Sacrificing Authenticity for Attachment: The Adaptive Survival Responses of Children and Their Influence on Future Relationships

Sacrificing Authenticity for Attachment: The Adaptive Survival Responses of Children and Their Influence on Future Relationships

“If our environment cannot support our gut feelings and our emotions, then the child, in order to ‘belong’ and ‘fit in’ will automatically, unwittingly and unconsciously, suppress their emotions and their connections to themselves, for the sake of staying connected to the nurturing environment, without which the child cannot survive. A lot of children are in this dilemma – ‘can I feel and express what I feel or do I have to suppress that in order to be acceptable, to be a good kid, to be a nice kid?’” ~ Dr. Gabor Mate

As children, we learn to sacrifice authenticity for connection. Done mostly unconsciously, our body’s intelligence recognizes that if we are our full, vibrant self, we’ll lose the attachment with our parents. We may lose any semblance of a relationship at all.

Like all mammals, humans are wired for attachment and will do whatever it takes to experience it. Our sense of self, our sense of life, depends on it. When faced with a situation where being authentic is unsafe, we appease our parents’ expectations of how we should be. Their preferences of attitude and behavior trump our instinctive impulse to be honest, expressive, silly, imaginative, etc.—to be the wild, free human being children so naturally are.

Subtle agreements are made with our parents—if I give up myself, you’ll love me; if I hide, do what’s “right”, fit in, not rock the boat, our relationship will stay intact and I’ll be safe.

Time and again, our parent’s expectations and our biological need for proximity overpower our basic birthright and natural impulse to be ourselves.

Tuning into what we think our parents want us to be, and then living that out, is an adaptive survival response. With the help of our built-in survival intelligence, we be and do according to the environmental demands. If we don’t adapt, if we choose authenticity over attachment and fight back, we can be seen as disruptive, needy, selfish, unreasonable, etc. And we can be emotionally or even physically threatened.

You may remember a time you were confronted by a parent; let’s say your dad. Standing at the door of your bedroom, he had cold, stern eyes and you knew you were going to get a talking to. But you also knew that you didn’t do anything wrong, or that his reactions tended to be disproportionate to your “misbehavior”. By the intensity of his sheer presence, you had little choice but to stay in the uncomfortable conversation, when really, you wanted to run. You had words to say, your side of things. You knew the truth of the matter. But, in his familiar angry impatience, he would not hear them. Trembling with anxiety, overwhelm, anger or sadness, and keeping it all in check, you were forced, once again, to give up your feelings, needs and voice for his unwavering authority. You had to give up your authenticity to remain in some semblance of connection. To get through to the other side of the tension. To remain safe.

In this situation, and many other similar ones, there is pain either way for the child. Either they sacrifice their authenticity or they walk away and sacrifice the approval and relationship. There is hurt from not being able to safely and fully express their inner truth, and there is pain from not being able to connect with their father who they want so badly to love them. There is anger and shame from having to suppress what’s real inside to appease their father, from having to stay in a conversation that does not feel safe, supportive, let alone mutual. But there would also be suffering if the child disregarded the relationship and tried to storm out.

Some kids have the courage to fight back, to fight for their life—their worth, dignity, right to be expressed. Some eventually leave. They leave for an hour, a day, and sometimes forever. Short-term departures may take them to a tree fort or down by the river, sacred ground upon which they can rest in their true nature, hear the stirrings of their heart, if only for a brief while. Risking making their parents upset, they temporarily sacrifice the relationship with their parents—their approval—for self-care.

But because kids still need their parents, especially young ones, most eventually return home to face the consequences of choosing themselves.

Despite the pressures of parental expectations and lack of safety in the home, certain children have the presence of mind to not deny their intuition, their truth. Faced with neglect, confrontation or even abuse from their parents, they manage to hold onto the faint voice within that says, “Stay strong”; “Something isn’t quite right here”; “Trust what you know”. Their resilience and inner knowing is that strong. Their spirit isn’t completely repressible.

A few people have told me that when they were young, they felt like they had an angel speaking to them, a presence that was protecting and guiding them. It would come at night or in their sleep, in moments when they felt most alone or scared. This presence informed them not to voice certain things to their parents, for it would upset them; that it was best to keep their thoughts and feelings inside, secretly sealed in their heart, until a future time when their truth could safely come out. These people, when young, managed to hold onto some flickers of inner truth while also remaining hidden from their parents; to be calculating and go through the motions of pleasing their parents while not completely losing their inner flame.

For many, if not most children, however, that voice, that inner fire, loses its power over time. It gets overcome and progressively shrouded by growing layers of fear and trauma and beliefs such as “I’m not worthy”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not lovable.”

