Everybody has a story and each person’s
story is a unique autobiography and only that person fully knows their story.
However, some aspects of a person’s story may be known only at an unconscious level and this hidden world will only become available to consciousness when the person finds adequate emotional and social safety, initially with another and, subsequently, within self.
The story of a person’s life is not the events he or she encounters – for example, difficult birth, loving mother, emotionless home, conditional loving, violent father, possessive mother, kind grandparent, affirming teacher. The story consists in the person’s inner responses to these events. What is amazing in a family or classroom or workplace is that each person responds in a unique way to situations that arise. This means that each child has a different mother and a different father, each student a different teacher, each employee a different manager and each voter a different politician. This makes total sense because when two individuals interact, inevitably, their interaction will be of a unique nature. Parents are powerful witnesses to how each child is completely different from the other and this happens whether children are reared in benign or difficult circumstances.
However, when children are reared in violating circumstances their individuality is expressed through the unique formation of very powerful defensive behaviours that are designed on the one hand, to reduce the frequently encountered threats to their wellbeing, and, two, to bring to the attention of any mature adult in their lives their deeply troubled interiority. Children who experience a stable and loving family also express their individuality and develop a repertoire of open and creative responses that are different to those of the other siblings. Another way of putting it is that children whose wellbeing is jeopardised daily are ingenious in the ways that they repress (hide away) what aspects of their individual self that they dare not exhibit, whilst children whose wellbeing is unconditionally held are ingenious in the ways that they express and manifest their individuality, ensuring that they are not confused with anybody else within the family.
As an adult, each of us has a responsibility to occupy our own individuality. To do that, we need to become aware of our unconscious and conscious responses. You may well ask: are we not always conscious of what we feel, think, say and do? Certainly, you may notice that you can be aggressive, violent, shy, timid or manipulative but you may not be conscious of the sources of those defensive responses. Unless these sources are uncovered your threatening responses towards yourself or towards others will continue. Consciousness requires that we own, understand and are accountable for our inner and outer behaviours and that, when the responses are defensive (as opposed to mature) in nature, that we make new mature choices and take new mature actions.
Take the example of a manager in the workplace who bullies and intimidates other employees. When confronted he is likely to justify and rationalise his threatening responses by, for example, ‘nobody would do anything around here without being shouted and ranted at’ or ‘being bullied did me no harm as a child.’ However, when that manager compassionately understands the bullying behaviour as an unconscious creation arising from unresolved fears within himself – for instance, fear of failure, fear of what others think, fear of letting down his parents – it is likely that a consciousness will emerge of the real threat that he is posing to the wellbeing of employees. Once that consciousness is present, new choices and new actions are now possible towards himself and the employees. Getting to the story of what led to the bullying is not an attempt to dilute the serious emotional threat that bullying poses – sadly, over sixty suicides occur annually as a result of bullying. On the contrary, it is my belief and my experience that unless the person who bullies becomes conscious of his hidden self-esteem issues, his defensive behaviour will continue and is likely to escalate when outside pressures increase. Change is only possible when what lies hidden is brought to the surface and what it was in his story that led to the creative development of bullying as a means of withstanding hurt. Individuals who bully need the support to stand with themselves, so that they are no longer dependent on others standing with them. The overt intention of bullying is to ensure control, but the covert intention is to draw attention to the urgent need to be in control of self and to support others to do likewise.
Whatever the threatening behaviours we engage in either towards self or others, the unravelling of their purpose can only be found in the examination of one’s story and the discovery of what the defensive responses are doing for you that you need to be doing for yourself.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist, is author of several books on practical psychology, including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.