Generally, people experience a parent as either too involved or not involved enough. In the first case, the parent may seem controlling, overwhelming, or hovering. In the second case, a parent may seem indifferent, abandoning, or not present.
It is normal to develop mild defense mechanisms even with good parenting. These defenses are healthy when used consciously. However, they limit our choices when we react unconsciously or in an extreme way.
A child can develop defense mechanisms to the under-involved parent. Abandonment includes not only the indifference of the parent, but also environmental insufficiency, for instance, poverty, prejudice, or a wartime childhood.
Children tend to engage in magical thinking, which says to them that the world around them is a message about them.” If my mother neglects me, or I am poor and never have enough food, I must be unworthy and bad.” There are four typical responses to a sense of lack, the first two of which involve internalizing poor self-esteem.*
1. Self-sabbotage: Patterns of self-sabotage develop as a way to confirm poor self-esteem—that I am not worthy of success, happiness or good things happening. The child feels a certain comfort in the familiarity of continuing to fail.
2. Grandiosity: Some people over-compensate for an unconscious sense of poor self-esteem. They try to prove they are worthwhile by driving an expensive car, having a big house, achieving many milestones, and/or developing an impressive outer appearance. If all one’s effort is spent in these pursuits, little time is left for less showy and more personal fulfillment.
3. Serving the narcissist: A chronic sense of emptiness leads children to serve the narcissistic parents, who are stage-door mothers or hockey-team fathers. Even when the child makes the parent proud, there’s a feeling of lack in the relationship. The parent is simply unable to relate to the child other than to use his or her accomplishments to feed the parent’s narcissism. Even after growing up, the narcissist’s child experiences a sense of living someone else’s life.
4. Neediness: Through an inordinate search for reassurance or pats on the back the needy person seeks to feel worthwhile. The birth of addictions can occur as an attempt to manage anxiety by connection. For instance, excessive materialism, serial relationships, and distraction result from a longing to satiate. The longing never stops as the human spirit is never satisfied in these ways.
While our defense mechanisms originally served to help us survive or thrive in our childhood environment, as adults, reflexive responses disempower us. Once we recognize that a defense mechanism may imprison us, we can begin to think twice before acting and make new choices to live the life we desire.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
*Reference and recommended reading and seminars: James Hollis, PhD, Author and Senior Jungian Analyst