I think I have a handle on something. It isn’t everything, but it’s one thing I have been wondering about. It has to do with the sadness children seem to feel with me sometimes–mysterious kinds of sadness that happens to me too.
My thought today may not be all of it, but I think it is an important part of it.
To get on with it, I think it has to do with the image of the self developed because a parent is not processing social information well, and the child’s emotions are not reflected with marked mirroring. What is presented to the child is the parent’s emotions, but babies don’t know these are about the parent’s inner state. We learn about our own state from other people.
Because the parent has unprocessed trauma and few internal or external resources to cope with stress, the parent is frequently overwhelmed by their own states and cannot adequately take in or think about the child’s state. This isn’t to excuse abusive behaviour, which is part of it. Being an asshole is one way to have few social supports. But it is to say that abuse need not be part of it. Indeed, we see that: children whose parents don’t abuse them have disorganized attachment too. The link is unresolved trauma.
Abuse in this environment just adds to it and creates struggles for children who have no stable parent to turn to for support.
So the parent is frightened by the child’s demands, because the parent has very few internal resources to cope with ordinary stresses, and what the child sees is fear. Thus, the child internalizes an image of himself as being a frightening person. The parent feels ashamed at their poor parenting or for any number of reasons and the child internalizes that shame as their own shamefulness.
Other things happen too, in these kinds of families, but this is an early, core piece that sets the stage…I think so, at this point, at least.
In situations when these children become aware of themselves, they are confronted with this reflection later, even if the other person displays something else, because we see ourselves as we imagine they see us. We imagine they see us as it seemed other people saw us in the past
The sadness is about this image of the self as being frightened or frightening or shameful. There is this craving to be seen and known and felt, to be real through someone else’s eyes, and yet the image of the self invariably feels bad, so that the child grows up learning to avoid knowing that they have been seen.
I have had this idea kicking around in my head for a few days now, and only today had time to write it down. It has to do with the expectation of having positive interactions with people and self-worth.
I’ll go back to this moment I had with a girl when I went to a workshop. She was there as a student leader and I guess during the course of the day, they learned lots of things. However, what I saw of her was that she served us. The student leaders from different schools served up food at meal times and poured tea. Certain small problems of ours they could solve.
At the end of our stay at this particular school where everyone had come for the workshop, we had a little ceremony which culminated in having inside/outside circles of handshaking and goodbyes. I got to the kids and I thanked them for helping us and doing such a great job. I didn’t actually know whether they had all done well at their tasks, but it seemed to me they had, because things had gone smoothly. At the same time, I also wanted them to feel appreciated for what they had done, regardless. It makes me feel better to do this. I am not that comfortable with certain parts of the culture which, to me, can feel exploitative of children.
So I was voicing my appreciation and praise to each of the students in turn, pretty much just repeating myself and I got to the boy ahead of her in line. She was very interested in what I said to him and he had a very warm response, and then when I actually got to her, she kind of shut down and it made me feel self-conscious and awkward and she got very little of the connection and warm fuzzies that the boy ahead of her had gotten. I knew neither of them personally. I hadn’t had close interactions with either one of them. The difference in my behaviour with them had nothing to do with what work they had actually done or how deserving they were of praise, and everything to do with their reaction to me in that fleeting moment.
My thought later was that she felt unworthy of praise or warmth and so she got much less of it.
Well, I thought about parents like my mother specifically, who do not see the layer of the mind as intervening between impulse and action. I think for my mother, it really does seem that way, because her level of impulsivity is so high. There literally is no conscious part of herself aware of her intentions or desires at times. I imagine she feels like a puppet, with the outside world pulling the strings. She feels compelled.
Other not-good-enough parents msy avoid vulnerability by not seeing themselves as a part of the equation within social interactions. What I am getting at is that these parents may reject a child not because they have needs of their own, but because it is wrong for the child to ask. Or say that’s the reason.
This makes it difficult for the child to learn patterns of behaviour: there are no contingencies. The problem is the child, and the child cannot escape or stop being herself.
So if you develop this idea that you aren’t getting your emotional or social needs met because you are you, there has to be a nagging sense that all of this is unfair. It’s unfair to be born into the world as someone doomed to unhappiness because you are incapable of doing what is right or expected. There must be a nagging resentment, and a temptation to protest the unfairness of it all–a deep sense of victimization about your doomed state–even if you know people don’t want to hear it.
When you do seek out social interactions, your assumption might be that no one wants you, and so you might avoid thinking about the other person’s perspective at all–because the feeling of being unwanted is so painful. So you are likely to seek out support and interaction in clumsy, inconsiderate ways. You may not, if you have grown up this way, understand the concept of give and take or that people may want you under certain conditions. (I want to play, but only if you will play a game we both like.) You may alternate between surrender and domination, not having a repertoire of cooperative behaviour, and rely too heavily on their ranking systems. Or you may continually give vent to the sense of unfairness about being rejected with someone who has no idea why you are so angry and punitive and finds you unpleasant to be around.
What may happen is that you may spend a lot of either voicing your sense of victimization and forcing yourself upon people who actually don’t want you, because you are not taking their perspective into account in the way you present yourself or the demands you make. And then spice that up with rejecting care when it’s given, because you don’t deserve it and therefore don’t trust it’s real.
You may not understand that it is these behaviours which lead to further rejection. The problem is not, as you have been misled into believing, who you are. It is not inevitable and you are not doomed. You may have to work harder than people with good parents, but your very being is not bad.
I see this as a possible way of thinking among children who alternate between oppressive over-compliance and needy demandingness: how much do I exaggerate my emotions and express my inner state in hopes of being responded to and heard? How much do I consider the other person’s perspective in how I present myself? And is my understanding of their perspected too distorted by my expectation of rejection?
Forage says borderline cannot symbolically manipulate their experiences. This limits their regulatory abilities and even ordinary social difficulties are too painful. It feels like having no emotional skin. I think this isn’t just a matter of not having names for inner states, but not having linked experiences, because the links are all to the self–to one’s existence.
Of course, I wonder is this my problem. (Both the consequences of low self-worth and lack of symbolic control.) I wonder when I feel slighted how much to complain and how much to try to guess where I went wrong.
I may or may not have mentioned this, but my cat is 17. She’s in remarkably good health, but she’s old. She’s got some of the same problems she’s had since she was a young cat plus some new ones. (As I will have also when I get to that age.)
She had an accident when she was young that involved falling off a roof. I know cats are supposed to survive falling just fine, but it turns out a lot depends on what you land on.
I’ll spare you the details, but the poor thing has had fecal incontinence and mild constipation for the last 11 years at least. (It turns out this is mostly a good combination.) It’s a little like living with a deer.
And now that she’s 17, she’s developing a tiny, tiny hint of bladder incontinence. If I had no sense of smell, I wouldn’t notice this. Unfortunately, I do.
Consequently, the bed is swathed in an easy-to-wash polar fleece throw.
There are some other annoying things she’s too creaky and arthritic to do anymore. For example, she has overcome her obsession with water, and I can now for the first time in more than a decade leave a water glass anywhere in the house that I feel like.
The knick-knacks on the upper shelves are safe as well.
My cat, in other words, is really, really cute. And a bit like living with a deer.
I love her to pieces.
She is not, however, anyone’s idea of a trophy cat.
I’m not a trophy person either. Although, so far, I seem to be able to stay away from the top shelves, and restrain myself from knocking over vases just to see where the water will go,
But I do have my issues. Some of them make me hard to live with, even for myself. (Luckily, none of them involve washing the sheets more often.) But they aren’t by any means all charming.
Just like the cat. And like the cat, I don’t really adore everything about myself. If you lined me up next to a bunch of other people, some of them might have fewer issues than me, some of them might be more beautiful or more socially adept. Some of them will probably know how to dance or how to play sports well. Some of them might be doing more to benefit our world. If you had to spend 24 hours a day with someone, it’s possible there might be better choices than myself.
But there’s this thing called unconditional love. If you practice it enough, you might learn how to do it. You might even figure out how to give it to yourself.
Unconditional loves means you might get annoyed sometimes. You might get frustrated. You might even get really, really angry. But day in and day out, you continue to care and to take care. You continue to think that in the larger scheme of things, this whole business might be worth doing. And you keep doing it.
