No matter what Jules brings to therapy—her dissatisfaction with work, her struggles in relationships, and especially her envy of others who seem focused and confident—she always reaches the same conclusion: “Something is wrong with me.”
“The problem,” the 29-year-old explained, as we began our last session, “is that I can’t pinpoint the cause. My parents loved me, took care of my basic needs, and I had no serious traumas. So, why do I feel like I don’t know who I am?”
Jules is not alone. Many of my clients believe that because their parents didn’t beat them or feed them table scraps, they must have been born broken. Most have felt this way as long as they can remember.
Often, it seems like they come to therapy seeking to find the fatal flaw so they can fix it, while simultaneously trying to convince me they are fundamentally defective. They’re initially disappointed when I refuse to either them or confirm their inherent unworthiness.
At the same time, they’re not entirely delusional. Something is wrong, or once was at some point—but not necessarily with them.
There is Always a Cause
Whether or not an adult can attach their pain to specific memories, the sense of deficiency can often be traced back to childhood.
Children are emotional sponges, absorbing information about who they are, and how the world works. They pick up their information from various sources: family, peers, teachers, and the media. They can tell if Mom and Dad are pleased or displeased with them, if other kids want to play with them, and if they are reflected in the shows they watch or books they read.
When a child receives praise and validation for their natural self-expression, they are more likely to feel like they are fundamentally okay, and that they belong in the world. But when their natural expression is ignored, or met with subtle or outright rejection, they assume something must be wrong with them.
This is even more acute for the 10 to 15 percent of children who, according to research, are born “highly sensitive.” These kids take in more sensory information than your average child and are highly attuned to their environments—sights, smells, noises, and especially the moods of people around them. With a heightened sense of awareness, they are often bright, creative, and emotionally attuned in ages with a great capacity for empathy, even at early.
The problem is that these intensely perceptive little ones are easily overwhelmed by all the information they pick up, including other people’s moods and reactions to them, and don’t have the adult brainpower and perspective to make sense of it. Consequently, they often have big feelings no one understands.
Subtle Relational Trauma
According to Elaine Aron, Ph.D., author of a series of books on Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), “It is primarily parenting that decides whether the expression of sensitivity will be an advantage or a source of anxiety.”
If parents are attentive, curious, and patient, taking the time to understand their children while and appreciating their sensitivity (as Glennon Doyle does in her best-selling memoir Untamed), these kids will likely feel confident about expressing their gifts, often artistically.
However, sometimes even generally loving parents don’t notice or pay enough attention to their highly sensitive children’s intricate inner worlds to help them make sense of their flood of impressions. As a result, these children draw false conclusions about their worth that go unchallenged, while their imaginative, compassionate nature remains unrecognized and unappreciated. This can lead such kids to grow up feeling alone and misunderstood, and without a solid identity.
Alternatively, some parents may feel disappointed and/or frustrated by their child’s sensitivity, which can sometimes manifest as shyness, fussiness, and high emotionality. In a society that values extroversion and assertiveness, parents may not like their quiet, timid child, and believe that something is wrong with them. Such messages, whether communicated directly or subtly, can be challenging for these young sponges with tightly-wired nervous systems. When they enter school, other kids may pick up on their lack of confidence, teasing or ignoring them, thus compounding their sense of inadequacy.
Regardless of whether or not a child is highly sensitive, children can feel whether their parent cares, likes them, or is truly interested in understanding them.
Jungian analyst Lisa Marchiano notes in an episode of the podcast This Jungian Life that she often asks clients, even those who felt loved, if they felt their parents them. Many are surprised by the question and the painful realization that no one took delight in them. Her co-host, Deborah C. Stewart, referred to this as “relational trauma.”
Part of the shame these people may feel is that the trauma remains nameless. “It’s like asking a fish, ‘how’s the water?’” Marchiano said. As these children become adults, they continue to feel inadequate and unsure of their identity, without exactly knowing why.
Healing by Witnessing and Appreciating
In most therapeutic modalities, therapists help clients make the connections between their self- esteem and the experiences of their childhood, while communicating acceptance and appreciation both verbally and non-verbally.
As an Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist, I help my clients give the love and attention they never received to their inner children, known as “exiles,” through a combination of interactive guided imagery and embodied mindfulness. By tenderly witnessing through adult eyes, my clients help their exiles make sense of their experiences and recognize their strengths so they can under-burden themselves from the beliefs that they are wrong and broken (read more about this process here.)
If they are not doing so already, I often encourage them to express themselves as much as possible through the creative or healing arts, as this often helps them see themselves more clearly, and receive that much-needed recognition by others for their unique perspectives that went unnoticed as children.
On June 28, 2002, I will offer a writing workshop entitled Big Feelings No One Understands, using IFS-inspired writing exercises to help participants make sense of their big feelings and cultivate love and compassion for the sensitive inner children underneath these emotions. I am also in the process of creating a psycho-educational group for Enneagram Type 4s, a group much reflection of this article describes.
In the meantime, I continue to work with Jules and others like her to understand and accept themselves, so they can liberate their lost sense of vitality and express their gifts.