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By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.


Click here for Part 2 of Spiritual Bankruptcy

When they think that
they know the answers,
People are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t.
People can find their own way.                              

-Tao Te Ching

Embedded in such symptoms as depression, shame, self-alienation, loneliness, resentment, hopelessness, despair, self-sabotage, relationship dysfunctions, serial relationships, addictions, eating disorders, compulsive behavior manifesting itself in sexing, workaholism, gambling, shopping, and exercising is an underlying dis-ease process. I refer to this dis-ease process as spiritual bankruptcy (for a detailed exploration of spiritual bankruptcy see Spiritual Bankruptcy: Part 2). This underlying dis-ease process is what erodes your emotional and spiritual well-being. This dis-ease is caused by your untreated, oftentimes unacknowledged, festering emotional and spiritual wounds. These wounds poison the relationship you have with your authentic Self, alienate you from the people in your life, and estrange you from your higher power.

But your spiritual and emotional wounds aren’t the only cause of your dis-ease. The alienation and estrangement caused by your original wounds create disconnects between you and your authentic Self, you and the people in your life, and you and your spiritual center, Essence. These disconnects create their own reservoir of shame, self-contempt, loneliness, and alienation as well as intensify the emotional pain of your original wounds. The sum and substance of your original wounds plus the disconnect with Self, the people in your life, and your higher power are what paralyze your spirit and poison your mind, body, and soul.

Because spiritual bankruptcy is a dis-ease of the mind, body, and soul, the totality of your being is affected. As a dis-ease of the mind, it distorts your perceptions of the circumstances in your life. Viewing your life through a kaleidoscope of hurt, despair, hopelessness, anger, mistrust, and rage, you see everything about your life as being hopeless and unchangeable. You experience yourself as always being in hostile territory, constantly under attack, forever alert to who, what, and how somebody is coming at you. As your distorted viewpoint of your life gains a stronger foothold in your world view, you cease to have faith that things can ever be different. As you become a prisoner of the bias created by your distorted world views, you become less and less able to mobilize yourself to rise above the stranglehold of your despair.

As a dis-ease of the mind, spiritual bankruptcy not only distorts your viewpoint of the world but it warps the relationships you have with the people in your life. By activating a specific perceptual bias through which you [re]create experiences with the people in your life, you find yourself in relationships that are oftentimes chaotic, abusive reenactments of your original wounds with the primary caregivers in your life (for a detailed explanation see Stopping the Cycle of Sabotage in Your Relationships). Your relationships become a battlefield in which you seek to undo the hurt and pain that has been created by all the significant people in your life. Unfortunately, this only serves to turn your here-and-now relationships into ongoing experiences of revictimization.

Lastly, as a dis-ease of the mind, spiritual bankruptcy  alienates you from your authentic Self. As a result of the disconnect you create from your authentic Self, you invent false selves from which you interact with the world. These false selves are carefully crafted masks from which you live your life. These false selves lack spontaneity, flexibility, and vitality. And so, although these false selves protect you by keeping your authentic Self out of harms way, the price you pay for such protection is living a life that’s carefully scripted, overcontrolled, and enormously unrewarding.

As a dis-ease of the body, your physical and emotional being becomes entrapped in two cycles. The first cycle is created by the means by which you relieve your emotional, physical, and existential pain. As your being becomes encased in an emotional entanglement of anger, shame, alienation, loneliness, emptiness, hopelessness, and meaninglessness, you eventually adopt some means to bring relief from your overwrought emotional state. I refer to the process of relieving your pain as self-medication.

There are any number of devices by which you may self-medicate. Compulsive achievement, zoning out in front of a television or computer screen, selflessness, chaotic relationships, addiction, eating disorders, compulsively doing, working, exercising, sexing, and gambling are but a few of the means available to you. These acts of self-medicating enable you to numb your pain, control your feelings, and create a state of being that is predictable and more comfortable.

The problem is that far too often the means you use to self-medicate, eventually, takes control of your life. As the saying goes, first you take the drink and then the drink takes you. You see, any act of self-medication will bring temporary relief from the emotional pain you’re experiencing. However, eventually, the means you choose to self-medicate with will begin to take control of you. When that happens, you will then experience a secondary state of shame and self-alienation from having lost the ability to control the use of your means of self-medicating. This only serves to amplify, not lessen, the original pain you were attempting to alleviate by self-medicating in the first place.