I know that’s obvious, but sometimes pointing out the obvious is helpful.
One of these problems is that you learn how to interact with crazy people better than average people. Then you leave your family and your parents behind and are faced with huge numbers of average people that you need to be able to deal with. It’s like being first socialized by wolves only to spend your life among chickens. Not surprisingly, many people find themselves back among wolves again.
But much has already been written about that subject, so I’ll focus on the second problem: you learn how to cope and function as a crazy person rather than as an average person. You might even learn how to be crazy.
I’m still working out some of the ways I have learned to be crazy: I was raised to believe a lot of things that simply aren’t true. Some of these were easier to spot than others. I do not, for example, need to wear my hair in a bun and wear clothes that are 30 years out of fashion. That was a no-brainer, but there are some trickier ones I’m working on now.
I was raised with some really distorted ideas of how reality works: the most important of these has to do with the relationship between what is in my head and what is going on in the real world. It’s a little of a chicken and egg conundrum: which comes first–reality or perceptions? Because of course our perceptions influence our real behavior, and that impacts what happens next.
It’s more about degree. I was raised, I realize, to believe that the influence of my perceptions on reality is much stronger and more causal than it really is. To some extent, this has led to a habit of emotional reasoning, as well as an assumption that what I think and feel is more significant than it is.
On the more benign end of things, I might believe it will be a good day because I feel hopeful about the day. This is, of course, not true. I’ve had plenty of wonderful days that began very inauspiciously, and terrible days that started off all sunshine and hope.
It’s not that our perceptions come from nowhere: if things seem to be looking good, they probably are good. It’s just that things change. And it’s also that our information about the world at any moment is always limited and in constant need of revision. What we know later about a situation may be very different than how it seems in the beginning. Our choice of actions can alter things also.
There are two problems for me in being confused about this. One of them is that it has led to some irrational fears. For example, the Paper Cup self–where I see myself as someone disposable and as being without value–is a part of my memories of being abused. That is how the perpetrators saw me at the time. It’s a completely accurate and very important part of those experiences. It’s as much a part of why those experiences were so horrific and so frightening as what anyone actually did.
If nothing else, knowing that there are some men that see little girls that way makes my hair stand on end.
But I couldn’t approach that part of the memory very well when I felt afraid that seeing myself as a paper cup meant I was a paper cup. Self-views, like other things that drift through our heads, are not fixed or permanent. We all have self-views that come and go, just as we have thoughts and feelings that come and go.
If I spill an entire cup of hot coffee on myself before an important meeting, I might see myself as a clumsy idiot for a second. If I don’t regularly spill coffee all over myself, I’ll probably then start thinking of all the reasonable explanations for why it is either not my fault or not important that there is now a dark brown stain all over my clothes. And the self-view disappears. No big deal, right?
But if you assume that what’s in your head impacts reality, then I will instead believe that because I saw myself as a clumsy idiot for two seconds, I have now become a clumsy idiot and will remain one indefinitely. And I’ll become really upset about having a clumsy idiot self-view in my head and turn all of my energy toward trying to make it go away.
Try not to think about white bears.
I don’t know about you, but I just did. They were cute.
Anyway, the clumsy idiot self–like any other thought–works the same way. The more we try to extinguish a thought, the worse it gets. And before you know it, I’m in the midst of an emotional tailspin about being a clumsy idiot just because I spilled coffee on myself, which really could happen to anyone. And is not a big deal. And does not make me a clumsy idiot. Also, clumsy idiots can be wonderful, darling people who enrich the lives of others.
So, again, not a big deal. You just give them plastic cups when they visit.
I’m pretty sure that’s how my mother worked. If a negative self-view popped into her head for a second, she thought she was that view–permanently–and tried desperately hard to make it go away. Which made it worse. And before you knew it, she was chasing small children around the house with knives. In other words, total melt-down.
Fortunately, I handled it a little differently, but it still has not worked out well for me. My response has been mostly to try to dampen my awareness of self-views at all. Because, you know, I might have a bad one. Better just not to notice. But I’ve missed out on a lot of positive self-views that way.
