Training Dogs – Finding Strength in Unruly Emotions

We cannot change anything unless we accept it

-Carl Gustav Jung

A child is born. Although he has innate tendencies based on biological factors, the whole of human experience is available to him – and has infinite personality possibility. As we grow, our tiny brains “prune” away neurons, molding and shaping based on the interaction of our biology with our experience. However, the potential for all capacities of human emotional experience remains, even as some of these tendencies become latent and unconscious.

Everyone knows what it is like to be hijacked by negative emotions. There are few experiences worse that pain and anxiety that arise out of nowhere and often at the wrong times. The negative experience of this dynamic leads to the logical conclusion that one must put up barriers to these demons, to suppress them, and optimally to rid ourselves of them. Counter-intuitively, however, this is not where the solution lies. There is a Buddhist maxim which states, to escape the heat, go to the bottom of the furnace. This means learn to tolerate the heat in order to find out where it’s coming from.

Much of the work we do in therapy is to gain more control of our reactions and decrease the instances of being flooded with unwanted, painful emotion. At birth, we have all of human potential within us, and even though we cultivate some traits and bury others, we never lose this capacity. Keeping this in mind, the idea of us possessing latent aspects to our personality becomes important. The implication of this is whatever emotion or tendency troubles us, it is not going to go away. We must grapple with it. We have vicious dogs that need taming.

Let’s take a common example used in shadow work (a Jungian concept of working toward wholeness of self by integrating at forgotten, ignored or feared aspects of the self, much as I propose here) – that of aggression. Suppose you had mother who became overly upset if you were a noisy and angry and breast-grabbing little baby demanding milk. Because maintaining the attachment relationship is hard-wired in our emotional system as a life or death endeavor (which it is), our little brains learn to put this part of us away and associate it with the danger of losing what is keeping us alive. Later in life, this tendency to suppress our aggression may be reinforced by certain teachers, our religion, or any numbers of factors that remind us we may lose something if we allow this part of us to emerge.

The result is, our capacity for aggression is undeveloped and we pay for that. And if that isn’t bad enough, this wild animal gets out and goes for the only “safe” target –ourselves – in the form of self-destructive behavior or self-loathing. That latent aggression that we attempted to cage up early in infancy and childhood as a necessary defense gets out on occasion and emerges as an unwanted and malevolent attacker.

So what to do? Make friends with it. Really?? You say…I just want it to go away! Look at the problems and pain it is causing. But think about this. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of your internal family members to get along? When has it ever been constructive to banish the black sheep? What would happen if that aggressive delinquent would be taken back into the fold and given the acceptance that it needed from an earlier time? This is what we need to do with the parts of ourselves that, through being ignored, unexplored and unloved, are unruly and unpredictable.

Here’s something that might make the idea of making friends with those parts a little more enticing – embedded within all these troublesome parts are positive elements. We are talking about aggression, so what could be positive about that?

Well…we want a raise, but are too frightened to ask for one. We have an abusive partner, but can’t bear to call the police, we want to stand up to an exploiting authority, but have a deeply embedded defense that says: Danger! If you let that dog out, it will bite the thing you need to live, and that thing will go away! This being the case, it’s no wonder we don’t want to let it out! But you treat that dog well, and it will be a loyal friend. Developing the understanding that it can bite when you need it to, but will obey you to not bite at the wrong time then becomes the work.

A good therapist can guide you to towards meeting these parts gradually. Together in your work, you can come to see how they are trying to make themselves known to you through these intrusions. By noticing the times in which you are taken over by unwanted negative emotions or what triggers your engagement in self-destructive behaviors, you begin to see who these parts are. By decreasing your fear of them and increasing your compassion, you get to know them. As you learn to tolerate them, they become less inhibiting, and you are able to go to the bottom of the furnace.

This work can be challenging, and getting to know these parts can be elusive. Tolerating them takes time, practice, and often some good tools. But in a secure therapeutic alliance, gradual work can pay off as you get to know the unexplored and unused parts of yourself. And gradually, as they become your friends, they will reward you with the untapped benefits. Ultimately, and obviously you become more whole as parts that were once suppressed and “disavowed” are allowed to rejoin the family of the Self.


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