Unit 8 – “Help! I sense my Self disappearing when I don’t succeed in making you happy!”
Approval, Fear, the Black Hole, and Annihilation
When a parent or caregiver is unable to acknowledge their child as a “real” autonomously existing person, that parent fails to provide the foundation on which their child can build a healthy Sense of Self. The child experiences the resulting lack of Sense of Self, on a deep, primordial level of consciousness, as a painful void.
I refer to this void as a Black Hole. This void generates a gigantic power that sucks in any positive outcome of an achievement or behavior of the child that would have led to approval, which then is experienced as a Substitute Sense of Self (SSoS). Any situation that goes well in the person’s life and that would gain the caregiver’s explicit approval is used to fill the void of this Black Hole to create, if you will, a sort of balance in the system. At the same time though failure fear is a steady companion of this success as it is success not for the sake of itself, but for the sake of gaining a Substitute SoS.
To get a full understanding of the power of the unhealthy motivations that result from this lack of acknowledgment, we need to take a close look at the child’s inner experience of the Black Hole, an experience this Method calls ‘Annihilation.’ We also need to take into account and study the fear developed from having experienced this void, Fear of Annihilation.
In this Method, the term Annihilation is an inner, usually not consciously defined, perception of feeling as if one is alive but does not exist to others. It comes down to feeling like a person without a voice or a face as a unique individual, and stems from not being acknowledged as an independent, potentially autonomous being. The experience of Annihilation is not so much that of existing and then not existing because of dying physically. The ultimate terror of Annihilation arises from the gut-level experience of feeling invisible even though one is physically present—present as a body but not addressed and taken in by the community.
Experiencing Annihilation is not recognized as such by the person at all; it merely manifests as a rising awareness of being ‘off’ in some way, and as a result of being discounted, it comes down to a deep feeling of being rejected, of being denied access to the world of the others.
To label this complex condition, the term Annihilation is used, rather than nonexistence. There always are certain fundamental layers in the Self that do develop or exist in any kind of childhood environment, no matter how starved for acknowledgment the child is. However, whatever sense of selfhood the child subconsciously manages to achieve, it is always disappearing along with the approval/good vibes the (unhealthy, Substitute) Sense of Self depends on. Annihilation, as described here, happens over and over again. The subconscious sense of not existing is experienced as terror. As we shall see, the motivation to avoid the experience of Annihilation is compelling.
Ideally the relationship between the infant and the parent(s) or primary caregiver(s) feeds the infant’s sense of being acknowledged as someone existing as a separate person. This then contributes to the development of a healthy Natural SoS. This sense of being a Self is the opposite of the experience of Annihilation. If an infant’s primary caregiver fails to reflect to the infant: ‘I see you as a being independent of me, no matter what you do or do not do,’ then a condition is created for a warped SoS.
What happens if a child’s (person’s) own needs and nature are NOT taken into account by others? The child may conclude he isn’t good enough. And that makes the child feel like being a ghost with a body—bodily alive but in the living hell of being invisible to everyone. An eerie suspicion of “I am not real, I have no real empowerment” may emerge in the child’s or later the adult’s mind. This vague uncertainty, plus the strategies the child develops to try to overcome it or compensate for it, may stay with him or her for the whole of his or her adult life and greatly determine its quality.
I remember being present with certain groups of people and trying to mingle. I convinced myself it was normal to be overlooked and not addressed. I felt so unimportant to others, yet inside I knew I was worth a lot. I had no sense of when to come into a conversation or when to speak up in a group. I wasn’t in touch with the part of your being that generates impulses and that, if you trust it, makes those decisions for you. If you have no Sense of Self, there is no way you can rely on your intuition as you are not aligned with it.
