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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I have a question, based on your latest page about OCD. You introduced to me an intriguing concept. How do you help your OCD grow bigger and stronger as the protector and the guardian of love rather than fear, and how might that play out in your daily life? Can you illustrate this concept for me? I like the concept very much but am unable to imagine what it would “look like” in my daily experiences. The OCD defense is a very strong “force”; I can imagine that reappropriating the strength of this “force” so as to assist one’s path to holiness rather than destruction would be very useful indeed.

Outline of the Answer
• Against Common Sense
• The Original Protective Purpose
• Preserving the Underlying Skills
• An Example
• Some Suggestions for OCD

 
Redirecting the strength of the OCD defense, so as to make it your real protector, is indeed an astonishing concept. Yet, because it’s a concept that defies common sense, hardly anyone bothers to consider it. The fact that you ask about it speaks to the depth of your yearning for the true faith.

To initiate this process of change, it will first be necessary to accept the fact that all psychological defenses have one underlying purpose: to protect you from some sort of harm.

 
The Original Protective Purpose

Psychological defenses get created in childhood to protect us from emotional hurts inflicted by our environment (parents, siblings, friends, and others). Because a defense’s original purpose is protective, it will be necessary, if you want to overcome that defense now as an adult, to understand how the defense has previously been trying to protect you. That is, it will be necessary to respect the original protective purpose of the defense.

In this regard, think of the defense as a child who feels suspicious, confused, and frightened. If you try to force a frightened child to do what you want, you will get only resistance and opposition; the only way to surpass the opposition is to understand the child’s fear while also understanding that the child’s behavior seems, to the child, to be protective. Then you can negotiate with the child to establish new behaviors that still protect you, but do so in a healthy, emotionally honest manner.

   
Preserving the Underlying Skills

Furthermore, respecting the original protective purpose of a defense, rather than just “getting rid” of the defense,[1] will aid you in changing your behavior without invalidating all the skills and talents that the defense has used so far in its attempt (however awkward and childlike) to protect you. Thus all those skills and talents that the defense has used so far in its attempt to protect you can be redirected into new and healthy ways of acting.

  

Consider, for example, how a man trained as an assassin in the military could function in civilian life. Yes, he could use his skills to work for the Mafia as a “hit man.” Or, the man could renounce a life of killing and take up a new career—such as a priest—that depends on utilizing some of the same skills—confidence, patience, perseverance, working independently, attention to details, sensitivity to the environment, clear analytical thinking, etc.—that made him a good assassin.

After all, isn’t this similar to what Saint Paul did?

  

 
An Example

Here is a general example (not specific to OCD) of how the process of changing old behavior, while respecting the original protective purpose of that behavior, can be outlined.

Identify the problem and your feelings.

I want to go to college, but I feel anxious and afraid.
 

State the negative thought(s) underlying your feelings.

“Wanting anything is selfish.”
“You don’t deserve to have any ambitions.”
“You will never succeed at anything.”
 

Identify the “voice” of the negative thought(s). That is, is it the voice of your mother or your father or someone else?

It’s the voice of both my mother and my father. It’s my father because, as an alcoholic, he passively hid from taking responsibility in the family. It’s the voice of my mother in her anger at herself and at us children because of my father’s selfish passivity.
 

State the original purpose of the negative thought(s).

They protect me from feeling hurt by my father when he got drunk and broke his promises.
 

State the “voice” of the original protective purpose.

“You have a right to feel afraid. Staying hidden has kept you alive all your life. If you expose yourself now, you will be destroyed!”
 

Acknowledge the “voice” of the original protective purpose.

“I understand how much you fear betrayal. My father’s broken promises hurt deeply. But now there are other means of self-protection available that you didn’t know about in childhood. I can learn about them and use them.”
 

Dispute—that is, make a rebuttal to—the negative thought(s).

“Yes, having ambition is partly selfish, and  yet it can also be of use to others. It’s also true that if I get a college degree it will enhance my self-esteem and my prestige, and  yet it will allow me to do better work than I can do now. So if I go to college, everyone can benefit.”
 

State how the rebuttal still fulfills the original purpose of the negative thought(s).

Going to college will protect me from getting hurt; that is, it will protect me from the hurt of “burying” my true talents.
 

Predict how you will feel—and why you will feel that way—if you carry out your rebuttal.

I will feel sad because it will remind me that my father really wasn’t there for me.
 

Validate the underlying truth of those feelings. Note that the previous points can be discovered relatively quickly through logic and intellect. This point requires some deep, emotional introspection and for that reason it is often the core work of psychotherapy.

I felt very sad all throughout my childhood because I was constantly disappointed by my alcoholic father.
 

State how those feelings can now be a positive motivation.

My sadness that my father wasn’t there for me can be an incentive for me to “be there” for someone else.
 

Make positive affirmations about your decision.

I will protect myself by going to college. I will learn how to be assertive and to protect my boundaries. I will make my best effort. I will not sabotage myself. I will “be there” for myself to validate my own emotional experiences, and  I will “be there” for others. I will never forget the betrayal inflicted on our family by my father, yet I will work to forgive him rather than get stuck like my mother in thoughts of resentment.
 

 
Some Suggestions for OCD

In regard to OCD, remember that the underlying dynamic of OCD is the neutralization of guilt because of impulses of anger and revenge, and that the OCD defense is very, very good at sniffing out these impulses. Once it detects these impulses, the defense forces you, with exquisite determination, to perform rituals of neutralization, and it keeps your mind occupied with incessant thoughts about how deplorable you are.

Therefore, in order to stop these obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals, endeavor first to understand their protective purpose: to keep your mind from admitting the truth of your emotional hurt. The defense, just like a little child, feels terrified that if you admitted the truth of your feelings, you would then carry out your impulses of revenge. The defense fears that you would actually kill someone.

The defense, then, is like a watchdog who can hear an intruder miles away. But it’s also a watchdog who acts on its own initiative to chase away intruders without waiting for a command from its master. Thus, as the ultimate irony, you, in fearing your ability to kill, end up allowing your OCD defense to kill your own emotional life.

To negotiate a solution to this problem, work with your OCD defense to allow it to keep working as a watchdog but also to take direction from you. When the OCD defense senses your emotional hurt, let it tell you. Then you can choose to respond to that hurt in accord with Christian values. After all, you can bless your enemies, rather than kill them, just as you can bless your defenses rather than get rid of them.

It takes practice and perseverance to do this, but once you have the process working your old OCD defense, in its new role, will be able to carry out your directives of love with just as much “force” that it carried out its own directives of fear.

  
Related Pages

Unfinished business in OCD
Invisible anger in OCD

 

Who wrote this web page?
 

Notes

1. Such as by suppressing it with medication.

2. To learn more about healthy boundaries, click on this link to a web page on my associated website, A Guide to Psychology and its Practice.

 

Healing
Psychological Healing in the Catholic Mystic Tradition


by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.


A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites is now available at your fingertips in book form with a comprehensive index.
 
Psychological defenses help to protect us from emotional injury, but if you cling to the defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously—your quest for spiritual healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts.
 
Still, God has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its pull: hate.
 
So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you. You will go where you desire.

More information

 

 


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