A primary responsibility of a healthy family system is to help develop children into capable human beings. Two hallmark expressions of the emotionally and spiritually capable human being are the ability to work and to love, i.e., to be able to live fully in relationship with others and God. To work and love successfully requires the development of resilience and empathy, and the capacity to receive and give.
Though somewhat oversimplified, healthy development occurs when the child reaches out towards the parent(s) for relational connection with their primary needs of belonging and mattering, and the parent reaches back with affirmation and confirmation. Affirmation and confirmation communicate, “yes” to the child. The “yes” connection grows a sense of security in the child, trust in the child’s own internal experience and expression, and confidence in the child being who they are created to be and become. A natural sense of belonging and mattering by being WHO one is created to be grows, rather than the disruption of becoming WHAT one should be like if they are to belong and matter. WHO is the presence of one’s self. WHAT is the performance for a reward.
The child comes into the world with the following inborn response abilities. These response abilities are essential freedoms that help us belong and matter in healthy ways when they are affirmed and confirmed:
To say what I see
To say what I feel
To say what I need
To imagine myself in a positive future
To trust that others care about these expressions
When the parent affirms and confirms these freedoms consistently, though imperfectly, of course, the child develops trust and confidence in how they are created and trust in others around them. The growing child, then, slowly develops capabilities of transferring the effects to the larger relational world.
They trust their internal feeling and need responses. They then grow in their developing ability to express their own thoughts, and their behavior matches their expression. They become capable of responding to their environment authentically and transparently, which allows one’s physiology to maintain equilibrium—minimizing anxiety. They also identify themselves as spiritually confident, at root a sense of experiencing one’s self as connected to and having a part in the “bigness” of life. They trust themselves and they can trust others. They grow into participating fully in work and love in authentic and integrated ways.
This condition in the psychological world is called congruence. In the regular world, this outcome is called normal. The individual is fully functioning emotionally, spiritually, cognitively, behaviorally, physiologically, and environmentally with others. They have a sense of connection to themselves, others, and God, within the context of an ever-changing daily life. This home base or touchstone beginning becomes internalized, or trusted. The person can successfully have one’s own identity with others around them, have boundaries, and have empathy about others. They are capable of full participation in life on life’s terms.
However, if a child is being raised in a system that cannot consistently tolerate authentic and transparent expressions of feelings and needs, a pattern can develop that disrupts healthy development. If the five inborn freedoms are denied, authenticity and transparency can be sacrificed. The true self can move towards a false self. The child must belong and matter for survival’s sake, rather than for the sake of thriving. Vulnerability that is required to remain true to how one is created can become shameful.
Instead of saying what I see and feel, I become doubtful and vigilant about trusting my self with “the other.” Instead of the normal response of my own feelings, I begin to look for the “right” or acceptable feeling. Instead of expressing my truthful thoughts, I wonder what others will think of me before I offer what I think. I begin to use my thoughts to hide my feelings and needs, rather than use my thoughts to express the truth about my internal experience.
Instead of behave meaning to “have my being,” or be myself, it begins to mean react in a specific manner. I belong and matter through the approval of whoever requires that I react (emphasis on acting) in a certain way. I become reactive rather than responsive. My environment becomes an experience fraught with danger, or the threat of not belonging or mattering to essential people unless I perform in a specific fashion. As a result and as a form of protection, my physiology becomes disrupted by anxiety—the experience of being prepared for fleeing, fighting, freezing, or appeasing. And spirituality becomes the religion of performing for acceptance and significance, rather than the sense of being relationally connected to the “bigness” of life and God.
I live in a condition of vigilance and performance, driven to control my environment so that I can quell my anxiety. This condition is the same way a thermostat operates. I act by reactions to the environmental “temperature.” In the psychological world, this condition is called external locus of control. In the regular world, it is called, “I can’t trust myself with others, and I really can’t trust others.” I have lost (temporarily) my capacity to live authentically and transparently. Work becomes the labor of escaping being in need, rather than the need to participate in the fullest expression of myself. Love becomes something I merit through performance, instead of a gift I receive and offer.
