When we’re born, we’ve got a daunting amount of growing and learning to do. Inevitably, we’ll miss some steps along the way.
One step many of us miss is learning emotional regulation. The thing about this lesson is, we don’t learn it cognitively. Our bodies have to be taught it by close contact with a parent’s or caregiver’s body.
When a baby’s emotions overwhelm them, ideally a loving caregiver scoops them up, cuddles them closely against their body, and quietly talks or sings to them. So cradled, the baby’s body begins to fall into the caregiver’s calming rhythms, literally building tissue memories that the child can eventually use to calm themselves.
This is the junction at which some of us get left behind. Perhaps our caregivers were too often drunk or high, or too stressed and distracted, too mentally ill or just too unskilled to help soothe us. Whatever the reason, we don’t learn that our emotions can be managed. This can have many, many ramifications.
I’ve had a suicidal depression for decades. I am medicated, of course, and have had more therapists than I can count. I’ve survived, obviously, but have never managed to conquer my tendency to think about suicide whenever I run into problems. I got a different perspective on this issue a few years ago as I began to read more about developmental trauma (the negative things that can happen – or fail to happen — to children in “normal” interactions with caregivers). In my house, my parents’ frequent fights nearly always (at least it seemed to me) escalated until my father got his keys and fled the house, or – if we were driving somewhere – slammed on the brakes, left us in the car, and stomped away. When I learned he had a gun, I began to believe that when he stalked off to the bedroom (probably to retrieve his keys), he was getting his gun to kill us all. All I could do was wait.
I have no memories of seeing these fights and flights get resolved (perhaps I dissociated to protect myself). Recently I read a book that talked about everyday “relationship repairs” and realized that I literally did not know what that meant. In my experience, fights never got resolved. They only escalated to a life-threatening level and then…nothing. I couldn’t imagine what could come next, except death. Even after I earned a master’s degree in conflict management, I had a void. In my head, fights = fear of being killed. Given that linkage and the obvious fact that my parents could not regulate their emotions very well either, my chronic suicidality began to make sense. What other option was there?
My experiences with my family also has strongly influenced how I approach my work on intimate partner violence (IPV). I suspect many abusive partners are trying to “control” their partners because they don’t know how to control their own emotions. Sometimes that simply results in lashing out and sometimes that results in trying to control the environment (i.e., your partner and/or children) so that they don’t “do something” that “makes you mad.” (That, by the way, was always what happened in my house: other people were always responsible for “making mom (or dad) mad.”) Not having emotional regulation skills themselves, mom and dad would then inevitably escalate things.
I saw a similar dynamic with my in-laws: mom couldn’t stand “clutter” so she threw out dad’s books and forbid him from buying any. Definitely a “power and control” tactic used against a booklover, in my opinion! At 70-something, he would sneak into a bookstore while on other errands and try to smuggle a paperback into the house without her seeing it.
Despite how long it’s taken me to begin to learn the skills I missed in toddlerhood, I believe they’re learnable. As you can tell, I also believe these (missing) skills can be very related to experiences of intimate partner violence. I’ll be sharing more of what I’m learning in future blog posts.