Transforming to Authenticity - Defense Mechanisms, Shadow & Self-Love by Marla Estes (with Dr. Zan E. Nix)
What effect do Defense Mechanisms and Shadow have on our capacity to love ourselves and express our authenticity?
It is said that “defense mechanisms are the glue that holds the false self together.” Our shadow aspects—parts of us that are hidden, repressed or unlived—are often protected by our unconscious and automatic defense mechanisms. To be able to enter into this territory, we need self-love to support ourselves with tenderness and compassion through whatever fear, pain and vulnerability that may arise. And the paradox is that we come to love ourselves through embracing our shadow!
How do we begin to tease apart the strands of this matrix, this Gordian Knot? One definition of “enlightenment” is to make what’s unconscious, conscious.
Defense Mechanisms Let’s start with defense mechanisms. First of all, how do we know when a defense mechanism arises? Many of us are so identified with our defenses—as in, “That’s just the way I am”—that we don’t even know when they are activated. I’ve heard this referred to as confusing a wig for our real hair (our authenticity). So how do we know when we’re being defensive? Some clues to start looking for are (in ourselves or others):
- A sense of overreaction; what I’m feeling is more than the current situation warrants
- A felt body-sense; a tensing; a girding up
- A charge, almost like electricity
- A quality or tone of voice
- What I experience as “stickiness” between the other person and me: a not-clean interchange
- A puffed up feeling, perhaps of self-righteousness or grandiosity
- A feeling of reactivity, of being triggered; therapist Terrence Real calls this the feeling of “WHOOSH”
A word here about the origins and the healthy aspects of our defenses: We all developed certain strategies as infants in order to survive, particular to our temperament and our environment. These strategies, or defense mechanisms, were directly tied into our survival. Examples of these would be fight (rebellion, sarcasm, or aggression), flight (withdrawal or stonewalling) or freeze (compliance or dissociation). We came by these skills honestly and they are actually tributes to the intelligence of our human system.
Sometimes defenses are useful in the present. There may indeed exist people from whom we feel we need protection—those who feel toxic to us. There is a difference between consciously setting safe boundaries and automatically reacting without conscious thought or awareness.
Unfortunately, though, when we are triggered—that is, when something in the present hijacks us back into the past—our defenses are activated in an unconscious, or “knee-jerk” kind of way. Often this creates undesirable chain reactions and can keep our less helpful patterns intact. We reinforce the very dynamics that lock us into a limited experience of our lives, creating problems and keeping us stuck.
A personal example may serve to illustrate this. It was late at night and I was helping my son with his math homework, a word problem. It was complex; there were lots of factors, so the task was to figure out which facts were relevant. I felt myself becoming frustrated “with him” and shaming him for not understanding the problem. Suddenly I realized that it was I who felt ashamed because I was unable to understand it. My defense of superiority had hijacked me to projecting my own shame onto my son. I took a time out, went and had a good cry, came back and apologized to my son, and we continued to work on his homework.
So a part of this inner work is not only the awareness of what is actually transpiring, but the more difficult task of feeling the emotions that our defenses are defending against. And not only do I need to feel this, but optimally I need to love myself and not fall into the trap of self-attack. This is a place that calls for self-love, being my own best ally. One of the most heart-wrenching things that can happen here is self-abandonment, when at the moment of such vulnerability we attack instead of support ourselves. At this junction, I try to be my own good mother and ask how I would treat myself if I were my own child, helping me to connect with my tenderness, kindness and compassion.
The next stage (for some of us a quantum leap!) is to reach out to another person. Author and psychotherapist Robert Karen (from his brilliant book The Forgiving Self) writes: “Every time we go to someone we trust with an obsessive feeling of shame, guilt, or regret and get it worked out, or at least worked on, so that it loses some of its tyrannical grip, we are engaged in a healing intimacy. It takes courage to do this. It runs counter to our defensive impulses. It represents the ultimate collapse of the need to justify, to blame, to get even. For we are letting another part of us speak, the part that is in doubt, the part that believes we may be wrong, so wrong that our very worth is thrown into question. But unless that part can be allowed to speak, there can be no healing.”
