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How We Become Who We Are Not
by Richard Moss
As children we cannot differentiate our parents psychological limitations from the effects they cause in us. We cannot protect ourselves by means of self-reflection so that we can arrive at compassion and understanding for them and ourselves, because we do not yet have the awareness to do so. We cannot know that our frustration, insecurity, anger, shame, neediness, and fear are just feelings, not the totality of our beings. Feelings seem simply good or bad to us, and we want more of the former and less of the latter. So gradually, within the context of our early environment, we wake up to our first conscious sense of self as if materializing out of a void, and without understanding the origins of our own confusion and insecurity about ourselves.
Each of us, in a certain sense, develops our earliest understanding of who we are within the emotional and psychological fields of our parents, much as iron filings on a sheet of paper become aligned in a pattern determined by a magnet underneath it. Some of our essence remains intact, but much of it has to be forfeited in order to ensure that, as we express ourselves and venture out to discover our worlds, we dont antagonize our parents and risk the loss of essential bonding. Our childhoods are like the proverbial Procrustean bed. We lie down in our parents sense of reality, and if we are too short -- that is, too fearful, too needy, too weak, not smart enough, and so on, by their standards -- they stretch us. It can happen in a hundred ways. They might order us to stop crying or shame us by telling us to grow up. Alternatively, they might try to encourage us to stop crying by telling us everything is all right and how wonderful we are, which still indirectly suggests that how we are feeling is wrong. Of course, we also stretch ourselves -- by trying to meet their standards in order to maintain their love and approval. If, on the other hand, we are too tall -- that is, too assertive, too involved in our own interests, too curious, too boisterous, and so on -- they shorten us, using much the same tactics: criticism, scolding, shame, or warnings about problems we will have later in life. Even in the most loving families, in which parents have only the best intentions, a child may lose a significant measure of his or her innate spontaneous and authentic nature without either the parent or the child realizing what has happened.
As a result of these circumstances, an environment of angst is unconsciously born within us, and, at the same time, we begin a lifetime of ambivalence about intimacy with others. This ambivalence is an internalized insecurity that can leave us forever dreading both the loss of intimacy that we fear would surely occur if we somehow dared to be authentic, and the suffocating sense of being dispossessed of our innate character and natural self-expression if we were to allow intimacy.
As children we begin to create a submerged reservoir of unacknowledged, nonintegrated feelings that pollute our earliest sense of who we are, feelings like being insufficient, unlovable, or unworthy. To compensate for these, we build up a coping strategy called, in psychoanalytic theory, the idealized self. It is the self we imagine we should be or can be. We soon start to believe we are this idealized self, and we compulsively continue to attempt to be it, while avoiding anything that brings us face to face with the distressing feelings we have buried.
Sooner or later, however, these buried and rejected feelings resurface, usually in the relationships that seem to promise the intimacy we so desperately crave. But while these close relationships initially offer great promise, eventually they also expose our insecurities and fears. Since we all carry the imprint of childhood wounding to some degree, and therefore bring a false, idealized self into the space of our relationships, we are not starting from our true selves. Inevitably, any close relationship we create will begin to unearth and amplify the very feelings that we, as children, managed to bury and temporarily escape.
Our parents ability to support and encourage the expression of our true selves depends on how much of their attention comes to us from a place of authentic presence. When parents unconsciously live from their false and idealized senses of self, they cannot recognize that they are projecting their unexamined expectations for themselves onto their children. As a result, they cannot appreciate the spontaneous and authentic nature of a young child and allow it to remain intact. When parents inevitably become uncomfortable with their children because of the parents own limitations, they attempt to change their children instead of themselves. Without recognizing what is happening, they provide a reality for their children that is hospitable to the childrens essence only to the extent that the parents have been able to discover a home in themselves for their own essence.
All of the above may help to explain why so many marriages fail and why much that is written about relationships in popular culture is idealized. As long as we protect our idealized selves, we are going to have to keep imagining ideal relationships. I doubt they exist. But what does exist is the possibility to start from whom we really are and to invite mature connections that bring us closer to psychological healing and true wholeness.