The invisible child

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The Invisible Child

I’ve always struggled with the term attachment, used in my profession to denote the relationship that is supposed to develop between mother and infant during the earliest months of life. I may be too concrete, but it makes me think of those poor monkeys in Harlow’s experiment, clinging to that cloth-covered metal skeleton; it seems to imply a kind of behind the mirrorphysical connection when in fact, it’s all about the emotional relationship. In his video on attachment theory, Allan Schore brings that relationship to life when he speaks about the complex interactions between mother and baby — the role of eye contact, physical interaction and facial expresions in creating secure “attachment” — but it still seems to me to be the wrong word.

I’ve had a similar problem with Kohut’s word, mirroring, because to my concrete mind, it suggests that what the mother does is behave like a physical object (a mirror), though lately, I’ve been feeling better about it. In my work with several different clients, I’ve been struck anew with the role of our parents’ attention in creating our sense of self, how important it is that we feel that we are seen. In a fundamental way, we come to know who we are by witnessing our parents’ responses to us; in particular, the joy and love we see in our mother’s face convey to us that we are beautiful and important. Allan Schore has shown how the infant comes with a set of inbuilt expectations and behaviors geared to elicit those parental responses; when the reality of an engaged and loving mother meets those expectations, the result is a secure “attachment” (ugh).

It also results in a secure sense of self, the basis for later self-confidence and self-esteem. But when those expectations are disappointed, as I have explained elsewhere, it leaves the infant with a sense of intrinsic defect and basic shame. This is particularly true when the environment is highly traumatic or abusive. Lately, I’ve also been thinking about a parenting style that isn’t overtly abusive but vacant or largely withdrawn instead. In such a case, though basic shame is an invariable result, the person also develops a sense of unreality, as if he were invisible. It’s as if she looked into the mirror of her mother’s face and found no reflection whatsoever.

In a recent session, my client Alexis was speaking about her boss, with whom she has had an intense and problematic working relationship for many years. Lately, she has “woken up” to the rather nasty ways he sometimes treats her; in this particular session, she told me that she felt as if her boss wanted nothing to do with her or her actual emotional experience. As a result, she had come to feel like a “ghost” at work; this made her want to retreat from their relationship in turn, becoming an impersonal function and discharging her duties in an efficient, detached way. I linked this to her relationship with her father, a college professor who had largely ignored her and her sister, warning them to be silent as he retreated into his study with the graduate students who came for their tutorials. She had felt invisible to her father, and desperate to be noticed by him.

1e6f0c21138bf6ebac99cb1538aa4dd7Alexis also linked this feeling to her mother, a woman who had felt over-burdened by her children and very much wanted to be left alone. Alexis recounted a story recently told to her by her sister Adrienne. Around the age of 8, Adrienne had begun suffering panic attacks in the evenings. Their mother’s response was to give her an over-the-counter sleeping pill and put her to bed with Alexis (age 10), who was then responsible for moving Adrienne to her own bed whenever she felt able to sleep. This “hands off” approach to mothering was typical. Whenever the girls were fighting (as they often did) she would tell them she preferred not to get involved or play referee.

I suggested to Alexis that she felt her mother had wished her to go away, which left Alexis feeling like a ghost, scarcely real. Rather than discovering her sense of self in her mother’s joyful expression, when she looked for a reflection in that mirror, she found it a blank. This discussion helped me understand yet another reason why she has resisted the idea that she’d ever finish treatment and go it alone. Over the long years of our relationship, my bearing witness to her experience and taking a deep interest in her as a person has felt precious to her, an important source of the sense of self she has developed through our work together. On some level, she’s afraid that without me and my attention, she would cease to exist. As a child, she must have felt that way in the absence of parental involvement: as if she were invisible, a ghost child without physical substance.

We ended the session by talking about the importance of being seen and known by others, how at the end of the day, it’s a very small universe of people who “get” you, who are capable of actually seeing you for who you are. It seemed important to acknowledge that I have felt seen and known by her, as well, and that our long relationship has been important to me. How many people understand the work that I do and the psychological issues I consider most important as deeply as Alexis? In a weird way, you’d have to say she knows me better than many of my friends. I also derive a sense of who I am through the mirroring Alexis and my other clients provide to me, just as there’s a kind of reciprocal mirroring that goes on between mother and child.

I wonder if this is why therapists sometimes find it hard to let go of their clients. Maybe they can’t bear to lose that mirroring; they might feel that when a client of long-standing terminates, they lose a little bit of themselves, too.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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