When we are confronted with a powerful stimulus which pushes our buttons and we have not dealt with our inner demons, there are three typical responses:
- The most common response is to repeat the pattern. An example would be growing up in a violent household and then later in life finding ourselves repeating the pattern – we may find that the stimulus pushes us into a pattern of anger. It does not necessarily have to be an exact replication. It could be that a person was bought up in a physically abusive environment but later in life they may replicate the pattern through verbal or financial abuse. The more unconscious we are of the underlying factors involved in the pattern, the more difficult it is to shift.
- Another common response is to attempt to do the opposite. We might make a promise to never be like our parents and attempt to act accordingly. If we take this route we are still dependent upon the pattern. The dangers here are we can often act in passive aggressive ways. For example, we may not overtly abuse our family members, but we might forget important dates and meetings. When we go against the grain we often do not give ourselves permission to experience certain emotions, e.g., anger is a common one. Holding all this anger in spills over eventually in different ways that are not constructive to forging and maintaining healthy relationships. People can also overcompensate when they take this route. For instance, a person may promise to self to love their children unconditionally. This sometimes translates into giving children everything they want or can manifest as having very poor boundaries with their family members.
- The third response is to attempt to treat the symptom. At first glance treating the symptom may seem like a good option, but usually it’s a way of not dealing with the underlying causes. For example, people can treat the problem by denying it or numbing it out via alcohol or drug use. Another very common way is to engage in frenetic activity as a method of distracting or denying the existence of a problem – “I am going to keep busy till the problem goes away”. The problem never goes away of course, rather it is suspended temporarily only to occur again at a later time. Spirituality and psychology/therapy are often used as tools to not deal with the underlying problem, but rather are used as a way to provide temporary relief from the pain/discomfort caused by the pattern.
All three responses entail a high degree of unconscious activity which is never really examined or dealt with appropriately. Instead the energetic forces of the unconscious rule their lives often resulting in a largely unhappy life, even though many people try to hide their discontent with life.
When we encounter something problematic in life, it’s good to be conscious of how we respond to the problem. It is part of learning to recognize the patterns that often rule our lives in ways that are not beneficial.
I am fond of Jung’s contention that we do not solve problems/difficulties in life but that we outgrow them. This is not dissimilar to Richard Rose’s notion of growing into something a bit larger. The commonality is that when we do the necessary inner work there is a tremendous amount of energy being freed. Letting go of old patterns can renew us, but the letting go is rarely a cognitive letting go. Rather it is one which entails many different processes which occur in psyche at both the conscious and unconscious level. When the energy from an old pattern is freed, we can then use this same energy for more creative and beneficial pursuit.
We learn to respond to life’s difficulties in different ways where by and large we are no longer troubled by what previously disturbed our harmony. It is hard work at times, but it is doable.