Wanting, Longing and the Conundrum of Need
In the attachment literature Berkeley luminary Mary Main eloquently describes the “dilemma without solution.” For this bereft infant the source of safety and the source of terror, reside in the same person, who happens to be the most important person in the world: the primary parent. As every human baby is born into the world in effect a bundle of needs, these infants are born into an impossible bind, a perennial struggle with reaching toward and backing away all at once, in a painful and clumsy vacillation, that culminates ultimately in devastating freeze or collapse; and despair, ultimately devolving into numbing or dissociation. They are met with this destiny at their very arrival.
Dissociation is a confusing term in our vocabulary, because it corresponds to two related but distinct responses. It can mean both an emotionless, dull or numbing absence or failure of presence. And/or it can mean splitting off, i.e., separating or disconnecting into parts of the Self. Both can be the tragic outcome of this primordial neglect.
Admittedly I have two gnawing and often unpopular biases. One is what I call the “myth” of unconditional love. By nature, the human infant remains dependent longer than perhaps any other mammal. We would hope to be received and welcomed as a “bundle of joy,” a worthy hope that nature prepares us for. Nature’s design also is that the responsibility and the task of parents to attend to the unending needs of their infant child. That is why babies are so cute and irresistably charming, and why our systems are particularly laced with oxytocin, the love chemical, at this crucial time. Unconditionality is the birthright of that child, it is the parents’ unending “job” to provide and attend.
The child infant of course, has no words, only a cry. A “good enough,” present parent learns to differentiate which cry indicates which need: which indicates “I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m hungry, I’m lonely, I’m scared…” And again, according to the attachment researchers, the best of the “good enough” parents only get it “right” 30% of the time, the rest being a persistent dance of rupture and repair. In these happy cases, the child learns repair is possible. It is safe to receive or not, to need, to hope and to want, because one way or another, eventually we will return to homeostasis. Eventually Mama will pick me up and hold me, and all will be well. Gradually and with luck, we learn regulation. And this lucky child will also grow up with an ease about fundamental human need.
The child of neglect is not so lucky. Even hoping to receive becomes risky business. By any means possible, the child might try and fail to get attended to; get what they need for a while. They will experiment with various strategies: being cute, funny, inordinately smart, they might protest, attempt to be very good, even taking care of the parent. I am sure I tried all of them. In fact, my mother used to recall how at the age of three, little Ruthie was organizing the “little kids” in play, dancing around a tree. She would smile about it, I was desperately already then earning my keep.
When all else fails the child withdraws into the lonely devastation of numbing. And as placid as it may look from the outside, it is a state of high anxiety. From the inside it may come to feel like “nothing,” and there is no category for feeling. Self- reliance becomes something of an assumption or an identity. Need becomes a mortal enemy.
I have found that where many clients might reject the neglect designation, “self-reliance” seems to fit for them, and as it is highly regarded in the American culture of “rugged individualism” it may even seem like a compliment. However, the relationship to our fundamental species determined interpersonal need, our humanness, is distorted. Somewhere, deep inside, most likely far outside of awareness, the longing is logged: the missing experience of unconditionality, of being adored with nothing expected of us; of being understood without words, because the other makes it their task and their mandate to understand us; the expectation that our needs make sense to the other and will be gratified. And sadly our chance at interpersonal unconditionality, does not come again.
In adult life, however, the need might rear up, and center on an intimate partner. This is where my bias comes in: the myths that persist, in the fantasy of the child turned adult, is what I call the “myth” of unconditional love, of having a partner whose mandate it is or “should be,” to “meet my needs.” It is a trap, because (I believe) it will never again be someone else’s “job.” Sadly, by no ones’ “fault” that window has closed. There are schools of thought and even of relationship therapy that teach that these are reasonable hopes or even demands. I am afraid I am not of that school. Some couples argue about it. And it can be a very hard sell.
