Don’t be fooled—not all virtue is the same
There’s authentic virtue, and then there’s a kind of chronic, not-quite-credible virtue that doesn’t—and really can’t—reflect an individual’s true nature.
Such a convoluted assertion might seem a little peculiar, perhaps like a semantic game, or a verbal sleight-of-hand—but it’s not.
We typically judge people as “good” or “virtuous” if their lives revolve around serving others or doing good deeds—if they’re generous, giving, and self-sacrificing. But what if, when these individuals were young, such self-denying behavior evolved first and foremost to gain the approval of their parents? What if their routinely righteous sentiments and actions—though certainly perceivable as virtuous—don’t really come from their heart but their head? What if their words and deeds belie what they’re actually thinking and feeling—and don’t, in essence, “capture” who they truly are?
It’s been said that, over time, a person’s actual behaviors are what reveal their true identity. But what if, more than anything else, these behaviors are primarily old strategies devised originally—and self-interestedly—to win the acceptance of their conditionally validating (and not very empathic) caretakers? What if there’s a darker side to them, or at least a far more self-centered one, which they’re simply too afraid to divulge?
However honorable the self they scrupulously “adopted” during childhood, such a carefully cultivated (pseudo-) identity may yet conceal thoughts and feelings that would hardly be viewed as admirable. Their virtuous self, though it may regularly be manifest to others, may not come close to mirroring their true (though deeply suppressed) self. In fact, however commendable, what they display to the world may be best identified as a false self.
I’ll elaborate more on the origins of this paradoxical phenomenon by referring to several clients whom I’ve worked with over the years—whom I’ll “condense” into one:
As a girl, “Margaret”—by the way, this abnormality in child development seems to occur more often in girls than boys—felt compelled to decipher how best to “be” with her parents, who were extremely religious. Devout and fundamentalist in their highly sectarian views, their rigorous standards regarding acceptable conduct had a tremendous influence on her—particularly since they frequently resorted to corporal punishment to “correct” behaviors they viewed as selfish or undisciplined. They regularly instructed Margaret on how she should act, what she needed to believe, what behaviors to disavow, how to dress, and so on. And she had no choice but to attend church services and Sunday school, and participate in various church youth groups.
Growing up in a dogmatic household, in which she was also home schooled—further extending her parents’ control over her development—Margaret, who was quite precocious, readily picked up on all the subtle cues and clues of which behaviors could lead to a spanking—and compromise her parents’ seemingly tenuous acceptance of her. By nature, she was actually a high-spirited and willful child, so blind “obedience to authority” was something she had to painstakingly cultivate. Sensitive and ever-aware of all the little things that could trigger her parents’ disapproval, she tried as hard as possible to avoid their frequent (and stinging) criticisms. For when they expressed displeasure with her, it would make her feel that she must be bad: a “sinner” doomed to an eternity in hell.
Understandably, Margaret deduced that she couldn’t afford to assert her personal wants, needs, or values. Certainly not if they were in opposition to what she knew her parents deemed “right” for her. Since she was so dependent on them for whatever succor and support they might, however conditionally, offer, it barely occurred to her to be angry with them for their so many rules and regulations.
In general, there’s nothing more important to a child than attaining a strong, secure bond with their caretakers. So to allay any anxieties about being “good enough” to earn their parents’ acceptance and approval, they’ll likely strive to internalize parental dictates (however rigid or restrictive) on how to “be” in the world. To ensure their parents’ attachment to them, they’ll—“naturally”—make every effort to conform to their ideals.
Depending on the child’s gender and biological proclivities, as well as how much of the “rebel” they may have inside them, it’s only to be expected that they’ll more or less comply with their parents’ burdensome demands—that they’ll endeavor to fit the mold prescribed for them. And to the extent that they assimilate these belief structures and roles, their flourishing as the unique humans they were meant to grow into will be seriously stunted. Their emotional survival programs, at odds with their innate “wiring,” will doom them later in life to be self-denyingly—and not very happily—“virtuous.”
Child development research has shown that young children define themselves as good or bad on the basis of how they see themselves reflected in the eyes of their parents. Until they reach the age of 8 or so, they’re simply incapable of formulating a self-image independent of how they imagine their parents view them. Obviously, the problem with requiring such external validation is that in needing— sometimes desperately—to think positively of themselves, they feel obliged to adopt particular ways of behaving that they believe are essential to satisfy their parents’ quite possibly lofty, or unrealistic, standards for them.
Such a deeply felt necessity can lead the child to adopt a certain inauthentic, or “fabricated,” self-portrayal—to project, or simulate, a “virtue” that inevitably twists them into a shape disharmonious with who they really are. That is, they turn themselves into badly distorted versions of what, otherwise, they’d naturally become (i.e., had they not been so “indoctrinated” by their caretakers).
To put it a little differently, to feel they’re good enough to receive as much approbation from their caretakers as possible, they’re compelled to “handicap” both their thought processes and behavior. And the outcome? As they age, they can’t really allow themselves the freedom to evolve into their true adult self. Instead, they grow into an abnormally cultivated, outwardly virtuous, false self, while yet being plagued by nagging doubts about how good they really are—or, ultimately, who they are.
