On not knowing who you are

As children we accept at face-value the actions and reactions of those around us, those closest to us.

What does “at face-value” mean in this context?

It means we don’t consider the hidden motives, considerations, fears, and desires that might be influencing other people’s behaviour.

It’s no surprise that children don’t try to peer inside other people’s minds. Many adults don’t even try, and even trained psychologists can get it wrong, or be ineffectual.

Besides, we tend to assume that other people are like us on the inside. Young children are quite straightforward — for a child, face value is the only value.

The problem with this ‘face-value’ approach is that most adults are not straightforward. So, children are raised in an environment full of disparity.

There’s a disparity of information between the child who takes everything at face-value, and the adult who knows that life is complicated and long and everything has a backstory.

There’s a disparity of power, where the child is dependent on the adult for its very survival.

There’s a disparity of psychological formation, where the events and relationships the child experiences will inform its future with greater impact than the already mostly-formed adult.

In this disparate environment the child makes a serious mistake — it accepts the actions, reactions, and treatment of others as a true and honest reflection of their own existence, nature, and qualities.

We know ourselves primarily through our relationships, but children lack the experience and insight to understand that those relationships are imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed sources of knowledge.

It’s like trying to work out what your face looks like without a proper mirror to help you. So you look at whatever reflective surfaces you can find.

Other people can be very imperfect, very limited reflective surfaces. From them we try to piece together a self-image. But if we don’t know that these reflections are so imperfect, the self-image we infer from them will be horribly distorted.

Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are often said to be damaged by their up-bringing, and in a sense that is true. But it’s important to also recognise the nature of that damage.

A significant portion of the damage is contained in a distorted self-image, inferred from a face-value perspective of their formative relationships.

Why is this damaging?

Because if the people closest to you — the ones who know you best — treat you badly, then the face-value explanation is that you don’t deserve any better than this bad treatment.

If the people closest to you betray, humiliate, threaten, or harm you, then either there’s something wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with you.

The truth is that there’s something wrong with them, but children lack the knowledge and experience to understand this. They take the other option by default, thinking that they must somehow deserve, or even inspire such awful treatment.

Imagine how awful that must be: to feel that the people who know you, the people you depend on, the only ones you can depend on, react with displeasure, anger, envy, ridicule, neglect, or a hundred other foul responses to you; and to have no other way to explain it than to conclude that these must be honest, authentic responses to who you really are.

The truth though, is that children do not inspire such responses from healthy, happy, sane people. Generation after generation act out their own damaged formation on their children, and the dysfunction is passed down like a curse, like original sin.

The fact is that most of us don’t really know who we are, because our self-image is inferred from our relationships with others, with the childhood assumption that the feedback we receive from others is honest and authentic.

It’s not.

People don’t really know you. And if your self-image is formed from their flawed and selfish responses to you, then you don’t really know yourself either.

Granted, there are moments of real knowledge and real insight and authentic relationship, but that doesn’t mean the whole can be taken at face-value, especially where there is abuse, neglect, and the kind of dysfunction we might only recognise as mature adults.

I think this is where the desire to know our real self, our inner self comes from. It’s a desire to break from the conventions and continuity that has shaped our false self.

Whether we intend it or not, this desire seems to lead to the deeper self-reflection of the mystics, sages, and saints. The people who have realised the falseness of their conditioned, inauthentic self-image and gone looking for whatever truth lies beneath it.

Incidentally, this is why orthodox Christianity teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, kept immune from it. So pervasive is the effect of our inherited dysfunction that it required divine intervention to preserve a single human from it.

In this context, it implies Mary’s relationship with God preserved her from a psychological formation corrupted in untold ways by the defects of her own parents. Original sin is more than just bad parental modelling, but the two are intimately related in light of our relationship with God.

These ideas — inherited dysfunction, a false self, a true self, an unfulfilled relationship with God — put into context the need to be “born again” in the model of Christ. In that sense, the symbolism of the incarnation — God born as a child in the humility of a stable — represents the divine born in us.

We hear of being “born again in Christ” so much from a particular brand of Protestant culture, but the mystical tradition speaks of Christ being born in us. As Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan mystic and poet wrote:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.”

 

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