Today was a painful day. Recently in therapy we have been talking about my attachment pain and how it relates to my childhood. We have talked to an extent about my Mum and how she related to me when I was little – how little, vulnerable, alone, misunderstood and invalidated she made me feel. In therapy, I hadn’t been able to fully access those feelings from childhood; it’s felt very much like I was telling a story – with little to no emotion. Today, however, those emotions were triggered and finally able to come out in the real world.
I apologise in advance for the incoherence of this post. I just needed to rant, and to get it all out.
There were two issues. The first one was as follows:
My T gave me her teddy bear to look after and use for comfort, as a transitional object, whilst we work on my early relational trauma. I have been feeling young inside, needy and pained, and carrying around the teddy like a child with a comfort toy has felt incredibly supportive. The problem, however, is that I live with my Mum. I didn’t want to tell her about the teddy because I knew she would react judgmentally. However, I spoke to Sister no. 1 yesterday in the car about it, so she was aware. I had asked her to please not tell Mum and she had said that she would not. Nevertheless, this is what happened.
Today we were in the kitchen and I was studying whilst cuddling the teddy. Sis no. 1 came downstairs and saw me with the teddy and starting questioning why I was still holding him, despite the fact that she was aware of why. I tried to avoid her question but she kept probing me, and Mum was getting involved.
“Why ARE you still holding that teddy?” Mum started to question. “How old are you, seriously?”.
Sis continued, provoking me, joining Mum, asking me where I had actually gotten the teddy from.
“Is he even yours? Where DID you get him from?” and not letting up when I tried to avoid all the questions she was throwing at me. I glanced at Sis with telling eyes; it was obvious that I was uncomfortable and wanting her to stop, especially because she had promised me that she wouldn’t tell Mum just yesterday. Instead she just kept pressing me and wouldn’t let go.
Eventually, she turned to Mum and said in a really judgmental voice,
“It’s her THERAPIST’S teddy!” and then to me “Isn’t ittttt?!”, in a sarcastic and mocking tone.
Mum asked me why my T had given me her teddy and I told her that it was as a transitional object, for when I am struggling with my emotions. I was as vague as possible; I didn’t tell her about the work we are doing in therapy, for obvious reasons of course. However, she proceeded to go on a full rant about expressing her opinion of me. She was very happy to let me know how weird she thought the situation was, how it doesn’t sound like ‘good therapeutic practice’, and how it makes her feel genuinely concerned because I am an adult now and still act like such a child. She did her usual “It’s just not normal, it’s really not, not normal at all” and continued with the old “Come on, how old are you, I mean seriously” spiel. My sister happily joined in, clearly getting off on the tease. It felt hurtful and incredibly cruel, especially after I had asked her not to mention the teddy situation to our Mum.
I was getting increasingly upset and tried to defend myself and my T as I felt really defensive and attacked by everything my Mum was saying. But she just continued on and on, slamming into me about how abnormal it is to behave in the way that I behave, and how she can’t help but judge and worry about it, because it “doesn’t sit comfortably” with her at all to see me walking about the house with a teddy like a lost little child. (The irony is that she never stopped to question why I feel like this ‘lost little child’ in the first place. HINT: Something to do with the way she treated me when I was ‘that child’.)
As the shame grew I started to feel myself shrinking inwards; all the beliefs about what a freak I am reiterated x10000 by the person who’s meant to love me the most but instead makes me feel more bad about myself than anyone else ever could. After trying so fucking hard in therapy for so long to try and reverse these judgements I have about myself and validate them instead, the way that my Mum was speaking to me unraveled any progress I had made in that area. She continued to back up how the shame I feel is very much valid, that I should be embarrassed for feeling so young and needy inside and for expressing it in the way that I do. She was supporting all the core beliefs I have about myself being a shamefully abnormal freak who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world and who is faulty and broken instead.
Essentially, she was telling me that there is something wrong with me. There is something wrong with me and I am not acceptable to her because of that. I am bad, I need to be different, and it is wrong to feel the way that I feel. I am fundamentally flawed.
By the time I managed to calm down a few hours later, situation 2 was evolving. This is what happened:
Sister no. 2 (who is my half-sister, we share the same Dad) was having her own crisis at school. The story wasn’t important; what was important was how distressed she was off the back of it. She was panicking and crying down the phone to me, her anxiety was sky-rocketing, and she was beating herself up with guilt and sounding really self-punitive and judgmental. She felt so guilty about the situation and a mistake she had made, and although she knew on one hand what she needed to do to fix it, the anxiety over every single option felt excruciating – and she found herself totally trapped. On top of this, the frustration at her ADHD, and the consequences of her ADHD, were too overwhelming to be able to regulate on her own.
