A connection

One of my many daily trigger is going to bed. I don’t always have a hard time with it, but many times I do. It ebbs and flows without ever receding completely. I have had some ideas about this, but they don’t make it go away. Whether it is better or worse seems to do with my general level of stress and not my insight or anything I am doing to cope.

But I did have a thought a few nights ago about it. I have one very traumatic memory of assault as a very young child which I think led to my removal. It crossed my mind that I had been asleep when my father came into the room that night, and also that the assault is intimately connected in my mind to removal rather than significant for its own sake.

In my little child’s brain, the sequence went like this: fell asleep, got hurt, lost my house and all my toys.

For a second, it flashes through my mind that social workers really need an update on what it feels like to be removed from your house. Imagine people are hurting you, so someone comes alone and burns it down with all of your stuff inside, then makes you live with strangers you may not actually like. This is not the same as your house burning down randomly. This is because people were hurting you. It’s like telling a rape victim, since they were raped in their own neighbourhood, you need to move.

I’m not saying anyone should have left me with my parents, but just no one should expect me to have felt rescued.

Anyway, so in my little child’s brain, if you fall asleep, there’s a  chance you could be kidnapped. Which is something a kid might feel scared about anyway, but I had this terrible sequence of events leading up to it and no one really to help me or comfort me because the adults could not grasp how the whole thing felt. I think social workers now understand better that removal is very traumatic, but in 1975, I don’t believe mine did.

The thing is, when I had this thought, the pain in my heart settled down. I felt afraid. It was much easier just to feel afraid.


True North

Some ideas have come together for me recently. They seem somewhat coherent, as though they aren’t missing too many pieces. When I have an interesting idea which resonates, but seems to be incomplete, I find I ought not to get too excited about it, as later I won’t buy into it any longer.

I’ll begin with something I read recently, which stuck in my mind: when the baby’s feelings are reflected back, but not marked (exaggerated so as to show the feelings are not one’s own), then feelings seem to be something “out there” rather than existing within the baby’s own body. So if the parent simply has affective empathy–the baby’s distress is felt by the parent, but not as they baby’s–then the baby’s feelings seem “real” but outside of the self.

Put that together with the idea that the parent is impulsive and unpredictable and I think I start to understand myself. If feelings and, indeed, all perceptions seem to be “out there,” then I might have ended up feeling anxious about the very nature of reality. There are times when I feel compulsively anxious about C in a way that I think is frightening for her if she realizes I feel that way, and I have been thinking this is because my working model of close relationships has been activated: “Okay, mom, how do I feel now? What is real now?” More importantly, “Who am I now?” C isn’t my own mother, but that’s the model of relationships I have: I don’t know what reality is–perception is something “out there” and it can change at any second.

When I imagine my childhood, I think this is half how children feel–“Mom, what’s happening? What do I do? How do I understand it?” But not that it can change at any second. That’s my mother’s impulsivity.

This is not flattering to me to talk about, but I think this is what happened. I think this is how my parents’ mental illnesses distorted my understanding of the world and myself.

My other thought has to do with my relationship to good feelings within myself. I am more and more convinced that my mother’s borderline personality, high levels of narcissism and anxious attachment led her to impulsively interfere with my pursuit of nearly all positive feelings–not necessarily because of anything to do with me, but because of her own internal sense-making: her inability to interact with other minds made everything refer to herself. So things like, “She isn’t happy like that when she is with me,” (and subsequent feelings of loss and guilt), led her to want me not to play or enjoy myself. Only, either that was clearly unacceptable or her mind was a soup, and she didn’t know that. She just wanted to find a way to stop me.

I think what normally happens in infancy and early childhood is you learn that yourself is a source of potential pleasure, because there are so many things you can do that feel good. I am amazed at my capacity to make my fingers wiggle and so I feel wonder and this feeling of wonder feels good. Then, later, as we are socialized into being considerate of others, we start to learn that maybe some things that feel good to us can’t be done, because they don’t feel good to other people. So I can’t take the toy out of your hand even though I like it, because then you cry. But I can play with my trucks….

Because of the foundation in infancy of the self being a source of good feelings, the socialization doesn’t result in a sense that one’s whole existence is bad: instead, the patterns are understood as undesirable behaviours. The self can remain “good.”

