How to practically cope with increasing anxiety during this time
Source: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash
So much in our world has changed since I wrote my last post. And yet, the realities of our existential fears still persist and may be more evident than ever. The anxiety of this world continues to remain palpable – the empty shelves, the sickness, the isolation, death, and the reality of the unknown future. This week, I have been reflecting on the increased anxiety that we feel as humans when there is a threat to our well-being. We have a natural instinct to turn inward, to plan, to gather supplies, to be on high alert. And we have a natural instinct that causes us to feel fear in our bodies. All of these instincts are a result of being faced with four core existential fears (loss of control, challenges to our identity, isolation, and ultimately, our fear of death).1,2 The COVID-19 pandemic hits across all of our existential fears. When we are faced with these fears, we are confronted with information—and what we do with that information matters. As a therapist, I wanted to provide practical ways of coping with these fears and how we can use these fears to help us move forward.
1. Use your fear as information: Acknowledge that you are feeling a feeling. Do not ignore it, honor it, and ask yourself—”What is is this feeling trying to tell me?” For example, if you are feeling exhausted, increased pounding in your chest, inability to stop intrusive thoughts, take a deep breath, acknowledge these feelings and sit with them for a moment to say, “What is my concern here?” Are you afraid of losing work, losing your health, of not knowing what the future holds? Reflect and then begin to see what you can reasonably do with that information. Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge it (i.e., I do not have control over if my college classes are cancelled) and other times we can realize what we do have control over and what we don’t (i.e., I can wash my hands and keep limited social contact, but I cannot ultimately control whether I am exposed to illness). If you allow yourself to use your feelings as information, you can learn something from yourself. Feelings are there for a reason and often do not come from nowhere.
2. Practice acceptance: This may be the hardest step. We often do not want to accept “what is” and we would rather live in an alternate reality of “what we want life to be.” The truth is many will get sick, many will die, and we do not know what the future holds. When we begin with this reality, we can move toward “what is.” We can ground ourselves toward the truth and act accordingly. We wash our hands, we stay home, we connect virtually with those we love and express those feelings. We can begin to acknowledge our existential fears as facts and not fears.
3. Find connection: Talk to people in your life and connect with them. Use virtual means and schedule a hangout. Share your concerns, your struggles. Are there people in your life that are adding to your stress? Give yourself permission to take a break. Do you have someone in your life that will listen to you? Can you find something to talk about that you both can share together that is about something other than this crisis alone? Talk about your favorite show you are watching or the book you are reading. Make this an intention to connect. We are all in the midst of this experience and we might just be able to learn something from each other.
4. Use grounding techniques: When we are in a state of crisis, our body is telling us something. It is telling us to pay attention to the threats around us. This is a protective, natural response of being human. What makes a pandemic so unique is that our bodies are designed to alert us to these threats in short bursts, and cannot sustain threat-signals for an extended period of time. This can create fatigue, exhaustion, and just plain “foggy-headedness.” So you need to ground your body. This is a natural way to signal to your body that it is safe. Grounding techniques are universal and involve our five senses. Breathe deeply with your body in a child’s pose, or lay on the ground with your body on your back stretching like it is waking out of bed and practice deep belly breathing for two minutes. Notice your breath as it moves in and out. Let your thoughts come and go. Do not hold onto them, just notice them. Another grounding technique is called just notice them. Another grounding technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. You can google that to find the specific movements, but it can be as simple as squeezing your muscles tightly as you inhale and releasing your muscles as you exhale. Repeat. Notice your body and your mind.
5. Take a break when you can: Give yourself permission to take a break from the news, from fear and worry. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in a hobby like drawing, listening to music, reading a book, talking with a friend. Allow yourself to laugh and to be in the present moment. Put your phone in a drawer. Sit on your porch and see if you can hear the birds sing. Put “bookends” on your thoughts and when they start to circle back to worry or fear, notice it and then direct your mind to whatever you are doing in that moment. Be intentional about this practice. You do not need to be productive, you just need to feel and be. In fact, we can’t help it. I am just asking you to notice being human.
I hope this is helpful to you during this time. We are in this together. And we need each other. People react to fear in various ways—hoarding, becoming rigid, denial, anger—all various forms of fight, flight, or freeze. In my next post, I will explore this more. But for today, acknowledge what your fears might be trying to tell you. And lean in, trusting that your body is good and trying to tell you something. Listen to reality and ground yourself in your body. Immerse yourself where you are mean to be. Existential fears are a part of our life. We just may have realized it for the first time. Welcome. This is what it means to be fully alive.
What to do when Father’s Day isnt happy – Alison James
Do Father’s Day posts on social media make you want to crawl under the covers until the day is over?
Do Father’s Day commercials make you feel sad or angry?
Do you wish Father’s Day would be over already, so you would stop being reminded about your dad?
Even though Father’s Day is a happy occasion for many people, it can bring up painful or negative feelings for others.
Whether the day reminds you of a loving father who died, a less than loving father who wasn’t there the way you needed him to be, or if you’re a father who can’t be with your child for any reason, those are all losses that could make Father’s Day difficult. If the day brings up negative feelings then you might be experiencing unresolved grief.
Unresolved grief can have a long term negative impact on your life. Grief is cumulative and cumulatively negative. Grief not only affects current relationships, but it affects future relationships, your work, health, and even hobbies. The intensity of your feelings may lessen over time, but grief doesn’t heal on its own.
Here are some signs you might have unresolved grief around your dad:
Do you refuse to talk about him?
Do you feel angry or sad when you think about him?
Do you avoid places that remind you of him?
Do you put your dad on a pedestal or only see his negative qualities?
Do you avoid watching movies, eating foods, or going to places that remind you of him?
Do you avoid contact with him?
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you weren’t carrying around the pain from your relationship with your dad?
If you’re like most people, you were never taught how to heal your broken heart. Although there are plenty of articles, and well-intentioned people, who will share a list of ways to change your feelings short term, they never show you how to truly recover. Frankly, if you want to recover from grief then you must have the courage to do the work.
The first step is admitting that you want help.
Talk to someone you trust. Tell the truth about yourself. Ask them not to judge, criticize, or analyze (then don’t judge, criticize, or analyze yourself either).
A family is like all living things; it grows, develops and constantly evolves over time as the family structure changes. Sometimes changes to the family structure occur as a result of new members joining the family, through marriage and the birth of children; other times, it’s the result of losing family members as our loved ones pass away.
It can be particularly difficult to cope with the breakdown of a family, through separation or divorce. How people deal with a separation or divorce is different for each person, and there is no right or wrong way of dealing with it. However, it can be helpful to understand how separation and divorce can impact the people within a family.
What does ‘divorce’ really mean?
Divorce is the ending of a marriage – but what about the additional relationships that were tied to this marriage? These peripheral relationships include extended families, such as in-laws, whilst core relationships include children. The dissolution of a marriage through divorce, however, does not address the impact of divorce upon all of the additional relationships that were created through the marriage.
Children are often the most affected by a separation or divorce. The breakup of the parental unit brings with it many changes. Changes may be physical – the literal separation of each parent to different places of residences – as well as emotional: primarily the confusion and frustration of not understanding what is happening, or why.
This is why children sometimes protest against the situation in unusual or unexpected ways, such as unusually poor academic performance, withdrawal from friends and family, and other problematic behaviours. Typically, a child’s first reaction to divorce or separation is confusion, denial, and fear. Children may subsequently experience anger, depression, or even panic attacks, unless their feelings are assuaged early on in the separation by each parent.