I was proud of her for calling me, and as her sister, I was there to help. I stayed on the phone to her whilst she cried and explained the situation, and validated how she was feeling as much as I could. I reminded her gently to breathe because she was struggling with the tears, and made my voice sound soothing to try and calm her down. I did everything I would want someone to do for me if I was in a crisis. I spoke to her like how my T speaks to me when I am in that state. I stayed calm and collected, I validated her and was compassionate and caring, and I also tried to help her get through the situation by proposing solutions that I could help her achieve. I reiterated that no one was angry with her, that her guilt made sense to me because I know how much it means to her to not upset or displease people, but that I absolutely was not angry in the slightest, and that the only thing that was important to me is that we work out how to help her navigate the situation and feel calm again.
I told her that no matter what the outcome of the situation, no one was going to be mad with her, and how I could hear how distressed she was and that despite that I knew she was trying her best to get through. With regards to the mistake she had made, I highlighted that the most important thing was the thought (“it’s the thought that counts”), and that she is one of the most thoughtful people I know. She might have made a mistake, but she is only human. Plus, she was having a bad ADHD day, and that was not her fault. I validated how frustrating it must be to struggle with ADHD in the way that she does, and for people not to understand that she doesn’t behave in the ways that she does on purpose.
I was very mindful of the fact that yes, the situation and the mistake was slightly frustrating in terms of practicalities, but when I imagined how much more upsetting it must be for her – being the one who can’t control her ADHD and anxiety and having to live with it every day and the guilt and shame she has on top of it – the mistake itself felt unimportant. I felt really upset for her because of how her distressed she was and how much she was struggling with her emotions, and so even though the situation was not ideal, that was absolutely not the priority. The priority was being there for my 13 year old sister who struggles immensely with emotions and who beats herself up chronically for feeling and being the way that she is. I wanted to be someone who could show her unconditional love, assure her that she was safe to feel the way she was feeling with me, and that I was not going to react.
I wanted to show her that no matter what was going on for her, I was going to be able to hold that space with her, and to support her through the distress and be alongside her in the process of calming down. She tried to regulate herself for a bit and deal with the situation in the ways we had discussed, then called me back to update me on the situation and how she was doing. Eventually, she managed to get to a place where she was calmer and had stopped crying, stopped panicking, and felt more in control of herself. As it turned out, once she had calmed down, she managed to state her needs and actually resolve the situation without my presence. I was really proud of her, especially as I know how much anxiety she was feeling. So, the last time she called, I told her how proud of her I was, validated her again and told her I loved her and would always love her, no matter what mistakes she made. The most important thing was showing her that unconditional care, which is something we have both needed and gone without at pivotal points in our lives. She really appreciated it, and the situation was pretty much resolved.
However, whilst I was having this conversation over the phone with Sis no. 2, Mum and Sis no. 1 were chattering behind me in the background with disdain. I was struggling to multitask but could make out what they were saying, because my Mum continued to hiss at me to get off the phone and to stop pandering to Sis no. 2 and ‘enabling her dependence’. It is not exactly the easiest thing trying to help my little sister through a crisis, let alone doing so when behind me I can hear my Mum and Sis no. 1 going on about how ridiculous and dramatic the whole situation is – and how ‘badly’ I am dealing with it.
I wanted to scream at them to shut the fuck up as I was trying to be there for Sis no. 2 and all I could focus on was their stupid judgments and over involvement about a situation they knew very little about in my ear. (I mean seriously why the fuck was my Mum involving herself with this anyway, Sis no. 2 is not even her daughter!). As soon as Sis no 2 got off the phone to me, I turned around to Mum and Sis no. 1 and asked them what on earth they were thinking. I told them that they had no idea what was going on on the other side of the phone (i.e. for Sis no. 2) and tried to explain how difficult it is for her having to live with ADHD and anxiety and feeling so misunderstood by everyone around her who responds with such little compassion. I told them that comments like theirs (e.g. “She needs to be more self reliant and stop making everything into such drama”) are exactly what fuel the shame, guilt and self judgments she then puts onto herself.
Sis no. 1 said that Sis no. 2 was being ridiculous and needs to grow up. My Mum agreed, saying that I make the situation worse by pandering to her and being ‘too nice’ when really what she needs is some harsh love. I tried to back myself up, describing the level of distress Sis no. 2 was experiencing, and letting them know that I was trying to balance being there for her with finding a solution – and that actually, ultimately, she was the one who had fought through her anxiety on this occasion to try and problem solve, despite the distress she was in.
