Life is about love. Yet there is so much suffering. As children we need to survive suffering but later, as adults, we need to transcend the very defence mechanisms that kept us safe – because they begin hampering us. Sometimes it seems we get stuck in “survival mode” as though we were tied to past suffering in some way – one might even say, addicted to it.
Buddha in his 1st Noble Truth said ‘Life is suffering’ but he didn’t explain how this suffering can develop and how it binds us from a psychological perspective. The following is an explanation that uses analogy and metaphors to unpack a possible answer to the question – What is suffering and what are the ties that bind us to this suffering?
- Our suffering is linked to our experience of love
- We all need love
- If we don’t receive love we get damaged and can die
- Our sense of self is directly linked to our experience of being loved.
Let’s identify what I mean by love in the context of suffering. There are 3 basic kinds of love that a child can be exposed to within their environment. The first kind of love is called ‘unconditional love’. Its qualities are to nurture and nourish, to be supportive and protective, it encourages growth and development, and it is kind and gentle. The second kind of love is ‘conditional love’. The child experiences the needs and aspirations of their caregivers. These are to conform and fit in and be accepted in their social environment and the child having to meet their expectations born out of these needs and aspirations. You are rewarded when you do and punished if you don’t. These rewards and/or punishments are given ‘in the name of love’. Finally there is ‘lack of love’. The qualities of this ‘lack of love’ are abuse and neglect. It is based on our caregivers themselves having been damaged in their own childhoods. Often their caregivers will justify their abusive and/or their neglectful actions ‘in the name of love’. You could say that in essence there is only one kind of love that is ‘unconditional love’ and that ‘conditional love’ and ‘lack of love’ are ‘impostors’ trading in the ‘name of love’. It is the experience of ‘conditional’ love and ‘lack of love’ that causes us to suffer.
When we suffer our ‘positive sense of self’ gets eroded. This positive our sense of self is an aspect of our ‘authentic self’ that experiences itself as valuable, precious and worthwhile. In the child it translates itself as being spontaneous, care-free and creative. Being on the receiving end of either one of these ‘impostors’ is painful for the child’s ‘positive sense of self’. The suffering it receives as a result of this pain gets translated into fear, confusion and finally doubt.
The fear is based on not being able to fulfill all the terms and conditions attached to the expectations so as to get the love we need and/or if we display our anger or our outrage we still won’t receive the love we need.
Confusion arises when the child receives this kind of love in the ‘name of love’. The child begins to doubt that maybe that they can only receive ‘conditional’ and/or ‘lack of love’ because there must be something wrong with them, that maybe they are just not good enough. This is a ‘false construct’.
To the ‘positive sense of self’ having to accept this ‘false construct’ as being true is like receiving a death sentence. It wonders how it will survive. At this point something happens to assist the ‘positive sense of self’ in dealing with this situation. The part of the child’s psyche called the ‘Self-Care System’ takes over and goes into rescue mode. This ‘Self-Care System’s’ job is to protect us from complete annihilation. It does this by ‘splitting’ the child’s ‘positive sense of self’ into different parts. We can call these parts the ‘spontaneous child’, the ‘wounded child’ and the ‘survivor’.
These parts represent different aspects of the child’s psyche. The ‘spontaneous child’ is natural, creative and carefree. It is the result of the union between ‘authentic self’ and ‘authentic love’. The ‘wounded child’ is fragile and vulnerable. It is the result of being on the receiving end of fear, confusion and doubt. Because it is so fragile, it cannot bear the added burden of this ‘false construct’. The ‘survivor’ is resilient, resourceful and can endure hardship and suffering and is convinced that it can outwit, outplay and outlast any death sentence. Because of its very nature it is able to take on the burden of this ‘false construct’. The survivor is part of the ‘Self-Care System’s’ plan to help the child deal with being on the receiving end of ‘unconditional love’ and/or ‘lack of love’.
Once the ‘splitting’ is complete, the ‘Self-Care System’ places these different parts into separate areas of the psyche. The ‘spontaneous child’ is taken by the ‘Self-Care System’ to the place in the psyche where our earliest memories of ‘authentic love’ are stored. The ‘wounded child’ then is taken by the ‘Self-Care System’ deep into the inner recesses of the psyche, out of reach of the conscious mind and goes into hiding. It is in the stillness of this hiding place that this ‘wounded child’ waits and hopes that someday when this ‘storm is over’ ‘authentic love’ will again return and rescue them. The ‘survivor’ remains behind in the ‘neighbourhood’ occupied by the ‘imposters’ and undertakes the task of carrying the burden of this ‘false construct’ whilst seeking to find its way back to ‘authentic love’.
