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All about self-awareness — and why you do what you do

Who are you? Would you describe yourself as friendly, funny, intelligent, warm, caring, efficient, good-looking, witty or confident? What if you were told that whatever description you chose was just a defence used to fool the world into thinking you’re something you’re not?

Few of us have ever bothered to probe very far beneath our psyches into the unconscious beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves. If we did, we would likely discover some painful unconscious issues, along with negative feelings and beliefs we may not want to acknowledge.

On discovering these unconscious issues, we may also recognise how we cope with or compensate for them, how we protect ourselves from feeling the pain associated with them. This is where our defences come in, our social mask — which may operate on a daily level — becoming a part of the person we know ourselves to be.

A stereotypical example might be the powerful CEO of a large company who uses their career to compensate for their unconscious feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. Or you might have the famous actor who craves recognition to compensate for feeling unseen and insignificant.

Developing an awareness of such underlying feelings usually involves intense psychotherapy and allowing ourselves to feel a lot of emotions we may prefer to not know about. Many people would also think of themselves as basically functional without any of this so-called underlying emotional pain. They wouldn’t view themselves as acting out their defences. The problem is, though, if the pain is unconscious, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Underlying causes

Psychoanalysts might argue the entire human population walks around in varying degrees of unconsciousness, and that nearly all of us are totally unaware of the deeper pain that drives our everyday conscious behaviour. Does this mean we are all parading around as frauds? The more we become aware of the pain we defend against, and the way we defend against it, the more we can express and act from a more authentic self.

It’s important to also remember that a defence isn’t necessarily negative — it has helped us survive emotionally and it may have developed many of our strengths, skills and achievements, such as being good at our job, making people laugh and being efficient. It may also be a natural personality attribute we’ve over-emphasised to protect ourselves in some way. This is probably the case with Jane, a counselling client.

When I asked Jane to tell me an attribute she most valued about herself she said “I’m a very giving person. I really like to help people. I care about them and love it when they need me so I can help.” It turned out this wasn’t quite the case. Jane realised she had a deep emotional need to feel needed. When she didn’t feel needed and couldn’t rescue someone, she felt worthless. She fell into the role of responsible carer as the eldest of five children in a poor family with an alcoholic father. She experienced no love or attention and only felt of any value when she was needed in some way.

Jane became so dependant on this role to feel good that, as an adult, she became controlling in her attempts to rescue people so she could maintain this sense of value. She helped when she wasn’t asked to help, intrusively took over in situations that weren’t always her business and felt unable to allow others, like her 18-year-old son, make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes.

Jane fully exposed this need in herself by clearly stating her false negative beliefs about it aloud as honestly as she could. “I want people to need me because it’s the only way I feel any worth and value as a human being. When I’m not needed, I’m nothing. I’m totally worthless. I feel totally empty, like scum.” As she did this she allowed herself to feel and observe her pain.

“Because I have to feel needed so much to feel any sense of worth, I take over in situations and become controlling, and I take away others’ rights to make their own decisions.” Jane’s effort to feel needed and present herself to the world as a caring rescuer was her defence against her feelings of worthlessness. To be as honest as Jane requires courage and a deep self-awareness that most of us don’t have. This awareness and honesty help desensitise these painful feelings and decrease the tendency to act them out.

After Jane exposed this belief she didn’t stop being a caring person, as she realised this was genuinely part of who she was. The key difference was that she no longer had such a strong desire to rescue others or care for them from a need to feel worthwhile. She could therefore respect their boundaries and autonomy better and help when she was asked for help. She began to develop a better sense of who she was and a sense of worth whether she was needed or not. She also explored and acknowledged other positive aspects of her personality that helped her value herself more, such as her generosity, honesty, humour and strength in the face of adversity.

Common defences that shape our personality

Our unresolved unconscious pain often originates in childhood from an issue with a parent. Usually, parents do the best they can, and if they don’t meet their children’s needs it’s usually because they’re acting out their own unconscious pain, or because their children misunderstand their behaviour. We probably all have numerous defences we unconsciously act out, even though we’re usually not aware of them.

This is part of being human and human experience is always unique. So one person’s pain and their way of defending will never be exactly the same to another’s. That said, a student of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, believed there were common unconscious issues and defence mechanisms all of us experience in varying degrees. These were later developed into five main defences by others such as Alexander Lowen. Below is a simplified outline of these defences.

I’m perfect — the rejection wound

Some people have it all — the perfect home, the perfect partner, perfect career, loads of money, the perfect body — and to top it all off they often think they’re pretty good, too. These are the people who never go to counselling because, of course, they don’t need to — they’re perfect. But this image of perfection is a defence. When these people access their unconscious issues, they often discover deeper feelings of rejection as a child, usually by a parent. This rejection left them feeling like they were somehow not enough for their parents to love them.

To compensate, they try to be perfect at everything. Part of this process of trying to be perfect involves controlling their own behaviour so they always present as perfect or acceptable to others, thereby avoiding rejection and criticism. Another key feature is their strong need to be right in an argument, as being wrong brings up feelings of the shame of imperfection they find hard to tolerate.

These people need to learn to feel safe being vulnerable and that being wrong, imperfect or making a mistake is normal and necessary for learning and growing. They are still worthy, capable, lovable people. The gift of this wound is that, while striving for perfection, this person often achieves a lot of success.

