"What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate." —C.G. Jung
As social animals, we long to be known in relationship. Getting known in relationship allows us to feel safe, important, and loved, and it allows us to return the favor to others. If in our relationship with our primary caretakers the generosity of the love we received encouraged a progressively fuller expression of Self, then our fear of getting known in a significant relationship is minimal: we show up in our fullness without fearing rejection and communicate our needs, even those that might cause conflict, without worrying about jeopardizing the relationship. Gentle reader, such people are the rarest of birds.
Most of us experienced a mix of solid caretaking and impingement in our relationship with our primary caretakers. While the caretaking we received allows us to enjoy connection with others, the impingements we experienced often keep us from expressing ourselves fully in relationship. When faced with impingement in our early childhoods, we implicitly understood that we needed to sacrifice aspects of ourselves that threatened caretaking. For instance, if our caretaker censured demonstrations of anger, we learned to disown our anger. If our caretaker’s sadness overwhelmed us, we learned to abandon our own feelings, possibly our inner world, to comfort our caretaker (Winnicott). Because our neural networks were still developing, we had to make such decisions instinctively, unconsciously, and we did so to maintain our caretaking and ensure our survival. Even in our adult years, that survival imperative can keep us obedient to the ways we participate in relationship. Whenever we fear addressing a painful impingement, our survival imperative is letting itself be known. We are saying, in effect: ‘If I voice my disappointment/dissatisfaction/anger/grief, I will jeopardize the relationship without which I might very well die.’
The greater the fear, the more likely our relational patterns will continue to operate unconsciously. That doesn’t mean that our disowned “shadow” parts simply lie dormant, tucked safely away in the vault of the Self. Those parts are awfully good at expressing themselves furtively, in dramas they orchestrate to get seen and known. These dramas are sometimes referred to as “enactments,” and we all participate in them in large and small ways. Here are some examples:
Your unmet need for affection has found an effective way of expressing: whenever you are about to succeed, you self-sabotage to elicit the comfort of your family and friends.
You suffered the abandonment of an absentee father in your childhood and now exclusively date affluent older men. Though the relationships lack emotional depth, you enjoy being adored and enjoy the gifts you receive. Somehow you feel the gifts are owed to you.
When you were a child, you had the feeling you were not enough, compared to your younger brother, and now, with your partner, you bend over backward to compensate for your not-enough-ness. You clean up after him, concede arguments, withhold your struggles for fear of burdening him with them... You are lonelier than ever.
You spent most of your childhood in foster care and adopted the protective belief that you aren’t worth nurturing relationships. As a thirty-something, you find yourself in a professional environment in which the management team consistently dismisses your input. You have been in the job for several years now, driven by the compulsion to redeem yourself in a relationship that makes you feel desperately unredeemable.
And that’s the loop we get stuck in: our desperation for redemption blinds us to the suffering we endure in our relationships. We will succeed this time, we think; we will prove ourselves worthy. The higher the odds, the greater the satisfaction we will enjoy. We are desperate children banging at the door. How painful do our enactments need to get before we hear our own calling and let ourselves in?
James Hollis, a respected Jungian, writes: “If we are fortunate to suffer enough, stunned into a reluctant consciousness…. If we are courageous enough, care enough about our lives, we may, through that suffering, get our lives back.” Such suffering wakes us up, throws the lights on our meticulously constructed dramas, and typically initiates a period in which we question the parts we’ve played in creating our own pain. It is a period of moving out of illusion and into reality, of turning toward our wounded childhood selves and feeling our pain directly, of bringing into consciousness the aspects of our childhood selves we disowned and those we amplified to ensure our caretaking and survival. It is a period of courageous grieving, in which we dare to feel painful feelings of loss: for what we longed for but didn’t get, for what we got but harmed us, for our unlived potential, for the illusion of caretaking that has kept us from feeling all this damn grief. But feeling all this damn grief is what moves it (Grant and Shapiro). In feeling it, we are finding our capacity as conscious adults to hold a broad spectrum of selves and states of being, and letting them express as they need to. Yes, we are that vast and powerful.
In finding that capacity as conscious adults, we are also removing ourselves from the holding patterns of our unconscious children. Though our belief in the safety of our early childhood caretaking was a brilliant survival strategy, it no longer serves us. It has become too costly. When we were small children, we instinctively made sense of environmental deficiencies by holding ourselves responsible: we understood that we must be unlovable, unworthy, not enough, or else why are we not getting the care we need? But by continuing to drive our grief into negative self-belief and self-harming behavior, we keep ourselves stuck in the holding pattern of unmovable grief (Grant and Shapiro), in a reality created by our wounded children who can neither make sense of their suffering nor help themselves out of it. But we can help them. We can wake up. We can respond to their calling.
Closing Note: I don't mean to place blame on or foment bitterness for our primary caretakers. In fact, my understanding is that people are doing the best they can with the awareness they have, and that a pattern of closeness and impingement is passed down from generation to generation ad infinitum. We are all caught in some intergenerational reiteration of woundedness and, excepting those practicing ongoing and deliberate acts of cruelty, we are all basically innocent. My intention is to help clients become mindful of their relational patterns so that they can act in ways that reverse harmful trends and foster healthful ones.