The Arguably Difficult Life of the Gentle Self
If narcissism is at play in people who showcase their ego to an extreme, what shall we call those who constantly do away with their needs, and put others first at all times while depleting their own resources and neglecting their own points of view?
What is it about those who can never say no to other people’s demands and feel too fragile to stand up for themselves?
It seems that they feel predominantly inferior to others, and this vulnerable self sometimes remains altogether ill-defined. Their healthy narcissistic needs have been oppressed by other people’s agendas, and they feel they have no choice but to simply continue to suppress their own instincts and desires. This makes life difficult in surprising ways.
In this context, narcissism basically means that one’s sense of self is out of balance, that there is either too little of us or too much of us. In many narcissistic relationships, one partner will always have the upper hand and the weaker partner will either suffer form depression or walk away if strong interventions are not made. What is lacking is a genuine ability to engage with the other, to connect on an equal, deeper level. An environment that feels safe enough to disagree without losing face is often needed.
Since many people who chronically suppress their own needs come across as gentle and accommodating to others, they are seen exclusively as “nice guys” or “sweet girls”. They can easily be asked a favor of or made friends with. What often happens is that the favors that are being asked of them become too much, and carrying the burden of maintaining a friendship becomes one-sided. Since the “nice guy” has never learned how to ask for having his own needs met, he has little choice but to walk away and lose another relationship in the process.
Whereas the classical narcissist complains loudly about being neglected and demands attention, the gentle self craves the same but remains withdrawn in her own mind. Whereas the former can’t stop talking about himself in the most glowing terms, the latter can’t cease to think in the most self-critical ways. Both are constantly worried about how they come across to others, what they did right or wrong, fully absorbed in the relentless thinking about themselves. What the two types of personalities have in common is a certain softness and fragility, a gentleness which tends to make it hard to face relationships head on. As soon as the imbalance between their own needs and those of others gets out of hand, they become withdrawn and lonely and have a hard time dealing with their environment. This is experienced as overly aggressive for one type and uncaring for the other.
The main way these types of people cope with their insecurities and their vulnerable selves is by withdrawing from the world, which cuts them off from the most basic sources of self-esteem and well-being: relationships.
While the gentle self does have a genuine capacity to connect, they are forced to use defenses like avoidance, and emotional distance out of fear that their weakened self will be taken over too easily, and ultimately because they are afraid of being rejected by the very people they have learned to trust.
What are the Roots?
The most prevalent difficulty of the gentle self is that of missing out on a certain engagement with the world; either they feel that they are too shy or aloof to really be themselves around others, or their relationships remain somewhat on the surface and at times lack a felt intimacy. Withdrawing from a world that seems harsh can be a dominant characteristic. Withdrawing continues a behavior pattern most likely formed when we are little. Research on infants for example, has shown that toddlers spontaneously fall asleep when they feel overwhelmed. This default behavior continues into adulthood.
If a repair of what the child experiences as an emotional shock and rejection does not occur there are consequences. If, for example, the parent does not pick up the child and soothe his fear and frustration he will inevitably learn to withdraw from overwhelming situations, especially if this happens repeatedly and there is no one else to comfort the child.
The message the child hears is: I am not really sure I am welcome here, so I will make myself smaller and more invisible.
Not everyone who experiences such failures in the way a parent raised us turns into a hermit. Depending on your parents’ and siblings’ personalities, your genes and the influences of other important people in your upbringing, it can go in the other direction to some degree.
We crave positive feedback and seek means to express ourselves without running into opposition, resistance, or jealousy for what we have to show. Although an audience can give us a cool reception and write a bad review, we do not have to face these people and their actual words. The need to retreat, by contrast, is far greater when the injury has been inflicted by someone we wanted to trust but came back to hurt us at just the wrong moment.
Behavioral patterns of nuance often have to do with the convictions we gained as children. If you feel undeserving of an admired a person’s attention, like that of a parent or a teacher, or that you have to thank someone a thousand times for doing you a small favor, then your caregivers probably sent the message that it was not to taken for granted that you deserve to be cared for.
This does not mean your parents did not care for you. They might have made a sincere attempt and did the best they could do, but lacked the emotional capacities to become a supportive parent given the kind of person you are. Because children have no concept of relational or circumstantial factors and must fall back on their developmentally appropriate, self-centered perspective, they inevitably wind up with some kind of self-blaming attribution: “It’s my fault I’m a burden”, “Something is wrong with me”. We may be totally unaware of these voices but they influence our daily lives and our relationships unceasingly as adults. The consequence of these particular convictions that are shame based is withdrawal.
Intrusion is another reason why retreating becomes necessary. A parent who finds meaning only in unending love for her child ends up constantly invading the child’s personal space. Smothering the child, not leaving any room for her to decide how to engage with the other will also result in withdrawal. The child who experiences the constant interest in her physical appearance or emotional process as intrusive, over-stimulating, and overwhelming has no other choice but to disengage.
The same thing happens when an overly self-interested parent constantly imposes his own needs and opinions onto the child without laving any room for the child’s own preferences to unfold. This is often done in a seemingly loving manner. “I’m doing this because I love you” becomes the modus operandi, which leaves the child again with no choice but to comply. The child is condemned to passivity and learns to leave it up to others to make decisions.
An insecure parent who is anxiety-ridden will sometimes try to hide his instability by constantly checking in with the child. Feeling unsure of how to deal with this newborn, the overly anxious parent will nervously watch every movement of the child. The parent’s own sense of insecurity becomes a art of the child’s emotional organization, manifesting in the child a constant watchfulness of others in hope they will provide some clues as to the right things to do. Their is a failure of a core self with values and esteem that comes with the help of a stable, stronger care giver.
Other parents, who haven’t been sufficiently nurtured by their own mothers and fathers, try to use the child to finally get the attention and care they missed out on in their own upbringing. Some of these children become their mother’s or father’s best friends and confidantes. They must carry the needs of the parents, not the other way around. In extreme cases, the ten year old must make important decisions for the overwhelmed parents, a dynamic that is officially defined as child abuse in the US. The child is being robbed of a self that hasn’t had the chance to develop enough to nurture a fragile parent. The child remains overburdened and weakened in their sense of self.
All these examples of faulty parenting are representations of what has been called misattunement: a profound lack of understanding of what the child actually needs, as opposed to what the parents think the child needs. These narcissistic patterns have been divided into several categories: the most important being the under-stimulated, the over-stimulated, and the overburdened selves. Most people who are fragile and vulnerable in their core likely belong to one of these.
The under-stimulated child was put on the back burner early on in family life. They were held still when an injury had to be treated, spoke up only when asked, and said only the most necessary things.
Because of this restraint they experience themselves as boring or even dead. Some start to seek stimulation by going to extremes early in life. They may look for a physical thrill like skydiving or bungee jumping. Some experience devastating fights as stimulating when it is the only source of stimulation in their lives. This kind of acting out is used as distraction from unwanted feelings like anxiety, depression, or chronic anger.
The over-stimulated self feels intruded upon by the parents in ways that prohibit development. The mother may have been unable to soothe the child while crying and instead used distraction to take him away from his pain. Parking a child in front of a TV when she is distressed will teach her that the only means to deal with pain is not to deal with it. The child has no chance to accept disappointment as a normal part of life. Instead she believes that pain is to be avoided at all costs.
Over-stimulated children tend to feel crowded because they are overly mirrored. Parents try to convey what they think is going on with them but never truly understand. This may later lead to confusion about what the child wants from life. These children may have had a dominating, powerful parent whose glamour overshadowed the child’s need to shine. There was no calming presence that would have enabled the child to develop self-soothing mechanisms.
Over-burdened personalities feel unsupported and can’t shake the feeling that they are responsible for everything and, that they can’t be bothered with anything anymore. They are hypersensitive to any kind of stimulus. They take any casual remark as an insult and often become preoccupied with their health and their bodies.
They are taken over by anxiety and the ongoing fear of not being up to the task. This manifests itself particularly in relationships: when a child was always responsible for attending to the parents’ needs she may come to believe this is what she must do for her spouse as well.
When ongoing, all narcissistic injuries result in a weakened self that is easily swayed and vulnerable to more hurt. These three types are not always clear-cut. Sometimes one person can turn out to be under-stimulated and yet overburdened by expectations at the same time.
The gentle self is often the good girl or bad boy of the family, always stepping back when someone else demands attention, trained to cater to the needs of the parents or siblings.
The basic problem with all these chronic child-rearing failures is that one-way or another they communicate to the child: something is wrong with you. I don’t like the way you are. You really should be different.
Hallmarks of the Gentle Self
Avoiding difficult situations like conflict in a relationship is a typical characteristic of the gentle self. We have learned to build up our defenses and prefer to avoid the discomfort of contact. Who wants to confront a friend who has overstepped a boundary? For sure, sometimes avoidance is exactly what we have to do to survive in a difficult relationship, but other times we go overboard in trying to protect ourselves. We do this when we shut ourselves down, shut others out, and don’t want to look at who we are underneath. Underneath we are vulnerable creatures.
Who hasn’t dealt with difficult interpersonal situations at home or work by not dealing with them? Some prefer to hold a grudge against another for decades rather than spell out the hurtful business with that person.
Many of us avoid others out of a fear of rejection. Our friends and peers are baffled by our standoffish behavior wondering what in the world may have caused our retreat, and feel hurt and angry for being ignored, or neglected.
What we tormented gentle introverts don’t realize is that we do have something to offer. We often have a soothing nature that makes our uptight contemporaries feel under less pressure. We often wrongfully feel as if we have nothing to say and tend to ask a lot of questions, which in turn makes the other feel welcome and interesting.
Being bogged down by parents, bosses, partners, and children and mostly one’s own expectations is a good recipe for depression.
These can include feeling obligated to maintain the family peace; feeling to fragile to stand up for yourself; being mired in conflict between what others expect and what you need for yourself; not feeling you have the right to put your foot down; being afraid to hurt someone else more than yourself; and putting the other first, always. This is what depression sometimes is: suppressing one’s own point of view for benefit of the other, not being able or not wanting to be selfish.
General anxiety and Social anxiety
Anxiety is a minor form of fragmentation, the fear of falling apart, and not being able to hold it together anymore. We are afraid we cannot live up to the expectations of our bosses, our partners, and ourselves. Anxiety is often covered over or compensated for by all kinds of compulsions: nail biting, scab picking, hand scrubbing, hoarding, shopping, drinking, eating, etc. We worry constantly about our homes, our loved ones. We are particularly vulnerable to all kinds of fears at night. We are not alone. Over a third of the US will have a diagnosable anxiety condition at some point in life. We want to be able to have control over our circumstances and relationships and our feelings at all times. “There is nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it”.
Unfortunately, the mind and body are oblivious to this kind of attempted self-empowerment. Thoughts cannot be controlled easily; we can only become aware of them and try to refocus them, as they appear unbidden. We are unable to prevent our minds form having bad dreams or feeling sad at times. Mind control is a popular modern myth that is very attractive because of its seductiveness. We have to deal with our thoughts like it or not.
Social anxiety is also common in situations of more than a handful of people. As soon as a group gets too large to hold the attention of even one participant we tend to get that creeping anxiety about being overheard and sometimes simultaneously overlooked. This puts us back in that original situation as children. With this renewed dread of being neglected or not really understood, however benign it may be in a particular social context, grows our sense of being pushed out of the spotlight. We lose connection to those we wanted to address and our voices falter. We may feel discouraged by the belief that nothing we have to say is unique or funny or intelligent enough. We fall silent as if we weren’t there anymore.
Low self-esteem is common among gentle introverts and with it comes all forms of self-defeat, self-effacement, self-deprecation, and even self-loathing. Because of their low opinion of themselves, gentle selves believe, sometimes unconsciously, that their presence is genuinely unwanted, that they waste other people’s time, that they aren’t likeable, that they want too much, that they have to apologize constantly fro their behavior, and the fact that they are there.
We have a deep-rooted sense of having some kind of deficit that needs to be covered up in order to protect ourselves. But our demeanor pushes away people who care for us, which forces us further on to the path of self-isolation. Once we begin to see this is what we are doing we can begin to stop running away from others and see how they do enjoy being with us, how much they value our friendship, and that we are loveable after all.
