I was reading yesterday about the right temporoparietal junction, which is the area of the cerebral cortex where the temporal lobe meets the parietal lobe, on the right side (as the name implies). It seems to be involved in tasks which involve shifting attention between different stimuli, and is especially implicated in tasks involving false beliefs. In other words, if I know where the doll is hidden, but I have to understand that Sally Ann doesn’t because someone moved it while she was out of the room, I need to be able to take into account that Sally Ann does not know what I know and will search for it in the place she (falsely) believes it to be.
This is important to me because these kinds of tasks involve mentalization: thinking about someone else’s (and one’s own) thoughts, beliefs, motives and feelings. The ability to mentalize is something which seems to be break down during stress for people with borderline personality disorder, and I suspect in others with relational trauma.
Anyway, it’s something I feel I am working on. I have an instinct that this is key, and I do a lot of just trying to keep being aware of myself as someone who thinks and feels even when those feelings and thoughts are distressing. In other words, I don’t so much work at eliminating distressing thoughts and feelings, but try to keep it within a tolerable range and not numb out so that respond I impulsively and reflexively without actually knowing why I am doing what I am doing. Sometimes that means just holding onto an awareness of the unpleasantness of the sensation of the emotion for as long as I can manage it, because that eventually seems to lead to some part of my brain eventually saying, “Oh, I think this is sadness…” or anger or whatever. And then it kind of gets better.
So I was reading about this part of the brain, and I suddenly realized something which I basically already know: children really have no ability to think about false beliefs below the age of two, and it’s pretty limited until about five. Kids at four years old are on the cusp: some four-year-olds know that Sally Ann will look in the place where she last saw the doll, but many won’t. At five, nearly all children who don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder will know this.
And it just occurred to me so if my mother was a lunatic, essentially, and had distorted beliefs about me (that I was trying to ruin her life, say, rather than call attention to my loneliness or my hunger or whatever feeling I had), before around three at the earliest, I had absolutely no way to think about this. I had probably also no way to think about my father’s obsession with death or corpses or even the idea that the corpses could not feel pain when he mutilated them. These aren’t situations about false beliefs, but they are about minds which were quite different from mine.
I have an idea some of the most severe abuse I experienced occurred before I was five, and a lot of it before I was four. The way these memories are encoded would be different than memories where I have an awareness of being a mind which thinks. I think memories of being very young when my mother was viciously attacking me would have encoded her mental state as merely my feeling about her mental state: “My mom is angry at me,” is encoded as, “I am bad.” In other words, as though the mental state is merely a reality: my mom thinks I am bad is not possible as a thought, because three-year-olds can’t think about thoughts.
When those memories come rushing back, I feel again that sense of badness as I did as a toddler. I know some people feel this is a maladaptive belief which will remain troublesome until it is corrected, but I feel it is an attempt to tell a story, which will be a lot less troublesome when I can hear the story.
The story is my mom got really mad about things and she yelled at me and sometimes hit me and said I was bad, and it felt really terrible when she did those things. And the thing is if my mom had been sort of normal, my distress at feeling overwhelmed by this sense of badness (which is essentially guilt) would have prompted my mother to lay off. Right? I suppose that’s probably why I remember it the way I do: I remember the message I needed my mother to hear. Listen, mom, I feel terrible. I feel so full of badness I want to tear off my own skin. Mom, stop, I am overwhelmed.
That’s what I think today. I think about this little toddler me and what I felt, and I think knowing how it actually felt is important. I think that’s part of the story. And I can’t really imagine telling myself, years after the fact, well, I’m sorry this happened to you, but you got it all wrong. You had the wrong feelings. Your misunderstanding of the situation has more or less ruined my life.
I can’t really do that. I think of my toddler self who just felt unbearably, excruciatingly bad and I feel prompted to simply accept this happened. It was awful. It hurt me. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault what happened and it wasn’t my fault how I made sense of it. I did the best I could