An Invitation To Gentleness
Part 1 – The Shadow’s Triad Or The Struggles To Be Gentle
All my life, I have been reflecting so passionately on personal development that I became a Counsellor. Notably throughout lived and witnessed experiences, trainings, received and given therapy, books and TED Talks, I have been reflecting on why our struggles manifest. Beside what life throws at us, is there a determining factor common to all of us? Is there a key to unlock the struggles of existence? As a Counsellor, I personalise the therapy I provide to each client, because I strongly believe that everyone is and has a very individual and rich network of complexities. That being said, I found a constant: an attitude.
An attitude is always present. Our attitude toward ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and sensations, the ones of others. Our attitude toward who we are, what we do, who people are and what they do. Our attitude toward the world, events and situations in it and in our life; or toward a topic. Our attitude is pretty determinant in what we struggle with, and how long and how much we struggle. How could it not be when it is a constant factor, embedded in everything we are and do? We can’t always choose what happens in our life or in the world, what we think or feel, but I trust we always can try to reflect and work on what attitude we want to adopt toward them. So, I wondered: is there one attitude better than others?
Recently, as I was reflecting on my counselling practice, I realised that I keep on inviting my clients to adopt a certain attitude. One I came to believe is at the core of the therapeutic healing and growth: gentleness. Certainly, there are other attitudes to add up to create a healthy and dynamic life such as curiosity, enthusiasm, optimism and playfulness, but gentleness feels like a priority to me.
Google says gentleness is: “the quality of being kind, tender or mild-mannered; the softness of action or effect; lightness”. It is fairly obvious to me, - and it takes one to know one -, that most of us tend to lack gentleness toward what we think, feel, do and haven’t done. A lack of gentleness toward who we are and where we are in our journey.
As I was trying to write an article about the rules of gentleness, I realised two things. Firstly, where there are rules there is space for more gentleness; - hereby the title of this article being an ‘invitation’. Secondly, before reflecting on how to adopt and practice gentleness, I needed to explore what may prevent us from being gentle with ourselves. Once again, though there is a multitude of specific reasons and consequences for each individual, I tried to find some archetypal reasons for this general lack of gentleness.
Working with a widely diverse range of clients, I certainly verified what I was taught during my training. The first source of self-loathing and harshness toward one self is our primal wound1. In our early years, we all experience many forms of fractures with our surrounding, where we are treated more as objects than as beings, where we experience conditional love, and many variations of neglect and abuse. Firman and Gila1 notably explain that those fractures create disruptions in our connection to our self, and from those traumatic disruptions result feelings of emptiness, loneliness and isolation. We are not seen and loved adequately. This is the first wounding to which we react unconsciously by throwing ourselves “into addictions of all sorts, - from sex, romance and drugs to wealth, power and violence”1.
Our primal wounding extends to our entire upbringing, where implicit and explicit values are transmitted, - such as the infamous catholic guilt. We are taught how to consider and treat ourselves. Harshly, poorly, dismissively… This becomes our attitude toward ourselves. Our fundamental truth, - that our being is good enough to be and to be loved unconditionally as it is -, is denied. We then deny our hurt and anger that we bury in the shadow of ourselves, from which are sourced all kinds of acting out and dysfunctional patterns.
That shadow has been continuously analysed and conceptualised, notably around Joung’s work on ‘The Shadow Self’2, - this unconscious field of so-called negative or dark urges, feelings, impulses and desires. Thinking psychosynthetically3 around subpersonalities, - those different parts within us -, I conceptualised a ‘Shadow’s Triad’ blocking us the access to gentleness, being its nemesis. A Triad composed by an Inner Critic, a Control Freak and a Perfectionist. Indeed, it seems to me that most of us have variations of those entities within ourselves and that they prevent us to access for ourselves that gentleness we may be able to provide to others. I would insist here for the last time that as per everything else, those parts differ from an individual to another. I also believe therapy is one of the only spaces where this can be explored, understood, unfolded and resolved, - and in consequence of which individuals can heal and grow.
Why is this Triad, - in my opinion -, preventing us from accessing and practicing gentleness with ourselves? I think it is all about misplaced and/or toxic energies and messages that overlap. We are lost in that self-depreciating Bermuda triangle of the psyche. The Inner Critic and The Perfectionist create a sea of ‘should’ we try to navigate without compass, seasick. We should do more, we should be less, we shouldn’t ask for what we want, we shouldn’t have done this, we should have done that. We don’t know why we are not good enough, but we sure know we aren’t, so we work at it, harder and harder.
