It’s incredibly difficult to write today.

It’s been interesting to acknowledge to myself that I hate the daily journal-writing torture. I think it has helped me in some important way to acknowledge it isn’t the experience I believe it is supposed to be. It’s not a slightly guilty but pleasurable act of self-love. It’s me trudging through the swamp of how dreadful I find myself. It’s horrible. It’s good for me, but I hate it.

Maybe I am realizing this is equally awful.

I just finished 20 minutes of a mindless computer game and I am now reading fake news. Two articles, because basically they are both not very interesting.

It seems as though I would rather do anything than be vulnerable.

I had some potentially useful thoughts. It’s not very coherent, I suppose, but it’s my struggle. Some days, I do the triumphant survivor thing, but mostly I don’t do triumph. This blog is about struggling.

I also ate 5 Peeps in a row.

Struggling in public is scary, even if all of you are basically really nice to me about it.

I was thinking it’s hard to acknowledge and cope with my vulnerability, because my vulnerability as a child was never recognized or responded to. My mother never stopped mid-beating because she suddenly realized she might break my head open or permanently damage my psychological development.

We learn what is real and what isn’t from other people around us. We learn through observation too, but a huge amount of what we know is communicated through other people’s behaviour. A part of how you learn traffic is dangerous is via your parents’ fearful responses when you wander out into the street.

If your body and heart are treated like play-dough, then your (my) vulnerable feels seem both irrelevant and confusing, and that tends to make them louder until sometimes–depending on the situation–you feel like you are going to drown in them. As I live more authentically, I think I am going to be experiencing a lot of vulnerable feelings.

I am just thinking it might not make sense to cope with it all by saying I am certain I don’t feel certain about. It’s okay to not know.

 

Trying

I told you I was reading a book by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection, which is a nice title.  It’s about needing to be vulnerable in order to live a satisfying life. Basically.

I was reading a chapter that was more or less about creativity. I started to think about my writing, or even just the fact that this is the only writing I do. I don’t know how to explain this, but I write more or less for survival. I am trying to make sense of my own mind. That’s all.

I am not criticizing myself.  That’s not the point of this.

But I did think when I write I risk having nothing of interest to say. Every time I take that risk of writing and publishing something of interest to me, I risk discovering that what interests me holds no interest to anyone else. I risk being alone with my thoughts and my experience, and I risk it in a way that feels permanent to me, because that’s the default I am starting with. I start with, “I am not of interest to anyone,” and I gently reach out with the hope that my default position is mistaken. When I am not of interest, I revert to the default.

I don’t know how to say this either, but if I don’t reach out and try to get connection, I can remain in a place of uncertainty and ultimately of hope. When I try, I risk knowing something I might not want to know.

Most of the self-help ideas out there that have lingered on in my mind have to do with avoiding ever needing to confront that.

If I hold onto the belief that my ideas are interesting and people will be interested in them, because they are “good” ideas, I never have to confront the possibility that they could still be boring–no matter how good I think they are.

If I hold onto the idea that I am “worthy” and people will care about me because I am “good,” I never have to risk not being cared about.

I never have to be vulnerable. I never have to risk being boring, unlikeable, unwanted or uncool. I never have to grapple with the potential for disappointment or loss.

I think the reality is every time we try something new, care about someone, or trust, we risk disappointment and loss. And I also think that’s okay. It’s okay to have feelings, even negative feelings, and the only way to be whole is to be able to accept those feelings. It doesn’t need to be okay with someone else for me to experience loss or disappointment or shame. It needs to be okay with me.

I think the reality is that every time I care about someone, I risk not being cared about in return. Every time I bond with someone, I risk losing them to distance or death or disinterest. I have to be able to cope with that–not insulate myself against the possibility of loss by believing life is certain and I am always loveable.