The effect on the extended family
A separation or divorce can also affect the extended family of a marriage. In some cases, the family members of each spouse may feel like they have to take sides. This may be difficult, confusing and may also adversely affect the children too.
Children are good at sensing when something is wrong, and they’re especially deft at picking up on hostility – particularly if it’s being directed toward one of their parents. Post-separation, children typically struggle with knowing how to balance divided loyalties; feeling disloyal if they still love dad when mum is visibly upset, and vice versa.
When grandparents and other members of an extended family are also conflicted over whether they should take sides, kids pick up on this. If the extended family does express prejudice toward one parent, this can reinforce those feelings of confusion in children, and damage the relationship the child has with each parent.
Moving forward after a separation
Though it may be difficult to manage whilst you’re in the throes of a separation, it’s important that you communicate regularly with your loved ones – especially your children, extended family, and your in-laws. It’s important that you explain to them how you would like your family to move forward, despite the separation or divorce.
Talk about your feelings openly with your children and family, even if they are feelings of hurt or frustration. Let them see that although you’re upset, it’s okay to talk about how they are feeling, too. Doing this eliminates the sense that certain topics may be off limits, which can exacerbate each person’s feelings of confusion and frustration.
A separation is not a competition
It’s also important that you reinforce that even though you are separating from your partner, no one is to take sides, least of all the children. Even if, deep down, you don’t feel this way – which is common for people going through a separation or divorce – it’s vital for the children that you don’t make them feel compelled to take sides. This just creates inner feelings of conflict and torment, which can negatively impact their emotional and physical wellbeing.
It’s also helpful if you have these discussions with your children while your partner is present, so they can see that despite everything, you’re both remaining amicable toward each other. Try not to argue or fight in front of the children, and if you do need to have discussions with your partner that may become heated, try to have them while the children are not around.
Even though this particular chapter of your family life is ending, the family you’ve built never really breaks up or goes away – it merely evolves and moves forward, and it’s important to remember that as you negotiate this difficult time.
Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard.
Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive but you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life. Or the opposite spectrum, like not being able to talk to them when things are tough, knowing they would have the perfect advice or the perfect response to how you are feeling. We get dependent on certain people and their responses to the events going on in our lives. Sometimes, when a person is abruptly cut out of your life, or you have just “lost touch” when one or both of you moved away, it can be difficult to cope. We find that we miss the smell of our mother’s cooking or the way that she smiled when she was super proud of us.
In the place of those happy memories come tears, pain, repressed feelings and sometimes anger depending on how the relationship ended. Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore.
All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life.
They hurt you.
They did something to make you feel as you do now.
We each have the right to take care of our own well-being. The problem with that is it often contradicts the notion that we should “respect our elders,” “take care of our parents” or that “love conquers all.”
All of these philosophies are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have shitty parents, friends, relatives or relationships. They don’t take into account that sometimes the abuse of said elder, parent or person we love can be toxic, overwhelming, overbearing and sometimes downright scary.
That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. I found that in my case, staying in limited contact was only hurting me more because any time I received any kind of contact it was never positive. It always dragged me right back down into the toxic cesspool of despair. I was depressed because I couldn’t fix all the things wrong with their life, with mine and with our relationship, or fix our inability to see eye-to-eye on many important subjects.
I was allowing myself to wither away by trying to keep someone else alive…
That couldn’t work for me anymore. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be by being a depressed, anxious, worried, fearful, stressed out individual. I wanted freedom from terror.
It is so weird to think that I felt that way. Because how can you feel terror towards a person you also love?
Do not beat yourself up for this.
For those of you still reading, I want to tell you this:
Your feelings are valid.
You have a right to feel them, just as they are, with no manipulation by others or by the person who is hurting you.
Do not beat yourself up for feeling your feelings.
Do not keep giving up your patience, sanity, clear-minded stability and rational perceptions for the sake of the other person’s happiness. You only have one life, don’t waste it by living for someone else.
You cannot heal someone who chooses not to heal themselves. Do not let yourself fall into this trap. There is a reason you chose to leave that person behind, but it’s OK to mourn the loss of this relationship.
Note: The following document contains very harrowing accounts of the suffering that has been caused by ‘the cultic separation of loved ones.’ There are 91 accounts here, all from ex-cult members who all deserve a big thank you for contributing and for sharing their feelings and pain. Thanks to all!
Sometimes, facts about an atrocity need to be dissected and spelt out bold and clear for all to see. Only then, when it is seen for what it actually is, will society rise up shouting, “Enough is Enough!”
Enough Is Enough highlights one of the most appalling acts of humanity; ‘Cultic Separation’ of families. This is where man-made religious laws, are used by groups, in the name of their leader or god, to coerce and overpower people’s minds. It results in parents shunning and have nothing more to do with their children, husbands from wives, wives from husbands, siblings form siblings, children from grandparents etc etc.
For example, a survey conducted with 240 ex Exclusive Brethren members in 2012, revealed that 76% of this group, had family (Children, Father, Mother, Siblings or Grandparents) still in the group and thus were separated from them. If Uncles, Aunts or Cousins were included this number would rise. (Mytton, 2012)
There are over 1000 cults in the UK alone.
The compilation list on this page is from 3 questions asked of ex-cult members:
1: What family members are still separated from you?
2: How do you feel about the effects of the family separation?
3: The group were you part of?
Do you have family members separated from you by a religious group? Can you answer the 3 questions above? If so, please email me on email@example.com and I shall add your facts to the list. (Use Anonymous/Initials or full name if you want).
Your contribution will help create awareness which can lead to people getting set free from the clutches of man’s control!
Thank you for your support
1: Separated from 4 grandparents, 2 Uncles, 2 Aunts and 10 Cousins since 1970. My Dad, Mum and brother separated from me since 1988. (32 years)
2: The effects: My family unit destroyed, missing out on decades of love and support.
3: Group I was in – Exclusive Brethren.
John Spinks (Liverpool UK)
1. When we left in 1960 I was separated from my brother and all my extended family apart from one aunt and one set of grandparents.
2. The impact on my mother of losing her son was profound. For over 30 years she did not see him and could not understand why not as she was a christian. She saw him before she died but it was not a real reconnection and she died desolate. Her distress impacted on us all. We all missed out on years of love and support from our aunts, uncles, cousins and one set of grandparents.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated by being shunned from my daughter and two grandsons (her sons)
2: Missed out on the joy and love of family life with them. Also her siblings have missed out on their relationship with their sister and nephews. We are now old and in ill health and need her support more than ever.
3: The cult is Jehovahs Witnesses
1. Separated from parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, cousins since 1977.
2. My kids have missed out on so much love and support and as a young mother, I could have so used my mother’s advice and help.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1. Separated from just about everyone, 1st was the 60 split, then the 70 split when most left, all are in different cults as far as I understand, also appear to have Separation, and never seen since…..
2. I left in early 1973…. Parent + all 6 uncles and aunts have died, some years ago I understand, All 22 nephews and nieces [maybe more ?] + Sister have got married some years ago Understand all of there kids are married with kids. 47 – 60 years Separated is a long time, the odd times I hear a nephews or niece has died……….. This is a so say a religious system ?
