From Survival to Self-betrayal
In order to survive and stay loyal to our caretakers on whom we are both entirely dependent and genuinely attached, we unconsciously design the most workable personality which our assessment of the environment suggests to us. Where physical survival is the imperative, our two basic instincts are Flight or Fight. When our psychological survival is at risk the two basic mechanisms are Protection and Control. Protection of the self is required against the outside. If this fails, control is applied internally on the self, for the self's vulnerability is now deemed a threat. To satisfy the need to survive we need to be sage. To be safe we need protection; if protection does not provide safety, we try control. Let us see how these instincts operate.
When we are very young the world is exciting - but frightening, and very new to us. Our instincts tell us that we need to be protected - wee look to our parents. As we grow we may discover that we need protection not only from the outer world but also from our imperfect caretakers. If they seem not to want out 'bad' emotional states, we have to protect ourselves also from what is happening inside. This involves some control. Emotions may be overwhelmingly powerful when we are little: unless they are split off we will frighten ourselves. When a woman in my practice relives her abandonment by her parents she disappears into herself. She can't look up. I try to make eye contact, but she refuses. Later she says: "I don't exist if I feel rage".
We unconsciously try to protect our vulnerable self in many ways: by our behaviours, for example, by withdrawing or creating a diversion. Or we can even develop a body shape, for example, armouring ourselves with fat or becoming spare and insignificant. Otherwise we may try to control the world outside, for example by developing our aggression, by mastering what seems to be required, by finding ways of wielding power, or by puffing ourselves up with pride - all ways of attempting to assert our influence on the environment.
Where the environment is too powerful for us to exert our influence on it, this tendency to control turns back onto the self, and the mechanisms to protect become defences to hold us in and the world out. We inhibit all kinds of aspects of ourselves, for example our feelings, our power, our spontaneity, our trust, our desires. We control the self. A man I was working with described this perfectly. He said that there was a layer around his self. When he felt in charge of it, it was a semi-porous membrane, flexible, and open to friendship. Whenever he felt he was in defensive control: it was like being embraced by a rigid calcified membrane.
In an environment like a boarding school where the necessary protection is lacking, we may design a personality to be socially capable and attractive, or one which is in retreat. In the former case, a useful way of achieving control of the outside world is by the over-rapid development of competency. Such a self-reliant 'false self' may be one which is apparently confidently aggressive. In a boarding school the fear-of-failure driven winner is, as we know, socially desirable. Another variation of this is to develop a personality which is terribly nice, but inexhaustibly placatory, designed to satisfy and ward off those who have the power.
If this is not possible, for example in a very hostile or neglectful environment, extra control of the self will be needed. The threat of annihilation will be present until we build a defensive structure, with walls facing both outside and inside. Towards the outside they will protect us against potential danger, and on the inside against overwhelming emotions. I remember a boy in my school who was like this: he had no friends and was obviously an outsider, but no one even bothered to bully him, because nothing got through.
But the tragedy of a personality defended by protective/controlling psychic walls is that while it shields the creator from danger it also shuts out intimacy. If no one gets in to reach us we become players of the 'game of one'. We can remain safer on the inside but unable to function relationally. Many boarding school survivors have learned to create defensive structures which are impenetrably private, alongside impressive and competent false selves. Even when the environment is no longer a threat the defences tend to stay up. It is a matter of habit, and an attestation to the need to put them up really firmly in the first place.
Whatever style we choose, the result is inevitably a self-negation. Every self-negation, even when done in the cause of survival is a self-betrayal. Even the creation of a competent but inflated personality, though socially sanctioned, is a strategy that is ultimately self-betraying. The establishment of an adapted, or compensated, survival personality, is a great achievement, for without it there is annihilation or madness, but it is also a parody of the process towards self-affirmation which we seemed implicitly to expect.
('The Making of Them' pp.230-232, typed up from the google book preview - https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Making_of_Them/jRNVLgfJHKkC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22the+making+of+them%22&printsec=frontcover - so may contain errors)