The best depth psychology is so potent that we instinctively become resistant to assimilating the knowledge. The insight upsets our sense of who we are, and we feel inner resistance because we don’t like, at least initially, that feeling of vulnerability and unsteadiness.
This inner resistance is mostly unconscious, yet we can learn to keep it in sight and thereby diminish its power to sabotage us. The resistance has many guises, including defensiveness, denial, and stubbornness. Resistance can also be expressed in the form of mocking or cynical words and thoughts, or as a whinny, sarcastic inner voice.
Sometimes resistance employs humor and wit, along with mockery and sarcasm, to reduce to absurdity the inner reality uncovered by depth psychology. I illustrate this here with a teaching story. Inner resistance is personified in this story as a sassy, skeptical black sheep. For entertainment value, this black sheep is a lively character who injects comic relief into an otherwise serious subject. The story begins:
A young shepherd, who’s taking night classes to become a psychotherapist, approaches his flock to deliver his daily lecture on the secrets of happiness. Accompanied by his sheepdog, he often talks directly to his one black sheep, the wittiest member of the flock. The shepherd, who can be a bit preachy, begins his talk, while the black sheep bleats annoyingly at the dog.
Shepherd – Good morning, dear sheep. Did you all sleep well? I hope your resistance didn’t fleece you—ha, ha—of all the wisdom I imparted yesterday. I’m going to treat you once again to some lovely insights. Let me start by saying that when we’re unhappy, we’re usually making unconscious choices that produce our unhappiness.
Black Sheep – When I’m unhappy, it’s never my fault. The only choice I make is who to blame.
Shepherd – No one’s to blame for the state of human nature. It’s nobody’s fault that, unconsciously, we participate in our suffering. As we look deeper, we can begin to see that unhappiness arises through inner choices we’re making. Without realizing what we’re doing, we chose to embellish feelings of being deprived or refused—or helpless, criticized, rejected, betrayed, or abandoned. These negative emotions, unresolved from our past experiences, have a bittersweet appeal. We don’t quite know who we are without this old, familiar hurt and pain.
Black Sheep – Your dog’s yaps make more sense than you. I know who I am, and it’s not that black!
Shepherd – I’m sorry this is difficult for you. As I’ve said before, I need to practice this presentation for my coming oral exams.
Black Sheep – I hope your examiners are a herd of yaks. They’ll know yacking when they hear it.
Shepherd – Now, be nice. You see how tempted you are go negative. Negative emotions are unresolved from our past. Unwittingly, we snuggle up to them. We recreate and recycle these familiar, painful feelings in our everyday life.
Black Sheep – Wrong! That doesn’t ring true for me (shakes head, ringing neck bell for emphasis). I would know all about that if it were true.
Shepherd – No, you wouldn’t! We’re highly resistant to seeing our emotional attachments and our participation in suffering. Fooling ourselves comes naturally. We’re always erecting psychological defenses. For instance, we convince ourselves that others are to blame for our unhappiness. We might say to ourselves: “My shepherd’s words are causing me to feel angry (or annoyed, offended, depressed, etc., etc.).
Black Sheep – Yes, your words do have that effect on me. Not so much angry or annoyed, though, as a ringing noise in my ears.
Shepherd – That’s your resistance. We’re very much resistant to hearing about our emotional attachments to painful memories and old hurts. While we very much dislike our suffering on a conscious level, we can unconsciously be emotionally attached to it. We’re actually compelled to experience unresolved negative emotions that produce suffering. Vast numbers of people have these emotional attachments, and the problem goes largely untreated because it’s not well understood.
Black Sheep – What I’m attached to is my warm black coat. You’re trying to strip away my emotional security blanket.
Shepherd – I’m trying to shear away your resistance. All of us are very reluctant to recognize our bittersweet affinity for negative emotions. Inner mischief is going on: We’re willing unconsciously to use the antics or even the innocent actions of others to trigger unresolved negative emotions within ourselves. As we understand this, we can take responsibility for this negative emotions. We can respond in a healthy way rather than react negatively.
Black Sheep – Can you can get your dog to react less negatively? He’s been hearing you say this for weeks, and he’s as snappish as ever.
Shepherd – People cling desperately to the illusion that they know at least one thing: themselves. We aren’t aware of how reluctant we are to see the role we play in our suffering. Sometimes, instead of recognizing that the source of our problems arises in our psyche, we blame our problems on others or on conditions and circumstances in our life. We might say to ourselves, for instance, “I would be happy if only I was better looking and had a great body and personality.” Or we think, “Work is too hard, and I don’t get paid enough.”
Black Sheep – Yes! That’s exactly what I tell myself. All I ever get is grass and clover, and I have to cut it myself. You’ve been fleecing me far too long!
Shepherd – With inner conflict, the rules of common sense don’t apply. In our psyche, irrationality trumps common sense. For instance, sometimes we blame ourselves for our unhappiness—but for the wrong reasons. Someone might say, for instance, “The problem is I’m too lazy,” or, “I’m just an angry person—that’s the problem!” True, it is a problem—yet it’s not the deeper problem. The laziness and anger are just surface symptoms of deeper issues.