Indeed, there is a tremendous impact on a growing child’s neurophysiology and identity if they are forced to sacrifice their authenticity, again and again, in their formative years and beyond. And when we take a clear and honest look at how much children choose attachment over authenticity, at home, school, and elsewhere, we can more fully understand why so many suffer with mental illness. As Dr. Gabor Mate states in this presentation, “When our attachment needs are not met, this is the source of all pathology, whether physical or mental.”

Generations of projection and “normal” 
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~ Carl Jung

As I’ve written about extensively in other articles (see here and here), what parents (and schoolteachers) cannot tolerate in children is often what they learned to suppress during their own childhood. What they denied within as an adaptive survival response they now “project” onto the young ones before them.

When they were children, our parents likely learned some combination of: “anger is inappropriate”; tears are a sign of weakness; “don’t be silly”; deny your dreams for “reality”; “grow up”;  be “good”; do things “right”; “suck it up”; “be responsible”; please; prove; accommodate. They learned to survive at the cost of who they really were. They learned to survive because going back in time living was less about thriving and more about coping, getting by.

It’s safe to say that our parents, their parents, and so on, had to dim their vibrancy to please their primary attachment figures and satisfy family, institutional or cultural norms. The collective ethos would have had an aversion to people being a “tall poppy”—to standing out mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually; to being unique, a trailblazer, a wildly imaginative soul—much more than today’s societal aversion. And so to cope and survive, our ancestors adapted, and they were rewarded for it. Parental and societal approval incentivized them with false ideas of belonging. And with most institutions, such as church, government and education, built largely on blind conformity and standardized compliance, it was difficult, if not impossible, for our ancestors to not take the bait. Unwittingly, they “sold their soul to the devil”—they became pleasers at the cost of their authentic feelings, needs, desires and voice. Attachment trumped authenticity. The relational aspect of fitting into society, of blending with the flock, the ethos of family, institution and culture, became the approved and “normal” way.

Despite advancements in consciousness, we still see plenty of evidence of this today. Just consider: How willingly do parents support their teenager’s unconventional, artistic dreams? How often do teachers follow a child’s lead? How much do we still expect children to bend to authority at home, school, church and elsewhere? How often do adults bristle at the sight of a kid being a tall, self-governing poppy?

Back to our ancestors, their adaptive survival response to obey and fit in, when acted upon enough, became a well-worn identity of pleaser. Coupled with approval from family, institution and culture, the need to please motivated our ancestors to achieve through, say, high marks in school, being “good”, or performing in sports or debate. It compelled them to acquiesce to traditions that they, on some level, knew were deeply flawed.

Pleasing, not standing out too much, and proving themselves as worthy, was forged into their neurology. As they grew older, this wiring manifested choices and lifestyles that reinforced their conditioning and the continued denial of their true nature even more. It was a vicious loop, one that fortified the longstanding collective ethos built on superficial ideas of belonging.

It’s worth wondering: how much of culture is just this—a collection of fear-based beliefs and adaptive survival identities trying to fit in? How much of our societal systems is a collective pathology based on unresolved survival responses? 

How much do people actually know where their choices come from? Who is choosing? Their authentic self or the adaptation?

Aside from the rebellious ones, the rare thought-leaders, the trouble-makers or revolutionists, our ancestors mostly lived with an external locus of control—making sense of themselves and the world based on outer influences versus intrinsically defined thoughts and feelings (internal locus of control). Without a strong enough core of “inner rightness” or integrity, without the courage to stand tall and speak boldly as the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mark Twain did, they eventually would have succumbed to a hollowness inside that nothing could fill.  

But because almost everyone was primarily oriented externally (and there was no internet or social media to show another way), they didn’t know any different. Add the fact that skillful healers, shamans, wise elders and therapists weren’t readily available back then, and our ancestors, sadly, had little choice but to acquiesce. They had to settle without knowing they were doing so; to endure through their anxiety and depression through the aid of work, drink, and other distractions. Surviving, just getting by, not thriving according to one’s inner compass, was the accepted norm.

Not surprisingly, based on research conducted by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s, we learned that when a child orients primarily with an external locus of control, it correlates to rising rates of depression and anxiety. How could it not? Years of self-disregard will do that to you.

Twenty or thirty years later, having grown up and with their own kids, our parents, to varying degrees, predictably struggled to offer safe space for us, as children, to make our own decisions and for our wide range of expression. Having grown up with an external locus of control, they expected us to define ourselves by external norms: to fit in; do what’s “right”; follow instead of lead; travel the path traveled by others; stay true to the known and expected; not stand out too much; don’t make the family look bad; make your parents proud… again, at the cost of authenticity.

