Why Am I Reacting Like This?
Character styes, community and mindfulness.
During roughly the last hundred years developmental psychology has mapped out in detail how we become emotionally an adult and how our environment – emotional and physical – can adversely impact upon this. Put simply as we grow up things wound us and these wounds we may then bear for the rest of our life. What has been discovered is that there are periods of emotional, cognitive and behavioural growth which, Russian doll like, build one upon the other. Broadly speaking these comprise making a secure attachment to our mothering person, separating from her and becoming an independent self and lastly, as a separate self making relationships with others. However each of these steps can be influenced and even arrested by innumerable things going wrong – for instance our mother1 is absent for any variety of reasons, expressions of independence are frustrated or relating to others becomes problematical. These insights from a psychotherapeutic perspective are invaluable. They have enabled those who provide therapy with not only a generally accurate understanding of what hurts us but also how it can best be worked with so that the legacy of hurt does not have to badly influence all that follows. Again to put it simply, this understanding enables making ‘hand made’ therapies that closely address the unique pattern of wounding each individual bears.
If we then look at Buddhism it can be seen that it too has developed an understanding of different types of persons with their unique needs and has answered these needs by recognising that different types need different methods of meditation and that they will have different problems that will need different solutions. There are a number of these Buddhist typologies, for instance ones that divide people into the five elements, space, air, water, fire and earth, or ‘the four horses’, or as particularly prone to one of the ‘three root poisons’ ignorance, grasping or aversion. What all of these share is that they are primarily concerned with how the person is now and how best to skilfully go forward rather than psychoanalytically construct the history of their past. Because of this Buddhism does not have a closely worked out understanding of how developmental wounding impacts upon the person’s experience of learning and practising meditation. How what has hurt us in the past continues to hurt us in the present as we struggle with our meditation for reasons we generally are entirely unconscious of. This being so what follows is a first tentative step towards bringing these two areas together so that one, ‘psychoanalytic developmental psychology’, will shed light on the other, the practice of meditation.
To enable this attempt I have chosen a typology offered by Stephen M. Johnson, academic and psychologist, and found in his book Character Styles. This is neither the only schema nor necessarily the best but it does have the advantage of being constructed from a wide spectrum of research and covering a variety of therapeutic perspectives. It also clearly helps illustrate how our struggles with learning and practising meditation may reflect the struggles we already have had during the first five years of our life. It divides the three broad stages I outlined above into seven, these are in my own understanding:
The schizoid wound. The oral wound.
Separate self wounds:
The symbiotic wound. The narcissistic wound. The masochistic wound.
Self in relationship wounds:
The histrionic wound. The obsessional wound.
One last word before we go on to look at each of these in detail. Clearly no one exhibits a perfect example of just one wound nor is the degree or depth of wounding the same for everyone. Usually an earlier wound impacts, domino like, upon later stages of development creating a more complex picture and the degree of wounding can range between a perfectly functioning ‘character style’, a non- or mildly pathological coloration in the personality, through neurosis to the extremes of a personality disorder or psychotic illness. Also there is no such thing as a person who has no wounding as there is no such thing as a person who has been perfectly mirrored. It is more a matter of “good enough”. All this adds up to each of us being both quite individual in our package of wounding while at the same time sharing common characteristics in much the same way we all have broadly similar bodies and minds. Finally it is this balance that we need to keep in awareness so that no one is reduced to a mere category while at the same time we can take advantage of knowing (more or less) how we all work. Perhaps the real mystery at the heart of this is how we are the sum of all we have experienced but at the same time we are not just our wounds.
The schizoid wound – entering a dangerous world
The schizoid wound is the earliest wound created either intrauterine or at and immediately around birth. The essence of this is that instead of being received into an emotionally and physically secure loving environment we experience everything as dangerous and fear that we are going to be annihilated. The reasons for this could be anything from the mother, due to external circumstances, being afraid for her own safety and the safety of her baby, to the mother being abusive, ill attuned and herself profoundly psychologically damaged. Either way the baby has no means to understand any of this and finding its world terrifyingly hostile withdraws into its own imaginal world as a defence where she or he relates solely to himself or herself. Being a person with this wound we will later be perceived by others as socially withdrawn, anxious, fearful, emotionally flat, perhaps distant or dissociated. They may also sense a deeply suppressed primitive rage that can be expressed in harshness towards others and ourself. This emotional coldness is because we are afraid of our own emotions. These threaten to carry us into relationship with the world of others and it is this intimacy that we are most afraid of because others have become perceived as a source of pain and not comfort. To avoid this we are happier in our own inner world, a world characterised by a preference for intellectualism and emotionally ‘cool’ forms of spirituality and mysticism. This perhaps is the classic cause for ‘spiritual bypassing’ where we use spirituality to avoid rather than ‘be present with’ our emotions. Depending on the severity of the wound it may span being a ‘character style’, a little introverted and avoidant, to a full personality disorder or functional psychosis – which is about as serious as it gets. However in practice most of us who become involved with practising meditation, particularly within a group, do not experience our schizoid wound at the extreme end of this spectrum.
