Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for April, 2007

INTIMATE CONNECTIONS MAKE US

“She doesn’t understand me!”

“Nothing I say seems to get through!”

“He seems to be in his own world. He never really hears me…”

I seem to be hearing this from a number of people I work with, lately. I’ve heard it for years, actually, and I think there’s more going on with these complaints than is immediately apparent.

We all want to be understood, most particularly about matters which seriously concern us. For some people, it seems to be an especially critical issue. Why is this? The reasons usually aren’t obvious, but I think I know what’s going on in many cases.

Who we are, to ourselves – how we “see” ourselves – is intimately related to how others see us. First of all, we’re inherently social animals. Our brain finds other people just about the most intensely stimulating, meaningful, and valuable source of meaning available anywhere. This is true for many animals, but quite possible for none more than for us.

Our connection to other people goes far beyond this, however. Other people literally make us. Without our ever realizing it at the time, they tell us who we are in our earliest years of development – a time when we are intensely vulnerable, impressionable, and hungry to have a sense of ourselves that can be relied upon. From our primary caregivers, as we grow up, we learn behavior, language, how to dress, what to eat – all the details of being human. But more than this, we learn about ourselves: Are we worth listening to? Is what we want of any importance? Do our thoughts, our feelings, our actions have value to those who mean so very much to us?

These are absolutely vital, absolutely unavoidable questions. And they do get answers. Sadly, the answers too often are not good ones – not accurate, not useful, not even tolerable. Without our having any real say in the matter, we can too easily get inaccurate, damaging answers to these questions, when we are very young. This can cripple us for a very long time – perhaps forever.

Recently, in developmental psychology, there has been a growing interest in “the social construction of the sense of self”. It’s not a new idea, but recent research on what happens when a baby and its main parent don’t get along has shed new light on the matter. The topic has become particularly important in psychotherapy, for as we’ve better understood how critical is the relation between very young children and their parents we’ve also come to better understand some of the disorders we treat in adults.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF NOT BEING UNDERSTOOD

What has this to do with someone’s having a sense of urgency about being understood? Well, consider what happens when we are NOT understood when expressing something important to us. When we were small, if we said “Mommy, I’m tired. I want to go home,” or “I don’t want to eat that!”, did we discover that we were understood when expressing ourselves? Did we feel respected?

As a small child, when we don’t feel understood, we tend to feel isolated. We may also feel devalued. In a worst case, we may feel intensely threatened. It is as if we are calling for help, and no one seems to be hearing the call.

This is precisely what has happened to anyone who’s had to endure parents who are unaware, insensitive, resistant, or absent, for sustained periods of her/his childhood. What they come to know is something no child should have to learn: they can be overlooked, ignored, and inappropriately left to their own resources. This feels bad because it is bad.

Certainly it is a simple fact that every child wants to grow up, to “do it myself”, in the immortal words of every feisty two year old. Yet at the same time, much of life is beyond their ability to manage, for years, and THAT part of life is the responsibility of their caregivers. What we cannot do for ourselves must be understood by our caregivers, and responded to.

Perhaps we can express ourselves about the matter, and sometimes we won’t be able to. In both cases, a caregiver needs to “get it” and to respond adequately to the need at hand, if a child is to grow up feeling like their universe is a good place for them.

SOLITUDE CAN TRAUMATIZE

We start our lives in relationship – literally bound to our mothers. After birth, we continue to be bound, in a link of utter dependence, which slowly diminishes, over the years. If, while we are young (say, in the first 5 years of life) a mother or other primary caregiver is too depressed, or angry, or distracted, or drunk, or distant in any other way, to respond to our distress calls, what happens?

We become frightened, and even terrified. Children in such a situation have lost their moorings, and they simply cannot cope. Left too long in this condition, or allowed to experience this too often, a child is at real risk for becoming traumatized. Many of my clients have had this experience. It’s effect on them has been bad – often profoundly bad.

Now, let’s return to the need to be understood. People who’ve experienced inappropriate parenting (and this term encompasses both neglect and abuse) know just how bad it can get when one is not understood. Everyone’s life experience is to a real degree unique, but the terror of being invisible to parents who SHOULD be seeing you and responding to you, is the same: it’s awful, traumatizing, life-changing, and unforgettable. Its effects can often be healed, with competent psychotherapy, but the learned sense of urgency about being understood may well remain in some form, for a long time.

BREAKING FREE FROM THE CONSEQUENCES OF NOT BEING UNDERSTOOD

What works is for an adult to come to understand that their vulnerability, should they NOT be understood in their present adult life, is not the vulnerability they endured in childhood. Their childhood really IS over. If they’re still responding out of a sense of BEING that neglected child, they cannot achieve this understanding. If their memory of their hurtful childhood is still capable of emotionally disturbing them – which will be seen should any current event “trigger” that memory – they WILL respond as if they were still that neglected child. They will be overtly dysfunctional, and they won’t have any choice about it – not at the time it’s happening.

However, when their memories are permanently quieted down (both recallable memory and that other kind – the memories we all have which can be triggered but not willfully recalled), they are free to experience their present safety and the full range of options of their adult existence. Such a “quieting down” is the goal and outcome of good psychotherapy.

Adults who have experienced this may still have to spend a little time training themselves, however. Once a child learns not to fall down when walking, they still have to learn to run. Once an adult no longer feels at times like a wounded little child, they still have to learn how to act and feel like a competent adult, in the context of communication which is not being heard (much less understood).

WHAT ADULT COMPETENCE IN EXPRESSIVE COMMUNICATION LOOKS LIKE

Competent adults give priority to expressing their own truths accurately and plainly, and THEN to being understood in their expression. Having made a reasonable effort to do this (and what is “reasonable” often has to be learned), they stop. Their work is over. Understanding takes two people, and at this point the other person’s work begins. The “other person” needs to be left to do it. The speaker doesn’t control the listener, and doesn’t need to, in fact.

If we were not understood in childhood it is usually because of the incompetence of our parents – and this incompetence is admittedly often accidental. Parents are people, and they have very real limits in their abilities, like all of us. Not all parents “show up” ready to function as competent parents. People with active drug/alcohol abuse issues, people with active mental illness (including depression, and unresolved childhood trauma issues of their own), are quite likely not to be able to achieve parental competence. They won’t adequately understand their child because they cannot or do not want to. The only option the child has in this situation is to keep trying to be understood. THAT is where they will likely learn to be obsessed with being understood, an obsession which they can very easily carry into their adult lives..

As a competent adult in an adult world, we will sometimes not be understood. It’s unavoidable. If one has made a reasonable effort to express oneself – to speak one’s truth in accessible language, then a failure to be understood is likely to be due to inability on the part of the listener: they cannot or do not want to understand.

So, if you’re having a problem being understood, take time to understand why. It may well have nothing to do with you at all, just as it may well have had nothing to do with you in childhood, if you had this problem then. Acquiring and maintaining an appropriate sense of personal accountability and responsibility (not the same thing at all) is a good part of being a competent adult. It’s worth working on until you get it more or less right. The secret is to do what is yours to do as well as you can, and to let others do the rest. Most of the time this will work. It can be trusted. It’s good to know this.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »