There is a part of our psyche that formed when we were very young, often before our ego was constructed. Its purpose was to protect us, keep us safe, and ensure our survival, often in the midst of dysfunction or abuse. Over time, we adopted its strategies and the beliefs and behaviors it taught us, and these persisted even into our adult years. What we learned did indeed keep us safe as children, and gave us an ally, but there was a price. And the price was that our true selves remained small. Our potential remained undeveloped, we often became small or invisible, and our true selves became lost to us.
Perhaps we became conformists, or placaters, though we called ourselves “peacemakers”. Perhaps we learned to parrot back to someone in authority what we determined they wanted to hear. Perhaps we shut down all original thought, and remained silent. Perhaps we became self-critical, or we rescued others to stave off abandonment. Perhaps we shut down our feelings by always being in charge. Perhaps we suppressed our intelligence, joy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and sensuality. All these behaviors did, in fact, keep us safe as children, and ensured that we would grow to become adults. But an adult who is still under the influence of the Loyal Soldier, still employing these strategies often unknowingly, cannot reach his or her true potential. What to do?
The term “Loyal Soldier” comes from something that happened after World War II. There were hundreds of Japanese soldiers stranded on remote Pacific islands after the war was over. Communications being what they were at the time, it took years to find them all and bring them home. And when they were found, they exhibited a strong loyalty to their original military mission; they did not know the war was over. As soon as they were found, each soldier wanted to return immediately to the war, to continue their mission. But the war was over.
The Japanese government could have just told these men that the war was over, they could go home now, thank you very much, but you’re not needed anymore. But wisely, they thought about what that would do to these very loyal soldiers, so they took a different approach. They welcomed them home with great celebration and honor. They praised them for their loyalty and accorded them deep respect. In so doing, they enabled the soldiers to assume a new identity and rejoin society as productive members.
With the Loyal Soldier of the psyche, we could banish him, telling him in no uncertain terms that his service is no longer needed, that he is inhibiting us from becoming the largest version of ourselves we can be. We can banish him to a corner of our minds and hope he never comes out again. But think about this guy. He’s very good at what he does. He’s very loyal, and his loyalty is to you and your safety. And he is stubborn and not easily banished and forgotten. Besides, he did a great job of keeping you safe and ensuring your survival to this point in your adult life. As much as you don’t want him to continue his work now, you have to admit, he was good at what he did.
So again, what to do? You do what the Japanese government did with their loyal soldiers. First, you tell him the war is over. Second, you praise his skill, loyalty and all he did to keep you safe. You let him know that you are now grown, and you can keep yourself safe. And then, you give him a new job. Let’s take this in steps.
The war is – over???
Ask yourself, “Is the war over?” You will likely answer “Yes” if you are not now living in a dysfunctional environment where there are people in authority who have power over you, and where you have no agency of your own. It is over if you have the psychological and emotional skills to create healthy friendships, to take care of yourself in the face of criticism or rejection, and to nurture others as well as yourself. Get yourself into the psychological place of being able to unequivocally say, “The war is over.” You will need your certainty. Take all the time you need before you proceed. Develop all the nurturing and generative skills you need to develop, so that you can convince yourself that the war is indeed over.
Praise the Loyal Soldier
Now it’s time to lay the groundwork to move the Loyal Soldier from his position of prominence. Get two chairs and set them up facing each other. One chair is for you, the other is for the soldier. Sit in your chair, and imagine the soldier, who has protected you since childhood and who has brought you safely to this place, sitting in the chair facing you. Get a good visual image of him in your imagination. Praise and thank him. Tell him how good he was at what he did for you. Be specific about what he did that was right and how it helped you through what you went through. Let him know you hold deep gratitude for the safety he provided. Be specific about what you are grateful for.
Tell Him the War is Over
Now it is time to tell the Loyal Soldier the war is over. Tell him in those very words. He won’t believe you, so you will need to convince him. Describe to him specifically the conditions under which you lived, that he protected you from. Then describe in detail the resources you now possess that will enable you to say to him, “The war is over. I got this now.” Let him know what skills you have, how you can love now, how you, as a nurturing adult, can care for yourself and function with your own individual survival skills. Let him know how your judgment has matured. Let him know how your heart has grown, how you have taught yourself the skills you now possess, that you didn’t have as a child. Let him know that, although you may be criticized or rejected, you have the emotional skills to take care of yourself, and you have healthy friendships that support you. When you are not limited, you know how to generate safety, intimacy and belonging. Then ask him what he has to say to you.
Switch chairs. Feel into the concerns, the loyalty, and the skill of your Loyal Soldier. Look at the chair where you yourself are sitting, the one you just vacated. Feel into having just been told that the war is over. Receive the praise and gratitude that have been given you. As Loyal Soldier, you have feelings and concerns. Voice these to the one in the chair opposite you.
Move back and forth between the two chairs, having dialog between yourself and your Loyal Soldier. Keep talking until you have convinced him that you have the resources to nurture yourself, and that you can keep yourself safe. Listen to his objections and take them to heart. But be firm and specific in your arguments in favor of your own ability to protect and nurture yourself.
Assign Him a New Role
Your Loyal Soldier is a pro, with a great number of skills. And he is loyal to you! He can be a great ally, and he will remain loyal to you as an ally if you give him a new job. Think carefully what that may be. Perhaps he knows the difference between caretaking and caregiving. Perhaps he knows when anger is an appropriate response and when it is not. Perhaps he can signal which situations are too dangerous and need to be left behind. There are any number of ways the Loyal Soldier can become a Loyal Ally, and it will require some creativity on your part to figure out how best to use him as such. Sit in the chair as “you” and tell the soldier what you need from him. Switch chairs and negotiate a good solution, remaining firm that “you got this” and don’t need to use what he taught you as a child, but that you can use his help in different ways. Listen to his concerns and address them. Keep going until he agrees to his new position.
Do It All, Over and Over
Every time you find yourself going back to the ways your Loyal Soldier taught you to be, go back and do a mini version of this whole thing. Determine if the war is over. Tell the soldier it’s over, remind him of the skills and resources you now possess. Tell him, “I got this” and remind him of your agreement. If something arises that requires a renegotiation of the agreement, then negotiate it with him. There is no end to this dialog, but hopefully over time, the dialogs will get shorter and shorter, and the time between them will increase.
And you will be able to live a bigger life, to enter into the “largest conversation you can have with the world”, as the poet David Whyte puts it.
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
The material for the description of the Loyal Soldier came from Soulcraft, by Bill Plotkin. 2003: New World Library, Novato, California.
It was inspired by the work I have done with Jonathan Gustin, Purpose Guides Institute.
The use of the two chairs and switching between them came from Voice Dialog work I have done. For a full description of Voice Dialog, visit the website at Voice Dialog International.