When we come to learning and practising meditation the schizoid wound has its own unique challenges. First the issue of how we learn to meditate is difficult because if we are to learn it from someone else, a teacher, this may involve some form of emotional relationship that is to be avoided. Due to this ‘one removed’ sources of teaching such as books and CD’s give us access to instruction without exposure to emotional vulnerability. Likewise a community of fellow practitioners threatens the same alarming intimacy – much better study and practice alone at home away from the dangers of group social interaction. Even if we do dare to go forward a little into a group our place of comfort will be the margins and our level of commitment contingent on not being intruded upon. In our over all engagement with our spiritual2 path study and learning will be important. This satisfies the need to primarily organise things cognitively and thereby maintain control. While the emotional side of spirituality – devotion for instance – must be avoided, impersonal aspects such as the psychic, transcendent or otherworldly are all places we are happy to go. This particularly shows itself in the fascination with ideas about the ultimate nature of things. Ideas such as ‘not-self’ and ‘emptiness’ found in Buddhism.3 These are particularly seductive because they easily allow a subversion of their meaning by the schizoid defences that are ever ready to renounce the confines of ordinary human interactions for a world of non- attachment and non-engagement. When it comes to meditation what will instinctively attract us is the possibility of rising above and even stopping emotional needs. Because of this meditations such as mindfulness, will be particularly difficult as this emphasises the importance of being with what ever is immanent and this of course includes being wholly and happily in touch with our emotions. Given this when we practice mindfulness with a schizoid wound we will always be in danger of witnessing our experience from a position too far back, a position that is not mindfulness, an unidentified yet intimate engagement, but rather a subtle dissociation. Looking carefully into this way of practising may well give the insight that ones motivation is fear of feeling anything and so the hindrances to practice will be revealed – aversion to feeling and attachment to the defences of spacing out and spending a disproportionate time in our fantasies. Another facet is the harshness mentioned above, having experienced the world as harsh we then introject this and apply it to our self. When meditating this can show itself by being excessively critical of our practice, not having the light, kind and curious attitude in which the practice will flourish. Along with the tendency to intellectualise these defences all add up to a meditation experience that on the surface presents the legitimate desire to access calm and insight, to be mindfully present, while concealed beneath the surface is the need to be in control and protect against danger. A need the close observational skills of mindfulness can unhappily be perverted to serve.
The oral wound – being abandoned and needy
Following close on the tail of the schizoid wound comes the oral wound as it also concerns our experience of attachment to our mothering person. However while the schizoid wound supposes virtually no attachment to a hostile emotional environment this implies at least some however inadequate or transitory the environment may have been. As such it is less severe. When we suffer from an oral wound it is likely that we will have experienced our mothering person as unreliable or insufficient, meeting our needs for emotional and physical nourishment in such a way that we were left unsatisfied. Perhaps our mother had unmet needs herself and we instinctively and unconsciously gave up our needs to attend to hers in the belief that this way we would at least get something. Whatever the cause we are left in later life being a person who cannot get our needs met because we do not know them ourself, because we cannot ask, because we do not recognise sources of nourishment even when they are right in front of us. Typically we will experience depression perhaps interspersed with brief periods of ‘bright’ hyperactivity. We will also feel easily alone, abandoned and be particularly susceptible to separation anxiety. From this follows the deeply seated belief that one is unlovable, inadequate or inferior, that there is something wrong with me – if not why else would my mother not have cared? Experiencing all this two options open to us. We can either be openly needy, trying to elicit from others what we feel we never got as an infant, the ‘collapsed’ position, or we can continue to suppress our needs and give to others what we deeply crave for our self, the ‘compensated’ position. This is the classic choice of ‘helpers’ – including many of us in the therapeutic professions. The presentations of each of these ‘choices’ are quite different. The collapsed explicitly needy communicating itself clearly, perhaps through periodic break downs that require and legitimise receiving help from others, while the compensated form appears as generously giving, caring and self-sacrificing, completely without aggressive impulses. All the traits that were experienced as absent in the mother. However this largesse is only skin deep because lurking beneath both presentations is frequently an oral rage that is furious its needs were and are unmet and a determination that somewhere, someone will be made to meet them. While this remains largely unconscious and projected in the compensated carer type, in the more straight forwardly collapsed, empty and depressed this becomes plainly evident when some possibility of nourishment appears – for instance when entering therapy. Then a battle may ensue in which the malnourished infant within the adult stubbornly refuses to nourish his or herself in the hope that this will force the other to feed them. A sadly unfulfillable hope as the time for this – ones infancy – is long gone and now we must become responsible for our own nourishment.
How then does all this play out in our engagement with learning and practising meditation? It is first particularly evident in our relationship to our teachers, as these tend to be experienced with the same ambivalent attachment that we experienced our mother. Depending on whether we have an overtly needy presentation or a more hidden compensation we will either approach the teacher as a source of nourishment or as someone we can serve. Either way devotion will be an easily accessed emotion. We will be empty and they will fill us up or we are there to do their bidding, to be their personal helper whatever sacrifices this may entail. However the teacher in all likely hood will at some point fail to meet our needs and this may be met with either a renewal of hopelessness and depression or, particularly at the more extreme end, an eruption of the usually repressed rage. When this happens our initially beloved teacher suddenly becomes entirely bad, a splitting that is characteristic of the oral wounds most extreme expression as a borderline personality disorder. Similarly our relationship to any group we belong to and the teaching it follows. Our ambivalent attachment constantly colours our experience of what it has to offer and whether we are able (good enough) to receive it. We may idealise others who we imagine are ‘further’ on the path than our self and teachings that are ‘higher’ than we are able to practice. Fantasies that confirm our badness and keep us needy. As the schizoid wound could most easily distort teachings on non-self and non-attachment so too the oral wound can distort teachings on devotion and doing it for others, in Buddhism the notion of the bodhisattva. Here the test is whether there is or is not a recognition that all ‘all sentient beings’ includes us, that the happiness and lack of suffering we wish for them we can also wish for and have ourself. Traditions that have a strong ‘bodhisattva’ element such as Christianity and Buddhism are particularly vulnerable to being appropriated by those of us with a compensated oral wound where we serve others at entirely our own expense whilst feeling empty within and beneath this, very much buried, furious that no one is looking after us. When we come to practising meditation – something that should be the ultimate self-nourishment – the ambivalence shows itself again. The nourishment of meditation is somehow unforthcoming. The orally wounded practitioner may feel that they are particularly bad meditators and focus solely on what they are doing wrong while aiming for impossible goals. An extremely common example of this is the mistaken belief that we should have no thoughts during meditation nor ever be distracted. Such expectations, often stubbornly clung too despite being entirely wrong, unrealistically elevate the practice while denying us the means to get anything from it – a re-enactment of the original oral wound. As such meditation often is something we go to feeling in need but practice in such a way that we come away with little to nothing. Practising in such a way we miss what is there while confirming the belief that I am particularly bad and no good and that this desired goal – a calm mind, finding a still space – is forever beyond my reach even though I will keep trying to achieve it. Frequently the experience of this is so depressing that those of us who have the compensated form will give up and instead serve the community in one way or another, not realising that this seemingly selfless act is a deeply hidden and unconscious cry to be seen and helped. It says, “I cannot help myself but if I help you, you may then help me.”
