This is the final post of a series of posts about understanding and dealing with our defense mechanisms which can help us see through the illusions we create in life. Therefore I’d recommend you first read the first two posts before continuing with this one. The approach I’ve been describing in these series is based on the work of the Dutch psychologist Ingeborg Bosch and her book “Illusions - How to escape the labyrinth of destructive emotions”. In this book she describes a process which in my opinion is effective for getting to know our own true nature. It’s not an easy process which requires a certain degree of consciousness and an openness to experiencing our own pain and letting go of our ego. At first glance this approach is not something we’d naturally want to do, not only because it’s painful, but it’s also difficult to stick to this approach as we essentially oppose our survival mechanism. Even when you’re interested in working with the approach, your system (read: your ego) is very likely to distract you from it, encouraging you to continue dealing with your issues the way you’ve also done it - the seemingly safe way, which unfortunately is also the not-so-productive way.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
- Albert Einstein
Therefore I decided to write this final post which is an encouragement to start the process. You can also always come back to this post as a reminder, in case your ego gets hold of you and tries to lure you into old patterns. In the end, this process is one of the ways to really enjoy freedom and to let go of the past which still seems to influence your life. Obviously, there are many ways to reach this goal and the approach Ingeborg Bosch offers us is just one of them. I realized that many of the spiritual approaches which lead to emotional freedom all have some commonalities which are found in this approach: Recognizing that your present pain is a product of unfulfilled childhood needs; heightening your consciousness through, for example, self observation; letting go of resistance to what “is”; and, in my opinion most importantly, allowing your emotions to surface and really feel them. So, it probably doesn’t really matter whether you strictly follow this approach or whether you choose a different approach with similar steps, the result will be the same: emotional freedom.
So, what do I mean exactly with emotional freedom? Does that mean that you’re never again going to experience negative emotions? That you’re always going to be happy regardless of the circumstances? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the answer is no. To the contrary, I even feel that once I’ve opened myself up to this process, I’m more and more aware of my underlying unfulfilled needs. Especially the needs that I had numbed out and pushed away, seem to creep up from under the surface. I’m more conscious of my feelings and thoughts, as if I’ve put my inner world under a magnifying glass. And believe me, I’m not amused with what I get to see. What makes this even more frustrating is that I know I can’t blame anyone else for it. This is my process, I need to go through this. Obviously, my system is still not used to accepting and allowing pain, so I resist my reality until I get aware of my resistance and this is where the freedom comes into play: I have the freedom to choose. Either I stay in resistance and continue struggling with those negative feelings or I allow the feelings and give them the opportunity to transcend. These are the moments in which I experience bliss, gratitude and joy and I enjoy them consciously, as I know that it probably won’t last long before the next unfulfilled childhood need knocks on my door to also be released. And then the whole process starts over and again…
For now, the process is not yet part of my habit, so I really need to be very mindful and I literally need to drag myself to the “work”. What helps me stay with the process whenever I feel overwhelmed or just downright annoyed with my own emotional mess, is imagining that I have been living in a very dark room for a long time. Finally I found the light switch and now I can clearly see the mess around me. Before, I’d bump into my own mess regularly, but since I had no idea what I was bumping in, I’d feel helpless doing something about it. Now I can finally see the mess which on the one hand gives me the freedom to start cleaning up, but on the other hand makes me feel depressed, because now I can’t hide from it anymore. This is why the ego oftentimes creeps in and tries to sabotage the process with just another defense mechanism. Sometimes I downright fear what is in front of me and I think it’s going to ruin my entire life. Or I feel overwhelmed and incapable of cleaning up the mess. The mess is so big and I’m so small, I’m never going to achieve such a big task all by myself (primary defense). On those days that I feel a bit more encouraged, I start cleaning like a madwoman, obsessed with getting rid of this horrible mess I can’t endure for even a second longer. I hurl through the room like a whirlwind, leaving a trail of destruction instead of actually getting to clean anything (false hope). When I start to feel that my biggest efforts are not enough, I start blaming other people for the mess and I demand that they please clean up the mess. I spend all my energy into convincing those people why my mess is their fault (false power). And when I’m completely drained and there’s no energy left anymore, I try to switch off the light again. In the dark, at least, I don’t see anything anymore. Besides, living in the dark was quite comfortable, wasn’t it? Bumping into the mess once in a while seems a lot more attractive than cleaning up this seemingly endless mess (denial of needs).
Ever since I’ve started this process, I’ve been observing myself in this loop over and over again. I keep switching on the light and with enough awareness I start the cleaning process. Sometimes, I successfully stick to my duty and stop cleaning just to get some well-deserved rest, but unfortunately most of the time my cleanse gets interrupted by some ego intervention. My defense mechanisms convince me that there’s certainly a better option than to just humbly get down on my knees and start mobbing. Mostly, my ego sneaks to the light switch and softly dims the light, so that I don’t even notice that I’m back in the dark again.
Fortunately, by now I can feel the difference (even though it sometimes takes a while) between simply doing the work and falling back into my old pattern which is why I (after some moaning and groaning) get back to the light switch and slowly turn on the light again. It takes me quite some effort and I have to be very careful not to immediately start cleaning like a whirlwind again, but to really mindfully have a look at my mess and to give every little item the love, attention and acceptance it deserves. Because this is what the cleaning essentially is all about. The mess (your old pain) just wants to be seen for what it is: an old pain and not some monster that is going to ruin your life.
