One of psychology’s most popular images is that of the gatekeeper strategically positioned between the conscious and unconscious minds to prevent certain unconscious contents from emerging into conscious awareness. We imagine some sort of autonomous process that filters out the unacceptable while allowing only “the good stuff” to pass. The trouble with this notion is the way it absolves ego of any responsibility for what is happening. If the process is autonomous, who, or what, is deciding what will pass through the gate and what will not?
What we are talking about here is repression and how it happens.
The actions of a gatekeeper between conscious ego and the unconscious self are most noticeable in the early stages of integrating unconscious contents, when the difficulties encountered seem so serious we personify them as a censor or gatekeeper. In reality, the difficulty lies in the ego’s unwillingness to accept the discrepancy between its idealized image (false persona) and the seemingly less impressive authentic or true self. It is not an unseen anonymous gatekeeper that interferes but ego itself that puts the kibosh on anything not pleasing to its own – usually unjustified – good opinion of itself. In other words, we (in the sense of the conscious “I”) are the mental gatekeeper! We get so good at guarding the gate that we are unaware of what we are doing.
A common example of repression involves powerful frightening negative emotions. Again, ego is defending a false persona. Hateful, angry, or fearful people earn no respect; therefore, we must bury any indication that we are so inclined. Few of us manage a perfect record, but often it is not from want of trying! Ironically, given our goal of improving our presentation of self, the more successful we are, the more likely we are to get into trouble with mental illness – and like being excessively emotional, head cases earn no respect.
Forestalling repression requires two things of us. First, we must recognize that we are our own mental gatekeepers. What we do, we do of our own accord. We always have the option of choosing another approach. Second, we must accept that undesirable unconscious contents need integration, while our emotions, however nasty, must have an appropriate outlet.
The key strategy is the switch from banishment to management. The chief obstacle to this is the way many people simply do not trust themselves. Realizing we are not compelled to act on unacceptable thoughts, ideas, and images makes a great place to start. Where emotions are concerned, our goal must be to allow the feeling, be aware of it, but learn to manage our behaviour in a socially acceptable way while in that emotional state. As with the other material coming from the unconscious, we are not compelled to act on our emotions. We must “let go” for that to happen.
Our most important resource is our authentic will, which routinely steers a course unaffected by transient feelings, thoughts, and images. If we get out of our own way and give it a chance, that is. The most common reason for not acting according to our own will is a vain, fearful, or confused ego trying to act as gatekeeper when authentic will is trying to emerge. In our attempts to repress unacceptable (to ego) material, we also interfere with the useful workings of our own will. There is needless discord in the psyche.
An important strand in the thinking about mental illness maintains that the unconscious erupts into consciousness only to destroy the ego’s own self-destructiveness. In this view, the unconscious is not a monster filled with all manner of terrible urges. It is, ultimately, a non-rational force capable of initiating a much-needed healing process. The misbehaving ego has brought about the dire situation. Since much of what is emerging from the unconscious is precisely the material ego has been deliberately repressing, ego naturally feels threatened and resists. When the unconscious proves too strong, a breakdown occurs.
Here is where dreadful crisis becomes life-giving opportunity. Once overpowered, the ego has two choices. It can recoil in terror, thereby abdicating its responsibility to provide awareness and the problem-solving power of reason. In these cases, madness may prevail as the psyche disintegrates into chaos. On the other hand, ego can stoically accept the situation, realize that it must sort things out, and get on with doing just that. In these cases, conscious integration of unconscious contents can begin. The journey towards wholeness and authenticity has begun.
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