If we look at what’s beneath our defense mechanisms, we’ll find clues to our shadow. In my story above, what I saw under my superiority was my own sense of inadequacy. I cover it up by arrogance, having to know it all, not admitting that I am wrong. By touching into my pain around this, I start to feel compassion and understanding. I “get” that in my family of origin, I felt ashamed when I wasn’t perfect, especially in matters of intelligence. I get the opportunity to heal, grow, and to finish some unfinished business.
Shadow In the search for our own authenticity and completeness, our Shadow needs to be invited in; Shadow plus Light equals wholeness; (Peter Pan didn’t have a shadow, a possible metaphor for not growing up). Jungian author Robert Bly calls the shadow “the long bag we drag behind us.” The shadow is anything, “good” or “bad,” that we hide or repress; in other words, any part of us that is unlived, for whatever reason. The word “shadow” has the connotation of being something negative, like violence or anger or evil. But there is a range of things that get put into the bag. One could be creativity, perhaps put away when we were shamed by teachers. Another possibility is sexuality. It’s hard to imagine many in our Puritan culture surviving with their innate sexuality intact. We see its shadow coming out in the collective American society, with the largest pornography industry in the world and revealed sexual secrets of dogmatic religious leaders. Another example is seen in past generations when girls were taught to put their intelligence in their bag, so as not to scare away potential mates.
Jung said there is gold to be found in the shadow. Integrating the shadow will bring back to us not only the helpful, “positive” traits that we have hidden away, but also whatever shunned parts that we need to integrate to move toward wholeness. Even a so-called “negative” aspect like anger can be a key to our personal power in the world. It’s when anger is repressed that it turns into rage. Additionally, we tend to spend a great deal of energy keeping these aspects of our shadow in our black bag. When we incorporate our shadow into our lives, much more vitality and aliveness come along with it.
Trebbe Johnson in her book, The World is a Waiting Lover, puts it like this: “We must brave the underworld of ourselves, challenge the dragons lurking there, and bring back the gold they guard, or we will not be able to enjoy a stable relationship with the inner beloved. Because these destructive energies lurk below our consciousness, we can spend years—sometimes an entire lifetime—devoting precious energy tiptoeing around them. But until we face what’s there and integrate it in a positive way into our conscious behavior, we remain fragmented, for how can we love and respect ourselves fully when we cannot even bear to acknowledge certain facets of who we are? We must confront the troublemakers within, or they will plot against us and foil our most virtuous acts.”
What clues, besides awareness of defense mechanisms, might lead us on the trail to our shadow? Dreams are one. My sense is that our psyches let us face our unconscious material, uncensored, through dreams when we are ready (i.e. have enough inner muscle and self-support) to have a look. Some dreams are more direct and literal than others. Often the clues lie in feelings. Where in your life, past or present, have you experienced a similar felt-sense as in the dream? Such leads occasionally offer an opportunity to see more deeply and unguardedly into our psyches. Dreams can also show us our shadows in other ways, for instance:
- Opposite sex figures can show us our hidden dynamics or templates
- Judgmental figures can point to our inner critic
- Nightmares can show us the monsters under our proverbial beds—what we are too frightened to look at
- Angry dreams might show us where our ability to stand up for ourselves is unable to be acted upon
Another way to understand shadow is through our projections. Simply stated, projections are attributes of ourselves that we perceive in others. Projections can go both ways, either “negative” or “positive.” For instance, a clue can be found through people that we just can’t stand. My major irritation at people who seem to hog the spotlight is a reflection of the part of me that I keep humble so I won’t seem like a show-off. But a part of me does want to be seen and acknowledged, to get attention, and that’s the part that is in my shadow. The work would be how to give room for that part of myself, and to know the difference between unhealthy narcissism and living out loud.
On the flip side, people who we admire can provide yet other clues about our shadow. I have always gravitated towards teachers, and looked up to them, but never imagined that I could teach. The very thought made me anxious. If someone had told me even four years ago that I would have been teaching, getting up in front of groups of people and speaking, I would have laughed and said, “No way!” Today that is exactly what is most fulfilling to me. Envy is also a great pointer towards what we’ve put aside for ourselves yet covet in someone else.
Self-love Entering into the territory of defense mechanisms and shadow can be frightening. It is not easy to look at and experience these sensitive parts of ourselves, where shame is often involved. To do so, we need to be our own best friend and ally. This is something we have to learn to do; there are not many role models out there in the world. And, as Robert Karen says, “there is nothing quite like the security of self-love.”
