There is a dog that comes to school. He belongs to VP Ma’am. Keep in mind, she has mixed feelings about pets and feels sorry for animals and feeds them, but doesn’t really like them. So it’s her dog, but don’t imagine great affection between them.
He comes to school, as lot of dogs, and it’s probably partly about company and partly about free food, because whatever the kids don’t eat, they just dump on the ground for the dogs. Since parents here are often worried about their kids getting enough to eat (an era of starvation probably remains lodged in their subconscious), our dogs are well fed.
What strikes me about the dog is that, unlike other dogs around here that are kept as pets, he won’t allow anyone to touch him. He does not believe anything good can come of physical contact.
It brings home to me how, in human beings, dysregulated parents too unpredictable to decipher create children who have worked out what distance it is safe to be from other people to stay safe while getting enough of their needs met to survive.
I wrote in a previous post about something I read regarding abused children, especially children taken into care having intrusions during the Strange Situation Procedure in which they approach the stranger for comfort and then, en route, collapse in confusion and fear. They really are caught between two instincts: to seek proximity and to flee.
When I think back on C’s simmering anger, sometimes it was because I had crossed that line of what felt safe or, in some cases, she had crossed that line: she was braced to defend herself. I don’t know how to describe the change in my perspective. Declarative knowledge of how traumatized children experience the world alone lacks sufficient detail to be convincing. You need to know how feelings feel, what it makes faces look like, and the kinds of experiences which lead to those reactions. I had not fully grasped the reality of it.
In college, I had a much older friend enrolled alongside the rest of us emerging adults, and she was caught up in a destructive relationship with one of my classmates. Once, she described the classmate as, “Come here, Now go away.” Traumatized people can rely on exerting inappropriate or excessive forms of control, but I don’t know that giving conflicting messages about closeness was exactly a form of control. Equally likely, she was responding to her own instinctive responses to needing support, but feeling afraid during an approach.
I also think maintaining the distance that kept you safe as a child is likely to be taught to the next generation, however distance is maintained–whether you skate lightly over the surface in conversation, or strive for perfection so as not to have any vulnerability, or avoid in-person or real-time interaction. I think the child who finds the right balance between need and fear grows up to be a parent who teaches this same balance to her children, because memories of parent-child interactions surface when she is with her own child. Fear of her parent colours into fear of her child. It’s also carried into romantic relationships, because these are support-seeking/support-giving (attachment) relationships.
It may look and talk like independence, but it is not. It is fear.
In couples therapy, we once completed an exercise in which we drew our personal space in the carpet with our fingers. Mine was so small, I couldn’t stay inside it. What the therapist missed was my wish that at least my own body might be safe. It’s not that I don’t want any buffer space between me and the rest of the world, but I had never had the right to any space at all.
My partner at the time said that we would both need to leave the room for her to feel safe–not even a bedroom-sized therapy room was enough.
I realize now the default for mentalizing other people’s desires and intentions on her part was so determined by previous, abusive or exploitative experiences that she really could not contemplate what anyone might be trying to do in the present. Which, of course, makes it even more scary and confusing, because if you aren’t trying to harm or exploit her, you become an inscrutable mystery.
One of my realizations a few years ago, which sounds slight, but has massive implications for my social life, is that I am unlikely to be the only one in any group to have been traumatized. It’s not me in the midst of normal people. It’s me with a scattering of people who have psychological issues similar to mine, and I had better get it worked out what’s going on with all of us, because I can’t just excise all of them out of my life.
Even if I don’t want to be close to other people with my issues–and they are the ones most likely to understand what I am going through–I work with them. They sit in my classroom.
It helps a lot to understand why people might be acting on instincts to move forward or flee (or fight) and to be mindful when it’s happening so that I can recognize it and react in a gentler way. It should also be helpful to see when I am caught up in these conflicting instincts myself.