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 adequate 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.