I wrote a long letter to C about abusive partners. I hope she will read it. Who knows. I can only offer what I know or what I think I know and allow her to decide. I mean, I could handle it differently, but I don’t think that would accomplish much that is value.
My mother was the rager in our family. The dynamic was different. I think now that my dad deliberately wound her up. I think he numbed his emotions so much he felt dead inside, and watching other people’s anguish was the only way he could feel alive. It wasn’t safe for him to reveal his anguish to anyone, but it was okay to sneer at other people’s. So he intentionally created anguish.
I suppose it had an effect on us. I don’t think I remember much about it. Just a feeling of constriction and of not being able to move. There were no clear boundaries, but the consequences of crossing a boundary were so great. It created a sense of tiptoeing–walking on eggshells, as people say. I wasn’t aware of walking on eggs shells–just the sense of quiet.
I didn’t write to C about my mom, but I wrote about the constriction that happens, the feeling of boredom and despair because you can’t do anything. Very little feels safe to do. It sucks the joy out of your life, and also makes you dependent on the person who rages. Joy becomes something that can happen only at their discretion, and you forget that joy is even possible without them.
I explained the reasons this happens to some extent, that the person learns rage is an effective strategy to get the sense of goodness inside that is lacking and ought to be part of the person’s sense of self and isn’t.
I didn’t write about jealousy or the feeling that goodness is actually not even possible and so everything that seems good and joyful needs to be destroyed. That seemed too hard to grasp, too extreme, and too hard to apply to a human being in front of you who seems to care.
I do think both of my parents felt this way, and this is a part of so much that I struggle with. I reflect some days that the moments when it seems I am likeable, I am lively and people enjoy being with don’t actually feel like me. I feel like me when I am not acting like this, but I don’t think my likeableness is an act. I think I am numbing, because the fear is so great. And that’s my parents’ residue, causing me to feel it will be devastatingly dangerous to do anything that leads to joy and a feeling of aliveness. So the numbing makes it feel far away, and as though it’s not real. But that is me.
In the letter, I wrote to C, I spent a lot of time explaining how the child with a good enough parent (I didn’t say it quite like that) develops a sense that he is good, because the feeling of goodness that comes from being understood and responded to by his parent happens so much that it feels like it is him.
In contrast, the child with a parent who cannot understand his needs or meet them, experiences that feeling of goodness that comes with attunement as an event that happens to him, as though he can be made good, but his natural state is not good.
The lack of consistent parenting affects the way he experiences himself, not just his conscious beliefs about himself, but his felt experience of himself. It creates a baseline state of badness–anxiety, fear, boredom, despair and longing feel like the normal state of things, with goodness coming along as an occasional sparkle which can come and go without warning.
I did not say anything about narcissism or how the parent sometimes cannot understand and respond to the child because she is so occupied with her own feelings she doesn’t really notice the child’s needs a great deal of the time. That seemed a topic for another day.
But I do think that plays a part in later unhealthy relationships. The person who isn’t a narcissist just sort of waits around for the planets to align in order to be attended to, because that is how her needs were met in the past. The narcissistic parent suddenly had a wish or desire that coincided with her child’s needs, and so the child’s needs were met.
I did talk about how that sparkle of goodness seems like something other people can confer on you, rather than something that is a part of you and can be consistently returned to, and that creates less resilience to stress. The technical way of talking about this is to call it self-esteem, but I don’t use words like that with C as much as possible. I try to use ordinary language with her. There is something about psychological terms which can feel very abstract. Everyone talks about self-esteem, but what is it? A feeling of joy that is a part of you seems more tangible. That said, without this feeling that goodness is a part of you, stressful times becomes very difficult to manage, because they seem interminable. A child with low self esteem does not know when he will ever feel good again. It’s unpredictable and also something he feels he has no control over.
Consequently, goodness is located outside the self, it’s unpredictable, and life is terrible and unmanageable without it. So the child growing up like this can be very desperate to attain it. If you become the purveyor of goodness to that young person growing up or to that adult as a partner or a spouse, then it’s pretty important that you be caught and kept. At the same time, this person never feels secure, never feels safe or able to relax. There is a rage about the unpredictability of the goodness that is hard to contain, and when it is finally unleashed feels very frightening, so people learn to be frightened of his rages and careful to give him what he wants.
None of this is probably exactly news to you, but it made me think of the times I feel grief when I am reminded of my own losses, and sometimes these are times of joy for C. I don’t want that to infect how she feels about her joyful experiences. I feel sad about the joys I missed out on as a child, and even the losses I still experience now, but I don’t want her to come to believe that her joys are the cause of my sadness. They sometimes spark my sadness, but they didn’t cause it.
My experience of having joy be a fleeting experience and one that I was perpetually uncertain of caused it, and she did not do that to me. My parents did.
What I am getting at, really, is I need to keep working at resolving my feelings of grief, because they bleed into my life. Grief holds me back in many areas of my life, because I feel I can’t do those things or I will be overwhelmed by grief. It can’t be vomited out or cathected, although Freud claimed this. It becomes resolved as you form comprehensible narratives of your life that allow you to understand and communicate what happened to you. I think there will always be times when I feel grief, but it will lessen.
The thing about parents who are unable to love you is that you cannot accept this or come to terms with it. You have to keep trying, because you need them. I am an adult, and I do need them, but not so much I can’t begin to stop trying to make them do something which they cannot do. I can accept the things that are not attainable in my life and not feel that life itself is hopeless and not worth pursuing.
There was a point last night when I though to really have a full and completely fulfilling life, I need to grieve for Nata and accept that she is also not here. And it just felt so devastating, like I cannot even touch that grief. I don’t know how I will ever be able to accept that she is dead or to make sense of it.
Slowly, I guess.