A handle

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.


Ways of thinking

I didn’t feel happy to move yesterday.

I began to think that moving is tinged with deep sadness for me. It relates to some unresolved loss. Maybe foster care, maybe someone important moved away, or I moved away from them. I thought this is colouring the experience. It’s hard to say what I would feel without that colouring of deep loss.

I haven’t looked at my actual losses before. I use so many dismissive strategies, so I have wanted to move forward and when I have examined the past it has for some reason been entirely unhelpful. I began to think how bleak and hopeless I felt after these losses I suffered as a child, how crushed I was by the transitions of foster care and how alone I felt.

I think it’s helpful to do this: to have this picture of myself as a small child at some particular (imagined, but still specific) point in time and then the feeling I had at the time inside me.

“That was me. I felt that. This is what it was like for me.”

There is this idea that if you do that, you will somehow remain stuck with that forever, that you have to somehow see it differently or update it in some way, and the sooner you can do this, the better you will feel.

And I don’t think so. I think some part of your brain has to stay on and connected while you do this, some part of you that sees you as you, and that if you do that things happen without conscious effort. But keeping this part of your brain on can actually be quite hard. With practice, it gets easier.

I am sometimes struck by how bad it was for me when I do these little walks down memory lane. It is as though I didn’t fully understand that myself as a child was a feeling, sentient being. Well, other people did not seem to find me so, so it’s not a great wonder I didn’t become aware of myself as myself.

Later, I was washing dishes and I had this sudden thought that someone with a preoccupied style would have all of these emotions, but be confused about sequence and cause and effect. Almost all trauma therapy is aimed at this, I think–at re-assessing cause and effect. It’s a different mode of thinking, very emotion based, but without a clear sense of conditions or causes. Feelings are facts.

But I don’t spend most of my time in that mode. When it blindsides me, I feel like I am not myself anymore. It’s ego dystonic. It feels weird.

I use more dismissive strategies–so ways to distance myself psychologically from sources of danger, so that I don’t enter into that very emotion-based way of reasoning. I have causality, but very few sensory memories.

That’s why I can’t relate to so much of what of what is written about trauma. I have evidently worked very hard at learning how not to have sensory flashbacks. Instead of being hit by them, I psychologically distance myself from the trigger or from myself. Only in the last few years have I begun to have these washes of emotion that accompany reminders of trauma, but they don’t come with sensory memories. I do remember things, but it’s difficult. I have so successfully silenced that experience of myself, as a felt being.

Where I’ve been: order, dogs, and family myths

Here, in fact, I’ve been right here.

The room.
The room.

But I have a new room. For now. As usual, things did not go as planned. So, I’ll be returning to old small room any day now. It’s a long story and not a very interesting one, so I’ll spare you the whole thing, but suffice it to say I spent yesterday cleaning in preparation for taking up residence here.

I haven’t been thinking much either, except about the relative merits of Lizol over Rin. (Rin foams so much more satisfyingly, but does it actually clean better? The jury is out on that one.)

Oh, and I’ve been training the dogs. Slightly. It’s just that Bozo, the resident dog, is completely untrained and it’s a hassle. Also, Chintu will grow up to be a much nicer dog if she stops jumping up on people and biting their clothes. And I have this idea that minding begins with sitting. So I give the five minutes of my time a day per dog and they learn how to sit and lie down and stay. That’s not really so much, is it? It doesn’t seem like it to me. If I could teach advanced mathematics in five minutes a day, all of our lives would be much easier. Unfortunately, maths must be harder to teach that sitting and lying down. It’s a shame that. I’m sure my students agree.

The new room. For now.

I feel a little like an ad for Cesar Milan. You don’t need to train dogs so much as you need to train their owners. So it isn’t just Bozo that needs training, it’s Priya and Uncle #2 who need it. The fact that he isn’t trained is a reflection of the whole rest of their chaotic lives. And it’s the chaos as much as anything that makes Bozo so anxious and hard to manage. He doesn’t know who’s in charge and so, like a child, he has taken charge. But this makes for a lot of jumping around and barking. And torn clothes. Since dog school has opened, he’s calmer.

Priya has also been gone, and it was interesting to see what happened when she returned. He wasn’t jumping up on her. He was behaving himself, so she picked up his paws and lifted them and put them up on her shoulders. But later she’ll complain when he tears her clothes. I don’t really understand it, although I know some people are like that.. The future does not exist for them. “I want attention from my dog at this moment. Never mind that I won’t like this kind of attention later,” Priya thinks and so she picks up his paws and puts them on her.

