When you get a wrong idea about who you are as a child, you can face a lifetime of trying to prove or disprove that identity. Neither extreme reflects who you really are.
“I was the outgoing one in my family, not the beautiful one, not the smart one, and definitely not the talented one.” This statement from a patient of mine caught me a little off-guard. It wasn’t just the fact that she was (by fairly objective accounts) an attractive, intelligent, and accomplished woman that struck me. It was the tone of comfortable acceptance, the shoulder-shrugging attitude of “that’s just who I am,” that gave me pause.
My puzzlement only lasted a moment, because, sadly, this is the kind of casual statement I’m used to hearing from patients. In a tone of certainty one would use to name the weather or the city in which they were born, they state, “My brother was the successful one.” “My sister was the star.” “I was the baby/ the temperamental one/ the wild one/ the easy kid/ the shy kid, etc.” Ask anyone to complete the sentence “I was the ____ in my family,” and it usually doesn’t take long for them to fill in the blank.
The ways we were seen and treated in our family of origin very early in our existence have a heavy impact on the ways we see ourselves throughout our lives. The identities that were projected onto us could have been overt, but they could also have been subtle. A routine look of mild disgust from a parent, the lack of affection or joy they felt in our presence, a build-up that we experienced as forced and fake, or the supposedly helpful criticism they expressed in an “effort to help us improve ourselves” – all of these spoken and unspoken attitudes were internalized by our rapidly developing minds, which were eager to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings. This is true even if these definitions of us bore little resemblance to who we truly are.
So much of what we assume to be just the way we are sources from early ideas we got from our parents or other influential caretakers. For example, if we were seen as needy and our needs felt overwhelming to our parents, we may have perceived ourselves as selfish or intrusive. We may have grown up feeling like we had to be pushy and persistent to get what we want. Or, we may have overcompensated by retreating inward and shying away from expressing our needs and wants in hopes of never getting hurt again.
If we were idealized in our family for being self-sufficient and “low-maintenance,” we may have grown up feeling guilty to ask for anything. We may believe we have to be independent and never ask for help or rely too much on others. If we were seen as wild and out of control, we may have bought into the idea that we just can’t help but mess up and be irresponsible.
When people get the wrong idea about who they are as young children, they face a potential lifetime of trying to prove or disprove that identity. The trouble is, rarely do either of these extremes represent who we really are. If we were always the “loud” one, we may think we have to entertain and be the center of attention, or we may think we have to keep our mouths shut to avoid annoying others. These adaptations don’t necessarily serve our best interest, capture our potential, or reflect how we want to live our lives.
For example, a man who had struggled with developing a romantic relationship wanted to break his pattern and be in a serious, loving relationship. Time and time again, he had found himself being most drawn toward women who were self-focused, aloof, and distant. When a woman he dated showed a real interest in him, laughed at his jokes, and outwardly expressed attraction, he’d pull away and lose interest. Yet, when a woman paid him intermittent attention, one minute being warm and pursuing, another minute self-absorbed, cold, and unavailable, he felt more drawn to her. He knew he struggled with feeling unlovable since he was a child, and yet, he kept choosing partners who made him feel unloved. It was as if he was trying to disprove his old identity by winning the affection of these elusive women, while simultaneously proving his old identity, because he could never attain their love. It was more comfortable for him to uphold the negative sense of self that he’d learned as a little boy who felt unwanted than to see himself through the eyes of someone who saw him differently.
Accepting the fact that we were seen and projected onto in ways that had more to do with our parents, the ways they made us feel, and the roles they assigned to us than with us is not an exercise intended to make us feel victimized or powerless. Rather, it’s meant to be an act of empowerment and differentiation. When we accept that our earliest relationships and these old identities drive a way of feeling about ourselves that often has nothing to do with who we are, we give ourselves permission to break down the walls of our past and construct a new and more realistic sense of self. We can feel compassion for ourselves as children who internalized those projections. We can appreciate that we are now adults who make our own choices and form our own values. Finally, we can take immediate steps that reflect what we want and who we are without the weighted conceptions of who we have, for so long, believed ourselves to be.