But if it’s everything or there is not any sense of a pattern to discouraged behaviours (because it depends on the vagaries of my mother’s moods), then the self feels “bad.”

Couple that with a lack of emotional “skin,” because the ability to mentalize has been stalled or regresses to psychic equivalence so that the thought, “I am bad,” seems to be real, and you are well set up for feeling one’s true being is rooted in negative feelings.

More than that, there is no way to independently restore one’s own sense of goodness or self-esteem: self-regulation is not possible, because the roads toward it have been cut off.

It leads to the grandiosity of narcissism: good feelings seem to be located outside of the self–feelings are somewhere “out there” and so good feelings must be gotten from others. One can only feel pleasure if other people have a sense of pleasure about you.

The whole construct helps me to understand C better, and the things about her that hurt or puzzle me: she, like me, is looking for a feeling of goodness outside herself. To be seen is to feel her own “badness,” so being close to someone in an authentic way is to risk having her “true” bad self (which is not true at all) discovered. She comes close and then wants to run away, but she runs toward superficial relationships or relationships with people she feels she can control so that she doesn’t need to risk losing those feelings of goodness.

This is all rather circular, as many things are confused or reversed–“true” and false, inside and outside, good and “bad.” What seems to be real is not real, and what seems unreal or hallucinatory may actually be real, what is outside the self is felt to be inside and the self appears to be outside.

In normal development, the child only sort of knows how other people see him most of the time, but he knows how it feels to do things. It’s only in adolescence that we develop the cognitive capacity to fully experience ourselves as social beings, who feel ourselves doing what we do as well as what other people think about what those behaviours mean or what we think they mean. It’s not something that happens overnight, but it’s not a continuous development either: there is a big jump in the early teen years that makes perspective-taking easier. Freud calls this the “observing” ego, but it’s our imagination of other people and how they see us.

For a child who has a parent with empathy failures, I think the “doing” self is compartmentalized from the “observing” self, so that some positive feelings can be obtained without activating the working model of the self, which is inevitably bad and evil.

I think this is the source of the sense of hunger in the kids: the Boy becomes someone who behaves as a kind of eating machine. He is his hunger, rather than someone who feels hungry. He has become mindless so that he can enjoy being, because the “other” is someone understood as desirous of wanting to steal his good feelings. Getting good feelings actually becomes a kind of contest, in which he has “won” over a malignant world. It’s a very sad and doomed way to be, and I hope it won’t always be like this for him.

I think I am one stepped removed from this, in which I don’t see good feelings as even being possible: I don’t feel a sense of injustice at being blocked from having them. I soldier on without many pleasures: life is very austere for me, and I often feel pleasure in life has quite literally died.

This is, of course, Nata’s and maybe other’s deaths also and my stalled grief. She gave me feelings of goodness and she is no more now. That source of goodness is now blocked and I don’t know how to get back to it. You can imagine someone in their celestial, perhaps angelic state, but it’s not the same as seeing your joy at seeing them reflected back at you as their joy at seeing you.

Grief is not an impulse you can release and cathect yourself out of having to feel again. It’s a process if figuring your life out again, of reshuffling the pieces so that the gaping hole they have left in it is not quite so big.

I don’t actually know where to go from here. The times my thoughts end up at Nata’s death, I often find myself at a mental standstill, as though I am still at the side of her body. Life carries on and yet it seems impossible that it will do so or even that it has for the last 30 odd years. Somehow, I am here. She is not coming back, and yet the sadness at recognizing this is so deep, I cannot fathom living with it. I have lived with it, because i have compartmentalized it. It’s not really a good way to live.

Some of it, I think, is self-centered, frozen from the child I was: my life has come to a standstill, how can it go on for everyone else?

The key

The idea that ego -destroying shame comes from experiencing the badness as reality–from psychic equivalence –explains nearly everything that has really puzzled me in human behaviour in pretty much everyone, including myself.

If you have no emotional skin, then you will go to great lengths to avoid the devastation of such intense shame.