I live in denial of the five freedoms, which disconnects me from living authentically in relationship with others and God:
I don’t say what I see, so that
I will not have to discover or expose what I feel, so that
I don’t end up being in need.
I don’t talk about imagining my self in a full life, but concentrate on survival and success as something that protects me more than it expresses who I am.
And finally, I don’t trust that others care about what I feel, need, imagine, or talk about related to my true self.
This “thermostatic” reaction places a person in a condition of hyper-vigilance, reactivity, identity and boundary confusion, distrust and doubt of self and others, i.e., a condition of being driven by anxiety. In other words, my life becomes reactions to anxiety, originating in not being affirmed in my need to belong and matter as I am created.
Because I do not find acceptance as I am, I need to hide who I am through denial. I must attempt to become someone else because my need to belong and matter is an unalterable, inherent, compelling force. Like the need to breathe.
Anxiety becomes a driver that hides the vulnerability of the true self. At the same time, it pushes a person to belong and matter without exposing a person to the vulnerability that comes with our need to belong and matter.
Anxiety spurs a person to seek the approval of others so as not to be rejected; and/or anxiety spurs a person to become powerful enough to do the rejecting; and/or anxiety moves a person towards depression—becoming apathetic enough to find the foregone conclusion of being rejected tolerable. The reactivity is a double-edged sword. One side of the blade defends us; the other side harms us. The protection anxiety affords us also isolates us from being connected to the true self, and the true self to others and God.
The good news is that I can reawaken from denial, which means being blind to how I am created. Sight can return. I can return to seeing how I am made and move again towards becoming who I am created to become. This process begins with feelings. Feelings open the door to the rest of our selves. We were born feeling first, long before we had thought or consciousness of being. And we are created to continue feeling.
We must go back to the beginning, and the beginning, our feelings, still resides within us. With the help of others, we do two things. We begin to lay claim to what we see, and what we feel about what we see. We lay claim to what we feel, and how those feelings affect what we see.
We test the accuracy of our thoughts about both through the developing trust of others. Those others must be people who can assist us carefully and thoughtfully to begin to trust our internal response (not reaction) to our pasts in the present. As we regain two of the five freedoms, to see what I see and to feel what I feel, we begin a return to the third freedom of needing what we need.
We then begin to imagine a future that is full. Our thoughts return to expressing the truth of who we are and what we dream. We also can tolerate feedback without being ashamed, because we trust that we belong and matter with the people offering the feedback.
We rejoin our internal selves, and become congruent; our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors match. Our environment is a place in which we find true friends and can accurately identify those who are not. Our physiology follows suit with the congruence of the true self. And our spirituality reconnects to the “bigness” of life and the God who made it.
The breaking of denial sadly often begins through significant dissatisfaction with how our lives are working out or through despair. So often, it is our pain that will not leave us that can become the blessings we eventually have great confidence in.
We are created as emotional and spiritual creatures, created to have full life. We do so through relationship with our selves, others, and God. We are created to grow and bear fruit through relationship. Our work and our love do both. Denial about who we are made to be can stop us from living fully what we are created to do. I once was blind, but now I see brings living back to life.
What I live with, I learn.
What I learn, I practice.
What I practice, I become.
What I become has consequences.
The “wheel” presents the six characteristics that, when allowed to integrate, let a human being experience living in their world fully. Beginning with the feeling section, human beings develop cognitively, behaviorally, spiritually and physiologically related to their experience of the environment, composed mainly of other people. If the “predesigned” emotional and spiritual development is given good enough care, we grow into people who can live the 6 characteristics of this wheel in an integrated way.
Chip Dodd, PhD, is a teacher, trainer, author, and counselor, who has been working in the field of recovery and redemption for over 30 years. With his clinical experience, love of storytelling, and passion for living fully, Chip developed a way of seeing and expressing one’s internal experience called the Spiritual Root System™. To read more from Chip, visit his blog, or check out his books.