They were not hearing anything I had to say, and continued to go on about how I was putting my own problems onto my little sister, how it’s not actually helpful for me to speak to her on the phone and ‘make her’ more dependent on me, and how I was being more dramatic than was needed and that we just need to chill the fuck out and stop being so dramatic over the smallest situation. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t about the situation; it was about the emotions and distress Sis no. 2 was feeling. I was trying so hard to explain that when someone is in that level of distress, especially a CHILD, and a CHILD with anxiety AND ADHD at that, expecting them to be able to get themselves out of a crisis is really flawed logic. It is the kind of expectation that makes children believe that there is something wrong with them for struggling with their emotions, and makes them internalise how they are feeling, stop asking for help and instead try and shove down or deal with their emotions in ways that are not healthy. Ever since Sis no 2. has been encouraged to communicate with us when she’s struggling, the self-destructive tendencies and crises have gone down, and she’s been much better at getting through these sorts of situations with support. Withdrawing that would be a disaster and set her back months or years.
In these sorts of situations, the professionals have always encouraged the type of communication that I use with Sis no. 2 – compassionate, solution-focused but validating and soothing communication. Listening, attending, and trying to work together to navigate distressing situations. Being there for her, supporting her so that she is better equipped to support herself. When she is in that state, there is no way she is able to calm herself down, and showing ‘tough love’, hanging up the phone, or trying to force her to be more self reliant when her distress is that high, only ever makes things worse. This includes making her feel like she is bad and should be told off or shamed for feeling the way that she does, which is essentially what they were convinced of.
When my Mum and Sis no. 1 were still not getting anything I was saying, they started saying to one another, in front of me,
“Oh my god, she’s not listening, she just doesn’t get it, there is no point in even trying to convince her, she’s putting her own stuff onto the situation” acting like I was pretty much delusional and making me question my sanity simply because they were the majority and shared the same opinion! When I tried to explain how their way of relating to a child is how I was related to as child (i.e. “stop being ridiculous, buck up, get your act together, stop being such a baby, stop being so over sensitive” etc) and how badly that served me, and how what I’ve learnt in therapy and treatment is that the more effective way of relating to a child is by using the type of approach I always try and use in communication nowadays (i.e. DBT, validation, acceptance, change, etc), they just started accusing me again on putting my own shit onto Sis no. 2 yet again.
Instead of wondering if maybe, actually, my experiences of emotional distress have helped facilitate an increased understanding of what is and is not helpful in emotionally weighted situations, they stayed put in their conviction that their way (i.e. the invalidating, cold-hearted, non-compassionate way) is the right way. And that my sensitivity was making me respond in the wrong way, instead of in a way that is actually more effective for Sis no. 2 who is very much like me and does need to be listened to and validated in order to then be able to problem solve. #acceptanceTHENchange
By this point I was in complete tears, in my room, in such a state, screaming at my Mum who refused to drop her line of argument, really digging into me and actually making me question my sanity AS USUAL. She kept saying that because both Sis no. 1 and her agreed, it was 2 against 1 and that shows that I don’t know what I am talking about and should really take on board what they were saying. I find it so fucking triggering when people manipulate me into questioning my own sanity and will not see anything but their own line of argument. It is so fucked up.
Eventually I totally lost it with my Mum, screaming at her that, “THE ONLY REASON I AM THE WAY I AM IS BECAUSE YOU TREATED ME EXACTLY HOW YOU WANT ME TO TREAT SIS NO. 2 NOW. DO YOU NOT SEE THAT IF I TREAT HER IN THE WAY YOU WANT ME TO – INVALIDATE, SHAME, MINIMISE, JUDGE ETC – I AM JUST SETTING HER UP TO FEEL AS TERRIBLY ABOUT HERSELF AND HER EMOTIONS AS YOU HAVE MADE ME FEEL ABOUT MINE ALL MY LIFE?”
I was on a rampage now. I continued,
“I AM NOT LIKE THIS FOR NOTHING. I AM LIKE THIS – AND IT IS IMPORTANT FOR ME TO VALIDATE AND BE ATTENTIVE TO SIS NO. 2 IN THE WAY THAT I AM – BECAUSE OF HOW THAT WAS ABSOLUTELY NOT SOMETHING I HAD FROM YOU WHEN I NEEDED IT WHEN I WAS LITTLE, AND BECAUSE I KNOW HOW DAMAGING THAT IS. AS SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN THROUGH THAT APPRAOCH, AND WHO HAS BEEN FUCKED UP BECAUSE OF IT, I WILL NEVER PUT ANY OF THAT ONTO ANYONE EVER, ESPECIALLY NOT MY LITTLE SISTER.
I screamed at my Mum to get out, and wailed and wailed, before calling my Dad and my Step-mum and trying to speak down the phone to them for reassurance. I was crying so hard down the phone that they could barely make out what I was saying. But they told me that everything I did was right and that out of everyone in the whole family, I relate to Sis no. 2 the most, I communicate with her the most effectively, and she responds the best with me. So fuck you, Mum and sis no. 1, fuck you.