As a practicing psychologist, I’ve observed this phenomenon many times, especially with people-pleasers and so-called “goody two-shoes.” These are individuals who feel frustrated with themselves and with life in general, and are depressingly unfulfilled. Without realizing just why they’re not very happy (for superficially, their lives may be going reasonably well), in virtually every instance they haven’t addressed—or even been aware of—their core wants and needs. Rather, they’re living the life that’s been “preordained” for them, regardless of its doing almost nothing for them. Their whole existence, dominated by suppression and denial, offers them very little satisfaction. And they lack any clear sense of what would allow them to experience more joy, excitement, and contentment.
It’s as though they’re puppets and the puppeteers are their parents—who’ve taken up permanent residency in their head. Whenever, however fleetingly, they entertain a thought or fantasy deviating from the constricting norms originally established for them, they instantly guilt themselves (or are guilted by their cerebrally ensconced “parental introjects”). They may look, talk, and act like adults. But it’s the scared, still-insecure child adhering “religiously” to stifling family rules who (however passively) continues to run the show.
Moreover, if their thoughts patently diverge from their faith-based training, they can’t help but feel as though they’re somehow “impure,” that their whole character is objectionable (and this even though they may already have begun to question their religiously orthodox upbringing). Feeling unworthy and undeserving because of such errant thoughts, they also see themselves as frauds—as not really fitting in with their friends and family.
They’re also afraid to disclose to anyone what’s going on inside them and confusedly ambivalent about adopting alternate (and more “liberal”) ways of being. For in harboring profound reservations about their basic acceptability, they don’t feel they can risk straying that far from their markedly constrained lifestyle. So, independent of external circumstances or their support network, they feel quite lonely and alone—sometimes excruciatingly so.
To employ a common phrase, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They can’t let out who they fear they really are—as evidenced by the “darker” thoughts and feelings that repeatedly torment their consciousness. Among others, these mean, illicit, or “vulgar” ideas about themselves include sentiments of anger, resentment, revenge, greed, hatred, vanity, and forbidden (quite possibly outrageous) sexual thoughts and fantasies. And this is why they’re often filled with disturbing notions about how in their relationships they’re basically “faking it.” Still, given all their antiquated emotional survival programs—which remain pivotal to their “operating system”— it’s extremely difficult for them to even consider experimenting with different ways of being in the world.
In all likelihood they’ve renounced many of the pleasures that others, guilt-free, can offer themselves. Their tyrannical conscience can’t permit them such “culpable indulgences,” for they’d feel too selfish—or narcissistic—to partake of them. And just thinking about unrestrainedly gratifying their native appetites and impulses confirms in their mind that, deep down (and as they’ve feared all along), they’re hopelessly flawed.
So, at this point, is it not apparent how struggling in childhood to secure a somewhat tenuous parental bond might have seriously damaging consequences? And how, with such a disingenuous, if not deceitful, motivation for behaving well, a person might end up feeling—even in acting kindly and considerately to others—more fraudulent than anything else? For if, despite their many virtuous words and deeds, they yet can’t help but continue to entertain harsh, vindictive, or vicious thoughts, they’re still saddled with fears that their very essence is irreparably damaged.
Obviously, therapy for such individuals is challenging. And they tend to come in only when they’re at their wit’s end, or suicidally depressed. The heavy-duty repair work typically required involves major reprogramming of their guilt- and shame-induced beliefs—beliefs that still imprison them. And, “naturally,” the remedial learning they must undertake will shake them to their very foundations.
Also key is helping them grow their emotional resources, which have never had the opportunity to adequately develop. They must learn how to comfortably nurture, and develop a respect for, instincts, impulses and self-interested desires that their parents—in “good conscience”—could never accept in them. And, of course, they must be willing to do battle with their brutally oppressive, authoritarian superego. This is the repressive conscience that in their formative years took hold of them and, till now, has remained despotically in charge of their very being.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that in their initial attempts to expand their psychological comfort zone, they may falter, or be overcome with doubts and anxiety. To do such a radical about-face and make loving and accepting themselves unconditionally their highest priority, won’t really feel right to them. At least at the beginning, acting in truly self-caring ways, and at last addressing their totally legitimate wants and needs, will somehow feel bad and selfish.
In addition, reevaluating their presumed “dark side” in a far more favorable light is likely to seem presumptuous, ignoble, or even degrading. But it’s something they must confront and—self-acceptingly—take ownership of. Doubtless, though, their much younger, so-overly-conforming self is bound to tremble at the prospect. Frozen in time, this child self still worries that taking such action could gravely endanger their parental bond.
And this is the inner conflict that must be recognized… and resolved. Helping these individuals transcend their earlier religious teachings, and to disentangle their essential okay-ness from the behaviors they felt forced to adhere to, is nothing short of transformative. And it’s no simple task—either for therapist or client.
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[Leon F. Sletzer]