Understanding the Protector-Persecutor complex and its link to dissociation and child hood trauma

Being held hostage by an inner persectuor-protector figure in our inner world is common for those of us who were highly sensitive and suffered significant childhood trauma or insecure, anxious or broken attachments.  It is an issue dealt with comprehensively by Elaine Aron in her book  The Undervalued Self.  In chapter six of the book she outlines what this inner complex is and why it exists drawing on the work of psychological analyst Donald Kalsched. (See my previous post :

https://emergingfromthedarknight.wordpress.com/2018/10/18/how-trauma-factures-the-psyche-causes-dissociation-and-create-the-persecutor-protector-in-our-psyche

The Persecutor-Protector needs to be understood and worked with by those of us who want to stop isolating in fantasy totally (not that we won’t still want to introvert which is important for the creative amongst us and for touching base with our inner world and life) and convincing ourselves we are not skilled or gifted enough to have a valuable contribution to make to the world.

I will open this post with a quote taken from Elaine’s book.

A protector-persecutor that arises from insecure attachment is often the harshest.  In these cases the protector may replace the missing maternal or paternal presence with an addiction, whether to smoking, alcohol, work, or something else.  Or it may create a vision of perfect love the child never received.  It encourages the unbearable craving and yearning while undermining or belittling things in the world that may actually satisfy some of the craving.  It says they are not enough, or not real, just lies or illusions, or will not work out in the long run.

Since attachment trauma often involves an unbearable separation, such as divorce or the death of a parent, the protector-persecutor very often rules out love because it brings the risk of loss, which, it supposes,  you cannot bear, as you could not when it happened before.  Until you work out your own answer to these scenarios, it’s impossible to convince the persecutor-protector that you can live with the pain of separations and loss, that you can tolerate in future what you could not in the past…..

(however) the good news is that as you struggle to accept the fact that all relationships eventually end, you may become far more prepared for loss than those who are secure because they had good childhoods.

When the persecutor-protector keeps you from being intimate with someone you love, do not give up.  Freeing yourself to love is perhaps one of the greatest challenges a person with a troubled past can face, and even a partial victory must be acknowledged for the triumph that it is.  Further, the undervalued self simply cannot be healed without finding some freedom to love.  It is linking and love that take you out of ranking and undervaluing.

The protector-persecutor either as a unit or in one of its two forms, tries to break down every link you make, both outer links with friends and inner links that would end the dissociation it wishes to maintain.  However, you can see why your attempts to dialogue with the innocent (inner child) might lead to mysterious resistance.

Emotions, memories, current thoughts and behaviours, and bodily states related to a trauma can all be dissociated.  Memories may be repressed, literally unlinked from consciousness.  Or your emotions may not be linked to current memories or events.  You may feel numb, lacking all emotion, or all too conscious of emotions that seem to arise for no reason. Your body may be unlinked from memories, so you remember the events of the trauma but have no idea what happened to your body during it.  Your body will still be dissociated from your thoughts, with the result that you are hardly aware of its needs.  Or the body does not link with your actions, and you feel unreal or detached as you go through the day….you do things that make no sense or are self destructive but your behaviour is not linked to its real causes.  You may have stress related illnesses because memories, feelings, or thoughts are pushed down in the mind then arise in the body.  Or you may have recurring nightmares that seem unrelated to anything going on in your life.

As for outer links the persecutor-protector makes every linking situation seem to be about ranking, usually with you as the inferior, although it can also make you feel superior – “he’s not good enough for me” – if that will keep you out of a real, close, lasting relationship.  The persecutor-protector might allow you to link in  a limited way with someone who likes you by creating a false self that adapts to the world, but you know you are not really connected or authentic.

Using examples from her real practice Aron shows how clients dreams often contain persecutor figures and details the means it uses to break links, just as the witch in the fairytale of Rapunzel tries to disconnect the prince from ever reaching Rapunzel in her tower by cutting off her long hair.   This occurs due the prevalence of earlier losses that were never fully integrated into conscious awareness and the fear of not being able to survive the feelings should it ever happen again.

We can work to become more aware of how the complex operates in our own lives.  Some of these are listed below and appear in Aron’s book and they correspond to some of the tactics avoidants or insecure people use to maintain distance or sabotage relationships with others:

  • When we are supercritical of the other, especially after times of connection.
  • When we over idealise to the degree that minor failures are blown out of proportion.
  • When we mistrust or don’t bother to get a reality check or talk things over
  • When you feel crushed if someone doesn’t want to be with you all the time.
  • When you look down on others for wanting to be with you more than you want to be with them.
  • When you decide “it’s all over” as soon as there is the slightest conflict.
  • When you are obsessed with concerns one of you is needy, dependent, or weak.
  • When you cannot stop thinking about the other leaving or betraying you or dying.
  • When you cannot see any flaw at all in the others, as if he or she is a god.

In addition Aron outlines some of the unconscious rules the persecutor-protector can use to keep us safe.

  • No intimacy.   Never open up about personal issues, ignore or belittle the disclosures of others, be flippant or rude, leave if someone wants to be closer
  • No arguing.   Always be nice, end relationships as soon as there is a whiff of conflict or if the other is angry, walk out on arguments (rather than asking for time out)
  • No growth.  Turn down opportunities or invitations to do anything new, do not aspire, act stupid so no one will think of you when an opportunity arises.
  • No dating or marriage.  Postpone, be unattractive, stick to crushes or fantasies, say with someone who isn’t good for you, have affairs with unavailable people, be forever young or flirty when it’s not necessary.
  • No strong feelings.  Stay in control at all times, don’t cry, get angry, be terminally cool.
  • No sex or enjoyment of it.  Avoid, be mechanical, split off, get numb with substances before hand, remove all emotion from sex.
  • No believing someone who say he or she cares about you.  Bat off compliments and expressions of caring and affection.  Don’t believe they are genuine.
  • No asking for help.  Be ruthlessly self sufficient, be suspicious, never complain, withdraw.
  • No honesty.   Just say what you think others want to hear.  Be careful with what you express especially when asked to be yourself.
  • No hope.   Don`t expect help, joy or good things.  Do not place faith in anyone.
  • No standing up for yourself.  Just let others say or do whatever they want, don’t cause trouble, don’t expect justice, respect or fairness.
  • No trusting.  Don’t be fooled; they don’t really care about you (a favourite thing the protector will say to you inwardly.)

