I’m finally getting around to writing a follow-up post to Breaking The Mold. What are our options if we have confused our personae for our authentic identity? More than that, what if we can’t tell the difference and feel trapped in some sort of outwardly applied identity originating in how others view us? I think that this is probably the more common experience of the two. Even people with a well-developed, strong sense-of-self will, at times, experience confusion about their identities particularly if they experience gaslighting. It’s very difficult not to question how you feel about yourself when your perceptions are being manipulated in a specific environment designed to accomplish that very thing.
One could have an overbearing boss or even a kind of crazymaking culture at work. This isn’t that unusual. There are a few companies in my city that are notorious for their culture as in it doesn’t matter how much they pay you; no one stays there long. They simply can’t survive the culture.
If a person in the midst of working in a crazymaking culture is asked how they feel about themselves, they might reply with statements like this:
- I feel completely inept.
- I feel like no matter what I do it won’t be good enough for my boss.
- I feel like I’m being given things to do that I can’t possibly complete. Like I don’t measure up.
- I feel like I’m being set up to fail.
- I feel like everyone is talking about me behind my back.
- I feel like I’m not accepted.
- I feel trapped. Who is going to hire me after working here?
- I’m afraid.
- I feel like I do my best, but it’s never good enough.
Stay in a culture like this long enough, and everything you thought you knew about yourself might change. People spend most of their time at work. At what point does a persona or even a culture begin to seep inside and become an identity, and how do we prevent it?
Well, it becomes a question of studying that which is authentic. For example, the Secret Service is in charge of finding counterfeit money. How do they do it? They have to know what real currency looks and feels like in order to spot the fakes. This includes the portraits, the federal reserve and treasury seals, the borders, the serial numbers, and the weight, feel, and look of the paper. Getting to know the real thing is what makes them experts in the false things. It’s not very different in the world of identity.
If we want to discover what a healthy identity looks like, then we might begin with something like this:
- What does an authentically healthy person with a properly fenced in sense-of-self and good self-esteem look like?
- How would this person behave?
- What would their relationships look like?
- What would their boundaries look like?
These are not small questions, but they are vital questions if we are seeking to develop and/or heal our identities. And then, we must begin moving in that direction. Now, this is entirely in the realm of the abstract. I’m speaking theoretically here. This process would take time for people with low-self esteem who originated from a dysfunctional family. It’s also worth noting here that we “think” our self-esteem and “feel” our shame. So, let me start with a simple question:
What do you think about yourself (notice the thinking word here as it relates to “thinking” your self-esteem)?
That’s the most basic identity question I can ask. It’s not an easy question to answer. If we’re not in touch with our deeper feelings, then many of us might answer, “I don’t know. Fine, I guess?” Let me help you out. Here are some attributes of what healthy self-esteem is:
- Honest respect for your own abilities, potentials, and value.
- Knowing your strengths and trusting in them.
- Appreciation and open acceptance of your limitations.
- Acceptance of these limitations whilst understanding that some limitations can be overcome.
- Freedom from being overly concerned with what we imagine others think of us. Whilst accepting these perceptions do play a part in everyday life, remember they do not determine who we are. (attributed to Mark Tyrrell)
Here are some attributes of genuinely low-self esteem (a false perception of oneself):
- Social withdrawal
- Anxiety and emotional turmoil
- Lack of social skills and self-confidence. Depression and/or bouts of sadness
- Less social conformity
- Eating disorders
- Inability to accept compliments
- An Inability to see yourself ‘squarely’ – to be fair to yourself
- Accentuating the negative
- Exaggerated concern over what you imagine other people think
- Treating yourself badly but NOT other people
- Worrying whether you have treated others badly
- Reluctance to take on challenges
- Reluctance to put yourself first or anywhere.
- Reluctance to trust your own opinion
- Expecting little out of life for yourself (attributed to Mark Tyrrell)
I can look at both lists and see myself in both. Honestly, it depends on the day. Today, I think I am finding myself living from the first list more often, but, if I’m in a lot pain, I do accentuate the negative, expect little out of my life, neglect myself, withdraw socially, and experience profound emotional turmoil. Generally, however, it seems that the negative cognitions seem to cause the withdrawal, lowered expectations, and neglect. In other words, how we think about ourselves, our lives, and our future success has a lot to do with our present choices.