Fear of the experience of Annihilation arises in young children and stays with them for life. It is never recognized or confirmed, though. When a person (a parent) is with the child, feeds it, and gives it clothes, it looks like he or she cares for the child. In other words, it isn’t really visible to an outsider, nor is it within the ability of a child to recognize that a parent merely tolerates the child and lets him or her come closer when the child complies behaviorally to the parent’s wishes. That doesn’t mean that this situation is less real, though.
I remember a situation in which, as a 12-year-old, I had an accident with my bicycle. I somehow had lost my balance and landed with my ribcage on one of the handlebars. I was in pain, but I do not remember a word of comfort from my mother, and the trip to the doctor’s office lives in my memory as a nuisance to her: “How could you do that to me,” was the non-verbal message. I don’t think she really saw me.
It is hard for someone who has been in that situation to believe in him- or herself. There is always this uncanny sense that something is at stake: Annihilation. Now this Fear of Annihilation that lingers in one’s life is the living proof of the defects in the relationship between caregiver and child. It is hard to put the finger on it later in life though, as this relationship is now only a memory.
The Fear of Annihilation is the fear of not being visible as a Being, despite being bodily present, to others. The never-articulated subconscious belief is ‘I am unable to participate in life because nobody sees or hears me.’ Obviously, this leads to feelings of inadequacy and deep inferiority, and thus Annihilation becomes a constant threat and a constant reality. This fear, plus the attempt to prevent the disappearance of anything remotely resembling a SoS, becomes a dominant motive in life. It can be so terrifying and painful that it rarely reaches conscious awareness; most people who have it experience some milder version and do not realize what they are really afraid of!
Fear of Annihilation is also a profound motive to try to gain and keep the caregiver’s real or virtual approval, which allows the “Feeling-good-about-Self” (Fgas) state to soothe the state of mind. In a person’s psyche it generates compulsions and addictions in desperate attempts to avoid experiencing Annihilation as well as the Fear for it. Imagine how it would be if your only experience of truly existing were while you would “Feel-good-about-yourself?”
Thus, the Fear of Annihilation is the fountainhead for many other fears.
The attempt to prevent Annihilation becomes—with the power of a force of nature—a dominant yet completely subconscious operating motive in life, and it generates an entire system of unhealthy, detrimental psycho-emotional habits, beliefs, needs, desires, compulsions, addictions, and motives. This system enslaves us until we become aware of it.
The Substitute Sense of Self
When a Natural Sense of Self does not develop, another structure develops in its place: a Substitute Sense of Self. It makes up for what is missing within us. Or it could very well be the other way around: Because another structure develops in the growing infant, there is no room for a natural SoS to develop. When a healthy (i.e., Natural) SoS is lacking, a compulsive drive for achievement-based approval develops automatically, to enable the person to experience a fleeting imitation of the lacking Natural SoS.
The lack of a Natural Sense of Self creates an inner vacuum that leads to an intolerable terror. Subconsciously, a person then adopts various strategies for getting positive feedback, be it physically, emotionally, verbally, or nonverbally, from his or her caregiver or parent. These unhealthy, subconsciously self-imposed strategies include various requirements (conditions) for feeling or acting or behaving in certain ways to get recognized. Through successfully meeting these requirements or conditions, people “Feel-good-about-themselves,” which is comparable with receiving a sort of validation that they “exist” as a Being. I consider this to be a substitute way of experiencing the Self, or, in other words, a Substitute Sense of Self.
The Substitute SoS is the central part of a complex collection of psycho-emotional motives, goals, feelings, needs, desires, habits, and behaviors that, as a whole, is called the Substitute SoS-oriented System*. This system operates a great deal of the person’s psyche and behavior, and has a profound influence on his or her health, relationships, work, environment, children, and spouse—in general on life itself. It causes a great deal of (unnecessary) suffering for the person who is ruled by it as well as for the people in this person’s direct environment. But now that we are able to identify the condition and label it, it can, fortunately, be addressed and, with enough determination and effort, be healed.
*This concept has been discontinued in the second version of the book, The Motivation Cure – A Guide to a Healthy Sense of Self.