I came home after walking a student home and felt suicidal. Previously, I would have had no real idea what this came from. Nothing is particularly wrong. I came home, had suicidal thoughts, and realised I liked being home, so I felt ashamed.This goes back to proximity-seeking as being shameful as well. I felt ashamed, the stress of it caused regression, I had no emotional skin, shut down the feeling and only had the thought left as a clue.

It’s no longer mysterious. I don’t know what to do about it, but it’s a start.

Thoughts are real

One of the forms of prementalizing–so attempts at making sense of thoughts, feelings and intentions before the child is mature enough to engage in real mentalizing–is psychic equivalence. Adults who are mistreated as children can have fragile mentalizing abilities, so that they regress to prementalizing under stress, or they may remain “stuck” in prementalizing stages because contemplating the thoughts, feelings and intentions of a malignant other is so deveastating.

In psychic equivalance mode, thoughts are felt to be real. If I think it, or if someone else thinks it, then that’s reality. Fonagy posits that because of psychic equivalence, shame is experienced as utterly annihilating. There is no ability to modulate the shame so that it is behaviour-shaping, but tolerable, which is what shame is supposed to be.  Fonagy says it is like having no emotional skin.

He describes it as leading to violence in vulnerable people, because the person sparking the feelings of shame must be destroyed so that I can restore myself, or I must destroy myself because I am bad.

I am not violent, but this is exactly what it feels to me happens under stress. The sense that I am bad and wrong feels so intense and overwhelming, that my whole being seems to be wrong. Something to keep in mind about this is that very young children cannot mentalize. They do not have this protective ability to manipulate their thoughts, feelings and intentions in their minds or to consider other people’s in a way that helps stay at a tolerable level of emotion. What I feel now is what I felt as a toddler.

The reason I mention that is I think it’s important to remember how little me felt when I was abused and why I might have had those feelings. Other toddlers run to their parents when they feel overwhelmed by their feelings, but what if you can’t?

I think many symptoms of personality disorders that we see result from trying to find ways to avoid activating this kind of overwhelming shame when there is not this protective layer of mentalizing to use as a tool.

Let’s go back a step and also consider my working definition for shame, which is a sense or an expectation of loss of connection to others. Shame is frequently confused with guilt. Shame is not being at fault. Shame is expecting no one will understand your story. We frequently tell survivors of various tragedies they aren’t to blame, because we don’t want them to feel ashamed. But that’s not shame. That’s guilt. Survivors feel shame in telling their stories because they expect the listener not to understand their story.

I think I feel shame for things my parents’ narcissism prevented them from understanding me. Spectifically, I think the major trigger I have is proximity-seeking. We seek closeness to others, both physically and psychologically, because the drive to be with others, especially under stress, is innate. It’s the primary function of the attachment system: to create physical or mental closeness with someone who has the power to help you. It’s a biological urge.

What if your drive to be close leads to seek proximity to someone who hurts you or at the very least fails to help? More than that, what if your life is very dangerous and your biological need to seek proximity is activated beyond what is considered normal or acceptable for your age? Then I think you learn to try to control your desire to seek proximity. through other means.

Maybe you play out dire scenarios of what may happen if you seek proximity. Maybe you point out how you are undeserving of proximity. Maybe you, yourself, use shame to dissuade yourself from being close.

I think this happens to me. I have struggled with coming home after work–the whole walk home, my brain just kind of spinning out. Waking up in the morning, when I would normally have looked around for other people, is extremely difficult. This is about proximity-seeking, and having learned it is not safe to do what my biology compels me to do and trying to find ways to suppress that drive.

I don’t think my parents knew why I wanted to be close to them.


Exactly why?

I teach only 3 periods on Mondays. It’s the easiest day of the week for me. More than half the regular school day, I am actually not teaching. There is a one-hour department meeting which is often mostly a waste of time, but not terribly taxing.

During the time I had free, I completed a training for mandated child abuse reporting. I suppose this was why I came home in a state. I didn’t connect it until just now…

But I got home, there were kids waiting on the stairs leading up to my house for me. There is  a test tomorrow. My students are deeply struggling, so I do need to help them.

As soon as they left, I had the urge to a) lie down in bed, b) self-harm, c) commit suicide. I made dinner and wondered why this happens. I pondered Peter Fonagy’s idea that mentalization is impaired when the attachment system is activated. Is this about losing symbolic control over thoughts and feelings and having, in consequence, “no emotional skin”?

