We Americans usually think of freedom as a good thing.
In fact, we worship freedom and the self-expression that springs from it, in all its flourish and variety. It's the bedrock of American culture, the notion upon which we fasten our national identity and which gives rise to the manifold streams of American dialog purveyed by and reflected in a free media.
As public policy, we are willing to die for our freedoms, if necessary. In private though, many of us are not so freedom loving.
Many people feel uncomfortable without some person or routine to monitor and control them. Without these threads of obligation and compulsion to steady them, they would be flooded with anxiety. We are inherently insecure without our attachments, fragile creatures buffeted by fortune and misfortune.
Fears of engulfment or abandonment by others drive our daily lives. A desire not to feel fear may cause us to live from what might be called a "false self," one contrived to protect us from bad feelings, especially fear.
Under stress, the false self will reinforce its defenses: denial, rationalization, reaction-formation, repression and displacement. Pressed harder, the false self ultimately crumbles.
A person operating from the real self manages both routine and crisis without over-reaction, paralysis or defeat. The real self doesn't have much protection. It isn't armored like the false self. But it's much more resilient. Crisis brings growth, not panic or defensive consolidation. Abandonment and engulfment fears are faced consciously and relationships are handled with awareness, flexibility and choice.
James F. Masterson, a leading world authority on the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders, all of which involve a false self, offers a list of 10 capacities of the real self that help pull us through problems and setbacks:
* The capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply. The real self does not block feelings, is not afraid of them and can express them as well. It recognizes their transience and lives through them, willingly.
* The capacity to expect appropriate entitlements. The real self expects to be able to accomplish what is necessary and reap deserved benefits through
effort and learning.
* The capacity for self-activation and assertion. The real self can identify and assert its own wishes, dreams and goals, and will take steps to realize them even without social support.
* Acknowledgment of self-esteem. The real self recognizes its accomplishments and gains confidence and self-respect through them, even without validation from others.
* The capacity to soothe painful feelings. The real self does not wallow in misery. It will devise means to minimize and soothe bad feelings without denying them.
* The capacity to make
and stick to commitments. The real self will not abandon its goals and relationships while it remains clear they are in its best interests. This does not preclude appropriate changes when indicated.
* Creativity. The real self
has the ability to replace old, familiar patterns of
living and problem-solving with new and better ones.
* Intimacy. The real self expresses itself fully and honestly in a close relationship with minimal fear of engulfment or abandonment. If the relationship ends, the self may feel hurt and lonely, but does not avoid another relationship out of fear.
* The ability to be alone without feeling abandoned. The real self is not desperate for company and will not seek meaningless and self-destructive relationships in order to avoid being alone.
* Continuity of self. The real self is aware that there is a core self that persists, unchanged, through space and time.
Another way to describe living from the real self might be "playing with a full deck." I'm afraid it's not the majority among us who are in full possession of their faculties. Many of us are compromised in one way or another. I hope it's not you, but if it is, then I hope this list of capacities offers you some idea of what is possible if you decide to live fully. As an adult, you can choose to claim your birthright and live fully. All you need do is remove the obstacles standing in your way.
What are these obstacles, where do they come from and how does one get rid of them? In short, they are learned attitudes that stand in the way of expressing the real self. They come from your childhood experiences, for the most part, although some may come from later experiences, too. You've been programmed by your past.
What has been programmed can be re-programmed. And who is the re-programmer? Why it's you, yourself. Now that you're grown, you can choose how much of your self you want to claim.
Didn't know that? Well, now you do. No one else has the power to stop you unless you give it to them.
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.