Once the means by which you self-medicate takes over your life, a second cycle gets activated. I call this cycle control and release. As the means you use to obtain relief from the underlying emotional, physical, and existential pain begins to take control of you, you’ll attempt to regain control of your means of self-medication by abstaining, in part or in whole, from its use. This ongoing battle in futility to control what has taken control of you creates a new layer of shame and self-alienation. Your only solution to loosen the grip that your means of self-medicating has on you is to promise yourself that you’ll never do it again. And so you resolve to go without, to endure, to hold your breath, to get through somehow, anyhow, without relying on ole’ faithful to distract yourself from what you’re feeling and experiencing.

And it works, for awhile, anyhow. You’re able to maintain your promise to go without, that is until you’re about to burst at the seams. Now you have to cope not only with the underlying woundedness plus the added shame and self-alienation from being controlled by your means of self-medication, but throw into the mix the tension created by abstaining from your means of self-medication. So what do you do to relieve the tension and lessen the pain?

You return to self-medicating to gain relief not only from the original pain, but also from the pain involved in unsuccessfully controlling the self-medicating behavior(s) you promised yourself you would no longer do. Returning to self-medicating does what it always does, numbs the pain, creates a more manageable mood, and offers a release from having to overcontrol yourself in order to achieve abstinence. In so doing, you’ve created a new release from the pent up hurt and tension, but you start the cycle all over again. You feel wounded, you feel shame about the means of self-medicating that is controlling you, so you swear to yourself, I’ll never do that again. I’m stronger than that.

And so it goes. Your emotional and spiritual wounds leak it’s toxic waste onto your physical and emotional being. Because the original wounds never get addressed and the means of self-medication never gets transformed, your emotional and physical being becomes imprisoned, as you spiral deeper and deeper into the twin cycles of pain and self-medication, control and release.

Finally, as a dis-ease of the soul, spiritual bankruptcy leaves you disconnected from your spiritual center, Essence (see [Re]Connecting With Essence: Giving Birth to a  Life of Joy, Love, and Prosperity for a more detailed explanation). Because of your disconnect from Essence, the energy of pride, which is created by Ego, dominates your life. As a result of this disconnect from Essence, the energy of reverence, which is created by Essence, is unavailable to you (see Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Parts 1&2 for a more detailed explanation of Ego and Essence). As a consequence of being disconnected from your spiritual center, you’ve become estranged from your relationship with your higher power. As a result of being estranged from your higher power, self-will and self-control rather than faith and surrender dominate how you make yourself safe, how you attempt to get your emotional needs met, how you regulate your emotional well-being, and how you empower yourself to overcome the challenges in your life.

As self-will dominates your strategies for creating well-being in your life, your energy becomes consumed more and more by the demands of Ego. As this happens, your life becomes more focused on securing your attachment to objects, substances, people, and desired outcomes and less on cultivating a relationship with your higher power as well as love and compassion for yourself and the people in your life. You attempt to make your world secure by forsaking an empowering relationship with your higher power for the mythical, self-delusional powers of self-will and control. Consequently, you invoke your self-will rather than surrender to your higher power. Rather than gaining mastery over yourself and the circumstances of your life by connecting with your spiritual center, Essence, you rely upon control and self-will to accumulate power and control over yourself, the people in your life, and the circumstances of your life.

The problem is that this unfolding drama of power and control creates a profound paradox. For the more you invoke your self-will to achieve power and control over every aspect of your life, the more those aspects of your life control you. The more you forsake surrendering to your higher power as the legitimate means to regain control over the habits, substances, and acting out behaviors that have gained control over you, the less control you actually have over those substances and habits. The more you attempt to control the people in your life, the more power and control those people eventually have over you.

You see relying on the strength and fury of your self-will is a losing battle. It’s much like the ancient Chinese bamboo tube that you insert your index finger in. Once your finger is inserted in the bamboo tube it becomes impossible to remove your finger from the tube. For the harder you try to pull your finger out of the tube, the tighter the grip the tube exerts on your finger.

So it is that you forsake a path of well-being paved by self-love, loving and being loved by the people in your life, and surrendering to your higher power. You remain a casualty of a war that was fought twenty to thirty years ago. Nursing your wounds with your self-defeating, self-medicating means rather than healing yourself through the love and compassion of yourself, the people in your life, and your higher power keeps you mired in the feelings that continue to tear you down.

Just what are these primal emotional and spiritual wounds? What are these aspects of who you are that leak the toxins which are the fundamental elements of spiritual bankruptcy? Let’s take a look at but a few of them.