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
Philip from Cirencester
1. My mother, my father, my brother, his wife, my nieces and nephews and my grand nieces and newphews, my grandmother, all of my aunts, uncles and cousins.
2. I never saw my father again (from 1990 – 2000 when he died) as they refused to let us see him – even when he was dying. They didn’t even tell us that he had died until they had already buried him. I did see my mother a couple of times – one of the times she talked to my brother and I through the screen door. The second time was when the PB were going through their little exercise of trying to get people to return to their fold around 2003. The one brother that stayed in the brethren hasn’t made contact with his siblings (3 of us) since we went to our mother’s graveside in 2004. It’s a pain that never goes away. One minute you are part of a big loving family and then you are dead to them as if you never existed.
3. Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated from twin brother and eldest brother and their extended families.
2: Missing out on family celebrations , closeness , not being involved in their lives.
3: Part of the U.K. LDS
1: I have lost 6 children and their children – my grandchildren: 12 I believe 18 direct descendants in total. And numerous cousins.
2: The effects are really too many to list as 18 years later problems related to my upbringing still arise. The biggies are unimaginable grief. PTSD, loneliness, and difficulty living with other people.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: What actual family members have been separated from you? My mother and my father (20 years) and a sister that turned her back three years ago.
2: I was on my own at the age of 18, became pregnant shortly after. I had to figure out how to be an adult and take care of a child on my own. I had no college education and barely any life experience. So I made some really stupid choices along the way. My two kids and my husband have no idea what my parents are like. Let alone met them. My parents drove 5 hours to tell me they were moving. I called up my mother in law and said this is your chance, come meet my parents. So we pretended that she needed to borrow a dish. Lol. They stayed for twenty minutes. I lost my sister for 17 years. I missed her kids growing up. And she dealt with some serious domestic abuse that was just swept under the rug.
3: What group were you part of? Jehovah Witness Boulder CO Hall
1: My dear mum and dad, and brother, wife, and children. Multitudes of cousins of who I was very close too.
2: Great sadness by my husband and hurt for me. Children very scathing of my family and the eb’s and not entertain churches and religion of any kind, as if that’s what religion is tearing up families they didn’t want a bar of it. Myself a life of constant heart ache, a shadow I can never erase.
3: I grew up in the Exclusive Brethren, Plymouth Brethren.
1: Separated from father, sister, wife and two children.
1: Lost contact with many relatives when the separation edict came in; uncles, aunts cousins etc. Both my parents had siblings who never joined. I lost all my neighbourhood friends too at this time. I think I was about 8. My 3 girls have never met 4 of their aunts, their fathers sisters although they oldest two are in their 40s. Two out of three never met their grandfather who lived in the same city. When their GF died on a Tuesday, he was buried on the Wednesday and we only found out the following Friday when someone told their GF’s brother who had never been in the EBs.
2: As an only child my friends and cousins had been an important part of my upbringing. I was so lonely as no EB kids lived close by. I remember hanging over the fence watching my friends play and also looking through a hole in the fence as well.
I remember sitting outside in the car when my dad visited one of his brothers briefly, so I was unable to talk or play with cousins who I had previously spent a lot of time with, who we shared Christmases and birthday parties with.
I remember coming to the conclusion that I certainly didn’t want to have children in that restrictive environment. I was fortunate to attend school to Grade 12, did well at school and got entrance to Uni and a scholarship to attend as well. I still planned to leave and go but loved my parents dearly. Unfortunately, my father died 6 weeks before my matriculation exams. I felt I could not leave my mother in the midst of her grief. My worldly friends from school all went off to Uni and again I lost good friends. I stayed solely for my mother for the next two years. Meanwhile I met a guy an EB who was later kicked out. Half his family were in, half out. His parents had broken up because of EBs when his Dad was told to kick his older brother out of the house at age 16. The mother left then too, leaving her other 8 children who had no contact with her even though she had been granted access by a judge. This screwed up the whole family I believe as I would class this as early childhood trauma.
I ran away from home to another state of Australia at age 20 but was cut off from my mother from 1972 until her death in 2006.
I married the ex EB guy and we were together 40 years and had 3 beautiful children. This impacted even their lives. They had one grandparent out of 4 and she had her own issues from leaving her children behind. I used to try to keep contact with my mother by writing letters and always visited when in the old home town but if the EBs knew I was coming she was shipped out of town. Visiting was always a quick five minutes at the front door where she was obviously fearful someone would see her talking to me.
Our kids never formed a bond with her. Eventually she lived with other EBs (she had no relatives in) and I totally lost where she was for about 5 years. I remember visiting the last time with my children in 1999 and my then husband I having to sit outside on a garden wall while the 3 girls got to talk to her in the front hall. I couldn’t even see her through the sun shining on the screen door. One of my daughters said she had tears running down her cheek and just kept looking at me.
A couple of years ago I heard she had tried to leave but was prevented. I have no proof of this but have no reason to doubt the story. I never got to visit her unchaperoned again.
They did tell me when she passed away and I did go to the graveside not the EB funeral. If she hadn’t died on a Friday afternoon so the funeral couldn’t happen before Monday morning first thing I would have been unable to make it up there.
Both my ex husband and I tried to connect with our “out” relatives after we left but it was difficult and I believe some even blamed us for how we or our “in” relatives had cut them off. I think for me it is easier since my mother passed away but the ongoing rejection and even grieving her alone has certainly contributed to a lot of heartache and anguish. I used to feel as if the first 20 years of my life had never existed. I never doubted my mother loved me as I was a very wanted only child after she suffered numerous miscarriages. I lived with the guilt of hurting her. I found her rejection of my children’s separate issue. Getting married and having children is something you normally share with your family. I felt we didn’t have that extended family to share with. I believe the traumas both my ex-husband and I suffered contributed to our marriage breakdown for two wounded people after 40 years together. I believe too, although our children were born out of the cult it has affected them to a lesser degree as well. There is so much family they have been cheated out of getting to know and they have grown up with two parents who experienced trauma at the hands of a cult which has certainly affected our attachment with them.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: Mum and Dad, 3 brothers and 1 sister and all their many children, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles, many, many cousins and now great nephews and nieces.
2: My children have had no grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and no reference to the older generation of relatives and their younger relatives. Personally I lost my entire culture, friends, family and reference to life and living.
3: Exclusive Brethren / PBCC
1 I was separated from my extended family, father, step siblings, 2 grandparents, and cousins from around 1960. I was separated from my siblings and my mother in 1976. 2. Severe isolation when I first left. I had no friends, no support group. It was like moving to a foreign country without going anywhere. 3 Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My dad, my five brothers and sisters, my eight kids since 2013. There is been absolutely no contact except occasionally from my older brother.
2. For me, I spent a total of four months in a mental rehabilitation hospital because of nervous breakdowns and 2 attempted suicides.
1: As of Oct 2017 my only daughter. Since then my 2 sons have returned to me & my youngest son who left the organization with me.
2: My youngest willing to take his life knowing he would lose his family.
Teresa Garcia Espinoza
1: Mother, Father, two brothers, aunties and uncles.
2: When parents died, no word of this to me – times changed and was allowed to see my younger brother just before he passed .. my children have grown up not knowing their grandparents, uncles and aunties, and their cousins. Had to make a new life with new friends, always held hope parents would see the light and leave, but no …..
3: Of course – Exclusive Brethren.
1: My two children, ages 3 and 4.
2: The effect was tearing my heart out and the effect on then was they did not have a mother and we are still estranged 35 years later.
3: I was Mormon.
1. Separated from my father, some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in 1982.
2. The JW ex refused to work and entertained the brothers while I worked in a sewing factory, a true sweat shop. The ex punched me in the face, then the brothers told me it was my duty to go back to the marriage . The brothers monetarily supported custody battles while the kids and I lived in public housing. 10 years of fighting the ex and the JW team. My father is widowed, in his 90s and lives alone. His claims the congregation in Central PA is tending to his needs. He’s rail thin, can hardly walk, and they hold the meetings at his house. He plows the snow for their ease of passage to his front door using his old tractor. I’m not sure how he climbs onto the thing. My only living sibling and I don’t speak, and my other sibling died from alcohol and drugs. I found my victory through education and my 3 children, all have college degrees, 2 with their Master’s. My life is beautiful!
1. My Parents (including three mothers), two mothers in law, 20 siblings, 12 siblings in law (is that a thing?), around 50 blood related nieces, 50 blood related nephews, and around 10,000 friends and community members.
2. The effect was that I felt alone, betrayed, and abandoned. My husband and I faced the “wicked” Outside World and had to try to figure out things other people know already.
3. I was FLDS. Mormon fundamentalist polygamy.
1: I knew what I would be facing, before I left. Lost my three children and two grandchildren.
2: It was my choice…therefore I live with it. I miss them dearly, however, because I was raised in a dissociated life no attatchements to anyone, this made it a little easier on me.
1. Told to keep distancing from none JW relatives until no relationship exists. And then shunned and lost my mother, 2 sisters, 1 grandmother. The only family I had left.
2. Family unit distroyed, causing severe mental health problems on both my JW family side and my side. My grandmother’s health deteriorating from stress. She will not make it to the summer. And I can’t even be with her. Even if shunning were to stop. There is alot of damage. No one will ever view each other the same.
3. The group I was in was Jehovah’s witnesses
1: Both parents,sister,niece,cousins,cousins children.
2: Family broken up, my 2 brothers xjws with me, rest against us, shunned and treated like dirt even when family tragedy happened. Depression,feelings of never being good enough, stress loneliness.
3: Jehovah’s Witness
1: Both parents, 2 sisters, 2 brothers in law, numerous nieces and nephews, and cousins.
2: 30 years of not being in each others’ lives – missing weddings, graduations, births, and other life events as well as basic family support.
3 – Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My husband and I have lost a daughter, son in law, granddaughter and grandson. I was never really close to most Jws, so nothing lost there.
2. It’s been one of the most painful events in my life. Like 4 people died all at once. I rationalize that since we’re family maybe they will see us some. Was I wrong, it’s going into the 4th year.
What causes us to move on from traumatic experiences? Psychologists are finding it’s not always about bouncing back—sometimes we have to feel our whole world fall to pieces.
The Vietnam War veteran had enlisted when he was young, serving two combat tours and surviving multiple firefights. “To this day,” said psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine, “his war memories are triggered by certain smells that remind him of Vietnam”: overgrown vegetation, the acrid stench of burning, or even sweat—like that which ran in rivulets down the faces of men fighting for their lives in the sweltering jungles—brought it all back. It was classic post-traumatic stress.
As Tsai was treating him (successfully) for PTSD, however, something unexpected emerged. The vet still described his Vietnam experiences as horrific, but he said the painful memories remind him of who he is. His experience typifies research psychologists’ new understanding of trauma: When people are least resilient—in the sense that they are knocked for a loop, do not bounce back quickly or at all, and suffer emotionally for months, if not years—they can eventually emerge from trauma stronger, more appreciative of life, more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and with different (arguably more enlightened) values and priorities.
By no stretch of the imagination would the vet be called resilient in the sense that research psychologists use the term: an ability to go on with life, essentially unchanged mentally and emotionally, in the wake of profound adversity. To the contrary, environmental triggers returned the vet’s troubled mind to the horrors of land mines and ambushes and friends blown apart. At the same time, the vet’s military experience (and his triumph over PTSD) makes him feel that he can accomplish anything. “Nothing bothers him too much, because everything pales in comparison to Vietnam,” said Tsai.
For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
This effect, post-traumatic growth, was so named in 1996 by psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina. It can take many forms, but all involve positive psychological changes: a greater sense of personal strength (“if I survived that, I can survive anything”), deeper spiritual awareness, greater appreciation of life, and recognition of previously unseen pathways and possibilities for one’s life. For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
Stronger Than Before
The concept that from great suffering can come great wisdom is both ancient and familiar. An oncologist friend of mine talks about patients who say cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to them, cutting through life’s usual trivia and making them value the truly important. President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (1944–2008), said his battle with cancer made him see that “the simple joys of life are everywhere and are boundless.”
After a car crash in which my childhood friend Joyce lost her right leg at age 20, her months-long recovery and rehab left her with hours upon empty hours to think. “Stuff that used to be a big deal, like being popular, just isn’t anymore,” I remember her saying. “I care about making a difference [she became a schoolteacher], and I think I’m more empathetic. I feel that when someone is suffering I understand in my bones what she’s experiencing. Before, it was just, oh, poor her.” However, post-traumatic growth does not mean traumas are desirable, let alone that they should be downplayed when they befall others. As bestselling author Rabbi Harold Kushner said about the spiritual growth he experienced after the death of his 14-year-old son, “I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have him back.”
Few lives are without suffering, crisis, and traumas, from extreme or rare ones, such as becoming a war refugee or being taken hostage, to common ones, such as bereavement, accidents, house fires, combat, or your own or a loved one’s serious or chronic illness. For years, psychology has assumed that the best inoculation against post-traumatic stress—as well as responses to trauma that fall well short of mental disorder—is resilience, the ability to pick up one’s life where it was before the trauma. Now that psychology has made post-traumatic growth a focus of research, what is emerging is a new understanding of the complicated relationship between trauma, resilience, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic Growth vs. Resilience
Although the psychological concept of resilience dates back to the 1970s, scientists are still struggling to understand its origins. Some studies find it’s fostered in childhood by a strong relationship with a parent or other adult, and the belief that your fate is in your own hands (a sense of agency). But the opposite belief, that “God is in control and everything happens for a reason,” may contribute to resilience, too, said UNC’s Calhoun. A 2016 review of people who survived atrocities and war in nine countries from South Sudan and Uganda to Bosnia and Burundi found that resilience varied by culture. Strong emotional connections to others fostered resilience among survivors in some societies but not others, and a sense of agency actually backfired among some: If you believe your fate is in your hands and then see your family cut down by a sniper in Sarajevo, you feel not only grief but also crushing guilt.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead. “Post-traumatic growth means you’ve been broken—but you put yourself back together” in a stronger, more meaningful way, Tsai said. This may come as a surprise to those who think of resilience as the ability to learn, change, and gain strength in the face of adversity. Among research psychologists, however, resilience is about bouncing back with relative ease to where you were before, not necessarily bouncing forward to a stronger place. By this understanding, without the breaking, there cannot be putting back together, so people with strong coping capacities will be less challenged by trauma and therefore less likely to experience post-traumatic growth.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead.
For post-traumatic growth to occur, the breaking need not be so extreme as to constitute PTSD, as was the case for the Vietnam War vet. Tsai and his colleagues found that among the 1,057 US military veterans they studied, the average number of lifetime traumas (such as bereavement, natural disaster, illness, and accidents, as well as military traumas) was 5.7. Only 1 in 10 had PTSD, yet 59% of the vets had experienced post-traumatic growth. And the strongest predictor of whether someone would avoid PTSD after additional trauma was whether they had experienced post-traumatic growth after an earlier one, Tsai and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It was the first study to examine whether previous post-traumatic growth can protect against PTSD if trauma strikes again. The findings suggest post-traumatic growth might in fact boost resilience.
Post-traumatic growth—unlike resilience—is not a return to baseline. It is the product of reassembling your “general set of beliefs about the world/universe and your place in it,” said Calhoun: You question the benevolence, predictability, and control ability of the world, your sense of self, the path you expected life to follow. From the shards of previous beliefs, you create wholly new worldviews, and can perhaps emerge a stronger person than you were before.
What is Trauma?
Among psychiatrists, what constitutes “trauma” is controversial. Some define trauma based on the nature of the event: Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, for instance, says a traumatic experience must be outside the range of what humans normally encounter. Others define trauma based on how people respond to an experience: Intense fear, helplessness, horror, or distress would be symptoms of trauma.
A circular definition —“trauma is something that leaves you traumatized”—is obviously not ideal. Nor is “outside the range of normal experience” a reliable measure: Tragically, many experiences that once were outside that range no longer are, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, or wartime horrors.
Scholars are therefore trying to do better. An emerging definition holds that trauma challenges a person’s “assumptive world”: her belief in how people behave, how the world works, and how her life would unfold. By this understanding, trauma needn’t threaten life or health, nor cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But it must make you question your bedrock assumptions, such as that the world is fair, that terrible things do not befall good people, that there are limits to humans’ capacity for inhumanity, that things will always work out, or that the old die before the young. By that definition, few of us make it through this life without experiencing trauma.
The death of a parent is among the most emotionally difficult and universal of human experiences. If a person doesn’t know what it’s like suffer the loss of a father or the loss of a mother, they most likely will one day. The passing of a parent is inevitable, but that certainty doesn’t make losing a parent any easier to accept or understand. The death of a parent is grief-filled and traumatic, and permanently alters children of any age, both biologically and psychologically. Nothing is ever the same again — it’s a wholly transformative thing.
There’s no amount of psychological data that can capture this distinctly painful and powerful grief, as it affects each of us individually. There are, however, a number of brain-imaging and psychological studies that demonstrate the magnitude of loss of the death of a parent represents. The posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum are all brain regions mobilized during grief processing, research shows. These regions are involved in storing memories and dwelling on the past; they’re also involved in regulating sleep and appetite.
In the short term, neurology assures us that loss will trigger physical distress. In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk. A handful of studies have found links between unresolved grief and cardiac events, hypertension, immune disorders, and even cancer. It is unclear why grief would trigger such dire physical conditions, but one theory is that a perpetually activated sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) can cause long-term genetic changes. These changes — dampened immune responses, less pre-programmed cell death — may be ideal when a bear is chasing you through the forest and you need all the healthy cells you can get. But, unchecked, this sort of cellular dysregulation is also how cancerous cells metastasize.
While the physical symptoms that manifest after the death of a parent are relatively consistent, the psychological impacts are all but unpredictable. In the year following the loss of a parent, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) considers it healthy for adults to experience a range of contradictory emotions, including but not limited to anger, rage, sadness, numbness, anxiety, guilt, emptiness, regret, and remorse. It’s normal to throw oneself into work; it’s also normal to withdraw from activities and friends.
“In the best-case scenario, the death of a parent is anticipated and there’s time for families to prepare, say their goodbyes, and surround themselves with support,” says psychiatrist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi. “In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time … [leading to] diagnosis of major depressive disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved.”
Context matters. Sudden, violent death puts survivors at a higher risk of developing a grief disorder, and when an adult child has a fractured relationship with a parent, the death can be doubly painful — even if the bereaved shuts down and pretends not to feel the loss.
“Coping is less stressful when adult children have time to anticipate parental death,” says Jumoke Omojola, a therapist and clinical social worker. “Not being able to say goodbye contributes to feeling depressed and angry.” This may explain why studies have shown that young adults are more affected by parental loss than middle-aged adults. Presumably, their parents died unexpectedly, or at least earlier than average.
The gender of both the parent and child can especially influence the contours of the grief response.
Studies suggest that daughters have more intense grief responses than sons. Men who lose their parents, meanwhile, may be slower to move on. “Males tend to show emotions less and compartmentalize more,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author. “These factors do affect the ability to accept and process grief.”
Studies have also shown that loss of a father is more associated with the loss of personal mastery — vision, purpose, commitment, belief, and self-knowledge. Losing a mother, on the other hand, elicits a more raw response. “Many people report feeling a greater sense of loss when a mother dies,” Manly says. “This can be attributed to the often close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship.”
At the same time, the differences between losing a father and a mother represent relatively weak trends. “Complicated bereavement can exist no matter which parent is lost,” Benders-Hadi says. “More often, it is dependent on the relationship and bond that existed with the parent.”
Grief becomes pathological, according to the DSM, when the bereaved are so overcome that they are unable to carry on with their lives. Preliminary studies suggest this occurs in about 1 percent of the healthy population, and about 10 percent of the population that had previously been diagnosed with a stress disorder.
“A diagnosis of adjustment disorder is made within three months of the death if there is a ‘persistence of grief reactions’ exceeding what’s normal for the culture and the religion,” Omojola says. “In this situation, the grieving adult has severe challenges meeting social, occupational, and other expected, important life functions.”
Even adults who are able to go to work and put on a brave face may be suffering a clinical condition if they remain preoccupied with the death, deny that their parent has died, or actively avoid reminders of their parents, indefinitely. This condition, known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a trickier diagnosis to pin down (the DSM labeled it a “condition for further study”).
In more concrete terms, unresolved grief can spiral into anxiety and depression. This is especially true when the parent dies by suicide, according to Lyn Morris, a licensed therapist and VP at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Adults who lose a parent to suicide often struggle with complex emotions such as guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment and vulnerability,” she told Fatherly. Indeed a 2010 study out of Johns Hopkins University confirmed that losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves.
Elisabeth Goldberg, a relationship therapist in NYC who works with grieving adults, has seen the toll that long-term grieving can take on a marriage. Specifically, Goldberg suggests a (somewhat Freudian) link between losing a parent and cheating on a spouse. “I see many affairs as manifestations of unresolved grief about losing a parent,” she says. “The adult child stays in a state of disbelief, and rejects reality in many ways in order to feed the delusion that the parent is still alive. The grieving child needs a new attachment figure, that’s the psyche trying to reconcile the denial and grief. So rather than say, ‘My mother died,’ the grieving child can say, ‘While Mommy’s away, I will play with someone other than my spouse.’ ”
How to cope with the death of a parent in a healthy way remains an active area of scientific inquiry. Ross Grossman, a licensed therapist who specializes in adult grief, has identified several “main distorted thoughts” that infect our minds when we face adversity. Two of the most prominent are “I should be perfect” and “They should have treated me better” — and they tug in opposite directions. “These distorted thoughts,” Grossman says, “can easily arise in the wake of a loved one’s death.”
