Profiles In Courage Ants, “Three P’s,” Self-Reliance

Pondering how I first happened on the translucent, barely visible child of neglect, the oddest image appeared in my mind. I imagined myself, middle thirties strolling placidly along a quiet beach. In one non-remarkable step, walking through the innocuous and pleasantly warm sand, I am suddenly nudged into alertness to discover that one little mound, apparently indistinguishable from all the others, had a little hole in it. Just as suddenly, it explodes into a geyser-like cascade of tiny ants. They are everywhere, teeming and flowing in every direction. They are immediately all over my feet and ankles. Wow! Where did that come from? 

Encountering the unexpected world of neglect was like walking into an industrious, quietly busy camouflaged ant hill, which turned out to be a mountain. My mom used to say, “Don’t make mountains out of molehills!” And she generally did the opposite, at least where I was concerned. But in this case, no exaggeration. I hope likening the hapless child of neglect to an ant does not seem insulting! It is not intended that way, and who knows where these seemingly random flashes come from? Besides, ants are really quite amazing. I have seen teams of the little critters working together to heave and lug a leaf infinitely larger than the whole pack combined across a human-sized dirt hiking path. A remarkable mission of strength and courage, too, as the trail is regularly trudged over by hikers and passersby, most likely not looking down. An amazing feat, no pun intended. 

I will dispense with the story of how it all began, in real life, I have told it so many times. I am told I am quite the storyteller. I never realized that I am until only much later when there was actually someone to tell stories to. Rather, I would like to paint a picture of the emerging character that began to take shape in my observation and in my thinking as I watched and studied this to me newly identified population. 

In cheese making, a rather astonishing process occurs, which still continues to amaze and delight me. A minuscule amount of rennet, the “coagulant,” maybe one and a half teaspoons in an 8-gallon pot of milk, after adding that and an hour or so of peaceful rest, miraculously, a pot of liquid congeals into a large pot of what becomes increasingly a solid pot of curd. That is how I remember the gradual coagulation of what I came to call the “neglect profile.”  I will only begin to sketch it here. Like a good cheese, it has aged and continues to age over months and years.

Three “P’s”

 Pecorino, Parmesano, Provolone? Well, those are all good, but not what I had in mind. The first recurring character pattern that began to jell in my observation was what I came to call the triumvirate of Passivity, Procrastination and Paralysis, or the “Three P’s.” The P’s came to be a signature that I spotted early on that pointed to neglect. They seemed to resonate with people. Why would this be?

Three major tent poles of my thinking, the rennet perhaps, were neuroscience, attachment theory and Neurofeedback. From neuroscience, Allan Schore, one of my earliest and most profound influences, we learned that the infant brain develops in resonance with the brain of the primary caregiver, right hemisphere to right hemisphere, primarily through the gaze. If that infant gazes into a face that is angry, fearful, expressionless or unpredictable, the earliest experience of that developing brain will be fear, uncertainty, confusion: dysregulation. And if there is no one there, the gaze is into a vapid emptiness. Left alone too much, that little brain will be under-stimulated, not to mention scared and sad. But of course, emotion will only register in a sensory or bodily way at that stage.  This is the unremembered, at least not in narrative form, beginning of the neglect experience. The under-stimulated brain will lack the encouragement and the incentive; thus, the initiative to reach, to begin, to try. Why bother?

 From an attachment standpoint, the child who experiences the presence of a loving, supportive other is safe enough to go forth, to explore. We have probably all seen the videos of infants and toddlers crawling and walking further when they look back to see the encouraging, even applauding loved one attentively watching. Presence, having their back, makes for safe exploration.

Similarly, the essential “dilemma without solution,” which will be addressed in great detail in future writings, where the source of comfort and the source of terror or distress are the same people, and the child is in an irreconcilable quandary: reach toward or withdraw? The ambivalence makes for a toggling to and fro; fogginess at the very least, if not a full-on freeze response. Not conducive to purposeful action.

 And a child left alone with minimal response to their cries will soon conclude it is pointless to cry, pointless to reach, pointless to act.  Passivity would be a realistic default.

And from a neurofeedback standpoint, the under-stimulated infant brain will fire at slower frequencies, making for perhaps a slowing or clouding of attention. This, in turn, makes for what I have perceived to be a high co-incidence of attention deficit complaints from (or about) children of neglect. And although I have not seen data yet on the correlation between attention deficits and neglect, neuroscience of trauma expert extraordinaire, Ruth Lanius, has informally agreed with the hypothesis in a couple of personal communications. So there you have it: three P’s, and not as yummy as cheese, to say the least!

I might add that a frequent accompaniment to the P’s, or a ready refrain, punctuated with a deep shrug, was “I don’t know what to do!” Or, “there’s nothing I can do!” Of course! There wasn’t! The child had no impact. And there was no one to safely ask. 

Self-Reliance

The hallmark of neglect, however, the signature or flagship, curiously became clear only secondly, after the unmistakably consistent P’s: A ferocious self-reliance. In the US, with a cultural history and iconizing of “rugged individualism,” self-reliance is admired, That is probably why I, for one, did not recognize it sooner, being a beacon of at least nominal or illusory self-sufficiency most of my life. Being pack animals, humans are by nature dependent and interdependent. Attachment is a survival need, and interpersonal need is nature’s design. Neglect is the failure or absence of reliable care. A child left alone too much has nowhere to turn but inward. 

Self-reliance is a defense mechanism and a survival strategy originating with pain. It may evolve to become a haven of safety and the only comfortable way to be in the world. It may also be a point of pride. Before I was 15, I had my own little housecleaning business. I rode my bike to those big houses where rich people lived and started saving up my money for college. I could not compete with the Holocaust, but I did quite well at making my own way, and I thought it was pretty great.

Self-reliance, although exquisitely adaptive, also makes havoc in the world of relationship. Satisfying relationship involves reciprocity, and if we don’t let the other give also, they may feel unequal, rejected or unsafe. Or they might also appear to take advantage, which ultimately results in messy and often terminal ruptures. It took me decades before I could keep anyone in my life for long, before I learned how unsatisfying and controlling my over-giving might feel to the other, and how disempowering of them my inability to receive could feel.

Therapy is also a challenge for both neglect survivor client and therapist. To let the therapy “work” punctures the self-reliant armor. It is no longer “doing it all myself.” Being desperate for therapy to help and change something collides with the self-reliant armor, replicating a version of the original dilemma. Oy vey.

Finally, admittedly self-reliance can inadvertently blur into a kind of self-centeredness that I call the “one-person psychology.” The survivor is so busy taking care of everything for themselves that they can appear to forget about the other. Many a partner of a child of neglect complains about feeling similarly forgotten and neglected.

These were the beginnings or the foundational elements of what I have come to call the neglect profile. There was so much more to learn. And there still is. This is a start for now, as I begin to unwind and present the inner and outer, the experienced and the observable markers. I want everyone to learn to see what is not there and recognize neglect in others and themselves. Let’s make this world “neglect informed!”

Today’s song:

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