This article will discuss how growing up with family dysfunction and/or trauma can influence or halt the growth of a person’s emotions. It will explore how this experience might hinder people in adult life and how arrested emotions can be freed. The article draws on the personal experience of a qualified counsellor currently working with clients who have experienced this in their lives and will outline strategies that have helped. All identifying information has been removed.
Just as drugs and alcohol can arrest emotional growth so can childhood trauma, abandonment, and/or family dysfunction. For many people, these experiences result in the person acting as they think they should, as opposed to developing an authentic sense of self.
A ‘false self’ is created as a way to stay safe and feel accepted when a person loses a sense of themselves. The ‘true self’ ceases to flourish and starts to wither like a flower without water. The good news is that this ‘true self’ never completely dies – it remains within you waiting to be reborn.
People who experience this halt of emotional growth continue to age physically but stop growing emotionally. They will often report uncomfortable feelings, for example, panic, feeling out of control, confusion, inability to cope or other emotional difficulties, especially when under stress at work or in a relationship. Many people identify these feelings as being ‘childlike’ or ‘immature’ and dealing with them in the long term can lead to anxiety or depression, for which no clear underlying reason may be apparent. Very often this reason is that their ‘true self’ is shouting to be healed.
Left untreated this situation can lead to the rise of a ‘false self’ who might look to fix these feelings by medicating with outside stimuli such as food, gambling, drugs, or activities like overwork. This behaviour can lead to a personal crisis, such as burning out, because, by using this type of coping strategy, relying on outside stimuli, the ‘false self’ is identified as helpful. This ease will inevitably be short-lived, leading to the person trying harder and harder to cope, ultimately leading to fatigue and defeat. Now out of answers, our ‘false self’ feels hopeless.
The ‘false self’ can come in many guises. As a counsellor, I have seen, through my work with clients, that there can be a huge difference between confidence and self-esteem; many people I see can seem confident on the outside but actually, have fractured self-esteem. They can be very confident in their job, for example, but inside feel unworthy of the position. Often these clients report feeling confused by their reality.
My work as a counsellor involves helping people see these internal conflicts as a result of their arrested development. When clients begin to explore these conflicts in therapy, they begin to realise that something inside of them has never felt good enough and the fractured self-esteem answers this perfectly. It is not uncommon for the ‘false self’ to have low self-esteem. I often use the metaphor of a sandbag with a hole in it to describe how difficult life can become when filled with people, jobs, partners, etc. who feed the esteem of the ‘false self’. Thus, whenever the ‘false self’ is without these stimuli the sandbag of unreal self-esteem runs out. Hence, this person is likely to become co-dependent since their esteem is in others and not themselves. Being alone is like a death to the ‘false self’ which can be ‘fixed’ by working harder to be more loveable or more useful. It is a destructive and painful way to live and leads to anxiety, stress, depression, and unfortunately even suicidal ideation in the long run.
When I am working with clients who have the above issues it is imperative for them to build up their natural and genuine self-esteem. We do this work together, for example, by challenging or just watching the inner critic; we may even find it helpful to journey back and explore where this inner critic might have originated. While doing this we can also explore their family history and examine their relationship with their parents or siblings. We can assess the messages they heard growing up and compare these with the inner critic to see where they might be connected.
Through this process, the client begins to see that they are not at fault or wrong (relieving some of the causes of shame and guilt they continue to carry) and how this feeds the inner critic. For example, this helps the person understand how their protective ‘false self’ has held back the growth of the ‘true self’.
This work is only ever carried out in the supportive environment of the counselling room. It is vital that the client feels safe before exploring their vulnerabilities and the ‘true self’ can begin to emerge.