On the first page of the book “Cutting Loose: An Adult’s Guide to Coming to Terms with Your Parents,” by Howard Halpern (same guy who wrote “How to Break Your Addiction to a Person”) a good friend wrote: “This was a key book for me in therapy. I really learned how to relate to my family and let go of many unhealthy expectations.
That was BEFORE I told her I was disturbed by a family situation that was triggering some of the anxiety I felt in my childhood.
We’re adults. We’ve got all the credentials and scars to show for it. … But a grown-up is supposed to possess himself, to be his own person, to make decisions according to his wishes and his best judgment. Too often we find that this is not the case with us. Frequently we are so limited by habitual ways of acting and thinking, so needful of the approval of others, and so afraid of their disapproval that we don’t own ourselves at all. We are like a corporation that has gone public, and other people own controlling shares. And for many of us in that position, the biggest shareholders are our parents. ….The parent-child relationship is a primary source of who we are, and the mutual emotional attachments are derived from countless interactions, conscious and hidden memories, and profound feelings that go back to our days of oneness with them.
Last week in therapy I began to understand that–the parent corporation thing, and how it plays out in your adult years– with an unexpected clarity. I even named my issue.
“What I have,” I explained to my therapist, “is an ‘intimacy block.’ Every time I’m about to invest my heart and soul in someone, a voice pipes up and warns me, ‘Whoa there, Girlfriend! Step back and protect yourself.’”
The message is like the disclaimer on all over-the-counter medications: “Could cause drowsiness, vomiting, rashes, measles, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or massive intimacy problems. Take only as directed by your doctor, I mean therapist, because I DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IF YOU POP THESE LITTLE BABIES. YOU VERY WELL MIGHT DIE, OKAY?”
My old tapes–the messages, true or false, picked up by me–in my childhood came to this conclusion (let me first qualify this by saying how much I respect and love my male readers): all men are unreliable. Eventually all members of the male species will disappoint you. There. It’s out. That’s what my old tapes say.
The more evolved and sophisticated part of my brain knows this is hogwash, of course, and that the men in my life are kind, devoted, loving human beings. But the old, primitive part of my brain has the tapes. Especially whenever anything happens in our family that reminds me of the childhood drama. And that old, ape brain isn’t about to hand over the tapes. Not even for dark chocolate. So there they are–those negative messages–holding a pep rally, trying to convince the entire limbic system that they are right and the thinking brain is wrong. Explains Halpern:
Recorded in the brain cells of every person are the “videotapes” of every childhood experience and feeling, including fear, love, anger, joy, dependency, demandingness, insecurity, self-centeredness, inadequacy feelings, etc. Dr. Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon, found that when he stimulated certain areas of the cerebral cortex, memories of past events came back in full detail, as if they were being played back on a videotape, complete with sound and the emotions that were in the scene at the time of the original event. It would seem that everything that ever happened to us, including those countless moments we thought were forgotten, has been recorded and stored. There are indications that these memories can be triggered to come back and influence our feelings and behavior in the present. Also, registered in our neurons from childhood are the commands, prejudices, injunctions and rules for living of our parents (and our parents’ neurons contain the voices of their own parents). The combination of those tapes of all our early childhood feelings and reactions and the tapes of all the ways our parents behaved and all the injunctions and prescriptions for living they gave us compose what I have referred to as our inner child. These stored transcriptions from our childhood can at times be “switched on” and replayed in the present as current feelings and behavior without being modified by our more grown-up experience, knowledge, and wisdom.
Now I have known most of this for a very long time. In college, I identified the connection between my feelings of rejection from my dad and a love life that was going nowhere fast. But I guess what surprised me, as I sat on the couch across from my therapist last week, was realizing how much I’m still listening to those God awful tapes and relying on them to give me the skinny on what I should do about a financial or emotional issue in my marriage and in my life. I was able to spot the fear of abandonment, the subtle statement to live independently, to trust no one, in some of my decisions today. The old tapes run: Remember: Nothing good comes of true intimacy, of giving all of yourself to someone. A woman always needs to protect herself.
Them are fighting words. I know. But I need to articulate the message of my old tapes in order to replace them with new ones that maintain that intimacy is possible within a marriage, that I’m keeping myself from the best stuff in a marriage and in friendships if I go on believing the old tapes. I have my work cut out for me in replacing what I’ve learned about relationships in my past with some new tapes that urge me to trust, to give my whole heart and soul, to throw the old logic away, and to start again.