This is the second part of a series of posts which intend to help you seeing through life’s illusions. These posts are based on the work of the Dutch psychologist Ingeborg Bosch, who has developed the Past Reality Integration (PRI) Therapy which I personally find highly effective. In order to see through the illusion, you first have to start by understanding and recognizing your defense mechanisms which I described in the last post. I’d recommend reading that post first, in order to understand this one.
This post will deal with how we can actually heal the old wound in order to be free. I hope it’s clear by now that the main objective of our defense mechanisms has been to protect us from feeling the old wound. At the same time this protection is the reason the old wound has continued causing us pain in the form of emotional suffering, confusion and desperation. Therefore, the path to healing requires us to feel the old pain again. But we can only feel this old pain, if we can reverse our defense mechanisms. We first have to break off the wall that has protected this wound for so many years.
Therefore, you’ll have to have a closer look at your past experiences and especially your past pains. You might wonder: “Do I really need to dig in those old childhood wounds? Shouldn’t I let the past rest and focus on the Here and Now?” I’d agree with letting the past be the past, if you don’t experience your past in your present anymore. Unfortunately, virtually everyone is still plagued by the past subconsciously, hindering them from having a peaceful life in the present. So, if you find yourself being “steered” by some subconscious power, feeling that your mind and heart are not in sync, then there is no way you can continue avoiding those old childhood wounds.
As I mentioned, you first have to understand your defense mechanism, afterwards you can start searching for the roots of your defense: what’s the truth you’ve been trying to hide? Since this truth is still hidden in our subconscious mind, we really need to sit with our defenses and watch them carefully. Unfortunately, it can be really tricky to uncover this truth, as we sometimes don’t even realize that we seem to mix up our past realities with our present reality. Using our defense mechanisms has become such an ingrained way of reacting, without a little bit of awareness it almost feels natural to behave the way we behave.
This is normal, as our way of reacting has to be automatic. Our reactions are part of our survival instinct, which doesn’t leave us with much time to ponder the situation at hand. We are remote controlled by our amygdala which is responsible for our survival and who sends alarm signals as soon as it detects a possible threat. The amygdala does not remember narratives, but only emotions which means that even the slightest event that resembles the threatening emotion from the past, can trigger the defense mechanism in the present. In order to ensure our survival, it sends these alarms rather quickly, overruling other systems at work and leaving you little time to respond differently, unless you are really conscious. Being more conscious of the truth and seeing through your illusion, will enable you to save current events as “safe” or “harmless” in your amygdala, freeing you from uncontrollable responses from your childhood.
Obviously, it’s not easy to cut through these automatic responses, but fortunately Ingeborg Bosch offers us some handles how to get to the core of the wound. For each defense mechanism she offers a different approach which I have summarized into one general (and rather simplified) approach in this post. So, if you’re interested in a more specific and detailed approach of how to deal with a defense mechanism, I can recommend you the book. The very first step I have already discussed in the past post which is to understand and recognize your defense mechanism. From there you can move to the next steps which I describe in this post.
Recognize the Symbol
After you’ve realized that you’re falling into the arms of a defense mechanism, it’s important to understand the moment that it happened. We need to get aware of the thing that triggers us, which Ingeborg Bosch calls a “symbol”. A symbol can be anything (an event, a person, an object etc.), that makes us subconsciously think of our repressed memory. It’s the symbol that catapults us back into our “childlike state” and therefore activates our defense mechanism.
Whenever you feel triggered, it’s important to realize what’s going on, to know that you’ve just been triggered by a symbol and that your defense mechanism is active. An easy way to find out whether your defense mechanism is active or not is by asking yourself: “Am I in real danger right now? How big is the risk of not acting on this threat right now?” Even when you’re freaking out in an airplane, you’re not in acute danger at that point, which is why fear of flying categorizes as a defense mechanism. How come most other people can just enjoy the flight if they were in acute danger? We need to realize that the pain or discomfort we’re experiencing right now is not a threat to our current situation but reflects an emotion from the past.