I am not always loveable. Sometimes I have bad breath. Sometimes I stress sweat. Sometimes my outfit is a fashion don’t. Sometimes I say idiot things. Sometimes I am clumsy, thoughtless, and inconsiderate. The days when I was cute no matter what I did are long past.

That needs to be okay with me.

If I spend my life trying to insulate myself against the possibility of loss, I am either trapped into people-pleasing or an off-putting narcissism that counter-intuitively drives people away.

I can’t live like that.

 

 

 

Morning and night

I have a thought about my sadness at night.

I think it’s the sadness of not having more chances that day. That’s all you get. You’re done. Whatever satisfaction or connection you were able to wring out of that 12-16 stint of wakefulness is all you are going to get out of it.

I think that’s a sadness I have felt my whole life. I couldn’t connect all day, or not as well as I wanted to, and that’s it. No more chances. The day is over and I failed at being a human being again, because basically I don’t know how.

That might not sound like the nicest way to say it, but it feels okay to say that. I am just describing a feeling the best way I know how.

The thing is if I did get some connection that day, I don’t want to let go of it. That’s even sadder.

I was watching SuperNanny again. This one was about a mother who really couldn’t assert herself. Her little ones couldn’t let go of her at the end of the day.

She wasn’t assertive enough to feel like a solid presence to her children and when it was time to let go of her at the end of the day, they couldn’t. She wasn’t enough of a presence during the day to still feel like a presence when they slept. That’s how I felt.

My mom wasn’t consistent. She couldn’t set boundaries. She inserted herself needlessly into my activities simply to regain a sense of power and control over me. She withdrew and slept. She was murderously violent and terrifying.

It was completely unclear to me who she was. What did seem clear about her was so either so discouraging or frightening that what there was of her in my head I wanted to kick out. There was no there there.

I really do believe as we grow up, we need to have internalized images of supportive others in our minds. We don’t need to be aware of them, but they need to be there. When someone struggles profoundly with shame about who they are, they cannot be a presence in the lives of other people—including their children. There is no back and forth, no understanding and being understood.

I wake up in the morning feeling the same sadness, and I think that is about my hope—or lack thereof—of getting connection that day. When someone continually interferes with what you are doing just to assert your control, you don’t develop a sense that anything you are trying to do has a likelihood of success. Not connecting with others, not connecting with yourself. The disappointment any obstacle recalls is crushing. It’s hard to attempt anything, when someone has kept you from doing basically everything you wanted to do just to fuck with you. The despair is crushing. One little thing goes wrong, and you tend to think, “Here we go again.”

But if no one has ever seen that pattern or helped you identify it, if you (or even me) have never worked out my mother didn’t dislike me or the things I did in particular, she just wanted control because she was scared, you have no idea why you even feel discouraged.

I never realized I may wake up today and have no one want to have a conversation with me and not just ask me to be an ear, no one share any interest or activity with me. I may not even be allowed to go about my day without someone throwing a bit of discouragement my way.

Heavy

I had a chat with C about her schooling. It’s been on my mind that I ought to give this some attention while I still have some time to think, because mostly I find the hard part in life is thought: it’s weighing the options, planning next steps. Action is the easy part.

I told her I wanted to talk to her about something.

“Wat abt mom”

I said her schooling next year.

She said I know I won’t qualified. (Still working on verbs, as you can see.) Not everyone wins a place in 11th grade. She was about in the middle of her class last year. She might feel worse knowing I am not confident she will be successful this year, but I believe she needs unconditional acceptance the most. That was my thought. That’s why I brought it up.

I said she might qualify but I am prepared to send her to private school. She said, “Nope, I will nt go to private i hate private.”

So then we talked about failure and what that means. Mostly, I did, but I got some full and complete sentences out of her.

