No Ordinary Life

Finding the courage to be

The Woman Who Gave Herself Away

Treating lack of core identity through psychotherapy

“No, I don’t want to be in cold, wet England in February, I get sick there and stay sick till spring. But my daughter tells me I owe it to her to visit while she is abroad, so I guess I’ll have to go.” Shoulders drooping into her rounded stomach, Jana looked around the room at her women’s therapy group members. They knew her very well.

“What would be so bad about saying no?” Lila, intuitive as usual, took the lead. “Why give up on your own health and pleasure to comply to her demands again? You lose your voice in cold rain. We remember that from last time. Stay here.”

“If my daughter dared demand that I do something this risky for my health, I would tell her to grow up and be real!” Tall and sparkly, Mary Jeanne had won the group’s respect by raising two successful daughters while building a thriving real estate business.

Jana’s sigh created a thick fog in the therapy room. “The worst part is, with four adult kids and four grandkids, I am always running behind their requests no matter what I do. “Her small softly rounded frame slumped in the black leather couch in the Philadelphia offices. “I spent my whole life taking care of my husband and these children, and now that he has died, I want nothing at all. I see no future.” She looked despondent.

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"But you are funny, smart, with it, loving, and you have great taste in clothes. Some man would be really lucky to find you. Sorry if I sound annoyed, but I get so impatient when you give yourself away to these kids! They only demand things of you because you let them! They do not need you to complete their lives because you raised them well. Stop giving into their every whim. You have somehow trained them to take advantage of you lately. When will you get it and change?” Callie, a stridently successful single architect, barreled forward. “We have been over this and over this and we can’t help until you help yourself. This group cares more about you than you do.” She spoke eloquently for the others: as I looked around the room, heads nodded in agreement.

“Jana, the group agrees with Callie and Lila. They are on your team, but are at an impasse to help you as long as you do nothing different. Does that make sense?” I used self discipline to prevent impatience from creeping into my voice, aware that my angry tone could slow down Jana’s needed change. “How much do you want to be home in February watching a chick flick with one of your wonderful friends, in front of your stone fireplace?”

Jana began to tear up. “That would be wonderful. Do you think I can do it?” Since I did not actually have the confidence that her core was solid enough to withstand this pressure from her daughter, I remained silent, thinking that by next year she would be able to say no.

“Will you try?” Lila chimed in. “Will you please friggin’ try? You deserve this. Do it for your daughter if you can’t do it for yourself! It is not good for her to be able to manipulate you and you know it.” The silence of Jana’s response was deafening in the room. Jana was not yet able to meet her own needs first.

Lack of core identity is often at the root of seemingly superficial problems. Jana is only aware of having demanding adult children, but, on closer examination, the children have been trained to be demanding by a mother with precious little sense of self. Her core personality dysfunction creates the behavioral problem that she attributes to her children. Treatment needs to center around her core personality dysfunction, or lack strength in core identity.

Can we treat core personality issues like poor self esteem successfully in psychotherapy? The good news is that personality transformation is the stock in trade of depth therapists, who combine behavioral management techniques with transformational personality treatment. Individuals who suffer from diagnoses grouped under the rubric, “Personality disorders” can turn to psychotherapists who employ training and patience to transform dysfunctional personalities. Yes, adults crippled by early experiences can reclaim successful lives. Can Jana change? Absolutely. Will she? That is up to her.

The powerful circle of women helping women has created a new chance for Jana. She no longer needs to give herself away. I invite you to look inside yourself to see whether your personality needs a tune up. Do you, like Jana, give yourself away to the loudest bidder? Does your self-sacrificing behavior bother those who love you? Are you so painfully shy that you shrink from the love you need and want? The personal emotional training that individual and group psychotherapy has to offer you actually could brighten your future. And grabbing for that brass ring is up to you.

To Consider: Do I dare tackle my own tendency to limit myself in harmful ways? Would I consider getting the help I know I need? Why or why not?

Judith Coche, Ph.D., A.B.P.P. is an author, psychotherapist, and founder of The Coche Center.

 
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