Regulating and meeting needs

I was noticing today how much easier it is to be around people. I don’t find it nearly as stressful. I am not as sensitive.

It must be that I have worked at managing the disorganized attachment emotions better so that I am not so sensitized. Other people around me can have more emotions without freaking me out because I can calm down better.

I was thinking a child with a traumatized parent faces a situation where the parent cannot regulate his or her own emotions, let alone those of the child, so the child learns not to communicate them to the parent, so that the parent isn’t dysregulated and out-of-control along with the child. It might also be that a bond doesn’t develop as strongly, and the parent is less of an object of interest. The child might then not seek to mirror the parent’s regulation strategies when they are in use.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking there is this narrow band of emotional arousal I have learned to live in because if I am out of that range, I can’t get back to baseline again. Or that was true in the past. And it isn’t just emotions, actually, but energy level in general.

Children with traumatic pasts cannot regulate their emotional state, their emotional expression, or their level of energy. They cannot keep it constant.

We learn those skills from our parents and we learn them by trying to meet our own needs to maintain a certain comfortable state for us. We get bored, and reach out for interaction. We get distressed and reach for comfort.

I remember seeing C burst with energy at certain moments, pushing friends, racing across the campus and jumping off walls. It was lovely to see, but it’s also someone who cannot keep their energy level at a fairly constant level. Not the same thing as something like bipolar, but she had a little burst of happiness because she was getting connection and attention, and it came out in physical activity.

One of the risk factors for Borderline is a high level of physical activity in childhood—because these are kids that cannot stay at an even level.

The flip side of that difficulty in regulating is you fall into boredom and despair and can’t get out of that either.

People are all different, and some people can be comfortable in a wider range of energy levels than others, but in attachment problems, it is because the bond with the parent didn’t teach the child to notice their own internal state or allow that child to notice it and take action. The child wasn’t allowed to leave an over-stimulating situation before a melt-down hit. The child wasn’t allowed to reach for connection when she became bored or lonely. The child, I think, can become very passive, waiting for someone to come along and regulate him/her because noticing their own state was never allowed. Their dysregulated state was never real to anyone. It was never treated as though it existed. If it did exist, it was bad.

It’s been very helpful to me to see that my internal states are real. It is still clunky. The sensations I have telling me about those states are maybe a child’s sensations. When I want something, a lump comes to my throat. I have started to realize it is not always something big and significant that leads to that feeling. It isn’t always some deep trauma. I just never learned to smoothly recognize my desires and coordinate them with an action. Something doesn’t seem to be working that I want, and it’s like, “Mommy, please, please, I really want it…please.” I talk to myself about this. “It might work if we wait one more minute. Let’s wait and see what happens.” Or, “It might not work this time. That happens. We can try it again later.”

I think what emerged from that are a very narrow range of strategies that are things you can do without anyone noticing much: avoidance, distraction, and psychic numbing. I can’t get out of this situation, but I can refuse to look at it. I can stare at the trees and self-stim for a while. I can stop my feelings from being felt. Those are things babies can do, can’t they? Those are your implicit memories of how to manage your arousal level.

I think it’s no wonder that significant entries in emotional lexicon are a flat state, disconnection, loneliness, absolute despair, feeling trapped and unable to move at all or even think.

I had some work to do today, and I thought about energy levels, that sitting in the staffroom in near silence was deadening. It was cold and lonely and after a while it was too horrible. So I went out I the sun periodically and sat with other teachers. I made a change of scene for myself at the least. I wouldn’t have done that before.

I don’t know what I would have done in the past. Forced myself to finish perhaps, and forced myself into a state of total paralysis. Certainly nothing reflective, nothing that took into account my energy level is flagging. I need to do something to bring it back up again.

There is one piece of what is so difficult for me that is the past presenting itself as a relevant example—remember all of those other times you weren’t important or heard? Bad things happened after that. Remember? This is a dangerous moment. People aren’t hearing you. And panic ensues inside.

There is another piece of the difficulty that is just never processing those relevant examples. Most of us have not been heard on thousands of occasions. If your memory is stuck so that it cannot freely travel the length and breadth of your mind to get a good match without throwing you into panic, then you don’t have a strategy to remedy it up there either. You just have impulses. What I mean is the reason it is so painful that, for example, I am being ignored at this particular moment is that I was very painfully ignored in the past. It’s also that I can’t calm down enough to pull up the lexicon of 999 other times I have been ignored so that I can understand what is happening at this moment. I don’t have memories of successfully managing experiences of having been ignored, because thinking about it gets me too upset or I feel ashamed.

I didn’t know this. I am sure that is partly because everything I learned got slotted into the framework of what I already believed, so I heard, “This is a narcissistic wound,” and took it as further evidence that the pain of being ignored is non-information and tried harder to ignore it. Instead of realizing, well, people get ignored sometimes. I can speak up and get some attention. I can go find another activity that interests me more. I can do lots of things, but that sadness inside is information. It might feel really huge and painful to me, but it’s normal. Ratchet it down a little and you get what other people feel. When we are ten, we go home and cry to our mommies that the girls wouldn’t sit with us at the lunch table. When we are older, we don’t need our mommies to sort help us sort through it anymore, but getting ignored still happens. It happens in situations of bullying and that is more serious and more painful, but people do just get forgotten about and left out. And nobody likes it. That isn’t just me.

So there is this element of what I am going through which is just recognizing that feelings are normal, my feelings are normal. They feel so intense because I did not learn how to regulate them properly. There are people who look at small kids and wish those little ones could hang onto that feeling of life being absolute magic forever, but life is absolute magic at 2 because you can’t regulate your feelings. Over time, you learn to keep your arousal level at a more comfortable level so that you neither feel totally overwhelmed by the joy of snow nor do you bang your feet on the ground because you can’t get what you want.

Anyway, it’s a work in progress.


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