As we chatted, I really thought about how angry and frustrated she would feel when she can’t understand the content. Communication is what life is all about as a human being. We want to understand. We want for someone to understand us. It made sense to me that she feels enraged when there is a failure in connection, even if it is with a teacher or a textbook. It made sense to me that she might punish herself with harsh words when she feels that kind of rage. Anger makes us want to punish someone. That’s just instinct. We learn to be angry without hurting anyone only with time. If her parents never learned to control themselves, how would she? What she would learn is to hurt someone smaller and more helpless than the adults around her—which is herself.

I am also aware how this relates to reaching toward your parent. Your first task in life was to establish a relationship with your caregiver. What if you can’t?

I said I don’t want you to punish yourself with your words when you feel angry. A lot of other stuff too, but that was the gist.

I said you aren’t bad or useless.

“Ok mom.”

That process of really trying to understand what she is going through and why she would think and feel the way that she does—that is what is missing in her relationship with her parents, most likely. It is what was missing in mine. They can’t seem to feel her, because they can’t imagine or respond to her emotional state in a way that doesn’t create an explosion and send her running for cover. When she has strong emotions, she can either keep them to herself and lose connection that way or she can try to connect and be abused. It’s a lose-lose situation. She cannot be “felt” by her parents.

Later, I was writing in my journal and I thought I really hate doing this. I hate writing in my journal. I have this idea it ought to be lovely and relaxing and I could really enjoy observing my own thoughts and feelings. But I don’t. It makes me fucking suicidal. It is the single most horrible thing I do every day. I have an image in my mind of what it might be or could be or ought to be and it is not that.

It is what it is and it is not that.

I am in the business of accepting reality these days. That’s reality. Observing my own thoughts and feelings sucks. I hate it. It is not lovely and relaxing and wonderful. It’s horrible.

That sort of got me going onto other realities.

After a while, I began to think about C and really needing someone who can be with her in her rage and frustration and not have to lose connection with other people because she is having strong feelings. I thought that is unconditional acceptance. You are where you are. You feel the way you feel. And I love you. I am here with you while you feel it and go through it.

That is what I did not have as a child. That is what it means to have a mother. I don’t mean to idealize motherhood. But I think a “good enough” mother does stay with you while you cry as an infant because you have gas or an upset tummy. They get through your toddler tantrums somehow.

I did not have that. My mother is and was mentally ill. I don’t know why she is that way, but she is and she couldn’t hack my infant colic or my toddler tantrums. There was no one who would stay with me and offer connection when I had strong, painful feelings.

And I am grown up now. I am an adult and responsible for my own behaviour. Essentially, it is too late for me to experience unconditional acceptance, because I need to behave. No one is obligated to stick around if I act like a jerk because I can’t handle my own shit.

I did not know that. I did not know what I needed to grieve for or mourn.

The thing about grieving is that it does allow you to let go. It means things can still be okay even if with all of your losses. The losses hurt. If you can never find a way to cope with the pain of your losses, you can’t move on from them. No matter how firmly you force them out of your mind, they will still hurt.

I do think I am healing.

I don’t think I have ever been so tired in my life.

Sweet spot

So I told you I have been watching SuperNanny. You can laugh if you feel like it.

I have a coteacher in two of my periods. He has introduced a new rule. Don’t laugh at my drawings. I tell them go ahead and laugh at my drawings, because I think they are funny too.

That’s us. I think it’s a great combination somehow.

Anyway, you can laugh at my viewing choices. Life is funny and so am I.

I watched one that involved a 3-year-old who was essentially running the show: the only child of a second marriage, with 2 teenagers from a previous marriage. He turns off the TV when the rest of the family is watching it. He turns off the lights in a room where people are sitting at night. It’s transparently about control.

Well, I was thinking about this. I was thinking how connection derives from imaging the other and the other imagining us. We get a sense of feeling someone else’s mind and also of being felt by the other person. Our minds seem to “feel” each other when we can imagine how the other person is thinking and feeling and we anticipate theirs–and they do the same for ours.

A child like that cannot feel the parent. They are not presenting enough information to be felt. They watch TV when the child turns it on. They sit in the dark when the child turns the lights out. They are like corpses, barely existing at all. At least when he frustrates them beyond endurance, he can feel that as separate human beings. At least when he exerts control, he can feel himself.

