I should be able to do it by myself
Relationships aren’t worth it.
What’s wrong with me?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve had a thought or two (or a thousand) like this before. You might notice them in your marriage, at work, around your parents, around your friends. You might find them anytime you experience an unpleasant emotion. They might get louder if no one comes along to challenge them, or attend to you. They seem to know you very well, and they can be very hard to shake.
First, a little about me. Being “good” was about the highest ideal for me growing up. (It wasn’t until later that I understood that my definition of good was “to be as unproblematic to others as possible; to be completely self-sufficient and completely altruistic simultaneously and indefinitely.” More on this later.) As a kid, being good was just the pathway to Mom and Dad. And so I was a good kid, for all intents and purposes. I did everything I could think of to make raising me virtually effortless for my parents. Great grades, no substances, a homebody, quiet. I was the proverbial golden child.
Except this golden child had one very frustrating Achilles’ heel: Feelings. My own feelings posed a terrible threat to my ambitions to be loved and accepted. Mom and Dad sure loved me a lot less, I believed, when I was emotional.
Sadness was like a spell cast on me in a language I couldn’t understand. Gripping but entirely incomprehensible to me or anyone else. Anger was really pain, I knew that, but I believed pain to be self-inflicted. If I was truly good enough, I figured, my parents wouldn’t have any reason to pain me like they did, and the armor of my goodness would be impenetrable anyway. My fault if it wasn’t. Fear was the real problem, I think. Fear of losing my goodness, my access to Mom and Dad, drove me hard into a state of denial that my emotions mattered – but ironically it drove my emotions just as hard, and so a vicious cycle of feeling at the worst possible moments and hating it emerged. Fear said, “What’s going to happen to you if you don’t get this right? You’ll be alone forever, that’s what, and you’ll deserve it, so figure it out.”
Safe to say I was sure that emotions = bad. And oh, did I want so badly to be good.
Now, a little about attachment theory. The basic premise is this: Human beings are biologically dependent on safe and secure relationships with others in order to survive and thrive in a dangerous world. For better or worse, we live in the context of our relationships with others for the entirety of our lives. It’s something we never grow out of. Relational safety and security is built upon the understanding, validating, and valuing of each relational partner’s emotional experiences and needs for comfort, safety, and space. When we don’t have access to relational safety and security from the people most important to us we will adapt as well as we can, but these less-than-ideal adaptive strategies will often lead to painful and unfulfilling outcomes. They become criticism between spouses, friction between colleagues, silence between parents and children, tension between friends.
The great news is this: The ways we attach (or try not to attach) to others are learned. They can be learned early or late, and they can be unlearned.
So, here’s what attachment theory has taught me about my efforts to ignore my emotions and win Mom and Dad over with my goodness. I got it wrong. I got it wrong because my starting point was off. I believed I had something to prove (I didn’t), and because it was impossible to know when I’d proved it, any perception of negativity from my parents felt painfully personal. It felt like my fear being told it was right.
I also believed my parents had some sophisticated mastery of their own emotions (they didn’t) that I couldn’t properly emulate and so regularly disrupted. In fact, they were just as bad at managing their emotions as I was, and I learned how to do it from them just like they learned how to do it from someone else. (I should clarify here that this is not a criticism of my parents. What I assumed to be their dislike my emotionality was really something more complex. It was their own sadness, pain, and fear colliding with mine and contributing to a faulty pattern of relating despite everyone’s best intentions. We each wanted connection, but none of us knew how to get it. To me, that distinction is huge.)
I was also wrong because of what I was inadvertently taught about my feelings as a product of how I learned to manage them. My sadness was, in fact, quite comprehensible. It spoke of my need for comfort. My pain, which I said I had believed was only self-inflicted, sometimes did actually come from others and was often undeserved. It spoke of my need to be seen. My fear came to the wrong conclusions, but because it was trying to protect me. It spoke of my need to be kept safe.
Lastly, I was wrong about what it means to be good. My emotions never made me problematic (though my family and I were often not very well equipped to deal with them). They simply made me human. They made my parents human, too. Very natural human beings with very natural needs for relational safety and security. And a very natural human being can practice competence and kindness for a lifetime, but they cannot be simultaneously self-sufficient and altruistic for very long.
I used to think the inevitability of a negative emotional experience was a severe flaw in my ability to love and be loved by others. Because of attachment theory, I am now learning to see the whole spectrum of my emotions, the good parts and the bad, as the very means through which loving and being loved is made possible. I think that’s a little closer to what it means to be good.
"Being the 'best you can be' is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another.” - Dr. Sue Johnson, Love Sense
Savannah Citron, LMFT-Associate
Supervised by Jenny Deitz, M.A., LMFT-Supervisor
By combining the best of evidence-based practice with the firsthand, real-time experiences of the human heart, mind, and soul, my job is to create a therapeutic experience that is collaborative, creative, and compassionate. Your job, should you choose to accept it, would only be to arrive on time and willing to try. Together our goal will be to learn, to heal, and to hope. You’ve got one step down. If you’re ready to take the next one, it would be my honor to take it with you.