Autonomy survival style: “I need more space”

If you have what Laurence Heller calls the “Autonomy Survival Style,” you are in a bind.

You feel pressured from all sides. You feel torn. You often feel victimized by people’s demands. And you don’t feel that she can speak up directly about your needs or feelings without endangering love. But the anger at feeling like you can’t be who you are has to go somewhere, and it often comes out sideways.

If this sounds like you, you came by it honestly. Here’s how it probably went down:

You reached an age when you were little when you could start speaking, and walking, and exploring. You had the natural impulses all little kids do: You needed to explore. You needed to say “No!” You needed to test the boundaries, and find out what your body and your words were capable of. You needed to develop a sense of your own voice, and your own space.

And then you were stopped.

A parent or caregiver, maybe without meaning to, stopped you. So you were not allowed to explore. Or you did not get to say “no”,  did not get to test the boundaries,  did not find out what your body and words were capable of. You did not develop a sense of your own voice,  your own space.

So you did what any child would do in that situation, what you had to do: You stuck close to the parent. You smiled, you cuddled, maybe you said “I love you” more times than you  wanted to. Or you maybe left your toys behind to stay close to Mommy or Daddy, because they needed you.

So it looked like you never developed your own independence, your own individuality, your own preferences. But not really. It was there. You hid it deep inside. On the outside, you were loving, compliant. But on the inside, a part of you stayed separate.  This part is isolated, hidden from the world, and perhaps hidden even from your own conscious awareness. The needs and behaviors driven by this part of you can seem uncontrollable, and like they come out of left field.

Suppose you had this history and this problem. What would you notice after you’re no longer a child, and you’ve grown up now? Probably, some of these:

  • You are good at figuring out what other people want.
  • You are intensely aware of other people’s needs and feelings.
  • You find it hard to say no.
  • You procrastinate.
  • You find yourself feeling inexplicably tired, fatigued, and ill.
  • You experience chronic pain or repeated injuries.
  • You are lonely, even in a relationship.

So why is this? Let’s look at it this way: You have two parts that developed out of your childhood experiences:

  1. The part that learned to live up to expectations. This part probably to learned to read other people. In fact, this part learned to stay one step ahead of others, perceiving what they want, what they feel, and what they need.  This part imagines that its sleuthing and pleasing is the only thing that makes you acceptable to others. Your self-concept may include only this part, and leave out this next part.
  2. The part that protects your independence. This part is fiercely protective of your space. This part is often hidden, and may feel guilty that it even exists because it is working at cross purposes to the “good child” part. Yet this part is essential.    This part is trying to maintain your sense of self, but has never been allowed to do this directly. This part sometimes sabotages the first part’s efforts to help others. This part sets boundaries indirectly, for example, through telling half-truths, through procrastination, through fatigue. If you’re not aware of the job this part has, you and people close to you can feel constantly blindsided.

These parts are both doing their very best to protect you. One wants to protect your relationships, and holds a deep fear that no one will really care about you or like you if you aren’t scrambling to always please other people. This doesn’t leave a lot of space for you!

The other part wants to make a space for you. It is often (quite understandably!) angry at the situation it finds you in, though you may not be aware of this anger.

And then, there’s you. You are more than the sum of these two parts. Much more. While both parts of you have something they contribute, they sometimes obscure how sensitive, caring, and perceptive you truly are.

When I work with someone with this style, I get very interested in helping you find out who you are. How do you do that?

You resolve the conflicts between these two parts, recognizing that they’re ultimately working toward the same goals. This, in turn, will give you your own authentic voice,  neither a pushover nor pushing away. You discover your sensitivity and your creativity. You discover that there’s more room for you within relationships. You discover a new softness and a new strength.

If you developed this Autonomy Survival Style, I know it hasn’t been easy. But along the way, you’ve picked up some tremendously valuable skills that most people don’t have, including an accurate sensitivity to others.

You learned to bury your deepest gifts and your depth and your passions deep inside. Maybe you’ve been pleasing, placating, distracting, “shoulding” yourself, and feeling angry and stuck for years. But who you are has been protected.

Now you can find who you really are. Easy? Nah, not really. Liberating? Very much so! Moving? Definitely. I love when people who’ve been hiding behind these defenses for years start to peek out and show who they are. I value their “no’s” as they flow genuine; I value their “Yes”es as increasingly trustworthy.

They learn to value alone time and relationships, and to stop pleasing and start connecting.

You can do this too.





A poem that influences my work

Occasionally, both in my current work as a counselor and back when I worked a lot with high risk youth, someone would ask me, “Where did you get the training that makes you so connected to your clients? How did you learn that?”

While there are several sources for my connection-based approach, one of the earliest influences I remember on my work was Torey Hayden. As a young teenager, I read her book, “One Child,” and then I read it again. And then again.

Torey Hayden worked with severely emotionally disturbed kids. Reading her books as a teen made me sure of the kind of connection-based work I want to do with people. It helped me to know that, where words and “interventions” fail, safe relationships heal.

Torey’s way of connecting with people spoke to me, her way of reaching beneath the “symptoms” into the humanity within us all.  Torey didn’t call failed interventions “resistance” on the part of her client. She didn’t pathologize the fears of this child she worked with. She understood the impact of complex trauma on this child’s life. And she made a safe space for this child to thrive, a space with clear expectations, lots of nurturing, and plenty of space to connect, to feel.

Torey had a gift for reaching the tenderness and the longings within the most wounded children she worked with and met. So, when someone asks me what influences my work, Torey Hayden’s name often comes up.

The power in her way of connecting is important to keep in mind and heart when working with complex trauma, because where wounds run deep, platitudes fail, but relationship heals.

Here are the words of one of Torey’s students, a student who had begun her time in Torey’s class by committing violent and atrocious acts — and whose time in Torey’s class reached a turning point when she allowed herself, finally, to speak and to cry. Here is that child’s poem about Torey’s impact on her life:

“All the rest came
They tried to make me laugh
They played their games with me
Some games for fun and some for keeps
And then they went away
Leaving me in the ruins of games
Not knowing which for keeps and which were for fun
And leaving me alone
With the echoes of laughter that was not mine

Then you came
With your funny way of being
Not quite human
And you made me cry
And you didn’t seem to mind if I did
You just said the games were over
And waited
Until all my tears turned into

Taken from the book, “One Child,” by Torey Hayden.

When a client and I are able to reach that place where connection heals wounded places, they say things that remind me of the poem above.

When you’ve been wounded, neglected, abandoned, and abused, you need a place with someone who can gently acknowledge your tears and your laughter and your presence and your pain……and who can help you to find connection in a world where connection has felt anything but safe.

When you look for a therapist, find someone that you feel like will really hear you, will really meet you where you are — someone who will honor all the parts of you. No therapist does this perfectly, but you can find a therapist who will do it often enough and well enough that you can begin to connect, to laugh, to cry, to heal.