self care

Thoughts Relationship with my daughter

I have been reading and thinking a lot about attachment wounds and how we choose to live our reality while coping with those.   You could say all my blogs have been about it.  It is essentially the definition of human life.

“With our thoughts, we create the world.  Before that, the world created our thoughts. ”  By Gabor Mate, a physician known for believing there is a psychological origin to many biological illnesses. When things happen emotionally it also affects the immune system.  For example, when we repress anger or many other emotions, we also repress the immune system whereas healthy emotions, negative or positive,  if handled they protect us.    Western science separates mind and body, whereas he argues they are not separable just different manifestations of the same process.  They are working together to keep overall homeostasis.  His perception of psychological issues matches that of my understanding regarding attachment wounds.  They arise from coping mechanisms in reaction to things that happened to our narcissistic self, then as we mature physically and our environment changes, they become maladaptive.   For example, he believes ADHD is a  coping mechanism to dissociate from the present by the mind to deal with stress experienced from a caregiver(i.e. frustrations during the attachment process).  Over time, it becomes automated self-regulation and people with ADHD cannot learn to concentrate even if they want to.

In the beginning, our thoughts were inseparable from us when we were still babies, believing everything, every emotion, every action by those around others was about us. As Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons discussed that children feel the mother’s pain when they are narcissistic during development and cannot separate themselves from others, so everything, good or negative emotions are about them.  That brought back memories about how I felt rejected when my mother became impatient with me when I tried to be helpful as a child.  I can’t fault her for it, she couldn’t possibly be present for every single attachment needs I had, which was probably constant. Her pain was manifested in me as a feeling of inadequacy. When I thought about that, I mourned her again.  This ongoing mourning will last the remainder of my life, probably anyone’s life who didn’t have the misfortune of dying ahead of our mothers.  Whether we are angry, disappointed, love or hate our moms, we all mourn them in our own ways.

Much discussion on attachment wounds indicate they show up in children as failures to self regulate negative emotions.  First, the association of self with negative emotions create discomfort, then we find whatever we knew or biological was predisposed to do to quell the discomfort.  Often, we were likely to copy the strategies our parents seemed to use to cope with the very negative emotions we associated with ourselves. It could have been yelling or grumpiness or finding distractions.  The presence of negative emotions is at the root of the issue. Often before we can get to the root of that, we might have to first deal with the coping mechanisms which interrupt our daily functioning, from physical manifestations in OCD to unstopped emotional anxiety.   (I  wonder also if there is a particular need to dissipate the anxiety that is associated with the modern and sedentary life on top of the emotional distress absorbed from parents).  Children,  who used to be responsible for more family duties much earlier, now have much more time to focus and ruminate on their development.   They don’t feel useful and have no purpose for at least 22 years of their lives.  They have to sit with their anxiety that probably came with the territory.  Without changing modern life structure(i.e. it is not agricultural, not even industrial but mostly professional/white-collar, and increasingly home-bound), then should we as parents let them have their own pursuit earlier and take responsibility for their own survival, even if not financial at least emotional?

  All this talk about attachment wounds can make childhood seem hopelessly perilous.   I don’t hold such a grim view.  I believe we will always have traumas/disconnects with our parents no matter how loving or knowledgeable they might be.  We are simply different people who don’t speak the same language, adults rarely do with each other even within the same family.  The goal is not to have the perfect attachment.  The objective is to stay in touch with our own essence through a body/emotion/mind balance that we develop slowly over time.   One of my fellow therapists believes that essence is something we are born with as babies.  That is very possible.  The human mission becomes one of regaining that innocence once our body and mind are fully formed.  How do we use our human functions to enrich that essence without obstructing it from ourselves?  As Picasso said, it took him over 80 years to learn how to draw again as a child.

Many of us fail in this mission.   The struggle leaves many of us with anxiety that we only know how to cope with external remedies such as drugs or money.   Often, in the long run, whatever coping mechanisms have chosen will use our body to tell us something is wrong.  These somatic symptoms often can be complex ways our body is talking to us.  Our bodies remember and know many things before our intellect could process(as is dictated by our developmental stage).  It follows then the process of transformation we need to reconnect with our essence is not an intellectual process.  It requires a deeper level of action.  Insights are helpful, but our body/emotion/mind and core must all arrive at the same point.  Transformation for some is an event(most likely painful), and for others, it is a process.

Bill Wilson founder of AA ” Bill is quoted as saying “It is a generally acknowledged fact in spiritual development that ego reduction makes the influx of God’s grace possible.” He said that as part of a long answer regarding the use of Hallucinogens in stimulating changes in people’s psyche.  I don’t know enough about hallucinogens to comment much but admit it is intriguing that they might play some limited roles.  Was Bill saying, in order to reach our essence we must blunt the effect of our ego, either through spiritual awakening or something process similar aided possibly by certain drugs?