When a son or daughter reflects on how he or she should have treated a deceased parent, “I should be perfect” thoughts tend to rise to the surface. Grossman say his patients often feel that they should have done more and, “because they didn’t do any or all of these things, they are low-down, dirty, awful, terrible human beings,” he says. “These kinds of thoughts, if left undisputed, usually result in a feeling of low self-worth, low self-esteem, shame, self-judgment, self-condemnation.
On the opposite extreme, patients sometimes blame their deceased parents for not treating them properly, and never making amends. This is similarly unhealthy. “The usual result of this is deep resentment, anger, rage,” Grossman says. “They may have genuine, legitimate reasons to feel mistreated or abused. In these situations, it’s not always the death of the parent but the death of the possibility of reconciliation, of rapprochement and apology from the offending parent.”
“The possibility,” he says, “has died along with the person.”
In extreme cases, therapy may be the only way to get a grieving son or daughter back on their feet. Time, and an understanding spouse, can also go a long way toward helping adults get through this painful chapter in their lives.
“Husbands can best support their wives by listening,” Manly says. “Men often feel helpless in the face of their wives’ emotions, and they want to fix the situation. A husband can do far more good by sitting with his wife, listening to her, holding her hand, taking her for walks, and — if she desires — visiting the burial site.”
The challenges are daunting. Yes, we are vulnerable.
But each of us can find the courage room inside.
The first part of this article is a story about how frightening the current pandemic is for some of us, and how one young woman is finding her courage every day. (This client has given me permission to share some of her story, hoping her courage is contagious.)
The second part describes two different practices for courage-building. If either one resonates, grab a journal or open a fresh computer doc and WRITE IT OUT or (with bilateral stimulation) DO IT. The key is to act because action is POWER: a main ingredient of COURAGE.
Angel of a New Life.
She’s so distraught that she needs time to cry before the session can begin. “But I’m afraid of dying. I will die . . .This could be Armageddon. Couldn’t it?” Since COVID-19 has become a pandemic, Angel, a woman who recently left an apocalyptic religion, has experienced a resurgence of acute PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms: panic attacks, overwhelming fear, dissociation, feelings of abandonment.
I respond, into my computer screen, “No, Angel. I don’t believe it’s Armageddon. We’ve talked about this. And I know you’re scared. Before we keep going, please find your feet on the floor.”
I give her a moment. “Do your feet feel the same on either side?” At first, she can’t feel her right foot. At all: she’s dissociated—unable to feel her body fully. For Angel, this manifests first in her feet; she cannot feel the ground. This brings on a new round of panicked tears. I speak again, wishing that our two bodies were in the same room instead of on opposite sides of Toronto and opposite sides of our screens. When someone is upset, dissociating, crying, just sitting quietly with a loving witness can be a great help. Our brains and bodies are inherently social; the presence of an emotionally-regulated person brings calm to an individual or even a group in acute distress. Our emotions are contagious.
Does it work through a screen, though? Therapists all over the world are asking themselves that question right now. “Angel, I’m here. I’m with you. Keep your eyes open. Look at me. If you can’t feel the right foot, just focus on your left foot. Move your toes up and down. Lift your heel. Now touch your one hand to the opposite knee. Then the other hand. That’s it.” She shivers, sighs, touches and touches, back and forth.
After this short round of bilateral stimulation — rhythmic touches on alternating sides of the body — a wave passes through her body, top to the bottom. Though I can’t see her right foot — we’re working in separate rooms, each on our screens — I know from her and eyes face that her awareness has entered the ‘missing’ foot, connecting her back to the floor and to the present. “Back in the feet? ” I ask the familiar question.
She answers, “Yes, back in my body.”
Touching one side, then the other: it’s a deceptively simple grounding technique, but it works in profound ways. Bilateral stimulation can be tactile, visual, or auditory — gentle rhythmic stimulation to either side of the body/ears/eyes to calm and soothe the nervous system.
Eastern physical and spiritual practices like yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and all the martial arts have elaborate systems based on this technique; Western neuroscience and psychotherapy have finally joined the club. Most of the somatic trauma therapies developed in the last twenty years use some form of bilateral stimulation. Though I work a lot with visualization and mindfulness, my core practice as a therapist is OEI — Observed Experiential Integration — another bilateral stimulation therapy that changed my life twenty years ago, when I was healing from the traumas of my childhood.
We Live in a Beautiful, Traumatized World.
Many of us have extensive histories of abandonment and trauma: child abuse, including neglect, insecure attachment to caregivers, religious trauma similar to Angel’s; violent and emotionally abusive adult relationships; combat experiences; assaults of many kinds; school, academic, and workplace bullying; life-altering accidents, shootings. Many trauma victims grow into kind, productive individuals who have healed, who are healing, who want to heal. Yet many more are in prison or live in prison-like personal circumstances, trapped in the pain and disconnection of traumatic reenactment.
While life protects none of us from misfortune, with the spread of Covid-19, some people are experiencing traumatic stress as daily reality for the first time. Having never experienced anything like this before, many people are deeply confused, which often expresses itself as an inability to focus. When everything normal has changed, it is natural to feel disoriented and fearful.
Even for those of us who are relatively safe, this pandemic carries all the markers of the traumatic experience:
Powerlessness. Intense anxiety. Lack of predictability.
Fear of impending injury or death. A disordered sense of reality and time.
Disrupted social bonds.
For those who are working in essential services and healthcare, the dangers are potentially lethal. The brave work some people are doing now will leave the deep internal scars of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the rest of us also have to contend with this frightening time. Later in the session, Angel asked, “But how can my parents not even call me? How can they not check in on me? Did they never love me at all?” Her family has disowned her for leaving ‘the truth.’ She’s had very little contact with her family or old JW friends. She already has created a small circle of new friends, but she craves contact with her ‘old world’ and her parents and siblings.
Ostracism is one of the most wounding things a group can do to an individual or family unit. Social death is truly a form of death. And with this pandemic, because we’re so cut off from each other, millions of people are experiencing a taste of social death and ostracism.Our internal and external social engagement systems have been disturbed or completely overturned. Forced isolation is painful.
Single clients tell me — on a phone or computer screen, at this time — that they think they are going “fucking crazy.” I nod and say, “Let’s work with that.” We are social creatures; our bodies and our brains are social machines. We can now see on MRI scans that our brains respond to and interact with each other all the time — right down to the level of mirror neurons. We experience our connections with each other as both emotions and physical feelings in the body.
That’s why the glance of a stranger’s eyes or the gaze of a loved one can be so powerful. It’s brain to brain contact. By reading this, you share with me a moment, a small world of thought.
I continue to work with Angel on her renewed symptoms. She feels deep grief for the loss of her family. This is part of religious and betrayal trauma: in breaking away from an abusive religion or relationship, the person often loses a community as well as an identity. Sometimes, when Angel feels like she can’t cope with this world and her fear, I remind her of the extraordinary courage she found to make her escape in the first place.
My therapy and mentorship practice is called The Courage Room. That doesn’t only indicate the name of the place; it’s also another way of saying ‘the human body’. Each of us has within a room of resilience and strength. You are the courage room. I am the courage room. We are in this together.
Below, you will find two techniques for building your courage (finding your calm is an extra benefit.)
Finding The Courage Room Inside: two basic techniques
#1. Make Courage Real: Visualize The Courage Resource
The first step in building courage is to imagine it. Never underestimate the healing power of the imagination.