As you can see its a pretty harsh joyless confined existence living with a strong persecutor protector complex inside of us, but we can work to understand these rules and challenge the p-p on them when it tries to use them to keep ourselves and others in line.

Your goal is to convince the p-p that breaking its rules and taking risks is working out for you and that you want more freedom…

Listen to its disagreements because ignoring it wont work according to Aron… the p-p needs to be heard but challenged to give up the limiting rules and restrictions it uses to keep you trapped.

 

 

How trauma fractures the psyche, causes dissociation and creates the persecutor/protector in our psyche.

In response to trauma or emotional abandonment our psyche will splinter or fracture.  Ideally parents help us to mediate as young ones the big feelings we have to deal with and help us to integrate them. But in situations of abuse or neglect this doesn’t happen and we are left to contain unbearable feeling.  Since all feelings occur and are felt in the body if our parents don’t help us to do this we are left with the split off feeling buried or held in tissue or psychic space.  Memories associated with the feelings and accompanying sensory traumatic events then become somatic and walled off, they still affect us we just don’t know why and how.

Jung wrote on how dissociation works and this overview comes from Donald Kalsched’s excellent book The Inner World of Trauma : Archetypal Defences of the Human Spirit.  

individuals who might be described as ‘schizoid’ in the sense they had suffered traumatic experiences in childhood which had overwhelmed their often unusual sensitivities and driven them inward.  Often, the interior worlds into which they retreated were childlike worlds, rich in fantasy but with a very wistful, melancholy cast.  In this museum like “sanctuary of innocence”… (they) clung to a remnant of their childhood experience which had been magical and sustaining at one time, but which did not grow along with the rest of them.  Although they had come to therapy out of a need, they did not really want to grow or change in the ways that would truly satisfy that need.  To be more precise one part of them wanted to change and a strong part of them resisted this change.  THEY WERE DIVIDED IN THEMSELVES.

In most cases these patients were extremely bright, sensitive individuals who had suffered on account of their sensitivity, some acute or cumulative emotional trauma in early life.  All of them had become prematurely self sufficient in their childhoods, cutting off genuine relations with their parents during their developing years and tending to see themselves as victims of others’ aggression and could not mobilize effective self assertion when it was needed to defend themselves or to individuate.  Their outward façade of toughness and self sufficiency often concealed a secret dependency they were ashamed of, so in psychotherapy they found it very difficult to relinquish their own self care protection and allow themselves to depend on a very real person.

Kalsched goes on to point out that such people developed what Elaine Aron has called a virultent persecutor-protector figure in the psyche which jealously cut them off from the outer world, while at the same time mercilessly attacking them with abuse and self criticism from within.   Kalsched believed this figure had a daimonic cast calling on the idea of Jung that energy split off into the psyche can become malevolent and acts as a powerful defence against what Aron calls ‘linking’ with others and with the vulnerable innocent or inner child it has been called in to protect.    The figure may not only be malevolent it may also be angelic or mythical or heavenly in cast.  Together with the inner child/innocent this force formed an active psychic dyad (or duplex) structure which Kalched calls the archetypal self care system. 

Jung showed that under the stress of trauma the childhood psyche with draws energy from the scene of the earlier injury.  If this can’t happen a part of the self must be withdrawn and ego thus splits into fragments or dissociates and it is a natural psychic defence mechanism that must be understood and respected.

Experience becomes discontinuous.  Mental imagery may be split off from effect, or both affect and image may be dissociated from conscious knowledge.  Flashbacks of sensation seemingly disconnected from behavioural context occur.  The memory of one’s life has holes in it – a full narrative history cannot be told by the person whose life has been interrupted by trauma.

For a person who has experienced unbearable pain, the psychological defence of dissociation allows external life to go on but at a great internal cost.  The outer sequalae of the trauma continue to haunt the inner world, and they do this, Jung discovered, in the form of certain images which cluster around a strong affect – what Jung called ‘feeling toned complexes’.  These complexes tend to behave autonomously as frightening inner beings, and are respresented in dreams as attacking ‘enemies’, vicious animals, etc. (not under the control of the will… autonomous.. .opposed to conscious intentions of the person…. they are tyrannical and pounce upon the dreamer or bearer with ferocious intensity.)

In dissociation the psyche may also splinter into various personalities which may carry rejected aspects of the person.  The mind becomes ‘split apart’ and such defences involve a lot of internal aggression as one part of the psyche tries to attack and protect the other more vulnerable, rejected parts.  The psyche cannot integrate these parts without therapy and active help.

In the course of natural therapy for such people the hostile attacking or protective force that acts to keep the person remote and in lock down will begin to arise in dreams and active imagination.  Elain Aron’s book The Vulnerable Self in Chapter Six “Dealing with Inner Critic and Protector-Persecutor” outlines some of this process as she give more insight into the role the persecutor-protector plays for highly sensitive individuals.  She also gives some examples which will help fellow sufferers to deal with their own dreams or nightmares where such forces arise. After dreaming we can through a practice of active imagination find a way to interact with these forces and help get them working more for us than against us. Aron’s book will help you in this regard too.

Donald Kalsched’s book is also an excellent reference for anyone suffering trauma.  It is more analytical in tone and quiet detailed.   The self care system that works to protect us can end up working against us too, this is the prominent point Kalsched makes in his book.  The inner persecutor-protector will sometimes work to organise a suicide if the psyche feels too much under threat from internal or external forces.  The persecutor-protector needs to really be understood by anyone attempting to free themselves from the crippling effects of childhood trauma.

I have a second associated post to post after this with some of the information from Elaines’ book on the persecutor-protector.  I will post it and link it to this post later on.

Fear of Insanity Narcissism and Denial of Feeling : more insights from Alexander Lowen

the experience of horror (in childhood) makes one question one’s sanity.  What one is experiencing does not make sense, it doesn’t accord with one’s image of reality which even a baby has on a biological level.  To avoid the resulting mental confusion, one must dissociate and deny all feelings.  As long as one sticks to logic, one is safe.  But feelings are life, and one cannot fully avoid emotional experiences no matter how coolly one plays it.  The narcissist faces the risk of being overwhelmed by feelings and going wild, crazy, or mad, should his defence of denial break down.  This is especially true of anger. Every narcissist is afraid of going crazy, because the potential for insanity is in his personality.  This fear reinforces the denial of feeling creating a vicious cycle.

Reading the above paragraph again in Lowen’s book today gave me more insight into my brother, who threatened to walk out on me last October when I got angry with him.  It reminded me of terrifying incidents he faced in childhood and of how my father did pretty harsh things to him as a boy as his own childhood had been similarly harsh.  I was in tears again last week after yet another conversation with my brother where we was working as hard as he could to split off all expression of emotion.  I usually leave every interaction with him crying or disturbed in some way.  Now instead of feeling angry I  just feel really sad for him as I don’t ever think he will look at the roots of his own workaholism.  Once again I shed heaps of tears after I got off the phone on Thursday.  It is not that he is an unkind person either, all time the conversation revolved around helping my sister and I to get the best interest possible on the money Mum has left us.

It is now never the less a great comfort to me to be able to say I now know I am not crazy and I know why his side of the family have sidelined me before as well as other members of my family, looking upon us with such distain and disapproval due to our emotions.  That said I am also aware of the charge of anger that I have carried which I know I inherited from my mother’s side of the family.

Collapsing into a state of helplessness may be one response to such terror or violence in childhood.  Flight or fight may be two other  responses but both the later would often be blocked by an abusive parents.  Escaping or fighting back may be shamed or made  impossible as was the case of Bill whose story Lowen covers in Chapter 7 of this book.

Bill did not feel any anger.  He denied his anger, just as he denied his fear.  Instead, he adopted an attitude of submission and attempted to understand the irrational behaviour of his father, and others,  His submission to his father may have had a lifesaving value, but almost cost him his life.  (Bill was later on nearly killed by a hitchhiker he and a friend picked up on the side of the road who began to attack them.)

Lowen explains how Bill then came to fear his own anger.

(he).. believed that if he lost his head he might kill someone.  But to lose your head is equivalent to going crazy. Bill was terrified of the potential craziness in himself as he was of the craziness of others.  When I made this interpretation to him he remarked, “Now I know why I became a psychiatrist.”

Not everyone will be able to contain their rage from such incidents, others will act it out.  Lowen tells the story of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”, serial killer who murdered 6 and wounded 7 others.

What then are the dynamics that precipitate a seemingly sane person into insane action? … there must be some subconscious force.. This force is the denied feeling of anger.  Because the anger is denied, it is not experienced, which would give he person some control over it.

Many narcissists develop an ego unconscious split in these circumstance which means at times such subconscious forces can erupt and cause havoc or be projected on others.  Such and effect is called flooding…. an overwhelming feeling or excitation which ..”(temporarily drowns us)…in the torrent of sensation.  Imagine a river overflowing its banks and sweeping across the surrounding country side.  In a similar way the gush of feeling wipes out normal boundaries of the self, making it difficult for the person to distinguish between inner and outer reality.  Reality becomes confused and nebulous….. (there is a sense of) nothing solid to cling on to.  The person feels ‘at sea,’ estranged.

Such estrangement is not dissimilar to dissociation although Lowen compares it to disorientation.   The flooding of something we held down can make us dizzy, it may erase normal consciousness for a time.  It may well be what we experience in a panic attack (repressed or split off lively life energy or anger).  We can also be overwhelmed by pleasant sensations and if our sense of happiness or joy was also supressed or shamed in childhood we can begin to get fearful of insanity when we start to feel energised or even happy.

In the bioenergetic therapy Lowen used feelings which have been repressed or shut down are helped to liberate by the therapist who assists in the process so flooding and disorientation is not as intense as it would be if we were misunderstood or unsupported in the process.

The problem is that those damaged in childhood continue to carry split off emotions such as anger and sadness into adulthood, we may even attract relationships with others who act them out for us or vice versa, one partner can then pretend they are okay, it’s just their partner that is the problem.

Lowen points out in his book Narcissism : Denial of the True Self the connection between being called ‘mad’ (as in insane) when one is actually angry.

To say a person is mad may mean that person is either crazy or angry.  What this tells us is that anger is not an acceptable emotion.  Children are taught very early on to curb their anger; often they are punished if, in the course of an angry reaction, they hurt someone.  Disputes, they are admonished should be settled amicably and with words.  The ideal is to have reason prevail over action.

But conflicts can not always be settled amicably, with reasoning.   Tempers may flare.  I don’t mean one has to resort to physical violence to express an angry feeling.  Anger can be expressed in a look or by the tone of one;s voice.  Once can assert with feeling.  “I am angry with you.”  Some situations do call for the physical expression of anger.  If violence is used on you it may be appropriate to fight back.  Without the right to strike when one is hit, one feels powerless and humiliated.  We have seen what that can do to the personality.

I strongly believe that if children were allowed to voice their anger at their parent’s whenever they felt they had a legitimate grievance, we would see far fewer narcissistic personalities.  Giving a child this right would allow a real respect for the child’s feelings.

Lowen goes on to site an experience of watching a Japanese woman being hit by her daughter in anger.  He explains how in Japan a child is never disciplined before the age of 6 because they are regarded to be innocent  and such children don’t end up disrespectful or misbehaving.  However when the right of angry expression is denied a child it has an adverse impact and then there are the parents who cannot express their own anger with a child in a healthy way and use punishment instead.  Lowen doesn’t negate the need for discipline, only the use of power and control in the face of a child the parent does not have a healthy way of relating to and helping to develop emotionally.

Such repression of anger in a person in childhood means anger stays present in the person’s system much later in life.  In his bioenergetic therapy Lowen helps patient to discharge repressed anger so that it does not stay trapped inside.  However as he points out, the fear of ones anger and belief it will prove one is insane is a difficulty that many narcissistically injured person’s face on the path to healing.

For narcissists to know themselves, they have to acknowledge their fear of insanity and to sense the murderous rage inside that they identify with insanity.  But they can only do this if the therapist is aware of those elements and is not afraid of them.  I find it helpful to point out to my patients that what they believe is insane – namely, their anger – is in fact sense if they can accept it.  In contrast, their behaviour without feeling, which they regard as sane,is really crazy.

The behaviour without feeling that Lowen mentions here in fact leads to the growing or development of what he calls a thick skin, a protective defensive layer which will allow no real feeling for self or others in those with a narcissistic defence,

such denial is achieved by deadening the surface to stimuli, its effect is to rigidify the ego.  … the result is a diminishing of the ego’s capacity to respond emotionally to reality or to change reality in line with one’s feelings.. the ego’s safety lies in a deadened body, with little emotion.  Yet this very deadening creates a hunger for sensation, leading to the hedonism typical of a narcissistic culture.

But true feeling is then increasingly hidden behind a façade and the building charge of need and hidden feeling is defended against.  Thus addictions come to play a role in diverting attention from the truth.

By contrast those who develop a borderline defence to such negation actually become excessively thin skinned, unable to throw off hurts lodged deep inside from the past often from unfeeling narcissists.  Their work is to understand the source of pain and not project it onto the present, understanding how deeply its roots lie hidden in an often unconscious past.

 

 

 

 

Holding to our boundary?

I guess every victim of emotional neglect or abuse has a struggle knowing what’s what, who is really harmful and better not to be around.  Feeling anxious when we receive a call from one of our ‘triggers’ can be a trigger, but due to our past holes in development we don’t alway feel we have the right not to take the call.  I just read a post on unconditional love and part of me thought, yeah, I am not sure that I believe in that any more.  Giving people the benefit of the doubt or trying to be stronger or a bigger person is what a Good Guy with the feeling we dont have a right to legitimate needs or boundaries is taught to do by conditioning.

When love is absent and real care and empathy, where do we go?  What we experience is a terrible numbness, emptiness or void, a soul pain that often is not understood intellectually but since our body is really the home of our soul, somewhere inside our bodies know and yet for a child in this situation what can we do.  When we cannot leave physically, we choose a form of dissociation, its something I have been thinking a lot about while reading writer Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography.   Many of us escape into books or tv or we start to write from a young age.  Like me Jeanette never had her boundaries respected, her adoptive mother violated them and read her diaries, she threw out and burned all of her books.  Jeanette wrote in the quote I posted yesterday that she learned early on that anything could be taken, and the only thing that could not was her what was inside, her capacity to express and to create.  For some of us, however, if our insides are invalidated and we are told we are bad or selfish it can be hard to hold onto the internal reality, too.

The abuser who wants control over us wants to destroy our reality as well as our understanding of them as a perpetrator so they turn it around on us, we are the ones who are selfish or too vulnerable or too sensitive for just feeling normal feelings that any caring emotionally connected person would.  I had a commenter on one of my blogs yesterday tell me that feelings will get us in trouble, yes if we dont know how to use them as internal messaging systems and I dont think the person really got the jist of the post.   This does not apply to feeling ‘bad’ which is a feeling that may be grown by thoughts that we are incompetent in some way when really that is just a form of depression or an introjected voice talking to us inside our heads.

Dissociation for many of us was a way to survive trauma.  It was a way of preserving the inner self, the problem comes when we turn self protection and externalised fear into global concepts where we feel the entire world is bad and not to be trusted.  As survivors we will always be wary and we need good boundaries.  We need to know what hurt us was valid and not just all in our imagination as we will often be told by gaslighters.  We need to trust our feelings not fear them and then put them to good use.   We may also not ever need to forgive certain abuse and this need to forgive may be something that is forced on us by moralistic people.   Abuse is not okay, its not okay to trammel a sensitive person and lead them to believe their reality is skewed when they are trying to be who they are and express their true and real selves.   I had to leave one Al Anon group when two members told me I was not allowed to express anger over my Mum’s abandonment of me as a child.  While I know my Mum went through something similar she never allowed herself to be angry at her own mother and as a result she never had good emotional awareness or strong boundaries later in life.  The pain meds she was on in the end ruined the last years of her life.

I have watched two siblings struggle with anger and self assertion.  I have seen them cut down when they were trying to break free but also I have seen them become manic with the unresolved fear and anxiety we all absorbed in our family home was not contained or made sense of in therapy only treated medically with a cocktail of drugs.  I’ll be damned if I will shut up about it.  I makes me angry and so, so sad.  My living sister is not able to be emotionally and assertively present in any way these days and she is collapsed as a person.  In the end she could not break out of her feeling wounded prison.   It makes me cry,  especially leading up the anniversary of my older sister’s death which occured on Easter Sunday in 2014.

Knowing who we are.  Holding to our boundary.  Knowing what we feel makes perfect sense these things can only come out of the long hard painstaking work of emotional recovery and these things are not given to us we have to earn our right to boundaries over and over again and we struggle so remorsefully with self doubt as our ego strength was never encouraged.  As children we were not helped to develop a heathy ego or good boundaries, in fact we were conversely actively stymied in our emotional education and so we have work extra hard now.  And we cannot afford to open once again to emotional invalidation from those who would try to convince us our boundaries are wrong or there is something wrong with us for protesting neglect, abuse or betrayal, that it is wrong to have an ego and that we should come to love everyone unconditionally.  Yes hurt people hurt people and we can have compassion but if that means we lose our own passion for rigourous emotional health and self care that kind of over compassion can be dangerous.

Letting go of numb

The following extract comes from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge : Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.  Interestingly it concerns a woman who Tara was working with in therapy who as a young child had her long hair cut off by her mother as it was too much bother. I was sharing in a post a few days ago how this also happened to me and the trauma of it was felt when I went to the hairdresser late last week following my Mum’s death.   The woman in question, Jane, had also had her mother die a few years before the time she was seeing Tara.  In therapy she was sharing how the pain of this event had awakened in her heart through intense feelings of fear, felt as a claw “pulling and tearing at my heart”.  What followed was an outburst of anger towards her mother for subjecting Jane to this ordeal.