Let’s start with abandonment. There’s no one who hasn’t experienced the terrible, soul wrenching pain of being abandoned in one form or another. Feeling the sting of somebody’s rejection, being left by somebody who you’ve had deep feelings for, primary caregivers not being there for you emotionally or physically in the moment or for large chunks of your life, a person’s emotional withdrawal from you because of something you felt, said, or did--all of that cuts deeply. These cuts leave an indelible mark. The impact of these wounding experiences is that you question your value as a person to yourself and the people in your life. As well, you stop trusting that people are safe to depend on. As a result, you disconnect, withdraw, and maintain a safe distance, never allowing yourself to experience the sting of somebody’s momentary or permanent abandonment.

The wounds of abandonment create an underlying fear associated with becoming emotionally intimate with another person. The pain from your collective experiences with being abandoned resonate beneath the surface as you attempt to open yourself up to yet another person. Bells and whistles are activated. Alarms ring out their shrill warning. Putting yourself in a position of depending on not only the kindness of another person but trusting that they will be there for you can become an overwhelming proposition at best.

This wound, as it remains untreated, inevitably sets into motion an inevitable chain of events, the result of which is that you wind up being left or you leave before you’re left. The wounds of abandonment, as they remain untreated, are the impetus for the disconnect you experience with the people in your life. Without healing the wounds, it’s difficult to silence the pain, manage the fear, and empower yourself to feel safe, without pulling back, disconnecting, and ultimately, withdrawing from the people in your life.

The eventual outcome, of course, is that you wind up lonely, if not all alone. Feeling alone compounds the pain of your original woundedness and perpetuates your disconnect from the world around you. This disconnect is one of the signs and symptoms of the underlying dis-ease process of spiritual bankruptcy.

A second emotional wound that accounts for the underlying dis-ease of spiritual bankruptcy is the vulnerable, helpless feeling of powerlessness. This wounding occurs when your emotional, physical, and/or sexual autonomy is compromised by somebody squelching your internal sense of power and control. Here are but a few of the ways that can happen. Somebody more powerful than you chronically imposes their will on you. Somebody wins your confidence and then manipulates your trust. Somebody takes advantage of the power differential between you and them. In so doing, that person, who should be looking out for your best interests, exploits the power differential in order to have their own needs met at the expense of your own well-being.

At the core of your wounds as it relates to powerlessness is experiencing how easily your will can be thwarted, your autonomy stripped bare, your sense of control and mastery over your environment taken from you in the bat of an eye. You begin to experience the world and the people in it as unsafe. Your sense of vulnerability permeates how you see yourself in this world and how you see yourself in relationship to the people in your life.

So your response to this deep underlying sense of vulnerability is to create a way of making the world safe that leaves you in charge of the show. You do this by trusting less and controlling more. Therefore, you devise interpersonal strategies that make you powerful but don’t necessarily empower you. Being distant in a relationship, withholding your affections, acting passively, behaving in a domineering fashion, acting in a punitive manner, creating one-up, one-down relationships--these are only a few of the interpersonal strategies you may enact in order to silence the deep, underlying tensions that arise from feeling powerless.

Sadly, the more you work at controlling your environment, the less you empower yourself to manage your life from the strength of your own internal resources. The message you give yourself is that you don’t have what it takes on the inside to run your life. This internal message fans the flames of the already existing fire that you’re inadequate, that you’re less than, that you’re lacking the fundamental qualities to maintain control of your life.

Any strategies that you rely upon to deaden the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness creates an internal disconnect. This happens because you forsake your internal resources for external means of gaining control of yourself and your environment. This disconnect creates a sense of self-alienation. It perpetuates feelings of shame and self-loathing. All of which sows the seeds for the underlying dis-ease process of spiritual bankruptcy.

          Another source of your emotional and spiritual wounds are your unmet emotional needs. Try as you may to deny it, you have emotional needs. Belonging, safety, approval, validation, love, and esteem are but a few of them. Unfortunately, all too often, throughout your life, you’ve received insufficient nurturance and love from the significant people in your life. Because of this, you’ve carried around a thirst for love and affection that never has been satisfied.

Your unmet emotional needs have created some of the oldest, deepest cutting emotional wounds that you’ve experienced. The source of your original wounds are inadequate, neglectful, or abusive parenting. If these emotional wounds have gone untreated, it’s likely that you’re still carrying around the hurt, the pain, and  the longing created by your emotional needs going unfulfilled. You bring those unfulfilled longings into your adult relationships. In so doing, your ability to love maturely as an adult is compromised.

