Repression is an inevitable aspect of existence. Repression, more specifically disassociation, is how we cope when we know we cannot cope. Heather Gingrich, in her book Restoring the Shattered Self, states that it is through these dissociation mechanisms that we survive traumatic moments without more damage to our being. We all have learned some degree of repression, as it is a way we have learned to survive. Ernest Becker said that repression is to human beings what instinct is to animals. Hall shares an even more compelling perspective by Robert Lifton, a psychologist who studied the psychological reaction of those who were victims to the blasts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lifton described repression as a sort of psychic numbing, which is not a limiting of one’s awareness of pain, but an “exclusion of feeling.”
Why don’t we enter our pain and work on our “stuff?” From what I have read within an existentialist vantage point on death and anxiety, within the human unconscious is a fear of death. This view is widely supported within the vastness of existential literature, and what it is referring to here is our literal physical death. What I would like to propose though, is that we are afraid if we look into our pain we will die, not a physical death, but a psychological one, a loosening of attachments in our lives.
I had a client during my internship who eventually voiced his sexual transference that he was feeling toward me, something I had noticed since the beginning of our work. He told me he was sexually attracted to me and was interested in pursuing it if I was. This was a threshold in our relationship, one that is not easily navigated as the interpretations run back to childhood and reveal multilayered and deeply meaningful information of the past and present relationships of this individual’s life. This individual had a longstanding tendency to sexualize his relationships; he had an immense amount of anxiety and powerlessness that he carried deep within him toward relationships, and this sexualization of others was a way to locate or discharge this anxiety onto others, and onto me. This transference was coming to the forefront with a tone of urgency and desperation saying, “please take care of me,” followed by feelings of vulnerability, shame, and relief. Through responding to this therapeutically in acknowledging the desire behind these feelings I was able to help him hold those parts of himself that he cannot bear and in doing so I was able to show a different way of being in relationship.
I look to a point by John Philip Newell to spiritually ground these findings. Newell remarks that in order for forgiveness to really take place within a relationship, there is a death that must take place within the lives of those involved. We could even look to Christ’s parable of pruning the tree as it talks about the pruning that goes on within our own lives. O’Donohue likens the suffering in our life to a fire: “Often suffering is very purifying precisely because it is burning away a certain dross that has accumulated around your life. But it is very hard to somehow dance with the flame and to realize that what is leaving you is what is used and that you no longer need it.” There are some parts of us that are almost taking life from us. It is serving some purpose in our life that is a remnant of an older, and now un-needed, way of being with ourselves and others. As we sit with our pain, amidst the pruning or the burning away of something in our life, this is a small death, because we are coming home to ourselves, closer to who we are at the core. As O’Donohue says, it’s purifying.
I am too early in my career as a therapist to speak to the deeper experience of others, but with those that I’ve walked closely with over the few years at The Seattle School, we begin to unearth ideas and themes within our stories that we have built entire structures around throughout our lives. I know for myself, entering the deconstructive work of self reflection by facing the questions of Roy Barsness was both powerful and haunting as I began to contextualize the way in which I approach God, others, and myself to make meaning as beings. Only in retrospect can I say that these questions, and the process of beginning to flesh them out, had a shattering effect on my being and psyche. Like a stone hitting a windshield, leaving a slight crack, but with a little pressure from a change in temperature, it begins to shatter, and thus I began a slow motion mental breakdown. Another way to reframe this “breakdown” is to think of it as an invitation to come home to myself, to enter the fire or the pruning of some used-up and older undeveloped parts of my psyche.
I stated earlier that ontological anxiety is the state of living between what is and what ought to be, and when we are not able to bear this tension we get neurosis or neurotic anxiety. The more positive side, and the ideal reaction to this tension, is that we would engage in our tension and put it to “creative uses.” As westerners we like to believe that we are able to cure ourselves. All we need to do is go to a local bookstore, coffee shop, or perhaps even grocery store check-out and see endless amounts literature on how to solve the problems of your life reaching infinite bliss, and you can buy it all on Amazon at a discounted rate and have it delivered the same day. We live in a time and culture where the ideal of the “self-made” man penetrates even our churches, where we idealize the man with “willpower” who focuses on a point and doesn’t fail.
The neurotic people, the ones who cannot bear the tension, become militant pursuers of many of these remedies, believing that the tension is outside of them. They often times throw themselves into exercise, go into new occupations, and ironically, into faith-healing religious groups. All such reactions merely intensify the neurosis and amount to more frustration for the individual, and greater isolation from the world and reality. Yet the individual is able to put up a convincing and rational explanation for his actions, even though they ultimately do not line up with reality. May states that this is the essence of egocentrism: “the inability to make satisfactory contact with reality because one distorts people and things to fit one’s own prejudices.” From the viewpoint of dynamic psychology, Symonds accurately notes that “it would surprise most persons to realize how much of their behavior is motivated by a desire to escape anxiety by either reducing it or disguising it in one way or another.” Reflecting on this line by Symonds I am moved to look into how much of my suffering, rooted in anxiousness, is of my doing. It is from this perspective that theology moves us into how these views have not just influenced an individual, but also the community or world.