Merely to recognize this first step requires quite a great deal of consciousness. Remember that we’ve been using these defense mechanisms for almost our entire lives. Throughout the years, we’ve identified with our ways of reacting, thinking that they are part of “what people do” or thinking it’s part of our character. If you find it difficult to take a step back from yourself and observe your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, I can highly recommend starting with meditation and mindfulness practices in order to create a healthy distance from yourself.
Reverse Your Defense Mechanism
Once we realize that our symbol is nothing more than an illusion, we can also let go of wanting to act on our defense mechanisms. As I mentioned, we can’t continue using our defense mechanisms and get to the core of the old pain at the same time. The defense mechanism is what protects the old wound we want to uncover. Obviously, this is not going to be easy, as these mechanisms have helped you survive and you subconsciously still believe they will help you survive! The mechanisms give you a feeling of protection and control, how could you let go of that? Well, you need to realize that unless you’re really in a threatening circumstance (don’t suppress your impulse to defend yourself when you’re about to be attacked by a lion!), there is no need you couldn’t live without.
Let’s take the example of love and affection, which is a huge unfulfilled need for all of us. As much as children really need it in order to survive, we adults can survive without it. Our life expectancy might drop a couple of years, but it’s not going to be the cause of our death. So, even if you think you really need someone’s love, get clear on the fact that you don‘t and therefore you don’t need to defend yourself to get this need met. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be having the need of love and affection (which would be the “denial of needs”), but you need to get clear that your survival is not at risk if you don’t receive it. This will take away the urgency which we perceive with our child-consciousness and therefore will prevent us from making knee jerk reactions. Once you can see your need from the perspective of an adult, you’ll be able to act from a place of calm and centredness which will actually enhance the chances of getting your need met. So, how do these reversals look like? In the case of fear, primary defense and denial of needs, this will mostly mean doing exactly the thing you’d rather not want to do or you’re suppressing. Face your fear; realize that your feelings of inferiority are an illusion and don’t let those feelings guide you; and acknowledge your needs and preferences. In the case of false hope and false power, this will mean to refrain from acting or intending to control anything. In other words, stop doing anything that you hope will bring you relief and refrain from showing your irritability or anger. Let go of any illusion of control. Use your energy to sit back and continue observing yourself.
Dismantle the Trigger
Instead of acting on your defense mechanisms it’s time to dig a little bit deeper into the meaning of the symbol you’ve identified. What could this symbol mean to you? What is it that makes this symbol so unbearable? What is the underlying need that we feel is unfulfilled? Each defense mechanism requires a different approach which I’ll briefly describe.
Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen? Imagine this worst case scenario to actually happen.
Get clear of the moment the symbol “hit” you. What is it exactly that elicited your feelings of inferiority? What was the situation exactly that made you feel this way? Which words were uttered? Did someone make a specific gesture? What is it that hurts you? What is it you feel you need most in that moment?
What is it I hope to achieve by acting on my false hope? What am I afraid would happen if I didn’t act on it? After you’ve come clear on what it is your subconsciousness is willing to run after relentlessly, imagine yourself to never ever achieve this goal.
What is it that disturbs you most about someone else’s behaviour? Make sure to answer this question with your heart and not with your ratio. If, for example, you’re irritated because your partner did not do his household chores, your ratio will tell you you’re annoyed because he is not keeping his promise. But your heart will tell you a different story. Probably you’re hurt because you feel that he’s not paying attention to your feelings and disrespects the agreements you’ve made. You feel neglected and unworthy. In order to make sure you don’t continue projecting your feelings on the other, you actively feel what this behaviour does to you. How does it feel to be disrespected and neglected? How does it feel to feel unworthy, not seen, not heard? Let go of the story and simply feel into these feelings.