I get that I am triggered. Why does “triggered” look like this? During life-or-death experiences I may (as an infant) been lying in bed. I did not self-harm to save myself. I did not attempt suicide. These are not procedural memories of how I saved myself. This is about shame, for sure–that’s the accompanying feeling. But why does it look like this?

I thought it seems like still an attempt to communicate. This seems to be about the social engagement system still working. I thought, “This seems to be about trying to take my abusive parent’s perspective and ending up in a kind of loop.”

I was endangered. I turned to my parent: I needed their wisdom to escape the danger. The way to do that is to accommodate their desire to harm me. I am in danger. The loop replays.

I have seen in the case of C and The Boy and at times in myself how we have learned to avoid considering the mental states of other people or avoid taking into account our own mental states, so as to avoid confronting the malignancy of the parent–actually, more likely, the ego-destroying shame that goes with it: in other words, the tendency is to alternate between rather than integrate the felt experience versus an image of oneself.

It erases the malignant mind of the other. All I have is myself, but it’s isolating. Immensely, immensely isolating.

I’ve lost my ability to inhibit my capacity to mentalize, ironically, and what I have is a parent who wants to hurt me, whom I must try to cooperate with to save my own skin and this leads me to harm myself.


I was noticing recently the disconnect between how it feels to be me inside me–so when I am doing things I enjoy, for example. I feel quite good. But when I am in a situation where I am aware of myself–in some way looking at or examining myself–then I don’t feel good at all. This is my imagination of how others see me, only I don’t actually imagine any particular person who sees me in this negative way. It’s just there, as a part of my mind, this image of myself that’s so painful.

I go back to this idea of the incoherence of the abused child’s working models of themselves and others, and it seems to me to be one part of this incoherence. These two sources of information about the self–how it feels to be me and what other people seem to think of me–are discontinuous and seem to bear no relation to one another. I think the malevolence or controlling nature of the parent is why. If the child responded to the parent’s view of herself, she would collapse in permanent despair. All sources of good feeling would be cut off.

What I mean is usually there are enough things we can do that feel good to us that we can lose some of our sources of pleasure when they turn out not to be socially acceptable or to have negative consequences for us later. So, while it might feel good to push my way to the front of the line or to steal some other child’s candy, I can give those things up because I still have so many pleasures available to me. The abused child may have nothing left aside from those things the parent punishes her for doing. She has to learn to defend herself against conscience.

For example, I have been aware from the kids that concentrating on something of interest will very likely lead to interruption or interference, and it is not just that they would like my attention sometimes, but that my state of concentration makes them aware of their loss of my attention. When I am mindlessly going through the motions of life, they wouldn’t notice. This pattern gives me insight into my mother, who would sometimes come to me, express a lot of anger or frustration for seemingly no reason, and then recede again. She especially attacked my writing and sometimes my reading–taking me to the library, but telling me to go outside and play when she saw me actually reading said books.

It wasn’t about not liking my writing or my reading, it was more likely an attempt to manage her own feelings of loss by attacking the trigger. It’s like me fixing the leak in the kitchen sink so that I don’t need to be reminded every day of my mother trying to drown me while washing my hair. Only I am a person. And writing and reading give me pleasure. I can’t give them up the way I could other things.

It may also have been about jealousy. I have seen VP Ma’am, who for sure has disorganized attachment, show flashes of anger as she approached if she sees me talking to someone else. That’s jealousy about attention, but my mother may have also felt a jealousy over pleasure, because she could so rarely feel comfortable or happy.

I think a child in this situation develops a disconnected sense of self, whereby the inside and outside are experienced separately. I can become my raw instincts, or I can behave well. But not both. What this does, I think, is remove modulation.

There are times when The Boy seems to become his appetite. He likes to eat, and so he eats 10 chilis at a time, or an entire bag of pears, or piles up bowls of food and then has stomach aches later if i don’t stop him. While he is doing this, he expresses a socially bizarre degree of pleasure in eating. And I think this is why: he feels he is the pleasure of eating. The shame about overeating, about taking too much and even perhaps taking food he does not deserve (because he is not my own child) have been removed along with that outside view of himself, which is what may allow him to enjoy food at all in the first place.