Remember that in those days that we decided to keep this mess hidden in a dark room, was in a time when this mess could potentially have been very harmful to us. But now we’re adults and it’s time to slowly move our child-consciousness into our adult-consciousness. We’re not the helpless little child anymore which doesn’t know yet how to properly clean an endlessly dirty room. We’re adults, equipped with the necessary skills for the task at hand. There’s no need to run away anymore, we are ready to take this responsibility. So, how does it look like to reside in the adult-consciousness? This will differ from person to person, but there are some aspects most of us will probably encounter and which I will highlight in this post. Let’s start with the pain I mentioned. I hope by now it’s obvious why we need to feel the pain. Without acknowledging, allowing and feeling the pain, we can’t clean properly. Just think of the Buddhist saying: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. In your adult consciousness you will continue feeling pain, whether this pain is related to your unfulfilled childhood need or pain caused from an event in the presence. But if you stay in your child-consciousness this pain will lead to suffering. This is the crucial difference.
As I mentioned, what causes us most of the pain in the presence, is our resistance to the pain. This pushing away of everything that feels bad, is a product of our child-consciousness which still equals negative feelings with a life threatening situation. In our adult-consciousness, on the other hand, we know that pain and negative emotions are safe and legitimate and can even heal us, if only we allow them and don’t resist them. Just by letting go of this resistance, we already feel a wave of relief coming over us. The child in us thinks that resistance is the only option, which obviously limits our agency. Knowing as an adult that our defenses are not the only option and there are far more ways to deal with the issue, marks our freedom.
Suddenly we can allow ourselves to stop reacting and learn how to respond instead. In our adult-consciousness we know and see through the tricks of the ego. We recognize whenever we’re stuck in an ego defense and choose to either respond differently or, for the time being, not react at all. We start to apply our freedom of having different options and having obtained specific skills and mindsets throughout our adult life which we can now use to our advantage. When our decisions and reactions are not led by our child-consciousness anymore, we can stop sabotaging our lives by subconsciously destroying relationships, opportunities and situations. No need to say that this will also prevent your pain from turning into suffering.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor Frankl
Letting go of resistance also helps us to simply allow the flow of life. Resistance drains an enormous amount of our energy, leaving us with little energy left for the things in life that aren’t stagnated. Give the stagnant aspects of your life the attention an adult would give it, but don’t forget to leave enough space for play and relaxation. Be aware that our child-consciousness doesn’t have a feeling for time and space and therefore will create a great sense of urgency of “fixing” the problem. Try to be conscious enough of how much you can actually “fix” and what is out of your control. Trying to control the uncontrollable is essentially resistance. Save yourself this loss of energy and let it flow into the things that are either already flowing or are things you have genuine control over.
Just be careful not to fall into the next ego trap. Especially when you’re further along the spiritual path I want to highlight the importance of not resisting your resistance. Sometimes we will feel resistance, frustration or apathy towards something specific and we frantically try to “fix” ourselves and “get back into the flow”. Unfortunately, we can’t control ourselves into freedom, all we can do is observe and accept, even when we’re stuck in our defense or some form of resistance. It’s part of our experience and has its right to exist. We might be afraid of never getting “further along the path” by allowing this kind of “unproductive" emotions, but this is just your ego speaking. Even when you observe yourself falling into the arms of your defense, that’s all right. The magic doesn’t happen in never using your defenses again, but in recognizing when you do so and responding to it in a loving and mature way.
Being stuck in our defenses and our negative emotions, is also the humbling experience that brings us back to reality and reminds us of our humanness. It reminds us that we all suffer from the same pain and defense mechanisms. Once you can observe your own behaviour and see the true nature behind it, it’s so much easier to stop judging others and be more compassionate with others when they are stuck in their defense. You will realize that it’s impossible to simply control your behaviour and that we all fall prey from time to time to some invisible power that makes us do and say things we never intended to.
Embracing our own shortcomings makes it easier to embrace the shortcomings of others, which by the way doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. All it means is that you don’t throw oil into the fire by shaming and blaming others for their behaviour. In your adult-consciousness you can see that other people’s behaviour are not necessarily a threat to your survival and you are free to choose love instead of hate or fear even when the other is not ready yet to make the same choice. Ultimately, love is acceptance, hate is resistance. This is really all the control you have: letting go of resistance and mindfully accepting whatever arises in your experience. Even if that means that a terribly respectless husband arises in your experience, there is no need to control him by shaming and blaming. He is not responsible for your survival and you’re an adult now with agency and the power to respond differently.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to see this process as a journey. A journey on which you make small, wobbly steps. You’ll fall and you have to fall, because if you don’t fall you can’t stand up again. Standing up after a fall is what the learning process is all about. It’s the challenge that strengthens our muscles. Our defenses can help us see which parts of ourselves still need healing, but therefore we need to be willing to really see these parts and not push them away. Over time, this process will empower us immensely. We will start to reap the rewards when we recognize that the things that used to have a lot of power over us, suddenly don’t “touch” us anymore. The “symbols” start to lose their power, and instead we have created space for (self-) love, compassion and joy. But therefore we have to have a close look at every symbol, one at a time. That requires time and dedication.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
- Max Planck
Naturally, our system will start creating new experiences once we’ve decided to approach life differently. Just by switching on the light, seeing the mess and starting to slowly clean up, we can start to see things from a different perspective. Survival is not the only thing we are concerned about and suddenly we create time and space for growth and play. When we build a wall of protection around ourselves we automatically also prevent our light to shine to the outside. By slowly breaking down our defense wall, we also allow the world to see more of our authentic self which is always beautiful and radiant. Instead of defending we can start to give and receive love, to open ourselves to the world and to see the world as it truly is. Without the need to protect our hearts from being hurt, we can open our hearts and start to enjoy true intimacy; without the fear of not being good enough, we can start developing our talents and let our creativity flow and without the notion of being unworthy, we can allow good things to come our way and enjoy the benefits of living life in expansion. In a nutshell: without the need to defend ourselves, we finally allow ourselves the freedom to be ourselves - the perfect radiant beings we have been hiding behind those walls of protection for too long.
“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi