Between Two Identities: Finding What You’re Searching For
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
When that yellow corvette with vanity plates pulled into my driveway, all sense of reason melted away. The cortisol pumped through my veins. Nothing about this high school romance made any sense, except that I felt alive inside. It didn’t matter that his dad was connected to the mafia, that he had already been suspended from school multiple times, and that his house was the site of unsupervised parties every weekend.
Stepping into his line of vision made me feel special, and it was thrilling. I didn’t know if it was love, but it felt amazing.
A war had broken out in my heart, and it revolved around one single question: “Do I matter?”
My search for the answer to this question came from a deep place in my soul, and I was willing to look anywhere to find it.
This longing was powerful enough to turn off my rational brain and convince me to pursue attention and affection wherever my heart led. But like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, no matter how much it was filled up, the longing never felt satisfied.
New relationships held promise and excitement, but the inevitable crash left me confused and heartbroken. I had yet to grasp why I was searching for affirmation, but the signals on the dashboard of my life were flashing that something was wrong. I needed to pay attention before my longing to be seen ran me off a cliff.
The driving force of our existence is our longing to feel loved. This core desire and need for connection is wired in our bodies, minds, and hearts—and it shows up early in life.
God intended this innate need in children to be met through the unconditional love of a parent. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, me ending up in a yellow corvette with the son of an imprisoned Italian mobster started in my childhood.
It wasn’t until years later, after much self-reflection and honest engagement with my story, that I was able to connect the dots.
Harry Harlow was an American psychologist who studied the impact of maternal and infant bonding in primates, using rhesus monkeys in a famous experiment with profound implications. Harlow separated the monkeys from their mothers immediately after birth and placed them in cages where they had two surrogate “mothers” made of wire available to them. One of the wire mothers was covered in soft terrycloth but provided no source of food, and the other was simply a wire frame with a bottle attached that provided nourishment.
To Harlow’s surprise, when the monkeys had a choice, they spent most of their time with the terry cloth mother that most resembled the comforting feeling they would receive from their biological mother. And, when presented with fearful stimuli, the monkeys immediately ran to the terry cloth mother, which provided a measure of safety and security that regulated the monkey’s distress, helping them calm down.
The study highlighted that a developing infant requires far more than food for its survival; a child needs safety, soothing, and security – also known as “attachment”.
Furthermore, monkeys in the experiment who were never given the opportunity to bond with the terry cloth mother exhibited distress and reactivity when confronted with fearful stimuli, unable to self-soothe and regulate in the face of stressful variables.
Searching for Attachment
If the need for safety and security is that obvious and intense in a monkey, how much more prominent is it in human development?
Neuroscience has established that relationships influence the brain more than anything else. Here’s how neuroscientist Dan Siegel breaks it down in The Developing Mind:
One of the main functions of the attachment system is that it establishes a relationship in which an infant’s immature brain literally uses the mature functions of the parent’s brain to help organize and regulate his or her own functioning.
God designed the attachment system to protect children, who lack the capacity for verbal communication and self-care to stay alive and thrive. The need to attach, or bond, with another human is hard-wired into our brains and operates on behalf of our own survival.
Don’t miss this: our desire for connection isn’t sinful or wrong, nor is it a sign of personal weakness or lack of maturity.
The needs to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure cannot be erased from our personhood, and they endure for our whole lives.
Is it any wonder that the enemy of our souls seeks to twist and destroy these basic, God-given core needs, making every attempt to disrupt our efforts to attach to God and others?
Let’s look at how living in a fallen world disorders the need to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure, pulling us further away from the attachment we were designed for.
The Need to be Seen
What happens when a child grows up without being seen by her parents?
A child’s heart craves attunement—someone seeing and reacting to her. She needs a caregiver with the capacity to read her emotional cues and send signals that they understand her unique personality, hopes, desires, struggles, showing a willingness to engage her on a heart level.
If a parent is distracted, self-absorbed, disengaged, or unable to self-regulate their own emotions, a child may be left wondering if her needs matter, struggling to make sense of the inconsistent responses of her caregiver.
So how might she compensate for that in adulthood? Perhaps an implicit force will become the need to seek out someone—anyone—who pays attention and gives her the “feeling” of being seen.
If she grows up feeling as though she “doesn’t matter,” then she’ll find ways to complete what’s missing. How can she get noticed? Get attention? What image of herself does she need to portray to others that will get her the reaction she is looking for?
