I recently got this question from a reader:
“What would you recommend for those who have been working at healing childhood trauma and learning to parent their inner child — and now their parent has just started on their own healing/ therapy journey. Are there any resources or exercises to do together to aid in healing the relationship, or should we just stick to our separate strategies?”
We all want to believe that somehow our parents can save us. I certainly did.
While my hippie upbringing was unusual, it wasn’t terrible. I had two parents who loved me; I was well-fed and never abused. That said, my folks joked that their parenting philosophy was “benign neglect,” …and sometimes it didn’t feel so benign.
When I started bumping up against poor relationship decisions and crushing anxiety in college, I went to see a free student counselor. I remember telling the therapist a hilarious old family story about how my mom had left me alone in a VW van for a couple hours while she went hiking, and the therapist interrupted me to ask a question.
“How did you feel about being left alone for that long?” she asked me.
“Whatever,” I said dismissively. “It was fine, obviously. I mean, I turned out ok!” Then I realized the irony of what I was saying, given that my anxiety had gotten so intense that I was making color-coded calendars scheduling my day into 15-minute increments so that I could feel safe.
“If you were babysitting a child, would you feel ok leaving them alone for that long?” she asked me.
“Oh,” I said, tearing up. “No.” I hadn’t thought about it that way.
I came to understand that some of the funny family stories I’d been raised with were actually sad for me. I came to understand that part of why I had so much anxiety in my body and desperation in my relationships was that my parents’ emphasis on raising me to be independent sometimes went a little far.
After the understanding came the blame. How could they? What the fuck were they thinking? Of course, then it made sense that childhood anxiety about getting enough attention would translate to adult patterns around picking partners who were distant, dismissive, or downright cruel.
That’s how anxious attachment works: you grow up confusing the sensation of chasing attention with the feeling of love.
We adapted so well to unpredictable attention that it’s what we crave. We adapted to chasing, and then we got addicted to it. Relationships that don’t involve chasing can feel boring.
“There’s no chemistry,” we’ll explain. “They’re a sweet friend, but I’m just not feeling it.”
Anxious attachers adapted to seeking out excitement and intrigue in our relationships instead of peace and security. We gravitate toward people who can’t (or won’t) give us what we want. Why? Because we’ve adapted to think stress hormones feel sexy AF.
We can’t stop talking about how scared we are of being left, and sometimes our partners get so sick of our fears that they do leave. We feel like we’re “too much” for people, and then we prove ourselves right.
Once I recognized how old these patterns were and how deeply they affected my life, then I wanted to point the finger at my parents and be like, “…YOU! YOU DID THIS TO ME!”
As we understand how our childhood wounds impact our adult lives, there’s an understandable tendency to blame our parents.
…YOU! You did this to me!!
They DID do this. And you know what? They can’t fix it. They can’t fix it!
This might seem unfair, but it’s actually empowering: we get to fill ourselves with the love we’ve always wanted. No more begging from others. It’s ours to heal.
Someone else can kiss your boo-boo and put a bandaid on it, but it’s your body that knits itself back together.
But why can’t my parents fix it?
Again: I’m aware that my childhood was relatively mild and that some anxious attachment is a relatively gentle trauma. But regardless of the severity, the wounds of childhood become part of our emotional tissues.
Our bodies grow and fortify around the tender places where our child selves didn’t feel loved in the ways that we wanted or needed.
The scars become a part of our bodies, and part of how we experience the world.
An apology can’t change that. I know, because I got the apology we all want!
My mother, who lives a busy life, once double booked herself the day before Thanksgiving. I was fresh off a divorce and still grief stricken and raw and instead of just stuffing my feelings, I sat her down on her couch and started yelling at her, and then just started crying.
“I’m sorry,” my mother said, hugging me closer on the couch as I snotted and heaved. “We really got our wires crossed on scheduling.”
“It’s always like this!” I wailed, totally lost in my own hyperbole, surrendered to a child’s experience of the world, where everything is always and never. “You never prioritize me! It’s always about other people, and never about your own family!”
My mom started crying and hugged me closer. At that point, I was crying so hard that I couldn’t get words out.
“I’m so sorry,” my mom said, pulling me onto her lap and holding me on the couch like a baby. “I love you so much! You’re my only child! Of course I want you to feel prioritized!”
This was everything I’d ever wanted to hear from my mother.
We all have these narratives about how if someone would FINALLY own up to their shit, we could finally get closure and heal.
If only my mother would FINALLY APOLOGIZE for being a midwife who would disappear for days at a time delivering other family’s babies, while her family sat at home waiting for her — THEN I could feel better. If only my mother would FINALLY APOLOGIZE for leaning out when I wanted her to lean in, then I could finally feel better.
Well, I’m here to say it just doesn’t work.
In that moment, I got exactly what I wanted from my mother. It was a nice moment for my relationship with her (we’re much closer than we used to be!) but in terms of the anxious behavior IN ME? The behavior patterns IN ME? The feelings IN ME of being rejected or abandoned? The anxious attachment IN ME?
Nothing changed there.
Why? Because my psyche had shaped itself around the wounds of the anxious attachment. Those experiences shaped me, and at this point the only person who can change my shape is me.