Black Sheep – Grass tastes just fine from the ground up. I don’t have to get down to the roots, which taste awful, though you, sheep-eater, wouldn’t know that, would you!
Shepherd – Life would taste much better if only you would digest those roots. When we go deeper, we uncover our attachment to negative emotions. For instance, if you’re convinced you’re unhappy because you’re not attractive enough, you’re likely, deep in your psyche, emotionally attached to feeling that you have no value. You likely have a history of feeling unworthy going back to your childhood. Your problem is not with, say, your alleged lack of physical attractiveness but with your determination to experience yourself as lacking in value. You will feel this way in your relationships with others and in your relationship with yourself.
Black Sheep – Okay, granted, once in a while I feel a little unworthy. Your dog there treats me like a nobody. Get him to show me more respect.
Shepherd – I’ll talk to him. Meanwhile, try to understand that people, or sheep in your case, who are attached to feeling unworthy (or to any other attachment) can overcome that deep sense of unworthiness with good insight. This insight grows from your persistent effort to connect that feeling of unworthiness with your growing realization that it’s due to an emotional attachment, not to any ultimate truth about who you are. Unfortunately, people often jump right in to indulge in the attachment. The attachment becomes the limited, painful sense of self.
Black Sheep – I feel an urge to jump, jump, jump way over there where I can’t hear you.
Shepherd – We also want to see through our defenses, which we use to cover up our deep resonance with these negative emotions. People aren’t likely to be aware of their emotional attachments, which can include a compulsion to feel unloved. These emotional attachments are like cravings for negativity. Our defenses cover up our willingness to indulge in various forms of negativity. We use defenses such as blame, cynicism, and bitterness to feel victimized by others, rather than seeing our own role in inducing our pain.
Black Sheep – I get a little moody now and then, no big deal. I also get cravings, usually for crab grass, and my compulsion to chew acts up, too. Look, I’m just a wooly mammal, a black sheep, that’s just who I am.
Shepherd – We’ll become extinct like woolly mammoths if we’re too resistant to inner growth. We have the power right now to overcome limitations imposed by our unresolved issues, and the first step is to acquire insight into the source of the problem: our underlying attachment to unresolved negative emotions.
Black Sheep – Insight, insight! Look (fluttering eyes), my eyes are here on the surface of my head, not in the center of my brain.
Shepherd – Sheep have especially thick skulls that are highly resistant to depth psychology. Feeling unworthy, as mentioned, is just one of the several negative emotions to which we can be attached. We can also be attached to (or determined to experience ourselves through) feelings of criticism and disappointment. Your parents might have regarded you in this negative way, seeing as how you’re a black sheep and all. Or maybe they just felt like lesser creatures in themselves, and you picked up those feelings from them. Keep in mind, though, that many of us who had good parents can still be plagued by feelings of unworthiness.
Black Sheep – True, my parents did feel inferior to cows. But isn’t the past all dead and buried in my psyche, with a tombstone that reads, “What happens down here stays down here”?
Shepherd – Suppressed issues and denied attachments are like hungry wolves that sneak up and devour us. By the way, people who are quick to criticize others are likely to be especially sensitive to feeling criticized by others. Such people have an emotional attachment to criticism, which means they’re their own worst critic. It’s ironic that we get angry at someone who has been critical of us when we’re the first in line to be critical of ourselves. It’s through our inner passivity, by the way, that we enable our inner critic to harass and demean us.
Black Sheep – The big critic around here is your mean dog. His growling doesn’t help my self-esteem. Why don’t you preach to him?
Shepherd – My communication skills are enhanced when I’m able to get through to dumber animals.
Black Sheep – You’ll get lots of practice with your own kind.
Shepherd – We can all get upset or angry at others to cover up our attachment to feeling criticized. Our anger serves to blame that person for our bad feelings, but all the while we’re failing to recognize our affinity for (or attachment to) criticism and self-criticism. Seeing our attachments is very humbling to our ego—and so we resist acquiring this deeper knowledge.
Black Sheep – My ego, as egos go, is surprisingly humble. It doesn’t slap me down like this depth psychology tries to do.
Shepherd – Our unconscious ego is the producer of our psychological defenses. It slaps you down by denying you access to inner truth. It enables you to fool yourself into believing that emotional attachments and accompanying inner conflict don’t exist.
Black Sheep – If once in a while I fool myself, that seems like a good way to do it.
Shepherd – It is a good way—if you want your resistance, denial, and defenses to triumph. Our suffering can become a distant memory when we get down to the roots of how our psyche works.
Black Sheep – Look, for sheep it’s either black or white. We’re usually pretty serene. We live on grass and water, and we let roots dig their own grave.
Shepherd – You’re right, of course! Sorry I’m being so hard on you. It’s mostly people I need to reach. They tend to be instinctively defensive and resistant at first. Yet humans, after braving the initial shock of depth psychology’s revelations, are often eager to discover inner truth.
Black Sheep – Yes, this humble sheep hopes those dumb creatures smarten up and shine more light upon their inner darkness.