I was five, maybe 6. The family was sitting on couches in the living room of our big new house in Portland. My feet were swinging, not touching the floor. My mother reached over to touch my leg to stop swinging. I sat silently, clutching my stuffed dog Lucky.
“I could put you all in the ground,” my father was saying, gesturing with the revolver in his hands. “I could put you all in the ground and then kill myself.”
What was he talking about? Why would he want to do that that? Why was he talking so loud and not saying his words right? And why did I have to sit there and not go upstairs and play?
That scene lives forever in my brain, along with the terror and confusion. Why were we forced to sit and listen to my father talk about making all of us dead? Why were we sitting there where he could hurt us? Why wasn’t I safe? Why wasn’t my big sister, my big brother, safe? Who’s protecting me? Aren’t my parents supposed to do that?
There were many such scenes of terror and confusion in my childhood–I felt alone to make sense of things that were senseless. No one held me. No one soothed me and said I’d be okay. Was I going to be okay?
There’s a child part in all of us, often many parts. Sometimes they’re still running things when we’re adults. They mean well, oh they mean well–they’re doing the best they know, trying to protect us from what might hurt us. Sometimes that means avoiding any risk at all, and sometimes it means holding on to what’s in front of me longer than makes sense.
But adult me, I’ve been way better at looking out for the scared or abandoned or bewildered little child in other people and neglecting my own. I sense that young, hurt part in someone else and don’t want to make that part of them sad or scared, so I ignore what would be healthy for me. I want to soothe that hurt small child in them, leaving my own small self unsoothed and unsafe.
The adults didn’t help that little girl when she was a child, and I’ve left her to fend for herself for a very, very long time.
My therapist’s words were reverberating in my mind. I’d spilled out to her, “I feel abandoned!” I had been betrayed by a friend and felt cut adrift to cope on my own.
She responded with, “I think what actually happens is that you abandon yourself.”
Abandon myself? How does that work when I’m right here–all the time?
My therapist responded with, “I think what actually happens is that you abandon yourself.”Tweet
I started trying an exercise my therapist had talked about. “Why don’t you talk to your child self and thank her? She’s been trying to protect you in the only ways she knows how, and those were ways that five-year-old could figure out. Those ways may not serve you as well as an adult, and you may need to develop new skills, but she’s been doing her best.”
I talk to myself, the dog, the cat, the dishes…but I hadn’t focused on a conversation with young me.
Hands on my heart, I stopped to listen. Two have been most vocal–Abandonment and Fear. They’re very good friends of each other, backing each other up.
Abandonment is deathly afraid of not having a tether to this earth. She has looked to people she thought she could trust in order to feel safe. When they’re gone or prove to be untrustworthy, she feels like a speck of dust in the universe, nothing giving her gravity.
I talk to myself, the dog, the cat, the dishes…but I hadn’t focused on a conversation with young me.Tweet
That child needed a parent to treasure her and hold her and let her know they would never let anything happen to her. Instead she was forced to sit still on that couch, watching the gun in her father’s hands.
I have sobbed with that small child, feeling devastated and alone, so many times. Finally she’s been able to let those feelings out and have them validated–by me. Adult me.
I am becoming that adult in her life who is there for her.
When I sense her in the background as she’s jarred by that electric jolt of pain at feeling left to fend for herself, I gently mother her: “I’m so sorry you’ve felt alone. You’ve tried so hard for years to keep me safe, and I appreciate that so much! I can do it now for us–you can rest, okay?” And she settles, held.
Recently when at home I put my hands on my heart, asking those parts of me how they were doing. Fear was still evident, but I had to think hard: what was the name of the other part? I couldn’t sense her. In time I remembered: Ah! Abandonment!
The more I have nurtured those parts of me that should have been nurtured by my disastrous caregivers, the more the adult part of me can make the appropriate choices to keep me safe, to live my best adult life.
I know this sounds crazy to a lot of people, talking about “parts of me.” Yet there are entire forms of therapy based on this concept of our inner Parts, IFS or Internal Family Systems for one. We all have an internal life, and my life on this planet has improved since i’ve started learning to understand and nurture what was left unattended in me. The why behind past decisions starts becoming clear.
Fear and I are still working on our relationship. It’s improved enough that more often than not I check in with her and picture those parts of me growing up, happily sharing their time giving each other facials and pedicures, feeling safe and at rest, knowing I’ve got their backs.
It’s been a long process for sure, but worth the peace and balance it brings.
Don’t neglect that inner world of yours–finding an awesome therapist to work with over the past couple of decades has been the best decision I could have ever made! Healing is continual for many of us as we choose to heal those Lies In Our Bones. And for me at 68, better late than never!!
The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: How could you better attend to the younger parts of yourself that maybe didn’t get what they needed? If you already do, how do you go about that?