My parents recently moved out of state and gave me their 1999 Chevrolet Prism as a parting gift. Two years ago I would not have even considered accepting such a gift and thereby making my wife and I a two-car family; but things change. So, when they made the offer, I took them up on it and hitched a ride with my brother to pick it up. As I drove home along a Pennsylvania state highway with my dog in the backseat, I felt like I did after getting my first car in high school. I felt free.
There is a concept in family therapy called differentiation, first touted by a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen who was one of the first in the field to study and treat entire families as opposed to simply the individual who was suffering from some type of disorder or disturbance. The notion is that the ideal developmental context will allow a child/individual to develop a strong sense of identity within the context of the family unit. There is a tenuous balance that must be walked between exaggerated emotional reactivity on one end and emotional fusion on the other. Too far in one direction leads to an overdeveloped sense of independence and little emotional connectivity in relationships. Too far in the other direction leads to an underdeveloped sense of self and an over-dependence on relationships for emotional validation. It seems clear that this is a balance we continue to walk throughout our lives, not simply a deterministic chain of events that happens in our childhood.
Many people talk of “losing themselves” after being in a marriage or committed relationship for a number of years. When my wife and I hit a rocky patch 7 years in, I realized that I never really had an strong sense of myself to begin with. In fact, I always thought that having a sense of your own identity was a bad thing; my identity was supposed to be found in Jesus alone. Only problem was, I never really knew what that meant. So instead of having a strong sense of identity as part of a cause or movement or church community, I simply looked to those with whom I was in close relationship to give me direction in who I should be and what I should do. Wrong answer.
What happens when all of those relationships are stripped away? Even for a short period of time? Then you’re left with nothing. Except for hurt, which is a strangely comforting but miserable companion.
Over the last couple years, I have often felt imprisoned by my own psychosis, cut off from relationships for reasons yet unexplained to me. At some point I began to see that the true prison was the dependence that I felt on validation from my closest relationships. When I began to understand that being alone with myself was not the miserable prison that I often thought it was, I felt more free to enjoy relationships with those closest to me because I no longer felt I needed their approval in order to stay alive.
I’ve realized how important it is to have a well established sense of identity and some confidence on which to stand. And it feels good. But it is a daily struggle. And it helps to have things to call your own, spaces that are sacred. Like your own set of wheels.
Call it my own little sanctuary.
How do you walk this balance? Where do you find your freedom? Where do you find your sanctuary? Would love to hear your thoughts!