One of the things I was reading talked about co-regulation, that when people are together, we unconsciously act in concert with each other so that we are both staying within the range of emotions that feels comfortable for both of us. We see each other and we respond to each other, and that creates a feeling of aliveness within both of us.
When a parent is caught up in their trauma or drunk or otherwise overwhelmed, they are not able to do this. They cannot take in the child’s signals or respond to them in an attuned way.
One thing that caught my attention in something I read recently was a line about powerful feelings surfacing during moments of stress with a child. Which they do. Raising children is stressful. And when you have trauma, it will surface when your child needs you most. At worst, this will result in frightening and overwhelming behaviour. You might abuse your child. But at best, you won’t be able to see or respond to your child’s emotional state.
In that case, the connection between a parent and a child might be intermittent. The parent might not be able to consistently maintain that connection, and the child might have the ongoing experience of loss. I think that has happened with C. Her mother can see and attend to her sometimes. C can feel a connection to her mother sometimes. When her mother is doing well and able to function and not that stressed, she can create that attuned feeling within C, but it is something that seems to come and go for no reason. It just disappears. And when C reaches out to her mother to get that feeling of attunement back, her mother can’t cope. Old feelings of not being important, feeling overwhelmed and unprotected, feeling attacked for no reason—all of those childhood feelings surface and get addressed to C.
So C cannot reach out to get the connection back after it goes away. That natural impulse to regain connection to a parent after a break in connection gets suppressed.
It’s possible this happened for me too. It depends on how functional my mother was. But I might never have had that feeling of attunement with my mother. I might have only gotten it from people I wasn’t related to and that weren’t ongoing parts of my life. Connection was intermittent and undependable, because it didn’t come from one person. It was more like a rainbow, but people need that. They need connection on an ongoing basis, not just like a rare, unexpected event.
One of the other things I read that really helped me was how it feels to not have that connection. When no one responds to you in an attuned way, it feels like what you are experiencing is not even real. If you cry, and no comes, are you really crying? If no one feeds you when you are hungry, are you really hungry? Maybe you aren’t. You end up with a confusion about your own mind and what is important information, what isn’t important, what is real, what isn’t.
I have that sense a lot still—partly remembered, I think, partly in the present. No one really grasps how C feels or why she behaves the way she does. When I talk about it, I often get a response of frank disbelief, and I find myself wondering does she even feel the way I think she does? Do I really remember that look on her face? Maybe I have misinterpreted her body language. Because I was there and I saw it, but it seems as though it can’t. If you have this infancy where your experiences were not responded to—as though they weren’t real—and an adulthood in which you are experiencing trauma-related emotions that other people don’t have, then it is hard to know what is even real, whether your emotions are real and important. It’s even harder to know what is causing them.
I think that is the bond with C is so intense. I see her. I have disorganized attachment. I can see what she is feeling, and it is real to me. When she put her hood on when it came time for me to go, I know she felt afraid and ashamed. Her body language said, “I feel like hiding.” It was real for me what she felt. But someone who doesn’t understand disorganized attachment might not see that. They might assume she was cold, and they wouldn’t respond. I didn’t respond overtly in any way, but I think I probably do respond without knowing it. She feels seen and known and held, because I see what she is feeling.
In most of her life (and mine), people don’t respond supportively or they don’t respond consistently. Either what she is going through doesn’t exist for them, because they haven’t experienced it and don’t know what disorganized attachment feels like, or they have but aren’t aware of their experiences enough to cope with it. I was reading that an attuned therapist must have their own internal act together. Indeed, they must, because if you don’t, you just react. You might feel smothered by someone feeling worried that you are leaving them. You might want to push away the knowledge of what it feels like to be left behind and so push away the person feeling anxiety about being left.
What I have done with C, which helps me, is try to be aware of my own feeling state around her. Stay aware of her feeling state, and really watch my own and try to manage it.