An integration update

I’ve had some thoughts. As one does, I suppose.

The first thought came up when I happened to come across an article about widows around the world, and how hard it is. One of the women profiled was a military widow: she said she really benefited from the support provided by other military widows, and the reason that support exists is partly that they go through things that civilian women don’t experience, just because their husbands were in the military.

Anyway, it meant another widow told her something about what happens after the first year is over, “There’s another year.”

That really resonated for me. When the death first occurs, you kind of hold your breath in a sense, hold on, try to get through it, and I think when the pain begins to subside a little, you look around and perhaps hope that this ability to look around means that things are okay again.

You look around and you realize the person you loved is still dead. This is not a rough patch you need to get through. They are going to stay dead.

I think I am in that place. At times, I get there. I look around and it crosses my mind Nata is dead. She is going to stay dead. And I need to conceive of my life without her in some way. The hard part is how inconceivable this is. It is inconceivable to some part of me that she ever lived or was real. Increasingly, it’s becoming undeniable to me that she did live. However, it’s also inconceivable to the rest of me that I could be alive without her.

I think this has to do with the importance of that relationship for me, and also that for most of my young life, there was no one else. It is not as though my sibling died and my parents lived or my mother died, but my father lived. It’s like being the only child of a single mother.

It’s going to take me some time to unravel that.

The other thought I had, related to that, was about C. For 30 years, I just couldn’t process what happened. Looking back, it’s like I was asleep or living on autopilot. There are many reasons for that, but one of them was simply my incapacity to cope with the degree of grief I felt. Something about C made me realize that I needed to wake up and that, in a sense, the world still needed me. It’s very much like the widow who does have children, and looks around and realizes she needs to carry on despite the pain because her children need her.

I realized I needed to be able to connect to my feelings, so that I could be present in the world now. It’s the opposite of what I might have expected from an awakening: there was real joy involved. Don’t get me wrong. But a lot of it was knowing I needed to be able to feel pain as it came up.

My third thought is that the events of the past have really made me what I am now. The person I am was shaped by them and they define me in very important ways. I can’t just try to erase them because they embarrass me. I can’t say either I survived them and overcame them and aren’t I wonderful either, because that isn’t true. It’s complicated, maybe because they define me in ways someone else might not expect.

For example, I walk into relationships knowing very clearly how it feels when someone becomes important to you and then you lose them. We know people die, but this is an abstract knowledge. I know what it feels like, and I have to be brave to have relationships.

Aside from general relational incompetence, I think my romantic relationships have failed partly because of that. I haven’t been able to be that brave. I am not saying I sabotage them, but I think I have lost heart at important moments.

C made me realize I cannot lose heart.

I don’t know what happens from here, but I do think this is about integration and becoming a whole person.

Integration is not about meeting the needs of the little parts or recognizing the weird things they do are really you. It’s not about making peace within the system, although those are places to start. You become whole by being able to manage emotions well enough that your ability to reason stays on while you experience feelings.

That’s the fourth thought.

And last. I was thinking that a part of how I ended up like this is that relational experiences (boundary infringements, the need for help, loneliness, betrayal, frustration embarrassment, rejection, loss and so on) came up first in the context of life or death experiences. I don’t quite know how to pinpoint the difference, but these normally come up in situations where the stakes are not that high. You fight with your sister, sort it out, and life goes on. What that means is as you experience these everyday situations, you amass a vast holdings of information about how these situations might play out and how you can handle them.

But when you are abused, and these normal relational ruptures occur in situations that, as a child, you understand to be life threatening, your brain shuts down your cerebral cortex and you lose the interconnectedness of your mind when they occur. I think, over time, you stop processing the emotions that lead to the shutdown. You become numb rather than irrational, and what it means is that you sometimes end up with impulses or behaviours you can’t identify the cause of, because the impulse is too strong to suppress, but you have managed to avoid processing the emotion so that you don’t go into a fight or flight state.

A disconnect develops between your internal experience of yourself–what I-ness feels like–and what you do or even what you think. So you have parts.

Healing involves reconnecting emotions with what your cerebral cortex does, so that all of your brain stays on during moments when you need to navigate relationships.

Some random thoughts about self-image

I started to think, towards the end of the school year, that the things people seem to like about me don’t actually feel like me. I don’t really have any idea why this is. All of the interactions where I get the sense I am connecting, I am creating a positive relationship experience, those are times when I don’t feel like me. I feel like I am on autopilot.

I don’t think I am just being a people-pleaser in those moments.

I have no real explanation for the not-me-ness of my interpersonal successes.

Related to this, I have also been thinking when I see a picture of myself or hear my own voice, I hate it. I hate what I see and hear. I think I am ugly and that my voice is unpleasant. I don’t have any idea whether people would generally agree with this. I imagine, more objectively, that I am average in looks. I think a lot of how attractive we are is not about our physical attributes, but about our facial expression and body language anyway.

I don’t know why I think this either. I have more in the way of guesses about this. It occurred to me when I was writing this little paragraph about this, that if you are videotaped performing sex acts as a child, if your voice is recorded while you perform those acts, the fear you feel about that is probably going to take the form of disgust.

Disgust is related to fear. It tells us, this is dangerous, stay away from it. It’s different from the fight or flight of fear, because not every kind of danger is the type of danger that can physically attack you and overpower you. There are dangers you can avoid just by not touching them.

Whatever emotional abuse I suffered that would affect how I see myself, this has to be the most potent: your image is dangerous, the sound of your voice is dangerous.

I should step back for a minute and just say again, as an explanation, that I have worked hard at removing all judgment in my mind. They are just thoughts and feelings and perceptions and they are all okay. Sometimes they are painful, but that’s okay.

It relates to my idea that the larger problem I have is a lack of connection in my mind between thoughts and emotions, between emotions and events in my life. It isn’t what I think that’s the problem, in my view. It’s how I think.

It goes against what, psychologically, I have really been taught. The problem I was, in a way, told I had was that I had the wrong thoughts and feelings. I felt guilty when I hadn’t done anything wrong, for example, or I had low self-esteem.

Now, I don’t believe that. Whatever is in my head is okay, I believe. But I need to understand it. There need to be connections between ideas, between thoughts and feelings and decisions. I need to know why I am having a perception that I am having, or why I feel the way that I do, because then I can do something about it. When I approach it from the perspective that having a particular thought or feeling or perception will be intolerable or unbearable, then nothing further can be done about it. I am just locked into a battle in my own mind that’s ultimately a waste of time.

So that’s my idea. Not everyone shares it. But it makes my own mind feel safer to me to be in, like I have looked under all the beds, perhaps found some spiders and maybe even a few snakes, but no monsters. It’s okay to move around up there, even if the things I find in my mind make me really sad sometimes. It frees me up to think. There is some pretty painful stuff up there, but there are ways to live with it.

Meanwhile, I forgot where I was going with that, but what comes to mind now is that it’s not really necessary for anyone to hate me for being ugly. The quality of our relationships really have much more to do with our behavior, how we treat people, whether we are considerate and respectful of others, whether we try to understand the experiences of others or not.

I am not saying I am really ugly. That’s a matter of opinion and I am sure people have different opinions about it. What I am saying is that, in reality, it ought to be possible for someone to feel warmth and have good thoughts about me even if I am ugly.

Shame and guilt

I mentioned I have been reading some books by Brene Brown, who describes herself as a shame researcher. The reason she researches shame is that it prevents us from finding connection.

One of the things she writes about in Daring Greatly is the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is, “I did something bad.” Shame is, “I am bad.”

I was thinking today, given that it’s Father’s Day and yesterday I saw my sister for the first time in many years, that if I talk about the abuse I experienced as a child, the first reaction a lot of people have is, “It’s not your fault.” But I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel shame. The idea of it being my fault sounds insane to me, but if I hear it enough I start to wonder if I am meant to feel guilty, and if there is something wrong with me for not blaming myself. Because, evidently, average people assume I do.