Talking about ego, I feel I have been going through a slow deflation of it for myself.  Or perhaps it is a temporary one.  Either way, I have been feeling resigned, empowered, joyful and sad at the same time.   This comes as a part of my mourning for the loss of various elements in my life.  One part of the mourning the transfer of focus from myself to my child.  This, of course, has been going on since she was born.  However, I never properly acknowledged it and processed it within myself.   While parenting has its joys, it certainly also has its demands. It is thus wise to properly say goodbye to when I had all the time in the world to myself.  In essence, I am going from narcissistic self to one more about others.  This is a transition all parents must make in order to be with their children without losing themselves.  I know it sounds ironic that mourning the loss of focus on oneself prevents losing oneself. This is similar logic to how being more securely attached fosters autonomy in children.  Because I am strong enough to temporarily defocus from myself, I am more cognizant of who I am in this process.   I am telling myself,  I am mature enough for it to be not about me most of the time. The ability to coexist with the joy of raising a new generation and the pain of losing a portion of self is, I believe, crucial for surviving the human condition. It is the condition that gives us the ability to have multiple desires but forces us to choose which ones to fulfill.  Living with pain and joy at the same time is a human condition.

Accepting that I could never be the perfect parent that fulfills every attachment needs for my child, I am nonetheless confident that my relationship with her will empower her more than anything I deliberately teach or do for her.  Just like in therapy, the therapeutic relationship(which you could conceive as a form of reparenting) is about our presence/emotion more than it is about our technique or insights we provide, as numerous studies attested to.  So while I will continue to pass on knowledge and insight, I won’t get too hung up on the result; The modeling with calm,  diligence,  and intelligence is more powerful.

As my daughter grows up, I know she will encounter countless challenges that she won’t have the answers to.  She might not even survive all of them, which goes the same for all of us.   Particularly when she has not yet found her true self, and while in the process of accumulating knowledge for her brains, she could lose touch with her body’s vital signals for happiness. That will put put her in many precarious positions physically or emotionally.  I can’t always protect her.  All I hope is that, when she is in agony, whatever I have done with my life can convey to her adult self, that she must believe in her unique value in this human form.   She might be lost for a long time but she will get there. 

Pain and joy will always coexist in this journey to integrate our human mind with the spirit and body we are born with.   That will be a human condition that we all have to live with all of our life. My darling, do not resist, roll with it.  The coping mechanism I prescribe: love and compassion for your fellow beings, and first and foremost, for yourself.

Sadness re-centers me

This past 2 years have been difficult. My personal loss combined with the pandemic has brought on unprecedented challenges to my emotional presence. I have had increasing number of clients who are suffering under the strain of prolonged isolation and fear of uncertainty.

Like my clients, I also have ups and downs in my emotion. It is the rhythm of every human being. Whenever I feel lonely or lost, I find that allowing myself to just feel the sadness is reassuring.   It seems rather counter-intuitive a negative emotion like that can be therapeutic.  It is bringing me back into contact with my body.  Instead of being lost of the judgment of the situation in my head, which can quickly translate the feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness into panic and an urge to do what it takes to feel safe again, sadness allows me to sit still with myself.   Feeling that emotion is different from acting on that emotion.   By getting in touch with my limbic brain, I let my body know that I recognize the state my body and soul are in.  It is not nice, but it is also not catastrophic.   Instead of letting the problem-solving prefrontal cortex lead the body into remediating motion, like changing something–anything in order to shake up the predicament, I let my lizard and monkey brains see that I am still safe physically.  Sadness doesn’t threaten my survival unless I let it rule me.

The sadness, of course, still hurts, but it is manageable.  It also connects back to my younger self, who often felt lonely and sadness in my pursuit of perfection in order to earn love.  Back then, despite a stressful environment, I was probably less dissociated from myself. My cognitive functioning has not been educated enough to take too much control and neglect my body. So connecting back to that younger self and my prevalent feeling back then is as empowering as it is saddening.  Usually, after my body started to feel safer, I can re-activate my prefrontal cortex to focus on the task at hand instead of reacting globally due to panic.

From there, my triune-brains(limbic, lizard, and human) can work together, transition to joy.  It can only happen once we let sadness pass.  Sadness in itself is an energy that needs to have release either through breathing or crying.   Life is filled with suffering and sadness, it is a fact of life.  Our life is full of survival, emotional, and cognitive challenges.  That is not a pessimistic statement, rather an honest statement, brave one if you will.  It is with the recognition of these human conditions, that I choose to live it to the fullest, to see the beauty and joy, to love without regret, and to march bravely toward death. 

Our emotions are our friends in this difficult time, particularly the negative ones. I believe they help us discharge pain. I believe they empowering. I hope you will join me in letting our emotions liberate us from suffering.

