Susan Harter has observed that, developmentally speaking, children under the age of eight are unable to formulate an independent sense of self--separate, that is, from how they perceive their parents as viewing them. Or, it might be said, at an early age children can't help but see themselves as they're reflected through the eyes of their caretakers. So the messages they get about themselves through what their parents communicate to them--nonverbally, as well as verbally--powerfully influence their self-regard.
So what are the kinds of messages that unskilled, self-absorbed, or emotionally disturbed parents can impart to us as children--messages that can be hazardous to our healthy development? Just what do parents unwittingly say, or imply, that can implant in us a deficient sense of self, leaving us as adults without the esteem, confidence, security, or knowledge to resist others' efforts to take advantage of us?
Obviously, to the extent that we reach adulthood with many negative beliefs about ourselves, our "adult child" is easy prey to those who would manipulate us for personal gain. If as grown-up "wounded" children we aren't able to feel equal to--or as good as--others, we're likely to ignore our personal reservations and gullibly accept the validity of their viewpoints over our own. For even though we're now adults, we've yet to come into our adult authority. From deep within, we're still driven to hold onto negative, out-of-date ideas about ourselves. And as, originally, we may have come to give full credence to our parents' unfavorable evaluation of us--in order, ironically, to safeguard whatever bond we could establish with them--we may, for similarly protective reasons, compromise ourselves in present-day relationships.
Here's a selective list of (mostly unconscious) negative self-beliefs that, because of derogatory parental messages, we may still hold about themselves. I'll suggest how each of these particular beliefs can create--or sustain--in us a gullibility that makes resisting others' efforts to cheat or deceive us so formidable a challenge.
• I'm incompetent (or defective, inadequate, incapable, inept, slow, or stupid). This constellation of beliefs leads us to seek--and at times, uncritically accept--guidance and direction from others. Seeing ourselves, however inaccurately, as less competent than others, we're inclined to discount, or dismiss, our viewpoint when confronted with someone else's. Moreover, if we have doubts about what the other person is proposing to us, we may not be able to ask them many questions. For we may fear that doing so might expose us as "slow." Thus, because we're reluctant to make the inquiries necessary to make a truly informed choice, we may feel forced (or pressured) to make a decision counter to our better judgment. Again, we just can't help questioning our own competence and--insecure as we are--we certainly can't afford to look dumb either. After all, being "found out" would be way too humiliating.
• I'm not good enough (or, I can't be good enough). Relating to the multi-dimensional belief directly above (and to most of the beliefs below as well), maintaining such a negative foundational view of ourselves can lead to a certain attitude of resignation or hopelessness in social situations. It's awfully difficult to recognize and resist another person's guile when we feel somehow inferior to them. (And this "position" or "script" overlaps with Thomas Harris' Transactional Analysis idea of "I'm not OK--you're OK.")
• I will fail (or, I can't succeed). Others, who may not have our best interests in mind (i.e., are scheming or conniving), may--by tapping into our deep reservoir of self-doubt about success--convince us to give up on a project or challenge, to tip the scales in their favor. In general, perseverance is the key to succeeding. And it's obviously more difficult to persist at something when our lack of faith in our abilities is only intensified when we're being actively dissuaded from moving forward. In such circumstances, of course we've been tricked. But in the end (as in all the negative beliefs I'm describing), it's really our inner programming that defrauds us.
• I'm foolish (or silly). Perceiving ourselves this way makes it that much easier for others to fool us, to put something over on us. It's hard not to relinquish our adult power to decide when we've gotten conditioned to see ourselves in such a regressive light. And such deference to others can be costly.
• I'm not listened to
(or taken seriously
). It's hard to honor, articulate, and abide by our judgments when deep-down we believe that our evaluation of things will be disregarded. However unknowingly, insensitive parents can give us the message that how we think and feel about things has no significance, carries no weight--with the unfortunate result that we may learn to routinely refrain from asserting our reservations.
• I'm a fraud (or imposter). Ironically, if we see ourselves as "fake" (i.e., we may look competent to others, but nonetheless feel basically incompetent), such self-doubt increases our susceptibility to be "taken in" by an actual fraud. And such gullibility-inducing distortions in our self-image may be one of the most regrettable consequences of having more uncertainties about ourselves than we do about others.
• I feel like a child. The belief, or underlying suspicion, that we're not really grown-up can prompt us to place too much credence in the words of others--certainly more so than if we saw ourselves as every bit the adult that they were. It's hard not to allow others a certain dominion over us if we see them as occupying an ascendant role in our relationship to them.
• I can't trust myself (or my judgment, perceptions, authority, etc.). If our parents were in the habit of berating us--whether for our ways of thinking, points of view, or credibility--we can be left with a diffuse distrust of self that leaves us especially vulnerable to those who might wish to exploit us. We may give others the authority to tell us how to act because we've yet to come into our own authority. Like so many of the negative beliefs already discussed, residual childhood insecurities put us at increased risk for being duped or deceived as adults. And again, the most painful irony in all this is that in our inability to recognize our own authority, we're ripping ourselves off. Lacking self-esteem, confidence, and assurance, we're prone to uncritically accept--and submit to--the possibly bogus authority of others.
There are many other negative self-beliefs that help define our susceptibility to being deluded or defrauded. I'll enumerate and expand on these additional "risk factors" in Part 3 of this post. Following this, in Parts 4, 5, and 6 I'll describe in detail no fewer than 21 ways to help us overcome whatever vulnerabilities we may have to being gulled by others.