Brene Brown describes shame as the fear of loss of connection–I did something or something happened or there is something about me which no one is going to understand, and I will feel all alone because of this thing about me. As human beings, loneliness is one of the worst things that can happen to us. It is soul destroying.

I have to interject here that there is a whole literature and line of thought devoted to the idea that dependency is so likely to be associated with loss and betrayal that the best way to deal with it is to prevent it from ever arising.

I believe the bedrock of the whole codependency movement lies here. The underlying, core premise is, “I am too dependent on someone else, and individualism is the answer.”

I think there are other ways of looking at these relationships: as in, I and/or my partner lack important relationship skills that would allow us to stay connected to each other in supportive, resiliency-building ways. We can’t take one another’s perspective adequately, we can’t control our impulses, we can’t understand our own internal worlds or communicate about it, and we are deeply lonely people because of that. The lack of relationship skills creates a very deep pain we sometimes numb or avoid in destructive ways (as in addictions) or we become so deprived of our basic need for connection we demand it or rage that we don’t have it.

That said, I think there is this confusion over shame and guilt because shame is used as a punishment. Because shame is so painful, people intentionally create feelings of shame by deliberately telling you they can’t understand you. “How could you do that?” people say–a lot of times when it’s not very difficult to understand how someone might do that. I am not talking here of atrocities we genuinely can’t fathom. I mean stupid things kids do, for example, which basically anyone who has been a kid ought to be able to imagine might seem like a good idea to someone without a lot of skill in imagining consequences yet.

I think we also use shame in society to maintain certain kinds of social control. They are meant to maintain certain social boundaries. Some of these boundaries are destructive, but I don’t think all of them necessarily are. Even if they are in the long term destructive, I did not start this particular fire. So I am going to describe this usage of shame without any judgment. It exists.

Sexually exploiting children is one of these boundaries enforced via shame. As a society, we have a very dim view of pedophilia. Incest is pretty bad too.

I was thinking about what I experienced as a child, the immense of amounts of sexual exploitation and abuse. Those memories are absolutely dripping with shame–not from my adult self judging those experiences, but the shame is a part of what I felt when they happened.

I think the societal use of shame to enforce this boundary of not abusing or exploiting children is a part of why I felt that. I have an idea, you should understand, that because of the lack of nurturing experiences, my memories of many things are sort of confused. Emotions and sensory impressions are not really linked to a narrative or to declarative knowledge. I might remember something that felt icky, for example, but not be able initially to identify the icky thing–what it looked like or what I might call that icky thing.

My later attempts to make sense of my memories haven’t necessarily been that great. I thought about that this morning. I called C and the phone she uses was with some other kid I don’t even know. Absolutely no hope of speaking with her. So afterwards, I had these kinds of deep insights and felt teary. After a while, I realized whether I have deep thoughts or not, I always feel teary if I call her and can’t speak to her. This is not about my wonderful thoughts.

I’ve had similar moments about going to bed at night. I miss particular people sometimes at those moments, and I’ve started to realize this has absolutely nothing to do with the person I think of in these moments of terrible loneliness. This is about being left alone as an infant who was not capable of doing anything more than lie in whatever position I had been placed in and cry.

So.

I was thinking about the shame I feel when I remember being sexually abused and exploited. A key element of this is the lack of emotional connection to the perpetrator. A perpetrator who understands the victim is frightened and confused and disgusted and feeling both betrayed and the need to please a powerful adult would not be able to abuse a child. Their empathic distress would prevent that from ever happening.

Being abused at any age, but maybe especially as a child, is a profoundly lonely experience. It’s also profoundly vulnerable later to seek the connection that heals the sense of disconnection. It asks, for one, that the listener tap into whatever painful feelings they have which might allow them to understand our experiences. That’s a big ask. Not everyone succeeds in that.

Brene Brown talks about the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s a cartoon she narrates. It’s great. Empathy requires the person go down into your pain with you. Sympathy looks at you from the outside like nothing even remotely like that has ever happened to them. I’ve gotten my share of sympathy. It sucks. It is worse than keeping everything to myself and being actually alone.

