Psychological Ways We Can Undermine Our Spiritual Transformation
In my earlier article on Struggling with Prayer: A Psychological Perspective, I looked at ways we can unconsciously resist the change prayer can start to bring within us.
In this article, I take a wider view to look at ways we can undermine or sabotage our spiritual transformation. It may, at first, seem a strange idea that we can in some unconscious way resist our transformation in Christ, which is what we consciously desire and proclaim. But growth is understanding what we have not yet been able to conceive, feeling what we have never felt, doing what we have never done before; it is daring what we have never dared. It may not, therefore, necessarily be pleasurable or comfortable. It obliges us to leave our comfort zone, to progress into the unknown and can be, at some level, frightening to our whole sense of self. 'It is no-longer I that live but Christ that lives in me' can, in truth, be an understandably terrifying prospect to our sense of who we are and existing sense of order.
Another powerful cause of our inner resistance is fear of being hurt where we are, or allow ourselves to be, at our most vulnerable; that is in our places of change and transformation. I talk more about the need to be able to embrace, and walk in naked authenticity with, our brokenness and vulnerability in my post Knowing God: Wholeness & Self-Knowledge.
Piero Ferrucci*, a well known Italian psychotherapist who writes on the interface of psychological and spiritual growth, suggests seven forms of spiritual pathology where, because of our own inner issues and processes, we can actively undermine our journey of spiritual transformation. Some of them I have already explored in various articles looking at the dialogue between psychology and spirituality, others are simply naturally familiar to our reflective selves as we travel our spiritual path.
Psychological ways we can undermine our journey of spiritual transformation:
(1) Repression - Finding the changes budding within us frightening and threatening to our familiar existing order, the simplest and most common strategy of resistance is to push them away from our awareness. But they usually go on making themselves felt in feelings of dissatisfaction, boredom and a sense of in-authenticity. Dorothy L. Sayers explains the condition of this person as like Caiaphas (the man who condemned Jesus), the one 'who sacrifices his inner truth to expediency... and to whom the rejected good becomes at once a heaven from which he is exiled and a rack on which he suffers.'
(2) Projection - Rather than owning and growing in the desired qualities encouraged by our path for ourselves, we can take the easier but less rewarding route of projecting them onto some 'other' - a spiritual leader/ teacher, a spiritual director, a therapist, a friend, a saint or the like. We then expect the person to act according to the image of the ideal and resent it if he or she does not conform to our expectations. This strategy is often accompanied by low self-esteem, laziness, dependency, helplessness and, ultimately, anger. Moreover, the qualities projected on the saintly other often take on a distorted and unrealistic aspect.
(3) Compensation - Again, fearing and resisting the changes afoot within us, the person's psyche can compensate by elaborating an opposite trait. Thus, to compensate for the inflow of feelings of love, the person can instead present aggressiveness. This strategy produces strong conflicts and contradictory behaviour, unbalanced attitudes and abrupt changes of direction.
(4) Desacralization - Operates by ridiculing and belittling, in a cynical way, anyone or anything connected with spirituality and transformation. It allows the individual to vent aggressive tendencies and is especially common in those who are quite sensitive, and have in some way felt betrayed by life's events, and that deeply fear being ridiculed themselves.
(5) Defensive Pessimism - here individual's belittle themselves out of deep, often unconscious, fear that their desired changes are impossible to achieve: 'I'm too old' 'I'm not good enough.' Or they may blame an external situation: 'I can't grow as long as I have a family to look after that demands my time;' 'I can't pray because my work doesn't leave me time or energy for anything else.' People who adopt this strategy are frightened and easily discouraged, their feelings of impotence often accompanied by a resentment never fully expressed.
(6) Routinisation - We can turn what was an original embodied revelation of the divine into a routinised system that loses the original inspiration and impulse. This strategy can result in individual's believing they have a clear explanation for everything, ignoring the mystery and 'God of surprises.' Such individuals adopt now familiar formulas, cliches and slogans. They hold fast to some truth, experience, teaching, or event that has meant a great deal to them in the past, but are now only routinely imitating what was once a spontaneous explosion of life that has now become a crystallized fossil.
(7) Dogmatisation - is a related strategy that denies by affirming. What had originally been a vibrant 'conversion' experience becomes a rigid norm to which one must conform: 'I have to be joyous' or 'loving' or 'enlightened.' So, what was once a free gift becomes a tool to please others and survive socially. In this way, growth is merely added to a long list of 'shoulds.' This strategy is accompanied by constraint, rigidity and basic lack of love for oneself.
It is natural and real that we all, at times, find ourselves displaying some of these unconscious tactics in the face of unsettling inner changes in our spiritual journey. The key is self-awareness, and being able to have compassion on ourselves in our inner distress. Working with our emotions is a vital part of our journey, and in my article on The Spiritual Life and our Emotions I offer a gentle form of meditative prayer to help deal with emotions that we are finding encumbering.
As I also importantly discuss in my earlier article 'Travelling', it is vital to realise and know that we are loved and accepted by God as we are and that we are not a self-improvement project. Resting in the knowledge and awareness of God's unconditional love of us can melt away all our inner resistances.
* Piero Ferrucci : 'What We May Be...Techniques for psychological & spiritual growth through psychosynthesis'