For many gentle selves the easiest solution in any situation of conflict is to go along with what is asked of them. They want to please their parents, their in-laws, and their peers by agreeing with their stances, by not making any trouble and hoping to avoid conflict and arguments down the road. The problem is that sooner or later they get the creeping feeling that things never go their way, that it’s always the others whose opinions seem more valuable and who speak “louder” than we do.
Because the environment they grew up in forces people to behave according to the expectations of others, many gentle selves develop what has been called the “false self”. This is a self that is bent on compliance. It is a self that does not dare to voice spontaneously their true feelings out of fear of being rejected or abandoned or put down. They wait for others to react first so they can join in.
The need to please can arise form overly strict parents as well as from overly praiseful ones. The person growing up in the latter context knows at some level that there is a false quality to the attitude of constant admiration. Despite the conscious entitlement that may issue from such a background, it creates the nagging worry that one is to some degree a fraud.
The dream of perfection is a hallmark characteristic of the narcissistic personality. We are unhappy with our nose, our friends, our spouses, and our job performance. If we can’t have it ourselves we want to be associated with someone else who is perfect. Someone with a perfect body, the best reputation, the largest bank account. Ideas of perfection don’t just serve to bolster ones’ grandeur. In the case of the gentle self, they usually serve as fantasies to cover up or substitute for anxiety or depression about the less pleasurable aspects of life. Arguably, we want to hide from or what is felt to be an inherently deficient personality.
If I can hold on to the idea that I am the smartest student in the class I can avoid my feelings of inferiority about being short in stature. Fantasies such as this are used to deflect from wounds that have occurred both in childhood and later in life. A destructive relationship with a parent is compensated for by the goal of becoming the best.
Likewise, many adults see their children a means through which they will finally get what they have not procured on their own. They want their son to become a famous scientist since they could not pursue similar goals.
The trouble with perfectionism is that it not only prevents us from feeling good about our work and ourselves (with all our flaws), it can also lead to an inability to make decisions or finish projects. When only the best is good enough, chances are that the pressure to become the best is too much to even get started towards the goal.
Idealization is a normal part of life. As children we idealize our parents, take on their likes and dislikes, adopt their values and behaviors. The desire to be inspired by others continues in an increasingly mature way throughout life. As adults we long to find a mate who possesses skills we can admire and learn from. This often becomes an exaggerated idealization, which in turn sets the stage for contempt. When the people we bank on disappoint us, when they turn out to be much more human and fallible than we need them to be, we quickly turn away from the sense of unwanted burden. These dynamics are of course reinforced by cultural factors. It has been noted for some time now that America is an inherently narcissistic society. In no other culture is the desire to idealize so prevalent.
By mindlessly looking up to those whom we perceive as wise and above us, we underestimate our own potential. We need to learn to appreciate what we have to bring to the table and see others as the fallible, flawed beings that they are. We need to take responsibility for our own failures and stop blaming our role models if they don’t fulfill our desires.
Ambivalence is commonly experienced when two or more conflicting feelings occur at the same time. For many people this is hard to tolerate. In its most innocent form it can come across as simple indecisiveness in a day a day-to-day matter. One feels there are too many choices. Most of us have this experience upon entering a large grocery store and make our way to the laundry detergent. I recall that on a particularly stressful day I left the grocery store in disgust and anger at “someone” forcing me to make what felt like an impossible choice. How can we now have an entire isle of detergent brands?
The very same dynamic occurs on the job or in the family. People can be constantly torn apart by the opposing demands different family members place upon them, always placating everyone without being able to even think about one’s own needs.
Ambivalence is more than just an annoying inability to say no or to make decisions. A familiarity with ambivalence can help us understand the many nuances that color human experience. While our culture places emphasis on quick decision-making, human behavior is more than making a rational choice about the task at hand. It is more often about navigating relationships in the personal, professional and institutional realms. We are all embedded in greater context of family, friends, societies, and cultures. All of these have a certain influence on us. It is the combined impact of these relationships, together with our storehouse of previous experiences that form a person’s decision-making process… and many times theses influences contradict one another.