I’ve wandered from the point, but I feel like I get it.

Abuse is a profound experience of disconnection. That’s shame.

My own sister

So, she came yesterday with her two kids–one of whom I have never seen before, and the other one I saw 8 years ago or so.

Ahead of time, I felt frightened. When she did come, it was okay, and surprisingly normal. Except when she first came, she seemed surprisingly surprised by everything, or maybe much more puzzled than I could account for. She did this exaggerated surprised look/shrug thing I couldn’t quite fathom. Are you really that unable to process what is happening? Maybe. Maybe she felt a lot of uncertainty.

Anyway, she seemed to get past that and settled down to something more normal, the capable person I remember. She is capable, after all. She is very good at a lot of things.

She was with her second husband, the kid’s stepfather. I suppose they have been married about three years. He struck me sort of oddly, kind of passive. Her first husband was so passive he was like someone dead. We had nice chats–the first husband and I–but he just kind of withdrew from my sister and let her make all of the decisions. Meanwhile, my sister was lonely.

There is some kind of dynamic, where my sister is very decisive, very organizing, as a lot of women are, and her husbands just kind of sit back. When we got lunch yesterday, her husband put in his order with my sister and went and sat down. Well, it was good to grab a table, but he did the same thing at dinner time in an empty restaurant. Left my sister to organize, because she does organize.

So that was interesting to see.

The odd thing about being with my sister is she is my sibling, but she doesn’t seem to really remember anything of our shared childhoods. It’s like she didn’t really exist, and it’s a strange feeling to have no arguments about what really happened, no one to actually compare notes with. I remember her being there, but she does not usually remember what I remember, not even in her own version of that. There is a sense of lacking a shared history that we ought to have, as though she is not someone I grew up with and have known literally from a day or two after my birth, but instead is someone I met only as an adult.

It’s not just the crazy shit that is like this, but perfectly normal things. Like we went to a place she and I first went as children when our aunt came to visit. I’ve been there a few times since, but I think that was the only other time she has been there. Did she remember? Maybe. She couldn’t quite say.

I think it speaks to her disorganization. The idea that memories are just not integrated into proper narratives. They are disconnected impressions of things. Which is what seems to happen, and not necessarily because of trauma in that moment, but because the brain does not generally how to create nice, integrated ways of understanding things.

That’s what I have read anyway from attachment experts.

I don’t really know

 

 

Splitting

I found myself in a drug store yesterday, buying a multi-colored pen set. You know, with purple, pink, light green, turquoise, and orange. That kind.

Not really like me.

So I was reflecting later on what was happening. This is a kind of splitting. I am aware of that. There are particular parts who would like to write in fun colors of ink.

I’ve thought about this in other kinds of circumstances. I was picking out something to send to C–something little, a bookmark or a pencil pouch, or a card–and I started to realize whenever I do this, I’m choosing a particular kind of item, like some seriously girly shit, but dreamy-girly. It’s coming from a girl who is reflective, who likes to read and write and think.

Well, that’s Katya. Katya is buying C things.

I know this happens as a result of fearfulness and shame. Whenever I am doing something too fear-inducing, something that feels I won’t be allowed to do, this happens. I don’t really get it, because I’m switching into something that seems like it ought to be even more fear inducing than doing something as myself. But there you go.

I have been trying to re-learn some Russian. I got some children’s books from the library, checked out a Pimsleur set, and I have been watching an ancient series someone has kindly uploaded to YouTube. The multi-colored pens are tied to that.

In other words, re-learning Russian feels vulnerable to me. I suppose it’s one way of attempting, at least, to communicate to myself this feeling of vulnerability. I’m not in a place where I can just know I feel vulnerable. I need to enact it. Look, I feel like this. I feel like a little girl who likes to write in pink ink. I feel vulnerable.

Feeling vulnerable, when I was a child, was something I couldn’t do. Because the parts are child parts, I didn’t quite realize they are things that didn’t seem safe to feel when I was myself a child. There was a reason they needed to be “not me.” There was a reason I invented child parts as ways to think about myself as a child.

