The Thousand Daily Acts of Self-Protection
By David Tresemer, PhD
Let’s review a phenomenon you’ve likely seen before. You’ve invited your friend Greg over for tea and toast. You put one piece of toast on Greg’s plate and your piece on another plate. Greg butters his, adds a layer of jam and begins to eat it. All the while, you’re talking about something important, let’s say, Parsifal! In the buttering and the jamming, and the talking, some crumbs fall from his toast onto the table. While speaking of Parsifal’s relationship with Gawain, Greg notices the crumbs, perhaps even studies them. Recounting Gawain’s near-death experiences in the Castle of Marvels in relation to what’s happening in the world right now, Greg corrals the crumbs with the side of his hand, wipes them off the edge of the table, and looks up, finishing his point about Gawain fending off the huge lion that attacked him.
Next time this happens, you can be more vigilant to the swiftly passing nuances—yes, there are nuances of the exciting story of Parsifal and Gawain, but more importantly, the parallel reality of Greg’s behavior. Greg notices the crumbs in a hazy kind of awareness because his attention is on what you’re talking about. Semi-consciously, he takes on the responsibility for doing something with those crumbs. They enter his field and become part of him—he includes them in the sphere of “Greg.” He gathers them with the side of his hand, bringing the scattering of crumbs into a kind of order—a small pile. Gathering that pile, he slides his hand to the edge of the table.
Watch closely as they fall off. Don’t watch the crumbs; fascinating as that is. Instead, watch Greg closely as he disengages with them. He has given them to the invisible maw of gravity, then is pulled back by your conversation. Observe how the energy of his being moves out to these crumbs and then withdraws. He comes back into himself. Sometimes this happens with a rapid snap, as elastic stretches, and then is let go. Sometimes it happens more slowly. The effect is the same: Greg has renounced not only the crumbs as part of himself but also his memory of his connection with them. It was always only partly conscious; now it is as if they never existed and his actions never happened.
This is a phenomenon of boundary maintenance, affirmation of what is “I” and what is “not-I.” It’s how the sense of self is constantly maintained—going out to engage the world, owning some of it as mine, then releasing all of it, or some part of it, as you snap back to the more stable, familiar, and defensible identity. These open secrets are played out a thousand times a day by each of us and others in plain view. We don’t notice it in ourselves or in others.
What are you defending? Layers of personality surround, embrace and defend the sacred “I,” your individuality, the core of you, the part that holds the secrets of your purpose in this incarnation. Each layer pushes back against influences from the outer world, taking in and quickly ejecting, a kind of psychic digestion process that takes place every moment.
Healthy dissociation—as from the crumbs on a table sent toppling into non-existence—happens in every encounter, through all the senses. The traditional Hindu saying is “neti neti”: “not that, not that,” over and over again, a kind of hum of rejection and pulling back, shoveling most of what you experience into the hot furnace of forgetting. Once, I commented to a Greg in my life, “You dropped some bread crumbs on the floor.” It led to fifteen minutes of embarrassed explanations, insisting on a dustpan and brush, and where do you hide the trash can anyway, or do you compost bread crumbs, you ought to have a compost bin, some sparks of anger on his part, a banging performance of cleaning them up, and then he realized he had to go. Non-plussed, I tried sharing observations about crumbs with others on two other occasions. Not anymore.
We don’t challenge each other on how we define our boundaries, even for behaviors made in plain sight—that’s how delicate this is.
Watch for this phenomenon in other settings. I observe a boy across the street running along the sidewalk, a bit too close to the potted plants that someone has set outside their front door. He knocks one over; a piece of the pot breaks off, and some of the soil is scattered onto the sidewalk. He picks up the pot, puts the broken piece next to the plant, scuffs his shoe on the sidewalk to collect the soil towards the pot, looks right and left, then continues running along the street. The part we should observe is where he has expanded to include the pot as part of him, the energetic confusion as he sets it up again, and scuffs the soil towards the pot, then the shift while looking right and left, as he disengages. You can sense the withdrawal—the dissociation—that takes but an instant. Perhaps you can sense from across the street the guilt that, because painful, is also sent away from awareness in an instant. He has retreated to the boundaries of his “I,” and moved past it, forgetting it ever happened.
You can’t observe yourself so easily, as you get defensive with yourself as well. And yet it is important to begin to notice these patterns in yourself because, through them, you find the vulnerable parts of yourself and can address those not with repression but with the repair of love. Before confronting yourself, continue to observe this phenomenon in the world.
Dissociation is something we enact many times in a day, in a thousand little ways, and occasionally in big ways. At its extreme, it becomes Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). That has the ICD code number F44.81, the categorization used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), version 5-TR. The description of that disorder includes “discontinuity” and “forgetting,” which we have seen. It can include the very dramatic “multiple personalities,” different characters that occupy the same body. The DSM even names “possession.” These behaviors are all in service of protection of the boundaries that shelter the “I.” With DID, they have begun to undermine the smooth functioning of the rest of your life.
There are many versions of this phenomenon between letting crumbs drop onto the floor and DID. Let us visit the Navy SEALs (“Sea, Air, and Land”), the elite military wing of the best and brightest—physically fit, mentally disciplined, and educated in a wide variety of technologies and weapons systems. They work in teams of four or eight to conduct extractions of hostages and terrorists or specialized reconnaissance missions anywhere on the planet. In their actions, they are capable of working with colleagues as one unit, passing leadership from one person to another in silence through intuition.
The training to become a Navy SEAL begins with a “Hell Week,” physically demanding, one impossible task after another, with little sleep, repeatedly at the edge of death. When interviewed, a trainer said that it’s not the super-fit who make it through that week. The super-fit thought that they would have an advantage. The trainer said no, they drop out after a day. Over the years, the trainer realized that the ones who made it had severe childhood trauma. They aren’t especially muscular or big, but they can dissociate—from the impossible tasks, the pain, and the glory of being a Navy SEAL. They persist, as they did in childhood. One imagines that they would be able to set aside other concerns when communing—it’s more communing than communication—in a mission in the field.1
A thousand times each day, you reach out to embrace the world. A very few experiences you keep. Most are crumbs that you assist in falling into the oblivion of gravity and the fires of forgetting—as you snap back your boundaries to care for your precious “I” and its personalities, balancing over-protection with vulnerability, a balancing that adjusts every moment.