“…(I)t is also a broadly human conflict manifesting itself in the individual, for disunity with oneself is the hallmark of civilized man. The neurotic is only a special instance of the disunited man who ought to harmonize nature and culture within himself.”

—C. G. Jung “Two Essays On Analytical Psychology”

The primary focus of this blog is on the development of maladaptive patterns of false caretaking. We pinpoint the origins of these patterns in the relationship between infant and key caregiver, and follow it through the dynamic interplay between individual and environment; specifically, the environment as represented by other people, especially people we rely on. A maladaptive caretaking pattern (“Irrelationship”) consisting of role reversal develops between child and caregiver when the caregiver fails to meet the child’s needs.

Cutting Ourselves Off to Protect Ourselves—From Others

The caregiver’s inability to provide a safe environment is traumatizing, and prompts the individual to develop routines designed both to dissociate from and to change the environment into one that that meets the individual’s need for security. Specifically, the child becomes the caretaker of the parent to help the parent fulfill her or his role as the child’s caregiver. As the child matures, his caretaking behaviors overwhelm other those around him and prevent their making significant contributions to his life. The result is that he comes to believe he doesn’t need anything others can offer him, thus short-circuiting his ability to develop connections with others that can grow into integrated, mutually gratifying relationships, including intimate relationships. 

“When you meet yourself later on after years of protective self-estrangement, you begin to see the fruits of interactive self-repair and find you have started to return home. You also see how this spreads out through your relationships with other people.”Grant

What does this actually look like? Some individuals take the role of Performer and act out routines intended to make others “well;” while their Audience counterpart acts as if the Performer’s routine is helping them to “get better.” The twist is that both parties’ roles are actually “performances” intended to shut out the possibility of relationships that entail empathy, intimacy, vulnerability and emotional investment.

If these essential ingredients are missing, even people who work next to each other for years, or even sleep in the same bed, may silently suffer from a distressing “apartness” from one another that remains unrecognized because of the dissociation from their true feelings began when they were small children. Such profound alienation can lead the individual to conclude he is in irrelationship with himself.

Where Might Irrelationship with Oneself Come From?

The authors’ work discusses patterns of irrelationship seen in parent-child relationships, romantic relationships, friendships; between adults within the same family; and even in the workplace. But how would a pattern of interaction between oneself and the world, beginning with our earliest caregivers, shape the relationship with oneself?—the irrelationship with oneself?

Children develop their relationship with their environment on the basis of interactions with their earliest caretakers, who, after all, are their environment very early in life. Their future relationships are conditioned by that most crucial early relationship. The question may then arise: can those early experiences condition us so that we enact defensive caregiving routines even with ourselves?

Some psychoanalytic theory supports that many or most of us experience ourselves subjectively as divided, though not pathologically, into two or more parts. But how does this look in everyday life?

The Joint Defense of “Everything’s OK”

Simon grew up in a violent family: his parents fought constantly and his unsupervised siblings were brutally competitive with one another. He described his father as a workaholic and his mother as continually troubled with apparently psychosomatic illnesses, although she died from one such illness when Simon was fourteen years old. Though materially comfortable and under no untoward pressures from the outside, the family was fragmented by intergenerational patterns of chilly emotional distance, illness and disability.

“Sometimes the damage one’s family of origin can be so profound that learning to form any kind of authentic relationship can be a herculean task.”Daniel

Very little in Simon’s family life provided security or nurture for its members. Instead, his family members colluded to create a facade of stability that enabled their family life to look as if “everything’s okay” to the outside world.

This strategic, if unconscious, adaptation relieved their intolerable family dynamic by providing space for each member to create a personal sense of “self-care-taking.” But this only further fragmented their family life, leaving them even less prepared to face and treat their shared pain. Instead, they survived through a deluded idea of self-sufficiency.  Ironically, their collective strategy of presenting an “everything’s okay” facade to the world enabled each to develop a self-sufficiency delusion in isolation from one another. Though acting as if each contributed positively to family life, all were protected against giving or receiving any contribution from any member.

This left Simon with a wounded sense of self that he was shrewd enough to keep carefully hidden from the world (as their family had done jointly) while meanwhile protecting and caring for himself. His strategy was so effective that, despite his history of trauma, he was able to become highly successful in his professional life.

By the time Simon reached adulthood, he had developed what some clinicians describe as a “split personality” — a low-level version of the Dissociative Disorder portrayed dramatically in Hollywood’s  “Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil,” and more recently in “United States of Tara” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” In actuality, this type of adaptation isn’t as rare as many believe: for many it provides a vital interface between an individual’s inner and outer realities.

Caretaking Ourselves Into Isolation

In the most “public” phase of his life, the Simon generally encountered was the high-achiever: bright, affable, focused. The hidden Simon was only occasionally permitted to appear; and only in specific, discrete moments and situations —usually those calling for humor or creativity. More rarely, perhaps another “Simon” — aggressive and protective — surfaced if Simon perceived a threat to his well-being. 

“Considering what irrelationship is—and isn’t—is it possible to be in irrelationship with yourself?”Mark

As he moved into middle-age, Simon became increasingly aware of the “divisions” in his personality and functioning. He started to realize that his projection of competence was a holdover from the “everything’s okay” performance his family had taken up during Simon’s childhood. Even more sobering, the  “self-care” which he long believed had kept him safe was actually an aspect of the compulsive, isolating care-taking his family shared to maintain the that “okay” facade. The net result was that Simon had cut himself off from the possibility of any authentic connection with anyone in his association — family, would-be-friends and work associates. Simon had care-taken himself into deep isolation from any stimuli that had the power to — or threatened to — affirm even his own humanity.


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Robert Olcott
Robert Olcott

When I reflected on an incident in the southeast Bronx, decades ago, where an eight year old member of the Savage Skulls gang was brought into the ER with a gunshot wound to his thigh, accompanied by two older gang members–to make sure he didn’t cry when the bullet was removed…, and when I attended a “Grand Rounds” continuing education presentation by an epidemiologist, at [then] Dartmouth Medical School in 2000, where the doctor noted: “52% of Detroit Metropolitan Area Schoolchildren met the [then] DSM-IV criteria for PTSD”, I’m left questioning whether the “family unit” is sufficient to raise a… Read more »

Robert Olcott
Robert Olcott

I found myself reflecting on the preface of “Caregiver, Caretaker: From Dysfunctional to Authentic Nursing Service”, where 85% of the Bachelor degreed nurses in the California Nurses Association admitted growing up in alcoholic households. Considering the results of the U.S. CDC/Kaiser-Permanente ACE [Adverse Childhood Experiences] Study, this experience may be quite common in our ‘Individualistic Culture”…


I find this very interesting and would like to learn more.