The War of Animal Instincts

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by jendoop

Recently, I remarked to my sister that I attract people with difficult pasts that can make their minds unstable. My good friend Mary is a Catholic, with the usual guilt, and has severely alcoholic parents. Every time we talk we’re amazed at how much we understand each other. My friend Angie is recovering from an abusive marriage and the recent death of her parents. She is a single mom struggling to overcome the demons in her past. After just a few conversations with a new friend, Stephanie, she poured out her heart, admitting that she suffers from depression, with other associated issues, and doesn’t stay on her medication. Laura, who was sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood, as were her sisters, is one of the friends deepest in my heart.

My sister laughed off my declared tendency to attract dysfunctional people but then several months later, after I had forgotten about it, in seriousness she said, “I think you were right when you said that you attract unstable people. Why is that?”

I wonder now if it is really that I subconsciously seek them out, because they understand my inner workings, and I understand theirs. In an effort to broaden my circle of friends and to help those of you who are stable to understand those of us who are unstable, I crack open this cold, scary vault of my heart’s past.

As a child I did not have the traditional Mormon upbringing, although when people find out that I was raised in the church they assume I did. I hesitate to write this because I don’t want to hurt my parents’ feelings; they did the best they could, and continue to strive for better lives. The fact remains that much of my childhood was painful and confusing. As children often do, I turned pain and confusion inward and assumed that something was wrong with me. In whole or in part I was convinced of my utter defectiveness.

the amputation of Jesus Christ, after his fall from the cross 

Hitting rock bottom during high school, I was free to be myself. Since I was so broken, there was no hope, except the little light feeling I felt in seminary. In many things I followed my own way courageously because without expectation there was no fear of failure. In other things, spiritual things, I cared greatly what God thought of me; if I had any hope it was through him. That little light told me that even if no one else knew how broken I was, God did, and he gave me that little light anyway.

Understanding how He [God] feels about us gives us the power to love Him more purely and fully. Personally feeling the reality, love, and power of that relationship is the source of the deepest and sweetest emotions and desires that can come to a man or woman in mortality. These deep emotions of love can motivate us and give us power in times of difficulty and trial to draw closer to our Father.*

Fast forward many years, many long years that seemed to stretch far longer than 365 days, past dark days of depression, and the constant uphill battle of fighting against that childhood conclusion that inside I am all wrong.

Now I sit here, in a pew, with a calling, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, the same things that someone with a “normal” childhood would say, until someone gets too close and hints at my old secret by talking about mistakes or flaws. Then, all over again, I feel ALL wrong. The secret that I talked myself out of comes back as their critical words pull me back 35 years. I am a helpless child, heart pounding, helpless tears falling. I do not want to be a helpless child again. I am not a helpless child, God has told me so.

Within each of us lie the latent seeds of godliness that can be given flower and fruition by His blessing and by following the path of strict obedience shown to us by Jesus.*

To that confronting person this is only one thing that I was wrong about, a small irritation quickly resolved. But temptation tells me that it is evidence of my wholesale corruption which they will use to bludgeon me. I become a wounded animal.

An Angry BadgerCreative Commons License

As a wounded animal my fight or flight instinct takes over. There is nowhere to flee; this is my home, my ward, where I go for connection to the God that has saved me. So the other option is fight. But that God has told me not to fight, to turn the other cheek.

The purpose of all that the Father has revealed, commanded, and initiated for the inhabitants of earth is to help us come to know Him, emulate Him, and become like Him so we can return to His holy presence.*

I can’t fight my attacker so I fight myself. I fight that old instinct telling me that I am a deep ball of ugly on the inside. This instinct never seems to die, only hibernates. This is not one battle and then it’s over. This is an ongoing war.

To fight my cornered animal instincts is somewhat like fighting the urge to eat on fast Sunday. You don’t decide to fast and never revisit the issue. After a few hours your stomach groans and yawns for something, anything to fill the vacancy. Eventually there are twinges of pain that you know will only increase as time goes on. You smell dinner baking and your brain is the David to your stomach’s Goliath. Overwhelmed and hanging on by the mighty hope of a small stone you finally make it to dinner, grateful that the fast was only 24 hours- an amount of time that in advance you thought so simple, but now you realize is everything in that moment.

