Reclaiming and Embracing Your True Self

Recently, I witnessed the start of a dog fight that turned into a human fight. A large dog and a small dog met each other on a busy sidewalk. The large dog aggressively jumped on and pinned the small dog who was terrified, as were its owners.  After the dogs’ owners separated them, they started to yell at each other.  Instead of apologizing, the owner of the large dog yelled angrily that her dog is the friendliest dog in the world and has never bitten anyone, ever.  She could not accept that her dog was the aggressor in this situation, because that went against her perception of her dog as friendly, so she lashed out at the people who reacted to her dog as unfriendly.  They were like the mirror telling the evil stepmother that she wasn’t the fairest of them all, so she attacked them for holding up the mirror.

In a similar way, many people are blind to the parts of themselves that don’t fit their idea of who they are.  The more attached a person gets to being a certain type of human, the more threatening any evidence to the contrary can feel.  A person who is overly attached to the idea that they are kind might lash out at someone who tells them that their behavior has been hurtful.  Someone who sees themselves as the smartest one in the room feels threatened when someone points out their lack of knowledge on a subject they believe they are the expert on.  A person whose morals are their identity can’t accept the possibility that their behavior or urges are less than moral.

The more a person is attached to an identity based on a value, the more threatened they feel when someone holds up the mirror that reflects that they also embody the opposite of that value and everything in between.  Like the woman with the “friendly” dog, they might lash out.  The “kind” person might attack someone who has pointed out their hurtful behavior: making excuses, blaming the person who they’ve hurt, or saying something along the lines of “I’m a good person.”  The person who identifies as smart might attack their perceived opponent’s intelligence, or double-down in defending a false premise, just to win the argument so that their self-image stays intact.  The person who identifies with their morals might change the subject or blame the person they’ve sinned against, while their own behavior becomes more unconscious and extreme.

All of this might seem obvious to someone whose own sense of self is intact and who doesn’t rely on someone outside of themselves for validation of their identity.  To a child, a person like this is dangerous, whether it is a parent, adult relative, teacher, religious leader, babysitter, or any adult they look to for guidance.  Imagine the dog owner who is so attached to the idea that her dog is harmless and friendly that she ignores any behavior that doesn’t fit this image.  She lashes out at anyone who points out her dog’s aggressive tendencies, and the aggression goes unchecked because she refuses to see it.  Now, imagine that a small child comes rushing up to pet this “friendly” dog, who is startled by the child and attacks.  The child gets injured, and this dog’s owner, who still can’t accept that her dog is aggressive, lashes out and blames the child for running up to her dog.  Not only is this child bleeding and in pain, but is now being told that they brought this injury onto themselves and that they should be ashamed for forcing this friendly dog to bite them.

Now picture a person who is attached to their own image in this extreme way, and imagine what happens when a child enter their lives.  They’ve already lashed out at and cut off the adults who’ve pointed out their blind spots, so the behaviors they are blind to continue to run rampant and unchecked.  What happens if someone like this becomes a parent,  teacher, religious leader, or any sort of caregiver to children?  Children don’t begin life swallowing their feelings or ignoring injustices or pretending that something that is true is false.  They come into this world as raw creatures holding big, bullshit-free mirrors.  To the person who has been manipulating the outside world to reflect to them what they want to believe about themselves, a child’s true self feels like a dangerous threat.  Instead of accepting that child’s raw truth, this person is going to attack that child any time their truthful self holds up the mirror.  The “kind” parent blames their child for any unkind behavior this child complains about; the “smart” teacher humiliates the child who points out their error; the “moral” leader condemns the child who triggers their immoral urges that they can’t accept as their own.  The child in all these scenarios learns that their pain is their own fault, that being their true self is dangerous, so then they warp themselves into whoever their adult figures need them to be.  This child might grow up so attached to their own warped self-image that got them through childhood intact, that they now lash out at anyone who threatens that image, and the vicious cycle continues.

Anyone who grew up in this way learned that being their true self was dangerous or threatening to an adult in charge.  If this sounds like you, then you learned to bury your true self to suit the needs of the grown-ups’ fragile self-images.  This woman with the dog might have survived childhood by being the friendly girl who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and now she’s broadened this self-image to include her dog.  Maybe you are the person who demeans people as unintelligent because you were taught that being smart was more important than being loved.  Perhaps you are the person who can’t accept that you have urges that go against your morals, and maybe you were violated by someone who blamed you when they acted on you with their own urges they were blind to.  As an adult, you can break the cycle.

The first step in breaking the cycle is to become aware that you are trapped in a cycle to begin with.  You might notice that many of your relationships seem to end in the same way, because something in yourself feels unchangeable.  You might notice that you viciously judge certain behaviors in others that you can’t imagine doing yourself.  It’s possible that you know exactly what it is you were expected to be as a child but you just can’t seem to muster up the courage to be anything else.  This awareness is the beginning.  Know that changing this pattern might be terrifying, and understand that you can’t do this work alone.  Start to build your resources before you dive in.  A good therapist whose self-image is intact is worth their weight in gold.  Friends and or family who accept themselves, warts and all, are vital allies because they are more likely to accept your warts, too.  Support groups and communities built around common healthy interests can be incredible.  Literature is abundant in this topic, so reading up can shed immense light on the work you do to heal.  Keeping a journal that no one can see helps you express unadulterated thoughts and explore parts of yourself without the threat of judgment or punishment.  Add these all together and you are ready to escape the cycle that keeps you locked in place, and begin to walk the path to freedom.

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