People who struggle with attachment issues, addiction, trauma and mood disorders may have a difficult time with a true sense of self. This may be due to growing up in a family of origin where, for various reasons, there wasn’t room to explore identity, process feelings and thoughts or share one’s experiences with others. Trauma, whether in childhood or adulthood can also diminish a person’s sense of self. Trauma can shatter the ego, reinforce the idea that the world is not safe and leave the individual isolated from community. The struggle to reconstitute a shattered ego can be overwhelming.
In addition, depression and anxiety are often fueled by the tension we feel between what we value at our core versus how we behave on the outside in order to please others. If I don’t have a true sense of self, I am not the “alpha dog” of my life. An alpha dog knows who he/she is in the pack and everyone in the pack has an understanding of the alpha dog. In this metaphor, the alpha dog is not a bully or trying to one up anyone else. This dog just knows who he/she is and isn’t afraid to share it.
The job of a functional adult is to teach people who we are, but when we aren’t sure who we are it creates a void in relationships. Even if we have a sense of self, we might find ourselves keeping secrets or lying out of an inherent fear that, “If I told you who I really am, you might not like me.” We might feel anxious about abandonment and go along to get along.
When I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan I lived with a brilliant woman who seemed to change her major based on who she dated. One semester she was pre-law, the next semester she was a math major, then an engineering student. She changed her interest and possibly career choices just to stay in relationship to her boyfriend(s) and his interests. She was a “tofu girl” and took on the taste of whatever was in “boyfriend pot.” Sadly, I am not sure if she ever graduated but she probably had enough credits for a PhD. She abandoned herself in order to overcome her fear of being abandoned by others.
The old saying that nature abhors a vacuum is true when it comes to one’s identity. If I am unable to teach you who I am based on what I value; sharing my wants and needs and ultimately setting functional boundaries to get them met, I can appear to be a metaphorical blank slate to others. As a result, the people we are in relationship with may begin to tell us who we are and how we should operate in life. In effect, because we are not our own alpha dog, they become the alpha dogs of our life. They make assumptions about what we think and feel because we do not express what we think and feel – at least not with authenticity. Eventually, we can become resentful of people telling us who they think we are. If we hang out in resentment we may eventually develop shame and guilt which is a perfect environment for us to act out in order to get our needs met. We often numb our true feelings and thoughts through compulsive/addictive behaviors. This can take the form of substance addiction, sex addiction, gambling, shopping, eating, working, emotional dysregulation regulation, etc. This numbing behavior keeps us even further away from our values, wants/needs and functional boundaries.
We all have an internal set of values. These develop in childhood and are taught in the family, schools, church, culture, etc. Everyone’s values differ somewhat based on experience. As we age we may find that some values no longer fit and we may discard them while others seem to resonate more with us. A knowledgeable therapist can work alongside a client to define the client’s values – what is important to you? What do you stand for? How do you want to be remembered? An example, Sara values emotional stability. It is important for her to have a sense of well-being, emotional regulation/tolerance and resiliency in her life and relationships.
Once a client has a sense of what they truly value, the real work begins. For example, if emotional stability is a core value, what does Sara need and want to support that value? Sara knows 7-8 hours of sleep each night plays an important role in her ability to keep her emotions in check, support her self-confidence and interact with others in a functional way. Her need/want is 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
Sara has identified here value of emotional stability. She knows an important part of supporting this value is to get a good night’s sleep and she needs/wants at least 7-8 hours in order to support her value of emotional stability. In order to honor her value of emotional stability and meet her need/want of 7-8 hours of sleep, Sara will set some boundaries to facilitate this. For example, she may ask her partner not to approach her with problems/issues after 7:00 in the evening. She may also turn off her phone to reduce texting and email and let work and friends know that she will not respond. She might be sure to be in bed my 9:30 with lights out at 10pm.
Sara has embraced her own alpha dog – she is in charge of herself and her well-being and knows what she needs and wants in order to support it.
If you are struggling with authenticity, setting boundaries, clarifying your needs/wants, dysregulated emotions/thoughts/behaviors, PCS therapists can support you in finding the real you – the alpha dog of your life.
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