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.