I think about how my mom criticized me for the things I most liked to do, how she interrupted me and told me to do something else. She was trying to feel me without becoming vulnerable, without allowing me to exist as a separate person who had the capacity to hurt her and to reject her.

There are times when I despair because–it seems to me now–I am reminded of how that felt, to be thwarted, disapproved of, interefered with, interrupted. And also how nothing I did seemed to be acceptable.

Yes, it would be hard to internalize a sense of a parent being there when the parent is not displaying any recognizable pattern of behaviour, any preference, any real opinions aside from wanting control.

Worse, to internalize that parent means to experience an ongoing, permanent, identity-bound feeling of helplessness. No, thank you.

But it was never about me or who I was. It wasn’t about my opinions, my tastes, my personality or my habits. It was about control.

That’s something else I have been thinking about. There were these times when C was so angry at me, and I think again and again about what that was like for her–what really caused that? Why was she so angry?

Because she didn’t know I wasn’t doing that. She didn’t know I wasn’t trying to prevent her from doing the things she wanted to do. I presumed she would be able to find a balance between independence and nurture, and that I could both spend time with her and support her in doing her own things.

The lonely part about the kind of relationship we had in my own family is that, most of the time, you are either running roughshod over each other or trying to disappear. You can neither feel the other person nor feel oneself–not often, anyway.

I think the longing and sadness I feel so strongly at times is related to that loneliness. I am afraid to reach out and honestly, vulnerably, while fully acknowledging someone might find me stupid, might reject me, might find me boring, might say no, might not like me at all be a presence in front of another person who is also a presence.

Not defending myself (I don’t care what anyone thinks about me: I love myself so fuck off, haters). Not using emotional blackmail (but if you don’t like me, I’ll fall apart). Not refusing to feel the other person (I’m wonderful, so I’m going to plough on ahead with this regardless of whether I start to noticed a glazed-over look or an attempt to distance themselves from what I am saying).

But with faith that, somewhere, somehow, there is a sweet spot of connection where I can find common ground and mutual understanding with someone else.

Putting it together

Yesterday, I was thinking about some of my interactions with C, the ones that puzzled me and remain in my mind because I don’t really know why I felt or acted the way I did, and I don’t know what she felt or why she acted the way she did.

I understood her better yesterday than I had before. That was interesting. It was still hard to understand myself. It had been hard for me to understand her because I wasn’t aware of some of her life history, which I share to some degree, and I also could not see myself through her eyes.

In those moments, we really couldn’t understand each other very well. One of the incidents I was looking back on had to do with wanting to talk to her about taking care of her the following year. That was back in 8th grade.

I sent someone to call her to talk to me and waited. I had other work to do, that was actually fairly pressing, but if she had come quickly everything would have gotten done. She didn’t. She ran around gossiping with her friends–some social drama was underway, and she immersed herself in it. I can’t remember if I finally went to get her myself, or if I sent someone else after her so that she finally came.

Anyway, I felt so disrespected. I felt confused and also angry. I don’t think I really commented on what she had done. Culture may have entered into it for me–making me wait felt like disrespect of my time. But if anyone else had summoned her, she would have come immediately and I knew that. She would not have made a teacher wait on her for 20 or 30 minutes while she caught up on student gossip.

What I couldn’t understand is that she felt shy. She felt shy and excited. She was a little like a teenager about to go on a date who can’t decide what to wear. It was so wonderful to her that she ran away from it.

I was treating the situation like someone opening a checking account. I somehow did not grasp that it was personal for her and also that I wasn’t an object. She liked me. She still likes me. I still cannot really grasp that she does. I can see that she might like the services I provide, that she might like the encouragement or the validation I give her, the attention or the affection. I can’t grasp that I am a person for her.

It’s sad.