Staying WHOLE after an affair

I have had a number of couple clients who came to me after an affair. I want to share some thoughts and experience I have had on this subject.

Affairs are often seen as the fatal blow to a marriage.  They can come at any stage of a relationship.  It can come during the anticlimax of initial passion, stem from the boredom of daily routine after many years, result from the fatigue of raising children together.  Somewhere along the way, familiarity have transformed into disconnection.  In the quest for the intimacy essential to everyone’s sense of belonging, you lose sight of each other and set out in search for new emotional stimulations.

Whether it is an emotional or physical affair or both, it doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship.  Many say this is a deal-breaker.  It certainly can be a death sentence if neither side is willing to do the hard work of reconciliation(or if the relationship posed physical danger to either party before or after the affair).   However, when something this painful occurs, it can equally lead to a transformation for the relationship as well as the individuals involved.  Often the affair is only the symptom of what was wrong within the relationship.  It serves as the ultimate alarm for the healing to begin.  It is not for everyone. The trauma can be overwhelming.  Seeking an alternative path can seem easier than staying with the pain.   The relief from the separation, however, can only be temporary if the old patterns are perpetuated into new relationships.  It will take the ultimate courage to face the consequence of this emotional wound with your partners.    Boosted by the history of the love existed within the relationship before the affair,  both the perpetrators of the affair and the victims of it can find a deeper sense of love by waging brave inner battles.  

For the courageous few, here are some milestones each relationship marred by affair must achieve in order to come out stronger together:

  1. Witness the Pain: The person who has broken the trust must first own the responsibility and acknowledge the pain caused regardless if they feel they were “driven” to the affair due to mistreatment(One caveat: if this mistreatment is physical abuse, then the person must seek safety first and foremost with or without an affair). Only the person betrayed has felt seen for his or her wound can the relationship start to build trust again.   
  2. Heal the Wound: After the pain and damage of the affair has been acknowledged, both must have periods of healing.  Both partners, if sincere, would have suffered.  Whether it is pain from guilt or the pain from loss of trust. The process is different for everyone, just as the time needed will vary for each.  Healing in this case mean keeping some distance.  Loyalty will demand some silence. Not reacting to the ups and down of moods will be difficult but necessary.  Persistence will be key.     
  3. Observe the Past: Once enough temporal and emotional distance have been established, the affair must be examined.   The help of a competent couple therapist would be invaluable in this process.  Opening the wound is traumatic and can, if not properly done, create new trauma that further damage the relationship.  A safe environment and a balanced view from a mental health professional would be crucial for an open dialogue.  While the person who committed affair has to bear the responsibility for the betrayal, both parties must remain open to sharing the responsibilities in repairing the relationship going forth.   This is a pivotal point in the recovery and is possibly the longest phase.  It is not just suturing the wound of the affair but also uncovering all that caused pain for each within the relationship, before and after the affair. 
  4. Love yourself:  If step 3 is progressing along smoothly, which usually means 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, you are slowly getting over a crisis.  You are still unsure if the relationship will survive, but the pain is not as palpable on a daily basis.  The safety alert in your body will begin to take some time off from the fight/flight mode.   As both parties begin to adapt to a new reality and seeing each other in a new light,  transforming the relationship with ourselves will be a crucial component for the healing process.  The individual is the fundamental unit of a relationship.  If there is a void in the love one has for the self, it will inevitably compromise the quality of the relationship.  You cannot change the way you relate to each other unless there is a new way of relating to yourself.  Create time and space to love yourself in whatever form rings true for you. 
  5. Evolve together:  Once you like yourselves better and can reduce the baggages the old selves have brought to the relationship, you are truly ready to re-connect with each other.  This will not be simply recovering what you had lost from the affair.  This will be reinventing your relationship: rediscovering things about each other and creating new connections.  This is truly the beginning of a new romance that will deepen the love for each other.  The renewed connection will be based on the things that had always been there but  are only now visible because the new way you relate to each other.  At the same time, it will also be founded upon the changes in each of the partner along the recovery journey. This is what makes all the hard work in steps 1 to 4 more than worth it.  

            These milestones are just the beginning.  Relationship must be maintained regardless if you had been through an affair or just maintaining intimacy in a long term relationship.  As you go forth into this new life, you must make time for each other, especially if you have kids. You must treat your partner as the priority in your lives, even if the bulk of your time will be devoted to work and raising posterity.                 Ultimately, recovering from affair is a hero’s journey.  After all said and done,  there is no guarantee.  You must be willing to invest yourselves whole-heartedly in steps 1 to 5 without certainty of outcome.   At the end of this hero’s journey might not always be reconciliation.  If you are willing to put in the effort, one thing the journey can guarantee is that you can still find love within yourself for all things and people around you.  That love will allow you to remain WHOLE within or without the relationship.