“How much of our identity or self is truly representative of our own wants and goals in life, and how much does it reflect the wants and priorities of someone else?” This is the question Robert Firestone, a clinical psychologist and author who has focused his lengthy professional career on helping people in the process of individualization, and colleagues Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett pose in their latest book, The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation. Though its intended audience is mental health professionals, the book may have great significance for the lay reader as well: anyone interested in learning how to free themselves from the negative views and desires of others — namely, of their parents.
The book incorporates 35 years of studies involving more than 100 individuals and families. In order to reveal the sometimes overt repetition of negative behaviors and attitudes that carry on unless interrupted and altered, these studies include multiple generations of the same family. Using this research, the authors proceed to show how to help a client (or oneself) identify and eliminate the negative influences that prevent them from assuming their true identity. This is done, largely, by answering the above question about their wants and goals in the context of their numerous past and present relationships.
Firestone and his colleagues present a convincing case for how our early experiences with parents, as well as later experiences with spouses and others, cause us to develop a second self. This “anti-self” or “alien self” prevents us from becoming self-actualized by influencing our behavior, attitudes, and words, the authors posit. In most cases, negative influences are stronger than positive ones, which creates conflict between us and those with whom we have important relationships. We also tend to establish a “fantasy bond,” the authors explain: an illusion of a close relationship with our parents that causes us to retain negative but false self-images that get in the way of positive adult relationships. The writers also describe Firestone’s “voice therapy,” a therapeutic technique, outlined in other books as well, meant to identify and ease the self-critical “voices” we all still harbor from our parents and to lay bare the roots of our current selves.
This would be a more difficult book to read for us laypersons but for its many narrative accounts of actual therapy sessions that help to clarify the authors’ professional-level explanations. The authors have used voice therapy extensively to help bring out emotion in the self-criticism that clients experience. The result is a fascinating, imagined “dialogue” between clients and their parents, spouses, and children.
Reading the book, there were many instances where I set it down to reflect on my own experiences — as son, husband, father, and grandfather. Such self-reflection can be quite helpful in explaining one’s behaviors, and for that reason, the book is useful beyond its intended audience. For my part, I think I had a fairly comfortable childhood yet found myself continually relating the authors’ and their clients’ viewpoints to my upbringing. I know there are many people who experienced more difficult childhoods than my own who would find the book revealing and perhaps a call for deeper exploration.
The authors state that their goals for psychotherapy “reach beyond helping disturbed or maladapted individuals in overcoming their problems and include helping normal individuals in their process of self-actualization.” I think their book will reach many in that latter category.
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The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation
Routledge, July, 2012
Hardcover, 296 Pages