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Author’s Note: this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Not Buddhism. Not Psychology.
The way I see it, I had been heartbroken in nearly every relationship I had started.
It happened over and over again.
The truth is, it was not the women who broke my heart. No, it was the father who abandoned me at such a tender age.
I am afraid to say that Freud was right when he made the connection between our caregiver’s love and the way we would relate to others later in life. This is what some call attachment theory. We learn how to love through our first loving relationship—with the people who raise us. And then we continue what we learnt with our partners and everyone else we begin relationships with.
I learnt at a young age that those I love would inevitably leave.
You see, as a child, I needed my father’s love and care, and yet he left. And so, for a great many years I knew only that I needed love, but I also knew that it would be ripped away from my tender embrace. And, although I may have been aware of this fallacy, it took many more years to ease myself out of the story I had needed as a child to survive: that I was unlovable. That I could not trust those with whom love was shared.
And when a relationship ended for me, it felt as if I were losing a parent yet again.
But there is a bright side to the story. We can change the ways in which we relate to others—our styles of loving and attachment—I am delighted to say. It is no simple feat, and there is no quick fix, my loves. It is a slow, grueling process. One of grief and repeated heartbreak. A tenuous journey back to ourselves. And yet I know no other way of going about it.
As children, we need outside love to understand love. As adults, we can find inner love to heal those old wounds. This might sound like an old cliche (it did to me for a long time), that we must first love ourselves before we can really love another, and it is not exactly true. We can love another with ferocity before we ever really start loving ourselves. However, if our caregiver could not love us as we needed them to, we might learn to relate to our loving partners in a way that hurts us more than anything.
There are usually two styles we take up to this effect (and often we will practice a mixture of the two). These styles are that of caretaking and of being the care-takee. In essence, with caretaking, we take on the role of parent, in order that we replay the role of the parent who never took adequate care of us.
The other side of the coin (but for the same reasons) is that we require the care we never received, and so we look for this form of love in the partners we find.
Both styles look for the same relief—that of mending the improper care of our inner child. And we can go our entire lives searching, perhaps unconsciously, for this salve of sorts. Yet, I am saddened to say, it does not seem to be a sustainable act, often causing more harm than healing, yet we will, almost magically, continue to do so over and over. This is known as a repetition-compulsion in psychoanalysis—seemingly magical because we are able to find, time and again, ways to soothe our inner child in this very way.
The earlier cliche I mentioned is relevant now because, apart from ourselves, no one else seems able to do this work of healing our inner child. I am delighted to say, however, that we can do this for ourselves.
We can right these wrongs of our childhood in three easy steps—although you might not be so happy to hear what they are. But do read on, if you feel so compelled.
The first step is simply enquiring, getting ever more curious, about such things. A good therapist comes in handy at these times, if only to get curious and be an advocate for you and your little self, right along with you.
The second step is starting to feel all of the pain we never could. Remember that, as children, we need the love of our caregivers to survive, and so, too, we often need to push away and hide those feelings of pain toward the people who hurt us. It is imperative, actually, and quite skillful, the ways in which we look away from our pain to survive hardship. It is resiliency in action.
My father had been a tortured person (physically and otherwise), and I knew from an early age that I could not blame him for trying only to make his own pain lessen. I imagine he even thought that his choices would lessen the pain he believed was being inflicted upon his own family. So it took me years to find the anger I had toward him for leaving me. Yet this also meant that I could not express much anger in many other facets of my life. It was far easier for me to turn that anger inward and further build up my belief of unlovability.
Lest we forget that anger is only a natural expression, one that can truly help us find out whether we are being taken advantage of. Whether we are advocating for ourselves.
The third and final act of healing these and many other wounds, is that of learning to grieve. Grief is a form of acceptance that all things must change. Grief is also a vastly powerful form of practice in releasing our pain, in letting go, in allowing the change which must come.
In my youth—and in those days when a therapist still needed this type of training—I saw a psychoanalyst for a number of years (one needed to receive psychoanalysis in order to become one themselves). My analyst was a hearty, yet kind-hearted Swiss woman, a student of Carl Jung’s. In the hundreds of hours we sat together in her office, I can recall only a few times she chose to break her classically analytic form and tell me something of her own thoughts.
