Consider the Greek Chorus. In ancient Greek theater, which came to be a “thing” circa 6th century BCE, the Chorus served two important roles in the telling of the story: first, it was a narrative device to reveal the inner life of the character, which could not be sufficiently conveyed by the action of the play, and second, the Chorus articulated the moral message of the playwright, whose goal was to exemplify aspirational ideals about goodness, beauty, justice, and the proper order of things in society. In short, the Greek Chorus knew the protagonist better than he knew himself, and, since people are vain and fallible and limited by their own perspectives, the wisdom of the “collective” thought superior to any sort of inner-directed certainty one might entertain.
The Judeo-Christian tradition in the West did much to advance the cause of self-mistrust. The “fall of man” and subsequent ouster from Paradise was occasioned by human beings’ inability to follow the rules, and all of humanity’s subsequent suffering proceeded from Man’s ill-advised moment of self-determination. Big mistake indeed, but at least we knew the “truth:” that we are all slippery servants not to be trusted with the good silver when the Master is away.
But you’d think we’d be over this by now, this need for the Greek Chorus, occupying as we do a post-scientific, meta-cognitive view of the world in which moral relativism, independent thought, and the preeminence of pop-cultural pablum about “living my truth” or “living my best life!” ostensibly rule the day. But it seems to me that rather than having found ourselves up on two feet and dry land, the sea of mental health issues beleaguering our society—issues that are to varying degrees the sequelae of this primary affliction, the disbelief and devaluing of the self---seems to be getting rockier, and our collective capacity to swim to shore declining rather than advancing.
What up with ‘dat? A first answer: because of the prevalence of trauma. Because of the astonishing incidence of early relational trauma (also known as “complex” trauma) that undermines so many lives. In spite of over a century of psycholanalytics and cognitive behavioral interventions and self-help culture and psychopharmacology and the neurobiological understanding of how that which we think of our “personality” and “self-concept” and “worth” come online based on our earliest experiences with care-givers, the intergenerational transmission of insecure patterns of attachment--that underlie most if not every form of psychopathology--from unresolved parents to their children continues unabated. Here’s a quick synopsis of the primary categories of sub-optimal parenting impact the development of a “self” that we can trust to cue us properly:
Neglect. When a mother (insert “primary care giver of any gender” if you will here) is unable to sufficiently attune to her child most of the time—which occurs for a variety of reasons and along a continuum of severity including (among other factors) post-partum depression, distraction from other children in the family, uncertainty about one’s bandwidth to meet the affective needs of the infant, conflict within the home with the child’s other parent, medical issues, financial insecurity, and one’s own mental health issues—a child’s sense of “self” is compromised. When the “self” fails to cohere in the primary relationship with the caregiver, the template is set for a future of emotional dysregulation, distress intolerance, interpersonal difficulties, and, in severe cases, impaired cognitive development, and maladaptive survival “strategies” emerge to shield the child from unbearable affect. Dissociative tendencies, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and substance use and eating disorders are all such strategies. There is no “trusting oneself”—even knowing what “I” want or need or am--when the underlying “I” that experiences itself (as Descartes would describe it) is beyond reach.
Verbal and physical abuse. The defining feature of verbal abuse is that a person is told who or what they are in a disparaging manner, and usually by someone in an agitated and frightening state. It does not take a great deal of repetition for a child who is repeatedly accused or described in negative terms by a parent or parents—who to a child are the ultimate arbiters of who they are—to identify with the devalued version of themselves their f*&%-ed up parents have bestowed. In fact, sometimes a child only needs to hear a truly devastating parental take on their “self” once or twice to hold that truth as self-evident thereafter. Physical abuse, once the gold standard in terms of damaging experiences, takes 3rd place in the long-term-impact decathalon behind neglect and verbal/emotional abuse, but still serves as an emphatic exclamation point to a parent’s diatribe: “not only are you (insert fundamentally “bad” quality here), it is right for that quality to be beaten out of you by whatever means I see fit (my slapping hand, my closed fist, my belt, switch, or handy household object).” The self that is, at its core, bad, is an entity not ever to be trusted.
Sexual abuse. The range of experiences within the canon of sexual abuse is so great it would be a disservice to those who have suffered it to quickly synopsize its effect. If I were to isolate one universal theme salient to our topic, however, that seems to underlie the experience of those who have experienced “chronic” sexual abuse (repetition of incident by a specific adult over a period of time rather than a one-time occasion) in childhood is the incoherence in the self-concept that results: a molested child feels both despicable and special, powerful and powerless, frightened and frightening, and that the “self” is now ground zero of a disgraceful secret that should never be revealed…nor trusted.
