We Never Cease to Look Out for Ourselves

Sometime last year I was invited to give a presentation to HSE mental health professionals and their clients. I have no doubt that the HSE’s intention was for me to motivate their clients to take more responsibility for their lives and to develop a greater level of self-reliance. When I stood up to talk I started with the sentence ‘Everybody in this room is self-reliant, always finds a way to take care of themselves and no one is weak by nature.’ I can’t say what was the immediate actual response of each professional and each client in the audience but from people’s facial expressions I noted that some people appeared certainly surprised, others confused and others looked to be thinking ‘he’s off the wall.’ However, as I elaborated my theme I could see people beginning not only to understand but to have compassion for individuals who present to the mental health services with anxiety, depression, addictions to substances, process addictions (for example, to work, to success, to being right, to perfectionism), obsessive-compulsive behaviours, hallucinations, paranoia, violence and passivity.

How you view person and what your understanding of human behaviour is will determine your response to it. When you do not see each person as a unique happening, as an individual who is unconditionally lovable, highly intelligent, creative you are likely to label them as mad, bad or sad individuals and to label their challenging behaviours as insane or irrational or weak or hopeless. When you assume that their ways of coping spring from some biological or chemical imbalance, such labels only add to the torment these individuals are enduring.

The deepest longing of each and every human being is for an unconditional belonging. This longing has been identified by writers on spirituality, by Christ, by Buddha, by philosophers, psychoanalysts and humanistic psychologist. There is a deep wisdom to this longing, for when it is met, the person feels secure to express his individuality, to be emotionally expressive and receptive, to be spontaneous, adventurous, energetic and ambitious to live out his or her own unique human existence.  When the need for unconditional love is not met, a great darkness arises and the person who is abandoned has to find some means of surviving and compensating for the lack of loving. What is certain is that when that tragedy of abandonment occurs and is ongoing, the person – child, teenager or adult – can be relied upon to take care of himself or herself. It is in this sense that a person is always self-reliant; when the threats exist to the unique priceless pearl that one is, a person will find powerful ways to guard it and at the same time find a substitute means of getting attention. The substitute can never match the real need for unconditional love, but it acts as a life-line until the day that one experiences unconditional regard from another – be it friend, lover or therapist.

I related to the audience the story of a young man who was addicted to recreational drugs and who had a history of a violent and hypercritical fathering and a passive and unchampioning mothering. When I enquired of him how he felt when he took the drugs he said he felt ‘great’ and when the effects wore off he felt ‘totally miserable’. He had started using drugs at age eleven and did all in his power to avoid his father by staying out of home as much as he could. He caused a lot of trouble in classrooms by refusing to cooperate and was aggressive in his behaviour towards the teachers. All of these responses were designed to get people in authority – like his father – to back off so that he experienced less harsh rejection. The drugs were his one way of ‘feeling high.’ He had been labelled as a drug addict and had been warned that he had no future if he continued to rely on drugs. What was missed was that his reliance on drugs was a self-reliance, not a problem – without it he would have sunk into despair and, more than likely, taken his own life because he could not live with the unbearable pain of abandonment by the two most important people in his life – his mother and father. Suicide is not about ending one’s life; it is about ending the emotional pain. This is very evident in teenagers who self-harm by cutting into their flesh and letting the blood flow. Attention to the physical acts and the flow of pain is a substitute attention for the deeper, far more intense pain of rejection which they dare not reveal for fear of further abandonment.

We are masters at developing substitutes for the real longings that have not been met. Men are notorious for thinking that work is what provides them with an identity; women believe that caring for others is the key; some teenagers believe academic success is what matters. All of these examples demonstrate the power of the person – albeit unconsciously – to look after themselves when threats to their sacred presence are present. To judge, threaten, label, medicate and incarcerate only serve to increase the substitute responses because no understanding, compassion or unconditional love are being shown. In such a non-therapeutic scenario the person can be relied upon to escalate their substitute responses. Equally, when understanding, unconditional love and compassion are present, the person – once trust in the person caring is established – the person can be relied upon to shift, step-by-step, from the substitute to real and authentic ways of living.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker.  His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.