Me & My (Fragmented) Self
Curiosity about the goings-on in my hometown of Holland, Michigan prompted me this morning to visit the website of the city’s newspaper, The Holland Sentinel. As a former paperboy for the Sentinel, I recalled slinging newspapers in the crisp cold of Holland’s winter streets bathed in the hushed light before dawn. As I scrolled through the headlines, I stumbled across Holland’s police log. My first perusal of its records for February 21-22, the most recent posting, showed little of interest. Animal complaint. General public assistance. Traffic. Motorist assist. A closer look was more troubling, however: destruction of property; larceny; miscellaneous crime; more larceny; fraud.
As a therapist intern committed to helping others heal and find wholeness, I was saddened to read the police log. Its records seemed to me to be among the latest evidence of the strife and fragmentation that is readily apparent in human relationships. One need not go to the headlines to find it, either, because for most of us, it’s as close as that recent argument with a spouse or loved one, or our latest grievances with a coworker, or our curt and unkind words, spoken and unspoken.
The Christian faith conceptualizes the corruption of our relationships as a consequence of sin, which usually refers to offenses against God and God’s way of doing things. I want to highlight, though, that sin causes us to turn away from God and turn upon each other also, so much so that God spends quite a lot of time in the Bible teaching us how to live rightly with one another. Yet despite our efforts to have intimate, whole, and satisfying relationships with one another, the fragmentation persists.
Furthermore, fragmented relationships create and perpetuate fragmentation of one’s emotional life—indeed, one’s very self. This process begins very early in life in even the best child-caregiver relationships; because each of us is acting out of our own brokenness, despite our best efforts, we cannot possibly fulfill all of a child’s emotional needs. As I have explained before, failures to respond attentively to the child can hurt and lead the child to conclude that his or her feelings are expressions of, for instance, an unwanted, unlovable, or inadequate self.
Eventually, the child learns to hide those feelings in order to avoid being hurt, and that part of a person’s emotional self splits off. Psychological defenses are put in place to protect that self in order to spare the person pain, and thus, even in adulthood we learn to hide our deepest feelings, desires, and wants for fear that we will be hurt, rejected, shamed, or ignored. But if that is the way that the story of the emotional self always begins, why consider the story at all?
Because that is not how the story needs to end. If we can learn to value the unfilled, unspoken needs of others as well as their need to keep them hidden at the same time, perhaps we can do so for ourselves. We can create more intimacy in our relationships by (1) reflecting on the feelings and thoughts that we have dared not name or show to anyone and (2) by voicing our fears about revealing those parts of our selves to others. It’s risky, I know. We risk being hurt again when we become vulnerable and emotionally naked. In doing so, however, we, like Adam and Eve did before they knew sin (Gen 2:24), can stand before one another naked and not be ashamed.