attachment, and thereby resolve an inner conflict.
1 – Describe a situation in which you became upset. Did you feel that someone refused you, or tried to control you, or criticized you? Get beneath your surface reaction such as anger or self-pity (or other symptoms in list 1). Recognize that you’re reacting to a deeper emotion. It will be one of the negative emotions in list 2.
2 – Let’s say you suspect that you’re reacting to the feeling of being criticized. Produce memories from your past in which you felt criticized. Was your mother or father critical? Did they appear to be inwardly critical of themselves? Did they disapprove of you? Did you feel you were a disappointment to them?
3 – Where else in your life have you experienced feelings of being criticized? Did it happen in your relationships? Think about, or write down, the different ways you have felt hurt by the criticism (or what you took for criticism) of others.
4 – Ask yourself: “Am I a critical person?” “Do others experience me as being critical?” “Am I critical of myself?” The more we’re sensitive to feeling criticized, the more likely we’re self-critical as well as critical of others. Whenever you’re having painful, critical feelings toward others or yourself, recognize that your impulse to be critical comes from how you resonate with criticism (are attached to the feeling of it), whether you’re on the receiving end of it or whether you’re dishing it out.
5 – Look closely at your past relationships. Have you had a tendency to become involved with critical people? Have you felt hurt and passive when criticized, or have you lashed out in a tit-for-tat manner with criticism of your own? Have there been times when you might have provoked others, through careless mistakes or insensitive oversight, to be critical of you? Did they experience you being critical of them?
6 – Are you something of a perfectionist? This would mean that you try desperately to do things perfectly, likely out of fear of being criticized by others or by your inner critic. We usually have some fear of feeling whatever we’re attached to. The fear serves as a defense: “I’m not looking to feel criticized. Look at how perfectly I try to do things. Look at how much I try to avoid being criticized, and how fearful I am that it might happen.”
If you have an attachment to criticism, this procedure will help you to identify it. (This procedure can be used to help us to detect in ourselves any one of the other deeper negative emotions in list 2 to which we can become attached.) It’s so helpful to recognize our attachments, because then we can begin to untangle ourselves from them.
7 – Now when you start to feel some form of distress, anger, or anxiety, go looking in your mind (or knowledge base) for an explanation. Try to see which of the negative emotions from list 2 you’re reacting to. Once you recognize the negative emotion, you expose the fact that you were making a choice (albeit an unconscious one) to slip into an experience of that emotion. This is important—you need to take “ownership” of the fact that, unwittingly, you are choosing to gravitate toward that negative emotion. You know from past experiences how painful it is to do that. Your intelligence and good intentions, along with recognition of your attachment to the negative emotion, will now be able to help you “back out” of that negative experience. Now that you recognize exactly where you were going emotionally, you can say, “No thanks, I’m not going there.”
It might be helpful, at this point, to ask yourself, “Do I have the power to possess this knowledge? Or do I feel it’s beyond my grasp?” If in doubt, you might be grappling with inner passivity. Many of my discussions in this book deal with the subject of inner passivity, and rereading sections of the book can help you to ease your way out of this attachment.
Our tendency to drift into the negative side can happen very subtly. We can be drawn into a painful experience without seeing how it’s happening. One client kept expressing his sense of hopelessness about ever being able to establish a healthy relationship. Right in that moment, as he felt that hopelessness, he was making an unconscious choice to feel passive and helpless. Up until that moment, he had believed that his sense of hopelessness was a rational assessment of his dire prospects. Suddenly flooded with insight, he saw that his feelings of hopelessness were a result of his choice, in that moment, to experience himself through the sense that he didn’t have what it takes to make himself happy and fulfilled. In that moment, he saw his emotional addiction to inner passivity. This was a vital step in his process of liberating himself from it.
Another client, a business executive in a high-paying position, kept ruminating painfully on whether he should be involved in “a more dynamic business” where he would presumably fulfill his dreams and aspirations. His unconscious intention was not to clearly see his way forward but to remain stuck in confusion, self-doubt, and disappointment in himself. He was emotionally attached to this weak sense of himself, and he would not likely have become aware of this attachment without the therapy that he did with me.
Many people can achieve this kind of insight without personal therapy, but they really have to want to uncover inner truth.