Call it suppression or repression or whatever... the point is that we have a tendency to avoid pain. Not because we are wimpy - quite the opposite actually - much of the time we avoid pain as a way to "stay strong". We avoid pain because it feels overwhelmingly huge and there just doesn't seem to be enough "space" to deal with it. We think that we have to stay strong, for our partner, our kids, our job, or our quivering sanity. After all, life just keeps moving, and for most of us, at a pretty quick pace. So, what do we do? We stuff it down... we tuck it and run. We sequester the shadow parts of our self and we keep moving. We survive.
Once the unwanted parts get tucked or stuffed, we don't really want to dredge them up. We convince ourselves that the unpleasantries of our past are better left in the dark recesses of our minds; "I mean, what good would it do to bring it all up now", we might say to ourselves. In fact, over time we may not consciously remember what we pushed into to the shadowy corners of our psyche. We may develop nifty habits to keep the threatening information from bubbling to the surface, like addictive behaviors, unhealthy ways of thinking, or maladaptive emotional patterns. These aversive measures do keep the blackness at bay, at least for awhile, but they don't hold.
Life has a way of reminding us of those things we don't want to think about: The weight of an old betrayal that we relegated to the attic of our mind threatens to break through the sagging ceiling and drop into the living room of life each time someone threatens to leave us; a shot of fear rips through our body when we pass by the craggy door of our psyche's cellar where long-ago we banished our unwanted shame related to hurting a friend or family member; we pull the emotional curtains tight to shield us from seeing the characterological garbage we threw over the back fence of feeling. It's all tucked and stuffed... but not necessarily gone.
Beating back the darkness of our secret inner life isn't a one-time act... the self-directed violence must be repeated and maintained. It takes energy to keep the pain away and this saps us of our creativity, spontaneity, and vital life-force. It's like going to a cocktail party, knowing that a difficult person will be there, but foolishly thinking that the person can "just be avoided". Instead, you end up spending the whole night looking over your shoulder and trying to time your approach to the punchbowl so that you don't run into the person. As a result, the party passes you by while a critical part of your existence is consumed by avoiding what is feared and unwanted.
Paradoxically, the very act of avoidance can actually precipitate the thing we fear most. For example, a man may fear that his partner will discover that he is "boring" - a deeply embedded negative belief that he has carried for many years. He buries this terrifying thought under a cement slab of pleasantness and acquiescent behavior in an attempt to please his partner and stave off the prospect of being labeled "a wet-blanket". Yet, his very attempts to always present the most pleasing parts of himself (an impossible bit of chocolaty self-protection thinly coated in a shell of selflessness), leave his partner feeling disconnected and unexcited about the relationship. Unwittingly, his avoidance helped create the very thing he feared most. It has been said, "What we run from, we run into" and "What we resist, persists."
Also, we would like to think that the process of cutting out the unwanted parts of our self and our life is crisp and clean. Like a Beverly Hill's surgeon excising a darkened mole from our backside with deft precision, under anesthesia, and in sterile conditions. I'm afraid to say that it isn't so neat. It's more like taking a dull hacksaw to our own leg that is stuck in a rusty trap, while running from a bear, for which the trap was intended. Severing parts of the self is usually done under extreme duress for the purpose of mental, emotional, and physical survival. It is messy, imprecise, and it comes with a cost. In the cutting and compartmentalizing process, we often lose parts of ourselves that, under more favorable circumstances, we would rather keep; parts of ourselves that are necessary to live a fully-functional life.
For example, imagine you receive sudden warning that there is a fire in the office building where you work and you are told that you must exit immediately. In a panic, you swipe the contents from your desk into a black plastic sack and run out the door. You survive, but much was lost in the fire and it was a harrowing experience - one that you would like to forget. You put the bag of personal effects in a dimly lit closet in your home and shut the door. But whenever you pass by the closet, you're reminded of the tragic fire, the loss of loved-ones, and the contents of the black bag inside. You try to avoid walking by the closet. You try to forget what's in the bag. You buy a new coat so that you won't have to retrieve the old one that's in the closet. You develop a series of daily routines that support your semi-conscious avoidant intentions. Over time, it may feel like all is forgotten, but in reality the pain still there...; calling out from the darkness.
Years later, you decide to move from the home - the one with the "forgotten" closet. With a packing box in hand, you open the closet door and stumble upon the black bag with its seemingly terrible remains. You consider burying it in the packing box under a heap of old coats and sweaters, but something tells you that there is no more running, no more hiding, no more pretending. With trepidation, you open the sack, still hinting of smoke, and you begin to acknowledge the fear, guilt, and grief that you have long avoided. It is in that very process of opening to the pain that something quite unexpected happens: Mingled with the vilified vestiges of the severed self are poignant reminders of strength, joy, love, and connection: a picture of your colleagues at the holiday party, an engraved pen from your boss, a thank you card from a friend received in a time of need.
When the unwanted parts of our self are banished to the black bags of our being, they aren't carefully sorted and neatly tucked away for easy retrieval. Instead, various parts of the self are indiscriminately sacked and shut into a closet that, despite our best efforts to "be strong and carry on", won't be dismissed or forgotten. Most importantly, buried with the shadow parts of our self are the flickering lights of strength and resilience - the joy, the love, and the connection - that are instrumental in the process of learning to embrace our vulnerabilities. We need all parts of our self to become more awake, spontaneous, creative and alive - we are most alive when we bring wholehearted presence to all parts of our self. Life isn't about merely surviving, it's about thriving! We thrive by opening to the shadow parts of our self, and in so doing we discover the natural source of our brilliant luminosity.
Jon G. Caldwell, D.O., is a board certified psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of adults with relational trauma histories and addictive behaviors. Dr. Caldwell currently works full-time as a psychiatrist at The Meadows treatment center in Wickenburg, Arizona. For many years he has been teaching students, interns, residents, and professionals in medicine and mental health about how childhood adversity influences health and wellbeing. His theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by his PhD graduate work at the University of California at Davis where he has been researching how early childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment relationships affect cognitive, emotional, and social functioning later in life. Dr. Caldwell's clinical approach has become increasingly flavored by the timeless teachings of the contemplative traditions and the practice of mindfulness meditation.