I kind of have it in my head—some idea that is important to me and to this process. It’s difficult to really get a handle on. It feels somehow slippery. But here is my best shot at it.
I have been thinking for a long time that the feeling of connection comes from finding common ground with someone, which could be shared goals or the same interests or it could be someone different from you taking the time to imagine your perspective for a minute or vice versa. I had this idea partly because in class there was this kid who was really, really annoying me. I started to realize actually the rest of the class is fine, but this one kid is working my nerves so hard I lose sight of the rest of them. She’s not happy either, and she winds up the kid next to her in consequence. So then he annoys me. Then their whole group fights over the conflict between the two of them. Then it becomes the period from hell, but it starts with this one kid.
And suddenly I realized she really, really, really likes me and she is absolutely dying to please me and the problem is that she cannot figure out how. Between being 8 years old and maybe not particularly bright and speaking English as a foreign language, she cannot figure out what I would like her to do. So she ends up feeling like she is this constant disappointment to me, and it’s awful for her. I began to give her more positive feedback. Even if she wasn’t really doing what I asked, if she even came kind of close, I gave her some kind of reinforcement. I don’t really remember if the rest of the class got better, but it changed our relationship and she had a much better time in class even if no one else did. I tried to be clearer and I also rewarded her in some emotional (not tangible) way if she came within spitting distance of the desired behaviour. It helped me and it helped her. On the last day of exams, we were walking home and she came near me and said something or other and held my hand and kissed it. She had wanted me to like her. She wanted to be able to be someone I could like, and it hadn’t been happening. As soon as she felt she could be someone I could like, everything changed for her. She was a lot happier in class.
I think kids do that. They would like to be people adults can like.
It’s difficult to be someone that your favourite adult can like if: a) that person always seems to want something different, so you can never get a handle on desired presentation of yourself, b) you cannot decipher what they would like, c) being the person they would like is simply outside of the realm of your abilities, or d) being someone they would like requires you to completely invert your own feelings about things.
When you have a mentally ill parent, I think all of those elements play a role. There is no common ground for you. You cannot be the person they would like you to be. I think about the modes, and about C. If I take a second to reflect on it, I can usually tell from even a few words in her text what mode she is in, and I try to respond to that mode. When I don’t do well, it’s when I don’t take the time to think about her mode and I just respond without tailoring it to the mode she is in. I am not always entirely sure, and she probably flips between modes pretty fast anyway, but I think I do meet her needs well enough because I am considering her mode. I think I got Detached Mode this morning. “Recharge me.” There was a whiff of Angry Child in there too. I don’t know that my response mattered, because she didn’t read it. (As Detached Mode tends to do.) But I told her emphatically Yes J because I have realized I don’t always say yes clearly enough to her, and I also gave her a time frame for it, and I told her to try to remember that, with me, yes means yes. It is possible this comforted her later when she read it. I have no idea, but I do think I meet her needs as often as I do because I notice the modes and I respond to them. If she seems to be a scared 3-year-old, I talk to her like a scared 3-year-old.
Now, for a second, I am considering my mom having modes.
Me being little and my mom flipping into trauma-based modes.
Yeah, there’s no way. Like that girl in my class who couldn’t figure out what I wanted, was desperately trying to give it to me anyway, and then taking out her frustration on the poorly behaved child next to her, I didn’t have a chance. Creating that common ground where I can be someone my adult takes pleasure in being around and I take pleasure in being would have been impossible. She wanted things from me I was developmentally unprepared to do and unable to even sort out what they were.
It’s really quite horrible to think about.
And I think what came after that in my adult life was this inferred demand that I kind of harden up and not care. I took that feeling of being someone who could not be liked or wanted or achieve connection with anyone into my adult life and I added onto it this idea that I just wanted it too much. What I took away from adult experiences is contradictory and actually does not make sense, but this is what it is: Assume everyone will like you and ignore every indication that they don’t. Cope with not feeling liked by refusing to take in any information about your likeability. Persist in blazing away with an insensitive presentation of yourself that may or may not trample on the rights or desires of others. Then stifle the feelings of hollowness this gives you, because that means you never have a feeling of connection to anyone. You are presenting yourself to others and it ought not to matter if there is any kind of tickle or movement at the other end of things. This is what the rest of us do. Try harder at it.
If you simply go on presenting yourself to other people and never reach for that tickle of connection, it’s very, very lonely and there is absolutely no joy in it. It’s you on a stage with no audience.
The other thing is that it turns out the problem was not really anyone’s actual perception of me. It was a fear of the sensation of connection. It seemed for a long time that what I needed to do was try harder to stifle my fear, because what many people do is push past their fears to do something and then notice it was fine, kind like jumping into a cold pool. But what happened to me was what actually really happens to me in a cold pool. (I’m very thin. I assume this is the reason.) I jump into the cold pool and simply become colder and colder until I am shaking and blue. I forced myself to do things I was afraid of doing, stifled my fear, and went on being afraid. I neither took in that actually it had turned out okay in the end nor took any pleasure in what I was doing, because I was busy shutting down the fear of connection so that I could do it. Obviously, no connection was going to be felt.