If you got angry, and your parent learned to suppress and judge their own anger when young, without full awareness, they likely suppressed your red-hot energy through admonishments, judgment, punishments, or a cold, stern look. It would have been hard for them to see anger as a healthy emotion because they learned that it was bad, or even harmful. You then automatically oriented and adapted according to external pressures.

If you, as a child, dreamt of being a musician and your parent grew up learning to be a hardworking, practical, responsible individual, then they may have shunned your imagination. They might have expected you to live and work between the lines, not take risks. To choose the coal mine or accounting desk instead of the mic. Without a strong enough internal locus of control, you likely forwent your instinct, your authenticity.

If you felt a wave of sadness when young, and your parent grew up with the message that “tears are a sign of weakness”, then the impulse could likely have been to direct you towards “strength” and away from vulnerability. Your parent would not have seen the strength inherent in vulnerability. In fact, just like with anger and big dreams, your parent may have viewed your tears as a threat.

As the saying goes: “A parent tells a child to put on a coat so the parent feels warm.”

The impulse to orient a child externally and dim their wild fire is not a conscious choice by the parent, but an unconscious reaction. It is automatic. Though it may seem something they are doing from clear volition, they are, in most cases, re-enacting the past —which is what re-acting is—by projecting their disowned authenticity onto their children.

This is psychology 101, a process also known as “transference”: What the parent judges within, such as anger, imagination or sadness, they transfer onto the child. Unconsciously, they experience the child’s anger as a projection of their own disowned anger, rather than as the unique and natural experience of being human, let alone a bubbling child.

In other words, what we keep in the shadows internally we have a hard time seeing in the light externally. Considering how bright children shine in their physical, mental and emotional states, how unbridled they are in their expressions, it is no wonder that their exuberance is a threat to the locked-up, shadowed adult.

A child consistently projected onto, and controlled as a result, grows listening less to their heart and more to their brain—to thoughts of what they should do/be to make mommy, daddy or the teacher happy. They think more and feel less. This survival migration away from heart / somatic awareness to the calculating mind is a means of self-preservation and navigating through life. But it is a most profound loss to the full-bodied child that has significant ramifications on current and future health and wellbeing. The rootedness and instinctual aliveness of the feeling-body is suppressed for the predictability of rationality. The once natural inclination to be honest, as children so beautifully are, must hide. The natural impulse to trust themselves, what feels right, their internal locus of control, is denied for insecure attachment.

Years later, it’s no wonder it’s so hard to have intimate relationships, let alone navigate through life.

Wiring future relational patterns
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ~ Carl Jung

Our childhood attachment styles and adaptations create neural pathways that determine our fate. Our particular survival response, or adaptation, and how it trumps authenticity, becomes an unconscious blueprint for our future relationships, particularly our most intimate ones.

If a woman adapted into being a peacemaker when a child, she will likely be drawn to a partner who acts in a way that brings out that default accommodating pattern or role in her. He’ll play the perfect part that incites her to sacrifice her authentic feelings and needs and play nice and harmonize the environment. For example, by being disruptive with her and their kids—his own adaptation—he would compel her to intercede with peacemaking the family turmoil, just as she did when young.

If a man’s childhood survival response was to withdraw and be passive, then that neural circuitry could lead him to a woman who is dominant or controlling—her survival response. Their relationship, like most, is an unconscious dance of collusion—adaptive personality in relationship with another adaptive personality—each carrying forward who they are not, hiding the deep woundedness in who they really are. The dominant personality “invites” the other to stay in the familiar setting of passive withdrawal, and the adaptive, survival response of withdrawing “invites” the familiar default circuitry of control.  

The temptation is to point at the other, to blame them for how they are. “Stop being so…!” But what we fail to realize is that we, on an unconscious level, depend on that person’s survival identity so that we can continue hiding in our own. The wounding is that strong. We actually do not want to let go of our survival adaptation because it’s all we’ve known ourselves to be; and there is tremendous pain and vulnerability behind it that we’d rather not face. So, we feed off of the other person’s adaptation to remain armoured.

This is one of the great challenges in intimate relationships—we ask our partner stop his disruptive behavior but, at the same time, we are attached to peacemaking. We want our partner to stop being so domineering, but we are not able or willing to come out from passivity. Conflicting messages are sent. Meanwhile, we aren’t aware of our allegiance to the core wound underlying and giving rise to our survival identity. We aren’t aware of this core addiction to pain.

The pain is that strong. So too is the survival identity and the biological need for attachment. Put all three together and, from a young age, we are left with little resources or guidance to have authentic and meaningful relationships. Having pseudo attachments that trump authenticity is the best for many, if not most: two false selves dependent on each other for their existence; two false selves unwilling and scared to reveal a deeper truth of identity.