Denial of Needs
For this defense mechanism it’s difficult to find the symbol, as it’s oftentimes not felt on an emotional level. You’d rather have to work with expressions of it, such as postponing or avoiding specific tasks, being unable to make decisions, not having preferences, not being able to enjoy true intimacy etc. Whenever you catch yourself doing these things ask yourself: What could hurt me in this situation if I would imagine something to hurt me right now? What kind of pain am I avoiding in this moment? For example, you always let your partner choose the restaurant you’re going to, because he might not be interested in your opinion. In order to avoid this pain of not being important enough, you let him decide. Try to shed some light on possible unconscious motivations for your the denial of your needs.
Feel the Pain
All these processes will bring up emotions, since you’ve moved closer to your old pain. Once you’ve identified this pain as your old pain, the procedure is simple: all you need to do is to really feel the pain. The more pain you allow yourself to feel, the better. Therefore, Ingeborg Bosch even advises to amplify the pain by, for example, mentally exaggerating the worst case scenario. Just make sure the pain you’re feeling is your actual old pain and you do not accidentally slip into another defense mechanism. Feeling that you “can’t do it” or “it’s your fault that you feel the way you do” feels painful too, but shouldn’t be confused with your actual old pain. Old pain holds no judgement about yourself or others, it’s simply the pain of not getting a need met.
Really feeling the pain is not as easy as it sounds, since we’re naturally inclined to push away pain. Normally we feel pain from our child-consciousness in which we highly identify ourselves with the pain we’re feeling. The clue is to observe our pain from our adult-consciousness. This is extremely important because if we feel our pain while we’re identified with the pain, we automatically resist the pain.
The reason we want to relive this pain is because we need to give a new signal to our amygdala which I mentioned in the introduction. In order to stop making knee-jerk reactions in the wrong direction, we need to feel the pain again, but in a way that the pain feels “safe”. But we can’t send our brain the signal that the pain is “safe” when we continue resisting the pain. We need to completely allow and even embrace this pain. Our amygdala can’t restore this formerly threatening symbol into a safe symbol if we continue treating this symbol as a threat by trying to push it away. What you resist, persists.
It’s helpful to feel this disidentified pain, by telling yourself that this pain is not you, it’s old pain that needs to be released. Tell yourself that this pain can’t hurt you in any way. Emotion is nothing more than just energy in motion and all it needs is to be running through you. It needs to be in motion, that’s all. Apart from running through you, it can’t physically hurt you, even if it elicits cramps in your stomach or heart, dizziness, nausea etc. It will all pass as soon as you allow the emotion to move unobstructedly.
Next to accepting the emotion as “safe”, it’s also important to send your brain the signal that the underlying need which had caused the pain wasn’t met and will never be met. This step is crucial, as otherwise we continue to hope for the need to be met, which will keep you stuck in the never-ending cycle of running after an illusion, hoping to fulfill something which can’t ever be fulfilled. You simply can’t turn back the time. Maybe you can get the need fulfilled in the future, but you’ll never fulfill the need in the past.
This step is really not an easy one. Your subconsciousness will create many pitfalls in order to prevent you from getting hold of that “life threatening” old pain. Not everyone will be able to do this without professional assistance. If you feel too afraid of being engulfed by the feelings or if you simply can’t get hold of them, don’t force yourself and search for the help of a professional. In my opinion, continuing to create more consciousness through meditation and mindfulness can also be helpful tools. Using these tools will take many years, but therefore will also be very safe as the process of recognition will come gradually, so chances of being engulfed are less.
Maybe this post didn’t get you all too excited to start with the process, but next month I’ll share with you why ‘s definitely worth going through this process. Unappealing as the process seems to be, I consider it to be a very helpful process for anyone who wants to find true freedom. This process might not be the only way towards healing, but I think it incorporates many aspects which are taught in other spiritual traditions and processes which aim for emotional freedom. I really hope you will give this process a try and if you still need a little bit more motivation to go and sit with your pain, I invite you to read the concluding post next month as well :)