Healthy Detachment & Being Close To Our Children
Therapists often talk about healthy detachment, but what about connecting and being close to our children?
The question of closeness often arises as we emphasize the need for detachment from your child. While the question is a natural follow-up to the discussion of detachment, there is a misconception that is revealed in its asking. Development of the self must precede connection and intimacy. If you do not have a fully developed self-identity, then you cannot truly connect and communicate with another. Intimacy is the connecting of two people; it is not the fusion of two people. Many of us define ourselves by our relationships. We sacrifice much of ourselves in order to avoid loneliness or isolation. In early development, we hide certain parts of ourselves in order to fit in, to feel loved, or to feel that we are a part of something. This repression is well explained in an essay by Robert Bly in Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature.1 He describes our personalities at birth as a beautiful globe of light, energy radiating out in all directions. But then our parents, our teachers and our peers tell us what they don't like and we hide those pieces of ourselves in a bag we drag behind us.
We fill up the bag with all those parts and what is left is a thin slice of light.
We’ll imagine a man who has a thin slice left—the rest is in the bag—and we’ll imagine he meets a woman; lets say they are both twenty-four. She has a thin, elegant slice left. They join each other in a ceremony, and this union of two slices is called a marriage. Even together the two do not make up one whole person.” (pg. 7)
Our repression is rarely a conscious one, but it is destructive nonetheless. Erik Erickson’s stages of human development are not arbitrarily ordered; he places adolescence as a time of identity vs. role confusion, followed by intimacy in young adulthood. Many of the problems that occur in our partner relationships are the result of the unraveling of self and the ensuing discord that occurs.
Our task is first to work on our self, then finding another self that correlates with yours. A mentor, Dr. Leslie Feinauer, said, “the hardest part of being married is not simply being with the other person, but being known by the other person.” And I think that is very true. Our experience often tells us that if we are our true selves, then we will not or cannot be loved. Over the years, I have listened as adults and children have expressed the same basic sentiment in one way or another: “If you really knew me, then you would not—you could not—love me.” Thus, our first task, developmentally speaking, is to embark on a search for self. We can do this while in a committed relationship, but this may require a partner who is willing to patiently travel that frightening road with us.
Viktor Frankl illuminated the difficulty of exposing one’s self in psychoanalysis. He said, “The difference between analysis and traditional therapy is that in therapy you talk with a therapist and have to hear them say some really hard things to you. In analysis, you sit with an analyst and have to say some really hard things.”2 This exposing of the real self and the healing that comes from doing that was highlighted by a parent in her recitation of something her daughter’s Wilderness Therapist would say to her daughter after a mistake or regression. After expressing something about herself that the daughter felt very ashamed of, the therapist would nonchalantly say, “That's okay; that’s how you are. No big deal.” My therapist communicates the same message when she says, “I don't care if you come in here and tell me you are in love with a duck. That's fine with me.” The idea here is that true intimacy means that I can be myself and that process is borne of my courage to face the possibility of rejection and may be fostered by at least one other person telling me that I am okay—no matter what. This does not mean that, as a parent, you are robbed of your ability to set boundaries and expectations for your children, but rather offers light to that process by separating behavior and instruction from love and acceptance.
During a wedding toast I attended some time ago, a wise, elderly man offered, “If you’re not fighting with each other, then one of you is an idiot.” When two whole people are present, struggle and conflict will likely exist. But if one person merely erases herself, erases her wants, feelings, and aspirations for the goal of placidity in the relationship, then that is the greatest loss. We think of intimacy as a sharing of love or warmth or positive emotions. But again, true intimacy is when two people are aware of themselves and can share their whole self with one another, even when parts of that self cause anger, hurt, or unpleasantness.
So we share hurt, we share anger, and we share dislike. And we do it with honesty and a willingness to let the other person have their reaction without feeling like that outcome needs to affect us in a negative way. Intimacy is not always warm or fuzzy, but it is real. Dr. Feinauer once told me, “I don't really trust that my clients trust me until they fight with me. This lets me know they are willing to take the risk to be real and honest, even in the face of a potential rejection or judgment on my part.” As I’ve mentioned, when a client expresses a feeling that they feel ashamed about, I will feel a deep sense of honor that they trust me enough to express that feeling, that shame.