The anger soon turned into deep sadness as Tara worked with Jane encouraging her to feel the pain and grief deeply in her body, and in time it transformed into peace.  Jane had reached some deeply powerful realisations as a result.

Brach writes the following in her book :

Carl Jung wrote, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived life of the parents.”  The outer domain of our unlived life includes all the places where we’ve held back from pursuing and manifesting our potential – in education and career, in relationships and creativity.  But it is the inner domain of our unlived life that sets this suffering in motion.  Here we find raw sensations, the longings and hurts, the passions and fears that we have not allowed ourselves to feel. When we pull away from the energetic basis of our experience, we turn away from the truth of what is.  We make a terrible bargain.  When we separate from the felt sense of our pain, we also separate from the visceral experience of love that allows for true intimacy with others.  We cut ourselves off from the sensory aliveness that connects us with the natural world.  When there is unlived life, we can’t take good care of ourselves, our children, our world.

The feelings you are trying to ignore are like a screaming child who has been sent to her room.  You can put earplugs in and barricade yourself in the farthest end of the house, but the body and the unconscious mind don’t forget.  Maybe you feel tension or guilt.  Maybe…. you are baffled by intimacy or haunted by a sense of meaninglessness. Maybe you fixate on all the things you need to get done.  You can’t live in a spontaneous way because your body and mind are still reacting to the presence of your distressed child.  Everythingy ou do to ignore her, including becoming numb, only strengthens your link with her.  Your very felt sense of who you are …is fused with the experience of pushing away a central part of your life or running from it.

In shutting down the passion, hurt and pain she had experienced as a young girl whose precious hair was butchered, Jane had locked herself into a numb and anxious fragment of who she was.  Yet something in her was calling her to live more fully.  By beginning to contact her body’s experience, by touching ground, she was opening the door to what she had been running from.

Traumas of this kind may seem inconsequential, but really they are not.  Something was done to us we didn’t want or need and had no power over and feelings do remain.   The true self in Jane probably loved her long hair,  it wasn’t all just about ego and looking a certain way, hair does hold our power and is connected to our heads which are such a vital part of our being. To be subjected to something that upset us and then to be laughed at for reacting (as Jane was) leaves a scar and a powerful subliminal message.  Going numb to it does not mean the feelings go away, they need to be dealt with, with compassion and sensitivity.

Under the weight of sin

Egg.jpg

Under the weight of sin

Burdens I carried

Which were not mine

Crushed me

I left my body

Bleeding on the side of the road

Full metal pierced me

And I was nearly gone from this world

I cannot see you through the fog

Your face is blurred

It was never easy to see who you really were

There was just that space in your soul

I wanted to climb inside

And hide

In order to draw comfort

But the way was barred

And all other exits closed

Oh how I hungered

With a frenzied appetite

Nothing could satiate

Now as the skeins all unravel

And once again I loosening from my mooring

Who knows what old patterns from the past

Will come calling

Is this another underworld journey

Into yet another heart of darkness

I will never escape from

Or is it the beginning of a new birth

The breaking open of a shell

That can no longer contain me any more

The mental confusion of early childhood trauma

When there is not as much going on in my life I want to share information from Tian Dayton’s book Emotional Sobriety on the effects of relational trauma, that is the damage that happens to us when we are affected by early childhood abuse, trauma or lack of mirroring and empathy.  However today one of the key symptoms that is capturing my attention is distorted reasoning.  Tian writes :

Many people experience trauma within their family unit, rather than from an external source  When one’s family unit is spinning out of control, people are prone to adapt all methods of coping mechanisms – whatever they have to do to maintain feelings of connection.  Distorted reasoning – which may take the form of rationalizing and justifying bizarre or unusual forms of behavior and relations – can be immature and can also produce core beliefs about life upon which even more distorted reasoning is based.  For example “he is only hitting me because he loves me.”

I am thinking of this today as my Mum lies so ill and pumped full of chemicals in hospital.  I am thinking of how with no father she had to suffer aloneness and then be pushed to clean and clean.  Down on her kness in the bathroom she was told to ‘polish that floor until it shines’  and then she was hit or forced into domestic service.   With all this unprocessed trauma was it any wonder it was passed on to us all in different ways.  My older sister worked and worked and then drank and drank until the cerebral bleed took her down, my brother in law who eventually abandoned her was the evil one, but he too was scrambling to survive.   Amidst all of the following trauma I was scrambling to make sense of it, seeing my sister in a mythological light or struggling to understand the truth, caught up but not able to see clearly, carrying terror of abandonment into all subsequent relationships.

Lats night as I sat by my mother’s bedside and held her hand in the darkened room, an ocean of peace opened up between us.   I wept to the depths of my being as she told me she loved me.  She is very heavily drugged at the moment and chock full of toxins.  She also knows she hurt me and that we struggled at times, but what I really felt so deeply last night was the love that she tried to express in the only way she knew how.  Her own mother never once tole her she loved her, in later years she would push my mother out of the way in her desire to see my father, who she adored.   I know at times as a patriarchial Dad, my father frustrated all three of his daughers and there were a lot of times he could not give my mother the understanding she needed.   I see how my Mum was as a young person so focused on survival that emotions had to take a back seat.  Now its so sad to witness the years of trauma she has lived through as the result of her earlier emotional neglect richocheting over three generations.  My nephew made a lightening visit to see her yesterday morning driving four hours and weeping so intensely.   My heart goes out to him really, he has been through so much in past weeks all in an effort to fill the gaping mother wound in his heart (Saturn in Cancer).   He is carrying pain of many generations, that much is clear to me, as the very sensitive one.

