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Necessary and Important Work

by Sherman Spencer, PhD
October 2005

In order to become truly healthy and happy, we need to undertake two broad remedial efforts. We must recognize and remove the mask we have learned to wear in order to please others and avoid disapproval. And we have to discover and correct those mistaken ideas about ourselves and the world that we absorbed when we were growing up.

About the mask: when we were children, we were told that we were sometimes “good” and sometimes “bad.” In order to be loved and not hurt, we decided to be only what others praised, and to suppress anything that wasn’t acceptable. Where did all those disowned thoughts and feelings go? Into the unconscious. For example, if we were told we were too selfish and concerned about ourselves, we began to banish any thoughts of our own needs. These needs, of course, arise naturally - all creatures are motivated to take care of themselves, and attain and maintain happiness. By denying these natural motivations, we split ourselves in two. We wore a mask of selflessness, and hid all hints of self-concern.

This mask came to fool ourselves as well as others. We became convinced we thought only of the welfare of those around us. When the natural thoughts of self arose, we immediately negated them. Did this lead to a truly unselfish person? No – it resulted in a person who has to be constantly vigilant to guard against her “impurities,” who is guilty about the “lapses” into thinking about herself, and who is, at the bottom, deeply resentful for all she has denied herself. Her mask has brought her not happiness but the opposite.

So we need to realize what we have suppressed and denied about ourselves – justified anger, warranted sorrow, or unbridled enthusiasm, for instance – and readmit those thoughts, feelings, and actions into consciousness. We have to reown the totality of ourselves, and find value in every aspect of our being. Only then will we become fully happy, secure in the fact that all of who we are is healthy by its very nature.

That’s job one, mask recognition and removal. Job two is reprogramming ourselves, relearning those things we were taught about ourselves and the world that are wrong, and that have created problems for us throughout our lives.

A few examples: we may have been told that we were “sweet” but not very bright, or that the world was dangerous and we were fragile and needed protection. We may have been ignored much of the time, or informed that we were the cause of our parents’ unhappiness. Perhaps we found that, no matter how hard we tried, we could not avoid punishment and make our parents happy. What are the consequences of these messages, implanted so early and deeply within us? Without our realizing their influence, they pattern our lives and become self-fulfilling prophecies. We become unable to succeed because we’re sure we haven’t the brains, or we find ourselves always anxious, unable to move confidently into new situations. The child who was ignored now feels unworthy of love, and the one who was blamed for his parents’ suffering walks around in constant guilt. The little one who was unable to stop the punishment and create happiness, despite all her best efforts, remains trapped in deep depression, having given up on bettering her life.

The fundamental assumptions we have about ourselves and life must be unearthed, examined, and actively replaced to the extent that they are false and harmful. This is not any easy proposition. Some of these misconceptions are so deep in our personality that we cannot conceive that they are untrue. Any different way of thinking, feeling, or behaving would seem unnatural. Yet, with the consistent effort to expose untruths and examine their consequences, and to time and again replace them with truer, more productive ways of seeing things, we experience a gradual shift in how we experience ourselves and what’s around us. As we, on our own or with the help of others, “reparent” ourselves in the areas where relearning is necessary, we find that our happiness increases and our lives change for the better.

To summarize: we have learned, to some extent, to falsify who we really are, and to assume things about ourselves and the world that aren’t true. These untruths cause us and others much suffering. In order to feel better and act more effectively, we need to:

1) remove the false front we wear to fool ourselves and others, and instead embrace all of who we are as natural and useful; and

2) identify the mistaken ideas we have taken to be true, and substitute more accurate and healthy understandings of who we are and what life is about.

This is the necessary and important work of any person who wishes to become truly healthy and happy, and to give his or her best to the world.
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