Squidgy

I mentioned I have been struggling with depression the last several months. One of the issues is how I feel in my home and how I feel with myself. The typical pattern is that I leave school on Friday and sometimes Saturday excited about my free time, and then I get home and kind of collapse. I can force my way through it, but this doesn’t change the nature of the collapse. I can get things done when I really try, but it’s joyless.

In the US, I used to walk home and begin to feel I was losing my mind as I approached it. My thoughts no longer seemed to make sense to me, and the usual feeling of having opinions supported by evidence appeared to unhinge itself.

I’ve thought for a while it must be that my home is a source of comfort to me, and how I feel.when I reach home relates to how I understand other sources of comfort. In other words, although my home is nonliving, I ascribe to it the characteristics of an attachment figure.

So I’ve been trying to make sense of my reaction through the lens of how (most likely) my mother behaved towards me. I think it may begin to help soon, but it’s difficult to think clearly enough to trace what I am reacting to and then also figure out how to help myself.

Last night, I began to think I feel like a black, squidgy ball. So I wondered to myself how I would help a black, squidgy ball, because if I can bring down the intensity of the bad feeling just a bit, I can start to think clearly enough to understand the sqidginess.

I don’t have a great arsenal of comforting activities, but in the wintertime, getting warm enough to actually feel hot seems to do the trick. I got under the covers with a hot water bottle and pondered the nature of the squidginess.

I feel, reflexively, that no one will believe me, if I describe the nature of the squidginess more precisely.

The sqidginess is submission. My parents lived in a hostile world, as traumatised people often do, and consequently had a seemingly relentless desire for control because, in the short-term, it makes people’s motives appear more transparent and less potentially upsetting. They determined what we would do and therefore presumed they knew the meaning of what we did.

But also they behaved in frightening or threatening ways purposely in order to evoke submissive displays so that they could, in comparison, feel strong. We live by comparison, as human beings. It’s in our DNA.

I now see both of my parents as lacking empathy, and empathy as a brake on human behaviour. No brakes on how cruelly they behaved…so I was flooded by the impulse to submit. It wasn’t a mild urge, but a deluge.

This is my expectation based on my working model of attachment. The flood of submission does not feel good. It feels very bad. So I approached a potential source of comfort knowing I was more likely to feel bad than good.

To a narcissist, anything you have represents a loss to themselves. If I got their attention, this was time spent not getting attention for them. Comforting me represents that kind of threat. All the more reason to be threatening or rejecting: I might, in some sense, steal their attention.

I don’t really know what to do, but it makesit easier to understand.

Narcissistic Supply

My other thought as I have been learning has been about the role of empathy. When I am watching someone speak and trying to understand what they are saying, my mirror neurons are hard at work imagining how they are making that sound, what the sound actually is, what it means. It’s hard to learn if you can’t mentally imitate the person showing you how something is done.

And I think it’s this system of perspective-taking and imagining that’s somehow broken or distorted in me which creates so much unhappiness and so many relational problems. I don’t think I’m a narcissist, but I think my parents are and it has done something to me that’s short of narcissism and still not fun. I should also say that I believe the source of empathy deficiencies in personality disorders comes first from fear of what you might have to imagine. I don’t think it begins with evil.

I should also say that I think narcissism lies on a spectrum and that it isn’t my parents’ whole problem. My dad may simply be conscience-less. My mother is borderline.

All of that said, let me begin to meander a bit more closely around the point.

I’ve spent the last six weeks or so observing (and often struggling with) how I relate to myself and what happens within that relationship to myself throughout the day. Often, it’s like a ghost. I can’t figure out what just went on in my head, but I am reacting to it. There are times when I’m mentally so ratcheted up it feels like there’s screaming in my head, but I don’t know what started the screaming or what they’re screaming about.

I’ve also been reflecting on my relationships with various people, the kids I care for and others, and what goes on when these relationships upset me.

I’ve been thinking about the drag of depression that seems to have fallen over me since some time in summer and the gradual collapse of my belief in myself this year.

