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Child Development

How Necessary Childhood Adaptations Hide Your True Self

As a young child, how did you attempt to secure your parental attachment bond?

Key points

  • From an early age, children strive to connect with their parents and learn to selectively censor behaviors to which their parents object.
  • Regardless of how a person's parents raised them, to feel securely connected to them, they had to sacrifice pieces of their true being.
  • The endeavor as an adult to re-parent oneself is in the service of identifying and then expressing and caring for one's authentic self.
Source: Mangostar/Shutterstock

When you emerge from the womb, at the most elemental level of consciousness you realize that you must rely on your caretakers for survival. Utterly helpless to care for yourself, you have no choice but to ingratiate yourself with those on whom you’re so dependent.

So when your parents smile at you, you’ll smile back. Instinctively you’ll strive to connect with them in every way you can. And if somehow your parent turns away from you when you need reassurance that your attachment bond is stable, you’ll feel abandoned, lost, anxious. How could you not whenever your essential kinship with them feels precarious?

Understand that, realistically, no parent, regardless of how attentive and caring they may be, can be there for their child every second. Which means that as an infant you quickly grasp that to feel as secure as possible in this crucial relationship, you had better learn as much about their needs of you as your (incessant) needs of them.

Because your parents are bound to object to some of your behaviors, however pleasing or natural they may feel to you, then to the extent you’re able to apprehend such messaging, you’ll try to curtail or obliterate these behaviors.

That is, you’ll learn to selectively censor yourself as much as possible, limited by the circumstance that the younger your age the less capacity you’ll have to control impulses your caretakers regard as unruly. And this self-suppression is what gives birth to your so-called "inner critic."

Behavioral Constraints as You Grow Older

Unless through genetics you’re temperamentally predisposed toward anger, resentment, or rebelliousness, the overall pattern of deference you’ve already established will, more or less, automatically, go on. Again, to feel as secure as possible in your parental bond, you’ll inhibit behaviors that don’t coincide with the rules and regulations (implicit or explicit) of your parents.

It should be added that these behavioral constraints will relate to how your parents raise you. So if they’re authoritarian, they’ll make more demands of you and be more punitive whenever you fail to abide by them. If they’re overly permissive, not having set clear limits for you, you’ll feel compelled to test—and re-test—various boundaries, for they’ve never made them sufficiently clear.

The best parenting practices, however, are now recognized as authoritative. Here, although your parents maintain final say on your behavior's acceptability, they’re yet willing to listen sympathetically to your preferences and take them seriously into account. They’ll also be more willing to admit their mistakes and change their requirements when they comprehend that a rule they’ve instituted contradicts another or, because of your age, isn’t yet (or is no longer) viable for you.

But regardless of your parents’ manner of rearing you, to best get along with them and feel comfortably connected to them—and certainly to avoid alienating them—you’ll need to sacrifice bits and pieces of your true being.

Recovering in Yourself What You’d Needed to Conceal

It’s more or less inevitable that to be securely connected to your caretakers you’d feel obliged to disconnect from facets of your personality. That is, your true self—or authenticity. And this circumstance will be all the more likely if you were raised by controlling, authoritarian parents, unable or unwilling to tolerate behaviors that, for religious or broadly cultural reasons, felt insupportable to them.

When I think of clients I’ve worked with over the years, the ones who reported feeling empty, lost, or not at all sure who they really were, virtually all of them grew up with parents most accurately described as authoritarian. From a very young age, in striving to please their caretakers they eventually lost consciousness of their inborn nature and predilections—in short, who they were independent of all the adaptations they made to feel safely attached to their uncompromising parents.

In cases like these, such individuals needed to learn how to allow themselves both to discover their core identity and the freedom to assert this selfhood. If they were to come into their own adult authority (vs. the authority they necessarily forfeited to their caretakers—now so firmly ensconced in their head that they’re “masquerading” as themself), they needed (within limits) to make decisions not based on outdated parental dictates but on what, naturally, was most compatible to them.

Such a process of “dis-adapting” to your parents may sound simple enough. But it’s actually very challenging, for it can feel like having to revamp your entire identity. And at least initially, what could be scarier? Rather than going from something negative to something much more positive, during such a procedure, you’d need to go from something negative to (horrors!) nothing—before, that is, you can transform yourself into what would be far more normal and advantageous to you.

Moreover, changing internal programming when it goes right to the bone takes quite a bit of courage and commitment. And that’s the reason why in many instances seeking out therapeutic assistance may be imperative.

Typically, the endeavor will revolve around learning how to re-parent yourself, all in the service of “re-emerging” as your authentic self. And because child parts inside you may well balk at such reconditioning—programmed to believe that obeisance to their parents was forever mandatory—you’ll need repeatedly to assure them that it’s now safe to trust you, their rescuing, unconditionally accepting parent.

Engaged in this process to completion, clients regularly report that despite the intermittent distress they experienced during this unprecedented move toward revisioning themselves, it was undoubtedly worth it. Because having chronically felt lost and alienated from themselves, knowing that something vital was missing from deep within but unable to figure out exactly what, it’s a joy to know that—at long last—they’ve found themselves.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Childhood adaptations, and the defense mechanisms related to them, is a subject that—from different vantage points—I’ve written about many times previously. Here are just a couple of these posts:

How and why you compromise your integrity (2017, Jul 19).…

Your ideal self is your unadapted self: 9 key attributes (2018, Apr 4).…

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