Usually every one of us, even those who’ve lived through damaging experiences, can remember a time and a place where we were safe, where we experienced a sense of happiness and contentment. In therapy-speak, we call this a resource; remembering the resource place or activity is called resourcing. We summon up those places in our memories we can use for self-nourishment and stabilization.
These do not have to be fancy places. Often they are humble. One safe place in a house: for one client, it was under the dining room table of her childhood. Sometimes it’s a backyard or garden. A park you used to love as a kid (or still love as an adult). A safe relative or friend’s house.
So think of (or imagine — custom-build one) your place of courage and safety.
Meditate upon it. Daydream about it. Honour it in your mind and heart.
Courage can also be contained, like a talisman, in one small object in our mind or physical life. Imagine the space or the object.
Hold it in your hand if exists: turn it into your courage talisman.
Now, grab the journal or open the fresh document and write down the story of your courage room/object. Really DO IT: the physical act is an act of power. Accessing power through your imagination gives you courage. Courage COMES from the imagination. More on that in another blog post, and a book I’m writing . . .
My house is full of small and large rocks and stones because at different times, they’ve given me courage, or a view into another possibility. Rocks and stones especially are dense, beautiful objects of power. Their solidity is dependable. And one of my most important ‘courage’ rooms and talismans combined is a big tree in my neighbourhood. I visit it almost every day. I love that tree!
Close your eyes and think about how the courage of this space/object can grow, expand, giving you both strength and a sense of calm. When you experience distress, upset, exhaustion, fear, PTSD symptoms, go to your room/object and get in touch with your courage resource. The more you work with this, the more powerful it becomes.
Visualization can be many things, including a spiritual practice that’s part of meditation, but it’s also a form of brain exercise that translates into physical results. For decades, elite athletes have employed visualization in their training; a whole body of research shows how effective visualization is for building co-ordination, strength, and spatial memory.
#2. Bilateral Stimulation
Anyone can experiment with stimulating each side of their body in a simple alternating sensory pattern. When we touch the body, or focus our vision or hearing in a certain way, we send signals to the brain: it’s the brain that actually allows us to feel, see, hear, taste, smell. Focused, intentional bilateral stimulation has a regulating effect on the brain, the body, and the entire nervous system.
So next time you are panicking, ready to scream at someone, filled with the pressure to harm yourself or another person in any way (in reality or in your imagination) please count to ten, take a few deep conscious breaths, and give the techniques below a try. We bilaterally stimulate naturally when we walk, dance, push the pedals of our bicycle.
First and foremost, as I did with Angel above, put your feet on the floor. Feel your feet. Feel how each side might give you a slightly or a radically different sensation. Pay attention. Go back and forth. Just stay with your feet; the feeling will come into them.
Breathe into your belly. You don’t want to have the breath up in your throat; pull it all that way into the bottom of your lungs and let your belly fill with air.
Take your right hand and gently tap your left knee or thigh. (Further focus comes when we cross the midline of the body, hence the left to right sequencing.) Take your left hand and gently tap your right knee or thigh.
Repeat 20 times, paying careful attention to how this simple exercise helps to calm down your body. Keep breathing into your lower lungs and belly. Feel your feet on the floor. Repeat more if it helps.
If you want to get more active, stand up. Feel your feet on the floor. Lift your right knee up and touch it with your left hand. Repeat on the other side. Do this bilateral stimulation march for a few steps, remaining in place, to see if it works for you.
Turn these two basic, easy techniques into part of a mental health hygiene routine. Share these techniques with friends and family. Kids can also use conscious bilateral stimulation to calm down, to feel better, to focus on homework, and to self-soothe.
The Beginning, Not the End, of The World
Social distancing has brought Angel into a renewed period of mourning for the loss of her family; it’s an ongoing sorrow, especially in a time when most of us are anxious to connect, to remind ourselves that we belong, we are part of our families and of the human family. In a recent session, Angel talked at length about losing her family, her friends, feeling that she had died to them; none of the community members that she’s known her whole life have called to see how she’s doing.
“It’s like Armageddon has already come and I’m dead!” Her face seemed to be ready to crumple. I thought she might cry. But something else happened. Her expression altered and opened; her face lit up. And her voice became stronger as she said, “But I’m not dead. Obviously! I’m ALIVE. I’ve already resurrected myself. That’s what leaving was for me. Resurrection. And it’s the only kind of resurrection I will ever know. So I’m not going to waste it.” Then she did something she’s only recently started doing, after almost thirty-three years of living: she swore, with great feeling, “Fuck that!” We burst out laughing, each leaning in to get closer on either side of our computer screens.
Here’s to self-resurrection. Here’s to spring, which shows us every year how to come alive again.
(Disclaimer: Dear Reader, this article is not a substitute for therapy or counselling. If you are experiencing serious distress, please call a hotline or a trusted friend for support.!)
“It’s funny how sometimes the people you’d take the bullet for, are the ones behind the trigger.”
What exactly is parental alienation in the context of a narcissistic relationship?
It is the dynamic that occurs when a child is manipulated by the narcissistic parent to reject the other, healthy and empathic parent. It happens because the narcissistic parent uses a type of invisible coercion to convince the child that the other parent is no good. In essence, the narcissistic parent teaches his/her child to hate his/her other parent, and uses the child as a weapon to hurt the other, non-narcissistic parent.
Often this is done by implication and non-verbal communication, such as when a child returns home from being with the targeted parent and the narcissist acts overly concerned or alarmed by anything that may have gone on at the targeted parent’s house; by acting as if there is cause for distress, and that the child is very fortunate to be away from that “unhealthy environment…”
Why would a child be so willing to reject his/her “good” parent in exchange for the emotionally dysfunctional personality disordered parent?
This occurs because the child sees and feels the rejection and discard of the targeted parent by the abusive parent, and internalizes a deep and powerful fear that if he/she does not identify with the “favored” parent then he/she too will be rejected by the narcissist. In fact, the child will enmesh with the rejecting parent in order to ensure his/her protection from the same fateful rejection as the targeted parent.
The child is unconsciously experiencing a type of trauma bond/Stockholm syndrome phenomenon within the parental relationship. Liken it to being in a cult. In a cult, members learn to be loyal to the charismatic leader at the expense of friends, family, and society! It really is astonishing how it happens.
The narcissist, just like a charismatic cult leader, convinces his/her child that he/she is “special” and “favored” by aligning with him/her (the narcissist.) Reality gets flipped on its head and the other parent is considered to be the dangerous one, while the narcissist becomes a hero of sorts.
Typically, in a narcissistic family, there is a “golden child” and a “scapegoat.” In either case, the family has experienced viscerally the unspoken dynamics at play within the family. Often, during a divorce, the scapegoated child may all of a sudden experience the narcissistic parent paying close attention to him/her, meeting the felt needs of the child that have long been unmet within the child’s psyche.
The child has been starving for attention from the narcissistic parent, so, when all of a sudden he/she starts receiving deeply coveted attention, any sense of analysis or logic is suspended. It’s like a person dying of thirst, receiving that long overdue glass of ice sparkling water. Even if the narcissist has been abusive, hurtful, or neglectful of the child in the past, because of abuse amnesia, it doesn’t matter. The child’s needs become satisfied in an instant and all is forgiven and forgotten.
And, if the child feels secure with the parent who has always been there emotionally for the child, he/she will find it easy to be manipulated by the narcissistic parent because intrinsically, he/she knows that his bond is safe with the empathic parent. It is much easier to reject someone you know will never leave, than it is to reject someone you can barely hold on to.