I think narcissism is how I unconsciously assume relationships work. It’s not my conscious belief. There is a gap between behaviour I have learned through experience and what I do as a result of intention. But it impacts how I feel throughout the day, including how I feel in the way I relate to myself. There’s no one here but me, but I suspect I imagine a narcissist at the other end of my mind’s eye.

There are so many implications to this.

The toady

Another idea relates to how traumatized people make sense of their traumas and the way this impacts future relationships, such as with their children–me, for example, or my mother.

If you think, as a very young child, that terrible things happened to you because you failed to keep your parents’ attention, then you are likely to grow up seemingly irrationally terrified of abandonment and compelled to stay engaged, but you may also be afraid of the power those you engage with have over you and or have impairments in your ability to process emotions or make sense of motivations and you may compensate by seeking control.

At the same time, you may be able to empathise with the desire other people have for control and surrender for the sake of avoiding abandonment. You may not always insist on being on top.

This dynamic of avoiding abandment at any cost along with maintaining an imbalance of power explains, really, most of my life with other people.

How do I get to the heart of that? What I mean is that The Boy once lay listlessly on the bed until I became alert and interested in something C was saying, and then he began to blow on a high-pitched whistle. I mean that’s one example, but I could listen thousands of them over decades with different people. He couldn’t bear the feeling of abandonment he had when I paid attention to someone else.

It explains one of my complaints in my long-term relationship, which I could never clearly articulate in couples’ therapy, which was that my ex wanted me to carpool with her, but she didn’t want me to talk in the car. Why sit in a car with someone and listen silently to talk radio?

Because a radio show will not make you stressed or anxious. It won’t make you wonder what to say in response. You won’t get your feelings hurt or have to follow a story that’s overlong. It’s distant and predictable in a way. But she wanted me there because abandonment terrified her.

It leads to families that crave proximity, but feel afraid to interact. It’s the core of many types of abusive relationships, and it also sets you up for more.

The threads

As I go through the day, trying to continue to function (which I am not), I pay attention to how bad I often feel and I wonder why this happens. I find it mysterious.

I am not, as some people do, having harsh internal dialogue with myself, but I feel dramatically hopeless anyway.

I suspect my relationship with myself reflects my relationships with cruel or neglectful others. So I’ve just been watching it, trying to figure it out.

On the one hand, I think one part of it relates to extremely inconsistent parenting and an anxious-ambivalent attachment that results in the child.

My idea about anxious attachment relates to something I read recently about signals of stress abating before the problem is actually resolved because you feel so confident it will be resolved. For example, you drink water and stop feeling thirsty although the water is still sitting in your stomach, because you anticipate being hydrated soon.

This is the core of secure attachment. Your mother holds you and you already feel better because you already have reward chemicals released in your brain, because she has relieved your distress so msny times before.

An anxious-ambivalent child does not get so much of that because the reward of being attended to has not consistently happened. What happens instead is the hope of reward is offered, and the child intensifies their signals of distress in hopes of getting it. What this can look like is the child rejecting comfort, because the child is trying to avoid being dysregulayed by their own intensification of distress.

I think this happens within me. I offer myself comfort, because I am my own attachment figure, and my distress actually intensifies. What happens after that is me spinning through ways I learned as a child both to express and contain the intensification of distress.

This is one thread.

Pause

So I am in Capital City for the annual ritual of immigration work. I don’t like most of this process, although there are parts of it I feel I am supposed to like and don’t.

This may be a whiny post. I’m sorry about that, if that’s what it turns into.

It is this little dip into luxury in some ways, but some of it makes no difference to me and some if it makes me stressed.

So there is this feeling of wrongness, as though I am wrong.

