- Some relationships pose the choice to compromise oneself to sustain connection or to remain true to oneself.
- Each sibling must become autonomous and learn to separate their emotions from those of parents and siblings.
- Those deeply fused to the family often address their inability to separate by cutting off to reduce anxiety.
In relationships, sometimes we must choose between attachment and authenticity – that is, deciding whether to compromise oneself to sustain a bond, or to remain true to oneself and risk the relationship.
This dilemma frequently plagues troubled sibling or family relationships. Often, when siblings interact, they unconsciously regress into childhood roles. We remember our sisters and brothers as they were when they, or we, left the family home. We tend to “freeze” our siblings as younger versions of themselves, and this makes the choice between attachment and authenticity especially complicated.
When someone chooses attachment over authenticity, they're prioritizing someone else’s opinion – and that person’s respect and acceptance — over their own opinion of themselves and their personal self-respect and self-acceptance.
“We’re born with a need for attachment and a need for authenticity,” psychiatrist Gabor Maté explains in his book The Myth of Normal. “Most people abandon their true selves (authenticity) to please others and keep the relationships (attachments), even if they are ones that are toxic and destructive.”
Maté believes that children learn at a young age that they are only lovable when they do things that meet their parents' approval. This leads to cutting off parts of themselves to receive the love he/she needs. “If the choice is between ‘hiding my feelings, even from myself, and getting the basic care I need’ and ‘being myself and going without,’” Maté writes, “I’m going to pick that first option every single time. Thus our real selves are leveraged bit by bit in a tragic transaction where we secure our physical or emotional survival by relinquishing who we are and how we feel.”
When a Sibling Hasn’t Differentiated
Psychiatrist Murray Bowen, a pioneer in family therapy, hypothesized that each brother or sister must become autonomous and “differentiate” — learn to separate his or her own emotions from those of their parents and siblings. Children who have not differentiated might, for example, blame themselves for troubles in the family, such as their parents’ divorce, their siblings’ emotional problems, or family feuds. By contrast, the differentiated individual responds to the world independently and logically.
Those who are deeply enmeshed with family, Bowen reasoned, are likely to be insecure and anxious. For example, a sister or brother who turns to a sibling for care, protection, or confirmation of his or her identity may feel agitated and deprived when those needs and expectations are not met. This could lead to a cutoff because, ironically, estrangement indicates that an individual is not less but more involved in a relationship. Indeed, Bowen theorized that those who are deeply fused to the family often address their inability to effectively separate themselves by going to an extreme and limiting or terminating family contact to reduce their anxiety.
How does a sister or brother develop an autonomous identity while sustaining connections with other family members? “It’s a strange, hard thing to pull away from family, to create yourself, and still try to stay close to them,” Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, wrote in a 2018 article for The New York Times. “I’m still not sure how to do it.” In her late teens and twenties, Greenidge pulled away from her family by moving to another city and creating a circle of friends who knew nothing of her origins. But this approach, she found, resulted in a "false self"—one she calls "as shaky and unknown as the stunted self that comes from sublimating your desires for those of your family.”
Ideally, an individual learns to balance his or her independence while maintaining family relationships, but each of us falls somewhere on a spectrum between successful differentiation and an unhealthy degree of fusion. While it’s necessary to establish clear boundaries in all relationships, the practice of distancing oneself or cutting off whenever differences arise can become dangerous, especially when it is used to avoid closeness, isolate from relatives, or punish others.
Candace Plattor, a therapist in Vancouver who specializes in addiction problems, has written that Maté was correct in saying that most people choose attachment over authenticity. “But I also believe that there comes a time for all of us who truly wish to be holistically healthy to choose authenticity over attachment,” Plattor writes. “Yes, it can be lonely at the beginning – but seriously, what could be lonelier than spending our lives wishing and hoping and scrounging for acceptance from others, only to lose ourselves in the process? For me, life is a lot more fun today – and a whole lot easier.”
Marianna Jaross, a psychologist in Melbourne, Australia, suggests these steps toward becoming more authentic:
- Consider your early relational experiences and how they shaped you.
- Validate and explore your emotions, with particular awareness of bodily and emotional sensations.
- Notice when you feel most "you," when you are engaged in activities that evoke curiosity, engagement, presence, and "flow" states.
- Ask yourself questions about yourself, as if you’re talking to someone you care about. For example: What do I like? What interests me? Write down your answers.
- Consider whether you have fallen into the trap of over-giving or self-sacrificing in your relationships. Do you ask for support or seek help when you need it? Jaross points out that hyper-independence can be a learned defense mechanism to keep ourselves safe.
“Fun and ease,” Plattor states, "are two clues that you’ve tuned into the authentic, whole, amazing You, and tuned out of the fearful, clinging little ‘false self’ seeking to attach itself to someone else for survival.”
Facebook image: Bricolage/Shutterstock
Maté, Dr, Gabor (2022) The Myth of Normal:Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, New York, NY, Avery
Plattor, Candace, (July 18, 2018) Attachment or Authenticity, Which Would You Choose? Medium
Jaross, Marianna, (Aug. 3, 2022) The Relationship Between Attachment and Authenticity. Medium