Two other symptoms of early relational trauma are also somatic disturbances as well as memory disturbances and dissociation.  The continuity of time is warped in trauma, we don’t remember key events but they are held deep in somatic memory, however they are obscured and disjointed and may make so sense.   Due to dissociation we experience reactions to events that mirror earlier ones that may seem out of control or order.  We are then judged or judge ourselves for suffering, not fully understanding the extent of our suffering.  Re-enactment patterns and relationship issues are also a result of relational trauma in early life.   We will try in any way to make the the unconscious conscious in order to feel and heal it, but so often that involves experiencing more pain in order to connect to the original cause that my lay deeply obscured within us.   Maybe triggering traumatic events and disturbances in later relationships are ‘wake up calls’ trying to draw us towards understanding, healing and feeling.   It major work and we need so much help along the way.  We cannot do it alone and we need positive connections to heal but making them is hard when we are often attracted to what is bad for us.

With Mercury planet of mind and communications moving backward through the meaning making sign of Sagittarius this month and back towards a confusing square (or crisis aspect) with the planet of distorting Neptune, issues of mental confusion may be highlighted but the unconscious which Neptune also rules may be trying to get our attention in all kinds of ways.  Who can we trust for validation when our thinking and ability to make sense of our experience may be essentially wounded or thwarted and distorted in some way by past relational trauma or lack of mirroring?   It is so important that we find the right avenues to deepen in understanding and heal our minds as well as our hearts, souls and bodies.

Mars the planet of self assertion is moving into trine Neptune over the next two weeks or so, so a flow of healing may open up in many of our lives, a push to move forward in love and compassion in order to find freedom from past hurt, its what I am feeling very deeply this morning.   We cannot avoid the mental distortions that are a part of trauma but we can, in later life work for more clarity and insight.    Information on how trauma can discombobulate us is essential for our emotional recovery.

Understanding self absorbed behaviors

Lack of clear perception into our selves often comes from our early environment and deficits in mirroring.  If we consider generational and collective impacts too many of our parents and their parents and parents parents were engaged in a process of survival.  Attention was tied up with outer, rather than inner concerns and losses may have made one parent less emotionally available to them, leaving psychic and emotional deficits and burdens.  The research and work I have quoted from in previous posts from Mark Wolynn on multi generational trauma(It Didn’t Start With You)  addresses these issues in some way and shows how people tend to disconnect from parents in this situation, feeling hurt, betrayed abandoned or let down, often rightly so.  However there may be so much more to their story we never get to know.

Once we become more aware that our emotionally unavailable parents laboured under very real deficits, deficits that they passed down to us we can begin to take steps to address what we carry and hopefully become more aware of when and how we may have become self absorbed ourselves.

According to Nina Brown, author of Children of the Self Absorbed, the first step to reduce self absorbed behaviors is to accept that we may have absorbed some of them from our parents.  She outlines ten key behaviors associated with self absorption we may need to address or work upon as follows :

  • An attitude of entitlement.   Feeling that you deserve preferential treatment. That you can do or say whatever you like to others and that they shoud not be upset.  The idea you deserve special consideration or treatment.  Insensitivity to others.
  • Attention seeking.  Behaviors such as talking loudly when it will disturb others.  Dressing just for attention.  Trying to distract or upstage others.  Starting fights.  Interrupting ongoing conversations.  Dropping hints and teasers.  (All with the intent to gain outside validation that you are significant, important, different to or better than others, or to reassure yourself that you are worthwhile, or to ease chronic self doubt.)
  • Admiration seeking.   Yearning for reassurance you are valued through different means including the attainment of material or ‘status’ symbols.
  • Grandiosity.  Taking over in situations where it is not called for.  Feeling you are inherently superior to others.  Arrogance.  Displaying contempt. Failure to value the opinions of others.  Acting big as a defence against feeling small or shameful inside.
  • An impoverished self.  This is the self that feels deprived, ignored, abandoned or unnurtured or treated unfairly.  And this is all a matter of perception for as Brown points out me may not have a lot of support but still feel we are supported by the Universe.   Focusing on weaknesses or what you do not have instead of what you do.  Lack of ability to take constructive action to fix or address what you can.
  • Lack of Empathy.  Restricted or limited ability to sense what another person is experiencing inwardly in a specific situation without becoming enmeshed in their feeling or experience or reactions or overwhelmed by them.  Being able to hear and sense what lies behind words and actions… the real message behind the words.  (Brown notes we cannot be empathic with everyone all of the time and at times being too open to negative or toxic feelings can be inappropriate.  Brown says “Many adults who were not subject to a parent with a Destructive Narcissistic Pattern.. are able to be empahic with many people some of the time. “)
  • Seeing Others As Extensions of Self.  According to Brown “the self absorbed person is only dimly aware of other people in the world as separate and distinct from her (or him), and at the unconscious level thinks others exist to serve her (or him).  The self absorbed person sees everything in terms of self, as if they were the only real person in the world.”  This leads to : lack of respect for other’s possessions and boundaries, making decisons that affect others without consultation, making choices and decisions for others who are able to decide for themselves, touching things that belong to others without permission.  Asking overly personal questions.
  • Needing to be  percieved as unique and special by others. Everyone needs to know they are unique, special and worthy but when self absorbed this is taken to an extreme, or acted upon in a demanding way.  This relates to having an extra high opinion of oneself that is not based in fact.  It can lead to a lack of respect for others needs and rights.  It can result in criticism of others faults and flaws.  Making comparisons that put them up and the other person down.  Blaming others for getting in the way.  Needing to be complimented or praised first.
  • Exploitation of Others  This involves using other to gain benefit, coupled with the conviction that others are not as worthy.  Taking advantage of another person’s kind, generous or caring nature, desire to please or need for approval just to serve the self.  Expecting favours without reciprocation.  Lying, cheating, misleading.  Using “if you loved me or cared about me” to manipulate others
  • Shallow Emotions.  Adults with healthy narcissism can experience and express a wide and deep variety of emotions.  In contrast, self absorbed adults are extremely limited in experiencing and expressing their feelings.  Experiencing for them seems to be mainly limited to fear and anger and while they have the words when expressing other feelings, they don’t have the accompanying emotions.  These people are not genuine in their expression of feelings, except for the variations of fear and anger.   To get an idea of your range and level for experiencing emotions Nina recommends an exercise in which you make a list of each hour in the day and beside each time portion list all the feelings you remember experiencing.  Beside the list of feelings list the names of people you expressed the feelings to.  Review how open you were in either expressing or not expressing them.  Did you have much variablity in what you felt?  Did you primarily express negative feelings?  Did you have an expansive or limited vocabulary for your emotions?
  • Emptiness at the Core of Self.  Arises when children become isolated and lack meaningful connection to others.   When we are not received as kids we don’t develop a strong connection to and faith in the Universe.   The capacity for experiencing and understanding our feelings may be severely limited as a result. If we were not shown compassion we cannot feel it for ourselves.  If we are focused on our emptiness and hurt we are robbed of seeing the beauty and wonder around us.  We feel separate and disconnected and so emptiness grows.   Experiencing ‘holes’ and then reaching to substances or unfulfilling activities to feel ‘full’.