That is how I feel while waiting for the end of this confrontation with myself. Pushed into the corner and bleeding, I fight myself to avoid fighting my attacker. Even I am confused about who is attacking me, myself or the person who made one simple comment. I don’t know when this latest round of attacks will be over until I wake up one morning refreshed instead of wracked by dramatic dreams and a pounding headache.

I practice a kind of monastic masochism. I get up in the painfully early hours to exercise until my body twitches with fatigue. I bite my fingernails to hold in the attacking words that would spill from my mouth in speech and fingers in typing. In the shower I turn the water hot until it stings to pull myself from the battle inside to the wonder of earth outside. I eat and drink things that are not good for me so I won’t feed the ugly giant that fights inside me.

Yesterday, in an effort to calm my fighting instincts, I talked to an old wise man. After briefly describing a new battle, a real-life volley of ordnance aimed at me, I said, “I feel like I’m being pecked to death.”

He said, “Oh, so you know about sick chickens?”

“No, I don’t know about sick chickens.”

“When a chicken is sick and the other chickens realize it, they peck it to death. It’s instinct, they can’t help it.”

My animal instincts have been verified. Subconsciously the fit chickens in this barnyard sense my internal injuries. I feel like I’m being attacked because I am. Yet, because of that little light I know that I am no animal.

Some build their sense of personal worth by comparing themselves to others. That approach can lead to feelings of inadequacy or superiority. It is preferable to look directly to our Father for our sense of self-worth.*

I connect with my brothers and sisters who have the same war raging inside. We sick chickens stand side by side in instability, leaning against each other to hold ourselves up. That is why I attract unstable people.

I don’t know if this animal instinct, and thus the war, will ever be fully severed from me in this life because of the real physical distance from my Heavenly Father. I hope that it is one of the things that dies with this mortal body and will not resurrect with my perfected body, when I can be with God because through Christ I will have been made clean to enter His presence. Until then I keep nursing my wounds, because even when the ones inflicted by others heal, I continue to fight myself.

[The] social challenges of our day make it harder for those who suffer them to comprehend, hope for, and have faith in a righteous, loving, and caring Father. Just as the Father seeks to help us to know Him, the adversary uses every means possible to come between the Father and us. Fortunately, there is no power, sin, or condition that can keep us from the love of the Father (see Romans 8:38–39). Because God loved us first, we can come to know Him and love Him (see 1 John 4:16, 19).*

  • How has your relationship with God gotten you through the battles of mortality?  
  • Do you relate to this post? 
  • Do you have any kind advice for Jen?

*All quotes in this post are from Quentin L. CookPhoto credits:Beate Catharina in Wavria via Compfight,  Craig Pokorny via Compfightmystuart via Compfight

About jendoop

Jen writes, reads, paints, walks, prays, eats and sleeps. Paul is her co-conspirator in teaching these skills to 4 children.

15 Responses to The War of Animal Instincts

  1. Paul says:

    What a powerful and ennobling post. Thanks.

  2. Cheryl says:

    I’m not sure where to even begin. At one point, I felt you were describing the way I feel inside, but then in the next moment, I had to admit that I have not suffered as you have… I am drawn to people who have pain, too, though, and the pain I’m drawn to is exactly as you’ve described here –it’s internal, hidden, drawn away, and only God can truly see it for what it is. Does that make sense?

    You describe this internal fight so well, though, Jen. It’s achingly beautiful. Your faith is amazing.

  3. jendoop says:

    Thank you both for not leaving my post out here bare, without supportive comments. I wrote it in hopes of supporting others, but I hate when someone says they understand, I’m sorry if this echoes in your soul. To relieve the sadness I’m picturing a row of war torn chickens leaning up against each other :)

    For others I hope it helps them understand that human relations can be complicated because of what is invisibly happening inside a person.

