The image of the loyal soldier is rooted in the aftermath of World War II. Many Japanese soldiers found themselves stranded in Pacific islands after surviving shipwrecks and plane crashes.
These men, with intense loyalty to their leadership and the cause for which they fought, continued to live as though the war raged on, even after it concluded. One soldier, Hiroo Onada, survived for 29 years in the Philippines, still existing with the belief that his mission was in process. When Mr. Onada was found by a Japanese student who had been searching for him, he was unable to accept that the war was over, despite being welcomed home with much fanfare to a very different Japan.
In order for Mr. Onada to move forward, it was only the order from his former commanding officer to stand down that allowed him to feel released from duty.
Using the story of Mr. Onada, we can apply his unwavering loyalty to our own defense mechanisms.
As children, we each developed our own survival strategies to ensure that our needs were met - or to create a logical story about why they were not.
Imagine a young girl, maybe 6, who was often rejected by her siblings. She felt alone and sad, like she didn’t fit in and wasn’t wanted. So in order to feel safe, she would retreat into her own world, reading books, connecting with animals, and not even trying to connect with other people - because there was more chance of rejection. Even when maybe her heart longed for human connection, her loyal soldier would remind her that any attempts would only lead to sadness.
There are so many versions of this story. When we’re young, we just want to feel attached. Humans are meant to live in community, by design. When our authentic expression of self threatens the ability to be connected to others, and in particular, our caretakers as children, we will choose to be less authentic. Our loyal soldier is enlisted to aid us in this mission to maintain connection and security, and their task is a sacred one.
To keep us safe, our loyal soldier believes that it is preferential to live in a suppressed way than to be completely isolated or without connection. Thus he or she orders us to become small, to deny our natural impulses and emotions with the goal of making us more acceptable to the people around us. Some common strategies of the loyal soldier are things like harsh self criticism, withdrawal, adopting an overly pleasing persona, codependent behaviors, putting ourselves low on the priority list, suppressing talent and intelligence, or cultivating a sad appearance.
As we mature, our loyal soldier maintains steadfast in his or her mission - to keep us safe. As adults, our loyal soldier is not aware that the war is over. And we, believing that our loyal soldier knows best, often don’t believe that the war is over either. While our loyal soldier was helpful, these strategies largely do not serve us as adults. Our capacity is increased and our loyal soldier’s orders cause issues by preventing us from creating healthy relationships with ourselves and others. The obsolete tactics of our loyal soldier now backfire and create difficulty and insecurity - the opposite of what they were designed to do. But the war is over… so what now?
The story and idea of the loyal soldier was introduced to me by my mentor and counselor several years ago, as introduced by psychologist Bill Plotkin in his book, Soulcraft, and I’ve heard it again since then. But it was during an experience this past week when I finally absorbed the message: The war is over.
With my whole being, it finally clicked. The war is over.
I’m not a lonely little girl anymore. I’m not helpless. I don’t have to do it all myself.
I’m safe. I have a warm home, a loving and supportive partner, friends with whom I can express myself authentically. I have purpose. I have resources accessible when I need assistance. I have authority over my own experience.
So now it is time to release my loyal soldier from duty, with gratitude and honor for their service. This process will take time, but I’m beginning with sincere thanks and with reassurance and with love.
In allowing my adult self to come online as the authority and take the lead in directing how I live, I have hope and faith that healthier and more intimate relationships with myself and others are on the horizon. That I can live out loud, with less need to play small and suppress my feelings and words.
What strategies has your loyal soldier employed to keep you safe? How are they serving you today?