A previous article on participatory medicine and healing* explored our continuous interconnection and partnership with every aspect of life – our bodies, our world, other human beings, and indeed with ourselves. But just as we participate in our own health and healing, we also participate in our own ill health.
In this article the focus will be on the multiple partnerships we have with our internal ‘characters’, those aspects of our psyche that make up our personality which determine the way we live our lives, our health, our growth potential, and our healing. Most importantly, we shall see the power these characters have in creating our blocks, our self-restrictions and our ill health.
We have within us our primary functional role characters – mother, wife, friend, teacher, etc. Embedded in our characters are our biographical characters – the child, teenager, adult etc. And constantly weaving through all of these role players are our psychologically active characters – our thinking, sensing, feeling and doing person, who changes rapidly and magically according to the role we play. For instance when we are being the parent, we think, sense, feel and act in a certain characteristic way that is so very different to when we are the subordinate employee.
The personality subtypes are real human characters that emerge in accordance with specific situations.
Jenny is the mother of Bruce, an angry teenager who makes her feel guilty for leaving her husband, his father and breaking up the family home. She feels like the child she used to be when her father blamed her for everything that was not right at home. She grew up thinking she was not as good as her sister and constantly judges herself as being inferior. In her feelings she is anxious and lacks confidence, her body feels tense and reserved, and when Bruce tells her he hates her, she cringes and withdraws as if in pain. Her irritable bowel worsens with these encounters as does her joint pain which was recently diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune illness.
Jenny came to see me for these symptoms. She has a long history of digestive problems, had her tonsils removed as a young child, developed glandular fever in adolescence, and chronic fatigue syndrome in her final year of school. She was not able to write her matric and keeps blaming herself for her inadequacies. She has had numerous breast cysts and frequent mammograms because of her fear of cancer.
The partnership between self and illness
Jenny was aware that her symptoms were always worse when she was anxious and knew she herself had a lot to do with her illness. She wanted to know how she was creating her problems. I explained to her that I needed her active participation in the process, offered her complete respect and non-judgment and took pains to make sure she felt safe and comfortable with the process. I asked her then to show me, with her hands, the tightness and pain in her digestive system. She expressed this tightness with clenched fists and contracted tense muscles, especially around her abdomen. I asked her to step away and observe the after image she had just created with her physical and emotional expression. She looked at the empty space which now was filled with her own deep soul projections and said: ‘I can for the first time see my anxious child.’
This was the breakthrough. Jenny was now in partnership with the part of herself that was controlling her life and costing her so much – her self-esteem, her relationships, her health and her future well-being. She could now observe what it was all about.
Pinpointing disease-provoking characters
Together Jenny and I observed the empty chair which became fuller with life content the more we watched it. As she described her early life story, Jenny could see her biography unfolding before her like a real live video: the small child terrified of her father’s rages, feeling guilty and ashamed because she was always being blamed by her father, mother and favoured sister; Jenny was the older child who learned to submit, avoid confrontation and always aimed to please. She grew up anxious, shy, lacking confidence and always worrying about something. She was a thin, pale and sickly adolescent with a cowering attitude and tense body.
As we observed her adult body now, we focused on the tightness and constriction in her bodily systems and imagined the constriction in blood flow and oxygen to the digestive organs, the over-activity of her fight and flight sympathetic nervous system and the excess secretions of adrenalin and cortisol. Looking at her anxious and depressed nature, we could confirm the scientific evidence that these psycho-emotional states are associated with imbalances in neuro-endocrine chemistry and immune suppression. It was crystal clear to Jenny how the continuous active presence of her anxious and guilty character was creating physiological dysfunctions which inevitably led to all the illnesses she had developed: her constant sore throats and the resultant tonsillectomy, her liver suppression and glandular fever, her chronic fatigue and irritable bowel condition, and her fibrocystic breast disease. She could also see how this anxious person carried thoughts such as ‘something is bound to go wrong’, held on habitually to feelings of ‘being inadequate’, frequently experienced ‘pain and tightness’ in her body and acted out her inner experience with defence mechanisms such as ‘withdrawal or depression’. It was now obvious to her how this character was controlling, obstructing and restricting her life and negatively affecting her health.
Awareness leads to healing
Then I asked Jenny to show me what she thought was making her feel so anxious and guilty. After some hesitation she began to blame the guilty one in the chair with angry words and gestures: ‘You are the cause for all the problems in your life and mine, things will always go wrong because you are not good enough. Yes I hate you because you are so weak and pathetic!’ Now she could see the other character in her life story, the part hidden from view, the internalized angry father that continued to make her feel anxious, guilty and undeserving. It was clear to Jenny that these two characters belong together in an unholy alliance, in a partnership, where the one requires the other to exist: the guilty one has to have someone who blames her, the blamer has to have someone to blame.
Our internalised characters are connected in partnerships that control our lives and they in turn are connected with our bodily systems that control our health. We may have the best diets, lifestyles and medical treatments, but if we continue to carry anxiety and guilt in our body-mind systems, we undermine all the best functional or integrative medical programmes. These are the partnerships that create more than any other single factor the pandemic illnesses of our age – the chronic illnesses such as cancer, degenerative disorders, heart and lung disease, autoimmune disorders etc., illnesses for which modern Western medicine has no real answers. The solution lies first and foremost in becoming aware of these illness-provoking characters, for only then is it possible to do something about it.