I have been forcing myself to tolerate the feeling of connection, largely for C’s sake, because she needs it. She really, really needs it and without it she feels very, very scared and lonely. She feels like she is 3 years old and all alone in the house and it’s terribly scary. The things she needs have to do with a relationship and a bond, and they are all the things I didn’t get because my parents were mentally ill and could not bond with me. She needs to feel she is special to someone, because that is what the bond does. You feel delighted with your special person in a way you don’t feel delighted with other people who might be just as good and worthy as your person because of the bond. The bond gives that person a kind of glow for you, and it has to do with the bond.
She needs to feel she is wanted and that it is possible to have a bond with me and still be herself. That is the other thing that happens when you have high-control parents, as I think both of us have had: there is this tiny little wire of acceptable presentations of yourself and it really does not allow you to be a human being. There is some kind of happy medium between total freedom (which tramples on other people) and total control (which tramples you) and it might be a fairly wide range in terms of what could work (between strict parenting and very lax parenting), but her upbringing is outside of it. The kind of presentation of herself that might win her parents approval is entirely suffocating. I think mine might have been indecipherable and hers might be suffocating. It’s possible ours are both some of each: indecipherable and suffocating. But the upshot is that I think she really needs an adult who likes her, and doesn’t just like her for being obedient and well-mannered, but likes her red tennis shoes (for example). She needs to feel that the potential for having common ground with me is wide enough to accommodate her real personality. I think that comes from having a bond too. It might be every kid you know is impossibly cute, but somehow your own kid is cuter. The neighbor’s kid’s red tennis shoes are not of interest to me. I don’t think I have ever even looked at their feet. But C’s red tennis shoes are terribly cute, as are her red and black flip-flops that say “Happy.” It’s Y-town and there is absolutely no diversity in consumer goods, so she is not the only kid with “Happy” feet, but hers are cute. I don’t give a damn about the other kids’, because her flip-flops are an expression of her personality, and I am interested in hers and not theirs. She needs attention, and I think that comes from the bond also. We are a lot more attentive to the people who matter to us than we are to other people. I have noticed this from kids’ behaviour at assembly, and I think it actually forms the beginning of our relationship.
I will explain.
I used to really watch the kids at assembly, because basically no one else did and it annoyed me when they did not behave themselves. I wanted my students to behave themselves. Over time, I noticed that the kids who feel a stronger bond to me noticed that I was noticing them. They responded to my non-verbal communication. If they didn’t respond, I brought their attention to it during class time, and they paid more attention. But kids not in my class that I really did not know were oblivious a lot of the time. They did not notice that I was noticing them.
So last year, C was a captain and therefore responsible for controlling the kids in her “house,” which was her little quadrant of the assembly ground. And I think she was very attentive to me. I did not particularly think about this. I assumed she was doing what she does, but I think now she was responding to my eye on everyone, because a kid with many caretakers (as I think C has had) is alert to everyone as a potential caretaker. That kind of child must please all of the adults. It gets kind of fuzzy in my memory, because actually I remember a point when I began to stand in a different place above the assembly ground so that I could be closer to her. I could see the kids in her house were not really listening to her and it was frustrating for her, and I went to stand there to support her and help her keep the naughty boys in line. I don’t know when that was.
But my point is that she needs attention, because attention indicates a bond, and she needs to feel a bond to someone. So I give her that. I give her attention. I have been trying to do all three of these things over text the last week and a half, because even though she is not here in Y-town, she still needs it. She still needs those feelings that indicate a bond with me.
And what happens when I do that is I feel this warm, soft, happy feeling of connection to her. Which is very, very difficult for me. I think it’s the reason I keep getting swamped with feelings of worthlessness. That feeling of warmth gets linked to what must have happened next in my childhood: I had this rush to bond, this impulsive response to happiness at being with my mom, and I got punished for it, because it did not happen to be what my mom could link up to.
The thing is this warm, happy feeling also happens when I am alone, and I like what I am doing. I have never experienced that before, probably because I was too afraid to have it, but it doesn’t just happen in relationship to other people. It happens when feeling authentically oneself. It’s the invisible audience that people with theory of mind start to build up: this is me, this is what I like, this is what is special and unique about me. And if your invisible audience is kindly, there is a feeling of connection, as though you have created common ground with people who are not there but would like you if they saw you. If your invisible audience is harsh, this is unlikely to happen, because they hate your authenticity. So that’s where I am. I am starting to feel this little tickle of pleasure at things I am doing, and it’s very, very difficult. It’s very painful and it’s hard not to shut it down just because that tickle of pleasurable feelings is so scary.
It’s also different. I might do exactly the same things I am doing now, but not take any pleasure in them. The behaviour is not different, but the feeling is different. It’s the difference between writing this post and feeling inside that I like writing this post.