Do we ever truly heal?
I was working with a young woman in her 40’s a while ago, Samantha. She was conceived around the time her mother had an affair. Samatha was found to be her biological father’s on paternity testing, but her conception and birth were surrounded by marital problems and strain in the family.
Her parents decided to work things out, and were largely emotionally unavailable over the many years it took to do so. Pam, her older sister, who was about 4 yo at the time, blamed Samantha for this and accused her of “stealing my parents”. Which in large part was true, at least from Pam’s perspective. Pam was at an age where she was starting to remember her experiences, and didn’t understand that there were adult issues involved. It makes sense why she would associate Sam with her parents becoming unavailable to meet her needs. On top of that, when they were momentarily more available, it was usually for the adorable baby, and not for the tantruming 4 yo.
Pam was horrible to Sam. Sibling rivalry is an understatement. She flip flopped between being overtly aggressive – scratching, pulling hair, chasing her with a broom, to being passive-aggressive and humiliating Sam in front of her friends, sharing very personal information about Sam’s history of bed-wetting or when she got her period publicly. Pam was angry her needs were not being met and Sam was the cause of it and had to pay! Pam did her best not to show her anger to her parents (although she would still explode sometimes), after all, if Pam wasn’t doing anything wrong and her parents weren’t there for her, they certainly wouldn’t be if she got angry at them! So all of Pam’s anger towards her parents got displaced onto Sam as well!
Sam’s parents were in and out of marital difficulties, work stress, caring for ailing parents AND, they also connected Sam to that difficult period in their lives. This happened unconsciously, not at all by choice, but rather because humans are just fancy rats in many ways, and we learn by association, especially when there are strong feelings involved. Sam’s parents felt badly and guilty about Pam and how hard it was for her, after all, Pam could express it more directly by saying things like “Sam stole you!”. Meanwhile, Sam was a generally quiet baby, so they didn’t think it had much impact on her and later she was quite eager to please and didn’t give them much trouble, unlike Pam.
Sam’s parents unconsciously displaced their guilt about what Pam went through, onto Sam. Because of this, they were not able to consistently give themselves permission to reprimand Pam to correct her actions, nor did they consistently follow through on the times they did set consequences. Their guilt got in the way of their parenting Pam AND Sam!
They inadvertently taught Pam that such behaviour was ok and she grew up to be a bully in her close relationships, especially with women. Pam struggled to find a work position she could stay at because of interpersonal conflict with her co-workers and was not able to stay in long term romantic relationships because she wasn’t able to be vulnerable with them. Sam and Pam’s parents inadvertently taught Samantha that she was not deserving an emotionally or physically safe relationship. They did this by turning a blind eye unless Sam brought her complaints directly to them and even then they would often ignore or minimize Sam’s complaint’s. Sometimes, they even got mad at her instead.
As I mentioned, Sam grew up believing she was not deserving of an emotionally or physically safe relationship and she lived out these beliefs in the friends she picked, the guys she got into relationships with and dangerous situations she allowed herself to get into. The few times she did end up with decent guy or a decent friend, she would do something to sabotage it. This pattern eventually predisposed her to depression, anxiety and a variety of health issues, including chronic fatigue and pain.
As Sam started doing the work to deal with her issues, it became clear that despite her best efforts, her past that was getting in the way of her present. It became clear how much anger and grief she had towards her parents and sister for not protecting her and meeting her needs. All those years she didn’t want to be angry at them because she also loved them, and we don’t want to be mad at the people we love, so she internalized all that energy and “made it ok”. The only problem is… the only way to “make it ok” that our needs weren’t met, is to convince ourselves we didn’t deserve to have them met, we weren’t good enough, we were bad in some way etc. That is exactly what happened with Sam – for a long time. It also made sense to her that similar to Pam, if Sam’s needs weren’t being met when she wasn’t doing anything wrong, they certainly wouldn’t be if she got angry at them, so she learned to stuff all of that energy, especially in relationships with women given her history with Pam.
There were many times Sam questioned if she would ever be “healed“, especially since her parents continued to make excuses for Pam’s nasty behaviours, completely ignoring Sam’s continued need for emotional safety (the hitting stopped when they were in their late teens). She tried talking to her parents about her experience, but it didn’t change much. In fact, it left her feeling really hurt and even more invisible because she took a chance to be vulnerable and shared her experience with them, and instead they argued it, dismissed it and told her how hard it was for Pam again.
We talked about the well analogy...it is as if we keep going to the well to get water, even though there is no water there, yet we keep going and walking away disappointed, hurt and often blaming ourselves for there not being water in the well. Until we process old hurts, we keep going to the well…expecting there to be water, because that seems better than facing the truth that there has not been water there for a long time, if ever, and dealing with the grief and anger that realization brings with it. This acceptance also brings with it the belief that we deserve water, we deserve to have our emotional and physical needs met, and if we deserve to have our needs met now, we did then too, regardless of circumstance!
Sam understood that her parents and sister “did their best with what they knew”, and would say “other people had it worse“. She came to see those were just ways she was taking away her permission to be upset that her needs were not met AND that was keeping her stuck! When she accepted that she did deserve to have her needs met, AND she had feelings about that, she got to feel them and it RELEASED HER from going back to the same well expecting there to be water. It became really clear to her that her parents’ not being able/ willing to SEE her, HEAR her or ACKNOWLEDGE her experience was THEIR STUFF and she no longer had to carry or own that. Instead she was free and able to give herself permission to find and engage with healthy relationships and goes to them to get most of her emotional needs met. From a place of strength, Sam decided the value based thing for her to do was to maintain some relationship with her family, but she can now accept and love her family for what they are able to provide.
Does that mean Sam no longer goes to the well? Nope. She still does, we are hardwired to go
to the well, particularly when it comes to our parents. We never stop longing for them to be able to meet our needs- it is biologically hardwired in us.
Does that mean she is no longer disappointed, hurt or angry when her parents dismiss or minimize her experience, or when they make excuses for Pam’s bad behaviour? Nope. It means that now when those things happen, and they do, she gets upset about each individual incident as it happens, instead of that incident AND all the other times she felt unseen, unheard or like she didn’t matter! She has her moments of grieving for herself that they are not able to meet her needs the way she would like, and they she gets to move on and be present with them.
As a result, seeing her parents or her sister is no longer such a chore, it isn’t emotionally overwhelming, and because she knows that there will likely never be water in the well the way she needed and wishes there would be (unless her parents choose to do some emotional work for themselves), she knows that is their stuff, and she is able to give herself permission to set healthy boundaries with them when she does see them.
So is she healed? What do you think?
Her past is no longer interfering with her present and she is able to live her values…
I would say so!