The Quiet Voice of Soul; How to Find Meaning in Ordinary Life
By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.
The Disowned Self
When we lose contact with our inner self, we may fill that empty place by creating an idealized self, an image of the person we want the world to see when they look at us. The heavier the reliance on our idealized self, the more out of touch we become with our inner self. Rather than put energy toward actualizing the real self, the self that connects with soul, we put our energy and attention toward an illusion. The more we try to blow life into a hollow shell, the less authentically we are able to live. This syndrome of heavy reliance on an idealized self is strengthened in families that model perfection and have personal values that demand that the family appear perfect. When human foibles and inadequacies must be hidden to serve an idealized image, the energy that might have gone into building a soul and a relationship with self is retracked into building a proper image.
It takes all our energy to maintain an idealized image. If we allowed ourselves to experience a full range of feelings, we would have to adjust our idealized image to reality rather than to the ideal. And so we choose not to feel those feelings that threaten, challenge or undermine our idealized image of self. Sometimes we take those feelings, those parts of ourselves that we find repugnant, and we cast them into our internal darkness. There they continue to live and grow in the shadow self, the self we attempt to deny.
Most of us form idealized selves to cope with overwhelming, conflicting, painful or out-of-control feelings, or feelings that conflict with our image of ourselves. If we deny these feelings in ourselves, we may project them onto someone else. Then, when we observe the feeling in the other person, we forget it was ours to begin with.
Sadly, projecting our feelings muddies the waters of relationships. If, for example, I cannot accept that I am jealous of other people and have competitive feelings toward them, I may project those feelings onto others by seeing them as jealous and competitive and myself as the object of their jealousy. I can never really get to the bottom of the situation because I cannot get to the bottom of my own feelings. Pieces of the puzzle are missing, and the biggest piece is me.
This dynamic occurs all too often in child-rearing. Parents who are uncomfortable with their own feelings project the feelings onto the children, who aren't in a position to refute them.
Another form this dynamic can take is that of projective identification. In projective identification, an aspect of the self that we don't want to acknowledge is placed, not in the working model of the self, but in that of another to whom the self is closely related. The other is then seen as having a bad attitude. Instead of distancing the other person, we may provoke the other person into hostile behavior, thus creating a basis for the projection.
The family arena is a fertile ground for the dynamics of projection and projective identification. Because identities overlap in families and people share the same emotional atmosphere, it can be hard to know who is feeling what. In a family we get to know each other's buttons so well that we can push them almost effortlessly. Once we have pushed die right button and caused a person to feel a particular way, the projective identification has taken place. It is easier for some people to provoke anger in another person rather to know they carry anger within themselves.
The remedy, as always, is to bring the focus back to oneself and to sit with an open and willing attitude, ready to know one's own inner makeup. The first step on the road back to self is to know that no matter how long you have denied your true self, it can still be accessed. If you are willing simply to sit with your self and listen, you will hear the small voice of your soul calling you back home.
When thoughts, feelings or emotions are painful or disturbing, we may try to get rid of them through denial, suppression and repression, to mask them from ourselves.
In denial, we rewrite painful or threatening experiences to make them of less concern. For instance, Robert and Susan were out for dinner with friends. Robert had a few too many drinks, his jokes got a little raucous, his humor a little borderline, and when he danced with Fred's wife, he held her in a way that made her uncomfortable. Susan noticed Fred glancing toward his wife. Rather than experience her own discomfort at Robert's behavior, however, Susan wrote the situation: Robert is so handsome, all women just naturally flirt with him and Fred is jealous. Robert's humor, though off-color, is actually quite daring; he says things that are on everybody's minds but nobody will say. In this way, Susan explains away her own discomfort and the discomfort that she senses around her.
Denial is subtle and can be hard to identify, particularly when we become increasingly talented rewriters of feelings. A good denier can be hard to keep up with and can make others feel out of step with reality. The purpose of denying feelings is to reduce anxiety and then rewrite the situation into an acceptable one because we get uncomfortable when someone we depend on for love and security is unreliable or falling apart. If our lives might be in trouble, denial is easier.
The last thing people in denial want to hear is the truth that they fear is lurking beneath the rewrite. When confronted with it, we will try to make the person feel wrong or bad for bringing it up. We may even need to rewrite the person's reasons for bringing it up. For example, if Fred mentions his discomfort with Robert's behavior toward his wife, Susan will simply tell herself that Fred is insecure seeing his wife get attention from another man. Susan may even congratulate herself for her apparent equanimity in the face of her husband's obvious flirting with another woman. As we see here, denial has an insidious quality that can be very hard to detach from the truth of the situation.
In suppression, however, thoughts that we find bothersome are consciously relegated to another place in the mind. We make the decision not to dwell on them. Suppression, in fact, has at times been thought to be the right way to handle painful situations. Though suppression can be an effective coping skill and can reduce stress successfully, if used too often it can be used against itself. It is healthy and necessary to know when to let go of a negative thought and when it becomes self-defeating to go over it constantly, reworking it, seeking more and more from it. However, if we begin to avoid all hurtful thoughts and see it as a strength not to "dwell on the negative," to "keep a stiff upper lip," it can create tension within the personality. Tension builds into stress and stress seeks relief. If we suppress too much, it may get released inappropriately or we may reach for a stress-relieving substance or activity.