I think I just didn’t realize that love might make you shy, and so I couldn’t understand her behaviour.

It was different from other adults she had close relationships with. That added to my confusion. They said jump. She said how high. I don’t know why it was different with me. I didn’t then. I still don’t. I didn’t really want her to do that, but I didn’t understand why I was different.

I mention that because I think it’s significant. I can understand people’s feelings better, and that has something to do with what is going on in my own mind. It’s safer in there. Or something.

There is more of a point to this, but I’m tired. I’ll be back later.

I need you to be present

I’m watching SuperNanny again. I know this might be ridiculous, but it does help me. It helps me to see what children and parents feel not about really the focus of the show—which is mostly how do you get your kid to sit on a naughty chair—but how do children and parents feel when tempers flare.

I watched one show where the mother admits her mind goes blank when her kids have meltdowns. She cooks a separate dish for one child who is a picky eater, then gives him the dish she knows he won’t like.

Yeah, I get that. Your head gets scrambled in the midst of all of those emotions. You just really can’t remember shit anymore. You are trying to ignore emotionally intense content that you can’t really process and may not even be relevant and you are trying to focus on other details that aren’t so emotional—like what food to give your child—and your working memory absolutely falls apart.

And I thought of my mother, how even as an authority figure in the household, the fact that your children exist as separate entities from you and not neat little toys to play with who do what you want can make you feel really vulnerable and powerless. They open you up to the inner critic also, the one who tells you if you were any kind of a mother, your children would listen to you, and you have failed at the most important job you have. What if you can’t understand their feelings, don’t know how to soothe them, can’t even recognize what sets them off? What if there are some things that maybe you do recognize in them that remind you of your own horrors and you don’t want to think about them at all? It helped me to understand what she was going through as a parent—not that it excuses anything—but I just understood it better. She was so overwhelmed.

As a child, you have no one else. You have to get your needs across to your parent. All of that rage and anger—a lot of that is just please help me. I’m falling apart. I can’t keep it together anymore. Please help me.

I watched a different episode—again about a tantrumy, angry, controlling little child—and I thought, watching him, he’s reaching for control because he doesn’t feel safe. He isn’t being physically harmed or neglected. The family is keeping it together well enough that he is fed and bathed and clothed, but it doesn’t feel to him that there is a parent in charge who understands what he needs and is competent to give it to him. He might have parents who know what is best, but they aren’t communicating that they know that. They are communicating that he knows best, and that’s scary when you’re a toddler. As a little one, you need someone who can take care of you and who believes they can take care of you. You need someone who has 20 or 30 or even 40 years of experience on you and has used to that time on earth to learn something. The flip side of that, of course, is the parent who insists they know what is best and doesn’t, and who doesn’t see you or understand you, and is so misattuned they feed you when you need a change. That’s not better. You need someone who knows better and believes they know better.

I thought about my mother and her relationship with her mother—my grandmother. I know my grandmother was a narcissist, that my mother grew up not feeling she could be herself. I thought about how my mother would react to a child when she herself feels it’s not going to be okay for her to actually exist or be a presence. I thought about some of the theories about parenting a child with an attachment disorder—that you try to be a presence, because the child has trouble maintaining that sense of you in their own minds.

I also thought how a lot of that screaming and rage and reaching for control is about wanting to be able to feel that the parent is there—not as an extension of the child, but as a separate person who can connect to the child. The joy of life is in connection. If your parent tends to disappear to stay safe because that’s what she learned to do to protect herself as a child, then what you really feel enraged about is the loss of the parent as a separate person you can connect to. You are raging at your parent to get her back, but what happens is she disappears.

That’s just my thought for the day. I know I am thinking about it because of my realization about C—that I feel better knowing she’s real, she’s exist, she has a life outside of me. It’s not actually anything to do with wanting her attention or her love or her adoration. No one prepared me for that. I don’t know what I was prepared for, but it wasn’t that—something infinitely more selfish and narcissistic. That’s for sure.

