In an ideal world, all children would have parents who helped them develop their true selves in order to grow into self-confident, independent adults. But many times the parents’ own emotional immaturity gets in the way of that mission. Parents who were not allowed to develop their own individuality don’t know how to handle it when their children express true thoughts and feelings. Deep feelings are scary to these rigid parents, and they often criticize and reject their children’s most heartfelt expressions of self.
These parents’ negative reactions make their children doubt that they are all right just the way they are. Insecure parents can be like emotional kidnappers, separating their children from their true-self connection. We are not talking about normal socialization or discipline here. This is not about teaching proper behavior; it is about the damaging attempt to deny or suppress the child’s core needs and feelings (e.g., “Stop getting so upset,” “It’s not that big a deal,” or “I’ll give you something to cry about.”)
Emotionally immature parents cannot accept their children’s individuality and emotional needs because the parents’ own fears and rigidities are just too strong. For instance, instead of encouraging their children’s self-awareness, immature parents rigidly tell their kids what they should be feeling and thinking. Such a parent tells children not only who they should be and what they should want, but also that the only way to be lovable is by meeting the parent’s expectations.
Whether overt or implied, the parents’ threats of rejection estrange the children from themselves by blocking their foundational security of intimate self-awareness. Pressure to conform teaches children not to trust their own inner true-self guidance.
For various reasons, underdeveloped parents are out of touch with their own core selves. They were probably emotional-kidnapping victims themselves. As a result, they now need their children’s compliance to make up for their own loss of self. Largely unaware of their own core feelings, these parents cannot trust their children’s natural self-development. As a result, they strong-arm their kids into the kind of compliance that makes the parents feel more secure and self-confident.
If these children exhibit their true feelings, they are punished, shunned, or shamed by their parents. This teaches children to ignore their inner promptings in order to stay connected to their parents. Forcibly distanced from their own inner truth, these children learn to put their focus on what will make the parent more comfortable and secure.
Separated from their true selves, these unfortunate kids grow up without the inner peace and deep comfort of a solid true-self connection. Without that inner connection, they live like kidnap victims, their lives disrupted by fear, confusion, and emotional loneliness.
Instead of children being in touch with what they really feel and think, they now feel a hitch and a hesitancy. These children now worry more about what the parent feels rather than following their own interests and needs. Later in adult relationships, to their own self-detriment, they allow other people to hold power over them by telling them how they should be.
A child’s self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-confidence will threaten an insecure, emotionally immature parent. The child soon learns that expressing himself promptly leads to parental rejection. Once children are insecure about their parent’s basic acceptance of them, they learn to view all people as ultimate judges of their worth and acceptability.
When self-separation is forced on a child, that child’s natural desire for emotional connection turns ambivalent because the price of closeness is now equated with relinquishment of self. Relational love now feels like a burdensome obligation, not a joyful, energetic union. Being good is equated with avoiding shame or punishment, not real generosity or compassion. Behavioral compliance takes the place of free thought and natural feelings. Finally such a child ends up with a personality that feels exhausted and externalized, missing a firm sense of core identity and reliable inner guidance.
If you have had self-estrangement forced on you early in life, you can do something about it. If you felt as if you were held hostage by your parent’s needs and opinions, you can still discover your true self and the kind of life that gives you energy. Excellent self-therapy books to help with this are What is in the Way is the Way by Mary O’Malley and Self-Therapy by Jay Earley.
Start with the realization that your parents’ own fears and unmet emotional needs may have discouraged you from trusting your original true-self guidance. Your self-estrangement will be reversed as you learn to tune in once again to your own true thoughts and feelings. Keep your relationship with your parents, but relate to them in a fresh, more authentic way from your true self, not from the role they needed you to play for their own sense of security.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.