The ‘Self-Care System’s’ ultimate plan is to ensure that these parts of the psyche will not remain split forever but that they will be reunited as one ‘authentic self’ that is cared for and attended to in the abode where ‘ultimate love’ resides. This reunion can only happen if the ‘survivor’ can traverse the neighbourhood occupied by the ‘imposters’ and enter the realm where ‘ultimate love’ resides. This neighbourhood is known as ‘Land of Web’. Its name represents being tangled in a web of deceit and lies. It is only then when ‘ultimate love’ removes the burden of ‘false construct’ from the ‘survivor’ that the ‘wounded child’ can be rescued.
The ‘survivor’ begins to devise a plan to foil the ‘imposters’ that will enable the ‘survivor’ to leave the ‘LandofWeb’ and go and find ‘authentic love’. At this stage the ‘survivor’ still feels relatively strong. The burden of the ‘false construct’ is new and its persistent voice is yet but a whisper. The ‘survivor’ decides to confront its caregivers who represent the ‘imposters’. It does this by taking on the disguise of the ‘rebellious child’ and goes into battle. This battle ends badly. The ‘survivor’ suffers their first defeat and the ‘false construct’s’ voice gets louder.
The next plan this resilient ‘survivor’ devises in order to leave the ‘LandofWeb’ is to fly under the radar and lull its caregivers into looking the other way. It does this by taking on the disguise of the ‘adaptive child’. The disguise takes on the mannerism of compliancy. It becomes a chameleon. It reflects the values and beliefs of the caregivers; it does not challenge or question them. It begins to people-please and accommodate.
By the time the ‘survivor’ in the disguise of the ‘adaptive child’ reaches adulthood the ‘false construct’ and the disguise of the ‘adaptive child’ have become so integrated that it is like the ‘survivor’ has a helmet with a visor and a set of headphones that is tightly clamped onto the ‘survivor’s’ head. It is like wearing a mask that feels so real, that is almost like a second skin. This mask is known as the ‘False Self’.
When the ‘survivor’ tries to see through the ‘False Self’s’ visor its vision no longer can identify the escape routes out of the ‘Land of Web’. The voices through the head phones from the ‘false construct’ get more strident. They blame the development of the ‘False Self’ as being the entire fault of the ‘survivor’. They gloatingly tell the ‘survivor’ that if the ‘survivor’ had done its homework, the ‘survivor’ would have known that the ‘imposters’ always have a hidden agenda so as to trap their prey. They demean ‘the survivor’ for not knowing that if you wear a disguise for too long it takes over. They disparage any attempts the ‘survivor’ may have to escape. They pass sentence on the ‘survivor’ that from now on, throughout the remainder of its adult life, this ‘False Self’ will remain as a second skin, and it will grow to cover the ‘survivor’ completely so that the ‘survivor’ will become completely unrecognisable.
This is a huge blow to the ‘survivor’ because it is now trapped. It cannot leave the ‘LandofWeb’ for two reasons. The first is that it no longer knows the escape routes and second if it did manage to escape and arrive at the abode of ‘authentic love’ it would not be recognised and refused entry. For the first time the ‘survivor’ feels shame for not being able to foil the ‘imposters’. The ‘survivor’ accepts the sentence for the mistakes they made in trying to foil the ‘imposters’. It is the ‘survivor’s’ shame of having failed, the knowledge that the ‘survivor’ is unrecognizable and the acceptance of their sentence that binds the ‘survivor’ to suffering.
When a client comes to therapy often what has been described above is the core of all their issues. Through a process of enquiry the client gets to the point where they can understand this description and how it relates to their issue. Nevertheless they struggle to believe that there is a way through this problem that can rescue the ‘survivor’ and reunite all the parts of their sense of self together. At this point:
We stand in a wasteland of our own making
we do not know who we can turn to
doubt is dangerous
and we have no experience that trust will work.
The voices in one’s head
are like the sirens of old
who lured sailors onto the rocks –
they are imposters who say,
“In the name of love
let me help you!”
However, there is a way forward. The ‘survivor’ can be rescued – in the next post we introduce you to The Hero – and The Quest!
– by Miranda Wannenburgh