So I think this has, to some extent, happened to me. And these are the parts. It’s not all about pleasure, but it is about having an internal experience which is painfully incompatible with my view of myself from the outside.

I think children who are abused learn a lot of strategies to avoid seeing themselves at all, so that they are not assaulted by their own negative view of themselves.

I think, in some way, this also removes me from the ability to be able to comfort or modulate feeling states: this human capacity to see myself seems connected to the equally human capacity to provide care. I must see that I need care before providing the care. I cannot merely become the need for care.

A few years ago, when the parts were more active, Ruthie expressed a very intense desire to be “inside mommy.” I can understand this better now, as wanting to be connected to the compassionate view of myself which makes care feel like care. Indulging an impulse that provides relief does not feel like care. It feels like being bad, but I don’t care.

It meshes, in my mind, with what Fonagy says about lack of symbolic control over felt experiences–or having that control collapse under strain, which it does–causing the person to feel as though they have no emotional skin. The loss of  sense of connection to other people who have in the past felt the same thing creates a mental devastation, and it also, I suspect, removes the individual from a connection to experiences in which one might have learned to manage those feelings.

For an abused child, this was at some point adaptive: what the parents did with difficult feelings was hurt the child. In that case, it is best not to be aware of the minds around you trying to cope with the difficulty: You won’t learn anything good from that. But I think the disconnection from other minds also creates its own pain.

What I don’t know still is how to heal that rift within the self.


So it’s Sunday, but it’s also a holiday, which now means I am to some degree obligated to engage with the world. I cannot just clean the house and work in the garden–or, at worst, collapse under attachment weirdness.

I did not intend to write about grief today. I had some other things on my mind, which I will also write about later. Youtube thought I would like this video. I did. Thank you, Youtube, for not suggesting I would like to meet Muslim singles and instead getting the algorithm right.

People typically regulate emotions together: it is our ability to co-regulate which makes us desire contact. Children without attachment figures do not learn to use others to help them to regulate. They are forced to do it themselves and then have no way to add social knowledge to their repertoire beyond what they can gain through instinct and trial and error. It makes these children emotionally very brittle and lacking in resilience so that even ordinary life challenges can be unmanageable. It can create a tendency towards using control as a strategy: since the interior world cannot be managed, the exterior world must. In fact, children with disorganized attachment typically develop controlling attachments with their parents.

I was reading also, in a different study, that people perceive a hill to be less steep when accompanied by a friend than when alone. Doing things together makes them seem easier, because someone can help us manage our internal state.

When we experience grief, the person we share this feeling with is also trying to regulate the feelings of loss with us, but because it is usually our grief and not their grief, it can be difficult to do this with us. Their responses are often aimed at what will make them feel better, but not us. For example, they may suggest an easy solution (have you tried acupuncture?) because this seems realistic to someone not connected to the profoundness of the problem. They may suggest looking at the bright side, because for someone not grieving, it’s not very difficult to turn their attention away from the source of sadness. They cannot really grasp the difficulty of reconfiguring your life or your sense of reality after an intense loss or trauma.

It isn’t precisely what the video says, but it’s what I think. 

What I think happens in the case of mental illness in the family, which I believe is the real source of childhood abuse, is that whole communities develop where even the people experiencing loss are not able to realistically cope with their own loss. They adopt the coping strategies of people unaware of the loss involved in having a family member who is mentally ill and then feel the lack of effectiveness of those strategies lies within themselves.

I saw a meme recently about parenting children with attachment difficulties. It made the analogy that it is like driving in the dark with no headlights, your hands tied behind your back, and an octopus around your neck.

I thought it’s tempting to believe people with headlights, their hands-free and no octopus are doing so much better–we must find out what they are doing. But it’s not their great driving skills making things so much easier. It’s the headlights, the lack of rope, and the absence of an octopus that make the difference. People who don’t have someone mentally ill in their family cannot tell you how to cope with having someone who is.

My trauma is extremely profound, but my thought today is that it need not be overwhelming to me. It is overwhelming to other people, who do not actually need to come to terms with those issues, but it need not be overwhelming to me.