How do I fill the void?
I don’t believe I have ever felt true, authentic love in my life until it was evoked in my therapy (which, for me, feels more like I am perceiving it and asking for it than receiving, since the T can’t truly give the parental love, in that way as you describe, that is needed to fill the gap).
If I never received it and didn’t know what it felt like until now, where can it come from to fill the void that was left from childhood? I would imagine it can never truly be filled, so how is this wound healed?
Instead of responding in the comments, I thought this would make a good topic for a post, so with her kind permission, I am going to answer her here. For most of my life, I carried within me the sense of a terrible abyss, a void, which threatened to swallow me up and destroy me. I can still remember the shock when I realized it was no longer there, and my amazement as I shared that realization with BN. So, while there may not be a way to fill the void, I do believe there is a way to close it.
The first thing I want to address is the authenticity of the love received in therapy. Dpblusee described it as perceiving and asking for it rather than receiving it, since a therapist cannot truly provide parental love. I agree that a therapist cannot truly provide parental love but not because they do not authentically love us. Rather, the time during which we can take in our parents’ love, absorb and make it a part of ourselves in a deep and integral way has passed. Children are growing and developing at a very rapid pace when young. While the human brain always retains its plasticity, it more easily and quickly responds to changes during our formative years than during adulthood. We are laying down the groundwork, forming our neural networks, creating our brain structure, so that there is not an already formed structure with which we need to battle in order to learn. That is why whatever happens to a child is “normal.” It’s normal because nothing else has ever happened. It is not until we go forth into the world and see other’s experience that our own may be seen differently.
So, no matter how deeply committed a therapist is to our well-being, no matter how much they may love us, or how far they are willing to go in pursuit of demonstrating that love, it cannot be enough, because in some sense, we have no place to put it; we cannot integrate that love into an unconscious, “felt” experience of being loved and of being worthy of that love. This is a difficult lesson on both sides of the couch. After all, if what is missing was parental love, then if we are loved now, everything will be fixed, right? It can look like that to a young, inexperienced therapist as easily as it does to a client (sometimes for the same reason of avoiding the grief of facing the loss). BN once told me that he had to learn the hard way that he could not provide a tissue box (parental love) for his client (he was using props :)) no matter how much he wanted to, but he could provide a coffee mug (unconditional “agape” love) which while not enough to make the loss disappear WAS enough for a client to heal. If a therapist does not recognize this important distinction and sets forth on a mission to provide that missing parental love, they find themselves in the position of trying to fill something that can never be filled. The client, who has been looking for this love their whole life, will cling to the amazing possibility of finally completing their life long quest. Eventually, the therapist wears down and has nothing left to give and so pulls back from the client, breaking, once again, the implicit promise made to the client. And so they become another person who promised to love and care for them, who instead abandoned and hurt them. And trust, which was already the most difficult thing in the world to achieve, becomes nigh impossible. It is why the boundaries are SO critically important. A therapist must try their utmost to never hold out the promise of anything they cannot deliver. They must be cruel to be kind. Better to be told up front you cannot have something, then to be told you can, only to have it snatched away. Again. Never was the BN swifter to speak, then when he had to tell me no.
So I believe the love we experience, or maybe more accurately, the experience of being loved, that we have in therapy is very real. And for many of us, it’s the first time which can make it difficult to take in. So instead, we tell ourselves we are making it up, or its an act on the part of a professional, or it’s emotional prostitution, an illusion we buy. It has taken me a very long time, but I have come to believe that it is an authentic, deep relationship, between two people, both present in the room, uniquely engaged with each other and at the heart of the transformation is love. Yes, it is unlike any other relationship we have, and it is bounded. But all of our relationships are bounded, just not in a way we notice as much as we do in therapy. And it is those boundaries that guard the relationship and the people in it so that the depths of true intimacy can be safely reached.
So how do we heal? We need to be attended to in order to learn that we matter, that we are worthy. And we need to be loved so that we know we are loveable. But here is the mistake we make. We believe that the worth, that our mattering, that our lovableness is conveyed TO us by the other person. In other words, we will FINALLY be worthy, and matter and be loveable BECAUSE our therapist loves us, and we matter to them. We focus on the person of the therapist instead of on ourselves (for most of us a repetition of a life-long well-taught pattern). Which is why the boundaries so confuse us. Because obviously, no matter how much we matter to them, they have people in their life who do not have the same boundaries with them, who we know matter to them, and are more important to who they are then we are. As a matter of fact, an important boundary in therapy is that our therapists cannot allow themselves to need us, because then our therapy would become about them. And here’s where the deep confusion sets in.
