Why does fear like to lurk in the shadows?

One of the toughest challenges that psychologists, therapists and counsellors face in any therapy situation is resistance. Protection and safety is the implicit motive for the strategy of resistance in the therapist & subject/patient/client relationship. It’s the implicit and instinctive need to keep the hurt and frightened part of the self, hidden and safe. The very hidden and hurt part that the psychologist, therapist and counsellor seek to connect with (and to guide their client/patient to reconnect with), and know that connecting with will facilitate the healing of the self by bringing the dissociated aspect of the self together for a more complete, homogenous and integrated  self.

I believe that to understand this tactic we need to do some deep phylogenetic detective work. We need to go far back to our earliest mammalian beginnings. When we travel back to the beginning of the evolution of our ancestors, we existed as small rodent like animal and lived alongside giant and terrifying creatures. We existed at the same time as the dinosaurs and the dinosaurs undoubtedly saw us as a tasty snack. We survived by running away and hiding. Running away and hiding was our entire survival strategy.

The primitive structures of that small creature’s brain that piloted this behaviour still exist within the core structures of the modern human brain and still pilot our fear response. Our further evolution has provided us with structures for regulating this primitive response to hide for safety. Emotional and behavioural mental health problems occur when this complex regulation system is not working as it should. This allows the primitive structures too much influence and interference with more complex cognitive processing. Primitive processing ends up in competition with other cognitive processing and as these primitive structures occupy a very central part of the brain and are far simpler than the more evolved areas of the brain, their processing is much faster and, with its central position, is perfectly located to intercept and usurp executive control.

Our modern problem with fear having a predisposition to avoid discovery in the psychological realm, is a direct result of our primitive and implicit instinct to hide for physical safety in our distant past.

Deep inside our brain, we have inherited the structures of our distant ancestors and they still have a powerful influence that, if the development of regulatory structures, systems and connections are not at their best, interfere, compete with and dominate the other more complex cognitive processes of more recent phylogenetic origin.

It’s important to understand the nature of these resistant dissociative complexes. They are cut off parts of the whole because they are being protected. They are being protected because they have been harmed and they are fearful of being harmed again.

Imagine seeing a cat in the street. It’s frightened. When you move towards it, it will likely run away and hide. You may want to comfort it, but that is not the way the cat sees it. Its instincts are in charge and its instincts say “run from the danger!”. It cannot reason that you mean to be kind and that you mean no harm. It isn’t operating on reason, it’s an implicit and instinctual response.

Dissociative complexes arise from our primitive and instinctual phylogeny, they are, to all intents and purposes, a wild and frightened animal that still lives inside us. The more the dissociated part feels threatened by you, the more it will retreat inside and resist being exposed

For these dissociative complexes to reveal themselves, they have to feel safe. They have to feel that they aren’t threatened by you. That’s the challenge (and it isn’t an easy one to meet).

It’s all about feeling safe. Safe enough to come out of hiding. Safe enough to be approached. Any ramping up of fear will only make it run away and hide again.