Once we have been born and established some sort of attachment we begin a process which in many ways could be represented on the one hand as a series of separations from our mothering person and which we need her (or his) support for if we are going to succeed, and on the other an intense desire to reach out to others and the world we inhabit. Different typologies divide this time and its emotional evolution in different ways but for simplicity sake we can think of it as the period during which we begin to and then establish a greater sense of individuality and personal agency. This continuous journey does have milestones along the road. One, at around six months, is the dawning awareness that life is a mixed bag and something – our mother – whom we are entirely dependent upon, can be both deeply satisfying and deeply frustrating. An initial glimpse of a conflict we will have to work with throughout the rest of our life. However as we begin to walk and talk we reach a stage at around one year to eighteen months where the issue of separation and autonomy, of forming a separate self sense, becomes paramount. A step that is graphically illustrated by the discovery of and extensive use of the self-affirming word “No”. How our mother, and now also others in our environment, meet this ecstatic self declaration will have enormous consequences for all of our relationships in the future. If things go well our parents and others will accurately and sympathetically mirror back to us our self expression with appropriate celebration and occasional optimal frustration – it is not only toddlers who can say no. However if it is resisted, met randomly or crushed the separate self will ill form and adult relationships that require two separate persons to meet somewhere in the middle will prove hard. Let’s now look at these and how they affect the ‘spiritual life’.
The symbiotic wound – struggling to separate
The origins of a symbiotic wound may be found in an emotional environment that is made anxious by the child’s growing separation and seeks to arrest it. Here the mother, perhaps along with others, for their own reasons frustrate the child’s vitality, growing self-control, spontaneity, adventurousness and desire to explore the world. Exhibiting these impulses we are met with a fearful restraint, overt punishment or the sulky withdrawal of love. Very quickly we learn that any expression of our emergent independent self in some unknown way creates a fracture between us and the very person we need solidly behind us if we are to continue to strengthen our first tottery steps to autonomy. A fracture we feel is our fault and which we are responsible for mending. In view of this our first steps falter as we quickly adapt through self-restriction our new, independent needs to satisfy our smothering parent and thereby keep them on side. However the whole thrust of our being is to separate further and so we become caught in a circular trap – sensing the danger my parent feels at my separation I pause and adapt myself to their need. However this produces a growing frustration of the need to break out. But answering this need, beginning to move away, produces guilt and it is this guilt that compels me to return to the confines of my dependent infantile prison. Having had such a parent, as an adult I may find myself over attuned to others insofar as I have frequently little sense of who I am as an independent person and what it is I think and feel. I too may now be afraid of separations having received and introjected my parent’s anxiety. As such a person I am loyal, serving, empathetic, alert to others needs while underneath I struggle with feelings of suffocation, unwanted restraint and guilt for having them. My sense of an autonomous self is poor, denied and split off. What is important is the other and yet once in relationship I feel myself being smothered and overwhelmed and yearn to get out.
Unsurprisingly this wound most clearly shows up in our relationship to the teacher, the community and teaching. It does this in two ways that reflect the two different places in the cycle described above. Either I am symbiotically embedded within the teacher, the community and its beliefs, having little sense of what I independently think and feel. Or I hover suspiciously on the edge, unwilling to get too involved, intent on keeping my autonomy. What I can’t do is the middle position of being involved and committed and at the same time have a distinct sense of my own individuality. If I inhabit the first of these places it is likely that my ‘slavish devotion’, a subservience that leaves me entirely out of the picture, will have lurking within it feelings of claustrophobia and resentment and the desire to break away and find myself. However these will be in conflict with an almost equally strong desire to belong and not rock the boat. This is a difficult and uncomfortable conflict that can only be resolved by containing the anxiety and guilt that separation evokes and separate anyway. Only by doing this will one later be able to participate without a loss of self. Teachings that are particularly easy to subvert to the wounds defences are those that emphasise interdependence and interconnection, for instance the Buddhist understanding of dependent arising and the absence of inherent existence. On the one hand these may be attractive as they echo the absence of separation this wound is all about but on the other hand they threaten the repressed healthy desire to become a separate and distinct person – the very thing Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy seems to denies the existence of. When it comes to meditation it may be that we find it hard to submit to either one tradition or one way of practising within it. While we may believe commitment to a single path is a good thing in practice this may feel constraining, threatening to take away our autonomy. Instead we may then do a little of this and then a little of that but this also brings it problems because, while we may feel we are our own person, nothing has an opportunity to really work or grow. However mindfulness is potentially a deeply satisfying practice for the symbiotically wounded as it is entirely about what we experience moment to moment and not about what the other experiences. As such sitting in a group meditation can support the third position of being able to be oneself with others. Although it may be that we pick up and are even swamped by the group energy it offers us the chance to come back to ourself repeatedly.
