Where Your Loyalties Lie

“Development involves giving up a smaller story in order to wake up to a larger story.” – Jean Houston

“You’re at midlife,” my therapist remarked. I was a little shocked. Having turned 36 this week, I was certain I had at least five to ten more years before ‘midlife’ was a fitting term for me.

What feels most like midlife right now, though, is a big transition point of letting go a lot of old stories that got me to here, and waking up to a larger story that’s much more expansive of the future that’s calling me into it. The future that’s not encumbered by limits, ties, or bounds to the past. I’m being asked to make room for more of me, my purpose, my work in the world, in ways that I’ve been held back from fully allowing.

“I’ve arrived at this place,” I said to myself. “What’s next? What part of this dream that’s flowing through me needs to come forth? How do I make room for that? What do I want to bring with me? What do I want to leave behind?”

And, then another question floated in the ethers: “What’s stopping me?”

As James Hollis notes, we live the first half of our lives in history. The second half, though, is autobiography. What story are you writing? Who are you apart from your roles and history?

Along with the thoughts that have been stirring, I’ve wondered what I’ve been loyal to that isn’t serving me and isn’t worth carrying forward. Those loyalties and beliefs can be sneaky, staying with you through that first half of life and becoming a bit of a trellis that you grow up around, shaping you more than you shaping it. Some part of it feels comfortable, until it doesn’t anymore. These trellis’ contain you into something much smaller than who you are or were meant to be.. They make it hard to change and pull toward the direction of that larger story of you.

One of the concepts for these parts of ourselves that keep us small and contained and trellised is the notion of the Loyal Soldier, which I was thinking about while listening to Jerry’s podcast conversation with Sarah Weiler.

While Loyal Soldiers can show up anywhere, I’ve found the Loyal Soldier to show up around the things I love the most. I met my Loyal Soldier late this past summer while looking at a horse, one of my deepest loves that I’d somewhat shoved away for belittling reasons that almost compromised a dream. Once this big four-legged birthday present showed up in my life, so did a whole slew of voices saying in one way or another: “You can’t do this. It’s too expensive,” “You don’t deserve it,” and other variations on a core theme of “Whoa! Slow down, partner: this much happiness and aliveness is not safe.”

Thinking of these sub-personalities of ourselves as Loyal Soldiers was a concept first developed by Molly Young Brown after reading about a WWII Japanese soldier discovered on a remote island long after the war had ended. When said soldier was rescued, he was shocked to learn that the war was over, and it was difficult for him to give up his fight until he was honored in a parade for his service. This is exactly what happens to parts of ourselves that are intended to keep our lovability, safety and belonging intact and A-OK by the status quo.

As Brown notes in her book, The Unfolding Self: The Practice of Psychosynthesis, “Our Loyal Soldiers serve a useful function, keeping us alert and clear about our basic needs and our responsibility to meet them. But they can also limit our creative work in the world if we become identified with their rather myopic perspective. We always have a choice to move beyond this perspective.”

As depth psychologist Bill Plotkin writes:

“Each of us has a Loyal Soldier sub-personality, a courageous, creative, and stubborn entity formed when we needed somewhat drastic measures to survive the realities of childhood. This sub-personality’s primary task was to minimize the occurrence of further injury, whether emotional or physical. The Loyal Soldier’s approach to this task was—and continues to be—to make us small or invisible, to suppress much of our natural exuberance, emotions, desires, and wildness so we might be sufficiently acceptable to our parents.”

How do we begin to see these unseen forces at work in and running our lives? Insert some Radical Self-inquiry here in order to not be deceived by the reactions coming from your Loyal Soldiers and to receive–and welcome–them home with compassionate recognition. This is just one way to access your aliveness in it’s fullness. Otherwise, you live contained and shrunk by these well-meaning and outdated parts of yourself that have more pull than they need for you to flourish as fully yourself. For, as noted in the last newsletter, Carl Jung noted: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Once you dive in, you’ll begin tracking–and then meeting–your Loyal Soldiers. You will become aware of who or what they sound like, how they feel in your body, and what circumstances tend to call them forth en masse.

Common Loyal Soldier survival strategies include the following list of manifestations. (How many of these do you recognize?)

  • Harsh self-criticism
  • Placing our personal agenda last (so as to not displease or arouse anger or envy)
  • Codependent behaviors (e.g., caretaking, rescuing, enabling) to stave off abandonment
  • Pleasing but immature and inauthentic personas
  • Restricting our range of feeling by encouraging us to always be in charge, busy, angry, ruthless, withdrawn, and/ or numb
  • Suppressing our intelligence, talent, enthusiasm, sensuality, and wildness by locking up these qualities in an inaccessible corner of our psyches.

When you take in this list and recognize how these show up in your life and work, remember that it’s a part of you that is dutifully doing it’s job assigned early on in your childhood. As Plotkin reiterates: “The Loyal Soldier’s adamant and accurate understanding is this: it is better to be suppressed or inauthentic or small than socially isolated or emotionally crushed—or dead.” It may be hard to believe that that Loyal Soldier part of you stopped in development way back then, but it has and it still thinks that you are the same age you were when he first showed up on the scene.

Richard Rohr notes that, “The Loyal Soldier is the voice of all your early authority figures. His or her ability to offer shame, guilt, warnings, boundaries, and self-doubt is the gift that never stops giving.”

Our Loyal Soldiers served to protect us growing up. But in the second half of life, when left unchecked, these Loyal Soldier strategies can dampen your leadership capacities and derail your company, your relationships, and the full aliveness of who you really are. In the second half of life, their defenses no longer useful. The primitive coping mechanisms that our Loyal Soldiers provided us when we were young no long fit into our much more complex adult lives. Yet, it can take time to disarm them. And it can take more time to hear a much more true voice – that one that sounds like your own.

How can you retire your Loyal Soldiers and take them out of the active duty of your life so you can grow and change? First, identify them. Acknowledge what they did for you, what they were protecting, and why. Thank them for their duty. Let them know you survived up till now (your current age), and let them know you’re A-OK now. You’ve got this. Your Loyal Soldiers may need constant reminding before they lay down their arms. If they insist on hanging on for the ride, assure them that they can stay in the backseat, but that your authentic, primary authority has the wheel now.

This whole shift may feel like the longest journey in the world–the distance between your head and your heart. In the process, you’re waking those parts of you up to a larger story, ever unfolding. This story includes all that you are and what you’re destined to become.