More importantly, at least at the moment, this habit of not noticing has made it hard for me to integrate memories of abuse where negative self-views have been an important part of my internal experience–and the trauma.
What the shuffling seems to have done is left a mess in my head. And I can tolerate a mess, but I don’t like it. I like things to be neat, orderly, tidy, arranged. Mess is supposed to be a temporary state, something you make while you are trying to make something else.
It’s what happens when you decide it’s time to organize the basement or the closets or the garage and everything gets taken out and examined, and usually what happens is there’s this really ugly stage where everything is out and you’re looking at it. Some things seem to go in piles. They belong together. So you do that. And many things are just lying there, because you’re not sure what they go with and and anyway you don’t know if they would fit if you put them with things they might go with. So they just sit there.
There are other things, of course, that need to be thrown out. This might mean that you have a pile of things to throw away, and a pile of things to give to charity, and another–often larger pile–of things you aren’t sure about. Should you keep them? You don’t know. So they just sit there too.
That’s what I seem to have done.
I have dragged out everything I know about myself, other people, the mind, and what I should do to get better, and it’s in piles. And that’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten. And it’s a mess.
It’s also not getting appreciably better. I might have tidied up a few corners. And a part of me thinks for no discernible reason, “Oh, I just need more stuff.” And I go off and read something, and the piles get bigger. Then I have more to organize.
So, for example, yesterday I was reading about chimpanzees. I now have a number of bits of trivia to share with you: they kiss on the mouth, but only some groups of chimpanzees do this. They groom each other after conflicts to re-establish relationships, but they also use mediators for this. Sometimes things are just too painful, and they need help getting started picking bits of debris out of each other’s fur. And they have culture.
How exactly does this help me?
I don’t know. But that seems to be what I do. If I can’t organize the mess in my head, I go out and find more things to put up there with all the rest of the crap. It’s like I think Google Books is a Container Store. All I need is the right sized plastic bins and all will be well. Only I keep buying things that don’t turn out to be more containers, or the containers keep turning out to be the wrong size. I just end up with more stuff to organize. It’s horrible. Someone should make me stop.
I’ve just finished watching 13 years of Midsomer Murders. (That thought alone is a bit frightening.) It’s not that I was such a great fan, but I’d run out of other things to watch that involve figuring out how a dead body got to be dead. And now I can’t find much of anything to replace it with. And so I’ve moved on to Star Trek.
I watched Star Trek Voyager for four hours yesterday. In a row. There should be laws against that. I’m not sure if that kind of thing is safe.
Nonetheless, there was a point somewhere in the middle where I felt really pretty happy doing this. I felt, in fact, like I was about five years old and being read a nice story. And then that feeling subsided, but I kept doing it. I kept watching this silly old TV show.
I suppose I was hoping I could get that feeling would come back. It didn’t.
What it made me realize is–hold on, this is pretty earth-shattering–I like stories. I don’t know why I do, but I do. Stories make me happy. They make me very happy.
And so does organizing my brain.
I realized something else: doing things I enjoy makes me feel valued. And that’s really the reason to do it–not to unwind or relax or bring a bit of joy into my life, although those are good reasons to do them as well, but to work against the pain of the Paper Cup self and to send that message to myself loud and clear that I matter.
The Paper Cup self is an important idea for me. It’s my evidence, really, that what was done to me was wrong. More than the fear or the physical pain or confusion of what was actually done to me, it says to me this should never have been allowed to happen. The level of hurt is just so deep.
Because that’s my ethic. It’s the whole structure and content of my moral system: You don’t hurt things. You don’t hurt things just because you like doing the thing that is hurting others or because it’s lucrative, exciting, or fun. You don’t hurt things on purpose and you don’t hurt things just because they’ve gotten in the way of your good time.
Now, sometimes there’s a bigger picture, and you end up causing some temporary pain because it has a longer term benefit. I got a flu shot last week. It hurt. I don’t like needles–they scare me–and flu shots hurt a little. But having the flu hurts more, so I got one. And not long ago when my cat wasn’t feeling well and spent most of her time sleeping and not eating or drinking, I syringe-fed her a mixture of water and cat food to get her hydrated again. She didn’t like this. In fact, she growled at me pretty much the whole time. But I knew she had a hell of a headache and ached all over, and with a little water in her system, that would go away. Big picture.