Let me dive into that for a second. Many people actually feel the same way as I do. The big cities here are exciting, because there is stuff. You can buy all kinds of things. I had an Americano this morning and back in Y-town, you can’t even find ground coffee. For $2.50, I can sit in a cafe that plays soothing music, sit in a soft chair, and be warm. In Y-town, my borrowed chair will be reclaimed by its rightful owner, because she’s moving away, and its cold all day long inside my house. I can drink Nescafe, because that’s all there is.

Luxury.

But I earn about $300 a month. $2.50 is a lot. The visa extension is about $80. My laptop broke and luckily it could be repaired for about the same amount. I bought a year’s worth of coffee because it seems to be a major comfort to me, and I need to buy new underwear. After 2 years, they are getting holes…I need to buy conditioner because in Y-town, it’s hit or miss. The stocking up for the year feels like I am just bleeding money.

And this is what other people complain about. I am not alone. So why the sense of wrongness?

Because it is only some people who feel this way. Rich people don’t complain about it. Even upper middle class people don’t complain about it.

I have mixed feelings about my expected role in society here. There is this assumption that everyone from a developed country is rolling in money and your contact with development alone will put you in the same bracket as their 1%. But I am not rich and I also don’t want to be rich. I have found wealth often spoils your personality and encourages people to lose their capacity for empathy and their resilience in the face of struggle. I am not interested.

For example, I got a lift out of Y-town with some important head engineer and I had the distinct impression he felt we were somehow the same, but we aren’t the same.

Imposter syndrome at its finest…

Being white is weird.

But I think this is also about my experiences of reward generally–i.e., attachment. Situations which promise pleasure may be risky or downright dangerous.

The thing about this all is that some people (maybe traumatised people, maybe those from narcissistic systems) is they reach out as though they intend to respond to you when in reality they are responding to themselves. As someone deprived of warmth or relationships, you seize the chance only to find put that what they want to do is something thay harms you or frightens you or humiliates you. That may not have been the plan, but the need for control or dominance or simply a stress-induced collapse of empathic capacity leads to this.

I think my past experiences lend themselves to this as a present experience, whatever the current situation: pleasure cannot be enjoyed, because of the degree of fear.

Traumatic Families

I’ve been thinking trauma is inherited. Not just that my parents, in responding to me, taught me to cope in the way that they coped with their traumas even though these same events might not happen to me, but also that trauma begets abuse.

Not to conflate traumatized people with abusers, but it is the traumatic impact of abuse which caused my parents to abuse me. This is not really rocket science. Everyone knows this, but I have been wondering exactly, precisely what is the mechanism of inheritance.

I had a 3-day weekend, quite unusually and very mercifully given the anniversary effect involved, following Halloween. I felt awful, but kept my shit together enough to get through the day and landed here, on a Tuesday now, with some answers.

I should add the reason this is so important to me is that I believe that my relationship with my parents shapes my relationship with myself, and I speculate it is largely my relationship with myself that causes me misery. Secondarily, it is my relationship with others, and lastly it is the actual, day-to-day impact of the trauma itself. One of my bloggy friends mentioned in a pot that her parts have been living in an abusive environment, and this has stayed with me since I read that. I think she’s really on to something.

That may not be unusual to think, except that I don’t tend to have the cascade of negative thoughts other people describe. I suddenly feel bad. Parts complain about how awful they feel. And it’s extremely hard for me to work out what precipitated the bad feelings. But something is going on.

So I think it’s this. What’s inherited is difficulty in mentalizing: difficulty in understanding or making sense of desires and intentions. It may be there are deficiencies in this area, because the mind of the other feels so menacing or is overwhelming and painful. How do I respond to my mother if I understand her intention is to cause me harm? It may be that the parent’s inner world is so confusing there seems to be no point in trying to understand why they do what they do.

Normally, what’s happening for a parent is not impossible for a child to see, although it may be different from the child’s experiences. Parents are hungry and thirsty and tired too. They want to get to work and school on time. They want you to buckle your seatbelt so they can drive safely. Parents are surprised by sudden noises that surprise children too. As a child, with some effort, you can work out why parents feel the way they do, because people’s inner worlds are related to their outer worlds and you can see it and hear it. If your parent, like my father’s mother, is responding to sounds and images that you cannot see or hear, you may give up on trying to understand people altogether.