So while it was lovely that my mother apologized to me (truly! Thanks, mom!), the apology didn’t get me out of my ruts.
At this point, those ruts are decades deep.
External apologies don’t change internal patterns.
Only you can do that.
Maybe that sounds frustrating (dammit, why do I have to do this?!?), but actually, it’s a tremendous gift. No more waiting for other people to apologize. No more frustrations when people won’t do what you want. No more beating your head against a wall, trying to get your needs met.
Because you’re right here, ready to meet your needs. And you know exactly what you want!
Isn’t that beautiful?
But wait, can’t my partners fix it for me?
In my book From Sh!tshow To Afterglow, I wrote a bit about how I codependently relied on my husband to be my emotional security blanket. He was my rock, he was my anchor, he was the raincoat that protected me from the world. When I was married, I joked about how I was Director of Logistics, he was VP of Emotional Support.
It worked for a really long time, until it didn’t work.
For those of us who skew toward anxious attachment, there’s a part of us that’s convinced that if we don’t chase love, we’ll die. Our emotional needs feel entirely overwhelming. Our nervous systems have adapted to thinking that if we’re alone, we simply will not survive.
After my divorce, my body honestly thought we were dying.
My cells were like, “Welp, it’s over for us.”
My nervous system was all, “THAT’S IT, CAPTAIN, WE’RE GOING DOWN.”
My immune system imploded. I couldn’t digest food, I got shingles, I lost a tooth.
This is what a triggered attachment system feels like: you’re excited and manic and chasey and desperate… in part because your body is telling you, “if they don’t text me back, we will die. We will stop breathing, fall down, and absolutely die.”
Yes, it sounds ridiculous!
Our brains know we’re acting foolish and immature, but the anxiously attached survival mechanisms from childhood kick in, and we can’t help ourselves.
It’s so uncomfortable to have your childhood attachment triggers tangled into your primary partnerships. I didn’t WANT to be needy or demanding or dependent, but it felt utterly out of my control. My nervous system would get triggered, push my brain aside, and go into panic mode. It was an unconscious emotional flashback.
Someone must meet my needs, or I will die! Send another 10th text!!
Wait, I’m a full-grown human. I can meet my own needs. I have many tools available to me.
I can be my own doting husband.
I can be my own trophy wife.
I can be my own stage mom, and my own sugar daddy.
But maybe this sounds frustrating, having this entire internal family of loving selves.
“But whyyyyy can’t someone do this for me?” our child selves wail. “Someone else should fix this! It’s not fairrrrrr!”
But here’s the thing: even if someone else COULD fix it, then they’d own the fix, and you’d still feel broken.
When what’s missing is a sense of security, YOU have to fix it so that YOU can own it.
You must own that piece of your peace. The more you try to outsource it to others, the farther you get from actually healing it and deeply feeling it.
When I focus on healing my anxious attachment and meeting my own emotional needs, I can finally stop begging others for scraps.
When I can be the super attentive beloved I’ve always wanted, I can stop fighting with others for their attention.
I can stop manipulating.
I can stop controlling.
I can stop blaming.
I can start appreciating people for what they bring to the table.
Going back to the original question, about whether you should try to heal with a parent who’s also trying to grow? My answer is no, because only you can fix yourself…
…but my “no” contains a big “yes.”
The joy of doing your healing internally is that doing so shifts who YOU are. That then shifts how you are in the world, and your dynamic with others then naturally changes on its own. When you heal yourself, your relationships with others recalibrate without you even trying.
This is excellent news for those of us who have healing to do with beloveds who are disinterested in doing anything — it’s even better news for those of us who have healing to do with beloveds who are no longer alive.
Your healing can happen regardless of whether your beloved is interested, capable, or even alive.
The same is true of doing healing work around partnership.
If you’re partnered with someone you don’t think isn’t doing their healing? It doesn’t matter what they do. You do your work, and the dynamic will inevitably shift. (Be forewarned, though: that shift may include the relationship ending because you’ve outgrown it. That’s painful, but possibly less painful than the alternative.)
If you’re not partnered but wish you were? It doesn’t matter. You focus on your healing, and the dynamic of how you approach future partnerships will naturally shift.
When you come to the relational table hungry for someone to fill an internal gap, things feel lopsided and frightening. As children, we were dependent on our caregivers, so we didn’t get to choose how we came to the table.
As adults, we do.
When you come to the table having nourished yourself, fed your own internal family, attended to your sorrows, and loving the fuck out of yourself, the dynamic is drastically different.
You’re not begging for scraps. There’s no need to manipulate or blame or control or negotiate.
You already feel the love you’re seeking, so you can meet the external beloved other from a place of internalized love.
Do you see how outrageously liberating this is?
No one else can heal you, and that’s not a curse; that’s an opportunity!
It’s not sad; it’s a gift.
There’s no one to wait for! There’s no need to strategize about when you should talk to them, how you should say, what you need to do to get what you want from them.
You’re the beloved you’ve been waiting for, and the love and healing are available right this very instant.
As in, right now.
This exact moment, in all its expansiveness, is the one you’ve been waiting for.
You, in all your dented, shining glory, are the one you’ve always wanted.