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Existential Wounding/ Sense of Self.

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Excerpt from Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life-James Hollis.

The presence of loving parents gives reassurance and helps us to moderate the message that the world is inscrutable

Our life's journey begin with traumatic separation ; we are expelled from home and set adrift into an inscrutable world.


We all receive the same message that the world is big/powerful and we are not. Even so, the presence of loving parents/family help us to moderate the severity of this message.

However, some children are less fortunate and experience disempowering messages and feel more overwhelmed by the world.

As children, we are limited to 'magical thinking' that "I am what happens/ what happened to me" since we do not have adequate experience to differentiate self and world.

Decades later, after many painful turns and returns, we differentiate better.

All of us, to varying degrees, experience two categories of existential wounding and we may be already enacting the reflexive strategies unconsciously.

Some of these reflexive responses may be more familiar than the others. If we do not see any of them in our daily lives, chances is that we may not be conscious yet of the many ways in which they weave our histories/present.


The first wounding is overwhelmment; which is an experience of our powerlessness in the face of our environment which may consist of invasive parental presence/absences, biological impairment, socioeconomic pressures etc.

The central message from such encounters again is that one is powerless to alter the course of the outer world.

Three reflexive responses come about as a result;

a) Avoidant Personality.

Given the message that the world is more powerful and less controllable, we may try to avoid its punitive effect by hiding out/retreating or procrastinating.

Example; One marries someone they do not love as they felt unable to approach the one they did. Some may avoid going to college/taking on a certain talent as they felt the world as too powerful to take on.

b) Seizing control of the situation.

A child who has been abused may evolve into a sociopathic personality from the message that he/she internalizes that the world is hurtful and invasive.

Therefore, they seek to hurt and invade first in fear that they may be hurt and invaded instead.

Example; Dictators/ Insecure bullying spouses. Their urgent desire for power is a measure of their inner powerlessness.

c) Accommodation

Accommodation is learned response.

The most common, " Give them what they want".

Beginning with parents, children learn to get love by giving others what is expected, demanded or merely implied.

There are polite word we use to refer to someone who is accommodative. We may say someone is nice/sweet/easy-going/friendly.

However, if you find yourself, repeatedly and reflexively being nice, you do not only lose integrity but lack personal authority to control your personal life.


Due to early childhood abandonment we may not rely on the world to meet our needs.

It may be that our parents weren’t available as they may have been caught up with relationships difficulties/ addictions/ depressions or real world pressures.

A child who experiences abandonment whether physical/ psychological will likely have an unfulfilled desire to be fed/comforted/engaged by the other or turn off and die.

From such wounding comes about three reflexive responses;

a) I am treated as I am

Absence of the supportive other during childhood may lead one to imagine that they are not worthy of being met. They hence hide out of life, diminish their possibilities and avoid risks.

One chooses the safer option whether work or relationships, rather than one that challenges and opens new possibilities.

b) Overcompensation

The second response to insufficiency of our early environmental setting is to overcompensate. (Seek power, wealth, right partner, fame or sovereignty over others).

What one is lacking within, he/she will seek it in the outer world.

They may boast or inflate their reputations, belittle people, make others guilty for the alleged injury to them.

Any argument with them will always prove to be your fault and not their own responsibility.

c) Seeking reassurance from the other.

Most pervasive reactive pattern; obsessive need to seek reassurance from the other.

Someone who is lovesick will feel let down by their beloved after they have escalated their hidden agenda for fulfilment and drive the other away.

They meet and mate with someone and demand for continuous reassurance. With time they grow weary of the other person, for the other can’t fill the vast void within them.

They are quick to blame their partner for not being adequately present.

Even in normal marriages, this sort of disappointment usually arises but mature people usually understand it as nature of life itself and not the partner's fault for each of us has a lifelong need for fulfilment that no other person can ever meet.

If someone's history is charged with this insufficiency, it is hard for them to control it as it may be larger than their consciousness. They experience repeated rounds of anger, disappointments, frustrations, anger and desire to meet 'magical other'.

James Hollis gives an example in his book of a girl, Susan, child to two narcissistic parents who did not feel valued for herself.

Susan experiences repetition where she idealizes her boyfriends initially but later end up denigrating them for none fulfils her need. Same scenario plays out in therapy where she believes that the other therapist will 'understand' her better. She later realizes that it is her responsibility to heal the childhood pain and that there is no 'magical other' to do so even after changing her boyfriends twice the same rate that she changed her therapists.

We all have an addictive pattern. Any of the reflexive patterns above are forms of addiction whether conscious or not.

To stop the addiction, one is required to face /feel the pain that the addiction is defending against.


C O N C L U S S I O N !

Either of the six patterns are present in our social, economic living and may be dominating how we do business.

For instance, one may be accommodative, that is, being nice/cooperative, they get rewarded for being compliant but they feel that their psyche has been violated. One may seek power/recognition, and yet after achieving it they feel empty. Another may spend their life hiding out, live in a safe small world, and short-change their soul yet knowing well that they have been summoned to something larger.

The reflexive responses all arise from either a traumatic past experience, disempowered childhood environment and its constricted range of choices/values.

Whenever we are stressed, fatigued, anxious or have less conscious control they are likely to reactivate.

If you cannot relate to any of the 6 patterns, you may be hitting a blind spot, which will show up sooner/later in your life.

Note that this patterns helped us survive in our childhood but do not allow them into your adulthood.

Do not judge your history for it was as it had to be, but do not abdicate the possibility of the present either.

Learn the reflexive responses, where they show up in your life and the damage it has done to yourself and those around you.

No freedom comes without consciousness, and yet, paradoxically, consciousness is obtained from suffering. Avoiding suffering will always limit you to the constrictive yet familiar old shoes.

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