This has always been true, but the emergence of social media provides a case in point. Now, we have an alternate reality where we can project a “false self” into the world to receive attention or praise that resembles the feeling of being significant or important.
The false self is an idealized version of who we are, a self that impresses others while shielding the vulnerable self we would rather hide.
As a result, these opportunities for “virtual attachment” that we cling to in our search for love may pull us further away from healthy sources of genuine emotional connection.
With this new territory comes increased danger for further hurt and rejection.
There’s no adequate substitute for what we didn’t get from our parents. Despite our best efforts to compensate, this absence can be a serious obstacle in our identity formation right from the start.
The Need to be Safe
What happens when a child grows up who didn’t feel safe with his parents?
Children lack the capacity for logic and rational thought. Their emotions often overwhelm them, and they don’t have the ability to self-regulate. As they explore their environment, they test boundaries to see what will happen, and they look to the parent’s reaction to gauge what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
In the developmental process, mistakes and messes will happen.
But what if a parent has no tolerance for the child’s big feelings or failures?
Let’s think about this for a minute: If child who feels distressed, has a problem, or needs help goes to his mother about it, and she erupts with criticism, anger, or outright dismissal, now he has two problems: He’s still struggling with his own troubling feelings, and he must deal with the upsetting nature of mom’s dysregulated state.
It’s crucial to understand that the most frightening prospect for a child is losing connection with his parent. So, in this scenario, the relationship is tenuous, fragile, and uncertain, creating the ideal opportunity for internal fragmentation to begin.
If a child doesn’t have a safe person who can metabolize his “bad” thoughts, feelings, messes, or mistakes without making things worse, guess where those “bad” parts go?
He will split those feelings off, put them away, and believe that all relationships are dependent upon how well he performs and gets things right. He’ll develop an inner censor that’s constantly on high alert, ready to ward off conversations or experiences that make him look or feel bad because that signals the intolerable feeling of disconnection.
Poof! The false self is born.
Bessel Van der Kolk reinforces this basic need for safety in his book The Body Keeps the Score when he states:
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
Let’s fast forward to adulthood.
Adults make mistakes and messes just like kids do. They also experience negative thoughts and feelings that can be excruciatingly painful. But without the built-in familiarity of safety learned in childhood that gives permission for self-expression, full awareness of these feelings is prohibited.
The inability to bring the “bad” parts of us into relationship with others reinforces a powerful belief in a common, self-sabotaging lie: “I must be perfect to be loved.”
This internal narrative can lead to depression, perfectionism, restlessness, oversensitivity, anxiety, shame, and guilt. In turn, these weave a thread through our identity formation that strengthens the “false self,” leaving our deepest emotional needs unmet and disconnected from real relationships.
Blocked emotions and desires lead to walling-off the God-given need for loving connection behind a curtain of self-protection. The result: we must deal with the broken parts of our soul all alone.
The Need to be Soothed
The limbic system is a sophisticated and complex neurological structure designed to ensure our safety and survival. It helps us make sense of our environment by assessing all incoming information and making split-second decisions about potential threats and appropriate reactions.
In infancy, the limbic system is shaped by emotional cues from a child’s caregiver. If the child is distressed, she’s dependent on her parent to step in and offer soothing to help her calm down.
The role of the parent isn’t just to provide food and shelter for the child, but also to help their child develop a more mature limbic system—one that’s able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without shutting down or getting reactive.
A powerful example of how this works in real time is in the well-known “Still Face Experiment,” which demonstrates what happens to a baby when she doesn’t receive the normal cues of attunement and engagement from her caregiver.
First, the mother connects with the child with appropriate verbal and facial expressions, and the infant responds with a playful smile. Then, the mother turns away from the child and when she turns back, she has a blank look on her face and does not interact with the child in any way.
It doesn’t take long for the baby to begin wailing, writhing, and crying when she realizes that her mother has “gone away.” The disconnection with the mother feels intolerable and sends the baby’s limbic system into spiraling dysregulation. When the mother turns back again, offering normal soothing cues, the infant’s limbic system is regulated, and she returns to cooing and reaching out to the mother.
So, what happens in adulthood if we never learned to develop that inner capacity for self-soothing?
It will impact our identity formation. Relationships become a threat to our internal stability, rather than a potential source of comfort and safety.
We may also need to look for external resources to self-regulate and gain internal equilibrium.
