Conditions of Worth

Care was always conditional. It was a matter of consequences and rewards. Refusing to comply with the things he wanted from me always led to the same series of potential outcomes. I would be ignored. He would stop coaching, helping, and speaking to me. He would threaten to fire my brother whom he craftily hired as his assistant coach. He would no longer help me try to earn the college scholarship I was working hard to achieve. I would be alone with no one to turn to – no one to care for me – as his efforts to keep me isolated drove a wedge between me and everyone else in my life. By contrast, complying with the things he asked of me meant I would be given gifts. The gifts arrived in the form of extra attention – extra coaching – extra care. These types of rewards always made me feel so special. The gifts were also sometimes more tangible – a new sweatshirt, a new pair of running shoes, a bracelet, a special handwritten note from him, among many other things. 

After abusing me in his car he would often stop at the drive through of a nearby McDonalds before taking me home. Growing up in a large family without much discretionary income it was rare for us to eat out for dinner. A fast food meal was an infrequent and very special treat. The first time my abuser bought me a meal at McDonalds after violating me I was excited. I got to pick whatever I wanted, and I ate every bite of that meal. The next time he drove me home I wondered if I’d get this treat again. I hoped for it. I waited for it. Whether my body was treated violently and physically injured or it was exposed to the kind of touch that produced feelings of pleasure, I always hoped for a treat afterwards. And I wondered what it meant on the days that he took me straight home without a fast food stop. It was confusing. Did I do something wrong? Was I not enough of whatever he wanted that day? What was I supposed to do differently? This added a layer of confusion to the overwhelm that I was already facing in these experiences of abuse. Since his treatment of me was always determined by my level of obedience to his demands, the meaning my adolescent brain assigned to these moments was that I was not worthy that day.

As I work now to heal the wounds that still ache from this young girl inside of me, I have taken notice of some confusing reactions that I feel at times. I recently wrote about the somatic work that I am pursuing with my therapist and how calm and comforted I have felt from receiving her safe and caring contact in response to releasing a flood of emotions in front of her. While it has been confusing for my system I have felt held, safe, and cared for in these therapy sessions. Since then I have experienced a session in which memories and feelings from this adolescent part of me were once again expressed through words and art. This session did not lead to the same type of emotional release nor did it result in the close comforting contact that was a part of my previous session, and yet it still felt meaningful, productive, and necessary. I reached the end of this session without feeling anything particularly off or left unaddressed in the moment. But this strange feeling came over me later that day. It was a disturbing and questionable feeling inside of me. After spending some time with this feeling and seeking help from a trusted friend I was able to begin to untangle it.

The strange feeling I experienced after that therapy session was one of longing and regret. It was this deep inner feeling of, “I would do anything to be held in there again. Why didn’t I fall apart and let myself be cared for the way I need?” It was this feeling of coming up short – not doing enough or being enough to deserve to be held and cared for. This feeling of regret for not doing something right and longing for something that was missing made me also begin to doubt my own feelings, experiences, and needs. It forced me to question the authenticity of what I express in therapy. Am I somehow subconsciously trying to perform in some way to receive the care that parts of me desperately need? Is my desire to crumble merely a manipulative effort to get what I want? Is this the same as that familiar feeling of wanting to be good enough to earn a trip to McDonalds? My adult brain is fairly certain this is not the case, but this young part is convinced that her actions determine whether or not she is worthy of care. This young part of me still wanted to feel physically seen and held and nurtured even though no tears emerged that day, but the meaning my brain assigned to not receiving this type of contact was that I must have done something wrong. I must not be deserving enough for it, and I must do better next time.

After careful introspection I began to understand why that feeling would arise here. Of course I felt a reaction like this. Of course I felt like I did something wrong. Of course I was left feeling desperate to be held and simultaneously inadequate and unworthy. After all, the lasting message for this young part inside of me still remains. Care is conditional. It is always a matter of consequences and rewards.

Hidden Tears

I have held my children in my arms to comfort and soften their tears ever since the moment they were born. Their needs draw me in close – setting aside whatever was previously holding my attention – lowering my body to their level so my eyes can reach into theirs and connect with their hurt – scooping them up into my arms to let them feel safe enough to express whatever needs to pour out from them. As they get older the way they cry out for help is changing. Sometimes their needs ring out loudly for me. Other times it is in their silence that they call out for comfort and support. My job as their caregiver is to pay attention – to notice and tend to their needs however disguised their cries may be.

As a child I was not seen. My muted screams for help rang out, but they were not answered. My injuries were left bleeding without drawing the attention or concern from others that they required. Internal walls were erected to protect me from the pain that others failed to keep me from. These walls still exist decades later, providing safety and protection while also creating a barrier for connection. I can sit in solitude, accessing and deeply feeling my pain as I type these words. Yet when asked to speak of them out loud I feel much like a reporter, reciting a story to you from a safe distant corner of myself, absent of emotion. I desperately desire to be able to hold and connect to my feelings in front of others. I wish to be able to expose my pain in front of you and take solace in your protective and comforting presence.

I don’t know how to be sad in front of people. Young parts inside of me are holding in a lot of pain. They were never afforded the opportunity to express their hurt. They learned to pack it in and store it within them. Over time this hurt has not subsided. Instead it seems to find a way to attach itself to new experiences, spreading and growing inside. The child parts inside of me need to express their sadness, their fear, their deep hurt. They need to release what they were taught to bury long ago. But they are so scared. What if they do it wrong? What if you look at them sideways or judge them or laugh. They are afraid you will mock them for being too sensitive – too needy – too emotional – too much. Or even worse, you’ll take pride and victory in having cracked them open. They can’t give you that power over them. We can’t let you tower over us, using your caring support as a weapon to draw out our hidden vulnerabilities. Your gentle assurance that I can feel or express emotions in front of you feels like a trapdoor, and I’m afraid to risk falling in. So I get armored up. Anger sweeps in to push sadness aside and I get rigid and impenetrable. I don’t want this to happen. In fact I often dream of the idea of collapsing into a puddle of tears in front of you. Yet even though so much of me screams on the inside for the freeing relief of a cry in your comforting presence, I can’t seem to access those feelings in front of you.

Can you help me peel back my armor? Can you help me soften my shaky rigidity? Can I trust that you won’t leave me feeling worse for having let you see all of the hurting parts? Can I trust that my tears won’t be your victory?