Consider, first of all, the fact that there’s nothing more critical to young children’s psychological well being than developing a secure bond with their caretakers. Quite literally, they know they have to depend on their parents to protect and support them—that they can’t possibly survive on their own. So they reason that to fit in, to be able to feel they truly have a place in their family, they need to focus on doing what “earns” their parent’s positive regard. Otherwise, they’ll be emotionally overwhelmed by intolerable feelings of vulnerability; afflicted with constant anxiety.
Obviously, in situations where parents regularly demonstrate unconditional love for their children—even in correcting their (age-appropriate) misbehaviors—children don’t need to be concerned about their family’s acceptance. But frequently children don’t experience this inner security. And in these instances they may feel compelled to “compromise” who they are in the effort to better integrate themselves into a family that, frankly, isn’t capable of—or willing to—embrace them just as they are.
As a simple example, let’s say that, by nature, you were a loud, boisterous, high-energy child who happened to be born to two extremely reserved, quiet parents who regularly signaled to you that your effervescence was annoying to them. Maybe even disturbing to the point of being almost unbearable. Either you outright rebelled against your family’s implicit demands of you (i.e., if you were strong-willed and defiant)—and with the likelihood that you then developed chronic problems with anger and resentment. Or, more likely (particularly, if you were a girl), you did everything in your power to accommodate your parents’ preferences—with the lamentable result that you ended up “forfeiting” something essential to your very identity.
What’s crucial to understand here is that your early decisions about how to adjust to your family, so as to better “fit in” or “get along” with them, tend to generalize to how you need to be in the world generally
. That is, you tend to universalize your early family adaptations and, not-very-discriminately, extend them to a whole host of other people and situations—especially, as an adult, to your present-day family. Another way to put this is that you’re still “bound” to your past, not really free to be yourself (if you’re even confident about who that self is).
In such instances of unwitting self-sacrifice, your personal priorities take a back seat to those of others. And this pattern of self-denial, of routinely putting the wants and needs of others before your own, inevitably leads to a certain self-alienation. When, to feel safe or secure in your environment, you become “other-directed,” you’re well on your way to losing touch with your true nature—as well as what you need in life to feel satisfied and fulfilled. In a sense, in “making yourself over” for others, you’re no longer capable of being yourself. Sure, you’re an adult, but without even recognizing it part of you is still stuck in childhood, reenacting ancient strategies for acceptance or approval no longer relevant.
The saddest thing about all this is that what felt necessary to acquiesce to as a child—and which may in fact have been adaptive (though admittedly at a very high price)—is likely to get “imprinted” in you as how you must always and forever be to get along in the world. And a much earlier article of mine, “From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing,” elaborates on this most unfortunate, self-effacing phenomenon.
So if you regularly “show up” for others but only rarely for yourself, you may be the victim of your own hopelessly outdated, non-nurturant survival program. If to strengthen or secure your fragile family bond, you focused almost all your attention outside yourself, you may have become singularly un-nurturing toward yourself. And such a situation helps explain why so many children, once they reach late adolescence or adulthood, become addicted—whether to a substance, relationship, or activity. In never feeling comfortable attending to their own wants as children, they’re later driven to compensate for such self-deprivation through some form of “childlike” self-indulgence. And they do so largely inattentive to the negative consequences of their impulsive—or rather, compulsive—behavior. (And here, see another article of mine, “From Self-Indulgence to Self-Nurturing”.)
There are infinite variations of how such childhood adaptations can play out in adult life. So I can only hope that the one example I’ll provide is at least suggestive of this broad dynamic. This case involves an attractive 40-year-old woman, Vivian, who felt that something she didn’t understand was holding her back from being able to love another person fully—and, indeed, allowing them to love her. Never having married, she’d yet been in a multitude of relationships. But ultimately they all failed. Similar to many individuals I’ve worked with, she revealed considerable conflict between that part of her willing to be vulnerable and risk loving another, and a sharply contrasting part that desperately needed to safeguard this vulnerability by distancing herself from men she became involved with.
Exploring her past, Vivian came to recognize that although she was an unusually loving child—maybe even effusively so—her father, an accountant who was unusually closed off and shut down, was made extremely uncomfortable by her open displays of affection. He’d literally push her away when she tried to hug him. Her mother, while unquestionably more responsive to her daughter’s bountiful expressions of devotion, suffered from chronic migraines. So she, too, often rebuffed Vivian’s demonstrations of unreserved, exuberant love.
At some point Vivian, a highly sensitive child, discerned that her natural outpourings of affection all too frequently led her to experience extremely painful feelings of parental disapproval and rejection. So increasingly—and even consciously—she restrained herself from spontaneously exhibiting her tender emotions. Concluding that openly expressing her affectionate, loving nature threatened her attachment bond to both parents, she felt obliged to change her behavior accordingly—in a sense, alter her very self. And this “emotional survival program” persisted well into adulthood, long after she’d physically left her parents. Realizing in therapy how she’d over-learned, or “memorized,” this lesson of emotional suppression, it now made perfect sense to her that she routinely gave men the confusing and contradictory message that she was, and was not, available to love them. And that she might not really deserve their love either—just as earlier she’d decided that she might not merit her family’s, since they were hardly consistent (and certainly not demonstrative) in showing it to her.
In Vivian’s willingness to go through a process of grieving
what her parents were unable to offer her, she was finally able to “re-write”
her now seriously maladaptive relational programming. And doing so enabled her to begin to let her guard down, relinquishing no-longer-necessary defenses of keeping suitors at a “safe” distance—which was antithetical to giving, and getting, the love that (predictably) eluded her.
So ask yourself:
Is it possible that you brought to adulthood old programs of family adaptation no longer required for you to feel safe or secure in your relationships today? And if this is the case, might you have betrayed your truest, most authentic, self?
For starting right now, you can re-decide how you genuinely want to relate to other. And maybe yourself as well.
Note 1: Besides those already mentioned, here are some other posts I’ve written that complement the present one:
“Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior”
“Trust Your Feelings? . . . Maybe Not”
“The Power to Be Vulnerable”
“Bonging vs. Bondage: What We Learn from Our Parents”
“The ‘Programming’ of Self-Sabotage”
“Child Self? Adult Self?—Who’s Running the Show?”
“Cold People: What Makes Them That Way?”
“The Past: Don’t Dwell on It, Revision It!”
“Why We All Need a Fairy Godmother”
Note 2: If this post “spoke” to you and you believe it might to others as well, I hope you’ll share it with them. Additionally, if you’d like to explore other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today—on a broad range of topics—click here.
© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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