The narcissistic wound – being used
Essentially the narcissistic wound arises from the failure of good enough mirroring from our emotional environment. Given that we all come to know ourselves to a large degree through how others respond to us, having an accurate and kind mirror at the beginning of our individual emergence is absolutely necessary. However it can be that parents who perhaps have not had this themselves use the child to meet their own mirroring needs. In this case how they mirror back the child to him or herself will either be too emphasising of their specialness, not allowing them to be ordinary, to sometimes simply fail. Or the opposite, shaming and belittling, unable to let the child’s natural exhibitionism have recognition and praise. There is also the possibility that one parent will do one while the other the opposite and that the mirroring is random, what is good one moment is bad the next. Plainly this is all profoundly confusing and so the child quickly works out – as far as they are able – how to create a self that gives the parents what they apparently want. “My brilliant child”. “My child who does not compete with me”. “My child who I do not have to pay much attention to (so I can pay it to me)”. Having been wounded in this way we grow up with a deep injury to our self-esteem. Although this wound is named after Narcissus who is famed for his self love, the truth is the opposite, as such a person we harbour deep anxieties about our inferiority and unlovableness. These are generally covered up and repressed as we present to the world a rather arrogant, grandiose self who uses others to achieve their own ends. Qualities that reflect this are self-involvement, entitlement, omnipotence, pride, perfectionism and self-reliance. Knowing without first learning. We may have a kind of awareness of others needs but this is without true feeling or empathy as it is really about achieving our own ends. If our wound in not extreme we can appear to others as charismatic and charming, if rather predatory and ruthless. A typical A type leader. At the more severe end our disconnection from the world is so great, our empathy so utterly absent that the wound moves into its narcissistic personality disorder, or further still, psychopathic expressions. Within our narcissistic world we are always on the look out for means to shore up the shiny persona and keep the unbearable, equally inflated, feelings of inferiority at bay. We do this through achievement and using others perceived greatness to augment our own. Here the different types of narcissistic ‘relationships’ as outlined by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut reveal how we both seek to achieve specialness and simultaneously defend against shame and self hatred. Others are in one way or another just there to make me feel good, the mirroring not given at the beginning of life, is now simply taken without thought of the other. However such a defence cannot work forever and there are occasional breaches to the dam during which the hidden awful reality of feelings such as vulnerability, humiliation, worthlessness and shame pour through. These initially will be defended against by blaming others, disavowal, denial and sometimes if very dangerous, narcissistic rage. However once flooded the self collapses entirely, perhaps descending into depression, anxiety, psychosomatic illness, despair and fragmentation. And yet it is exactly this vulnerability that may be the wounds salvation. Learning to tolerate not being a god, that one is just like everyone else, that one has good and bad qualities and this is okay, is to learn what one should have learnt at two. With this the terrible loneliness and isolation of narcissism is ended.
Narcissism and spiritually are unfortunately made for each other like two dark twins as spirituality offers the ultimate defence. Its promise of an imperturbable and perfect experience that makes us ‘perfect’ in turn – here think, ‘enlightened’, ‘awakened’, ‘liberated’ – is everything the fragile narcissistic self has ever dreamed of. The whole issue of our hidden and repressed vulnerability and inadequacy would be completely solved without us seemingly having to go near it. A clear example of spiritual bypass again. For this reason the person with a narcissistic wound is in constant danger of perverting their whole engagement with teachers, teachings and the community of practitioners to the needs of their almost impenetrable and hyper vigilant defences. Everything can be made to serve the narcissistic wound. Our relationship to our teacher and what he teaches makes us special as we bask in his and its reflected glory. There is also ample opportunity to study and practice hard so that one becomes a successful and prominent student – a student particularly recognised by the teacher and his community. With this come fantasies about our spiritual or meditative progress and the depth of our understanding. We begin to believe our own grandiose press. We begin to think we ‘know’. Because spiritually and meditation explicitly diminish the importance of personal narrative it is easy to justify leaving behind all those parts of our self we feel reflect badly upon us. Often a history of broken or superficial relationships where the others have been merely road posts, something to use, on the way to where we now are. In Buddhism, and other teachings as well, all ideas about becoming something better than we already are, something better than the secret feelings of unworthiness, humiliation and shame, are quickly adopted as they offer an escape from what we sense lies beneath the surface. Similarly meditation. This too becomes a technique of self-improvement, a way to perfect our self, to exchange the small egoic mind for something untainted, perfect from beyond time. Grandiosity and omnipotence can have an unimpeded field day. Even in mindfulness, the practice of embracing our vulnerability, recognising and staying with our most difficult emotions, can be narcissistically appropriated because as these come up into consciousness it is we alone who witness them and so maintain control. Within the privacy of our own meditation we need never be ‘caught out’ and shamed as less than perfect parts of the personality come into view. Finally there is one thing that we often miss despite our efforts to know ‘first and best’ and this is an accurate reality check. Because mirroring is all about checking reality our poor mirroring in turn leaves us with a poor ability to check accurately and kindly how things, including our meditation, really are. Add this to the need to never admit fault and always know and it amounts to having poor accurate self-knowledge. This works both ways, on the one hand we think too much of ourself while on the other too little. Unable to bear the vulnerability of allowing others to mirror us we can easily persist in a fantasy of our practice that has little to do with how it really is or what it needs do next to evolve. What is working and what is not remains unknown until revealed to a kindly and knowledgeable other.
The masochistic wound – controlled and overpowered
At around the age of two the child’s need for greater self-expression and assertion and the parents need for increasing socialisation come to a head in a war of wills. Eating and toilet training being the two great battlefronts. When the child is mirrored well enough the socialisation process can go forward without excessive anxiety or trauma, the child learning that joining in with the process can be fun while at other times its need to resist is left unchallenged. However when the parents cannot tolerate the child’s growing ability for sustained defiance and bring their greater power to bear to ‘beat’ the child into submission, to ‘break its will’, then a masochistic wound is in the making. There is also another origin to this wound which rightly speaking is more a symbiotic issue but which is expressed through masochistic symptoms. This is when the mothering person is perceived by the child as unable to tolerate their growing non-compliance and so the child suppresses themselves, damping down their own will while at the same time resenting it. Johnson suggests that with the diminishment of authoritarian parenting clear examples of the masochistic wound become less frequent (1994:50). To this we can add that with an increase in mothers who desperately want to protect their child by holding it close so an increase in the symbiotic wound could be expected. The word ‘masochism’ is frequently associated with sadomasochistic sexuality but here we are talking of ‘social masochism’ which points to a psychology where we have been intruded upon, controlled and overpowered and where the anger about this has been buried and then used to resist passive-aggressively as self defeat. Less extreme examples of this may be found in otherwise loving families, families where self-expression is allowed but not direct refusal or resistance to comply. At the other end sadistic, psychopathic and violently deranged parents will produce a child profoundly masochistically wounded and quite as angry and self- destructive deep down as they were on the surface. When masochistically wounded we will be superficially pleasing and compliant, probably hard working and consistent, perhaps a drudge or servile, willing to do what others are not. Beneath the surface there may be a chronic low-grade depression, an absence of joy, creativity and spontaneity. A lack of any ability to trust life and say “yes”. In its place, right at the hidden core, sits a huge angry “no” which expresses itself in resistance including continuous acts of self sabotage, low energy, inactivity, moaning and complaining, carrying burdens and enduring the unendurable. If the core message from the parents is “I will beat you if you resist and then beat you if you cry.” The child’s response is “I will take this longer than anyone else until I am the last one standing”. And that is usually the case. Coming upon a masochistically wounded person is a distressing thing, their complaints are accompanied by a look and feel of hopeless despondency, unhappiness and stuckness. However should we be tempted to offer any help this will immediately be met with an immovable “Yes, but . . .” which defeats all suggestions. From within the masochistic wound such suggestions are experienced as a threat. They produce anxiety because to follow them would be to abandon our position of victimised anger that is the only and very last place we have left to be. To relinquish this and return to the light would not only be the final defeat but would be the annihilation of the self. In a very real way my pain is my identity and I have no idea of who I would be without it.
If the symbiotic wound was most easily seen in our relationship to what is external to us, the masochistic wound is most easily seen within our internal life. When masochistically wounded the teacher, the teachings and the community of practitioners can only really be seen as untrustworthy and a threat. This is because it all represents something which someone else has dreamt up which is all about changing who I am in the way they decide. It does not matter if it is I who have attended the group, the church, the community – what matters is the feeling if I capitulate I will be finished. Thus while on the surface I may quietly agree with it all, doing exactly what I am meant to do at the time I am meant to do it, inside is the steely determination that this is not going the affect me, that I will not change whatever happens, that I will be myself however uncomfortable and unfulfilling that may be. Thus our whole encounter with any environment that offers some form of transformation will be typified by a dark faced compliance accompanying a hidden resistance and unconscious acts of self-sabotage. Those outside of us probably will not understand this. They will see that we repeatedly complain how we have become stuck in our mediation, that we cannot stop falling asleep, that we cannot find the time, that we cannot find the right seat. They will also quickly see that all suggestions about what would help seem to fall on deaf and oddly slightly angry ears. What they are not seeing is that I am inviting them into the role of intruding parents who want me to be different from whom I am. Each time they are foolish enough to be seduced by their need to help I am able to reassert my sense of self by resisting. This is a manoeuvre I can endlessly play out as the very character of such groups is the intention to offer helpful advice. Each time I defeat it I become stronger until finally everyone gives up on me, angry that I will not change and I have then ‘won’. This game is also played out in my own meditation practice where it is the practice itself that is the intruding and controlling parents. With its instructions for doing this and not doing that it quickly becomes an instrument of subjection. It has a clear intention that if I am to be how it means me to be I must change. In the face of this I continue to sit – to stop would be an overt rebellion – but I make sure nothing changes. I continue to drift, to fantasise, to sleep, being endlessly distracted but in such a way it is not my fault and I can be regretful, sad, distressed that it is so. What will finally bring this self harming to end is tricky – wanting it to end is immediately more of an external agency inflicting its own needs – perhaps what is needed is paradoxically a kindly, non-punishing “Yes, stay exactly as you are” and a willingness to wait. The message we who are masochistically wounded never heard.
Once we have (more or less) established a separate sense of self having some control we are then able to broaden our relational horizons and enter at around three a more complex emotional experience with our mothering and fathering persons and those who are siblings to us. Freud famously has associated the Oedipal and Electra complexes with this phase but subsequent observation suggests that it is more broadly about how our emotional environment meets our more explicit and pressing emergent sexual and competitive urges. If these are greeted with optimal celebration and optimal frustration (admittedly a difficult balance for anyone) then all will be fine. Both qualities will give us the ability to maintain loving, mutually exchanging relationships. However if this does not happen for the reasons we will explore below three wounds may emerge, the histrionic, the obsessive-compulsive4 or a mixture of the two. Each of these are ways in which we struggle to accommodate and adapt to parents who, for their own reasons, either exploit or suppress who we are becoming. However these adaptations, as with all the other wounds, finally create distortions to our sense of self that alienate us from who we could have potentially been.
The histrionic wound – not heard
The key issue with the histrionic wound is sex and power and since the early days of psychoanalysis the histrionic wound, or hysteria as it was once called, has been associated with women and sexuality. However in my clinical experience, while mainly women have presented this, there also have been occasional men. Further more, many men experiencing PTSD from war situations in which they have felt entirely powerless, but in which sexual abuse plays no part, have presented hysterical conversion symptoms. The expression of their psychological trauma by physical or neurological means. This suggests that what we are talking about here is more complex than it seems or that we are talking about several different wounds. Some certainly revolving around sex and power but others perhaps around dissociation. I now do not believe that this wound is only the problem of women. Putting the issue of war and conversion symptoms to one side, plainly if either gender experience an abusive environment in which there is a failure in the mirroring of our emerging sexual and competitive instincts they may develop histrionic symptoms. Johnson (1994:57,230) says this environment is one where the child’s sexuality is exploited by at least one parent with the second in all likely hood being emotional cold and distant and particularly disapproving and punishing of sexual expression. This is a classic picture of the frustrated father sexually abusing his daughter because his wife has rejected him. However this is not the only source of sexual abuse. Given the child’s widening social circle at three plus this could be at the hands of either a relation, a family friend or incestuously minded siblings. Indeed both parents could be involved. A second and quite opposite source of the histrionic wound is when the child is desperately trying to attract parental attention but for some reason does not receive it. This is more usually associated with girls who could not get their fathering figure to acknowledge their budding sexual power. In this case perhaps the father’s anxiety around his daughters innocent advances causes him to withdraw and as he does so she progressively ‘turns up the volume’ of her attention seeking to get him to hear and see her. However this can also work with little boys and their mothers, particularly when they are separated at an early age and sent away to school. In both these possible sources for the histrionic wound the common factor is, as with the other wounds, the failure of appropriate mirroring.
Whatever the cause the manifestation of this wound is typically emotional and expressive. When we do not have it severely, like the compensated oral and narcissistic, its expression can be very socially acceptable as it shows as being bright, lively and creative, easily reaching out to others. We are a person who is fun. When it is more severe or when we are placed under stress we may then become excessively reactive, dramatic, attention grabbing and entirely unconsciously sexually provocative with no desire to follow through. Indeed, while our attention is flirtatiously drawn to the opposite sex beneath this is a fear of sexual activity and anger towards those who have either forced us or seemed entirely disinterested. There are also feelings of low self-esteem and feelings of not being wanted. This split between what we appear to be saying and what we really feel is reflected in our thoughts and emotions being superficial and fleeting and our tendency to unreflectively act out. It is as if we are skating over the surface of things and making as much show as possible while keeping a firm eye on who may be watching us. Johnson makes two observations about this child like, rather desperate and covertly cunning activity. First he suggests that it acts as a defence against unthinkable thoughts and emotions – perhaps the child’s own guilt at having sexual instinctual responses. He also says, I think more convincingly, that when a child has been exploited sexually she or he is robbed of any experience of learning how to appropriately modulate their sexual and competitive instincts and so what we see in the histrionic presentation is these instincts when they have not been properly mirrored – which would explain their quality of not really owned, flooding over and being a source of anxiety (1994:59 table 9). As for the second cause of the wound, the distant or absent father, here the histrionic behaviour obviously can be seen as a means to get the disengaged father to pay attention. The less he hears the louder the behaviour becomes. However the problem with increasing the volume is that we soon can no longer hear ourself and as we call louder and louder we progressively become more estranged from our own feelings and sense of self. Eventually we are shouting for others to see and hear us when it is we who most importantly are failing to hear and see.
The emotional style of this wound finds its happiest home in forms of spirituality that have a strong emotional element and which encourage emotional expression. Those however which are dryer, more intellectually demanding, are of little interest unless there is something in the mix somewhere that fits the need to be seen and heard. Devotion is a teaching easily responded to while renunciation is not. Given that the histrionic wound most frequently constellates in the father daughter relationship male teachers older than their female students who have histrionic wounds may be particular ‘targets’ to the histrionic need to gain attention. At the least severe level this may be simply a real pleasure in being noticed by someone who is very important to us. However with the more severe the need for attention becomes more pressing and insistent so that we present ourself as one helpless or sexually available or Marilyn Monroe like, a combination of the two. If the teacher has good boundaries this behaviour is easily contained but if not, if he exploitatively enters sexual relationships with his students, the histrionically wounded student may be in real danger of offering herself for abuse. When it comes to meditation, meditations that entail visualisations or imaginal journeys of some form may be preferred as these offer the most scope for becoming absorbed in fantasy. Our histrionic mind is lively and creative and this may make mindfulness more difficult as it requires repeatedly coming back to how we already are – an activity which is known for its boredom. Meditation may also be accompanied by a variety of strange and transpersonal experiences which are eagerly seized upon and which have the double benefit of being more interesting and drawing attention. Either way, whatever meditative technique is chosen, staying with it, developing discipline and concentration, are not skills someone with more than a moderate histrionic wound will find easy. What is certain is that much support and encouragement will be needed. There is also a second issue with meditation that is a tendency to not know what is going on at the feeling level. This returns us to the split mentioned above, here we have identified with the parent who does not recognise us and therefore do not recognise ourself. Split off from what we feel we can easily fill in the void with an imagination of what is going on.
The obsessive-compulsive wound – keeping control
If the histrionic wound is characterised by Marilyn Monroe then the obsessive-compulsive has the Victorian ‘wooden soldier’. That these two should be strangely paired is no coincidence as the issue of the obsessive-compulsive wound is, like the histrionic, the emergence of sexual, competitive and aggressive instincts and how they are mirrored by our emotional environment. However while the histrionic problem is an exploitation or denial of the child’s sexuality, the obsessive-compulsive problem is repression and strict control. This is a wound seen more frequently in men. Having this wound it is likely that our parents have met the healthy little animal in us with exacting, immovable and rule-bound responses. This is not the crushing of the will associated with masochism but rather through punishment, reinforcement and example we are encouraged to control and tame all expressions of our instinctual nature. Expressions of our sexuality, our competitiveness, impulsiveness, spontaneity, playful irresponsibility, mischief and the soft, tender feelings of the heart. Very quickly we learn that if this is what our parents require then we are to apply their strictures to ourself and from this emerges an inner ‘over-seer’ who acts as an unintegrated inner figure who constantly checks that we are meeting their standards. Viewed from the outside we in later life appear to be stiff and rigid, unnecessarily self-possessed and reserved, judgemental, driven, perfectionistic and obsessive. A stickler for rules, manners, mores, etiquette, ‘doing the right thing’ and doing our duty. What is correct always supersedes what we might personally feel. When there is a possibility for some personal freedom of expression we are uncomfortable and awkward and try to return to something already delineated by custom. As such social interactions tend to be stiff and without real feeling or emotion, focusing on form and fact rather than reaching out and making contact. They are also characterised by being ‘one up/one down’ as issues of authority and subordinate dominate. Being with such a person others are often frustrated by a lack of connection, of somehow getting through to the ‘real person’ behind our mask. Because we are driven by getting it right it is extremely difficult to leave the freedom to occasionally get something wrong which leads to a fear of decision making and procrastination. Even when this all reaches the point of absurdity we are still unable to loosen up and laugh at ourself. The truth is that we are terrified of what will emerge from us should we release the constraints. We believe we are a hard working, conscientious and moral person, a person who serves what is right and good, but we may also secretly suffer from obsessive and intrusive thoughts, often of a sadistic sexual nature, that worry and concern us as they do not fit in with the picture of who we are. Further more, the greater our effort to eliminate what feels like an alien invasion through reapplication of the repression of our instinctual self, the stronger the thoughts press for recognition. This can lead to a background anxious depression. A feeling that there is something terribly wrong about me and that I must maintain control at all costs.
Plainly someone with such a wound, particularly a more severe form, would not naturally be interested in a contemplative spirituality as this would seem too unconventional. The whole thing of meditation teachers, meditation and groups of meditators too alien and uncontrollable. Something more establishment might be more attractive. However if we do become interested in the practice of meditation we will bring to it those values and aptitudes that govern other areas of our life – discipline, application, consistency, concentration, attention to detail, the desire to do it properly and get it right. We may also be interested in the intellectual side and academic study may satisfy our pedantic, perfectionist and obsessional inclinations. However while this is all good for establishing the habit of meditation and for developing a good cognitive understanding it does not include qualities such as kindness and compassion, the ability to be self forgiving and humorous. These warm emotional elements are necessary to keep our practice fluid and not too focused on achieving outcomes. They leave space for the practice to develop itself by accepting it just as we find it. In fact the issue of acceptance is central, it we are to practice mindfulness this will include a kindly acceptance of the parts of ourself our obsessive-compulsive wound wants most to eliminate. The need to repress these will have to be released and impulses no longer felt as the enemy but the natural precursor to action. Because of this our meditation will be in danger of becoming a tool of the ‘over-seer’ who wants to keep things under control or, to use another psychoanalytic term, colonised by the ‘super ego’ that has an idea of how our meditation should and ought to be. Setting tyrannical goals that persecute us if we do not match up to them. As with other wounds where keeping control over emotions is central there will be a tendency in the practice of mindfulness for the witness to be too far back so that what is happening is the maintenance of a subtle dissociation.
For the sake of greater accuracy there are a number of caveats that need to be added. First, as already mentioned, an earlier wound will affect later development. For example a baby who has poorly attached to her mother will in all likely hood suffer low self-esteem for the reasons set out above. Thus when she comes to the oedipal stage of her development she will be carrying the feeling of maternal absence into her relationship with her father, and if he is only a little absent, be much more inclined to experience him as not there for her. She has already experienced abandonment and so is likely to experience this again as she perceives new experiences through the lens of what has gone before. In this way each of us is really more of a compound of wounds, none of us fit just one of these characterlogical pictures alone. Second, we are not all wounded to the same degree and that the expression of our wound increases and decreases when we are in situations that especially mobilise its defences. For example under favourable, non-threatening circumstances those of us with only a mild character style level of wounding, will not be significantly affected. While those who carry a greater wounding will manage well enough within their established defences – albeit paying the cost of the defence through the limitations it imposes. However should the situation change and become more threatening, depending on the nature of this threat, anxiety levels will rise and the defences will become more apparent as they manifest or redouble their efforts. Becoming either more withdrawn, more collapsed or helpful, more embedded, more grandiose, more enduring, more emotional or more controlled. And again what will threaten one wound will not threaten all. What we find threatening when having an obsessive-compulsive wound is all perfectly easy for someone else with a histrionic wound.
