Fear of Discovering Your True Self Leads to Obsessive Behaviors

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Discovering your true self is scary and requires taking a big risk. Diverting that risk with an obsessive-compulsive activity like having your desk organized perfectly, can tame the overwhelming fear.

Discovering your true self is sequestered in a chaotic family

How did Cassie, a bright and hard working 29-year-old find herself with a tidiness obsession? She grew up as an only child in a chaotic family with an on-again and off-again mother, Alicia, and a depressed uninvolved father. Cassie survived by taking care of her dad after her mother came out as lesbian and left when she was 7-years-old.

Cassie and her dad, Vince were best friends. She filled the hole in her father’s life trying to bring him out of his depression. Sometimes he took her out to the beach giving her freedom to be a kid and splash around. But mostly their lives synchronized together as if covering the wound of the abandoning wife and neglectful mother.

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Discovering your true self means putting separate parts of you together again

Overwhelmed with fear and torn in her loyalties, Cassie split herself into three pieces. One part was the supportive and caring daughter towards her rejected father; another was a loving daughter who had fun when she spent time shopping and cooking with her mother; and a third was when she escaped the burden of divided loyalties in her room, alone, free to think of herself without fearing judgment.

But the freedom came with a cost – guilt at clocking off the job of being the parental care taker. That’s when she first developed a tidiness obsession. Her window shades had to be pulled back to a particular point; her favorite stuffed animal had to be on the left of her pillow, facing the bookcase – relieving the fear and guilt of taking a break from boosting and caring for her parents.

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Discovering your true self is delayed in a family where the child is used to staunch the wounds of a non-functioning parent

Stretched thin between acting as the balm over her father’s gaping wound, and boosting her mother’s confidence that she, Alicia was a good person, Cassie had no space, time or opportunity to discover her true self. In order to survive she had to ensure she had parents, and that was her life’s work – until she left home and wondered who she was.

Discovering your true self requires coming to terms with the false protecting self and the true comfortable self.

She had to put on a false mask, a mask of survival, which meant sacrificing her true self, until she felt safe enough to discover her true self.

Away from her family she had a hole in her life. Keeping her desk, counter tops, car interiors and her purse tidy filled that hole. It relieved her from having to work out who she wanted to be – and, these obsessive activities doused the anger that was coming up about her missed, delayed childhood – robbing her of forming a self-identity in the normal way. Giving up her false self which had been so useful in keeping her safe was not easy to throw away until she developed her true self within a facilitating therapeutic relationship.

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Discovering your true self feels like a threat to the order that placed on your family mess.

Cassie had to organize the mess outside her, to offer a semblance of safety inside her. She had no opportunity to focus on developing her true self – taking her eye off the ball would just mean overwhelming mess build up on the outside which threatened to swallow her up. So, discovering her true self became a threat that she had to avoid in order to keep safe. The obsession with a tidy desk, car, and purse helped her keep the attention on the mess in the outside world, and with each act of tidiness the threat level reduced and provided more safety – even as it sabotaged her journey to her true self.

Now well into her adult life Cassie is stressed out with attending to the mess inside her, hoping to ‘tidy’ it up and a sense of self-identity.

Discovering your true self poses a threat of having to lose the ties with parents who created the mess you kept in order.

Vince remarried two years after his Alicia left. Cassie was relieved that her father had a partner, but her step-mother Denise, had a strong hold over him. He became Denise’s puppy dog and broke the powerful ties between him and Cassie. Denise filled Vince’s hole, leaving Cassie unsteady and with no role to play anymore. She was catapulted back into a highly insecure place – to manage on her own.

Who was she to be now? Vince agreed with Denise on everything, even if it meant Cassie was hurt, demeaned, pushed aside or punished. Cassie had no way of forming her identity as a daughter whom both parents had in their way, thrown over for another adult partner. She was too young and fragile to do this important job without being held, encouraged and facilitated into the world as a person with a strong sense of self, self-identity and self-worth. Until she formed a safe and trusting relationship within individual counseling.

Discovering your true self means feeling safe enough to come out of the cocoon you developed to shield yourself from the threat of negative evaluation of others

Not knowing who you are or your purpose in life, is the scariest thing in the world – especially when it is the result of emotional abandonment by your parents. Everything in the world looks and feels threatening.

Burrowing into herself and keeping everything around her neat, tidy, orderly, clean and predictable is all Cassie had in order to give her a structure and something to hold onto – something to give her a purpose and alleviate the terror of not knowing who or what she was supposed to be for her class mates when she was at school, and then later with colleagues at work.

She ate in secret, watched her favorite shows in secret, read her books in secret and shopped alone, keeping her purchases secret. The fear of being judged, mocked and then abandoned was what she lived with day in and day out.

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Discovering your true self becomes an inevitable force at a certain crisis point in your life

On the cusp of her 30th birthday, Cassie’s obsessive tidiness escalated to a point where she couldn’t eat in the office cafeteria because it wasn’t meticulously tidy; similarly, with restaurants or anyone else’s home. She became panicked in the car if the traffic on the roads was messy, with unpredictable road closures, diversions, and especially with drivers not obeying the rules of the road in the strictest way.

Cassie was alarmed by the escalation of her discomfort and worried that she may not be able to go into work, or ever have a family of her own. She began individual counseling for anxiety, desperate for help. But she was terrified of her therapist judging her for her obsessive activities and her weird family background.

It took several weeks for her to feel safe enough to share anything, but when she found acceptance, interest and understanding, for the first time in her life, Cassie found an emotionally available adult who was consistently present, allowing her to steer the sessions. She didn’t fully trust it for many months, but the trust and safety developed as she found she had the control in the session.

Discovering your true self in individual counseling

Cassie learned that being and feeling safe was her paramount need, but in ways other than living secretly, with obsessive behaviors in an attempt to control the world. Figuring out what she wanted, and how she wanted to live was the focus of her therapy – providing her with a foundation to find her core integrity and honor it. In addition, working on the shame and grief related to her family background was also being processed in family of origin counseling.


Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2019

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