Beyond the impact of early trauma, our culture reinforces our awareness of our untrustworthiness in a few key ways:
Americans and their fearful “vices.”
America was founded upon religious ideals, upon the notion of a moral god and a “Church” as the guiding institution and bedrock of our values. Our politics--the “State”--came later, fortunately borrowing heavily from the less religiously encumbered European philosophes of the Enlightenment. Our history is one of fearfulness and demonization of sexuality (as evidenced by our criminalization of prostitution, the imperative of marital “fidelity,” paranoia about sexual education in schools), of temperance movements and Prohibition, of Shakers and Quakers, of the wars on obesity and substance abuse we continue to lose in our all-or-nothing approach to “dieting” and “sobriety.” It seems no democratic country in the world has tried so hard to control itself while evidencing such abject failure to do so, and things seem to be getting worse.
The United States has been exceptionally slow to adopt—or even educate mental health workers about—the harm-reduction approach to substance abuse widely practiced in Canada, Western Europe, and Australia; here in America we’re still falling on the sword of “abstinence” and losing the war entirely. And when it comes to food, it’s a shit-show: Americans need portion control and professional coaching and bestselling books and guests on Just Jenny’s “Weight Wednesdays” and behavior-modification apps and food journals and The Biggest Loser and calorie counts on the Cheesecake Factory and Chili’s menus and superfoods like f-ing kale and acai berries and other crap that none of my thin ancestors in the Neander Valley ever heard of, all because our “selves” cannot be trusted.
We seem to be in the cross-hairs of sets of cultural assumptions about what should be done by what age, assumptions framed at some point early in the last century. In 1900, life expectancy for Americans was age 47; in 1950, about 67 years. Erik Erickson famously codified his theory of psychosocial development in the 50’s and 60’s, when “middle age” began in one’s 30’s, heavily stacking the deck with developmental tasks to be accomplished in ones 20’s. In spite of significant cultural shifts that go beyond the statistical forecasting of life expectancy, an Eriksonian noose seems to still be hanging around the necks of our Millennials, the constituency best represented in therapists’ offices today.
Never has a generation crept towards adulthood with such trepidation about their professional prospects, or such uncertainty about their own resourcefulness or personal agency. (Both, by the way, being the product of another cultural phenomena that will require its own separate article: Helicopter Parents, unaccountably the agents of a generation of neurotic offspring.) Among no other demographic do I find such abject misery about being “behind” their peers. I am constantly surprised that—in spite of much quacking in the work place about their need to “live their truth,” which means being unencumbered by traditional workday schedules, dress codes, cubicles, hierarchy, single-use plastic utensils, and toxic speech—how much distress about being “behind” surrounds their personal lives. The difficulty to achieve intimacy with partners (thanks Hook Up culture!) resides uneasily alongside the persistent, unconscious imperative to be married by about age 30. Really? In 2020? Just shoot me. But it seems to be a very difficult time to embrace a developmental trajectory right for one’s self when the Greek Chorus has never been more insistent….
Where “Trusting Yourself” Goes to Die: Social Media.
Within the last decade, the biggest blow yet dealt to the validity of inner-directedness has been the proliferation of social media. And it hasn’t just “proliferated” in terms of its existence and diversification and percentage of the population participating, it has actually hijacked our consciousness at a profound—and often, psychologically debilitating—level. I have pondered the question “how has this been possible?’ but the answer lies in the issues detailed here: we were already vulnerable to believing in our own not-okay-ness, and now we have proof. “Reality” has become the photo montage we curate and filter and serve up for Likes. When Likes fail us, there is no underlying Self to believe in the worthiness of our own lived experience; the Chorus decides what is pretty and smart and valuable and developmentally “on track.” Hours are spent gazing at those we Follow, and, rather than say anything from our “Self” to our many Friends, we re-post Deep Thoughts said by others whose value inherently supersedes our own….and pictures of our pets, as they too are clearly better, or maybe less risky, than we.
I’ll conclude by saying something here that my therapist-self would never say: I don’t know how we fix this. I try to imagine from-whence-will come the revolution, the grand taking-back of trust in one’s self that…..perhaps has never existed. But is the problem with our selves? Has it ever been? Or has this been a Western Civ-straddling cultural problem, that somehow the Chorus we select and the verses we provide for it to sing--hoping to elevate the collective--always does so at the expense of the individual?