Introduction to the Substitute Sense of Self

The role of Narcissism

The development of a Substitute Sense of Self in a person’s life results from having a parent/primary caregiver who is unable to provide the child with the building blocks of a healthy Natural Sense of Self at the critical time in the sequence of development. In this Theory, our focus is on one the reasons for that: the parent is narcissistic.

A narcissistic person is excessively and unhealthily focused on themselves and cannot healthily focus on others. A narcissistic parent is unable to see her child as anything but a pawn in the emotional games of her own life because she (subconsciously) holds no other truth than that she herself is the center of the universe and everything turns around her, is about her. She doesn’t recognize others as being the center in their own existence, so she takes it as a given that things are organized in a way as to suit her needs, and not anybody else’s.

It is important to realize that a person who is narcissistic is almost always operating from a Substitute Sense of Self due to their own childhood deprivation of appropriate mirroring. That’s how and why they got to be a narcissistic person. People with Substitute Sense of Self are narcissistic people; it’s part of the unhealthy way they function.

Here’s an example. Let’s say the parent is a musician and is dependent for her own Substitute Sense of Self on the quality of her performance.  As you may have already read, for such a person there is no room for failing (Matter of Life and Death). The parent has to spend a great deal of time practicing, which by the way for her is never is ‘enough.’

The child is there in her life, but not within her immediate scope of concern or even awareness. The child is there physically, more ‘as an object’, and there is nothing in the parent’s mind that indicates this little being has personal emotions, needs (other than food), wants, and qualities. The child is a pawn in the world of the caregiver – who doesn’t even realize that her focus is not at all on the child and its well-being.

To make things even more complicated, a child isn’t always a cooperative pawn doing what the parent wants it to do, which creates a challenge for every parent, but is a far greater problem for a narcissistic parent. For her the child is not present as a person but merely as a pawn in a life-death matter of her dependency on her Ego-References for her Substitute Sense of Self! Now Nature has set it up that a child has a way of experiencing this deficiency. As you will learn from this theory, Nature eventually leads to the child becoming dependent on the caregiver’s approval and acceptance, by trying to make up for the deficiency by doing exactly what is needed to make the caretaker as happy as possible. Doing so, the child is bound to repeat the vicious circle of becoming dependent on a Substitute Sense of Self.

(Note:  There will be also children who do the exact opposite thing, getting attention by making the mother as unhappy as possible. Sometimes I wonder whether those are children who have an innately stronger Sense of your Self.)

What children need to develop a healthy Sense of Self

Infants have a normal, innate need to be acknowledged by their primary caretaker as unique and distinct human beings, so they can develop a normal Sense of Self. Many children don’t get that acknowledgment in normal and natural ways because the caretaker is unable to give it, perhaps from being narcissistic. Those children subconsciously develop particular adaptive or coping beliefs and behaviors they subconsciously experience as vitally necessary to get some sort of acknowledgment. These strategies give rise (through a sequence of stages described in the page on Early Childhood Survival Strategy) to what this theory calls a Substitute Sense of Self.

So there is a natural order of things in child development: the mother (primary caretaker) gives sincere attention to the child. That acknowledges the presence and importance of this child in her life. This attention and acknowledgment enable the natural development of what I call a Natural Sense of Self.

What happens if things go wrong?

If the mother is unable to give this acknowledgment,  Nature generates a Plan B: There is a need to be met at any cost. (Black Hole) So the child naturally begins to observe the mother’s response to its behavior and state. It subconsciously draws conclusions about what kind of behavior or state results in getting some (more or less) positive kind of attention and acknowledgment – and what kinds of behaviors or states don’t lead anywhere near that goal. Without words, automatically, the child is developing an ‘Early Childhood Survival Strategy‘: “If I do X, then I get Y, and if I do Z, then I don’t get Y, and I need Y, so I have to do X and avoid Z.”

Example: The toddler, through observation, might find out that the caregiver is more inclined to give her positive feedback if she is mellow, and if she is facilitating her caregiver’s (unhealthy) needs to feel-good-about-Self. Because the toddler desperately needs that positive acknowledgment, she will most likely do what it takes to  display that behavior, even at the cost of not paying attention to or even being aware of, her own needs and wants.

What happens over time

It is a classic process of ‘stimulus-response conditioning’.  However the impact of this specific (negative kind of) conditioning process can be life-altering. Once a child has drawn the conclusion that certain things have to be done or avoided in order to get their need for acknowledgment and positive vibes met even in this approximate, unhealthy, indirect way, a piece of the potential (unhealthy) Substitute Way of Sensing the Self is developed and becomes part of their psycho-emotional makeup, influencing many if not most of their motives, choices, decisions, desires, feelings, beliefs, needs, and wants lifelong. And this influence is highly detrimental to their  Quality of Life.

These moments are repeated over and over again every day. Conclusions are formed and strengthened; the goals of doing x and avoiding z get adopted and then become habits. The child’s behavior becomes set in these ways. Ultimately, the child develops the “Hidden Agenda” of “getting Y.” That is what this theory calls a Substitute Sense of Self-oriented Goal Substitute Sense of Self-oriented Goal. It’s all an effect of the child’s attempts to get its needs met, in some way or other, if the normal way isn’t available.

Early in childhood, the Substitute Sense of Self-oriented Goal involves a direct relationship with the mother, trying to get a need met in a substitute way, by meeting certain conditions (e.g. be mellow, be nice, don’t make trouble), when a normal way (be appreciated for being who I am) is not available. Later in childhood, a ‘feeling-satisfied-to-have-complied-with-the-conditions’ internalizes in the person and becomes the experience of a (Substitute) Self. The actual vibes from the mother being physically present, are no longer necessary.

Passing narcissism down from one generation to the next

We’ve already mentioned one thing which can make a parent unable to lay the foundation for a Natural Sense of Self to develop in her child: because she is too narcissistic. Another  way to describe that is because she doesn’t have a Natural Sense of Self herself (!). Her own ‘Sense of Self’-tree is already twisted and distorted. Her child having to scramble to find some version of their own Sense of Self, by specific behaviors, just makes another generation of crooked tree; the child we might say is “bending over backwards” to please the mother, and grows crookedly as a result.

After some years of such constrained, contorted behavioral compulsions, a child starts to identify with the behavior: the behavior is part and parcel of their Sense of Self, which is a Substitute Sense of Self. Also over time, the positive reward of getting the mother’s attention and nice vibes through the behavior, makes the behavior more and more automatic/compulsive/subconscious.

How it all gets automated in the child

After some years of such constrained, contorted behavioral compulsions, a child starts to identify with the behavior: the behavior is part and parcel of their Sense of Self, which is a Substitute Sense of Self. Also over time, the positive reward of  getting the mother’s attention and nice vibes through the behavior, makes the behavior more and more automatic/compulsive/subconscious.

So the child accepts many conditions to live up to. Over time, in childhood and adulthood, success in living up to the required conditions becomes a sometimes-reachable Substitute Sense of Self-oriented goal. Meeting the goal is the Hidden Agenda driving the person’s Indirect Motivation.

The child’s deepest desire is to get the good vibes from the parent herself in person, physically present. But the child grows up, lives somewhere else, and ultimately the parent dies. So the degree of success in fulfilling the conditions becomes the degree to which the person experiences her (Substitute) Self. The formerly resulting vibes are no longer directly necessary.

Over time, increasingly, the only thing that matters in life is ‘Have I met/am I meeting the conditions?’ The question of what else in life might matter, never comes up!

The child’s identity is wrapped up in the conditions to be fulfilled. That’s the only kind of experience of ‘Self’ she has. This theory therefore calls those conditions  ‘Ego-references’. The conditions refer to the person’s ‘Ego’; they create the Ego; the Ego consists of the necessity of meeting the conditions; the Ego checks in with (refers to) the condition-compliance to know whether it exists or not.

Where the reader goes next….

Or… Introduction to Restored Sense of Self….