It’s difficult to become who you are when beset by survival fears

Know thyself.
Be your best self!
Confident people have high self-esteem.
Egotistical people are self-centered.
Self-awareness is a sign of humility and introspection.
Magical thinking is self-defeating.

The list of proclamations pertaining to the self can go on into perpetuity, but what exactly is a ‘self’?

According to the American Psychological association (APA) a self is,“the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental and physical.”

Based on this description, what holistically defines the self are all the properties and traits which comprise a fully formed human. This includes the experiential level in which sensorial consciousness informs us of what we perceive. Known as interoception, who we are and what we feel is consistently prompted by the seamless interaction of bodily signals and the environment.

Of course, brain-body interactions and sensory channels encompass just a part of the story. It is not reflective of the entire picture. Beyond being finely tuned synergetic machines interacting with environmental and relational cues, people have unique temperaments and constitutions. In fact, an Ancient Greek theory posited that we could be neatly classified as sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic.

Arguably, human nature is much more variable than the four personality types. Likewise, as much as there is diversity there is also universality. As a species, we are all hardwired to need connection and create meaning. On the whole, we all have the potential for aggression as well as the propensity for compassion.

Hence, as neurobiology attests we are not born tabula rasa. We enter this world with a biological and evolutionary inheritance of innate proclivities and genetic specifications. Additionally, from an esoteric perspective, it’s believed that all beings possess a unique inviolate spiritual essence referred to as a soul.

What we acquire through our engagement with our surroundings and how we adapt largely determines how inherent multi-dimensional traits mature.

Since it’s evident that the interaction of nature and nurture shapes our inner and outer being, it’s crucial to consider what happens when the developmental processes that foster selfhood are disrupted.

This is particularly relevant to my being a survivor and a clinician of complex trauma. Personally and professionally I can attest that one’s natural capacities and potentials are stymied by the dysregulation and persistent experience of threat caused by chronic parental abuse and neglect.

Under these conditions, healthy self-identity formation and integration are derailed. Instead, diffusion and fragmentation occur. Feeling broken and damaged and consumed by nihilistic despair, the victim of complex trauma loathes the tenuous self that is hijacked by fear.

Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily painful way to live.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, best known for introducing self-psychology regarded the self as a coherent and adaptably stable experience of individuality. Kohut suggested that accruing a cohesive sense of self requires the gratification of narcissistic needs. Most vital is satisfying the need for empathic parental mirroring.

The conveyance of this critical relational gesture insists on a reliable caregiver capable of providing a loving empathic gaze of admiration. This encourages the child to internalize a positive sense of worth and achieve healthy narcissistic development.

Being consistently and empathically seen during the formative years by those one is unconditionally dependent on, positively shapes self regard.

According to Kohut, it is empathic attunement that fosters a self that is narcissistically healthy and resilient. This is the vehicle for the sort of object relations which ensures an effective understanding of safety and attachment. It is from the absorbing or introjecting of this primary connection to significant caregivers, that a self is forged.

However, those whose lives are plagued by abusive child-rearing practices, ruptured bonds, and relational trauma, incur difficulties with trust and other developmental failures. Furthermore, the repetitive intrusion of terror and helplessness experienced by the abused and neglected child fragments the overall personality, causing one to feel unreal and disembodied.

To survive, the child must resort to primitive psychological defenses. Denying, walling off, excusing, or minimizing the abuse is necessary to preserve the primary bond at any cost. The child simply cannot psychologically face that they don’t matter to the person they need for their very survival.

The intractable biological drive for maternal bonding makes it necessary for the child to disavow the danger and stand by their parental tormentor. Concomitant to this coping mechanism, dissociation kicks in to protect the central organizing ego from breaking from reality and disintegrating into psychosis.

The pinnacle of this tragedy is that the child must conclude it is their inherent ‘badness’ that is responsible for the abuse. Paradoxically this stance defends against unbearable powerlessness as it offers an illusion of control. To not assume blame would psychologically annihilate the child’s already fragile and incoherent self.

Nonetheless, these defenses cannot prevent traumatic events from being re-experienced in an intrusive-repetitive fashion. That being the case, distressing themes are habitually re-enacted, nightmares and flashbacks persist and an omnipresent state of looming danger seizes control.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

In retrospect, it is blatantly clear how the lack of a sane, dependable parental introject set in motion a trajectory of fear and insulation which distanced me from my vitality. My worldview was skewed by danger and relentless suffering that induced constriction. From this place, I could not embody a unified experience of selfhood, as so much was disowned in the service of survival.

As addiction and trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté wisely imparted, “The loss of self is the essence of trauma.”

In those rare moments when I wasn’t numb or flooded by unbearable loneliness and a hypervigilant sympathetic nervous system, I caught tenuous glimpses of myself. It was in those moments, although outraged by the raw deal I was handed with a schizophrenic mother and a narcissistically malignant father, I believed there was someone I was meant to become.

Finding her would be a formidable task.

After all, the self that is unwanted and unknown is hated and viewed with contempt by the one challenged to reclaim that which she was robbed of. This confounding paradox called for a reframing of what I loathed. Before I could repair and discover who I am, I had to confront my identification with internalized abuse so as to dismantle what I was not. That prolonged course of action encouraged my quest toward consciousness and self-realization.

Referred to by psychiatrist and founder of Analytical Psychology Carl Jung as the quest towards individuation, one is challenged to reintegrate lost aspects of the self by first cultivating and strengthening the ego, and then going beyond the ego to the intrinsic essence of the Greater Personality.

Jung imparted, “The self is not only the centre but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.”

Hence, although reclaiming safety and dignity were probably the most critical psychological tasks in the cultivation of a cohesive self, recapturing the wondrous and spiritual facets of myself was just as essential to my pursuit of wholeness. However, moving from the psychic to the more abstract realms of synthesizing and merging personal and collective consciousness revealed obstacles.

I was led to acknowledge how over-identifying with being a victim of trauma kept me isolated from the larger world. In fact, in many ways, my survivor persona became a substitutionary front for dignity and worth. If I was to fully know myself apart from my suffering then it was essential to cultivate relationships that lived outside of that narrative.

Just as the absence of human love buries the self, it’s the presence of love which resurrects it.

With that understanding guiding me my growth and engagement with life and with myself have deepened. By the same token, having this as a foundational guideline in my clinical work with those who possess the mettle and the willingness to plumb the depths, intensifies their desire to reclaim the Self that lost its way. Above all, it brings the quest full circle knowing that by becoming the mirrors we were denied, the steadfast self can now extend itself to those who are desperately seeking an admiring reflection.