The end result of your inability to love maturely as an adult is that you perpetuate a cycle of oftentimes chaotic, empty, unfulfilling relationship(s) (for a detailed explanation see Stopping the Cycle of Sabotage in Your Relationships). The reasons for this are many. But basically, you use your adult relationships to right the wrongs that you experienced in your childhood. Unfortunately, that’s a burden that no relationship can easily shoulder. The consequence of such a burden is that you’re adult relationships experience much turmoil. As a result of the turmoil and chaos, your relationships become emotionally barren and unfulfilling. The most predominant emotions that you experience are resentment and hostility. You find yourself feeling forever dissatisfied by what your partner feels, says, and does toward you.

And so you find yourself stuck, trying to heal the wounds of your past, searching for that magic someone who will give you what it is you so desperately want, that you so tragically have been lacking, only to create newer, deeper wounds in your present. Not only do you feel more deprived than ever before, but you feel more and more lonely. Deprived of the warmth and comfort of another person’s love, an ever deepening sense of isolation and worthlessness engulfs your spirit. Despondency and hopelessness gives birth to apathy towards yourself and the people in your life. And as this cycle spirals out of control, you feel more and more disconnected from the human race. And this disconnect from the people in your life added to the woundedness created by a lifetime of going without the emotional nutrition you so desperately need leaves you feeling spiritually bankrupt.

The combination of  your emotional and spiritual wounds and the disconnects that these wounds have fostered envelops your spirit in a ceaseless spiral of shame, self-loathing, and alienation. In so doing, spiritual bankruptcy constricts your life to the point that there’s nothing left in your world but you and the means you use to avoid being involved in your life and the life of others. Cast as an outsider, living life on the fringes, hopelessness and meaninglessness breed apathy and despair. Apathy and despair become the slippery slope on which you can never quite get your footing long enough to climb out of the quagmire in which your life has become stuck. 

The more you attempt to extract yourself from the morass of bold but never kept promises of renewal, the deeper you sink into a bottomless pit of darkness and fear. As fear entwines itself around your spirit, paralysis sets in. The more paralyzed you become, the more you promise that things will change. But alas, you’re doomed by all the slipping and sliding, to be pulled back down into the pit, only to sink deeper and deeper into the darkness of your dis-ease.

But it doesn’t have to remain this way forever. There is a   path to follow other than the one that leads you down the road of spiritual bankruptcy. There’s nothing simple about this path but everything about it is rewarding. However, you should not travel down this path without the knowledge that to do so will turn your whole life inside out.

For this path is the path of transformation, not inflated expectations built on empty promises which create, at best, a cycle of superficial change followed by relapse. This is not something you can work at a little bit, its something that you have to commit your whole being to. There are no silver bullets, no magical pills. Just hard work. Let me outline for you my comprehensive approach to address the totality of the underlying issues that I’ve outlined for you in parts one and two .

In order to free yourself from the shackles of spiritual bankruptcy, you must be in a process whose sole aim is to empower you to uncover and take ownership of the Truth of your inner and outer existence. Even though the Truth of your being is present and revealed within you at all times, you do not usually experience this Truth, know this Truth, or speak this Truth. You have to first work to get at it, and then you have to work to live in it. Thus, the work of this path is to uncover, experience, speak, and live the Truth of your existence.

The means by which you’ll uncover the Truth of your existence is a psychological and spiritual investigation. The aim of this experiential psychological and spiritual investigation is to facilitate a psychological transformation and a spiritual awakening.

          The aim of the psychological investigation is to explore the classic matters of psychology:

a.) Psychodynamics: the intrapersonal aspect of Self that accounts for motivation of behavior.

b.) Belief system: operational viewpoints of Self and world that you hold and how they impact both positively and negatively on your emotional and spiritual well-being.

c.) Integration of emotional, cognitive, and physiological aspects of Self.

d.) Patterns of behavior: identify patterns of behavior; develop understanding of these patterns of behavior by examining the origins and purposes of your behavioral choices; correcting/and/or reinforcing by rehearsing new choices or continuing to rely on old choices

e.) Emotional wound care: identifying the emotional wounds from which toxic energies are infecting your emotional well-being. Provide sufficient care and nurturance to these              wounds so as that they stop infecting your life.

The aim of the spiritual investigation is to:

a.) Connect with your spiritual center, Essence.

b.) [Re]establish your relationship with your higher power.

c.) Expand the boundaries of Self so as to integrate into awareness more and more of who you are.

d.) Transform the pride of Ego into the reverence of Essence.

e.) Experience a more loving relatedness with Self, others, and higher power.

