We are born with some basic character traits but much of our self view is developed in the formative years of our life, about the first seven years. This is because we start out as essentially a blank canvas deciding and defining who we are by using the world around us like a mirror, learning about ourselves primarily by what is reflected back in the behaviours and attitudes of the people we are most exposed to. This is a particularly vulnerable time because we’re utterly dependent on our parents or carers and tend to believe anything they tell us, but more importantly interpret how they behave towards us as meaning something about ourselves. In short, our parents are like gods at this point in our lives and everything they say or imply about us must be true.
While we’re subconsciously making these decisions about ourselves we are also using an extremely limited tool kit. Kids logic is perverse. If for example mum has a bad day and is angry about that, it will affect her overall mood. We might approach her with good intent to hug her or show her something we’re proud of but she snaps at us or rejects us in some way instead of responding how we were expecting her to. This is a shock because we haven’t done anything wrong and we are being punished. It’s unfair.
However, at this point in life we don’t have the capacity to say to ourselves, ‘Ahh that is mums stuff I wonder why she reacted inappropriately to me as I am blameless so nothing to worry about’. We will probably feel hurt or be upset, the reasoning in our subconscious being something along the lines of… ‘I am being treated badly even though I have done nothing to deserve it.’ but then our childs logic kicks in and makes sense that isn’t there, along the lines of. ‘But mum is always right so I must deserve it. I can’t connect why I deserve it with anything I’ve done so it must be that there is something that only mum or perhaps other people can see about me that means I’m the sort of person that deserves to be treated that way. That must be who I am.’ Now repeat the experience on a regular basis and the feeling becomes so ingrained we start to believe it ourselves.
That might be a drip feed (persistent criticality for example) that slowly carves the feeling of inadequacy into our amygdala (where our emotional memory and conditioning live) but the same effect can come from a few extreme or traumatising events.
For example, violent outbursts perhaps where the response is disproportionate to whatever has happened, maybe the loss of a parent or them abandoning us, abusive or bullying behaviours, we blame ourselves believing we deserve it using that perverse child logic. Other possible causes are parents that are emotionally unpredictable or manipulative, who withhold approval (nothing is ever quite good enough) or are frequently critical or create specific conditions around your acceptability. This is a particularly common experience with parents who might suffer from personality disorders, mental illness or addictions.
You can’t predict at that point what the impact will be but when someone gets to therapy it doesn’t take long to look back and understand how we learned it.
The problem is we tend to bury the experiences that made us feel this way pretty deep because they make us feel so uncomfortable, so they might be hard to consciously grab, but more on that later. Next we look at why this continues to affect us and how.