The saying ‘No man is an island’ masks a deeper and, indeed, an opposite reality – each person is an island (I-land). When a person knows and occupies her own island she brings a maturity and independence to a relationship – to partner, friend, colleague, child, neighbour and service provider. This reality is contained eloquently in Martin Buber’s (German philosopher/psychotherapist) words:
“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person....to know and consider....that there has never been anyone like her in the world, for if there had been someone like her, there would have been no need for her to be in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfil her particularity in this world. Every person’s foremost task is the actualisation of her unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, be it even the greatest, has already achieved.”
Whilst I find Buber’s words inspirational, I differ with him on the notion that ‘it is the duty of every person....’. Duty suggests that some of us choose consciously not to know ourselves. However, I believe we never abandon ourselves, but when we encounter threats to our individuality, uniqueness, our particularity, we create another I-land, a defensive one with an artillery to withstand the slings and arrows of the defensive islands of the significant people in our lives. Our defensive I-lands effectively mask those unique aspects of our real I-lands that were not cherished and valued and encountered rejection, comparison, criticism, ridicule or were just not seen. When one defensive I-land meets another defensive I-land, the result is an escalation of defences and a deeper masking and hiding of one’s true and unique self.
What is critical to understanding the phenomenon of defensive relationships is that it all happens at an unconscious level. We owe appreciation to Sigmund Freud for identifying the existence of the unconscious mind and the very powerful defences we create there – projection (blame others), introjection (blame self), reaction formation (go the opposite way to the way rejected), displacement (act out your anger on person (or object) other than the person who rejected you, rationalisation (invent logical reasons for acting in unreasonable ways) and many, many more. When we encounter these defensive responses we need to respond to them with understanding and compassion and provide a safe and unconditional holding for what is unconscious (hidden) to come to consciousness. We can only hold such safety for another when we occupy our real I-land.
It is certainly the case that only the person who is being defensive truly knows (albeit unconsciously) what parts of their real I-land are in hiding and any attempt to interpret is invasive and can lead to an escalation of the person’s defences. Belief that at a deeper level a person knows exactly what is going on (but is either terrified or frightened to reveal) goes a long way for the breakthrough to slowly but surely emerge. Another quality that is necessary is patience. Nobody knows the intimate and intricate details of another person’s story and it is critical to receive rather than try to elicit a story. Active listening is the act of worship that can open the gates to the hidden world of the person’s ‘unique, unprecedented and never- recurring potentialities’.
The role that the unconscious plays in our everyday life has really not filtered down into mainstream psychology and our understanding of relationships, and, as a result, much therapeutic endeavours are prescriptive rather than receptive in nature. The influence of the unconscious in our everyday lives is beautifully summarised in a book called The Talent Masters (2011) by Bill Conaty and Ram Charan:
“Your drives, your psychological likes and dislikes, your motives to achieve goals, and the values by which you achieve those goals are all part of the emotional etchings buried in your Inner core. They shape the way you make decisions, exercise judgement and take action. They affect the people who come into contact with you: subordinates, peers, family. They affect how you see these people. Your inner core determines how clearly you see and perceive, what you select as important, how you think and act, and the quality of your judgements, decision, and relationships. It affects the way you frame an issue, how you search for information, and from whom. And it very often does these things without Tweeting them to your conscious mind.
Becoming aware of and dealing with your inner core is at the centre of personal effectiveness and professional effectiveness. The more acutely you’re aware of it, the better you will be as a Person.”
What is clear from the above quote is the defensive complexity that each of us can bring unconsciously to a relationship. Every defence poses a threat to the real I-land of another – especially children who depend on adults to be real with them and those adults who are masking their true self. Unless emotional safety is found a very sad cycle of defensiveness develops.
Dr. Tony Humphreys, is a consultant clinical psychologist, national and international speaker and author. His book with co-author Dr. Helen Ruddle Relationship, Relationship, Relationship, Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s column.