(How “pseudo” one’s attachment is varies from one person and relationship to another. The degree of trauma one experiences and the strength of the adaptive or protective response are key indicators.)

The reason there is so much dysfunction in relationship is just this: there is a fundamental disconnect between two people stemming from a fundamental disconnect with their own authenticity. Without concerted effort put towards self-reflection and healing, partners that stay together learn to co-exist from behind their protective walls. There can indeed be an undercurrent of love, often more pronounced in difficult times or on one’s deathbed. And from behind those walls, individuals can generally “get along”. Yet, even with that love and cooperation, when inner and outer connection is missing, the relationship becomes mechanical—watching news, tending to the kids, dishes, bills. Though physically together, without the necessary inner work, people likely spend the majority of their time emotionally and spiritually divorced.  

Sacrificing attachment for authenticity
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” ~ Brené Brown

With enough healing work, it becomes difficult to deny who we are, to compromise our truth to please and accommodate and prove; to divorce ourselves for another.

Many of my clients find that as they connect more deeply to their suppressed feelings, they start snapping at their partner more. Anger is unlocked through our healing sessions, and it starts to find expression in their relationship. They are more irritable. What used to be tolerable they have less patience for. Their freed anger fuels them to set boundaries, say “No”, take a stand in a way they hitherto could not.

The person on the receiving end is often shocked by their partner’s sudden change. My client is stepping into her power now, no longer willing to hide. And now her partner is in for the ride, if he chooses.

With the help of her healing work a friend, at long last, stood up to her partner, which was a big step for her. She claimed her voice, spoke her truth, stood firm in her boundaries. What was equally key was that she did not succumb to the impulse to apologise or try to pull him back as he left the house. She stood her ground, tolerating the tension without capitulating to the need to patch things up. In other words, she chose herself instead of the relationship. She took the risk to be authentic.

We know that what catalyzes a break up is a big blow out. Fueled by a boiling point of resentment, frustration and anger, each person finally says what they have been holding back for months or years. All the things tucked away leap out of their mouths without restraint. No longer do they allow fear of pushing their partner away suppress their truth, an old conditioned fear from childhood where authenticity could mean severing the relationship with their parents. Indeed, they are no longer willing to sacrifice authenticity for attachment. They are willing to risk the relationship in order to be true to themselves.

As difficult and charged as an argument is, it can be a critical moment of liberation that can either break the relationship or strengthen it. Each individual is more authentic now, which can lead to greater honesty and connection. Or, in that honesty, there can be a clarity that the relationship has run its course. But now each person has learned more about themselves and brings more awareness to who they really are and, hopefully, into their next relationship.

As adults, this oft-dramatic expression of truth can also happen with our parents. After years of holding back our feelings, we feel safe and motivated enough to tell them what we can no longer hide. This can sometimes be a volatile conversation or it can be one that flows well. Like with the intimate partner, it can bridge you and your parents closer together, or it can fortify the wall between you. But at least you have spoken up. Even if your parents are unable to hear your words with an open heart, you have opened your heart to you.

Prior to speaking this truth to our parents, there is often a necessary separation. The more difficult the upbringing, the further the distance may be required for healing to happen and for one to know oneself. Some people move to the opposite side of the planet, and others choose to have limited contact with their parents. They sever the attachment after years of being mired in a pseudo attachment while disconnected from themselves. Distance is the medicine, an opportunity to reclaim what was lost inside, and when time, they can return to their parents to try to form a more authentic attachment, often by sharing their feelings of what their upbringing was like, the impact their parents had on them. Some parents are open to this olive branch, others are not.

But here is my point: There is a cycle. We learn, initially, to sacrifice authenticity for attachment. We then find ourselves doing this later in life with our adult relationships. At some point, the suppression catches up to us. Either our health wains or resentment builds; or we travel far enough and do enough inner work to gain an awareness that invokes a wake up call to inner truth. We come to a place where we cannot continue prioritizing others over self. We cannot continue suppressing our voice for fear of pushing another away. We can no longer hide or run away. And so we speak, finally, to our partner, friend, parents. We share our truth.

We choose authenticity over the existing conditions of attachment.

Having support is crucial. We need healers and teachers to help us open to ourselves and also learn how to express ourselves skillfully. With the aid of others, it behooves each of us to begin a path of reclamation—removing the layers of who we are not, of unlearning, so that we can once again feel the beauty and power of our true nature. From this foundation of Self, we find our purpose in the world. And we can more easily form attachments that are both secure and authentic.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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