“Slowing Down the Tune”
I would like to take some time here to describe some reasons why people with a history of overwhelming parents have difficulty slowing down, and taking taking their time gathering equanimity, especially during stressful periods or high interpersonal conflict. These ideas are an example of how I tend to think of mental experience, and they inform how I interact in therapy or psychoanalysis, specifically with respect to relational trauma.
Relational trauma, in my view, can transpire when children have highly chaotic and or overwhelming bonds with parents, and notably, where there is nobody else consistently around with whom to reflect upon and co-organize the troubles ensuing with the traumatic parent. There are certain aspects of the personality of the parent that over-amplify a child’s emotional system beyond what their logical or sense-making-faculties are prepared to contain. Children of an overwhelming parent often cannot stop to think, and in fact stopping to think can often be dangerous; moreover, when thinking does occur it is a compromised process because there is not the calm environment in which to develop strategies, restraint, formulations, and integrations in the way that one is organizing experience.
Overwhelming parents often require answers immediately, perhaps to assuage their own anxiety, perhaps because they will punish or act out toward the child physically, emotionally, or even sexually, if answers or certain behaviors are not demonstrated quickly.
These types of overwhelming parents, operating more or less consistently in a primitive mode of relating to others, creates a world for the child where survival is experienced as being contingent upon having executive functions that exceed the developmental capacity of the child. An eight-year-old does not know how to organize the emotional impact of a father becoming extremely aggressive or something as innocuous as spilling milk or running too loudly in the house. A five-year-old does not know how to organize the emotional experience of a mother throwing objects at the wall because she is upset. But one thing is clear in each scenario: the child believes he or she is about to perish unless he/she quickly solves the apparent issues at hand.
Yet, despite the fact that the child cannot possibly solve the problem of the parents’ behavior and chaotic/overwhelming tendencies, answers must be furnished, and solutions must be concocted, even if that occurs in no other place than the child’s internal world. Beliefs begin to emerge where the child believes he or she is capable of mollifying the parent’s discontent. Often children believe they can soothe a parent by dulling out an aspect or their personalities; sometimes the reaction occurs in a different way, where some sort of anxiously procured solution, way of talking, way of muting oneself, or negating one’s desires immediately is used as a behavioral demonstration to the overwhelming parent in an attempt to assuage the parent’s rage. More simply: “look, mom, I’ve stopped doing the bad things I know are causing you to be so miserable!”
One of the effects that this bond with an erratic parent can have is that the ability to organize and manage disruptions in emotional life becomes impaired. This can be quite hard for a person to experience, and can lead people to become derisive towards themselves. For example, a young man who grew up with a very domineering and explosive father may find himself making decisions under actual or perceived pressure that are not well thought through. This man might be an attorney who has taken on a case and is in the midst of trial. Perhaps a new piece of evidence has been tendered by the opposing counsel. Because this person had a father who did not allow him a half second of leeway early in his life in order to think and sort through and expand, he may implicitly feel a pressure to come to a rushed way of incorporating the new evidence into the case, as if there was some crime of his that he had committed and not having already known what to do with it.
Children of traumatizing parents often feel guilty if they have not considered every possible item on the planet in the face of conflict or ambiguous situations. There is a sense that one ought to have known, that one is guilty for not already having possessed an answer to an emergent and complex problem. There is almost a sense of oneself as being criminal for complex problems emerging in the world, even though those problems emerge in a world that is multi-systemic, nonlinear, and could not possibly always be predicted.
There is certainly also a real problem, the central point of this writing, which is that those dealing with an overwhelming parent can actually exhibit certain reactions to the external world that are not as well thought through as they might otherwise like. It is in these experiences of the world where compassion is hard to come by. The hypothetical attorney who I referenced above will likely condemn himself, which results in further anguish. This anguish is often an unconscious identification with the overwhelming parent, where mistakes are treated as markers of a character flaw, rather than opportunities for learning.
Since experience itself is not viewed as something to incorporate into one’s awareness or way of being, and rather is viewed as something to banish in the face of any mistakes, learning becomes impossible. Registering experiences where one react out of an unconscious emotional pattern is very difficult when one is at the same time trying to beat those experiences out of one’s mind. Therefore, the lack of compassion within oneself for one’s traumatized self-states has a multi-pronged effect: that of making reactions to perceived or actual stresses in the world harder to navigate because thinking is not informed as well as it could be by patient learning, and that of chastising oneself for experiencing that very problem, and both of those things…problematize one another almost endlessly.
People often find themselves having reacted to the situation badly, or at least less optimally than they would otherwise like, and they often are perplexed as to why they did not take more time to think, consider alternatives, and wonder why they got themselves into such a flurry in the first place, and so forth. This kind of reflective function comes back after people are somewhat reassured that they are safe in the world and that they are not under imminent threat. There is a shift from a threatened self who is being pressed by both the situation faced in the world as well as pressed from the internal domineering parent, and then often there is somewhat of a metaphorical exhale when a feared consequence has not unfolded.
Recognizing these shifts in oneself across interpersonal and emotional experience is paramount to effective psychotherapy. It is in dialogue, in the process where we are articulating together the deepest fears in one’s inner life, fears that have been hinted at but not spoken out loud, that the inevitability of those fears is somewhat debunked.
Verbalizing and analyzing unconscious beliefs, saying the unsayable, is the job of a psychoanalyst. And observing these shifts across a patient’s senses of selfhood and finding ways to contextualize those shifts with actual current experience as well as historical developmental experience with one’s parents and significant others is a way in which patients begin to use their minds to solve the problems of emotional upheaval… problem that their overwhelming parents did not allow them to slow down and consider.
Finding an internal tolerance for space to slow down and learn is incredibly difficult, and it usually occurs with help from someone who has caught on that speed is a problem for the rushed and scared child.
As Leonard Cohen writes in one of my favorite songs of all time….
”I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last”
Lucas Klein, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist (OR2899, CA25861, NY019804)
833 SW 11th Ave, Suite 619
Portland, OR 97205
email: LK (at) drkleinpsychology.com