Making these kinds of “a little hurt now for a lot less hurt in the future” decisions is tricky, because we don’t always know what the future might look like, and sometimes our idea of a “little less hurt now for a lot less hurt in the future” is wrong. I’m thinking here of things like Spanish colonization of the Americas and the enslavement and forced conversation of native peoples. That was just not a good call.
To give a different example, grounding your kid because he didn’t do his homework and lied to you about it might be in his best interest even if he thinks his whole life is over because he can’t play on the computer for a while. Life with a high school diploma and some study habits does seem to work out better for most people, and a few computer games less might help inspire him in that direction. But beating him until he bleeds? Well, no. That’s a lot of hurt now for more hurt later, even if he does end up graduating.
So when I mention a bigger picture, I don’t want anyone to get carried away, or start imagining there is a bigger picture to justify things when there isn’t.
The Paper Cup self hurts me. It has hurt me for a long time. Aside from whatever long-term nastiness it might have led to in my life–and it probably has–it just hurts. It hurt me then and it hurts now. It hurts in a way that nothing else does.
If you’ve ever been treated as a disposable person with no feelings and no rights and no value, then you know what I mean. But if you haven’t, then I’m sorry I can’t describe it to you. It is worse than any loss, any bad break-up, any single moment of humiliation. It may actually be the single worst thing you can feel.
And that was wrong.
I suppose what I’m trying to distinguish between here is different kinds of concern we might have, based on what we are dealing with. I have objects in my life that I value. They’re very useful to me, and I try to take care of them because either I like them or I need them. I avoid doing things that might damage them because it wouldn’t be in my best interest to do that.
But I try not to harm living, sentient creatures because it causes them pain and distress. You don’t have to be useful to me to get that. I don’t need to like you either. In fact, you could be jumping up and down on my absolute last nerve left in the world and I still would not want to cause you distress or pain. I would want you to get off my last nerve, but I wouldn’t want to hurt you. That’s just my personal standard for behavior. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable standard to hold everyone else to, and generally I do.
I know sometimes we get angry when we ourselves are in pain and lash out at those we love most. That’s not anything to be proud of, but the occasional lapse can be forgiven.
Having no concern for pain that you are causing can’t.
I didn’t sleep well last night. I woke up in the night and again early in the morning–before the sun was up–feeling cranky and restless and out of sorts. I felt about seven years old, like a cranky seven-year-old.
I have no idea why.
Being me is a constant surprise and a mystery, even if it isn’t always fun.
I’m thinking more about the paper-cup self and my fears about acknowledging it.
We tend to assume that we think we are who we are because we are that person, but that’s not true. There are many reasons we form a view of ourselves–how we behave and how others behave towards us is a large part of that.
If your behavior is a natural outgrowth of how you feel and what your temperament is, then your view of yourself will tend to have something to do with what’s going on inside you and all will be well. But if what you are doing has nothing to do with what’s going on inside–if you feel frightened, or disgusted, or ashamed of what you are doing then it all gets a bit confusing. Your view of yourself won’t match your internal experience.
And that’s what happens during a lot of abuse. It’s one of the reasons it is abuse, in fact. It messes with your head.
I mentioned that behavior communicates shared meanings. Both the perpetrator and the victim usually agree on what behaviors communicate degradation and powerlessness, and so their interaction creates a message that they can both read. What that makes me realize now is that, when I was a child, the perpetrators and I had shared meanings for behavior.
I wasn’t dealing with the Glish. “Tasting” wasn’t a simple greeting among friends.
I’m not up to explaining this in detail today, so I hope that what I am writing makes sense. But what I am getting at is that they knew about the paper cup self. When they treated me as disposable object without rights, when they degraded and shamed me, they knew what they were doing to me. It may have been intentional, or it may have been a by-product of something else they were trying to accomplish, but they knew.
What we disagreed about was my right to find it distressing and to object to it.