Two of these statements have stuck with me since.
- She told me it only seemed inevitable that in every relationship we would hurt our partners, and that likewise our partners would sorely hurt us.
- And she said every relationship must surely come to an end, whether it be through our, or our partner’s doing, or be it through death.
What a beautifully poetic, somehow romantic, and absolutely Buddhist view! Of course, as with most psychoanalysts in those days, she gave me not the tools to find the comfort I so craved from my childhood. She was there only for the first two pieces of this puzzle we must all slowly put together.
It was only when I met the fellow who brought simplicity and motorcycles into my life that I learnt the power of grieving.
Again, I was looking for answers from someone I hoped knew more than myself. Someone who could show me the way back to myself, as it were. It was a sunny day, I still recall. I sat on the warm concrete outside his garage. He sat nearby, watching as I fumbled around adjusting the air-fuel mixture of my old Indian cruiser. We had made a contraption together, consisting of two old coke bottles both filled with water. A correct adjustment meant that the two bottles would have equal amounts of water in each. As I adjusted the bike, one bottle would fill with water, the other would empty. He watched my fiddling with patience. Although we had just finished our therapy session together (we would often work on my old bike after our sessions), my mind was far away from the topics of which we had been exploring.
As a therapist, he was a fan of psychodrama, often asking that I inhabit the role of my inner child, so that I might speak from this place. Sometimes he would have me play multiple roles at once, having my child speak to my father or my older self, or vice versa.
But just now we were working on my bike (a subtle therapy he used in part to teach me that I could trust another to be patient with me as I learnt something new, and that I deserved such care), and all was calm in my mind otherwise.
It was then that he said something, almost offhand, that I shall never forget. He said, with his eyes scrunched from the sunlight, that he knew no other way to accept his family than simply to grieve for them.
What a little, seemingly insignificant thing to say! But there it was. I think I smiled it off at the time, yet have never forgotten that particular day. It struck a chord somewhere deep in my being. A chord I would not be able to play for some time. But the chord was found and, as with many things in this way, only needed time and attention for my learning to play and listen.
No, there are few quick fixes that really last. But there are notes we can discover within ourselves. Notes that, with time and patience and trust (trust is often the hardest), we can turn into a symphony. The kind what touches our hearts and changes us.
So you see, it took years for me to trudge this path toward learning to embrace my inner child, to accept and nurture him. But he will always be there, inside of me. Inside of all of us. And we will always have the opportunity to change the story of what happened to us as children, when we choose to turn toward ourselves, embrace our inner children, hold ourselves, and say honestly that we will never let go. Not for anything.
And it will not be easy, my dears, because we will often be afraid to do so. And we will not know if we can really make such a promise to ourselves, and keep it. But, amazingly, we will always have the chance to try again. And our inner child will always be there to take that love from us. Because it is what we crave most: to be accepted and loved, and to know that this love will be lasting.
Which of course, after all this talk of change, sounds like a paradox. How can we give lasting love and care to ourselves if change is inevitable and every relationship must end? If we must inevitably hurt our inner child time and again? And to this, I have no answer. Some things just are. And insofar as every modality of psychology is flawed, so too is mine.
For in this experience, I cannot help but find that both the inevitability of change and the continuity of such love to be true. So I suppose I must leave you with a promise of sorts—that the path of discovery and love is both endless and with end. Both timeless and with a bell that must toll. Somehow, I find comfort in all of this, and perhaps you shall too.
No matter how emotionally intelligent, how many theories you know, how many years of therapeutic training or spirituality you have practiced, we are all still just people. It is all we can be. And goddamn, but is that not refreshing sometimes?
So often, we want someone to tell us how it is. How to do it right. When we are little, it is up to our parents to show us the ropes. To teach us, and to be patient as we slowly both learn this new skill, and more importantly how to emotionally regulate along the way.
When we do not get this, we search for that parent to show us how to be. And we will keep finding them—in our teachers, our lovers, our gurus. But no one can give this form of emotional growth to us anymore than our parents could have.
No, dear reader. It is now up to us.