by Lauren Josten, MA, LPC
Many individuals in our society have been exposed to the concept of self-fulfillment, or perhaps accessing a “higher version of self” (sometimes identified as “wise mind,” the “true self”, “spiritual self”, “spiritual center”, or “authentic self”, etc.). All of these terms encompass what can widely be explained as the attempt to access and connect to our innate, authentic drives in life without the noise of outside influence. What is the benefit of this? Research shows the more attuned one feels with his/her/their own authentic self, acting in alignment with authentic needs, the greater the potential of experiencing a higher quality of life.
When children are born (assuming they are housed in a reasonably safe home with reasonably attuned parents), they do not comprehend or experience the fear of social pressures prior to acting on needs and urges: they cry, scream, and flail as many limbs as necessary until their needs are met. No infant is wondering to him/herself, “Will they judge me if I cry? Will they think less of me if I want more of this goopy cake pile mom gave me?”
As children, we are constantly on the alert to threat to connection with our parents, and working tirelessly (albeit unconsciously) to maintain this vital biological need: connection and attunement. We learn that crying can make mom angry if done at the wrong time. We learn that making a goofy face makes dad smile, and that creates joy. As we age and move into the outside world, we learn that giggling uncontrollably can lead to getting mean looks from the ‘cool kids’ in our class. We learn how painful it can be to experience heartbreak, and work to ensure it “never happens again.” We experience a friendship go sour following an argument, leading to distance. When gaining exposure to the outside world, we become more keen on social pressures and norms- how does my experience in life impact or influence others’; how do I ensure I don’t experience the gut-wrenching pain of isolation?
Though these often are not fully formed thoughts (ie, primarily unconscious, often until undergoing therapy or exposure to these concepts in other ways), these dynamics influence and in many ways set the stage for how we come to expect connection and attunement to look in life. When we were children, we learned the rules and followed this same protocol.
How did we accomplish this? We created defenses.
“I have to be perfect or else I will lose everything."
“Look at me, I am super mom! I need no support ever, I got this!"
“I am the funny friend and I never get sad."
“Whenever I feel bad, I just go for a run! I don’t need to talk!"
“I love to help people, it’s the only thing I know I’m good at!"
“I don’t care about anyone, they can all just leave me alone.”
“I don’t care about how I feel- there is no point- let’s just go party!"
“I am just not good enough, there’s no real point in trying.”
Defenses are an essential part of living: they ensure we can survive the throes of pain and unavoidable suffering in life. They work to ascertain we can enhance the positive aspects of life to protect precious preserves of happiness. They are a universal function of being human. They also can greatly impact our life choices, leading us down a path of inauthenticity and into difficult territory.
For example: Take a young person who has a strong propensity toward kindness, helping and being supportive to others. Set them up with a family complete with siblings and parents who are highly critical and demeaning of this behavior, believing it to be weak (e.g., perhaps it does not fit into the pre-established family norms passed down by generations before, where emotions are believed to be difficult and ‘in the way’ vs something to explore or empathize). This young person may learn that their family ties are under threat if they continue to display this warmth toward their brother when he ‘messes up’. Instead, this person may turn away from this warm interior in favor of a false persona-defense: “belittling emotions” becomes more normal for this young person, who may grow up to continue belittling others’ emotions, believing this is to be the normal/true way of life. They are more likely to end up with a group of friends, or a partner, who mirror these similar values, despite underlying discomfort and shame felt as a result of this discordance in underlying values/necessary defenses. This person, now believing this shame/discomfort is something to be avoided as opposed to explored (despite this being their initial impulse in life), is likely to utilize further defenses (perhaps drinking, drugs, avoidance, over-exercise, etc.) to manage these authentic impulses, pushing them further still from their authentic drive in life.
Defenses are a natural part of being human: and when going unchecked, can take on a life of their own, leading to a poorer quality of life. Our defenses are often what bring us to therapy: “I am unhappy because my partner is unhappy.” “I am sad because I don’t feel good enough in any aspect of my life.”
Therapy is what can help you come back home to yourself: accessing your true essence once more- the part of you that knows exactly what you need, and where, and why, and how- that gets concealed and calloused away as we experience life’s wounding nature. The best part about coming home to ourselves, is the possibility of the release of true pain and feeling becoming allowed, and the possibility there are others in the world experiencing life in the same raw and painful way you always have, also comes back online. We can actually feel that we already are safe and loved- and that we no longer have to work for it.
“‘Finding yourself' is not really how it works. You aren't a ten-dollar bill in last winter's coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people's opinions and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself; an unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.”
- Emily McDowell
JENNIFER EULBERG, MA, LPC
Welcome Jennifer, our new blogger!
Jennifer is a counselor at Sandhill who specializes in depression, self-esteem, and grief & loss. Get to know Jennifer as she shares her perspectives on life, contemplates value themes, and offers gentle encouragement.
THANK YOU to Stefanie Pisarkiewicz, LPC for her blog contributions from November 2014 - February 2019!