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?