I couldn’t be those things. It wasn’t safe.

Contempt

Contempt enhances self-esteem.

I have been thinking about contempt lately, because it is part of emotional abuse. Why do people feel contempt for their own children? Because it feels good. It distances you from the person you are with, but gives you more positive feelings about yourself.

Contempt is a response to a violation of social hierarchy, and it also creates positive feelings in the person expressing contempt. Why would someone do that to their child?

Because they see the child as a threat to their leadership–they aren’t confident in knowing how to motivate their child to be a productive part of the group.

Because something the child feels or expresses makes them feel ashamed or vulnerable, and they need to shore up their position.

The feeling of being worthless, that’s about being on the receiving end of contempt.

Contempt hurt.

Regulatory strategies

I don’t know if there is a point to this. Is it interesting to anyone else? Maybe.

I was thinking about some bits of things again–just one thing was interesting.

So there are these parents who grew up without getting adequate care, didn’t learn to smoothly integrate thoughts and impulses and emotions, can’t regulate themselves, and can’t regulate the system of themselves and their children together. They have this restricted array of social tools–or maybe they aren’t able to restrain emotions we normally learn to modulate.

Anyway, they have children they can’t keep in a happy, contented place. What they have as tools are shame, anger (fear), and contempt. These are their regulatory strategies. You grow up and those become your regulatory strategies.

I think sometimes the shame shower is a regulatory strategy. I am not supposed to do this, so I will control the impulse to do it with intense shame. Or by telling myself all the bad things that could happen if I do it (catastrophizing). Or by ripping myself a new one (anger).

The thing you are basically not supposed to do is seek serve-and-return interactions, which you are biologically programmed to seek. But in a family like mine, the people around me were dangerous to be close to. It wasn’t safe to seek interaction from them. It was important to restrain that urge. Those are the tools I had.

Dogs and serve and return

So, I haven’t mentioned this, but the dogs I am living with seem like they have disorganized attachment. I know it may be like the med school student who suddenly sees symptoms of every kind of disease in everyone, but it’s interesting to see.

What I mean is one dog looks sad and ashamed when she comes to you, kind of like the dog who knows he just ate all the toilet paper in the bathroom or tore your shoes apart. The other one runs around excitedly when you call her, but won’t come. She barks at the door to be let in, and then runs away when you open it.

It’s interesting to think about how this might have happened. These are my friend’s daughter’s dogs, and my friend has some indication of disorganized attachment too. It’s not unthinkable for there to be some kind of relationship between all of their attachment styles.

I have been thinking about C’s attachment style, my ex, me.

The first key idea in my mind is this idea of “serve and return.” When I was in therapy, my therapist talked about getting inadequate “mirroring.” I wasn’t entirely clear what this meant. I am starting to think it’s not actually that important. “Serve and return” is more important in a child’s development, and it’s something we need throughout our lives.

“Serve and return” is just the idea that someone initiates an interaction, and the other person responds in a way that continues the interaction. So, the baby coos, the parent responds by making loving and affectionate facial expressions. It’s the foundation for human learning, and it requires the smooth integration of one’s own feelings and intentions, the other person’s feelings and intentions (what will the next move be?), and an ability to control one’s impulses so that the dyad can remain in a comfortable, connected place.

I think when there are attachment issues, “serve and return” does not happen smoothly. The parent–who with an infant must have the skills for keeping the dyad in a comfortable, regulated emotional place–is not able to keep the two in a regulated place. The infant is ignored, or overstimulated and then distressed, or the infant behaves impulsively in ways that upset the parent (most of us have been poked in the eye by a little one, or had our hair pulled) and then the infant is distressed at the parent’s reaction.

The child whose parent cannot manage serve-and-return may become fearful and anxious about initiating these important interactions–biologically programmed to try, and yet having had an experience of it that is upsetting or frightening.

I think about this in terms of my ex. When we were in a relationship together, there were a lot of times when our interactions seemed the typical pairing of someone with an anxious attachment style (me) and someone with detached or avoidant attachment.