The Inner Critic tells us “you’re rubbish” and The Perfectionist echoes with “you’re not and will never be good enough”. They are incarnations of conditional self-love, with conditions always out of reach. Self-love and self-esteem become something to deserve throughout unrealistic never-ending expectations. If I get this promotion or diploma, complete this project, buy a house or get married, then I will be able to be proud of who I am and what I have achieved. But as soon as one goal is reached, another takes its place with the same conditional on hold self-love. And how can self-respect, acceptance and self-compassion, - qualities of gentleness -, can occur if self-loathing is at play? Because be sure that as some attitude the energy of love is always there, and if not in its positive form, in the other side of its coin: loath.
Indeed, in Psychosynthesis, we believe in two coexisting energies that drive us continuously: love and will4. I trust gentleness to be one fundamental attitude of love. But when those energies of love and will are misused by our shadow, we come to carry ourselves in life with an underlying sense of self-loathing and worthlessness. How can we then find our salvation? I have witnessed that for many of us, the embodied belief of worthlessness pushes us to find our salvation in sacrifying ourselves for the sake of others. Isn’t it in the occidental world the main heritage of Christianity? We are good and humbled if we sacrify ourselves for others and punish ourselves for who we are. This is what we call in Psychosynthesis a distorted good will, where we ignore the detrimental impact on ourselves our good actions toward others can have. This isn’t goodness, and this sure isn’t health or sanity. Good will is about the wellness of everyone, including ourselves. Because what the Shadow’s Triad makes us forget is that our first duty, our first loyalty should be to ourselves. I strongly believe in “put the mask of oxygen on your face first”. I believe in a healthy selfishness, narcissism and self-indulgence, reminding ourselves to put self-love5 first, and then combining it with good will and a drive toward togetherness as a motto to practice a healthy happy relational life.
But our Inner Critic and our Perfectionist can create a storm of self-loathing dynamics that fuel a continual feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness that our Control Freak comes to torture us with. We try to control our appearance, how we are perceived, how things happen at work, in our relationships and in all single aspects of our life. In our selfie FOMO6 make believe current society, we over-expose ourselves to the world with more pretending than ever before. We become distant from our own reality, our true self. So much energy spent, so much pressure and stress endured hoping to “fake it until we make it”. Anxiety confuses our judgements. We are no longer able to distinguish what matters to what doesn’t, or our priorities. We may no longer differentiate our needs from our wishes. We may even lose track of why we want what we want. We withhold our breath and forget to be who we are.
We misconnect to others with our false selves and our list of should, and continuously go back to feeling this primal emptiness and loneliness. We don’t understand why as we have people around us. So, we run away, escape, try harder, work harder, push ourselves into those “addictions of all sorts”1. We tell ourselves that everything is failing. The Triad make us believe it is because we are failures. “I am not good enough” or “I am a failure” are the most common and damaging self-limiting beliefs. We try to resist them. So, we push and push, crush and crush always furthermore who we are throughout intoxicating and desperate doings. We may even chaotically change again and again our work, our relationship or the city we live in, in an existential despairing attempt to find this mythical ‘greener grass’ elsewhere. And as any chaotic agitation of one in the water, one drowns; forgetting that they simply had to breathe and be mostly steady, grounded to survive.
It all sounds quite dramatic and as if I am catastrophising everything, doesn’t it? Consider though that it all happens over time, mostly unconsciously, and in many subtle ways. More and more researches and articles around the world describe the increase in people affected by anxiety, depression and mental illnesses. This is not coincidental. Decrypting how and why it happens, how to make it stop and create healthier behaviours is at the core of the therapeutic work and research. This is also what I thrive to do in my writings7.
This first part of my ‘Invitation To Gentleness’ might feel like a stodgy and obscure piece, leaving you with no clue yet on how to invite gentleness into your life. But if you think of any medical condition you might be affected by, you can’t start treating and curing something you haven’t examined the symptoms of. Simply putting a plaster on a bleeding wound will most likely be inefficient. Exploring and noticing the symptoms of a lack of gentleness and well-being is the starting point. This is the crucial power of awareness, one at the core foundation of Psychosynthesis8. Awareness is what gives a greater ability to choose how and where to direct our will to build up and nurture a healthier and happier life. Without awareness, we don’t have enough clarity to fully get in the driving seat of our life. Any growth process or change requires patience, practice and resilience, but firstly awareness.
What I tried to do here is to create some reflective awareness on our shadow, what blocks us the access to gentleness. Because if gentleness is about lightness, emptying our back pack from the rocks of worthlessness and powerlessness our shadow makes us carry seems like a good start. And in that start, we can already wonder what gentleness means to us, and what a gentle exploration and noticing of the dynamics in our life and within us could look like. Just wonder, gently.