I had some thoughts today.
I was thinking (partly) about my family. How did this happen? Where did it start? My father’s mother had a biological illness. Who knows what her own upbringing was like, but she could have had the happiest, most nurturing child possible and still been a completely inadequate mother. But what about my mom? Her mom was (to me) an obvious narcissist. Why?
So I have been thinking that somewhere along the line, someone–a mother–was overburdened physically or emotionally and wasn’t able to adequately nurture her child. It might have been anything: war, famine, long hours at work, a sickness in the family, biologically-based mental illness, overwhelming loss. But the parent did not have enough resources to care for her child either physically or emotionally.
And what would have been missing then was the back-and-forth interaction that allows the child to learn how to accurately imagine herself and of others and then to respond to that mental image in a way that communicates understanding. That is what creates the feeling of being connected in human beings: you can imagine someone else’s mind and you are aware that they are imagining yours, and those imaginings are being communicated between the two of you.
So my grandmother did not learn to imagine the minds of others, and what happens when you struggle to imagine the minds of others, is that you lose that feeling of connection. What can happen in those cases–and frequently does–is that it can seem to the person struggling to imagine the minds of others is that the only way to restore the connection, which is vital to human life, is to force the other person to be someone you can better imagine.
Enter my mom.
So maybe she is hungry. My grandmother is trying to get the laundry done. My mother is crying because she is hungry. She is trying to communicate the urgent feeling she has that she needs to be fed, that something is wrong, and she needs attending to. And my low-empathy grandmother feels that the connection is lost. Can’t she see I am trying to finish up the laundry right now?
No, my mother is two. She can’t. She just knows she feels like crying. She might not even know why she is crying. Just something is wrong.
My grandmother experiences that loss of connection as catastrophic, because she doesn’t have the skills to restore the connection between herself and her child. She has not been taught those skills. The only way to restore the connection that she knows about is to force her child to present an image of herself as though she does understand my grandmother’s desire to finish up the chores. In other words, get her to stop crying.
If she stops crying, it communicates, “I get it. You’ll finish this up and feed me. I understand.”
Of course, my mother understands no such thing. She understands I have to stop communicating my feelings and needs. My mother wants me to stop crying.
Enter shame. Shame is the emotion that tells us we have crossed a boundary. It isn’t bad. What might not be good is the boundary itself. In this case, it was a boundary not to communicate hunger at inconvenient times. There might be a problem with that, but there isn’t a problem with my mother’s perception of it. She got it. I am not supposed to cry right now, and it’s hard for me to keep to that boundary, so she felt ashamed.
I don’t know where I am going with this. It gets to me, it feels so resonant.
Part of the point for myself is to explain the loneliness: when you cannot imagine the minds of others, because your parents lacked the skills to teach you and because their minds were so confusing, it’s lonely. If they are trying to force you to stop communicating about your own mind and to present a face that allows them not to need to know that your minds have momentarily parted ways, then differences of opinion or perception are dangerous situations, because your parent uses force to restore the sense of connection.