Parents can follow that model with their children. When your child says something like, “I don’t trust you,” or “I don’t think that you’re really listening to me,” then you can hear these things and provide a safe container by not making it about you and instead seeing your child’s willingness to share these difficult and sometimes frightening things. When you do this, you are demonstrating a healthy detachment and recognizing your sense of self. This sense of self is not a separate process from connection, but rather a necessary predecessor to connection. Rebuttals, counterexamples, and withdrawals all signal that we are making our child’s expression about us. We argue the validity of their feeling as if to say, “What you are feeling is not true, and I will give you some examples in order to demonstrate that.” But if we can respond with, “Thanks for telling me how you feel. I am honored,” then we can demonstrate our individual sense of self rather than overlapping that self with our child’s.
The journey of developing our own self first and then moving on to being able to connect with another may be best understood as we get clear about how our true self can affect another’s. Several years ago, I worked with a student who had done some really great work in overcoming substance abuse. During his particular phase in the program, I asked him to join me on a phone call with his parents in order to begin the reconnection process. During the week leading up to the call, however, something occurred that changed my mind. The father wrote a very honest and heartfelt letter to his son where he explored his own abuse of alcohol. In that exploration, he acknowledged some very profound accountability for his alcohol abuse. He admitted to driving with his children in the car while intoxicated and missing family events because he was too drunk to attend. Because his son was working through his own addiction problems, the father announced that he too would be attending a 28-day rehab for alcohol addiction. Reading his father’s letter during our session, my student sobbed and expressed anger, hurt, and gratitude at his father’s courageous disclosures. The bulk of that session was spent discussing his complicated and emotional response to the letter.
As the session concluded, I hesitated to discuss the planned phone call with the family because of what had just happened—this was to be the first call since his enrollment in our program some seven weeks earlier. The young man looked to me and said, “I really want to talk to my parents. I love and miss them a lot. I am grateful that my father told me all of this and that he is going to get help. But I don't think I want to talk to them this week. I think I need to digest all of this and to figure out my feelings. I am afraid if I get on the phone with them, then I will just lose myself in them and their shadow. I will disappear if I talk to them right now.” I was amazed and inspired. Phone calls home are a very precious privilege at our program, and this young man had worked very hard with me in anticipation of talking and reuniting with his parents. But his awareness of the dynamic of losing clarity as he related to his parents was astonishing. When it came time to have my call with his parents, they were eager to hear their son’s voice after seven weeks of communicating through letters. Instead, I gave them a narrative of the session with their son and told them about his realization of the probability of the loss of self by having a live dialogue at this particular time. The parents were a little disappointed, but more than that, they were relieved because they too had come to realize the value of the contribution of separation to create connectedness and intimacy and to recognize the issues they had within their own selves.
I have had the same experience with parents. After parenting sessions and parent coaching, they leave the session with a passionate resolve to “do something different.” But in the moment they make contact with their child, they become lost and confused and stray away from their center. This gravitational field has its root in their own childhood where they were taught to take care of the other at the expense of being who they are. While this process is transferred from their early life experiences onto their own children, it really is the same process.
When my son was preparing to head off to college, I made a comment about finding one’s self by moving away and going to school. He responded by asking, “Yeah, but do you ever really know your whole self?” I pondered this wise question and responded to him a few weeks later. “I am not sure you ever fully find yourself. It is probably a journey, like most things. But the key is to be on the path during that journey and to be aware of what you’re doing, to really live in the present moment. Acknowledge how it feels, and try to see what stands in the way of that goal of self-discovery.” Perhaps understanding the self means that we are humble and that we understand that a certain bit of mystery lies ahead of us. When I read Alice Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child,3 what intimidated me most was not any one certain fact but rather a realization that an exploration of the self was a difficult and momentous undertaking.
Carl Jung once said, “I would rather be whole than good.” Dr. Jung’s statement illustrates a common willingness to give up parts of ourselves in order to be labeled with the accepting moniker of “good.” And if I might take some liberty with this quote, I think I might say, “I would rather be me than fit in.” We ask parents to write impact letters to children and we ask children to do the same with parents. These two assignments are critical and they require each side of the equation to summon enough self to be present and listen and honor the other. This detachment, synonymous with connection, allows for these expressions of hurt where each person is fully felt. Intimacy and connection can be difficult and painful, but they are also the source of all our joy.
1 Zweig & Abrams, 1991
2 Frankl, 2006
3 Miller, 1997