That’s one piece: the developing child who is, for whatever reason, unable to understand other people’s experiences and then may grow up to be a parent unable to understand their children’s experiences. This, of course, we think of as being an element of pathological narcissism, but it is not all of narcissism. It’s only one aspect.

You may also have a child whose self-image is so negative that it’s painful to think of the self, so however well someone else understands the child, she cannot see herself as she is imagined within someone’s mind.

The other piece of what I believe may lead to the inheritance of trauma is the result of not having a parent who imagines your experiences, or even if they imagine it, but as a child it’s so painful or confusing for you to see what they imagine that you don’t know if they are able to understand your experiences or not. The only way to know if they understand is if you can see it in their actions. In other words, the lack of imagining of other people’s mental states, increases the pressure to get your way, because it’s only when you get what you want that you feel yourself existing in the world.

And this happens both for children and for parents in these families. Power becomes very important, because what is at stake in interactions is not merely your comfort, but a sense of being real and alive. For the child, getting the toy they want is not merely about a toy, but feeling they are themselves. For the parent, having a child who won’t go to bed when you tell him means you lose your sense of yourself.

Naturally, we all get a sense of efficacy when we can have an impact on the world. None of these things are abnormal.It’s simply the pressure on this as a part of our identities that’s overly intense, because other ways of feeling we exist cannot be relied on (namely, empathy).

Of course, adults usually have more power than children in the world, and so they may be more likely to win in these seemingly life-or-death contests over whose will might prevail. The child complies, feels perhaps dead inside, or turns away from the punishing, smothering parent thus losing the opportunity to learn the social skills normally developed within the family.

The third piece of that attachment impulses are easily activated, because the degree of conflict inherent in normal, everyday activities is so great. You feel like you might need help with simple things, because with a parent who feels not getting her way makes her disappear, you must be prepared to fight hard or not at all. The weapons may be physical, but there are parents who don’t hit, but instead attack your self-image, your sense of belonging, or your status.

I cannot tell you how much this set of assumptions about what forces may have shaped me make my day-to-day experiences coherent and comprehensible. Getting up in the mornings is difficult for me. I wake up early, I feel like doing things, but physically getting started is really hard. It’s painful and upsetting. For years, I’ve mostly noticed attachment pain, but sometimes I’m angry or despairing.

If the question in my childhood was, “Who gets to exist today?” then this makes total sense. I’m terribly scared. I think I might need help. I may be angry at an anticipated struggle over who gets to exist. I may even be angry that there is no one there to do my bidding and make me feel that I exist by doing what I want.

I don’t know what to do to solve the problems this is causing me, but I think it’s a start.

 

Stasis

I said I’ve had some ideas, but then I didn’t really write about them.

One of them is about how the parent, in a sense, trains the baby’s brain what state to aim for. Of course, there is something inherent–no one likes to be unhappy all the time, no one can stand overwhelming pain. And yet we learn what only seems dangerous and it isn’t, what must be accepted even though we don’t like it. We learn how much stimulation to seek, what level of alertness to maintain. We are born with a temperament, but our parents also modulate it.

In the staff room, I think about it this, because I suspect some of what I don’t like is an attempt to increase the degree of alertness in other people, because some teachers are accustomed to hyper-vigilance. It’s attention-seeking, but then I wonder if there’s a deeper purpose.

We talk about becoming habituated to drama, and yet I also wonder if this happens because, in fact, the trait is passed down because evolution assumes it enhanced your parent’s survival and will enhance yours.

Anyway, it’s a thought to try on for a while.

I had another thought about relationships, and about the kinds of relationships I may be accustomed to. The thing is that over the years I have ended up with maybe fewer harmful relationships, but generally I think they may be of the same type and that something fundamental in how I relate to people has not changed.

