Identity is forged across the span of a lifetime in the crucible of social pressure. This means that you are who you are largely in response to the way that you experience the needs and behavior of the important people in your life.
These lessons are seldom communicated directly in words. They’re not classroom discussions, pages in a workbook, or the latest app on your phone. They’re not even the lectures that parents sometimes give children about “being all that you can be” and how to succeed in life. Rather, these lessons are learned on a physical and emotional level without words and often even without awareness.
You are who you are largely due to your insatiable need to feel held. There is no greater reward than feeling held tight. Loved. Nurtured. Accepted. Contained. We human beings will choose love rather than food or water and, if a dozen science fiction movies are to be believed, even more than air. The sacrifices we make in order to feel held and to hold those whom we love are the subject of the greatest music and drama known across every medium and every age.
If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, then you know about Harry Harlow’s experiments with primates. Baby monkeys were given the choice between two wire-frame faux mothers. One provided milk via bottles arranged like breasts. The other was covered in soft cloth but offered no food or drink. The babies could spend as much time with either as they chose. They all chose the textured mother. Food is far less important than feeling held tight.
We are no different. We are intrinsically motivated to be held—to be accepted into the social fabric. We are born with an oceanic sense of self and discover through a million experiments with letting go, how to define self. Where to build the boundaries and how high. We are like stem cells, inherently malleable; shaped by our surroundings to become whatever is needed in order to keep the larger system functioning.
This plan is brilliant and successful if Mom and Dad are healthy, where “healthy” simply means fitting into the larger community. If you fit into family and if family fits into community and if community fits into the world at large, then logic predicts—through the transitive property of social adaptation—that you, too, will fit into the world at large. You’ll be deemed “healthy.”
And if Mom or Dad is not healthy? If your caregivers’ needs and expectations don’t align with the needs and expectations of the larger community? If the social pressures that shape your early identity—– the ways you learn to get held—are different from those of the larger world? This is one of nature’s essential dilemmas and, much more personally, an exquisitely painful problem for many, many people.