Some of us grow up in families where we are not emotionally free to express our desires and needs and feel compelled to be compliant in social relationships (especially with significant others). As a result, the process of becoming a person who knows what they want and how to get it is foreclosed. Instead, motivated by expectations of others, there is little room to develop an identity along with feelings of self-worth and self-acceptance.
Nancy, a married high school teacher with a 19-year-old son, came to see me when her anxiety was becoming overwhelming and her family relationships were increasingly irritating:
“I don’t know what’s going on with me,” she said. “I don’t recognize myself. I’m sniping at my husband and son all the time; I’m always in my head worried about something. Everyone annoys me. I don’t return my friends’ calls or emails; I even got irritated with my mom on the phone last week. It really upset me when I did that.”
I asked Nancy to tell me more about what she didn’t recognize about herself and if she had any hunches about what was influencing these behavioral changes. She began to describe increasing feelings of annoyance:
“The past few months, I feel like I’ve been in a constant state of irritation with everyone. This is not me. I never get angry at people. I’ve always prided myself on having a mellow and understanding temperament. I can get along with anybody. My husband always praises me about how I’m such a good listener and that I’m so agreeable and easygoing. I’ve always thought of myself that way. Lately, I guess, especially with my son Tony and my mother, I find myself feeling disagreeable. It’s probably related to my son wanting to go away to France next year for his junior year abroad.”
“The world feels like it’s becoming such a dangerous place and I really worry about his going. My husband is ambivalent, so it feels like it’s up to me. I can’t stand the idea of him being so far away with everything that’s happening. I talked to my mom, who I was sure would understand because when I thought about taking a junior semester abroad she was really against it. She was anxious, and I didn’t go. So I thought she’d support me with Tony. But she didn’t, and I was shocked and angry. I never get angry at my mother. Now I’m this angry person and I feel so anxious. It’s scary not to recognize myself. I don’t like this new me. She’s unacceptable.”
Nancy described her new unknown self as a person who felt out of control with her feelings and at risk for getting into conflicts. She was clearly uncomfortable with her unfamiliar “not me” feelings and behaviors.
As we explored her relationship to the familiar agreeable, compliant, and understanding Nancy, we began to discover the old accommodating Nancy had also created some difficulties for her life:
“It’s hard to admit to myself that I depend so much on positive responses from my family and sometimes my friends. I always look outside of myself for reassurance that I’m doing the right thing or have the right idea. It’s the only way I can feel good about myself. It’s getting more difficult to always be so pleasing. But it’s terrifying to displease. I feel like such a bad person for not being in agreement with my mom and my son. But I have this new feeling of resentment—like I don’t want to give in. I really don’t want my son to go to France and I’m just not used to having different ideas from my family. It’s very confusing and I don’t feel like a good person.”
While Nancy was accustomed to always pleasing her family, it was frequently at the expense of allowing herself to be in contact with her own needs and wishes:
“I guess I haven’t had much experience allowing myself to know what I want or where I stand on most things. I suppose you could say I don’t have a mind of my own. Now it seems like all of a sudden I let myself have a wish for my son’s safety and then when I allowed myself to express it, I couldn’t stand that there was opposition. I felt horrible that I got angry, especially with my mother, who gets instantly hurt around anger. My son is also upset with me, and we usually manage to not be at odds with each other. He’s a good kid, so I don’t have to set a lot of rules for him. He’s like me. He doesn’t get angry and he does what his father and I say. He’s not really pushing back that much on the France thing, but it’s awful to disappoint him.”
Nancy and I have work to do. As we explore her memories from childhood through the present, she is seeing how her behavior and thinking is motivated by her desire to meet expectations of how she should be and to avoid disapproval:
“I can remember when I was a little girl, maybe as young as 4 or 5, I would get very scared when my mom seemed worried or annoyed. I somehow must have learned that I could change her feelings and make her happy. When I would see the look on her face that gave me that ‘uh oh’ feeling, I would hug her or start to sing You Are My Sunshine and she’d hug me back and then the look would go away.”
From earliest development, children develop feelings of security and connection when the mother’s responses are attuned and positive. If those responses, which ideally convey feelings of recognition, love, and positive attachment, are dependent on the child being in compliance with parental expectations, the child doesn’t feel safe and secure and can develop a fragile sense of self.
As we further explored how this dynamic played out in Nancy’s past and present, it became clear that, growing up, Nancy’s experiences of her mother and her “look” were a serious influence on Nancy’s emotional development. Moreover, Nancy’s sense of self was impacted by her mother’s need to have Nancy regulate her feelings when she became upset (angry, hurt, etc.). Nancy’s sense of self and her own feeling states became dependent on her mother’s affect remaining calm.
I asked Nancy to tell me more about how the “look” made her feel and why she thought she needed to make it go away. She told me:
“It’s probably the same now as when I was a kid. When that look spreads over her face, it seems that she disappears from me. When I think of it, even if I know it has nothing to do with me, it still feels as if I made it happen and I have to do something to make her feel better so she’ll come back to me. Even if it’s something else that upsets or hurts her, I can still feel like it’s my fault, that I’ve done something wrong to make her abandon me. I end up feeling like a worthless, horrible person.”
Nancy is not accustomed to finding herself in disagreement with her family members. This makes her confused and she questions her ideas and feelings that are different and/or in opposition to the opinions and desires of her significant others. At the same time, she increasingly understands her sense of self-worth and self-acceptance have been strongly tied to being fully in agreement with her family and that her compliance and surrender of her mind has been to avoid feelings of disapproval, guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, etc.
Now Nancy is increasingly feeling these feelings. In one session, her voice rose in anger:
“I want to have a mind of my own. I don’t want to feel at the mercy of others to determine what I think and feel. I don’t want to have to please others to avoid all those awful bad and intolerable feelings.”
From earliest development, children develop feelings of security and connection when the mother’s responses are attuned and positive. If those responses, which ideally convey feelings of recognition, love, and positive attachment, are dependent on the child being in compliance with parental expectations, the child doesn’t feel safe and secure and can develop a fragile sense of self. Without positive responses and feelings of value conveyed to the child by the parent, the development of self-acceptance and self-worth are impaired. This leaves the child in an anxious, unprotected state of not knowing what they want, who they are, and how to be in the world. It leaves the child dependent on the parent to define what they think and how they feel. When Nancy considered that she doesn’t have a mind of her own, she was expressing her awareness she has not developed an autonomous sense of who she is.
‘I’m Beginning to Have a Me’
Nancy has been working hard to overcome her resistance to tolerating those bad-person feeling states. She is better able to sit with disappointing or angering her significant others, and her guilt and shame are diminishing. As she feels and expresses more true self-feelings, she can see that while her mother and son aren’t always pleased with her and might withdraw their good feelings in the moment, they do emotionally return to the relationship able to express positive and loving feelings.
Nancy’s efforts are enabling her to develop a mind that knows what she wants. She is learning to tolerate negative responses from others and not take disapproval to mean her thoughts and feelings are unacceptable or that she has done something wrong. Smiling, Nancy told me:
“I am really beginning to know that it’s okay to want what I want no matter what anyone says. It’s getting easier to face opposition without being scared or feeling like a horrible person. I keep reminding myself: it’s just my ideas; no one can control my thoughts. I really like that they’re mine. I’m beginning to have a me.”
Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.
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