I had talked about the baby developing a sense of “badness” as a result of a parent’s trauma or depression. The parent looks at the child and appears to feel pain or fear or anger, and so the child experiences herself as a source of danger and learns to cope by avoiding self-reflection and situations in which she might begin to put herself in someone else’s position and imagine how they see her. Self-monitoring is in some ways impaired as a result. Attention is not split between the self and the other, but compartmentalized. Either I see you and what you intend and desire, or I see what I intend and desire, but a child like this grows up unable to see as clearly how her efforts to communicate her desires and intentions might be experienced by others.

A sense of the self develops in which others are assumed not to want to care for the child. If I am bad, why would someone want to care for me? The mother must be forced, and so the child develops controlling attachments: this is not always the outcome of disorganized attachment, but it often is. Controlling attachments may be punitive/controlling or caretaking/controlling. Punitive/controlling is self-explanatory, I would guess. The child maintains the parent’s attention through punitive means. In controlling/caretaking relationships, the child adopts the role of the parent and keeps the parent’s attention and maintains proximity by attending to the parent’s needs and desires.

I think what’s absent in the parent-child relationship in these cases is a sense of having someone concerned about you (as the child in the dyad). You are forcing the parent: there’s no concern. Why would they feel concern for you if you are bad, anyway?

And, indeed, if your parent is a narcissist, she probably does not feel concern. That’s what narcissists are known for. They can understand your feelings, but they don’t care.

I think a sense of starvation develops. It probably works both ways, because these patterns of relationships are learned. The parent may also worry that the child does not care about parent.

What is substituted instead are displays of power. For an instant, I can believe you care about me, if I force you to do something you don’t really want to do. Sacrifice is demanded, but it’s fleeting, because even sacrifice may not come from concern. At some level, we know this. Sacrifice may result from coercion.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I was doing some research for something I didn’t end up writing about and I read about a serial killer who claimed to “love” his victims. Well, they are dead, so obviously what he felt was not concern. But I don’t doubt he felt affection. They gave him something he wanted, and he had a feeling of fondness as a result, but he didn’t feel concern. There was a distinction between affection and a consideration of consequences.

I am reminded especially of my father, in this regard. He may have felt affection for me at times, but this didn’t mean he felt concern. But concern is the backdrop for trust.

To return to the point, though, it seems to me the outcome of a negative view of yourself is an anxiety about concern. Not just, “are you still available to me?” but “are you concerned for me?” Not merely, “will you hurt me?” but “do you care?” And care is so hard to pin down. I think I recognize it, especially in myself. There are times when I can see that I care about myself, and others when I just want my discomfort or unhappiness to stop. There is some kind of difference.

When a sense of care is gotten by forcing someone into doing things they don’t want to do and extracting compliance or sacrifice, then relationships are going to end up being over-involved (because the sense of care is so fleeting). If you grow up with this, and I suspect I did, then the “normal” sense of how a relationship should be will also be over-involved. You might call this enmeshment, but I think enmeshment doesn’t imply the kind of power dynamic I’m talking about as the root of the over-involvement, nor the sense of malignancy about relationships that it leads to.

In other words, if you have this kind of relationship in which the other person seeks to fulfill an emotional need that can’t be effectively filled in this way by demanding something that’s harmful to you, then your reaction to that person over time is likely to become distrustful. It’s self-reinforcing. It comes from such a deep, negative sense of the self that concern seems impossible and leads to a lack of concern that’s real.

If you constantly interfere with my goals, constantly interrupt me, constantly take things away from that give me pleasure, I’m not likely to feel much compassion for you. Your bids for interaction, in fact, are likely to be met with dread.

In myself, I think I seek to fill my brain up with the involvement my mother led me to expect. Someone ought to constantly demand my attention, even if I no longer trust anyone real to do that demanding. I think this is an unconscious signal to others about my expectations of relationships, and the reason I bring the same kinds of relationships into my life even I don’t actually want them.

The ideas, I can see, still require some hammering out, but it’s a starting place for now.