(Prior version excerpted in a guest column at The Natural Child Project)
If parents do not enter a young child’s world, but instead require him or her to enter theirs to make contact, the resulting damage can last a lifetime. Different temperaments spawn different adjustments to this situation: some children, by their very nature, are incapable of aggressively seeking attention. If no one is entering their world, they unconsciously employ a different strategy. They become “little voices” diminishing their needs, making as few demands as possible, and bending themselves like a pretzel to fit their parents’ world.
To secure their place in the family, some of these children become expert in intuiting their parents’ feelings and moods and automatically responding in ways they deem helpful. In effect, they become good parents to their own parents. In adulthood, these people often become gentle, sensitive non-assuming adults. They are also generous and caring, often volunteering for charitable organizations, animal shelters and the like. Frequently they feel other people’s pain as if it were their own, and are racked by guilt if they cannot somehow relieve this distress. Many figuratively tiptoe in and out of rooms. Unfortunately these qualities also allow them to be used and abused by other people, for they are unable to stop giving without feeling they are bad or unworthy. Having a secure “place” and providing for others’ emotional needs are inextricably woven together. If they are not providing, they feel they are no longer part of anyone’s world, and they have no value to anyone. Their self-esteem is completely dependent upon responding to others needs. In extreme cases, their “voicelessness” is so complete, so consuming, these “little voices” literally are silent for long periods of time. This is not a form of passive aggressive behavior (as has often been suggested) or even a retreat from relationships. Unless asked direct questions, they simply can’t think of anything to say. “What do you want?” (now, this week, this year, during your lifetime) is impossible for them to answer. Early in their childhood they stopped wanting because no one paid any attention to their wishes. Their place in life was to know what everyone else wanted–this is the only place they felt comfortable and unthreatened.
Other “little voices” ultimately become aware that they have sacrificed their independence, their “voice,” in bending around others, and become negative and bitter. They are exceptionally sensitive to what they perceive as the non-responsiveness of people around them–precisely because they compare their own generous nature to the words and actions of others. Almost everyone comes up short. As a result, they are viewed by others as “critical” and difficult to get along with. They are easily slighted and prone to angry outbursts. The theme of their anger is often: look what I’ve done for you, and look what I get back. And yet they are trapped, because if they stop anticipating everyone’s needs they feel invisible. Sometimes, these “little voices” live with (or close to) their demanding and unappreciative parents until the parents die; they deeply resent siblings who managed to escape.
“Little voices” are the polar opposites of narcissists. The former relinquishes all “voice,” while the latter gobbles it up. When the two are matched in a relationship, the potential for physical and emotional abuse is high. Interestingly, the same voice-depriving family can produce “little voices” and “narcissists.” Why is this so? Genetic factors likely play the biggest role. Narcissism requires aggression, “little voice,” passivity. Birth order may also count: if one child strives aggressively for family resources, it is that much harder for the next in line to compete using a similar method.
In this essay, I have described extreme cases of “little voices.” But in fact, many of the people who come to see me share, at least to some extent, the experience of having a “little voice.” They have unconsciously diminished their presence in order to find a niche in their family and a place in the world. To be seen and heard, they feel they must take care of, or bend around, others. Luckily, “little voices” can be helped. The healing process requires a therapist who understands the historical roots of the problem and is capable of developing a client’s “voice” through a genuine, empathic relationship.