In avoidant attachment, the most effective strategy for getting one’s attachment needs met is to simply wait. It seems most likely to come about when a parent is rejecting of the child’s bids for interaction. Better to sit tight and wait for the parent to have attachment needs. There’s little attunement, and the child does not stay in a regulated, contented place emotionally. There are long stretches of loneliness and boredom, interspersed with overwhelming intrusions. But there is something.

I can see how that would have been my ex’s style–just knowing her mother. How her mother would have rejected her bids for interaction but made her own bids intrusively and without an understanding of the need to keep the dyad in a regulated, contented place. My ex would have grown up perhaps experiencing herself as independent when in reality she lacked the confidence to reach out.

I think I ended up reaching out to my ex more because my own experience with my parents was that their bids for interaction were intrusive and frightening (for example, sexual abuse). I might have felt more comfortable with a partner who didn’t reach out or make demands, but then found myself starved for interaction. Being presented with attachment needs might have been frightening for me.

I don’t think I have a particular attachment strategy based on my childhood–I don’t think there was any strategy that worked in my family. But being with someone who did have an attachment style left one open to me to pursue. Being anxious and preoccupied did lead to some amount of interaction. I started to have a strategy that worked.

But it also left me with shame at being the “needy” one. In reality, I suspect, I was left to meet both of our attachment needs. Attachment needs are normal, but because we had had parents who couldn’t manage their relationships with their children, we felt ashamed of these needs.

Shame is best understood as lack of understanding. When a parent cannot process or understand their own feelings and desires and cannot understand others’, then we feel disconnected from them when we present our own feelings and desires to them. Shame comes from lack of empathy.

When my ex failed to identify or understand her own attachment needs that she could not meet, then she could not understand mine.

There is a point beyond simply the attachment style of my ex, and I think probably C in many cases–C, who tries avoidant attachment much of the time, and then is overcome by her own unmet needs and impulsively reaches out.

The point is that without this long history of experiences with finding ways to interact, ways to keep a dyad or a group in a regulated state, you don’t really learn how, and it leads to a social starvation later–even if you are outgoing and do have a lot of social interactions. Going out and meeting people doesn’t mean you actually know how to get fulfillment out of that. In my case, it leads to a lot of fear I have to manage.

My other thought about this has been that there is research that babies born to mothers who experience a lot of stress during pregnancy are born themselves more sensitive to stressors. These babies are more sensitive to stress, become stressed more easily, and are often difficult to soothe. So you can be born a fussy baby to begin with, a baby with a more intense, more easily triggered stress response and if your parent is themselves less capable of self-regulation, the parent can feel overwhelmingly frustrated or hopeless about trying to soothe the child.

I think that happened with me. Already, before any abuse happened, I was more difficult to soothe. My mother was less capable of soothing. It was hard for us to bond in the first place.

So there was no safe haven to return to when I became dysregulated. Infants who don’t experience that safe haven of the parent who knows how to help them return to a regulated emotional place are hypervigilant. They are constantly alert and tense.

As an adult, I have realized no one really wants to enter a shared emotional space with me when I can’t regulate myself. It’s not that they don’t care about me, but it’s not an emotional space anyone wants to be in. I haven’t really known anything different. I need to be able to handle my own shit. Some of my feelings about not ever having been loved or wanted have to do with having an internal state no one really wants to be a part of.

I had students last year who had trouble with self-regulation. I could enter into their emotional space with them at times, and help them to regulate, but there have been moments when I realized I needed to get back out of that space again, because the next student I was interacting with felt anxious if the anxiety of the last child was lingering on within me.

The greater satisfaction I feel lately comes mostly out of greater competence in self-regulation and in regulating social exchanges, so that we can all stay in a contented place.

 

 

 

 

The next day

I woke up today feeling pretty insane. I don’t know how to describe that feeling of insanity or what makes me call it that. I don’t end up able to remember it well enough after to really say with precision.