Morning Blues

I woke up with the usual ache in my heart. I really missed C. I had woken up in the night and called her then—it’s after school. Maybe a good time? It wasn’t. The phone is always switched off. (Saving battery? Probably.)

I know from years past that this isn’t entirely about C. I woke up and ached before. I get that experiences form a web of associations. Missing C is just one of them.

It doesn’t clarify how to respond to it or how it will help. I still really don’t know. I don’t feel I know what’s causing it, why I am like this, or what will help.

I am starting to get how I felt to me as a child. I suppose that’s valuable. A struggle with this though because it’s so hard to grasp how my mother could have seen me or behaved towards me the way that she did. Because I suspect my morning blues started off with a mother who was just never happy to see me, who just never had an answering feeling of joy towards me and who also could not understand or respond to my separation distress—which is what I feel when I wake up. Where is everyone?

How could you not be happy to see your child? I suppose if you can’t understand why your child would be happy to see you.

My friend has to get her picture taken today because she is an endowed chair. She’s been putting this off for as long as possible, and finally the tech department has told her you’re the only one we don’t have a picture of for the website. Or whatever. She can’t delay things longer.

I told her she looked nice. (I thought she did.)

“Uhhch.” That’s an approximation of the sound she made. Disgust at herself. It’s not really unusual for her to respond that way. It’s not because of the compliment exactly—her sleep problems, her indecision and anxiety over how to proceed get the same response from her. It’s a reaction to being seen.

I don’t exactly know how this happened. Her own mother was neglected as a child, because during most of her growing up years, her father was dying and then her mother was a single mother and struggling to raise two children. So maybe she just didn’t get enough opportunity to learn how to bond, and then had trouble bonding with her children. I have no idea.

But that’s the response of someone who has learned to look at herself with disgust. That’s learned, like seeing African Americans as dangerous or frightening. You learn to see yourself that way because someone else has seen you that way. But why would anyone? Why would someone have seen me that way?

Why would someone see C that way? And she does. I know that she does. She used to see me and be filled with sadness and shame. I couldn’t figure it out then, but I look back at the time she was at my school with me, when I saw her frequently, and I know she did. I know she saw me and anticipated rejection and humiliation. Why?

If you don’t understand why they would be filled with joy at seeing you. If you have learned to see yourself with disgust and you cannot comprehend why your child sees you and feels joy. Fully 50% of the feeling you have when you see your child is the reflection of their joy at seeing you. But what if my mother saw me full of joy at seeing her and it brought back blurred, inchoate memories of being an infant whose mother was never happy to see her?

And I have no idea why my grandmother would have responded that way to my mother, but I look back at my grandmother and I know that very easily could have been the case. My grandmother was more predictable and felt safer to me to be around, but she was a very selfish person. She could have been considerably worse than she was: she put food on the table, she cleaned the house. Her family’s physical needs were attended to. Her selfishness was a mindset and not exactly a reality. I don’t know how to explain that about her. I can tell you she was mercilessly unaware of my mother’s sensitivities. I mean, there is a point when you say something and you realize for reasons you might not understand, it hurt that person and you just back off because it’s not that important.

Anyway, one of the things I have been thinking is that the more I take in the reality of C and the joy she gives me, the better I feel. My pain seems to be exacerbated by my internal uncertainty over what it’s okay to feel. I noticed this when various people have sent pictures of her to me. I look at them and I feel relieved. I feel she is okay, all is well in her world, and I feel better.

I deny myself that feeling, and I feel worse.

I don’t know how to explain my internal war over it, or why it makes such a difference. It isn’t a war of words. I am not “beating myself” up. It’s more a matter of how I ought to cope with my distress at separation. I think my go-to response is distraction or avoidance. The impulse is to reach out. My response to the impulse is to vacillate between suppressing that impulse and indulging it.

