I wanted to write you to tell you about some things I’ve been working on in therapy lately. I realized that I’ve been carrying around your rage and that’s why I feel so overwhelmed by my anger and irritability lately. I know that you don’t put much stock into psychotherapy or talkinga bout your feelings so I don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining that part of it to you but basically, when a parent is not self-contained enough, they can transfer their emotions to their children. For example, if a man came home from work and raged on everyone at home for little things such as not having the trash taken out, and the mom feels ashamed then the kid will take on that rage and shame. Basically I think I did a lot of that growing up. I think that you raged a lot, were frustrated with work, financial stuff, your marriage with mom etc and would dump it at home. Sometimes it was directed at us, sometimes it just came out and spread all throughout the room. I lived in fear of you a lot of the time growing up. I could tell what kind of mood you were in by how hard you’d slam your stuff down on the table when you walked in and I had to judge whether or not to come downstairs and talk to you and I definitely had to decide when a good time to ask you for anything.
I remember once asking you for tampons and I guess I misjudged the timing of when to ask you or perhaps I just said who cares and asked anyways and you flipped out, shaming me, calling me ungrateful and needy. Later, I always knew you were sorry because you would give me money or take me and Matt out to do something fun. I knew it as your way of apologizing but I also knew that you weren’t intent on changing that behavior.
I don’t blame you and I even have compassion for you because I know that you are struggling with it too. I can still see it on your face when you have rage attacks these days. I feel less responsible and I can see them as detached from me more but they are still not fun to be around. I know that your dad was very rigid, critical and rageful too so it’s no wonder you picked up that.
I don’t want to take a lot of time to explain co-dependency, how it’s formed and maintained (there’s a good book Pia Mellody’s Facing Co-dependency) but basically the way I think about it is, when you grow up and your natural qualities as a child (e.g. neediness, spontaneity) are not handled appropriately or even criticized by your caregivers, then you start to adapt by forming defenses or behaviors that protect you as a vulnerable child from that pain. Those defenses work to get you through to adulthood but then they can start to get in the way of being happy and appropriately intimate with people. Then the work is to see those behaviors and see that you don’t need them anymore because you’re an adult and can meet any need you have. I mean there’s a lot more to it than that but that’s the way I think about it.
Part of the process is noticing present day struggles and noticing how old you feel when you’re reacting to something. So when I’m feeling emotional and then I criticize myself for being emotional and feel ashamed, I feel like a teenager in some ways. I have a very active “adapted child” (usually teenager aged) that is very angry and critical of myself and everyone else around me. Now, with my therapist, I’m starting to look back on my childhood and see where this adapted child came from, see the moments/memories in which she was formed and basically just feel the sadness that I’ve been avoiding by using my adapted child. In other words, it’s time to grieve those painful moments when I was criticized, shamed or mishandled just for being a child. I realize it’s kind of hard to talk about all this without using some language that if you’re not familiar with this work, might not make sense. I don’t want to go through a list of memories I had in which I felt were “less than nurturing” (and honestly, there’s not that many) nor do I want to blame or shame you. The focus isn’t on you, it’s on my experience of those moments, how it impacted me and how I feel about it now.