As children, we crave attention and mirroring from our caregivers. The more we receive this attention and mirroring, the more capable we are of developing healthy little egos that help us to grow and develop into healthy, autonomous, and connected adults. Inevitably, however, there are ruptures. No one can be present to another all the time, particularly human beings with adult lives and responsibilities carrying around their own psychic wounding. Even the best of parents can have lapses of attention or make mistakes that result in psychic wounding. Some people argue that the birth process itself is a wounding event, a core wound that we carry with us.
Much of our wounding occurs in relationship and can heal in relationship. We long for connection and we feel hampered by our shame. We learn early how to protect ourselves in our environments while trying to get the attention and love we need to survive. Some kids learn how to make their parents happy, make them laugh, lighten their emotional burdens, and their personalities form around that personality which celebrates laughter and flirtation, but anything heavier or darker feels threatening and scary, best ignored. Other kids learn to become withdrawn, preferring to disappear or sarcastically disregarding any attempts to engage with love. These kids might grow into people who seem to need no one, or to hate everyone, burdened with their own mysterious and painful need for connection that feels so intense that it’s safer to avoid it. Some kids learn to do everything perfectly to elicit praise and avoid criticism, and grow up afraid to make mistakes, or become so judgmental of themselves and others that there is hardly room to breathe. Some kids become the parents to their parents, and grow up serious-minded and concerned with others’ well-being and utterly lacking in their ability to value or care for their own emotional well-being.
These personality structures are profound strengths and inherent weaknesses. I often think of the role-playing games I had when I was a kid, in which each enemy was an elemental class, and those elements determined the enemies’ strengths and vulnerabilities. Fire elementals were vulnerable to ice; water elementals were vulnerable to lightning. Try to hit a fire elemental with fire and you only make it stronger. But people are more than one-sided elemental beings. We can grow into our weaknesses and restore dynamic balance to the self. Our emotional and mental problems show where our personalities have fallen too far out of balance, and could help us to find where we need to grow.
Mental and emotional problems compound by the strategies we use to manage these lopsided personalities. Almost every behavior that harms us or those around us arose as solution to the core problem. If our “solutions” come from avoidance of pain, then they are more likely as not going to create even more problems that need solutions. Healing is a process of moving layer by layer through these problems and solutions, seeking to embrace and dissolve the pain at each layer. More on this next week.