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How We Become Who We Are Not
by Richard Moss
As children we do not initially approach our worlds with our parents biases and prejudices about what is good or bad. We express our true selves spontaneously and naturally. But early on, this expression begins to collide with what our parents encourage or discourage in our self-expression. All of us become conscious of our earliest sense of self in the context of their fears, hopes, wounds, beliefs, resentments, and control issues and of their ways of nurturing, whether loving, suffocating, or neglecting. This mostly unconscious socializing process is as old as human history. When we are children and our parents view us through the lens of their own adaptations to life, we as unique individuals remain more or less invisible to them. We learn to become whatever helps make us visible to them, to be whatever brings us the most comfort and least discomfort. We adapt and survive as best we can in this emotional climate.
Our strategic response results in the formation of a survival personality that does not express much of our individual essence. We falsify who we are in order to maintain some level of connection to those whom we require in order to meet our needs for attention, nurturance, approval, and security.
Children are marvels of adaptation. They quickly learn that, if acquiescence produces the best response, then being supportive and agreeable provides the best chance for emotional survival. They grow up to be pleasers, excellent providers for the needs of others, and they see their loyalty as a virtue more important than their own needs. If rebellion seems to be the best path to diminishing discomfort while also gaining attention, then they become combative and build their identities by pushing their parents away. Their fight for autonomy may later make them nonconformists unable to accept the authority of others, or they may require conflict in order to feel alive. If withdrawal works best, then children become more introverted and escape into imaginary worlds. Later in life, this survival adaptation may cause them to live so deeply in their own beliefs that they are unable to make space for others to know them or to emotionally touch them.
Because survival is at the root of the false self, fear is its true god. And because in the Now we cannot be in control of our situations, only in relationship with it, the survival personality is poorly suited to the Now. It tries to create the life it believes it should be living and, in so doing, does not fully experience the life it is living. Our survival personalities have identities to maintain that are rooted in the early childhood escape from threat. This threat comes from the disjunction between how we experience ourselves as children and what we learn to be, in response to our parents mirroring and expectations.
Infancy and early childhood are governed by two primary drives: The first is the necessity to bond with our mothers or other important caregivers. The second is the drive to explore, to learn about and discover our worlds.
The physical and emotional bond between mother and baby is necessary not only for the childs survival but also because the mother is the first cultivator of the babys sense of self. She cultivates it by how she holds and caresses her baby; by her tone of voice, her gaze, and her anxiety or calmness; and by how she reinforces or squelches her childs spontaneity. When the overall quality of her attention is loving, calm, supportive, and respectful, the baby knows that it is safe and all right in itself. As the child gets older, more of his or her true self emerges as the mother continues to express approval and set necessary boundaries without shaming or threatening the child. In this way her positive mirroring cultivates the childs essence and helps her child to trust itself.
In contrast, when a mother is frequently impatient, hurried, distracted, or even resentful of her child, the bonding process is more tentative and the child feels unsafe. When a mothers tone of voice is cold or harsh, her touch brusque, insensitive, or uncertain; when she is unresponsive to her childs needs or cries or cannot set aside her own psychology to make enough space for the childs unique personality, this is interpreted by the child as meaning that something must be wrong with him or her. Even when neglect is unintentional, as when a mothers own exhaustion prevents her from nurturing as well as she would like to, this unfortunate situation can still cause a child to feel unloved. As a result of any of these actions, children can begin to internalize a sense of their own insufficiency.
Until recently, when many women have become working mothers, fathers have tended to transmit to us our sense of the world beyond the home. We wondered where Daddy was all day. We noticed whether he returned home tired, angry, and depressed or satisfied and enthusiastic. We absorbed his tone of voice as he spoke about his day; we felt the outside world through his energy, his complaints, worries, anger, or enthusiasm. Slowly we internalized his spoken or other representations of the world into which he so frequently disappeared, and all too often this world appeared to be threatening, unfair, a jungle. If this impression of potential danger from the outside world combines with an emerging sense of being wrong and insufficient, then the childs core identity -- his or her earliest relationship to the self -- becomes one of fearfulness and distrust. As gender roles are changing, both men and working mothers perform aspects of the fathering function for their children, and some men perform aspects of mothering. We could say that in a psychological sense mothering cultivates our earliest sense of self, and how we mother ourselves throughout life strongly influences how we hold ourselves when faced with emotional pain. Fathering, on the other hand, has to do with our vision of the world and how empowered we believe ourselves to be as we implement our own personal visions in the world.
Day by day throughout childhood, we explore our worlds. As we move out
into our environment, our parents capacity to support our process
of discovery and to mirror our attempts in ways that are neither overprotective
nor neglectful depends on their own consciousness. Are they proud of us
as we are? Or do they reserve their pride for the things we do that fit
their image for us or that make them look like good parents? Do they encourage
our own assertiveness, or interpret it as disobedience and quell it? When
a parent delivers reprimands in a way that shames the child -- as so many
generations of generally male authorities have recommended doing -- a
confused and disturbed inner reality is generated in that child. No child
can separate the frightful bodily intensity of shame from his or her own
sense of self. So the child feels wrong, unlovable, or deficient. Even
when parents have the best intentions, they frequently meet their childs
tentative steps into the world with responses that seem anxious, critical,
or punitive. More important, those responses are often perceived by the
child as implicitly distrustful of who he or she is.