Because we know this is not the love of a parent. We know we do not matter to them the way we wish to. We know that we are not at the center of their world the way we had longed to have been with our parents. But what we are receiving, real love, real attendance, real care is close enough to evoke our sense of loss. I did not truly understand what I had lost, until I was given what I needed to heal from BN. He taught me what it felt like to matter to someone. To know that someone cared enough to attend to my feelings and words and actions until they understood me. To care about my needs and reflect back to me that they were legitimate and not onerous. That I had a right to have them, express them and work to meet them. That asking other people to meet them was a good thing to do. That hearing no would not destroy me. That I could be vulnerable and have someone not exploit that vulnerability and even protect me. Is it any wonder that there have been times when I have moved into the heart of my grief, I have found that my deepest wish is that BN could have been my father? He is the closest thing I have ever known.
So the real truth is that I have always mattered, I have always been worthy, I have always been loveable. I did not need BN to pay attention to me so that I could matter, I needed BN to pay attention to me so that I could LEARN that I mattered. It is not about our finding the right person, it is about discovering the truth about ourselves. That is the heart of the healing. That we receive the love and care and attention, are even allowed to depend, on another, until we can learn the truth about ourselves. That we should have been loved and protected and cherished. That we are worthy, that we deserve love, that we have legitimate needs, that we matter enough to recognize our losses.
For that is the dark side of healing. Once we start to recognize the truth about ourselves, then we also recognize the injury that was done to us. No one gets upset about a trash can being thrown about and dented, but we would be horrified about someone doing that to a Ming dynasty vase. To see our worth, is to see the fault and lack in our caregivers. It’s a painful reality to face. And part of facing it, is going back, time and again, to our therapist, learning to trust their love and care, so that when they meet our needs, we can take it in. And when they don’t, we can identify a loss and our need to grieve. In other words, our needs and expressing them, are NOT the problem, but it does not necessarily follow that all of our expressed needs can be met. It’s a painful confusing process. It’s also why it is so imperative for them to hold steady and be clear. We are in the middle of a difficult, complex sorting process.
We also have to accept the painful truth that though we heal our wounds, we will bear scars. These are real losses and need to be accepted and grieved. But in grieving, we heal enough to stop avoiding our feelings, or holding them down. We stop looking for what we cannot find and instead can look forward to what we CAN find and we can have. We can learn to live fully going forward. Even having our grief be important enough to be heard and listened to is part of that process of healing.
Healing is not the same as never having been wounded. For a long time, I was working towards achieving a sense of security and worth and feeling loved that would be indistinguishable from that of someone who had experienced “good enough” parenting and secure attachment. In other words, I believed that “earned” secure attachment was identical to secure attachment attained with our primary childhood caregiver. The day I learned differently was painful in some ways, but also incredibly freeing. It was exhausting trying to get somewhere I couldn’t reach, not to mention continually feeling like a failure because I couldn’t get there. Because our worth was not reflected properly when we could integrate it on a deep, unconscious level, we will never have the reflexive sense of our worth and being loved that someone with secure attachment would. There will always be certain times and events to which my first reaction will be to hear negative messages about myself. But I have learned a reflective sense of my worth and being loved with which to answer those messages. I have my learned, earned sense of what is right to put up against the lies I have carried for too long. And the longer I do so, the quicker I am to respond and the less time it takes me to fend the lies off. I believe as we grow, the difference between learned and earned will become imperceptible on the outside and not anything that will slow us down on the inside. Although I can still experience episodes of deep insecurity or self-loathing, I am no longer characterized by them and actually have long periods of feeling happy and comfortable with who I am. It’s still new enough to be thoroughly enjoyable (not sure that will EVER wear off. :))
So we may never know security and a “felt” sense of our worth, the way some people do, but there is a strength and sweetness to that which is earned which they will never know. Do you truly appreciate food, if you have never known hunger? And while I am not glad that the abuse happened to me, I now recognize and accept that it is part of who I am, that healing from it has formed strengths in me and given me understandings I would not otherwise have. I have made my peace with my past and usually can leave it where it belongs, in the past.
So how do we close that void? We walk into our pain, and our grief and we feel them and express them to our loving other, over and over, until we have said enough and been understood enough to learn we matter, that we are worthy and that we no longer have to say any more because we have healed.
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