I woke up in a bad place. I can’t even remember what I was thinking, just a shame shower. After a while, I began to think it may not be because of all the things that are wrong in my life that this is happening. It may be because of the things that are going right.
I have adopted a new frame for explaining myself to myself, which is that I have learned a) shame is the mind’s emotional response to a perception of having done something wrong and b) because my parents’ were unable to see me or my needs or respond to me, I learned that being seen or responded to is wrong. I have also learned that confirmation bias means that whatever particular frame of mind I am in makes details which are relevant to that frame of mind seem more significant. If I am feeling ashamed, I will be more attentive to things I might have done wrong or to the perception that other people might think I have done something wrong, because those details follow a pattern I have already hypothesized might exist. My emotions direct my attention to what appears to be important at that moment. My tendency to do this is proportional to the strength of my emotional response. If my emotions are extreme, my attention will be directed in an extreme way also.
So if I wake up thinking of the 500 things that might be wrong with me, it is likely I feel ashamed, but I am noticing my thoughts and not my emotional state. It is also likely that I feel ashamed because of something to do with connection. I want connection, I got connection, or I lost connection. I do think I need to have a more accurate mental map for myself: it isn’t enough to say “this is the past” and treat my feelings as though they are nonsense. Looking at what has happened in terms of connection very recently is likely to be fruitful ground for locating the source of the feelings. It isn’t that I need to feel ashamed of connection, but noticing I feel ashamed and seeing, “Oh, yes, I got connection last night. That’s why I feel shitty today,” helps things connect in my mind. It’s like I remembered the rest of the song, and I can stop singing that little bit I can remember.
That’s one thing.
Another thing is I have been thinking we get connection when we can do this dance of seeing and being seen, responding and being responded to. It is not that I need to be cared for like a dependent child. As a dependent child, I needed to be cared for like one because that is what I was. I can care for myself now, including emotionally, (at least to a large extent) but my need for that dance has not gone away. That is part of being human, and it does not ever go away. I still need attention. I need to feel understood. I need to be special to someone. I need to feel important and like my desires are part of the mix and are considered equally with other people’s. I think I also probably need to feel wanted, that someone is happier that I exist. I need to be doing this internally—being aware of and considering my own desires along with the realities of life and the desires of people around me—and I need other people to do it with me.
What I am getting at is I need to be seen and responded to wherever I am at in that moment, and I need to be able to respond to other people in the place where they are at that moment and I need to be able to respond to myself. It’s not a matter of filling the gaping hole that feels my parents left me with. I don’t need a do-over of my childhood to heal. It is a matter of responding to whoever I am now, which means being aware of where I am now, from moment to moment.
At the same time, whenever that happens, I am likely to feel shame, because it’s the feeling of being seen and responded to that my mind has decided is the pattern for what isn’t allowed and is wrong. I just have to deal with that. Over and over, I have to cope with the shame until it dissipates. There is no other way to do it. When I suppress the feelings of shame, I cut off my emotional processing, which is what will eventually allow me to notice, “Oh, actually this is okay.” It sucks, but that’s how it goes.
I have been thinking about this more because of C. She triggers me a lot. I mean a LOT. And I am also back in my own country, I am removed in some way from the situation that brought us together, and I am reflecting on the direction of my life and her role in that. I don’t know how our relationship happened, or what is happening in it now. I have been feeling a lot of attachment pain, which she is not actually the cause of. She is just reminding me of it, and I have also been trying to make sense of the attachment pain as it comes up. So I have been thinking about all of these things.
The thing about C is that she seems to have become a stable object in my mind, and that seems to be mainly because of something I am doing in my own mind in order to meet her needs or try to meet her needs. I keep imagining her mind, so that I can respond to her, and this keeps her present for me and it also keeps me present for me. It is somehow forcing me to see both of us as stable objects in my own mind. It’s very hard to explain, but I think this is basically doing something very positive for me. And yet it is excruciatingly painful.
The last day or two, she has ignored every attempt I have made to contact her or offer support to her. I went to sleep last night very sad about this, very ashamed of my desire to reach out for her (because of course I have learned that wanting to reach out is bad), and I got under the covers crying, telling myself I am trying to get a child to meet my attachment needs which is totally inappropriate, and I half-heartedly resolved not to keep extending myself.
I didn’t set an alarm, which is something I have been doing so that I wake up before she goes to sleep.
Of course, I woke up anyway—three minutes after the alarm would have gone off. I called her, which I had resolved not to do in the evening, and I listened to it ring, as I have been doing every morning and every evening for weeks now. She has answered the phone exactly two times since I got to the US, and I just keep calling.
I keep calling, because I think it makes a difference to her to see that number on her phone. She doesn’t answer it, but it makes a difference. A part of what is going on for her right now is she sees I am gone but she has not been forgotten about or discarded. She is still wanted, and it really is circumstance and forces beyond my control that have led to our separation. It is not because she is unwanted or unimportant.
In her mind (unconsciously), that is contrasting with other experiences, in which she was forgotten about. Every time I call, it hurts because of that contrast, and she is using avoidance to regulate the pain of that contrast because that’s pretty much all she has still. She does not have a lot of coping skills still, and the pain is quite intense. So she doesn’t answer the phone.
On my end, what happens for me in my mind is something of the same contrast. Because of how I construct her response—that she is seeing my genuine care for her and responding to that—I have to see every time I call her that I am important and I am good. The way I construct her response imagines that that is her view of me. (I do think she sees things that way. Whatever gets stirred up for her, I don’t think she projects that onto me. She projects it completely unfairly onto friends or boyfriends or adults around her, but she somehow knows it isn’t about me.)
And I have to deal with my pain about that. I have to deal with my own contrast: that my parents didn’t see me that way. They didn’t see me as important or as good. They saw me as evil or malicious or as an object. And they saw me this way because they were mentally ill, and their daily interactions with people were distorted by their respective illnesses. I will never know exactly what those illnesses were, or what was really going on in their minds and hearts, but I do know they were ill (and are ill).
They could not care for me because they were ill. I learned not to turn to them or trust them, because they were ill. The way this learning manifests itself is in a felt sense of shame and also as fear. As a child, I was driven to try to break through these distortions and fight to be seen, because I needed to be seen and they were my parents. I needed them to see me. This tended to end badly, and the pattern that formed in my mind of “trying to be seen tends to end badly” is communicated within me as shame and fear.
So, it is, to say the least, weird. Because she has become a stable object in my mind, I continue to see myself via my attempt to see her, and this is healing. It is forcing me to heal.
Oh, and she is not responding to me, because I asked my friend to call her and talk to her about staying at her present school. It wasn’t me, but my care for her got through, but I didn’t know this until the morning. She is more triggered by having that care and commitment extended to her, and she is probably more fearful about trusting she can depend on it. All of that means she is avoiding harder.
I was thinking about that too. It came to me that when you need to figure out how to regulate your emotions as a baby, there is very little you can actually do. There is so little physically at your disposal. You can turn your head though. You can direct your gaze. So it makes sense to me that avoidance would become a fall-back position very quickly. That is all you had.