As a very young child, as far back as I can remember, I felt, and I believed, that somehow I had no right to exist. I don’t know if it was because six million had perished in gas chambers or children were starving in Europe, but I was convinced that I must earn the piece of ground my feet occupied on the planet and ceaselessly justify and compensate for my probably mistaken existence.
Quite early on, I had my own particular calculus of worthy utilization of time: service to others like housework and cooking to relieve my mother’s burden, or being “good”, service to the world like collecting record-breaking amounts of money for UNICEF instead of collecting candy on Halloween, study, and later earning money for college, and exercising more and more and more as my eating disorder evolved its own unique ledger. It was as if I entered the world in debt, and life was a ceaseless attempt to pay it off.
How does a child come to have a sense of self-worth or self-esteem? As a stalwart student of Attachment Theory, I believe it is by (as an infant) looking up into my mother’s or primary caregiver’s face and seeing a loving reflection of me! It is through the early resonance, largely through the gaze, where my right hemisphere and theirs lock into a rhythmic dance, which registers deep in my primitive brain, and my default mode network, which will grow to house my sense of Self is stimulated to develop, grow and ultimately thrive – or so we hope.
How does a child come to have a sense of self-worth or self-esteem? As a stalwart student of Attachment Theory, I believe it is by (as an infant) looking up into my mother’s or primary caregiver’s face and seeing a loving reflection of me!
And what happens when I look up into a face that is terrified, or angry, or grief-stricken, or ravaged by depression, hunger, violence or just plain fatigue? What if there is a blank face? Or no face is there at all? The image I am left to have of myself will be some sort of reflection or self-reflection of that. I can only imagine what I looked up and saw as a tiny being. I knew that my mother was too young. She had a lively two-year-old already, a hard-working, largely absent and traumatized husband, and a terrible story of her own. I must have known early on that she really needed a mom. Of course, I don’t remember. But I do clearly remember the relentless drive to justify my existence. And sometimes, when I am in the presence of a client who talks from a familiar sounding place, I am visited by such an image and have to wonder what they looked up and saw.
Today I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Children Are to be Seen and Heard!” I thought, “Wow!” As I watched him pass hand in hand with his lively young son in tow.
Money was another mystery. There was never much, and it was a taboo subject. One never asks how much things cost or how much someone makes. I have never to this day had any idea of what either of my parents earned at any time. We were never to touch our mother’s purse. Our dad always had multiple jobs, and work of all kinds was highly regarded. Our dad was a chef, a waiter, sang in cocktail lounges and later taught and became a cantor. There was no shame in manual or service work, and my parents were always very respectful of working folk. Our mom’s family was well to do and intellectual before losing everything to the Nazis, but they, and certainly my grandmother, who was one of the first women ever to graduate from Oxford, never lost the sense of superiority that came from their class. I think they quietly or not so quietly believed that the US culture was superficial, materialistic and petty. Emotionally they all were quite impoverished, and life, certainly in our family, seemed like zero-sum.
One never asks how much things cost or how much someone makes. I have never to this day had any idea of what either of my parents earned at any time.
Our mom was a practical and careful shopper. She clipped coupons, journeyed across town to get a bargain, and scrupulously collected Blue Chip and S&H Green stamps which I ceremoniously helped her paste in the little books. I don’t remember what we would redeem them for, but I know it was a serious and committed endeavor. I remember when she shopped, she would matter of factly ask the checker, “So what do I owe you?” Thinking on it now, the expression sounds odd to me; it connotes a power differential? An imbalance to be corrected rather than a reciprocal exchange, or give and take, a debt. As I got older, I felt shame and contempt for this low price proclivity and took a wicked pleasure in paying “retail” even though it might mean playing roulette with the bank to stay ahead of often (temporarily) rubber checks. In those days, checks might take one or two unpredictable weeks to clear, so I often won.
Feeling worthless is readily a conscious or unconscious bi-product and even marker of neglect. Feeling invisible, unheard and categorically not understood is a short hop from the sorry conclusion that “it is something intrinsic about me.”
Giving and Receiving
In the vacuous world of neglect, where there is no one to ask how the world works, the child must figure it out. I started earning money young because having my own money felt empowering. Babysitting brought fifty cents an hour in those days, a far cry from what I hear young parents groaning under now! I washed cars and mowed lawns in the neighborhood once we had moved to the suburbs, and in my early teen years, I had my own little housecleaning business. Earning money made me feel like I was worth something. To this day, I am jarred by the language used to describe wealthy individuals as being what they are worth.
I liked being able to buy things, and even more, I liked being able to give things. Perhaps I might have something to offer. I took great pleasure in giving, especially things that I had made. I still do, but then it was different. It was once again the quest to compensate, to purchase, to somehow equilibrate, merit or even the score.
Certainly to be loved. And like a rat on a wheel, I could never give enough to secure my position for long and relax. Of course, that kind of giving is a trap. Invariably I would overextend myself, feel depleted, pathetic and resentful. I believed that anger is the luxury and the privilege of popular girls. In my case, it would make me even less likable. It was hard to learn to regulate the giving because for so long, I believed if I were not always giving and gratifying, I would vanish.
Many are the children of neglect who are hard-pressed to receive. Interpersonal need is so dangerous that the ferocity of complete self-reliance is the safest if unconscious way to go. There may not only be a sense of superiority but safety in always being the one who dives for the restaurant check.
Giving and receiving is another of the delicate rhythmic dances of regulation. For many of us, it takes years to learn it. And as I attempt to teach others every day, including myself, both require great humility. Ultimately the balance can elicit equality, safety, connection and pleasure. As an old married lady facing into the unknowns of aging, I am grateful that our couple has worked hard to grow reciprocity and know what we can count on in one another.
My husband, a quintessential child of neglect, used to say to me when I had no idea what he was talking (or not talking) about, “you mean you are not in my head?” The child’s world of neglect is so solitary that much of it is never seen or known by another human. As adults or their partners, it may be jarring or, at best surprising to learn how oblivious they might be. I’ve heard many a partner lament, …”when I try and walk with you, you are always a good six steps ahead without even noticing that I am not with you!”
The insidious calculous of giving and receiving can also drop into this black hole of oblivion and slide into a transactional world missing consent. More than a few times, I have seen in couples, where one partner provides everything in one medium, which then, according to their own private calculator, entitles them to some sort of remuneration in their own preferred medium. But there is no handshake, no agreement, no awareness. We have a deal, but you don’t even know you are in it. In my mind it is “fair”, so I proceed as if we had an agreement and then get mad if you don’t deliver. Oy vey! This sounds much more intentional and duplicitous than I mean it to. It is a function of being too much alone, of a story of a child who grew up a stranger to the relationship world and has to learn about a world that is populated with real others. For a partner, it can feel frustrating at best and more often enraging.
All too often, the currency is sex, and because sex has so many meanings and so many individuals have charged histories around it, it can come to take on a life of its own or become a focus that may then eclipse these often deeper layers. Sex is a very big topic that we shall have to return to another day, especially because in its countess iterations, it shows up so often as the presented problem in my office.
Returning to where we began, the under-stimulated infant brain fails to develop certain connections that may result in some kinds of deficits around awareness and emotion. It is never too late to cultivate and grow these connections and regulations, so we can cultivate and grow relationships where we make our deals out loud!
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones.
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.