Let’s talk about what self-love isn’t. Jungian analyst Pittman McGehee quotes one of his patients as saying “Someone in here doesn’t like me!” To the degree that this part is active, we aren’t safe to explore our vulnerable aspects, leaving ourselves open to our inner critic, self-attack and self-abandonment. I have to know that someone is there for me, and that someone has to be myself.
If we weren’t accepted or loved for who we were—our authenticity—then we have to draw upon something outside of our own experience to learn to do it for us. Internalizing my own “Good Mother” archetype, as mentioned above, has gone a long way to cultivate this inner nurturing relationship with myself.
As a part of self-love, we do well to pace ourselves in exploring this terrain. There is an analogy between inner work and cooking rice: the flame must be high enough to cook the rice, but if it’s too high, the rice gets burnt. Less is definitely more; baby steps are the order of the day. And in the process, we develop more inner muscle, as well as wisdom about what works best for us.
In this journey, along with our tears of vulnerability from our tender spots, we find our hearts cracking open to others. As we open to ourselves with compassion, so we open to others. We find ourselves moved by life itself. In our workshops, the beauty in the room by everyone’s open, “defenseless” sharing reveals a stunning, palpable beauty. Zan observed that, “we are all truly beautiful when we’re vulnerable.” We see and recognize that in others, but have difficulty seeing it in ourselves, usually because of all the shame that clouds our vision. A big part of self-love is owning all parts of ourselves, including our feared, hated or shameful shadow aspects. The invitation here is to love our whole range—to treat ourselves so well that our soul has pleasure living its embodied life.
Ways to Work There are several ways to work on this Gordian Knot of defense, shadow and self-love on the road to authenticity. Relationship is one way. This can be with a partner, a lover, a friend, a mentor or a therapist; someone to lovingly reflect our blind spots both to our strengths and to our weaknesses. Workshops or group work also provide potential for great insight and breakthroughs.
Self-observation is indispensable—to pay exquisite attention to our thoughts, feelings, reactions and behaviors. In order to do this we have to be able to take a step back, to observe without judgment. If we judge, we cannot see clearly. And in judging ourselves, we don’t feel safe to take a good look. My friend Ann has taught me the mantra of “So What?” As in, “I feel bitchy today…so what?” The “so what?” gives me space to experience what I am experiencing without censorship. In addition, just feeling what I’m feeling doesn’t mean inflicting that on anyone else around me, and in fact helps me not to. If my feelings are not kept in the shadow, I keep them where I can see them, being aware of them, and therefore can make choices about how I am going to deal with or express them.
The greatest, and most dramatic, of our “teachers” might well be the Dark Night of the Soul. In the dark night, our defenses can be violently ripped from us and the veil that hides our shadow can be torn away with no warning. This is the Chaos Theory path, where our inner architecture is shattered, allowing something new to emerge.
In the dark night, we wrestle with our demons, which are also our angels since they bring gifts that ultimately heal. The author John Sanford wrote about this in regards to the biblical story of Jacob: “Jacob refused to part with his experience until he knew its meaning…everyone who wrestles with his spiritual and psychological experience, and, no matter how dark or frightening it is, refuses to let it go until he discovers its meaning, is having something of the Jacob experience. Such a person can come through his dark struggle to the other side reborn, but one who retreats or runs from his encounter with spiritual reality cannot be transformed.” I’d like to point out here that there is a difference between wallowing in our pain and working with it constructively. As Marion Woodman, the Jungian author writes: “Creative suffering burns clean; neurotic suffering creates soot.”
All of this is the work of a lifetime. We long to be seen and are, at the same time, terrified of being seen—but that’s where our healing and our authenticity ultimately lie. Additionally, it is difficult to either give or receive love (or even feel it) from a defended position. When we release the holds that our defense mechanisms and shadow have on us, we free up more energy for creativity and fun, peace of mind, happiness and love.
Marla Estes lives in Ashland and is a teacher, writer, mentor and workshop leader, with a Masters degree in Transpersonal Studies. Visit her website at www.marlaestes.com
Dr. Zan E. Nix teaches psychology at Southern Oregon University. She has a private practice as a life coach and organizational consultant and expresses her own creativity through poetry and being a singer-songwriter. Visit her website at www.drzannix.com
Together Zan and Marla facilitate workshops and ongoing groups centered around inner work.