I woke up in the night to call C–her boyfriend told me in the morning (for me) that the phone was with her. I called but she didn’t answer. I thought, well, maybe it was a bad time. It was after lights out for her. Not by a lot, but they are supposed to be in their beds and quiet. So in the night (for me) and afternoon (for her), I thought she might take the call.

She didn’t. And then I couldn’t sleep. A friend of hers happened to be online. I told her about it. She said she thought the boyfriend had taken back the phone.

Okay. Eventually I slept. But I felt really worried about her.

In the morning, when I woke up, I still felt something about it. I really missed her.

I have an idea I am not able to process feelings related to attachment experiences, because I was, essentially, conditioned not to have them. And yet I am a human being. I do have them.

So I began to think she posted some very nice birthday wishes on my Facebook timeline, and it was nice and felt good and I liked it, and I want her to come back, because I want that nice feeling again. I am, in a sense, remembering other experiences when I wanted a good feeling of connection to come back.

But I was an infant, so what I am remembering is screaming. Some part of my brain is sorting out, yes, that screaming experience is the same kind of feeling, the same kind of situation. I have to be able to feel that longing to know it’s the same longing, even if it’s not an effective response now to scream or run towards anyone.

The insane feeling is total dysregulation. I have to remember being totally dysregulated and to feel that infant dysregulation, without actually being dysregulated in the present.

It’s so hard.

The next installment

I was watching something about infant attachment the other day, and it talked about the importance of the mother and baby having a “falling in love experience.”

I was thinking about that partly because of C’s initial experience with me–hanging around wistfully in the garden, waiting for me to turn up, feeling confused about whether we were some kind of romantic couple. And my own behaviour–buying her sweet little cards, whatever bit of clothing I think she might like. I remember, too, trying to help her with pronunciation, and her looking at me with very big eyes, something profound clearly going on inside of her: perhaps sufficient trust to take in the experience of me.

I think what happens between parents and infants has to do with the parent being able to enter into the emotional space of the infant–empathetically feeling the distress of the infant, which allows the parent to understand the infant’s distress and know how to calm it–and the infant being able to enter into the emotional space of the parent, which is compassionate, loving, helpful and confident so that the infant is not just soothed by the feeding or the diaper change, but by the parents’ calm.

I think a lot of what happens socially is that we enter into one another’s emotional space and work together to create something tolerable, if not enjoyable, and that starts when we are infants. We begin to know how to regulate a shared emotional space socially by entering into our parents’ experience of regulating themselves and us.

So what happens when the parent can’t do that? When the parent enters into our emotional space and instead of injecting calm and confidence into our distress, is herself overwhelmed, anxious or frightened? We learn that entering into the parent’s emotional space and taking in another person is itself frightening and stressful.

That entering into the emotional space of another, and working together to regulate that shared space, is the foundation for most learning that happens throughout our lifetime. We learn how to regulate our emotions by taking in our parents’ inner experience as they are regulating themselves and us. When we can’t enter into that shared emotional space or when we don’t learn regulations skills, you end up a child with difficulty managing emotional states, difficulty in making sense out of felt experiences of all kinds, difficulty in controlling impulses, difficulty in understanding their own motives or felt states and difficulty in understanding other peoples’.

So you have someone with a lot of internal stress, not a lot of skills in managing that stress, experiencing internal states other people don’t really want to enter into, who doesn’t really know what to do about those states to manage them, and has very strong impulses that are difficult to control. Someone who might fall into very deep depression easily, or someone very anxious or uncertain about what to do–anxiety is the emotion of “I don’t know”–might have a short fuse and rage or reach out in ways likely to be ineffective to get needs met. You have someone who is not very effective at managing an emotional and social world.

I have been thinking about that. There are parts of my adult experience of loneliness that have to do with that lack of effectiveness. I feel like I am a lot more effective now. I can enter into other people’s emotional spaces with them. I do end up keeping a lot of my internal state under wraps, because it’s just so difficult and painful, but I can form connections a lot better, and it does meet my need for connection much more. Enough of me is seen or feels seen for me to get my need for connection met, even if I am managing the trauma stuff that comes up for me pretty regularly all alone.