Although, I’m able to condense the goals of this psychological and spiritual investigation into a half-page, believe me when I tell you, to accomplish the goals that I’ve outlined for you requires an exhaustive, comprehensive approach. Let me outline for you the approach that I recommend for you in order to achieve your goals.

Individual psychotherapy is an effective way to move toward increased awareness of yourself. Through the process of self-examination with the eyes and ears of a trained professional, you will begin to expand your awareness of who you are. In so doing, you’ll gradually take ownership of your life. As you take ownership of your life, you’ll start taking responsibility for what you say, feel, and do. By taking responsibility for your words and actions, you’ll develop the skills necessary to enrich your life.

Experiential group psychotherapy is another important component of a comprehensive approach to psychological healing and spiritual awakening. Let me emphasize the word experiential. Although there are any number of formats that are identified as group psychotherapy, it’s critical that you become involved in group psychotherapy that emphasizes experiential.

In order for group psychotherapy to be 100% effective, it must focus solely on the experiences created between each individual group member. Without this focus, you’ll severely dilute the potency of group psychotherapy. You see, there are two important elements of experiential group psychotherapy--creating a shared experience with other group members and examining that shared experience. Any group that does not explore the shared, created experiences in the group, will reduce itself unnecessarily to a sterile think tank. Such a group can’t begin to explore the depth of material necessary to create the personal transformation outlined above.

Experiential group psychotherapy is critical to your healing and evolution for the following reasons. True healing can only take place in a community of people. Shame, self-loathing, and alienation are best healed through your relationships with other people. Participating in experiential group psychotherapy will afford you the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to build the types of relationships that honor you rather than tear you down in a safe environment. Once you master the skills of relationship building, group psychotherapy will provide a safe forum for you to explore yourself within the context of relationships. This type of self-examination is necessary in order to heal the wounds first perpetuated in your relationships with others. And as you know by now, those wounds suffered at the hands of others has created much of the dis-ease you’re currently experiencing.

The third component of this comprehensive treatment approach is a disciplined spiritual practice. [Re]connecting with your higher power is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s critical that you actively work at not only grasping the concepts involved with a spiritual transformation, but actively practice it in your day-to-day life. Without some structured experience that focuses solely on you as a spiritual being, you can only, at best, think your way through spirituality rather than live it. Common types of spiritual practices my clients, beyond the work they do with me, are involved in are:

1.) Twelve-Step Programs. These programs are ideal because they emphasize a focus on specific self-destructive behaviors, alternatives for those self-destructive behaviors, support from other people grappling with similar issues, mentors who will guide you through the transformation process, and most important of all, a focus on healing and [re]claiming your relationship with your higher power.

2.) Meditation programs. This type of spiritual practice focuses on self-examination, expansion of your sense of Self, reducing your attachment to Ego sponsored thoughts and values, and [re]discovering your higher power within yourself.

3.) Exercise programs. Exercise programs that emphasize the integration of mind, body, and soul are ideal vehicles for personal transformation work. Examples of such exercise programs, but not limited to these examples, would be martial arts, yoga, dancing, breath training, body work, running, cycling, swimming, and weight training.

4.) Formal religious practice.

This is a difficult subject matter for you to address because it can provoke so much emotional discomfort. To honestly look at yourself through the lens I have created may only serve to discourage you. But there is more reason for hope than there is for discouragement. Your life is what it is today for good reason. Not because you’re any worse off than most people, not because you’re less intelligent, not because you’re more flawed or broken than others. Your life is what it is today because you’re estranged from your purpose in life, you’re disconnected from your authentic Self--in short because you’re living a life that you were not meant to live.

There’s only one reason to explain how you have drifted so far--because of the dis-ease that has infected your spirit and held your destiny hostage. All the ways that you have attempted to free yourself from the influence of this dis-ease haven’t worked for good reason--you haven’t addressed the problems of your life at the source--spiritual bankruptcy. Until now, you’ve merely been addressing the symptoms, only to watch them reappear in your life in one form or another.

Now is the time to stop treating the symptoms and begin addressing the cause. You don’t have to keep doing to yourself what you’ve been doing until this point in time--although the familiarity of perpetuating your old styles of coping may be more comforting than walking into the darkness of something new. Just remember what Andre Gide once said, “ One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”



Click here for Part 2 of Spiritual Bankruptcy

Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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