Ambivalent feelings are present in our most important relationships from the minute we enter this world. We may love our parents deeply yet they drive us crazy. We may harbor gnawing feelings of rivalry towards our siblings yet still adore them for their competence and guidance. We can have love-hate relationships with our partners and still feel unable to fully commit to or separate from them. Why is it that we expect romantic relationships to achieve perfection when nothing like that is at all true in any other relationship we have ever had?
Ambivalence is not a fun feeling to have. What usually provides some relief is the exploration of all these conflicting feelings. The more we become aware of what tortures us, the clearer we tend to become on what we are leaning towards.
It is especially true in therapy that we start nurturing seedlings of what is to become the gentle self’s own point of view, as opposed to everyone else’s. Ambivalence presents an opportunity for growth and change because it involves coming to terms with the rich complexity of experience that might otherwise be avoided and remain hidden in the background of our lives.
Ambivalence feels expansive, enriches thought and fantasy and can be a powerful part of our emotional and intellectual process. The rub is that it can equally hamper making an actual decision. Yet the more we learn to tolerate ambivalence, and just leave ourselves alone, the more naturally we will come to decide on a course of action. The key is to find the right balance between being able to tolerate ambivalence and just taking the plunge and making a decision, all the while risking the possibility of going the wrong way.
Ambivalence, however uncomfortable, comes with one clear advantage: the ability to put ourselves into another person’s shoes. It is a source of the capacity for real empathy. This in turn aids greatly in our ability to compromise with other.
Yet again, as soon as we see things from a different perspective, an easy resolution becomes more and more difficult. Any attempt at returning to simplistic black-white thinking is futile. We start to see things the way they really are in all their imperfections. This in turn enables us to negotiate an agreement with our partner that is more satisfactory since we no longer stubbornly insist on a single-minded point of view. Maturity is about finding a consensus with which everyone involved can be happy rather than steamrolling our way to our egocentric goals.
Paths to Healing
Expanding the Gentle Self
Most of us want a role model we can live up to, who inspires us to want more and to live a fuller and more engaging life. This is short lived in most cases since imperfections always rise to the surface. One’s self interests easily triumph over other’s interests. We are all to some degree narcissists since our own interests must prevail for survival.
What is needed is greater attention to our own expansiveness: channeling our normal expansiveness into healthy self-esteem, and not holding ourselves back like in childhood. Every person, regardless of their station, needs to stop being small and learn to shine. Hiding one’s light under a bushel will never work for the long run.
Expansiveness also occurs when we start standing up for ourselves. We may marry a strong person who is able and willing to make hard decisions but this too can be self-limiting if we do not learn to share in the decision-making. Living one’s own life means we decide for ourselves what is good for the family and then collaborate with our partner.
Dealing with Unpleasant feelings
There is an innate tendency to withdraw from unpleasant feelings and to be intolerant of anxiety. Even love and affection are hard to take; tender feelings are walked away from.
It is important to develop the capacity to contain different emotions without having to act on them… to not distance ourselves by walking out, by becoming enraged, or stonewalling other.
The first rule of thumb when feeling intense emotions is: leave yourself alone. Have empathy for you rather than judge, criticize, and condemn yourself for having feelings.
Finding and Being with a mate
Gentle people crave seeing themselves in the other: we want to have friends and partners who know exactly how we feel. We want our mates to know how we feel about others and ourselves… what it means to hold a certain profession, how it feels to be hurt or rejected. We rightfully want to be included in decision making, even when we make irrational decisions.
We want to be taken by the hand and comforted and cared for and to trust the other without having to worry about things going wrong.
With respect to friends, having supportive social ties is the most crucial ingredient in the gentle self’s psychological recovery and throughout life. We need people who support our strivings without wanting to dominate our decisions, and yet have the courage to intervene when we go too far astray and turn to destructive behaviors.
We humans are by nature intensely social. We desire connection everywhere and just about all the time.
While research shows that married people are happier than unmarried, the latest finding is that married people have more connections to the outside world to keep them alive (i.e., school, church, community events).
Connection means different things to different people. Try to accept what works for you and gently push yourself to stick with situations that may initially feel uncomfortable for the sake of soothing loneliness and isolation.
Don Crowe, PhD