When I was an undergrad studying psychology, everyone had to become very familiar with Erik Erikson's Developmental Stages of Life. I heard them at least 10 times before graduating graduate school. Each and every time I would picture the growth of a human, from the first stage as itty bitty ones (Trust vs. Mistrust) all the way through to old age (Ego Integrity vs. Despair.) The years of 18 to 40 were characterized by meeting the developmental challege of Intimacy vs. Isolation -- but if there were some difficulties in the "earlier challenges", this may be a tough one to approach. I didn't quite get it until being faced with humans over and over and over again -- this isn't to say that Erikson was all correct as well, but he was on to something.
As an ACoA therapist in NYC, I've seen that when we grow up in a home environment that is chaotic and lacks nurturing (usual for alcoholic families and other dysfunctional systems), we don't necessarily grow to trust that people are safe and will see us clearly. One of the most difficult parts of being raised in this system is simply not being seen, heard, understood or validated for the emotions we might have--instead we might be ignored, yelled at, told that we think/feel differently, and/or are generally not soothed when we have large emotions. Small children are then left to their own inadequate devices to try to soothe themselves and regulate their emotions-- often unsuccesssfuly. In a training I recently took with Bessell Van Der Kolk, he says that parents don't have to be fully attuned to their children, but 20 percent of the time is the bare minimum of attunement needed for a secure attachment. Lack of early attunement is one of t he greatest causes of difficulties in children and older adults--and it has its highest impact on connect cting with others in an intimate way later in life. As adults, if we did not receive adequate early attunement, we may find ourselves in similar relationships later in life-- ones that are chaotic, or one-sided, emotionally draining, with someone emotionally unavailable, with unsafe people, or perhaps with people who really don't (or can't) see us clearly at all.
I firmly believe (and know) that all relationship patterns are workable, however. So how?
1. Self-parenting & self-love
I really felt uncomfortable about the concept of self-love for a long time. I realized, however, that sitting in meditation or doing a neurofeedback session (ways to work with the nervous system, self-regulate, attending to thoughts/emotions/experiences in a non-judgmental way) was actually a large part of self-parenting and self-love. It is the quality of showing up for one's self that can begin to shift when we attend to ourselves in a specifically observational, non-judgmental, regulating/soothing, and hence, loving way. When we practice being with ourselves like this over and over again, our attitude towards ourselves and our experiences begins to shift because it is very different than the lack of attunement we may have received in chaotic or withholding environments. We also gain strength in our abilities to sit with all experiences and show up for ourselves as a good-enough mother/father or personal best friend. Perhaps then, from this place, we can become more drawn to workable (not perfect but workable) relationships rather than those that continue to be chaotic and unfulfilling.
2. Try something new
When we have become used to not being seen, heard or validated in relationship repeatedly, we actually might not know any different than what feels familiar. Having done some personal work, we might become more willing over time to have actual "dance partners." Relationships are like dancing-- sometimes we are in the flow with another and we can mirror each other's moves clearly, and sometimes we're awkwardly stepping on each other's toes. In a healthy adult relationship, we can work with our dance partners. We can have ruptures and then they can be repaired, we can sometimes want to move away and sometimes get close and our partners can sense that (and sometimes get it wrong), but it can all be communicated and discussed in adult language. However, being clearly seen, dancing fluidly with someone, having disruptions that need to be talked through in conflict resolution: all of this might feel very scary, uncomfortable, and out of our comfort zone-- and yet correct. So, we might need to challenge ourselves to be in uncomfortable, awkward, but healthy relationships, because they are different than the chaotic/disorganized/withholding/invasive ones of our original family systems. The results may be that we start having relationships where people "get us" while there can also be mistakes that are workable (for ourselves and the other person.) Active alcoholics don't "do" relationships--they sit with bar buddies. And what I find interesting is that Adult Children are "para-alcoholics" which means that they may have never picked up a drink (some or most have) and still will have similar relational patterns-- we learned them. We have to come to a point of seeing that our radar is off for appropriate dance partners--we were taught to isolate, mistrust, ignore, or be mistreated.
3. Take an honest, non-judgmental assessment of your relationships and the dynamic they set up
Sometimes it is too difficult to see what's going on in a relationship to understand it. However, if we are able to step outside of the dynamic for a moment and see it as just that, a dynamic, we can begin to see what is and isn't being exchanged. What were your parents' relationships like--both with friends and their own? What kind of people did they choose to be around? What messages did you receive about being in relationship with other people? Who are your friends? What are your past and current romantic relationships like? When do you feel like getting close or moving away from others? Be slow and gentle with all of these questions--and all of it is workable with the right help and support. Which brings me to #4.
Everyone needs community. I believe more and more that it is a foundational human need that often does not get met in today's fast-paced technology driven society (which actually leads to more social isolation, depression, substance abuse, the list goes on.) If you can find a community or group of people that can eventually get you (which oddly might not even mean like you all the time), you are well on your way to healing some family traumas and building a new family on your own terms. All of this takes work, but it is a worthy pursuit. Some communities might make you feel like running (and not due to their lack of safety-- of course, if this is the case, RUN!) but really due to the fact that they, like above, are offering a different kind of reflection that may seem out of the ordinary--it might be kind, nurturing, honest, workable, educating and/or understanding. Think about joining our Buddhist Psychotherapy Group, starting on Fridays on October 6th from 5:30-7pm--it's a good way to practice working on our relationships and authentic expression in a safe space.
The moral of the story is: No matter what kind of family system we may have come from, our experiences are entirely workable and so are our relationships--albeit imperfect, they can be new, fulfilling, playful and fully adult. And for some comic relief about relationships-- please enjoy the band Here We Go Magic with "Hard to Be Close." I love this song and perhaps some of us know what it feels like to be in an awkward relational situation that feels like we're trapped with other strangers for a zillion years.
Written by Heather Coleman, LMSW, NeurOptimal® Neurofeedback Trainer and Practicing Clinician since 2006.