Needs and Knees
These last few historic years have faced the world with many unsavory truths. Two of them prominently featured human knees: George Floyd was brutally and heartlessly murdered with a heavy, unrelenting knee to his neck for over nine minutes, despite his cries and gasps for breath; and Colin Kaepernick’s heroic defiantly “taking a knee” in unrelenting protest against the unrelenting racism of this country. Both helped to fuel a growing Black Lives Matter movement, which I fervently hope will not get lost in the fickle march of history.
One thing I especially like about the language of Black Lives Matter, is that it forces the question of relevance and the hierarchy of our values. With or without our awareness, it addresses what we do or do not deem important. How much do we in fact care about the needs and dignity of others? There it is again, the often-inconvenient intrusion of human need, our own, the needs of others. How do we rank them? How do we respond to them? Both George Floyd and Colin Kaepernick have become kind of heroes to me, and firm gentle reminders, of what matters.
I have been doggedly watching for news of Colin over the now maybe five years that he has been black listed (no pun intended!) for his outspokenness about race and prejudice in the NFL and in this country, thus proving and consolidating his point. It has been a great sacrifice on his part. I eagerly looked forward to his recently released Netflix documentary Colin in Black and White. Last weekend I watched it.
Colin was adopted at birth by a kind hearted white couple, and grew up in a white world. The movie gives a closeup of his early years, and the many contradictions of life in a white and unintegrated world. It gives a whole new meaning to the word integration. And all the challenges of identity formation, the main requirement of our developing years, are heightened and further complicated by the unrelenting intrusion of race, and the additional complications of looking so “different” from his family.
Although the movie was perhaps disappointing to me in that it did not run very deep, there was one thing that struck me, and that harkens back to our theme. Colin was an all-around super star athlete. He excelled at football, baseball and basketball. When the time came, he was offered full ride baseball scholarships to virtually all of the most highly regarded universities in the US. But his dream was to be a quarterback. That was all he really wanted. Colin passed on all the baseball offers, holding out and tirelessly training for the elusive quarterback offer that almost never came. It was amazing to watch him painfully and steadfastly continue to work hard, endure and determinedly wait. When it finally does arrive, the viewer can see what a great sacrifice it has been for him to hold out for what was most wanted and cherished, and then to risk it and in effect lose it for his beliefs.
It is almost a mystery how dogged he is about his “first love,” being a football QB. Until we get to what for me, was the most poignant line in the whole movie. Describing his adoption story, he recounts, “my parents were all set up to adopt another baby.” He even knows her name, which I do not recall. At the very last moment, they learn that the baby they thought they were adopting, is “not available.” We are not told why, nor the race of the original baby. But they are offered Colin instead. His parents accept Colin, whom they love and thoughtfully care for and raise. But in the most profound and telling line in the film, Colin tells us, “But from the very beginning of life, I have never been anyone’s first choice.” He still languishes on the sidelines.
Meet My Needs
One of the perks of disordered sleep is that I catch some of the most quirky and extraordinary, imaginative programming on Public Radio. In this case, Public Radio Remix in the wee hours on Sunday mornings. The other day I heard a story about “the fadeout,” a particular style of ending songs that was popularized in the music of the 1970’s. I was fascinated, mostly because admittedly, I had never given a moment’s thought to how songs end. I never noticed how all AC/DC songs have the same ending, or the unusual, not always originally intentional endings of some of the most well known songs on the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper album, classic symphonic endings, even folkloric “shave and a haircut” type endings, or the “fadeout.” I simply never really asked the question: How do we end things? How do we determine what matters? Your “needs?” My needs? Football? Baseball? How do we harmonize them, integrate them, cooperate with nature? How do we order them with grace and dignity?
I woke up the other day with a crazy image. I saw two “bundles of needs,” old wrapped handkerchief-tied-on-a-stick type bundles, as from fairytale book illustrations. They have hands outstretched for a handshake. These two bundles of needs are greeting each other with “Pleasure to meet you!” What a great thought! With that, I fade out for today.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.