The fine, and sometimes edgy, balance between attachment and authenticity
Last week, we spoke about the impact of shame and disconnection as a hindrance to a sense of true belonging. This week, we will dive deeper into the fine, and sometimes edgy, balance between attachment and authenticity.
We start by asking Elizabeth about the time and process around coming to the conclusion that things were connected, looking back on her childhood years. “I recently did an intake for a psychologist and there, this kind of question came up as well [fortunately!]. What really stands out is a feeling of always walking on eggshells because I never knew what mom was going to blow up over. Despite all the fun stuff at schools and the sports and the lack of financial worries… as soon as I came home, I had to be very cautious because anything could set her off.”
We notice her mom being much more present in her memories than her dad: “Definitely. My mom was the main player. My dad and I never had a bad relationship, even though I was upset that he didn’t defend us, especially if she got really bad, but I never had any animosity against him. It felt like ‘good cop, bad cop’ and my mom was definitely the bad cop.” She laughs, but not happily or wholeheartedly. She pauses and goes on to say: “I have a very distinct memory of when my mom slapped me across the face on an occasion where I was antagonising my little sister. I was very good at that. My mom got angry and slapped me. Something like that didn’t happen very often, though, and when it did, I think I deserved it; I was being a brat. It’s funny, because when I think of the word ‘abuse’, I would never apply it to myself. If someone came to me and told me that she’s living with someone who constantly calls her names and shouts and hits her I would be like ‘Get the hell out of there!’ But although that is basically the relationship I had with my mom, I would never apply the label of being abused to myself, not before and not now. Why not? Well, it carries a lot of weight and so many people are much worse off than me, so I feel I am not entitled to use that label for what happened to me. It would feel like doing others an injustice.” In the silence that follows, we hear the seagulls shouting loudly again. “Yeah”, she resumes, “I’m hoping to talk about this with my psychologist shortly!” With the laugh we all join into, we break the tension that has built up.
This negative self-labelling, the shaming and blaming towards oneself, seeing one’s life story as less worthy or less special is a very common thinking pattern in trauma research. When we come to understand that the ones who are supposed to nurture and protect us, so that we feel happy and alive and safe, end up being the ones who hurt us and make us feel lonely and lacking a sense of belonging, this makes us feel scared, insecure and sad. This can shatter our lifeview to the extent that we tend to find irrational explanations for what happened. As a consequence, we may downplay and downgrade ourselves, and tell ourselves it was not that bad, and that we probably deserved it. So, we built different stories for ourselves, with the same purpose of rescuing ourselves from a sense of deep fear of annihilation and not being worthy of existing at all. This may rescue us for the short term, but the toxic stress builds up and because of the lack of buffering support from a caring, attentive adult our systems get dysregulated for the long term. This need not be the case for everyone all the time, however. Knowing as a parent when and how to be more authoritative (not authoritarian) with a child is a central skill to master when working towards secure attachment. When the attachment is insecure, however, and the authenticity of the child has ‘no place at the table’, it almost never benefits anyone, neither the child nor the parent. This is the story of the struggle between authenticity and attachment that Gabor Maté and Ingeborg Bosch, amongst many others, address in more detail.
We continue wondering: “Isn’t it strange, that as children we are made to feel we deserved an approach like this from our parents?” Elizabeth responds: “My parents called me disrespectful, as I was always talking back to them. The worst, however, was the emotional manipulation, not the physical abuse. It was really emotional. She would just scream, scream, scream at me, call me names, make me feel like I’m a manipulative person. And that is something which I believe still to this day, because she always told me that. It became part of my identity, this feeling of ‘I guess that’s just who I am, a manipulative person’.”
We argue that this can be quite self-destructive. If you hear such qualifications often enough as a child, you will probably start believing in them and maybe even behaving accordingly. She shares some truly saddening memories: “I was around 12 or 13 and many of my friends had anorexia. I myself developed an eating disorder as well and I remember my parents being very unsupportive: ‘This is such bullshit; you are just being a child.’ They brought me to a clinic for therapy and even years after the disorder was solved, whenever I didn’t feel like eating or something, my mom would say: ‘Oh, not this shit again…’ Those moments were some of my lowest points in life, realising that she would not take anything that really bothered me seriously. She didn’t really care or if she did care, it was in a really weird way.”
“Did your sisters have the same issues with your parents?” She’s very determined: “No, it was only me! They dealt with it in very different ways. They were very good at not provoking my mom and not rocking the boat. I was constantly aggravating my parents, talking back and happy to fight. Both of my sisters learned to play the game better, I think, while also watching me as the older sister and realising that they didn’t want to do it like I did.” To the question about what ‘the game’ was, she unflinchingly responds: “Oh, how not to piss mom off, how to keep peace in the household!”. We offer an alternative option: “But what if the game would be ‘how do I stay closest to my authenticity’, you might be the winner, maybe…?” She looks, pauses and then nods: “Yeah, definitely… I was actually shocked to hear from my sisters that they felt exactly the same way as I did emotionally. They just dealt with it differently. I always spoke my mind, and everything would turn into a fight, while they would just be like ‘yes mom’ and go to their room. I guess they watched me and learned the consequences.” We wonder if, looking back, she wished she had dealt with the situation differently and she replies with a resounding ‘No!’ “I am happy that no matter what, I managed to stay true to myself, even if it caused me a lot of pain. I don’t think I could just sit there and take it; that is just not how I am. Whatever personality I developed in those years, it led me to where I am, and to the fantastic life that I’m living now. So, how can I regret it if I love where I stand now?”
We celebrate this conclusion with Elizabeth and wonder if she feels that there are certain aspects of her childhood that are particularly relevant for how she personally developed into her present life. “I think that, to this very day, I have an unquenchable curiosity that comes from all the activities I was able to take part in as a child. It feeds into my love for travelling, my love for nerdy stuff and my wish to get a master’s degree in the field I chose. I really like that about myself. I was able to do a lot, as long as it was not outside of my parents’ realm. For instance, they were very clear about not financing my University if it was not a Christian-based schooling, when I was about 18; “go to a secular school and you’re on your own”, they said.
Then, “My mom used to call me manipulative all the time. In a way, she was right: I can be; I will try to get my own way. I also seem to have inherited my mom’s temper, the hot-headed-ready-to-fight kinda thing. Anger is often my first reaction in case of frustration and this was really something I had to work on when my partner and I were moving in together, finding other ways to channel my anger. The fact that he is such an amazing person and really non-confrontational has been so helpful. I have become much more reflective regarding my own behaviour and I can ask for feedback on how I reacted and make apologies when they are due. Apologising used to make me so uncomfortable; I just didn’t want to admit I was wrong…” She clenches her teeth in thinking about how it felt to her and shakes her head. “Now, I can say ‘look, I’m sorry; can I please make it up to you?’ and that feels really good. It is such a difference…” My mom never apologised to us, never, not to me and my sisters nor to my dad. I never learned how to apologise to others. Only later did I learn that you need to be able to, if you want to fix things with people. She tells us how lately, in COVID time, she connected a bit more with her mom, although any trust that was left was broken. “I don’t want to repeat the experience my mom had with her mom, to go to her deathbed and feel like we never even tried to fix things. She is still not very self-aware, though, and it would be hard for me to talk to her about everything that happened without being accusatory or making her defensive.”
Next week, we will touch on bad habits and addiction, avoiding facing them, and the process of healing helped by unconditional love.