I can’t support myself — the abandonment wound

This kind of wound makes people needy. Emotionally, they find it difficult to support and defend themselves and excessively need others’ love to feel OK about themselves. In relationships they may become demanding of their friend or partner’s attention, time and love, and feel angry and abandoned if they don’t get them.

This can often push the other person away. If they’re challenged they can find it hard to defend themselves and they tend to collapse and feel like a victim. Part of their sense of abandonment is a feeling of being deeply unlovable. To them, if their caregiver or parent didn’t love them enough to meet their emotional and physical needs, the child assumes it’s because they were unlovable.

To protect against this feeling, they may also be really “nice” people who never rock the boat. They need to learn to get grounded, resolve their unconscious issues of anger at feeling abandoned, and ultimately support and love themselves. The gift of this wound is that in avoiding their feelings of abandonment these people rely a lot on their intellect and may be quite intelligent.

I have to win — the betrayal wound

These people are extremely competitive and like to dominate and control others. They live by the adage, “It’s my way or the highway.” To get their own needs met, they can be insensitive to others’ feelings, manipulative, persuasive, seductive and charming. They like to be admired and often believe they are somehow special. When they become controlling, they completely lose touch with their ability to empathise with others’ feelings. They are also sensitive to issues of trust and betrayal.

Their need to dominate others may have occurred because, when younger, they felt shamed by a parent who made them feel special and built them up, then criticised them and squashed them emotionally. This left them feeling betrayed and having to control those around them to feel safe. In this way, the tendency to control others is a defence against feeling unsafe. They may also have felt unseen as a child and only valued for external attributes such as their appearance or their talents.

They need to learn to value themselves outside of their image, even if they lose. They also must learn to trust others and let go of the need to control and dominate those around them. The gift of this wound is that their desire to win and dominate can make them good leaders.

I’m off in a fantasy land — the hatred wound

You may know people who seem vague and spaced-out a lot of the time, like they’re in a world of their own. They often lose track of time and may present as disorganised and unreliable. These people sometimes find it hard to be really present with people. This vagueness is thought to have been a defence when the child had to deal with intense negative emotions from the mother soon after birth. The child may have felt unwanted or hated by the mother or felt intense fear, anger or grief from her.

To defend against these feelings the child learned to tune out. A much more extreme expression of this defence is dissociation — an extreme form of spacing out that can happen when a child goes through a very traumatic or abusive experience at a young age, such as physical or sexual abuse.

These people need to gradually learn to be fully present and grounded so they can safely and gradually feel all the feelings they defend against by tuning out, such as rage and fear. When they’re able to do this, the feelings over time should integrate and desensitise and the person should be able to stay more present and grounded. The gift of this wound is that their tendency to space out often makes them sensitive and intuitive.

I need my space — the autonomy wound

Some people felt very controlled or smothered by a parent as they were growing up. Sometimes, this can even involve being smothered with love, whereby the parent is so overly concerned and involved in the child’s care that the child feels like they can hardly breathe.

These children weren’t given the autonomy to make independent choices and decisions freely. They may have also felt controlled if they were force-fed or had parents who were very pedantic about toilet training. As part of this experience of being controlled or smothered, they often couldn’t express feelings or needs because, if they did, they were dismissed, criticised or punished for expressing themselves.

They often find it hard to express their deeper feelings and wishes because they weren’t allowed to when they were young and were expected to do as they were told. Because of this, when they do feel angry, they find it very hard to express it directly and openly and instead express it indirectly. For instance, they may criticise someone behind their back, spread rumours, or give someone the silent treatment.

These people need to learn to express their feelings and wishes openly, directly and freely without fear of retribution or control. They also have a strong need for space and are sensitive to people encroaching on their boundaries or controlling them. They hate being told what to do as this brings up feelings of being controlled again and having their autonomy taken away. They need to learn to have healthy boundaries and to express themselves freely. The gift of this wound is that the suppressed suffering these people experience develops their compassion and capacity for love.

So who are you? To what extent is your personality fused with your defences? To what extent are you expressing your authentic self? To the extent that you are defended? To the extent you are not living authentically? To the extent you are not expressing your full potential or your ability to give and receive love? And, as mentioned, because you don’t know what you don’t know, there’s only one way to find out: go inside and take a look.

Unblock your defences

Time to take a look inside? It’s always best to undergo this type of journey with a trained therapist. Any one of these four methods will help you on your path to discovery.

  1. Hypnosis can help you relax deeply enough for old memories and feelings to surface. Uncovered memories may not always be accurate, but what’s important is how the recovered feelings and beliefs are affecting your life now.
  2. Inner child visualisations can provide an imaginative framework for you to access unresolved childhood issues. This may involve imagining yourself as a child at a time when you felt something was missing in your life.
  3. Body psychotherapy approaches focus on tuning into the physical body to access deeper levels of emotion and experience. The focus on the body helps the client stay grounded and present, so may be a safe option for people with traumatic memories.
  4. Gestalt therapy empty chair work or voice dialogue work is a way to explore unexamined aspects of yourself by role playing different parts of your personality. This can be a powerful technique and should only be done with a trained therapist.

Sonia Zadro

Sonia Zadro

Sonia Zadro is a clinical psychologist with 20 years’ experience and a freelance writer. She is interested in helping people heal and opening their minds through science.

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