Lastly even as a therapist who knows these wound presentations it is far from easy to recognise them immediately. In my own experience of working with them I may go for many months, even several years, before I understand what is being presented to me. Putting my own slowness to one side, this may be because the wounding is not severe and therefore seldom really apparent or because the wounds complexity is so great from a compound of wounds that the symptoms are mixed together and so are unclear. Furthermore many of those that we work with bring to their therapy events and concerns that have happened later than the five or six extremely formative first years discussed here. While these wounds will be present the opportunity to explore childhood may not be possible and so we will have to work with glimpses of the wounds as they show through the narrative. However with practice and patience it is possible to identify symptoms and slowly understand what may have happened to the person before us at the different stages of their psychological development. This is extremely useful because, as will have become apparent from this review of the wounds, what is needed for one is not necessarily needed for another. That each has their own different mirroring needs. For example when we have a schizoid wound the challenge is to dare to have our emotions while with a histrionic wound the challenge is to modulate and hear them more accurately. An understanding of this makes possible a more individually created therapy that serves the needs of the person in therapy particularly closely. For the therapist it orientates the work like a lode star, guiding our understanding so that we can deeply hear what is being told to us and know how best to respond. However there is also a shadow side to this that is revealed when we rush towards a ‘diagnosis’ too quickly. We may do this out of our own anxiety, perhaps needing to feel we know or needing to keep the other at arms length by thinking of them as a wound and not a person. This last is particularly dangerous as it turns the other into an object that of course is to do to them again what was done to them in their childhood. For this reason throughout this essay I have used phrases such as ‘when we have a masochistic wound … when we are narcissistically wounded … carrying a schizoid wound’. Which all indicate that the person is not the wound and should not be reduced to ‘a masochist’, ‘a narcissist’ or ‘a schizoid’. To do this is to forget that we too are wounded, perhaps in complex and severe ways, and to lose the empathy and compassion which all wounds, our own and others, require.
When we use this material to understand how a person relates to their meditation practice and more broadly to their spiritual life, clearly the problems we can struggle with have complex roots. Whatever our role, as we listen to another person talk of their meditation experiences, having some knowledge of these wounds is very helpful5. Meditators frequently make the same complaints – “I can’t do this”, “I am overwhelmed by my thoughts”, “I can’t meditate every day”. Beneath these types of statement is frequently another level that says, “I am a bad meditator – I am a bad person. There is something wrong with me.” Being able to recognise what the roots of these feelings are enables us to respond in ways that can unlock a faltering practice and help it on its way. For someone with a schizoid wound it may be necessary to encourage going a little closer to their emotions so that they form a relationship to them in a way that was not possible in the hostile environment of their birth. Similarly someone with an oral wound will benefit from learning to recognise the nourishment of their practice and keep it inside, not letting it pass straight through by thinking it no good. Effectively learning to nourish themselves – they are worth it! Those who have had their independence restrained, distorted or suppressed, the symbiotic, narcissistic and masochistic wounds, can learn in meditation that it is okay to be alone and have ones own experience and not another’s. That it is okay to be vulnerable to whatever comes up in our practice and there is no need for excellence. That our meditation working is not a defeat to be achieved but our own victory. Finally the Oedipal wounds of intrusion and abuse, invisibility and neglect and control and punishment, the histrionic from both sources and the obsessive- compulsive, can learn in meditation that both emotions and thoughts are not facts, neither need be identified with and unquestioningly believed. The histrionically wounded can listen to a deeper level of themselves while the obsessive-compulsive can learn to be unconditionally friendly, compassionate and accepting. To bring their wooden heart to life. What ever our wound though, at the bottom of it all, we all learn the same thing. That our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations are phenomena arising and falling away within the open space of awareness. That’s all.
© Nigel Wellings July 2009
1 A note on mothers. It strikes me that developmental psychology places a great deal of responsibility on mothers for the mental health of their children and that this could seem an impossible burden. In an attempt to soften this I use phrases like ‘the experience of the mother’ to signal that how we experience our mother is not necessarily how she is – after all children come into the world with their own sensibilities and what wounds one does not wound another. I am also aware that psychoanalysis has itself a mother complex and the place and effect of others – particularly siblings – can be underestimated. This all said I would like to make a stand for common sense. Yes, of course our mothering person is the all-important person at the beginning of our life and how she is in herself and how she relates to us has a huge effect. However it must also be remembered that we live in an interconnected world and that there are others along with her, that we do not come empty handed to the party and that she herself has had parents who also had their struggles. If we forget all this we may descend into blame and forfeit kindness and understanding.
2 The phrase ‘spiritual life’ I hesitantly use because it easily suggests a life apart from the ordinary things of the world. Here it simply means being engaged in some form of meditative tradition.
3 Throughout this essay I will make references to Buddhist ideas and meditation practises that can and are distorted by the defences we have around our wounds. Just to make this clear I am not for one moment suggesting that we should not engage with Buddhism because of this nor that Buddhism is in any way responsible for its own misappropriation. Buddhism is of course populated by wounded people who all suffer but at its best it can serve as a mirror to our wounds and thereby give us an opportunity to heal them through awareness.
4 There is a potential confusion here with the term ‘obsessive-compulsive’. It is not to be confused with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that may have non- psychological components to its aetiology.
5 Having said this I am aware that other therapeutic modalities would not necessarily agree with this, perhaps feeling all this too prescriptive. All I can say is that we all use schema of one sort or another to help us understand suffering.
Johnson, S. (1994) Character Styles, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London.