A part of the thought process I have about it is what affect does it have on her when I indulge it? My assumption has been mostly that that’s going to be a negative thing. It exposes her to my anxiety about separation and teaches her that separations cannot be endured, and it also sends the message that she isn’t free to live her own life. She needs to look after me.

But she has not needed to be present or even be aware of these things that make me feel better. At these times, when I feel reassured she is still there, I realize it isn’t her attention on me that necessarily feels good. It is her existence as an autonomous person with a life outside me that feels good. It’s complicated and I don’t have it worked out. There are just bits of thoughts—pictures, sensations—swirling up in my mind that don’t quite make sense yet.

It’s just this idea that she can breathe without me. I look at her pictures at those times when someone has sent them to me, and I am struck by her physicality. This is clearly a memory of what I have experienced of her, but this process of letting myself remember does something to me that allows me to think this is true in the present. I remember the warmth of her skin. Mostly that.

If I remember the warmth of her skin, and if I can allow myself to feel my joy at that warmth, then I feel okay. At least for a while.

I don’t know how to explain this. I am just saying something seems to be going on in my mind that I wasn’t expecting. I think it’s about object permanence. I expect in these moments when I reach for connection with her that it has something to do with needing reassurance about my own importance to her, but I feel I am always important to her. Even when she behaves in ways I feel hurt by, I still feel she loves me. I cannot explain why I feel that way. But I think because I do have that sense, I feel safe enough to do what needs to be done in order to do this other kind of important work—which it turns out does not really require anything from her. It’s something I am doing inside me.

I think what happened is my natural instincts to do what leads to forming object permanence were discouraged and I became ashamed of them. I may have, in other relationships, externalized them in a kind of plea to get them met, and that infringed on the other person’s autonomy in ways that harmed my relationships. It doesn’t have to be like that. I can meet my attachment needs—if there truly is an attachment involved—through what is going on in my own mind to some extent.

Suffocation

Imagine a family where no one wants to be vulnerable. Everyone is constantly in fear of attack. People shore up their lack of a sense of safety through criticism and judgment.

Imagine too where people can’t regulate their emotions or use the comfort of one another’s support to help them calm down–they can’t reach out, because someone will attack them or lose it themselves.

You withdraw from the intensity of the members who can’t keep it together or who resort to the extreme expression of emotions in order to emotionally blackmail others into compliance. And then you are lonely.

Or suffocated.

It can feel like your feelings are rooms. You close the doors on your feelings only to have those doors opened later in ways you can’t control and it’s like the feeling stayed exactly where you left it, at the same degree of intensity as the last experience of that feeling.

Things do not ebb and flow.

Meanwhile, people around you act like those feelings don’t exist or that they have no reason to exist. In some cases, people do that to protect themselves from their own difficulty in regulating themselves. In other cases, they actually just do not know what you are going through or why.

I’ll give an example: not a painful one exactly. Just misattunement. So today I was watching Supernanny. It really does help me see some of the dynamics in my dysfunctional family without being in it. It helps to see these families struggling with pain, even if they aren’t struggling with the kinds of pain we were in. Even if they are just trying to get their kids to bed on time. There is something about dysfunction that is remarkably the same.

So a mother is trying to give up using aggression to discipline her child. She’s trying to stop screaming and hitting her kids, and they are using the “naughty place.” It happens to be a corner. Totally old school, but I agree it’s less violent. It isn’t coercive. It demands your child exert control over themselves.

The child–who’s maybe around 10, not a little kid anymore–is refusing to stand in the corner and is giggling the whole time.

I watched that child making her mother feel totally powerless, really pushing her to the edge, and it doesn’t seem to me to be intentional. It’s pushing against every issue the mother probably has.

Someone else might read it as manipulative. I don’t think so. It just feels so good to have her mom’s attention and to feel safe that she won’t be hit, that she keeps at it. She keeps doing this thing that gets her mom’s attention because it really just feels so good. It looks dissociated to me–not in the classic sense of spacey and out of it, but separated off from the awareness she must also have that her mom is about to flip her lid.