Tyrrell defines low self-esteem as:
Low self-esteem usually results from how we are conditioned by other people. If you were systematically insulted, criticized, or bullied, then you are more likely to have absorbed the negative messages about yourself instigated by other people. Think about who these other people were and when you feel bad about yourself, take a moment to ask yourself: “Hold on. Whose voice is that in my head?” I bet it really belongs to someone else originally. Starting to override other people’s conditioning of us is the first step to psychological independence; the real ‘you’ (that you should be listening to) can be much kinder and more reasonable about yourself.” (attributed to Mark Tyrrell)
Tyrrell’s description of low self-esteem’s origins reinforces my persona/identity hypothesis. Those of us with low self-esteem (a false perception of ourselves) have internalized an applied persona and accepted it as our identity. Depending upon our history, some of us have an extraordinarily low self-esteem. Our sense of self has been so systematically annihilated over time through abuse that we have no sense of ontological existence or significance. We might feel gossamer and light on the inside. There is no weightiness to our being. There is such a long history of dissociation resulting in our very self being divided and split into so many compartments that discussions of self-esteem seem trivial or even fanciful. The idea of self-esteem, however, should not be overlooked due to the self-esteem movement of the 1980s and 90s. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self. It refers to identity, and victims of abuse must pay attention to this idea. Every time a victim splits and compartmentalizes a shard of their identity in order to protect it, there is usually a lie that goes with it. This is why the split happened in the first place. A false perception of oneself is often what motivates the dissociative action in the first place. Later on, when we are safe, we must go back and revisit those old compartments. We have to look at the lies that we once or even continue to believe. These lies can be immensely powerful.
For example, when I was about six years-old, I visited my father and his new wife in December to celebrate Christmas with them. I did not know my stepmother well at all. They were newly married. In my mother’s family, Christmas was a very traditional Scandinavian affair. We did exchange gifts but not many. It was considered gauche to give too many presents. My grandparents were Norwegian and Swedish Lutherans. Thrift was considered a virtue as was charity. The Christmas Eve dinner was also part of the tradition so money was spent on the lutefisk and other traditional fare. Temperance and moderation were, above all, always observed. My father’s wife’s family, however, were Southern and in no way Scandinavian. Even as a six year-old, I was overwhelmed. They were loud. The food was very rich. And, they gave each other so many presents. Cheap presents. It was like someone went to a dollar store and cleared it out. In my family, a nice quality gift was given. In her family, fifty crappy gifts were given to each person. Quality didn’t matter. Just quantity. The sheer mass of gifts shocked me. But, I was also a little kid. I had never seen such a spectacle. I dove in. I might have rolled around in the all wrapping paper. It was the most stimulating thing I had ever experienced. My mother never let me do much of anything as a kid that involved fun. I think I behaved very obnoxiously when it was my turn to open something like thirty presents!
Well, I did something wrong. Apparently, I forgot to say thank you in the midst of the Christmas Extravaganza. I was told by my new stepmother that I was the most spoiled and selfish child she had ever met–repeatedly. As soon as I was reminded, I said thank you repeatedly. It didn’t matter. I forgot once. I would never live it down. Come next Christmas, I made sure to remind myself to say thank you. I didn’t want to be rude. When I arrived at my father’s house I noticed that there were a lot less presents under their tree. In fact, there were no presents for me. They hosted a Christmas party. They made me pass out presents to family and friends. Before everyone opened their gifts my stepmother made an announcement, “My stepdaughter won’t be getting a present this year because I’m teaching her a lesson. Ungrateful children don’t get presents. Perhaps she’ll say thank you next time. Okay everyone, let’s open our gifts now.” Everyone stared at me. I felt like I was going to throw up. I really didn’t understand. She made me clean up all the wrapping paper. On Christmas morning, oddly enough, my father did give me one present. Just one with the caveat that the only reason I was getting it was because he probably should give me something. A few years later, when I was forced to visit them, I went into their guest room where my toys were kept and found that all my toys were gone. Once again, my stepmother told me with a sadistic hiss, “We gave all your toys away to grateful children. Entertain yourself, you little brat.”
Now, why does this matter? As an adult, I have a habit of compulsively saying thank you. I know why I do it. I have a very deep-seated fear that if I don’t say thank you, then everything that I love will be taken away from me. If I am found to be selfish (a false perception of myself) in anything, then I will be punished. In life, we are allowed to fail and make mistakes, but if we come from abusive homes, then we are never allowed to fail, take risks, or make mistakes. What’s more, we don’t know what the rules are because the rules are constantly changing. One day you are allowed to sleep in. The next day you are lazy and good-for-nothing if you aren’t awake at 5 AM. So, the first step in building a foundation for a true perception of oneself, I would say, is making sure that you live in a predictable and safe environment. The next step is that you are in relationships with safe people. It is very, very hard to begin identity work if you aren’t interacting with safe people or living in a safe environment. You need people in your life who will remind you that you don’t need to say thank you all the time. You need people to tell you that you needn’t say sorry every five minutes. These behaviors originate in how we feel about ourselves and also in how we fear others will think of us. If I fear that someone thinks I’m selfish, then what? Let’s ask the bigger question? If I fear that God thinks I’m selfish, then what? If an abuser used God to justify their abuse, then your sense of self can be deeply affected. Profound fear and anxiety can rule your life.
Stability and predictability are key in order to begin addressing identity. Safe relationships are the context wherein we can begin asking some very important questions about how we feel about ourselves, and we can ask the safe people in our lives how they feel about us. Authentic compassion, empathy, and love is often hard to internalize, but it is a stepping stone to real internal, longterm change over time.