Much of what we think of as our personality is in fact a collection of strategies we developed as a child for managing everyday life. Many of these become traits we identify with and aren’t really who we are, but a role we took on.
Our inner child is a strategist (a strategy being a method to achieve an outcome). As children we learn to behave in certain ways to get our needs met by the caregiver. We learn to comply with their messages about right and wrong, along with cultural and social messages about how we need to be, or what not to do, in order to be fit an image (implied or explicit). We mould and edit ourselves to be ‘good’ and accepted in order to feel safe; part of and connected.
Gabor Mate describes it like this: “you’ll never present your true emotions. Our whole society runs on false attributes, that are displacements over genuine attachment needs which we then identify with, but underneath there’s a niggling sensation: do they like me or do they like what I’m presenting in order to be liked?”. Gabor illustrates this: “If you weren’t liked for who you were then you might become very nice. If you weren’t recognised for who you were, you might seek status. If you weren’t given attention you’d try and attract attention by being attractive. If you weren’t treated as special then you might be very demanding. If you didn’t get approval you’ll be consumed by winning approval. If you weren’t treated as important for who you were, you might become a people helper to be important. If you weren’t valued for who you were you’ll be measuring up to others expectations”. Gabor is pointing to how we compensate our lack of reinforcing experience through perceiving it as lack within ourselves and developing personality traits to redress this.
The following descriptors of types of personality traits and roles are taken from the work of Laurence Heller and Terry Real on developmental trauma and adaptive strategies.
If we conform to the pressure of who our parents want us to be, we may lose a sense of trust in others and relinquish interdependence. We may develop the strategy to perfect ourselves as a child, in order to be rewarded. We may cover up our sense of betrayal and powerlessness with an adult personality built on celebrating all that is strong, successful and in control about us. The Perfectionist (defines safety by right or wrong/fail or bad, focuses on details, loses sight of the big picture and so can’t feel in the moment). The ‘Performer’ outwardly wants everything together whilst hiding the shame of feeling unlovable and suppressing a need for love and intimacy. We may have the personality of the Controller (only feeling safe if in control, feeling a pressure to take on responsibility, with a lack of trust). We may have the personality of the Achiever (self worth is defined by what we do, so not enough as I am, not safe unless I acquire).
If we find it difficult to know our needs will be met and how to express what we need when we are young, we may focus on other people’s needs instead, shutting down any expression of independence and autonomy, with a sweet compliant personality or people pleasing. The ‘Caretaker’ (fears disappointing, feels challenged by boundaries and saying No to others). Caretakers are likely to be covering up anger and resentment and a sense of neediness, with a pride that we ‘don’t need much’ and an ‘enjoyment’ in putting others first. We may have the personality of the ‘Helper’; others are more important, defining self worth through giving (what we actually need and find difficult to receive).
If we experience a trauma, major disconnection or emotional neglect from a parent very young, this will have a deep impact on how we experience connection. To manage this lack, we may disconnect from own needs and feelings. We may also withdraw from social engagement. Our strategy is to attempt to disappear and become invisible. As children we may also have been assigned ‘a role’ within the family system. The ‘lost child’ will have been viewed by the family as independent and fine or undeserving and impossible, so ignored or abandoned and will grow up yearning for connection and so lacking strong boundaries in relation to others. As a ‘personality’ we are likely to become independent and ‘not need or seek’ people, finding relating to others difficult. As an adult our shame is that we are likely to feel our existence is a burden, that we don’t belong and cover this up with a pride in being a loner.
The ‘scapegoat’ child will have been treated as the family worry, the bad one, who may be sick or rebellious. This child will likely grow up as creative or artistic, in touch with their feelings but find it difficult to feel competent in the world due to low self esteem. Both ‘the lost child’ and ‘the scapegoat’ may grow up walled off from their feelings with a tendency to shut down and withdraw (safe but feeling alone, without connection).
The ‘hero’ child will have been seen as the achiever or pride of the family, or the child who becomes a surrogate friend or caretaker to a parent or acts as the family peacemaker or joker. These children will likely grow up to be strong and accomplished adults, but not good at showing vulnerability because they were not allowed to have feelings of their own outside of their roles.
Over time these ‘personality strategies’ become embedded as core beliefs and as we identify ourselves with them we build our values around them. As an adult, some of these strategies may no longer be relevant, so as we change our relationship with them, we change our relationship with our self. Understanding how these aspects of our personality were developed around our survival, to keep us safe and to manage unmet needs means being compassionate towards our younger selves for adapting in such intelligent ways.
Our core challenge as an adult is to unpick how we have learnt to be inauthentic and incongruent, to learn to acknowledge the parts of ourselves we feel shame about and to welcome all of who we are. We have to keep asking: what do I really need, what am trying to compensate for? When we have curiosity we can connect with what’s already there within ourself. Gabor offers this challenge: “It is difficult to dismantle the life we’ve built on these roles since society rewards us for our self betrayal. Are you following your calling towards engagement or being driven by deficiency? Who is in charge? [now].”