To her credit, the mother does not flip her lid.

That happy, giggly feeling has been shut in a box, and it has come washing out in a flood.

On or off. That’s what abusive families are like. Stifling, full of feelings shut up in boxes that rush out in terrifying waves, because no one has learned how to calm or how to be an anchor for someone else while they calm themselves.

 

Control

I’ve been building a kind of picture in my mind of what it is like to be me, to be in my family, to be dissociated and in parts and also what it has been like to have had my particular life with the events that have been in it.

I see a lot of coming down to lack of nurture in early childhood–whatever facet you want to approach that from, however you want to say it. And it resulted in problems with regulation. One aspect of that is being unable to cope with one’s inner world and it leads to all kinds of efforts to control one’s external world so as to keep one’s inner world under control. Of course, we all do that. I’m not saying it’s a sin. Most of us do try to keep our lives under some kind of control. But I mean maybe as a parent, I severely limit my child’s expression of emotions so that I don’t get drawn into their upset. Maybe I reject my child at her times of greatest emotional need because I don’t have a handle on myself.

There’s also an element of power and control that permeates my family and families like it that comes from needing to avoid all reminders of vulnerability. So that maybe I criticize someone in order to maintain a sense of superiority, because I feel if I am vulnerable, I won’t be safe.

And maybe I use force–emotional or physical–to get my needs met so that I never need to risk vulnerability. Maybe I use other people’s fears of abandonment and loss to manipulate them by threatening to leave, maybe I harm myself, maybe I am physically violent. Maybe I intentionally overwhelm other people with my emotions so that I don’t ever have to live with the real risks of being told no by someone who can choose freely.

I see my friend doing this in small ways in moments–I see her reaching for small bits of superiority. I think it’s just learned. It’s a reflex. And what happens for me is I feel suffocated. In these moments where she is critical of me, I feel controlled. Because it is controlling. I am going to tell you who to be or I am going to imply my way of doing things is better and in that way feel powerful so that I avoid recognizing my own vulnerabilities, because experiencing vulnerability frightens me and I can’t cope with that fear.

So there is that feeling of suffocation that comes from people reaching for power because they never feel safe or supported. They feel like, if they are vulnerable, someone will just reach in for that easy sucker punch.

The thing is, that isn’t imagined. If you are playing that game of needing to reach for power so that no one can hurt you, they will.

It means a childhood full of suffocation.

I have started to recognize that feeling whenever someone reaches for control over me. I remember it from VP Ma’am and her interruption of my work, or impeding my progress towards class, or insisting I sit down when I want to stand. It’s reaching for control so that she can avoid feeling vulnerable. It surfaces at times when my friend is vulnerable: I have started to recognize this. If she needs help and feels afraid to ask for it, I can sense that. The next step will be some form of control.

When I know what’s going on, and when I am not helpless and when it is not intolerably vicious, I can deal with it better. I can step into that space of understanding what it’s like to reach for control because you are afraid someone will hurt you for being helpless–I have been afraid like that too, and I am still working hard at not doing that. And I don’t feel so hurt by it.

But in my childhood, I needed things I don’t necessarily need now, and I needed them from the people who most frequently reached for control over me.

I am also aware now that this pattern exists in the mind of anyone from that type of family–whatever you might call that type. When I display my vulnerability and I show my fear of being vulnerable to C, she knows what comes next. She knows that’s a dangerous moment, and while it might be instinct to respond to my vulnerability with a mirrored sense of letting down her guard, an attack is likely. That’s not a pattern from me, but I should know that it is there. I should know in moments of intimacy, when we feel close, we are both likely to feel fearful and we might have the instinct to fight back over an attack that hasn’t actually come. We might want to run away. We might feel like doing both at the same time. And I am the adult. I am the one with more experience and skills. I need to help both of us with those moments.