For the child, the unconscious choice is an emotional survival strategy. One of the problems with abusive relationships is that they create unmet needs in those involved with the abusive person. When the narcissist starts wooing the child, it requires very little to win him/her over. Once this happens, then alienation of the targeted parent begins.
In reality, the narcissist does not love his/her child in a real way. Real love would not deprive a person from a loving, empathic relationship.
In addition to this, we must not forget that people with narcissism suffer from delusional thinking. On some warped level, the narcissist actually believes his/her own lies. He/she destroyed the relationship with the targeted parent in the first place, creating a drama in his/her mind that made the “good” parent the villain; while, the narcissist believes, erroneously, that he/she is the truly injured party.
To add more power to the dynamic, because the narcissist believes his/her own lies, he/she is VERY convincing to everyone – particularly his/her vulnerable children. He/she propagandizes his delusional narrative.
The other (empathic) parent does not see it coming and cannot compete with the lunacy of it all. Since the empathic parent is most-likely conscientious and plays fair, he/she is not equipped to even enter the battle field with the narcissist’s weaponry – seduction, manipulation, smear campaigns, delusional complexes, believed confabulation, reality twisting, and utter insanity. The targeted parent is completely out-witted.
One of the hardest things to experience is the betrayal wound that occurs when your own child grows up to hate you. I have seen this numerous times in my life, to the point that I am compelled to write about it.
Parents who have been rejected by one or more of their children experience a type of pain that is not matched by any other – even the betrayal of a spouse or parent.
If you are a parent who has been rejected by your child or children then hopefully this paper will be beneficial to you. Of course, if you were and still are an abusive parent, then perhaps your child did what was necessary in order to protect him or herself from further abuse; but, if you are a typical, “good enough” parent, then your child’s rejection is unnatural and unhealthy – for all involved.
What types of children reject their parent(s) in this respect? (Note: these options are not mutually exclusive.)
Children with Narcissistic Parental Alienation Syndrome
Children with attachment trauma
Children with personality disorders
If you are experiencing the heart ache of a child who rejected you, then you probably feel devastated, hurt, confused, angry, furious, misunderstood, shocked, invalidated, and empty. Was I a bad parent? Why did my children turn against me? What could I have done differently? Maybe I said “no” too many times. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on him/her. Where did I go wrong?
Many questions enter your mind.
Usually, children, no matter what, are loyal to their parents – even very neglectful and abusive ones. When a child rejects a parent it usually has something to do with something else other than abuse or neglect. In fact, when a person cuts ties with an abusive or neglectful parent it is usually a difficult process and requires the child to set difficult boundaries, and is nearly impossible to do.
What about the parent whose child rejects them easily or with no sense of conscience or remorse, acting as if their parent were Attila the Hun, using criticism and judgment as tools of attack against the parent; using every weakness of the parent as justification for the ostracizing him/her? This type of parental rejection is not natural and is usually the result of one of the above three mentioned possibilities.
I will discuss each option here.
Children with Narcissistic Parental Alienation Syndrome:
This is the dynamic that occurs when a child is manipulated by the narcissistic parent to reject the other, healthy and empathic parent. It happens because the narcissistic parent uses a type of invisible coercion to convince the child that the other parent is no good. In essence, the narcissistic parent teaches his/her child to hate his/her other parent, and uses the child as a weapon to hurt the other, non-narcissistic parent.
Often this is done by implication and non-verbal communication, such as when a child returns home from being with the targeted parent and the narcissist acts overly concerned or alarmed by anything that may have gone on at the targeted parent’s house; by acting as if there is cause for distress, and that the child is very fortunate to be away from that “unhealthy environment…”
For further information on the topic of Narcissistic Parental Alienation, please click here.
Children with attachment trauma:
While attachment occurs all through the human lifespan, the most crucial time in a human being’s life for attachment is between the times of birth to two years. If the child experiences a breach in time, away from the mother, for any reason – be it abuse, neglect, or something else prevents the mother from being present and attuned to her child, then attachment trauma results.
Once a child has not connected properly with his/her mother, then the child did not develop the appropriate skills for having a healthy interpersonal attachment. A mother needs to provide the necessary attunement and resonance needed to learn how to love and trust another person. When a child is not given that type of relational input, he/she adjusts or copes by shutting down his/her needs. This results in later relationship problems, particularly involving the relationship with the mother, or anyone else offering intimacy and nurturing.
Children with personality disorders:
There appears to be a genetic component to personality disorders. If a child has a parent or other person in his biological family with a personality disorder, or even other mental illness, then perhaps he/she has inherited a biological propensity to have a personality disorder him/herself.
According to Google dictionary, a personality disorder is defined as: “a deeply ingrained and maladaptive pattern of behavior of a specified kind, typically manifest by the time one reaches adolescence and causing long-term difficulties in personal relationships or in functioning in society.”
As you can see by this definition that people with personality disorders are not easy to have close relationships with; this would include parent-child relationships.
What to do?
The best advice I can offer is as follows:
Ask your child what he or she needs from you in order to repair the relationship. If your child tells you something specific, just listen and determine if you can honor your child’s request. If it is reasonable and sincere, than do your best to repair what has been broken.
Don’t act on your feelings of defensiveness. If you feel defensive, learn to talk within your own head and keep your mouth shut. You should not defend yourself to your child. You can say something neutral, such as, “I have a different perspective on the story, but I’m not going to defend myself because it won’t be productive.”
Expect Respect. Realize that no matter what, everyone deserves to be treated with respect – including you.
Don’t idealize your children or your relationship with them. Yes, our children are the most important people in our lives, but they should not be idealized or enshrined. They are mere mortals just like you and I.If your child is rejecting you, it’s one thing to feel disappointed and sad, but it becomes unhealthy if you can’t focus on anything else other than that. You are best served to remind yourself that you have other relationships that are important as well, and learn to focus on the ones that work.
Grieve. Allow yourself to feel the sadness of being rejected by your child. Grieve over the loss of the innocence that the relationship once was. Grieve over your lost child – even though he or she is still alive. In your world, he/she is no longer part of your life. That sense of “what can I do?” keeps you yearning and longing for reconciliation; but sometimes reconciliation is not forthcoming.
Live one day at a time. Even if you have no contact with your child today, you have no way of knowing what tomorrow may bring. None of us does. The best thing we can do is to live the best way we know how today. When you can focus on one day only, you feel less hopeless and desperate. Remind yourself, “I cannot predict the future.”
Don’t beg. No matter how hurt or desperate you feel to have a relationship with your rejecting child, never stoop to the level of begging for attention or even forgiveness. You will not be respected by your child if you beg and it will demean your position as a parent.
Be empowered. Don’t let your rejecting child steal your personal power. Just because you are having difficulties in this area of your life, don’t get to the place where you feel personally defeated. Do what it takes to be good to yourself – seek therapy, join a support group, travel, go to the gym, do whatever you can to own your own power and stop giving it away to anyone else.
One thing that is certain about life is that it is about all about letting go. As parents our job is to raise our children to the best of our ability and teach them how to be independent, productive adults. If, during the process, they choose a path we don’t agree with, we must remind ourselves that we can’t live their lives for them. Learning to let go is the best way to manage any part of life that doesn’t go the way we expect, including when our children choose to reject us.