How can we be punishing ourselves for things we aren’t aware of?

Q. In a class, you said that we look at our past and think, “I was hard done-by.” But then, you said, somewhere inside we look at the same past and say, “I caused others to be hard done-by. That’s my special burden and that’s why I was hard done-by. I was being punished for my own selfishness; I had it coming to me.”

But what if you aren’t aware of any of this? For instance, children who have horrendous childhoods often think that their circumstances are normal. And many people, both children and adults, are not aware of hurting anyone else. So how can they be punishing themselves over what they aren’t aware of doing?

A. I think this operates on an unconscious level, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. We can imagine three levels. There is the conscious level. And then a level down, there is the level I have called the enraged victim. Here, our ego is constantly monitoring how well it is being treated by the world; i.e., whether it is getting what it wants from people and events. If it’s not getting what it wants, it is thinking, “I was hard done-by.” And it’s thinking this even if, consciously, you aren’t. As a result, it builds up a rage inside. This rage may be effectively walled off from the conscious experience, but it’s there, nonetheless. And it can come out in different ways. Therapy is a classic way. I remember hearing a friend talk about doing horrible symbolic acts of violence to his father and brother during a psychodrama exercise. Where did that come from? From the enraged victim inside.

Then beneath that, there is what I’ve called the “call for help” level and what the Course describes as the loving mind that thought it made its illusions in anger (T-13.III.6:4). This mind is also doing a constant monitoring. It is constantly comparing all of your thoughts and behaviors to the divine purity of your true nature. And of course, it is always seeing thoughts and behavior that are tainted by ego and thus don’t measure up to the purity of your true nature. And every little instance is registering as guilt.

The resulting accumulation of guilt is massive but mostly unconscious. On this level, it gives rise to a worldview in which we believe that God is out to get us for our sins, and is working through our life events to do just that. And this worldview does reach consciousness in different forms; most especially in the form or religious beliefs.

My point is that these dynamics are going on whether we are conscious of them or not. And I think they are going on in children, too. It just might be further away from consciousness. Yet children are often aware of feeling guilt over misdeeds. (I remember my first son when he was two saying “I feel so guilty!”) And they are also aware of dreading the punishment that they think will come from those misdeeds. They famously often blame themselves for all sorts of things, including their own abuse and the divorces of their parents. And they are of course aware of resentment over being mistreated.

A classic story of this (which I will tell from memory as I cannot locate it) comes from Carl Jung, who tells that a young man came to him who was inexplicably paralyzed from the waist down. As Jung questioned him, it became clear that an older woman had become smitten with the young man and that she had been financing ski trips for him. Jung concluded that he was unconsciously guilt-ridden for taking advantage of her, and had converted this guilt into his paralysis, which of course made him unable to ski. When Jung told this to the man, he thought it was absurd, and I believe he terminated therapy.

There is actually a name for this. It’s called a conversion disorder. This involves a psychic conflict being converted to physical symptoms, such as paralysis or blindness. It does happen. Emotions can be genuinely unconscious yet at the same time can have truly powerful effects.

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