  4. Missy says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing this Jen. I too struggle with many things that are very similar to what you described. I know how hard it can be to actually talk about it and open up, it is scary and it is hard to trust people. I admire your courage, your willingness to share and that you have the fortitude to talk about it and help others. I can relate to the part about attracting people who share in the pain, or people who have checkered pasts. Growing up where I did, it was an extremely LDS area, I sometimes felt less than in many ways. My family are converts and most of the other kids around me where not the children of converts. Its funny because my daughter is the same way, in that she seems to attract people who are complicated. As soon as she became a teen it was like she turned into a little Social Worker or Therapist, even her friends Mothers noticed it. She was like their light house. It was cool. Maybe that is a way to look at it, your a light house! Thanks again for sharing this, it really hits home for me and I can relate to what you said in so many ways…

  5. Becca says:

    Oh, how I, too, long for advice. I have the “normal” Mormon upbringing, but my life recently feels so abnormal. Sometimes I feel that because of my “normal” in-the-Church upbringing people don’t expect me to feel dysfunctional and broken. But I do sometimes, and sometimes I would rather be pecked to death rather than overlooked (which is how I often feel).

    Or maybe we are all more dysfunctional than we seem…

    • Daniel says:

      Ditto to everything you said except being pecked. We are all broken and must “come unto Christ” to be fixed Becca. I’m in that same process and have been a member all my life. Family and ward members still pretty much ignore me but Heavenly Father doesn’t. 2 Nephi 32:9 applies. Also, the whole process of 2 Nephi 31 & 32 is real. Angels will attend and your real intent will bring them. Your gift of the Holy Ghost will give you the ability to understand them even though you won’t see them, (for now anyway). I know that as we seek someone else who feels like they’re being ignored and help them to get their needs met, Heavenly Father will do the same for us.

      • Becca says:

        I guess I should have clarified – I don’t feel that I myself am overlooked – I feel as if my hurt is overlooked (because of my upbringing, or the fact that I attract and have many friends with “dysfunctional” lives?) I think people would be surprised if they knew how broken I am. I always felt like I could take care of it – God was with me, the atonement will heal me, but lately I just feel like no one is there when I need them. I am not judgemental of those with “problems” and my husband and I have helped a lot of people – we had extra space in our house and we always have someone or other living with us. I enjoy giving a listening ear to those who need a friend or who need help. I like taking meals to people, tending children, cleaning houses, visiting the sick and the down trodden. Sure it makes me feel good, but I don’t feel like it helps the hurt inside go away or heal. It feels like it only puts a bandaid on it, and in moments of stress in my own life I feel very fragile. I feel like I am strong enough to hold anyone’s life together except my own.

        I have a great ward and any number of them are willing and able to serve me – but my greatest need is healing for the pain in my heart, but I guess I don’t even know how to tell anyone about it. And due to the nature of the hurt, I don’t really feel as if it is appropriate for me to share the specifics with people. So how do I get help for pain that is private?

        • jendoop says:

          I keep re-writing this… I hope it’s what you need Becca.
          -How can someone help you with pain that you don’t talk about? The situation of mortality is set up so that we need each other. You can’t make it through with just you and God. This is a process of God saving us all together, it means that even when we know people are flawed we have to trust them, depend on them, admit that we are flawed and need help too.

          But you have to be very careful about who you choose to tell, it should be someone who will care for it in the sensitive way you need. Sometimes that person is a therapist. (In simple cases a bishop may be able to give good counsel also.) They are hugely helpful, even if you don’t feel like you have a mental illness. They are objective, and you don’t have to worry about what they think of you, or who they’ll tell, etc. Sometimes we need someone in real life (not online) to help us understand how to apply what we know, or how exactly the atonement heals hearts, or how to cast the pain away, or how to endure it until a brighter day comes.

          If you pray and ask the Lord to help you find someone to talk to I am confident that He will. The challenge is that you ask him with faith, meaning that you have a real intent of following through.

          Not to be Debbie Downer, but pain and fragility is a part of this mortal experience. (So is happiness!) If we try to avoid all pain we will also not experience the joys.

        • Bonnie says:

          I have many times been in the position when it would have been inappropriate to discuss aspects of my painful experience. In the midst of my divorce I was even counseled to *not* discuss it with church leaders because it involved legal action and could draw the church into it. Whether or not that was wholly good counsel, the experience remained very alienating. In another case, it involved people I cared about, and while they were hurting me, I knew they were doing so out of an inability to handle it any other way. They were, in effect, more wounded than I.

          The words of the hymn, Lord, I Would Follow Thee often gave great comfort.

          Savior, may I learn to love thee,
          Walk the path that thou hast shown,
          Pause to help and lift another,
          Finding strength beyond my own.
          Savior, may I learn to love thee-
          Lord, I would follow thee.