Those sources might be food, alcohol, drugs, exercise, sex, pornography, gambling, shopping, and other euphoric experiences. Many addictive cycles have their roots in a person’s efforts to self-soothe and find emotional stability.
These adapted coping mechanisms designed to self-regulate do not exist in a vacuum. Their origins are more deeply connected to our story than we may realize and cannot be ignored.
The Need to be Secure
The parent-child relationship is the most vulnerable on earth. Everything that a child needs for his survival and development is dependent on the parent and is the only place where these needs can be met unconditionally.
This may seem like a bold assertion, but it’s an important point to understand: if the basic needs to be seen, feel safe, be soothed and experience security aren’t met by reliable, consistent caregivers, these unresolved questions will show up later in adulthood.
Put simply, here’s how it works: A securely attached child grows up with a general sense that he can trust himself and others. An insecurely attached child will grow up with a general sense that he cannot trust himself and others.
The relational thermostat that gets set in childhood by these early experiences creates an implicit belief system about who you can trust, what healthy relational boundaries feel like, how connected you are to your emotional world, and your established sense of identity.
At this point I’m wondering, is there anything MORE important than knowing your story?
If you don’t know your own story, figuring out who you are becomes like putting together a puzzle in the dark.
Denial or Discomfort?
As I’ve stated previously, the journey of self-reflection holds the promise of both transformation and pain. Taking an honest look at ourselves requires courage and vulnerability as we name the ways we have been harmed through broken relationships and unmet needs, living in a fallen world east of Eden.
But, if we don’t consider the pieces that were missing from our childhood, we’ll end up repeating our past, bringing all the unanswered questions of our youth into our adult relationships.
As you consider these concepts, how do you feel? Angry, ambivalent, confused? I get it—denial is preferable to discomfort. However, remember that no one had perfectly secure attachment.
With that in mind, here are your options:
Seek security through control: Search for love, comfort, and security from any available source, even if it means stepping outside God’s prescribed boundaries. Perform to please others. Avoid genuine relational vulnerability at all costs and keep God and others at a safe distance.
Seek security through humility: Get curious. Slow down and listen. Tune out distractions and pay attention to your soul and to the images, memories, and voices you carry. Recognize your imperfections, limitations, deficiencies, hurtful ways, unmet needs, and desires and come closer to God and others.
Finding True Secure Attachment
Because we all suffer from some degree of insecure attachment, we desperately need the hope of the gospel. The anchoring truth of God’s love can provide the relational repair that we so desperately need.
You see, we need to know that even though shalom has been shattered by sin and we face the challenge of unmet needs, longings and desires, the gospel tells us that restoration is imminent. “In Christ Jesus, you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:13)
God is rescuing us right where we are, with all our mistakes and messes.
No matter how fragmented your story is—or your soul feels—you are securely attached to your heavenly Father. He has removed all barriers that have sought to pull you further and further away from him. And he has come close to you through his son Jesus. You’ve been given a new family, the body of Christ, and you can have confidence in your identity as God’s child.
Secure attachment is characterized by one critical factor: hope.
Growing up, you needed a strong sense that despite your weakness, failure, sin, and imperfection, you are loved. And no matter how severely the relationship was ruptured, repair is just around the corner.
This is exactly what we have as children of God.
He loves us with an unconditional love that defies all explanation, is abundant in measure, constantly available to us, and impervious to our foolishness. No matter where you picked up your feeling of security as a child, you can have the hope that God has done everything necessary for your identity to be made new.
For the rest of your life, the truth found in God’s word is designed to convince you confidently and repeatedly that nothing can separate you from his love. (Romans 8)
As you begin to internalize the profound nature of God’s love for you, you’ll feel the freedom to notice how your search for safety and security has taken shape over the course of your life.
Here are some questions to ask yourself at this stage in understanding your identity formation are:
- Where have I been searching to fulfill my need for love and belonging?
- What beliefs do I have about my needs for affirmation, affection, and attention?
- How have I coped with my unmet needs, longings, or desires?
Even when the yellow corvette drove out of my life, the burning question of “do I matter?” remained. What if, like mine, your need for love, connection, and security has left a hole in your heart that’s too big for anything or anyone on this earth to fill?
We’ll look at how we deal with what we didn’t—and may never—get in the next post of this series.
What are you turning to in your life to define your identity and worth? In this Going There episode Samantha and Christian interview Kay Fitzpatrick as she shares about how losing control of her life and identity have brought her closer to God.
Don't miss each part of this blog series by Lynn Roush: