A Sense of Self

People, Place, and Brain

In our apartment building in New York, everyone seemed to have numbers on their arms, sad eyes and thick German accents. My great Aunt Gertrud would take me to the park in my stroller. She called me a “dickopf “ (fathead) because I was such a “terrible eater” right from the start. On Saturdays I often went with my dad on the subway to the orthodox “schul,” our special time together. I would sit next to him in the men’s section, my little legs dangling from the hard wooden bench, and braid the fringes on his “talis.”  Other than that I did not get out that much. Mr. Shall the nice old man who painted portraits of each of us (see the portrait of myself age four); and Mrs. Bodine my piano teacher, were all in the building. So it was easy for me to believe, the whole world was like us.


 It was only when I went to public school kindergarten that I began to get the confusing messages about identity that got more and more confusing as I got older. Fit in, but not too much. I learned the complicated word “assimilate,” which accompanied the complicated messages. My mother’s family, even though they had nothing, still identified with an intellectual elite, my grandmother proudly being one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. She tried desperately to talk my mother out of marrying my father, who never went to high school, (although he “showed” her years later by getting his MA from Stanford.) My dad was simply ferocious about our marrying Jews. So we were in some ways “superior?” certainly and thankfully not like them. And yet fleeing hideous rejection and persecution, many here were ignorant or prejudiced, so we might have to hide or prove ourselves as worthy or equal, or “pass.” Oy vey. And that was even before all the identity challenges of adolescence and then of moving to Indiana!

“He’s Adopted”

In the Colin Kaepernick movie “Colin in Black and White,” is one poignant scene, where the teenaged Colin has reached the long awaited milestone of getting his drivers’ permit and is out practicing with both of his white parents in the car. He is doing nicely, when he is randomly pulled over by a cop, apparently for “driving while black.” His father pipes up quickly saying, “What did he do, Officer?” The cop looks over at Colin’s dad, sitting in the passenger seat, and sternly asks, “Who are you?” His mother jumps in  from the back seat, “We’re his parents.” And quickly adds, “he’s adopted.” It sounds almost apologetic. Variations on that scene repeat in the course of the movie, and one can only imagine how many times it recycled in his life. It reminded me of a time when I had a small crash on a bike trip in Oregon that left me with a whopping shiner. Walking down the small town street with a black eye, I could see people looking at me, looking at my husband, and glancing back and forth between us, trying not to be too obvious. I remember how ashamed I felt. Somehow it matters who others, even strangers think I am.

Colin’s life and identity formation as a person of color in a white world, was far more complicated than I knew as I saw him heroically taking a knee. Obama unfortunately does not address this experience in his recent memoir, which I doggedly trudged all the way through to its final 700th page.

How Many ACES in One 40 Minute Interview?

This morning in the wee hours I heard another compelling interview, this time a young Pakistani man whose family were immigrants in Northern Ireland. I knew a tiny smattering about the fractured identity of Ireland. I remember when I was traveling in Latin America in 1981, following the news in the Spanish language newspapers of the Irish freedom fighter Bobby Sands as he struggled through an ultimately fatal hunger strike. The young interviewee, arriving in Ireland anxiously discovered that there was nary a brown face anywhere to be seen. Making it even more complicated was that his father was a devout, strict and authoritarian Muslim; and his mother had joyfully discovered and embraced Catholicism. Some of his childhood memories involved his mother secretly sneaking him out to go to be baptized, later to confession and ultimately Confirmation. These little clandestine escapades were exciting and special times with Mom. His father on the other hand, was fierce, harsh and demanding of both his mother and himself. Yet much like myself, his brutal father was also his greatest role model in some ways. I have always said that all of my best qualities are from my father, and he is the one whom you will most often hear me quoting and rhapsodizing. It has taken me years and decades to integrate these seemingly opposing pieces, and I suppose I am still not finished. This man felt quite similarly.   

Caught in a clash of multiple identities, Irish, Pakistani, Muslim, Catholic, father, mother, he was plagued by the question, “who am I?” It was unanswerable. And he had a brewing rage toward his father that was only building, when in his teens, his father was mysteriously and violently murdered. The circumstances and facts of his father’s murder were never resolved, and his massive swirl of emotions and identity questions became a lifetime agony. I thought of my own little conflict, and how it has challenged me, and in comparison with that? Wow! And now I am doing what I always tell everyone not to do! It is pointless to compare or minimize one trauma against another! Don’t do it!

The Default Mode Network

The developmental neuroscience researchers teach us that the sense of Self develops in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain, deep in the brain’s most primitive region. This is like the idle mode of a car, where the car settles when it is not “under task” meaning in drive or park. It is where we drop for self-reflection or relaxation, if we are lucky.  The infant brain develops in resonance with the brain of the caregiver, right hemisphere to right hemisphere. We begin to grow a Self through the consistent presence of a caring other: the gaze, the touch, the song, the loving emotional tone. That is how the little circuits begin to form and fire and wire, long before any of the complexities of life events intervene, distort, and compel.  

So you may ask, why do I feel so bad? Why do I have so much confusion about who I am or what to do, or what is “right” or “good enough” or “real?” The answers may lie deep in the brainstem, long before we had the equipment for autobiographical memory, let alone the words. We needed that consistent other, and when that failed or was insufficient or absent, we lack for the essential tool to make sense out of all the many complications that might come later. For healing we need the consistent others, the touch, the song and the positive emotion.

As the Dalai Lama is known for saying “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible!” I would emphasize, be kind to yourself!


My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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