          Who am I to judge another
          When I walk imperfectly?
          In the quiet heart is hidden
          Sorrow that the eye can’t see.
          Who am I to judge another?
          Lord, I would follow thee.

          I would be my brother’s keeper;
          I would learn the healer’s art.
          To the wounded and the weary
          I would show a gentle heart.
          I would be my brother’s keeper-
          Lord, I would follow thee.

          Savior, may I love my brother
          As I know thou lovest me,
          Find in thee my strength, my beacon,
          For thy servant I would be.
          Savior, may I love my brother-
          Lord, I would follow thee.

          It is an act of faith to find strength beyond our own – to believe that that is possible. It is an act of hope to believe that the Lord can see within my heart and see “sorrow that the eye can’t see.” It is an act of charity to view myself sometimes as “the wounded and the weary” to whom I would “show a gentle heart.” If faith is loving God, hope is receiving the love of God, and charity is loving like God, then we can apply that balm as well to ourselves as we can to others, and we must, or we are suffering a unique form of pride.

          Finally, I recorded Carol Lynn Pearson’s Laura and the Empty Tray online so I would have it whenever I needed it. It made a big difference in my life.

          Breathe, friend. Slow down. Only God heals. We don’t heal others, and we don’t heal ourselves, and most of it takes a little time.

    • jendoop says:

      Daniel has good points. One of the quotes was, “Some build their sense of personal worth by comparing themselves to others. That approach can lead to feelings of inadequacy or superiority. It is preferable to look directly to our Father for our sense of self-worth.” Any time we depend on anyone besides Christ to build our self worth we’re attempting to practice priestcraft, we are acting to get praise, instead of offering all of our efforts to the Lord.
      The amazing thing about serving God in a self-less way is the true validation we receive, not flattery or simple praises. To think that the creator of the universe is using you, through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, to bless someone, to build his kingdom – it is the ultimate Balm of Gilead. This is why a life built with God can be so fulfilling, he leads us to our best selves which enables us to be a tool in his hands, utterly utilized and fulfilled in the measure of our creation – while uniquely one. This is how I see my role as a writer and friend of the downtrodden.

  6. Hope says:

    I was told by an excellent LDS therapist years and years ago that “we are attracted to negative people in our lives because of unresolved differences in our past.” I grew up in a less-than-ideal family situation, joined the Church as a young adult, and ended up marrying a man who had serious, chronic depression as well as an alcoholic-personality, and came from as poor a background as I did. It took me a long time to realize that he reflected a lot of my mom’s abusive behavior towards me as a child – he suffered from the same dark angry depression – and our relationship quickly developed with me, once again, being the adult and guardian of the older person.

    You may be attracted to these people for much of the same reason.

    Hang in there – my life has gotten SO much better, but it has taken quite a while and a lot of professional help. It can happen!

  7. Lisa says:

    Perhaps you are attracted to people with dysfunctional backgrounds because subconsciously you feel as if you don’t measure up to those of us who haven’t experienced your level of trials. If that is the case, then perhaps it isn’t their pecking but yours. You just need to remember that Christ atoned for EVERYTHING: sins, trials, difficulties, challenges. He loves us all equally and we are all purified through Him. Now the hard part, let it go…

    Hang in there.

  8. jendoop says:

    Thank you for your encouragement and kindness Hope and Lisa. While I think there can be a tendency for people to do what you’ve described, that isn’t where I am right now. (But I won’t deny that I might have chosen bad friends as self destruction in the past.) No one is expendable, unlovable, not worthy of friendship. We can’t set up a strict line of who is worthy of love and who is not, with the Savior as our guide we can love many kinds of people. Sometimes that means setting boundaries to retain our own mental health and well-being as you were ultimately able to do Hope.

    Honestly, life is trial for everyone. That is what we are here for. I deeply appreciate having friends that are open and honest about the dark corners of their souls and their trials. I’m not looking to leave these friendships, in them I find a reflection of myself – both flawed and priceless and always redeemable through the blood of Christ.

  9. Wow, I could have written this post. Thanks for your eloquence and willing to be vulnerable. Sometimes I describe that “pecked” feeling as “feeling chivvied.” In my fight, I often employ what we learn from Peter in the temple about ridding ourselves of negative presences. It helps a lot.

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