“We’re all neurotic, by the way.” I say smiling to a class of yoga students, as they sit on their mat, looking at me expectantly. Some of them smile and chuckle with me, others nod eagerly at me and others seem to be having a difficult time paying attention. I continue: “So if we can just accept that for what it is, we will be able to find more compassion and acceptance for where we are, which leads to a little less suffering.” They’re expecting to start moving or practice some kind of meditation or breath-work, but probably not expecting to have to sit with a statement like that. I laugh because I know this idea to be true in my own life and work. They chuckle probably for a few reasons- they might be thinking: “What is she talking about?” or “Everyone else might be, but I’m not,” or they laugh knowingly because they have encountered their own neuroses and are working on accepting themselves exactly as they are, with varying degrees of success. True healing requires us to pause and seriously consider our own wounding. Yoga is another tool for healing, so I often bring topics like this up in the yoga room as well as in therapy sessions with clients. Neurosis, in this sense, is not as serious or as awful as we might have previously thought, and it certainly does not indicate or point to a life of misery. It simply refers to the conditioning, internal suffering and defense mechanisms most human beings develop as a response to everyday life.
The most effective clinicians are the ones that have encountered their own pain, maladaptive or ineffective coping strategies, and have found a way through. If a therapist isn’t doing their own work, run the other way! This reminds me of the words of one of my spiritual teachers in India: “Only true knowledge comes from experience.”
So, how do we create a healthy, whole human being? How do we truly know ourselves? Is this something we can create or foster or were we already born healthy and whole? What does it mean to “do the work?” What is required to live a life of emotional freedom where we are in control of our thoughts, aware of our emotions and awake to both the light and shadow parts of ourselves? The answer is complex and simple at the same time: every behavior is a communication, including defenses. Defenses can be seen as any behavior or thought that protects some wounded, soft place inside and they can take many forms: defiance, self-harm, anxiety, depression. All these examples are connected to physiological fight/flight/freeze states that often have their roots in trauma, which we will refer to here as any overwhelming experience the brain could not process at any time in our lives. Those soft, tender places inside are there because we didn’t get what we needed from our environment to cope with those experiences or the experiences themselves were so overwhelming, that, again, our brain couldn’t integrate the experience.
In the Gestalt frame of psychotherapy, they say that we can heal when given the right tools to do so- when we have an appropriate, healthy relationship with our environment and when those in our environment (family, society, culture, etc) can provide healthy boundaries and contact in exchange. In order to heal the places inside that are raw, tender and painful, we have to be willing to work with them long enough and with compassion, patience, and presence.
Life can be inherently painful and if we were not taught nor given effective, healthy and sustainable resources and strategies to manage that pain inside ourselves, we can develop habits that may have served us at one time, but may not in our adult lives. We also learn to cut off or split off parts of ourselves that weren’t accepted or “okay” in our families of origin, peer groups, and so on. For example, we might have felt a lot of anger as a child but were ignored, were told anger wasn’t okay, or never saw anyone in our family deal with anger in a productive way so we shut it off in ourselves because it was too scary. This is adaptive to a degree- we are trying to fit in and ensure that we are taken care of, at a time when we need to be taken care of (namely, as children). We were trying to manage the overwhelm that can come from trying to face life without the tools that could help us do that effectively. Essentially, these parts of ourselves get split off as a result of shame and trauma – it’s too overwhelming or I don’t get my need met if I let ______ part of myself show. As clinicians and professionals who are supporting clients in treatment, it is vital that we understand the parts of ourselves that were split off, denied and are left unhealed inside ourselves. If we don’t, they will come out in the therapy – what Freud called countertransference.
The defenses we have are there to help protect those wounded, disowned places, much like a band-aid or cast would. What do we need to do to eventually be able to take that emotional band-aid or cast off? There are many approaches but one of the most effective ways to do that is to be in relationship with someone who can manage and love us exactly where we are and who can see the wound underneath the cast, despite all our attempts to tell them it’s not there (we will defend our coping mechanisms vehemently when we think it’s still vital for our safety and survival). Usually, the best place for this is in working with an effective, competent therapist, and ideally one that has done this work themselves. A therapist who has their own therapist, so to speak. When we experience full acceptance from someone in our environment, perhaps for the first time, that part of ourselves feels safe enough to peek through, to see if the coast is clear, and to perhaps stay out in the open for a while longer than it did before. This is like my friend’s cat who is afraid and skittish of most things, that is until you stay for a while and are calm enough to soothe his fears, he starts to hang around a little longer, maybe even letting you pet him. So that anger inside? That secret you’ve been keeping? The deep well of sadness or grief that lurks under the smile? The lust, the greed, even the happiness! When we can sit with another human being that sees all that in us and loves us because of ALL that we are? That is one of the most profoundly healing experiences we can ever have. To be loved fully and completely, for all our flaws and scars, is a gift and is what begins to heal the wound underneath the defenses we’ve held onto so tightly for fear of being truly seen.
So yes, we all land at varying degrees of the neurosis spectrum – and the beautiful thing about life and being human? We all share that in common with one another. That when we can recognize our own wounding, shame, and trauma, we can see the same in others with compassion and an open heart. And when we learn to love ourselves exactly where we are in the here and now, we can also learn to love others where they are in this moment.