When you’re a child, you instinctively realise that you must figure out how to adapt to your environment, for you can’t help but sense that your very survival depends on it. If you’re very young and your parents get mad at you, or turn away from you, you’ll experience your all-important attachment bond as threatened — and scarily so. Sleuth-like, you’ll labour to develop skills in detecting how you provoked or alienated them. And even with limited ability to control your impulses, you’ll struggle to avoid such perceived hazards in the future.
It’s a rare parent evolved enough to consistently offer their child what would feel to them like unconditional positive regard. So children feel compelled to do whatever they can to safeguard whatever positive sentiments their caretakers show toward them. After all, feeling secure in this crucial relationship must constitute their overriding concern.
Alternatively, without a reasonably clear sense of how they must behave to avoid parental criticism or neglect, children grow up with constantly elevated anxiety levels. And such distress can be tormenting. So how can they not strive to optimise the chances that their parents will always be there to nurture and protect them—and never abandon them. For if children can’t curtail their anxiety, they’re doomed to continually obsess over where they stand with their caretakers, and to what degree they can take for granted their abiding commitment to them.
What if, then, their parents regularly give them the message that they can’t think correctly; or that what they feel is wrong; or that they’re just not very creative, or attractive, or likeable; or that they must believe what really doesn’t make much sense to them; or that they shouldn’t touch themselves in a particular way; or that they’re not enough X or Y or Z; and so on? Given parents’ authority over us—an authority we’re obliged to attribute to them because we’re so dependent on them—their critical, derogatory messages strongly affect our emerging self-image.
Dissuaded from believing in our intuition, intelligence, or social acceptability, we can end up seriously sabotaging our potential. Afraid to go “all out” for fear we’ll fail anyway (especially if we were told that various things were forever beyond our grade level), the self-restricting ideas we imbibe from our parents can eventuate in our becoming self-defeating underachievers or malcontents.
Additionally, if our parents regularly modelled the wrong things for us—by, say, passively avoiding challenges because of their own lack of self-confidence—then, regardless of what they explicitly teach us, we may (by osmosis, as it were) be inflicted by these negative “learnings” and struggle to develop the self-assurance needed to be successful in life. (As in “monkey see, monkey do”—or not do.)
As Harville Hendrix succinctly sums it up:
There were certain thoughts and feelings we could not have, certain natural behaviours that we had to extinguish, and certain talents and aptitudes we had to deny. In thousands of way, both subtly and overtly, our parents gave us the message that they approved of only a part of us. In essence, we were told that we could not be whole and exist in this culture.
So, as a result of such caretaking, we felt duty-bound to adapt to our parents’ confining preferences and dictates. And inevitably, we felt forced to disown many vital—and joyful—parts of our being.
One way I like to frame this is that lacking a deep sense of personal “wholeness,” we’ll feel inside us a certain “holeness.” And this vague sense of being required to “empty out” certain essential aspects of ourselves depicts all that, however unconsciously, we felt we had to repress, or discard, from our inborn nature. Seeking as much closeness and support as possible from our parents, we couldn’t experience as viable holding onto certain characteristics intrinsic to our psychological core (such as spontaneity, a readiness to pursue adventure and take risks, resilience, and maintaining our innocent sense of wonder and awe).
It’s impossible to change what you haven’t yet identified as needing to change. So if you’re distressed by certain aspects of your life— individually and relationally—the first thing to do is make a list of all the things that frustrate you about yourself. And the next step is to revisit both your family, social, and environmental history. Ask yourself:
- What are all the messages that—explicitly and implicitly—I got from my parents that might be relevant to my present-day dissatisfactions?
- How did my broader surroundings—my neighbourhood, school, teachers, siblings, other relatives, religious teachings, etc.—affect how I came to define myself and my limitations?
- What traumatic or emotionally disturbing events, or possibly longer-term situations, may have caused me to shut down parts of myself, which felt too vulnerable to hold onto?
If your list of personal disappointments, or annoyances, is fairly complete, what you’ll discover is that what you don’t like about yourself has a lot more to do with the “story” of your past than it does any inherited weaknesses or deficits. That is, you’ve been shaped more by your biography than your biology. You’ll recognise that many things you assumed were unchangeable are changeable. But such a transformation can happen only when you recognise that the fabricated “truths” you took from your past reflected your relative immaturity and inexperience at the time, that they’re not hard and fast restrictions on what—and who—you could be.
This inner work isn’t easy. For it’s guaranteed to push you outside your comfort zone (which is why you may need professional help in the endeavour). After all, you’re challenging what you always assumed was safe because originally it did seem to protect your so-essential attachment to your caretakers. (And, of course, they’re still in your head—in the form of an over-vigilant conscience, or superego.)
So you need to keep reminding yourself—and this is something that will grow in credibility with each repetition—that you’re now an adult and free to create, and follow, your own guidelines for being in the world. Then you’ll be able to extend your too-constrictive comfort zone as you start reclaiming the various parts of you necessarily cast off in childhood.
As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “What I do is me: for that I came.” And in this sense, doing you—all of you—is what will lead you to self-realisation and -fulfilment. Remember, to recognise something literally means to “know it again.” Once you’ve identified, and verified, those inner parts that had to be disowned when you were growing up, you can reintegrate them with all your other parts, which didn’t earlier require you to forsake them.
And what, finally, could be more life-affirming than honouring your authenticity by at last coming home to your true, genuine Self?
. . . For that’s what personal wholeness is all about.