Bear in mind when reading this list that there is a difference between being self absorbed and self reflective.  It’s only natural that when we didnt get want we needed we would dig in and come to mistrust or not understand where others are coming from.  I have written another post to follow this one soon on the distinction between self absorption and self reflection.  People with destructive or malignant narcissism cannot self reflect or introspect, they tend to attack or blame often out of the narrow range of feeling, Brown speaks about in her book.  We are, in healing and becoming more self aware learning to strike a balance, its painstaking work.

 

Why self compassion helps us more than ‘self esteem’

Self esteem in later years has been touted as the be all and end all to good mental health and raising healthier children, but is it really, or in our focus on raising self esteem are we really teaching that the true basis of self worth, (which involves acceptance of the fact we cannot always be the biggest or ‘best’ someone) lies in becoming more outer directed and narcissistic rather than inwardly compassionate and empathetic to our own and other’s common humanity which involves a spectrum of all kinds of achievement and non achievement?

It’s a question I have been thinking about, now midway through Christine Neff’s book on self compassion.   She explains how self esteem is often about feeling that our worth is based on measurable things or behaviour, rather than intrinsic sense not only of our own worthiness but of our limitations and foibles as well.  If we think we need to perform in certain ways in order to raise our self esteem and be considered ‘worthy’, accepted or deserving we end up becoming quiet  outwardly oriented, rather than a inwardly focused in sense of  inward security.    We can also become less compassionate.

In counter balance to this self compassion enables us to embrace the whole of our selves even when we may fail to reach goals or act in certain ways not associated with high self esteem.  Self compassion enables us to embrace ourselves in the tough moments and surround ourselves in a blanket of care when we may feel sore or hurting.

The three foundations of self compassion, according to Neff are :

  1. Self kindness.   A sense of being gentle with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental.   Finding ways to self soothe and tap into what Neff calls ‘the mammalian – system’.  Doing this has been proven by research to raise oxytocin levels (the hormone of love and bonding) which also raises feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness while helping us feel warmth and compassion for ourselves.  In contrast habits of self-criticism have been shown to trigger the amygdala and raise our blood pressure, adrenaline and production of the stress hormone cortisol, in turn activating our fight flight brain.  Self criticism also lights up different areas in our brain increasing our stress levels.  Self kindness and self soothing is demonstrated by saying kind soothing things to ourselves in times of stress.  This is really hard right now.  I am with you.   This will hurt for a while but in time the hurt will pass.  It involves tuning in with awareness to how you are feeling or being triggered at that moment, what you are observing, what you are needing and what you require.  When we are not being kind we ignore or dismiss these things maybe because that is what we learned to do as kids due to emotional abandonment, disconnection or neglect.   Working to change inwardly critical self talk is also a huge part of this first component of self compassion.
  2. Recognition of our common human experience.  So often in grief or depression a huge part of our suffering relates to the feeling that we are so deeply alone in this experience and so very far from human aid or care.  This may on many levels be the truth of how it was for us as children in homes where there was not much emotional care or presence or if we are trapped in relationships with non empathic, abusive people.   Post traumatic stress and complex PTSD can also make us feel so alone and terrified at the same time, terrified to reach out only to be hurt again.   We may feel that unlike the rest of the world we are less than or not entitled to care, concern or belonging, when really the truth is that others also struggle with these same feelings as us and we are all worthy of care love and concern.  Such feelings of isolation can then go along with the development of globally negative views about humanity and the state of things.  While it is true that there is so much suffering in the world, the truth is that there is care and kindness too.  However part of a deeply depressive non self compassionate mindset is that we are alone in this, we keep our focus only on the negative as well as those things that hurt, we fail to trust and reach out and understand our interconnectedness and in this state of mind our focus on bad feelings grows.  On the other hand when we realise we are part of a wider humanity in which suffering is an intrinsic part of life we develop more radical acceptance and are more likely to take steps to improve things at the same time as being fully aware of the global nature of suffering.  In reaching out to share or care we move past our disconnection or deep feelings of not belonging.
  3. Mindfulness In self compassion practice mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and non-judgemental acceptance of what occurs in the present moment, including our so called ‘negative’ or difficult states of mind and being.  To give ourselves compassion we have to notice that we are suffering rather than be reacting to our suffering by distancing and dissociating (all of which we cannot notice when we are not being mindful).  “We often fail to recognise feelings of guilt, defectiveness, sadness, loneliness, and so on, as moments of suffering that can be responded to with compassion….When your boss calls you into his office and tells you that your job performance is below par, is your first instinct to comfort yourself?… probably not.”   Being conditioned to ignore our pain, according to Neff means that we are physiologically programmed to avoid it. “Because of our tendency to turn away from pain, it can become extremely difficult to turn toward our pain, to hold it, to be with it as it is. ” When we do this we shut ourselves off from our true emotions and we also lose our ability to learn at a deeper level about the deeper nature of our experience and reactions.  In mindfulness we develop the ability to turn toward our pain, suffering or other bodily sensations becoming aware of them while not exaggerating them.  For example, we can become aware when an emotion such as anger is occurring for us by noticing we are clenching our jaw, feeling heat rise in our body,  feeling a desire to lash out.  In her book Neff gives the example of a man who endured long term emotional abandonment by his mother.  His therapy involved becoming aware of his acceptable anger without lashing out or acting it out in rage on his mother.  With the use of mindfulness as well as the loving presence of his therapist he was able to feel and understand the basis of his anger and become attentive to what it was saying.  He was also in time able to see how his mother’s abandonment was not necessarily associated with a lack of love for him but was due to her doing what she thought was necessary.  He was able to share his real feelings with his mum in such a way that he expressed them, rather than depressed them and they were heard.  Mindfulness was central to this process.  “We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”  (Marcel Proust, quoted on P. 118 of Self Compassion)

