The Biggest Danger: Losing Oneself
“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)
The process of “losing oneself” is a common but unacknowledged danger,
occurring when one loses touch with their inner experience, and has no sense of who they are or what they want in life.
In his book The Disowned Self, the 20th century psychologist Nathaniel Branden investigated this all-too common danger. Describing the experience of one who has become alienated from their authentic self, he wrote:
“Sometimes it is experienced as a feeling of self estrangement; sometimes, as the feeling that one’s self is only a dark question mark or a guilty secret; sometimes, as the feeling that one’s self floats in a vacuum, disconnected from one’s body; sometimes, as the feeling that one has no self. It is present in every neurosis; it is the core of neurosis. I call it: the problem of the disowned self.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)
The Disowned Self and the Persona
When one disowns their authentic self, an “unreal” self is presented to the world. This “unreal” self is the persona.
We all have a persona – a “personality mask” we put on and present to others in society. But a problem arises when one’s self and persona become synonymous.
When an individual fails to recognize their persona for what it is (a mere personality mask), and instead thinks the person they portray to society is who they really are, then they have disowned their self. They have become an empty shell:
“When a person denies his real needs, the inevitable outcome is the creation of an unreal self – the personality he presents to the world.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)
Disconnection from One’s Authentic Self
While most of us have not totally lost touch with our authentic self, in varying degrees we are all disconnected from it.
We also have a tendency to confuse our persona for our authentic self. We think the person we portray to society is who we really are.
This disconnection and confusion stunts the process of psychological growth. It is therefore important to understand why we become alienated from our authentic self, and what we can do to reconnect with it in order to become a more authentic, and integrated, human being.
Defence Mechanisms and Why We Disconnect from Our Self
Disconnection from our authentic self occurs when we repress, deny, or refuse to experience emotions which are either painful, invoke fear, or which we have judged to unacceptable. In other words, when we refuse to experience unwanted emotions.
We all repress unwanted emotions, in varying degrees, through the use of defence mechanisms.
“A defence (or defence mechanism) is a subconsciously adopted technique whereby a person makes and keeps himself unaware of impulses, feelings, ideas and memories which are unacceptable and intolerable to his conscious mind.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)
While there are numerous defence mechanisms, two of the more prominent are projection and distraction.
Two Common Defence Mechanisms: Projection and Distraction
When we experience an intense negative emotion, instead of confronting and processing the emotion, we have a tendency to project our awareness on the psychology of another person (someone close to us).
We proceed to convince ourselves this other person is the cause of our pain, anger, or sadness, and perseverate on their psychological state. This allows us to evade the difficult task of paying attention to and processing the negative emotion within us.
Often when we experience unwanted emotions developing, almost mechanically we seek some form of distraction. Television, social media feeds, drugs, or alcohol, can all function as means by which we turn our awareness away from painful emotions.
The Damaging Effects of Repressing Unwanted Emotions
The repression of too many painful emotions can cause a number of damaging effects over time.
1. We can lose access to vital sources of information about our self.
“There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure…that it hurts is no argument against it but its essence.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Painful emotions are extremely significant, and are there for a reason. Within the nucleus of unwanted emotions is information about who we are, why we are the way we are, and what we need to do in order to grow as a human being.
Repressing painful emotions keeps us stuck at our current level of development – emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
In the words of Branden:
“In repressing significant memories, evaluations, feelings, frustrations, longings and needs, a person denies himself access to crucial data; in attempting to think about his life and his problems he is sentenced to struggle in the dark – because key items of information are missing.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)
2. Over time repression can lead to psychosomatic illness.
When painful emotions are repressed, they become imprisoned in the body. Not allowed to flow and express themselves, over time this can lead to the formation of harmful pockets of energy, forming physical symptoms or even serious illness.
3. If emotions are repressed for too long, at a certain point they break out, causing destructive behaviors.
A pervasive anger that is repressed over a long period of time will manifest as a physically destructive rage. An underlying sadness that is ignored will develop into a deep depression.
Falling Victim to the “Biggest Danger”
When we use defence mechanisms to protect us from experiencing and processing painful emotions, we become more and more disconnected from our authentic self.
When we refuse to look within and process painful emotions, we become out of tune not only with our fears, anger, and sadness, but with our hopes, wishes, joys, pleasures, and individuality.
When this happens we fall victim to the “biggest danger” – we lose ourselves.
“A person extinguishes one part of his personality after another – and then feels horror when he looks inward and finds only a sterile void.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)
Integrating Painful Emotions into Consciousness
“One does not destroy an emotion by refusing to feel it or acknowledge it; one merely disowns a part of one’s self.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)
To ensure we don’t fall victim to the biggest danger of “losing oneself”, it is necessary to integrate painful emotions into our awareness.
In his book Breaking Free, Branden explained the advice he gave to patients in one of his group therapy sessions:
“I encouraged them to pay attention to the emotions they were feeling and to let themselves experience those emotions fully – not to block them or inhibit them or repress them. I explained that it was healthy and desirable to release those feelings, to bring them into full conscious awareness….I explained that repressed, stored up pain always represents an unsolved problem and that only by feeling the pain now, only by admitting and experiencing its full reality, could one solve the problem buried in that pain. I explained that no pain was so destructive as the pain one refuses to face – and no suffering so enduring as the suffering one refuses to acknowledge.” (Nathaniel Branden, Breaking Free)
The Integrative Process
To pay attention to painful emotions, and experience those emotions fully, does not mean we have to use them as a guide to action. Feeling extreme anger does not mean you need to act out that anger.
With sufficient awareness you can allow anger – or any other painful emotion – to flow through your body, without allowing it to influence your behavior.
When we do this we’ll activate what Branden called the “integrative process.”
We often think personal development and growth takes conscious will-power, and that we have to put in extreme amounts of energy in order to become a more authentic person.
But just as the body has an innate capacity to heal itself, the mind has an innate tendency to move in the direction of growth and integration – without any conscious effort.
When we repress negative emotions, and refuse to feel them and process them, we stunt the integrative process.
If, on the other hand, we allow our emotions to just be – to let them flow through us and try to learn from them, we’ll give the automatic self-repairing powers of the mind room to operate.
In doing so we’ll stimulate psychological growth, reconnect with our authentic self – our real needs, desires, and individuality – and live a more fulfilling life:
“Just as the body contains its own self repairing powers, so does the mind. But those healing powers must be allowed to work. Repression obstructs the healing – meaning: the integrative process.” (Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self)