A Case of Mistaken Identity

I love it in therapy when a person says,“That’s just not me,” or another favorite, “I’m not the kind of person who…” When a person puts it this way, I am almost positive we have hit upon a false piece of their self-image. They are convinced of their statement, but I can hear the tinny echo of a distorted self-concept. It just does not ring true.

Instead it sounds like a second-hand conclusion that the person came to about herself or himself, like something picked up at the flea market of other people’s opinions. What the person is really saying is that the trait or behavior in question does not feel natural or easy. That kind of discomfort is often the tip-off to an overly narrow concept of the self. What people often reveal with such statements is that they have been made to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious when they have freely been themselves. Maybe that tinny off-note I heard was the sound of anxiety.

Children come into this world with a brand-new mix of genetic characteristics and innate preferences. If there is not too much rigidity or narrowness of thought in the family, there can be a lively and harmonious collaboration between the way parents see things, and what the child finds meaningful. Flexible parents are able to see many sides of their children’s potential and can be open to what the child is interested in. They at least can appreciate the child’s strengths even if these are different from the parents’. However, a stiff or easily threatened parent will make it very clear that certain predispositions and behaviors are simply bad and deserve rejection or punishment. At the same time, such a parent may show warmth or approval if the child acts in ways that the parent can relate to.

But the learning is not always so direct. Children also pick up the parents’ characteristics unconsciously, just by living around them. This process can be seen, often humorously, when little children copy adult behaviors exactly. Children can take on opposite traits from their parent as well, as they are unconsciously maneuvered into positions that are different but complementary to the parent’s traits. It is the old joke that both the teetotaler and alcoholic each turned out that way because their fathers drank. The irresponsible parent may turn out a hyper-conscientious child who takes up the slack, while the super-conservative parent may end up with the compulsive rebel.

When the parent’s personality is compatible with the child’s nature, there is harmony inside the child because the parent’s traits fit nicely with the child’s innate potential. The child feels joyful when he or she feels similar to Mom or Dad. Such an identification feels like a pleasant expansion with plenty of room to grow. But when children have to become something they are not in order to get along with the adults, anxiety or depression is often the result. Children can develop a sense of being an imposter or a feeling that they can never do things well enough. That is because at some level the parent has given them the message they ought to be other than who they really are. Nobody finds it easy to be someone else.

Naturally cooperative, malleable children will try hard to convince themselves that they must be wrong because the parent must be right. These children form an identity based on what they think they should be like, setting an overly rigid benchmark for being a good person. The other traits that do not fit are disowned.

This might all work somehow, if it were not for the colossal amounts of energy it takes to not be who we really are. Think of the countless generations of genetic programming that have combined to make you a certain kind of person, centuries upon centuries of combinations that have finally yielded the you of you. Then, because your parent cannot relate to such a person, you as a child must fight your very nature in order to make your parents bond positively with you. It is an unbelievable effort. The more energy that is needed to please a parent, the less energy we have for mature self-development and finding our own path. Giving up our true nature for the sake of family attachments can result in exhaustion, both physical and emotional. We might find it hard to work toward the things we know we really want because we do not have enough energy left over.

Here’s a little test to give yourself. Think of something that you wanted to do, but you felt held back from proceeding. Think of situations that are exciting to think about, but which you find yourself not pursuing. Think of people you have found interesting, but were hesitant to seek out further. Think of the cherished dream that you kept putting off because you felt you did not have the time, money, or talent. Take five minutes to write them down before reading on.

Got a few examples? Okay, now you know who you were before all the family messages started.

Ambitions, attractions, interests, and dreams can’t be faked. They will always pull us toward the things that give us the best return on our efforts. Following them increases energy, optimism, and hopefulness. They are inherently empowering. They may cause anxiety if they involve things our parents did not approve of, but we have to remember that anxiety is often the by-product of growth. We all feel a little odd when we try a new behavior.

So if you catch yourself saying, “I’m not that kind of person,” ask yourself, “How do I know that?” Do you know it deep in your soul, or is it because you were made to feel uncomfortable about those interests? Part of the fun of doing psychotherapy is watching people start to ask themselves these questions as they open up to being different from how their families saw them. There is nothing like the joy that surfaces when you discover that your inhibitions were just a case of mistaken identity.

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