Mindful ways of working with pain are shared in detail in chapter 5 of Christine Neff’s book, which I highly recommend, she also goes in to more detail about the two other basics of self compassion I have shared in this post.  I have been using a lot of the self compassion practices myself lately,  I used them today when I went for my yearly breast cancer follow up screen check and I was able to calm myself when the therapist left the room for a long tme leaving me alone after telling me I may have a cyst in my breast.

I do believe that self compassion in my own case is far more important to me than high self esteem.  Self compassion gives me a way to be with what is occurring in love and acceptance.  It helps me understand myself and others better.  It is a practice I am very grateful to have found.  It is a practice I want to share more about in upcoming posts.

Self compassion helps us to understand that we are lovable as we are, even if we don’t achieve big things, it teaches us that its okay not to be perfect, to mess up and make mistakes.  It isn’t an excuse for bad behaviour but it is a way of allowing ourselves to soften and go more gently not only with ourselves but also with our fellow humans as we recognise how much we all struggle in the earthly sphere of life where there is often suffering and things are far from ideal and perfect.  It can also encourage to keep growing and be kind in that process rather than self punishing.

On disengagement, indifference and insecure attachment

I heard a programme on radio today that really got me thinking. Its a great weekly segment in the show Life Matters that airs on Radio National in Austrailia, called Three Men and A Feeling in it two therapists discuss a feeling with the presenter Michael McKenzie and provide insights into its ramifications.  Today indifference was discussed most particularly from the point of view of how often it manifests in insecurely attached inviduals or those who have known hurt or pain as a ‘giving up’ defence and reaction to those hurts and pains.

I would love to be able to quote some of what was said, because it really spoke to me about the emotionally disengaged state I ended up in a few years into sobriety when my marriage fell apart.  The interviewees were saying that often when we are not securely attached we dont know how to show interest in anything outside of ourselves and we can become very self obsessed while at the same time being competely incapable of showing ourself self care.  To me this would equate with what I have read about consequences of emotional neglect.  Early or consistent disappointments with caregivers or other significant relationships can also land us in this place where the cost of caring and connecting just seems too great.  We may have learned the cost of caring is an emptiness that comes when nothing comes back to us.  When  lack of connection, nuture and emotional unavailibity is what we find when reaching out we also learn to treat ourselves in similar ways.  We may learn the price of interest and caring is a brick wall and so we give up.

This is shown in the early attachment experiments which show a child left alone to cry who finally gives up and resorts to a depressed state.  That child has no way of knowing what he or she went through if all of this occurs before the age in which language for feelings is gained, and it leaves us with a devestating emotional cost.

In my own life I learned to turn to substances and possessions to find my connection.  Lately I am really feeling the emptiness and sadness of this kind of coping.  After my father died Mum often gave me big sums of money and I so I would go shopping,  After my father died and I was sent overseas all alone I learned to entertain myself by going to the movies, going to galleries and going to the big department stores.  God knows what I would have done had I not had those avenues, detached as they were.   I look back and wish I could have got into a 12 step group then as I may not have had to endure all the years of disconnection that I did,

And of course up until the age of 31 I also fell into addictions.  Sadly the end of my marrige which occured when I was 11 years sober saw me fall back into complete isolation.  I made an attempt to go overseas and find work but I got triggered and fear voices dissuading me from actively engaging put all that to death and then I had my second accident and a major head injury.   I am still finding my way back from that.  After it I came home and retreated to the coast fobbing off attempts to get me back into life and relationship.

The path of recovery has led me into therapy where I can engage with a therapist in order to explore and heal those early attachment wounds in me as well as the guilt and pain I struggle with due to the coping strategies I used which cost me a lot.  I am managing to shop less on the lonely days and spend time in my own company listening to my own heart and feelings, as well as trying to reach out to others more.  Writing my blog definately also helps me feel more engaged and interested and connected.

Today Jasper, my dog, didnt want to go walking so I went to the shopping centre, not to shop but to have a coffee and go to the library but also because my mobile phone which is bottom of the line has been breaking down and I genuinely needed a new one.  The part of me that is no fan of technology was beating myself up after I settled on a mid range phone and paid for it.  Its a bit of a process as I had to get a new sim card sent in order to set up the new phone.  I managed to do this after all the inner critic attacks against buying the new phone subsided.  I got the car with my phone and then Mum called on the old phone   I got very emotional the moment we started talking and by the time I got home was still drying my tears.   Something deep was being triggered. All weeekend long I was hard at work in the garden trying to clear up some of the jungle of vines that has overtaken the backyard over the last few months as I was not well.   I was going to have a moment of self pity about how alone I had been with it all, but the sadness was very real and very deep and I probably wont even try to reach for explanations here.

Maybe I was having a kind of wake up call as to the reality of how far away my own insecure/ambivalent attachment style has taken me over years from active engaged connection with life and relationship, but at the same time I do respect that my genuine ability to shed those tears today shows my inner connection to real me is growing.   I have to beware of beating up the part of me that in the past tried ways to cope with wounds that only ended up leaving me more disengaged and drowning in ‘stuff’.  It takes time to grown in awareness of our patterns and defences and we are not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ for using certain ways of coping with our emptiness that we do.  For me self compassion is the solution and was what the therapists in the progamme spoke a lot about, that and reaching out to get good help and therapy.  I am doing both so I dont need to beat myself up today.  I can feel genuine sadness for a past I didn’t wholey choose while realising that life is not over yet and I have been blessed even while struggling.  Looking on it all with eyes of love, rather than with eyes of judgement or rejection is a better solution for me in the long run.