Our Many Selves: From Help to Harm
From the earliest days of modern psychological thought, Freud recognized that our psyches are made of different parts. He named them the id, ego and superego. Since Freud's day, research and discoveries have expanded upon those ideas. One of the most significant discoveries has been the use of brain imaging to lend credence to Freud’s original ideas and expand his theory. Our understanding of the way the brain works has catapulted psychological understanding to a new level.
One of the most valuable contributions of the new technologies, is the discovery that our brains are split (left and right) and how that split impacts child development. We now understand that people have many psychological aspects which develop through out our lives. Every part has its own job to do, and does so with its own feelings, functions and motivation. Some are designed to help us “get on with life” others to keep us safe. Their intentions are positive.
Stuck In the Past
Unfortunately, some of those pieces of ourselves are stuck in the past. They were useful at a time, but now that time for has passed and, when activated, their archaic methods actually hurt us as adults. We are not aware that these divisions exist in our unconscious mind and still influence what we think, feel and do.
Humans are complex and need to function on many levels. We have many roles to fill: friends, lovers, spouses, employees, and parents just to name a few. In each of these roles, we have to access different ways of thinking, feeling and acting. For each of these roles we have aspects of ourselves that get activated, both in the right and left brains.
There are also aspects of our selves that activate in times of crisis. When humans are faced with a threat, real or imagined, the body triggers the emergency stress response. That means your body goes back to a primal mode, preparing to flee, fight, or hide. In turn, that sets off a chain reaction of neurochemical events. The alarm system fires, which releases adrenaline to speed up the heartbeat and
respiration to increase the oxygen in the blood. This causes the individual to feel strong and prepared to take action. It is the “Six feet tall and bullet proof,” feeling. Cortisol is released. The body is now ready to fight, take flight or, if necessary, freeze.
The Brain to Our Defense
The brain's response to threat is to activate both sides of the brain in separate ways to keep us moving and keep us safe. The left brain makes it possible to keep moving forward through that situation. It employs the skills available at that stage in life to solve problems, relate to others, perform work, and other growth tasks.
The right brain mobilizes the survival resources to prepare for the next threat.
Humans have five basic ways to react when survival is on the line. As humans develop they create parts of themselves to function according to each of these survival strategies. The brain quickly assesses the situation and makes a decision based on survival instinct. Here are the five specific survival strategies and the motivation behind them.
1. Fight-A State of Vigilance:
The fight part is characterized as a state of vigilance, keeping your brain constantly on guard and prepared to engage in conflict. It is angry, mistrustful, and controlling. When your brain is governed by fight reactions, it needs control and will obtain it by any method necessary. It sits in judgment of everything, everyone and every situation, finding fault with it all.
2. Flight-Looking For a Way Out:
When your brain is in flight mode, it is constantly looking for an escape. This is the part of you who wants to sit at the back of the room, close to the door. It is ambivalent and noncommittal. Flight strategies may allow closeness, but when things get too close, this part creates distance and fills the gaps in a person's life with avoidance and addictive behavior.
3. Freeze-Locked in an Unending Cycle of Fear:
Freeze describes the moments when your brain is locked in an unending cycle of fear: It is locked in passivity, unable to move forward or take risks. It is terrified, suspicious and hyper vigilant; terrified of being seen, finding it hard to be in public. This is the nucleus of anxiety and panic attacks. This part will not allow closeness to anybody.
4. Submit-Not Allowed to Have a Mind of Your Own:
When your brain chooses to submit, you survive through a focus on others and ignoring your own needs. The brain finds what those important to you need and want, and does not allow thoughts of your own self. Submission is supposed to be “good” and says people should sacrifice themselves for others. It is filled with shame and self hate which leads to depression.
5. Attach-Needs Others to Feel Alive:
Desperation is the keynote here. This strategy involves craving connection and a desire to be rescued. It believes it cannot stand on its own feet and wants someone on which they can depend. This is the part that has an underdeveloped self and believes it has no power. It gives all its power away to others.
Purpose is to Protect
These parts work in harmony to protect you from danger and harm. For example, Kenneth becomes quickly attached to each of his new love interests and just as quickly becomes critical of them. His attachment part and fight part are trying to work together to take care of him but what actually happens is that they are in conflict. Attachment wants closeness and love while hyper-vigilant fight is trying to keep him from making a mistake by choosing the wrong person. The flight impulse is now activated. To compound the situation, his submit part will not let him leave the situation, because he believes he would be “bad” for abandoning and hurting someone. That brings on feelings of guilt and shame because he is not living up to his commitments.
The possibility of loss generates feeling of fear, anxiety and panic. He is trapped in a relationship that his brain is fighting with both fight and flight, while submit keeps him holding on to it. Kenneth is unable to make an informed decision about his relationship because all these internal processes were working to “protect” him. Until he is able to identify the different aspects of himself and the internal conflict they cause, he will be stuck in internal conflict and indecision.
These defenses strategies that once made it possible to navigate life, reduce the level of harm and made it possible to survive have become automatic responses that get activated by stress. They interfere with our growth and development. Instead of being helpful they have become road blocks to having a happy life.