The lived experience, Episode 6 – This week: Anja and Peter (Part 3, final)

The lost connection with ourselves (trauma) can be very difficult to find back. Who am I really? What do I actually want? You may have developed a great sensitivity to what others think and want, but what about you…? Can you tap into your own wisdom? Can you find the courage? Do you experience buffering protection, ‘holding space’, a non-judgmental presence of someone to whom you can show your emotions, after which you can come up with your own solutions?
Does David dare to do this? Peter notes that regularly, he seems to see rejection in David’s eyes. Anja also indicates that she often does not feel the connection. They are disappointed that they get so little appreciation from Z even though they try so hard. They look for appreciation for who they are and what they do. The whole situation has a negative impact on their self-esteem, on their relationship, on their health.

The question is… where did that start, that lack of appreciation? The origin of this probably lies in what they just made visible with the layings: in the parental family they were not really allowed to be who they were. There was a lot of criticism and their self-expression was limited. Not being valued as a child has left a wound for both of them. That wound deserves healing, just as the wounds of their parents deserved healing. However, David cannot realize this for them, just as they could not do it for their parents. He is not his sparkling self, but they, too, are currently not themselves, as they have explicitly stated. A child cannot retroactively restore your own childhood. This requires different steps. A first could be that you yourself appreciate how you have done your best. You committed yourself with everything you had; what you gave, was all there was. Old pain often lives right under the surface. Sometimes it only takes a little to touch it. If David disagrees with Anja, she feels irritation and tries to justify herself, as she did to her parents. When David is displeased and screams, Peter gets a knot in his stomach and shuts down, just like he did when his dad would explode. We investigate which feeling goes with that behaviour. After mentioning some things that involve more labels and judgments, he gets to the crux: “Sadness, emptiness, loneliness.”

I explain how immature the human brain is at birth and how quickly it forms under the influence of social experiences. I tell them that especially a feeling of insecurity results in the development of a number of ‘highways’ that bring you smoothly and adequately into a survival mode, but that make it difficult to react in a balanced way and consider things carefully. The most primitive part of your brain yells ‘Alarm!’ and so that is how you react: with defense mechanisms. The more the brain is ‘marinated’ in oxytocin in early life, the more finely branched the neurological network develops and the richer your behavioural pattern. The more the emotions that arise from fear and insecurity and loneliness are depressed (depression!), the greater the chance that they will lead to damage: damage to your social functioning, to your mental well-being, to your health.

Anja says that indeed she still often feels that she has to defend herself against her parents and we discuss whether there is a question of ‘should’. Could she learn to see the way her parents try to enforce that responsibility as their way of being heard…? We conclude that there is a lot of mirroring going on between parents and children: Anja once wanted to be heard by her mother and felt unheard, probably because her mother was trying to be heard by Anja, whose job it was not and now we have a whole generation. The result: misunderstanding and miscommunication and disruption of the relationship in several directions… very sad. And yet it is important to remember that every pattern of behaviour we develop was once functional, even if it gets hopelessly in the way later on. By looking at things this way, we can develop compassion and learn to see what caused it. Then it is no longer about ‘What is wrong with you?’, but about ‘What happened to you?’, not about ‘What is your problem?’, but about ‘What is your story?’. It takes time and attention to develop this approach, but it has the potential to change everything for the better.

They tell about a health care professional who advised them not to be too hard on themselves and that they are doing just fine, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. “Recently David said: ‘I wish I wasn’t there, that I was dead’… and I’m very sorry that he feels that way…” Anja is in tears at this intense revelation. I ask if one of them recognises that feeling. Peter says: “Yes, I have been there, that feeling of… if I wasn’t there anymore, I didn’t have to do so much and I didn’t have to think all the time…”
I return to an earlier topic and ask if it is not time to tell David about the difficult IVF process, because I would not be surprised if some of his statements have to do with it. They wonder if that is not too hard for him, to which I wonder if it might still be too hard and too sad for themselves. They see how sweet and gentle he is towards babies. Having to tell him that he will never get a sibling… and then face it again… that is no small feat. Still, they want to consider it, discussing this heavy theme with him in a mature way: “He heard us talk, of course, so he may know more than we think…”

In any case, they feel that something has to change. They both find that nowadays they say too often that they do not like what he is doing, and they realise that David may translate that as “I am not lovable,” a message they do not want to give at all. I share their concern about that and say he is authentic when he says all those heavy and difficult things. The brave step they can take is to ask themselves: “What triggers me in what he says? Why is this so difficult for me?” And also: if he feels that way, can they offer holding space for that? Can they sit in the dark with him? And how long can they sit in the dark themselves? It is difficult for them to take good care of him when their own energy is so lacking. I give the example of the oxygen mask in an airplane: parents always have to put it on themselves before they help their child. This resonates and that is beautiful; some one-liners can quickly bring you back to the core at the craziest moments, without very theoretical considerations. With the help of those, they can support each other change ingrained habits.

Whatever the next steps will be… everything starts with awareness, with understanding one’s own and others’ patterns of behaviour and reaction. There is no mirror as sharp and confrontational as a child for the parents and the discontent of David is not unknown to Anja and Peter: there are many dimensions in their lives that they would like to see differently and that deserve attention. If they are constantly stressed about the things that are not going well, their whole system gets disrupted and it becomes almost impossible for them to be present for David as a co-regulating adult. They can try to get into David’s skin when things get rough: if they were in his shoes, what would they need? And perhaps they have already started doing that (after all, they approached me!) and all three have yet to kick the high adrenaline levels of the past period. The alertness of adrenaline gives the feeling that you are ‘alive’, that life is exciting, but adrenaline is also extremely addictive. When there is more calmness and time for reflection and contemplation, it almost feels more threatening than the constant stress.

Anja has meanwhile prepared a delicious lunch and we eat together after a final draw of two beautiful psychological cards that are very suitable for both. They reminisce how they got to know each other and how exciting that was, how they sent endless emails and how they were head over heels for each other.

We have talked for a long time and I have seen a lot of love and also a lot of pain and sorrow. There is much willingness in both to give and do good, to learn and to try, and at the same time there is such a high need to receive and be comforted. That makes sense, because as humans we crave meaningful connection, closeness and nurturing. I sincerely hope that we have been able to make a small start in figuring out where needs have been left unmet and can still be satisfied. We have untangled the knot to some extent and now it’s up to them to study the threads more closely.
When Anja has taken me to the train, I walk to the platform, fully absorbed in my thoughts. I am tired and grateful, sad for their old pain and hopeful for their open vulnerability.

Posted in Interviews by experience experts.