In yesterday’s post, I alluded to the feeling problem: either I’m generally numb, not feeling much of anything, or I’m overwhelmed. These past few days, the balance has tipped to the overwhelmed side.
For the last few weeks, I have been trying to work with the teenage girl, one of my younger selves. Her parents had divorced not long before, she had been molested and later raped, her mother remarried a man who turned out to be very emotionally abusive, they moved across country to a new state and she had no sense of belonging anywhere. She learned to pretend everything was fine and get excellent grades in school and keep busy and never protest anything, in case it might get worse.
My job is to bring my highest self, the wise woman, to talk to the girl with empathy and understanding. I’m supposed to allow her to express the feelings she had to bury and deny at the time. That makes perfect sense to me and fits with the “path” to healing that I outlined in yesterday’s post.
The thing is, the girl is not the most emotionally stable person you have ever met (okay, yes, with good reason maybe). She is full of rage but directs much of it at herself. She is very self-destructive and not inclined to listen.
What I’m finding is that as I open the door to talk to her, to give her some care and attention, her emotions are taking me over. I feel the self-loathing, the hopelessness, and the urge for self-destruction. I am flattened by it. I spent too much of the weekend in bed, too exhausted to do anything. The girl and the wise woman get mixed up together, and the girl’s craziness wins out over the woman’s wisdom and composure. My body is heavy. In session with E. today, I was soon lying on the floor. “Look at me, I’m a puddle,” I told E. “I can’t even sit up.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this. Several times after telling E. about something, I’ve been flooded by all the emotions I didn’t permit myself at the time. Then, I let it happen and told myself, “it will go away after a while.” But this time, it’s lasting longer, and it’s making it very hard for me to concentrate on some urgent tasks for work.
E. listened for a while before she said, “It seems like you need a little more separation between you and the girl. Not to leave her or stop working with her, but to create some space for you to observe and validate her feelings without experiencing them all.”
But neither of us knew right away how to do that. So instead, we talked more about the life of the teen. I don’t think I had ever provided E. with examples of my stepdad’s behavior before. She was surprised when I told her about the time he didn’t talk to my mom or any of us for six months. “He was living with you at the time?” she asked. “Oh yeah, and he would storm around the house and slam doors and stuff, and he’d enter a leave a room in a way that interrupted conversations, so we all felt self-conscious and stupid and yet we all kept pretending like nothing was wrong. He did this lots of times, but the six month stretch was the longest. Sometimes the silent treatment was better than being yelled at. We never talked about this. When he wasn’t actively in a bad mood, we used to ingratiate ourselves in the most pathetic way, hoping he’d be satisfied and not get angry again.”
It was screwed up and no doubt influenced my decision to marry my first husband, who had some of the same behaviors.
After a while, I paused, as something occurred to me. “I know what I need. I need to be strengthening my higher self. I need to be strong enough that the girl’s emotions don’t knock me down. I can’t take care of her if I’m in the same shape she is in. Besides, if she see me all shaken up, she won’t feel like it’s safe to have all these emotions.”
E. leaned forward, brightening. “Yes, that feels exactly right.”
How to do that? We eventually decided that I needed time and place containment of the girl’s emotions. Every evening, a minimum of 30 minutes for her to draw or write or whatever she needs, in the same place in my house. Every evening, ending with the promise of returning, so she doesn’t feel forgotten. And then things to care for myself.
“Is there something restorative that appeals to you?” E. asked me.
I shook my head. “It’s not something restful I need. I get plenty of rest, retreating to my bed. I need something that gives me energy. Standing yoga poses, sun salutations, things that warm up the body. Not what I feel like doing when I’m apathetic and demoralized. But it’s always like that. To get better, I often have to do the opposite of what I feel like doing. I have to act like I am engaged with life.”