I’m the opposite. I don’t know much about dogs—I’ve had cats my whole life. But I’ve noticed how it often starts with them: it starts in the same way it starts with children. It starts as testing behavior. He puts a paw on your leg a few times, and a few seconds later he’s jumping up on your chest. Dogs are a lot like us. They need rules to follow. They need to know what to expect.

I now have a porch instead of a view.
I now have a view instead of a porch.

And it makes me think about myself. Because, since I’ve come, most things have become a bit more organized. The kitchen is cleaner. There aren’t cockroaches racing for cover every time you pick something up. It’s only partly because of me. Order is also contagious, and everyone else seems to do a bit more because of what I do.

But what it says about me is that I prefer order. That’s not a terrible surprise—I was a librarian for almost a decade, I teach maths, my books at home were always arranged by subject, my spices by cuisine, and my shirts by colour.

My preference for order comes out of both an aesthetic sense (if you don’t have much, it at least looks better if it’s tidy) and a concern for the future (it’s so much faster to find what you want).

Yet, I am still surprised. Surprised because I experience a degree of denial about this. I tend to see this desire for order as both a character flaw and as something someone else does and not me.

The dogs.
The dogs.

I think this has something to do with how my family saw me when I was growing up and with a kind of myth they created out of me. I was the absent-minded genius, the cluttered, creative artist. Perhaps that was their way of making sense of me, or maybe it was the suitable box for reflecting well on the family—because I am bright, I am creative, I do have the occasional unconventional or novel idea. Some of it does fit.

Like everywhere else in my life, I must have felt I needed to be the person they imagined I was. And it went on for so long I became confused about what was real and what wasn’t.

The other white dog

picture014I stayed home for probably five days—achy, bad stomach, weak. Didn’t feel like going out, not even for lunch. So I haven’t seen the white dog. Even now that all has returned to normal, I still haven’t seen her. Perhaps this is just chance, or maybe she’s shifted her routine. The weather is cooler and even the dogs don’t feel like getting out of bed these days. I don’t either, and sleep until seven. (Although some of that has because of the watchman. He’d gone to his village for two weeks, and the man who took his place didn’t make froggy noises brushing his teeth.)

But there’s another white dog in my life, although this one isn’t all white. She has spots. Her name is Chintu, which means small, and she is small. She’s only about two or three months old.

In the last few days, Chintu has figured out how to get into the yard of the guesthouse where I’m staying. She found one way, and they blocked it off. She found a different way and they blocked that off too. Then she realized she could squeeze through the bars on the gate. And now, until something can be done about that, she comes in whenever she pleases.

So Chintu has chosen to live here. There’s a mat in the garden she sleeps on all day, and in the afternoon she plays with the other dog. But the major appeal (or perhaps one of several) seems to be me. For as long as I’ve been outside—and I spent most of the day under the bougainvillea—she hasn’t strayed more than two meters away.

She slept in the garden on her mat, and she played with the other dog around my feet, and she chewed a stick under my chair. And now that I’ve gone inside to escape the vicious mouths of mosquitoes, she’s come to sleep outside my window.

All this is to say that I think a dog likes me. And I find this a little strange. Not just because I’m really a cat person, but because this means I’ve passed a test: if children like you, and dogs like you, then you’re a person who can be trusted.

I don’t feel like someone who can be trusted. I feel like a dangerous person, a frightening person. But I don’t know where I got that idea about myself. I could speculate it came from the many times I’ve needed to take strong measures to protect myself, or maybe only my mother and her pernicious sense of being threatened are to blame, or it could even be the extreme reactions I used to have to certain triggers (having to separate myself from important others being one of them). Perhaps all three.

But I also know that view of myself is either a distortion or no longer relevant. And all of this just makes me sad.


The skin is only one organ.
The skin is only one organ.

The rest of the world seems to be obsessed with the outside of the body: how do we feel about how we look? That’s the perennial question. Can we live with ourselves, or do we assume we need the same kind of retouch work as an Olay Regenerist model?

I’ve gone along with this. (Yes, mostly, I can live with myself.) But I didn’t consider that there’s something wrong with this view, that it treats the body as nothing more than a shell, when the body has an inside as well.

It has an inside in the sense that it’s the location of our emotions: if we’re excited, we feel something inside. If we’re happy, the same is also true. And it has an inside in the sense that it’s full of all these other things as well—organs, fluids, functions—and these things all need to work well in order for us to feel well and to do well.

We have come to think of the body as skin and as something with shape. But we don’t consider our pancreases, our digestive system, our hidden reproductive organs. How do we feel about those? Can we live with those?

