Agony in adults


The person in the grip of an old distress says things that aren’t pertinent, does things that don’t work, fails to cope with the situation, and endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present.

~ Harvey Jackins

(Continued from “Agony.”)

I can only guess, of course, whether someone with whom I am working received inadequate attunement from their mothers.

But occasionally I meet people who make me suspect that might have been the case.

They tend to be people who seem forever at war with their feelings.

Like Alan, a quiet man whose marriage is failing because he’s so disconnected emotionally, who works all day and then goes home to pore over paperwork at his kitchen table, so turned inward that he can barely sustain a conversation in session, and whose frustrated wife complains that “even when he’s there he’s not there.”

Or Bonnie, a chronic people pleaser who always looks tired, seems surrounded by people who discount or abuse her, and who worries constantly about falling back into the suicidal depression which overwhelmed her twenty years ago.

Or Cate, an attractive educated woman who keeps drifting into relationships with emotionally unavailable men, spends months trying to get them to love her, then blames each failure not on the man but on her own unworthiness.

And Dustin, a recovering alcoholic stuck in a ten-year affair with a married woman who gives him less and less time and attention, but whom he refuses to leave because “she’s the only woman who’s ever made me feel like someone loved me.”

Harvey Jackins’ phrase —

endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present

— is a perfect description of each of these people.

Each is trapped in what I’ve called the Kid Trance: an emotional life dominated by how they felt when they were helpless children.

The Trance is an agonizing place to live.

Its defining characteristic is a tendency to perceive and treat ourselves as we were perceived and treated by our parents.  If they abused or neglected or judged us, we abuse or neglect or judge ourselves. 

And if our parents had no clue about how to deal with difficult feelings, we too are left essentially clueless.

What we do, then, is retreat into the ways of coping we discovered as children. 

We may disconnect and distract ourselves from feelings, like Alan.  Or exhaust ourselves trying to win love and emotional feeding, like Bonnie and Cate.  Or cling desperately to someone we think capable of meeting our emotional needs, like Dustin.

There’s another reason the Trance is agonizing: shame.

Psychologist Russell Carr writes,

In the absence of a sustaining relational home where feelings can be verbalized, understood and held, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing.

Whether it comes from being actively discouraged from identifying and expressing feelings (Big boys don’t cry) or from lacking a model for even noticing them, the inability to process feelings cannot help but leave us feeling flawed, broken, inadequate, and cut off from other human beings. 

Why cut off?

Because, in our shame, we won’t see relationship as a safe place in which to feel or reveal ourselves.

We may not even believe in the possibility of what Carr calls a sustaining relational home.

And this is one serious wound.

“Trauma is a basic fact of life,” writes Mark Epstein.

It is not just an occasional thing that happens to some people; it is there all the time.  Things are always slipping away….  The healthy attachment of a baby to a “good-enough” parent facilitates a comfort with emotional experience that makes the challenges of adult life and adult intimacy less intimidating.

Relationship is the adult’s secret weapon for handling such challenges, a life jacket to keep us afloat, a safe harbor to which we can retreat from storms. 

Without it we can’t help but feel adrift, vulnerable to emotional waves that threaten to drown us, “traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting a pain we do not understand”(Epstein).

And with no life jacket or safe harbor available to us, we have no choice but to turn to the illusion of control.   


Russell Carr is quoted by Epstein (see below).

Mark Epstein.  The trauma of everyday life.  New York: Penguin, 2013.

Harvey Jackins is quoted by John Bradshaw, in Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child.  New York: Bantam, 1990.



10 responses to “Agony in adults

  • alisonlowrieAli

    You put many experiences I have had in succinct way. Enduring feelings of helplessness and isolation and shames kept me feeling distant from other people most of my life…until I experienced a safe relationship, from a recovery group. As you point out Steve, in my experience a healing, safe relationship is the single most important ingredient in my ‘growing up’. It means that I feel my scary feelings especially helplessness, without the shame attached. Or at least I can spot my old ways quicker…

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, Ali.

      For what it’s worth, I still struggle during times of stress with my old Trance beliefs that people are not to be trusted or relied upon, that sharing my weakness or fears is risky, and that I’m better off on my own.

      This despite spending most of my time teaching other people to believe the opposite.

      Plan A dies hard, and the Kid’s wounds heal slowly, and frankly, both these facts of life piss me off.

  • Steve Hauptman

    Hi, Steve,

    Here is feedback for “Agony”, Part 1 and 2.

    I found the illustration of “attunement” very touching and helpful, as I am still learning how to respond to the needs my inner child. I wasn’t exposed to this type of nurturing until I observed my daughter in law responding to my grandsons with this type of empathy.

    My mom wasn’t attuned to my needs (or her own) because of reasons similar to those you outlined in your post. She was a frustrated and resentful stay at home Mom of four. She would have preferred to be a career woman, but she felt that she couldn’t. Her exasperated response to my needs and feelings led to believe that they were inappropriate and selfish.

    My unmet needs creating a craving for attention, affection, approval, reassurance, care and love. Yet I didn’t dare express my neediness because I feared more rejection. Feeling needy, but hopeless that my needs would be ever be met was my Primitive Agony.

    My Primitive Agony made me physically sick with asthma and emotionally sick with depression. My neediness morphed into co-dependency when I married a narcissist at age 18. My parents rejected my marriage and disowned me, leaving me isolated and vulnerable to abuse by the narcissist.

    Looking back on my childhood and my early adult life, my chances of overcoming Primal Agony seemed slim. But somehow a small spark inside me stayed alive. It prompted me to get help, and to get better. Over the years the spark strengthened through therapy, books, journaling, healthy friendships and corrective life experiences. I divorced the narcissist, and began to live life guided by my inner spark.

    The inner spark is the Primal Joy all children are born with. My Primal Joy survived my Primal Agony.

    ~ Anonymous

  • alisonlowrie

    Thankyou Anonymous for your words.
    Having had my needs unmet too and felt like I was drowning in Agony for many (most) years. I became an excellent people pleaser in attempts to avoid my tsunami of unmet needs crashing down. I had never thought of having an inner spark and it resonated with me. There has always been ‘something deep inside’ that has kept me going on, leading me towards the light.
    Light being therapy, corrective emotional experiences and self reflection.
    It made me smile to realise that my inner ‘spark’ has overcome my deepest Agony….

  • kathleen

    I’m glad my words resonated with you, Alison. You are a consistent and candid contributor to Monkeytraps. You certainly have a spark!

    BTW, my child is 6 and I am 54. 🙂

  • flowmeter

    Thankyou Anonymous for your words.

  • cate

    Cate sounds like me. I am trying to do better 🙂 Not sure if I will land in the safe relationship that I wish for–but in the meantime I have loving friends, family, and you.

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