“If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you don’t like to play with much.” ~ James, age 7
When I was a kid, I was a canny little outlaw who somehow managed to finagle a little black and white Philco TV set to watch in my own bedroom. Whenever my mother wanted to punish me, she would take one of the vacuum tubes out of the back of the TV set. I would fly into a rage in response to this clearly unfair act, which would promptly cause her to get a belt and threaten to beat me if I didn’t go immediately to my disabled-TV bedroom (I don’t ever recall her actually hitting me with a belt, but threats to do so were not uncommon). I would then reluctantly go to my room and stay there. During summers, when school was out, I would end up staying there for days! Ultimately, hunger or loneliness or boredom or all three would work to get me to gingerly emerge from that self-inflicted prison, but nothing would be discussed about the incident at all, ever. It was as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened. No discussion intended to repair this relationship breech ever took place.
This early lack of reliable engagement and contingent communication was profoundly detrimental to my early brain development. It directly led to a way of being in the world for me that developmental psychologists would identify – using the Adult Attachment Inventory – as “Insecure-Avoidant/Ambivalent.” A simple way to describe that orientation is how my mother would often say it: “People make me ‘nern’.” People make me nervous. They made her nervous, and her way of parenting unfolded such that it ended up making me nervous as well (Had she actually beaten me with the belt, the odds of “disorganized” attachment being the result would have significantly increased, along with the probability of me ending up in jail for one “Impulse Crime” or another).
Being nervous around other people, whether as a result of painful early experiences at their hands, or by neglect, is not so good for intimacy or everyday social-emotional engagement. It’s also not so good for brain development in general. In order to regulate the stress chemicals that being (<– click HERE) around other people generates, I would frequently be forced to withdraw and spend excessive amounts of time alone. People sometimes call this tendency “being an introvert” (Never mind that Oxford professor of neuro-pharmacology, Susan Greenfield thinks that technology may be creating a whole planet of “introverts” – people excessively anxious around other humans). One way to think about my introversion is that I simply didn’t have sufficient operating bandwidth in my brain to allow me to easily self-regulate in the company of others (One of the reasons I teach listening skills to clinicians and have written 5 books on the topic is because skillful listening is a great practice for carving out internal space. Listening allows me to buy time around other people so I can center and emotionally self-regulate).
Ghosts from Days Gone By
Gradually, over the years I’ve discovered that when I spend time with different people over an extended period, if they don’t initially show up as someone important from my past, sooner or later they will morph into someone of significance. Usually someone I have some unfinished business with … most often, mom or dad (which Freud recognized as transference and counter-transference nearly 100 years ago, and Tony Soprano discovered only recently!). In my case, my older sister Andrea, who functioned as my mom in the early years, is also a morphing possibility.
Unfinished business seems to live in the brain and body (and probably the heart and other parts of the somatic hologram as well) as repositories of emotionally charged memories – collections of neurons that have been taken offline for prolonged periods. With the neural real estate holding traumatic memories reclaimed and restored to good network operating condition, our brains become capable of processing exponential increases in energy and information. We become smarter, healthier and much more capable of showing up fully in the present moment. Except for one thing …
Good Corner Man and Cut Man
… healing painful early experiences in the present is NOT EASY and NOT FUN. It’s painful! If the choice is hanging out with people who trigger painful explicit conscious memories (or unconscious painful implicit memories) or hanging out with people who are fun and a joy to be with, most of us will choose to hang with the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Until those people morph into some ghostly Painbringer from the Past, of course. I’ve written about this difficulty before because of how crucial, critical, essential, vital and important I think it is. Electing not to repair ruptured relationships is like a neuron in the temporal lobe – essential for hearing – deciding not to maintain crucial connections with a speech or language neuron in Broca’s or Wernicke’s area in the brain. The network ends up not working very well. When whole collections of people assembled in countries elect not to repair ruptured relationships, the world ends up not working very well.
My experience with people offering their services as healers is pretty extensive, and mostly unsatisfactory. But what I’ve found is that the few of them who were skillful healers tended to operate as good “Corner men” or “Cut men” in boxing. They went beyond the healer role and had the skills to address whatever happened in the ring. Through experience I came to trust that by the final bell, they’d still be there in my corner. And no matter what it took, I could count on them to get me through the ordeal. They continually managed to explicitly and implicitly answer The Big Brain Question Yes! for me. Somehow, I came to trust that their experience and their expertise. But most importantly the quality of their presence and compassionate heart would work to soothe and calm me and help restore my emotional equilibrium after a ten round psychological battle with the demons arising from my personal past. Without that trust and confidence in their capable heart, the possibility of reenactment without resolution comes with too high a neurological price. And it’s one that I’m no longer willing to pay.
How then, best to skillfully do the work of repair? A crucial, critical, essential vital topic for another day. But note: sometimes it takes a posse.