Inside is where people hurt me when I was a child. It’s the location of pain and of fear, so this view of the body as nothing more than a shell allowed me to distance myself from those feelings that had to do with the inside of the body.

slim goodbodyIn fact, reminders of that “insideness” of the body have always frightened me. They remind me of vulnerability and a loss of physical integrity. Blood disturbs me, needles scare me. I don’t want to be reminded that this shell of a skin can be pierced, and that bad things can happen when that occurs.

In grade school, back in the day when edu-TV was the wave of the future, we used to watch a program called “Slim Goodbody.” He taught us about the systems of the body, how blood moved with the pumping of the heart, how we digested our food. He was intended, I think, to inspire us to eat healthfully and to exercise. But his leotard alone gave me the cold grue. It wasn’t just that grown men not performing dance routines probably shouldn’t be wearing them in the first place, but the inside of the body made visible there on the outside.

And yet the inside is where I am, aren’t I?

I am the Elephant

elephantBy now, we’ve probably all heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. After feeling the elephant, a king asked them what the elephant was like. (Apparently, they had a very elephant-deprived existence, and this was their first one. Work with me here.)

“Thereupon, the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.”

Continuing with my post from yesterday, arguing about which self is true and which is false is like arguing about whether an elephant is really a pot or really a brush. It is both, and also neither. It’s an elephant.

I see myself both as someone disposable and without any value (the Paper Cup self), and as someone who has so much value that the feeling of being without value is worth listening and paying attention to. Just as the elephant is his tail–but is also much more–I am that person that feels without value. But I’m a lot of other things as well.

I’m the elephant.

And: The Myth of Authenticity

chimpanzeeWe tend to assume we are the only specie with the capacity to deceive others. Animals are always authentically themselves, we presume. But chimpanzees lie. They sneak off to have sex with partners they aren’t allowed to have sex with, and pretend they don’t know where the tasty treats are so their interest won’t alert all the others to its location.

Animals, it turns out, lie too. At least some of them do.

Deception is something that becomes possible as soon as you can understand someone else’s point of view. And we aren’t the only ones who can.

But we might be the only ones with prohibitions against deception, so we might still be special that way. In fact, we’re so focused on authenticity that we sometimes seem lost in a search for our “true” selves. Our true selves might be wonderful–discover your true self!–or sniveling, frightened, whiny children that we suppress because they’re either so painful or so humiliating. But we are sure they exist.

In addition to his idea of the “good enough” mother, Donald Winnicott brought us the idea of the “true” and “false” self. It wasn’t really anything new, but he seems to have done better at describing it than his predecessors. He describes the “true” self as our internal, felt reality and a “false” self as a compliant image we create to satisfy overly controlling parents.

I don’t believe in any of that. All of our selves are real, even if we construct them mainly to please others. I don’t think he’s entirely wrong. I just don’t think a bifurcated view of reality is helpful.

If people around you see the world in a distorted way, you will develop an image of yourself that is also distorted.
If people around you see the world in a distorted way, you will develop an image of yourself that is also distorted.

In fact, because our self-views are formed through several different pathways: our internal, felt experience, our actions, and the views others have of us (Cooley’s looking glass self), incompatible, conflicting views of the self would be the natural result of having wide disparities in those pathways.

In other words, if the people around me constantly see me in distorted ways (say, because they’re psychotic), I would quite naturally develop a sense of self that will feel just as authentic as the sense of self that emerges based on watching what I do. Similarly, if I need to avoid expressing important parts of my real desires and feelings, then the self-view I develop based on my lived experience will probably be substantially different from the one I develop based on how others see me.

When we have to put on too much of a show to survive–or if there is a show going on entirely in our parents’ minds, we develop discontinuous selves.

to doI’ve been thinking a lot lately. Not any of the million things on my to-do list. Just thinking. And I have several different feelings about this. I’m enjoying it. It also makes me feel trapped, because I don’t really know why I’ve chosen to do that. I don’t seem to be able to choose differently. And it makes me really anxious (because OH MY GOD I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO!!!!)

I don’t think any of those are more real than the others. The feeling that is harder to access isn’t more “authentic” than the feeling on the surface. They are all real, and they are based–I’m guessing–on my own discontinuous selves, that have different memories of the past, different assumptions about what might work and what’s important, and if they were free to choose would all choose different actions.

I just hope the one I’ve settled on is the best one. But I don’t know.

It seems to me that all of my selves are incomplete. It is like looking at the world through a thick screen–some part of your view is always obscured. You hope you’re seeing enough, but it’s hard to know. Maybe you’re missing an elephant out there in the middle of the landscape.

My real self is what I would have if I could see everything at the same time. I guess that’s why I keep thinking.