Monday, October 31, 2011

Self-stroking: part 2

Sometimes when I am feeling frightened or insecure, I ask my husband if he will always take care of me. He always tells me that he will. At those times, my fear is that I can't make my way in life and if I fall, I'm afraid no one will be there to catch me. I need to know that he will be there, just in case I fall.

On an objective level, there's no reason to believe that I am incapable of making my way in life. For 12 years, I worked full-time and was the primary support while my husband worked part-time and was a househusband. I also worked full-time at various other jobs concurrently with my husband working full-time. About 6 years ago, after about a year of undiagnosed clinical depression (or nearly so) I went part-time, he went full-time, and I took over the household work. I have far more of my adult life under my belt being responsible for myself, but I don't think my fears are really about money or jobs.

I think my anxiety about being cared for is more generalized and I think it stems from the insecurity I spent my formative years dwelling in. Though I had a roof over my head and there was food on the table, my parents were constantly speaking about us being on the edge of insolvency. Money problems were always on the table and nothing was ever hidden from my sister and I. What was more, my parents were very absorbed in their own issues. They spent their days arguing about my father's alcoholism, my mother's spendthrift nature, and complaining about whatever trivial issues perturbed them. Neither of them was an adult in any way.

I know it may sound like an exaggeration to say neither was an adult, but they truly were not. My father refused to do anything that required even minimal interacting with other people if it didn't happen in a bar or a garage. He wouldn't go into a bank, shop in a market for food, go to my sister's and my school, or shop for clothes (not even his own). He abdicated all responsibility and my mother used the power that came with that to indulge her shopaholism and to live beyond our means. She created a loop in which she medicated her unhappiness with food and spending money and, in turn, created her unhappiness by being fat and being forced into bill juggling and loan consolidation to handle her debts. Her failure to be an adult was not in her refusal to take on responsibility, as she had it all, but it was in her inability to control her temper and the way in which she battered my sister's and my esteem to elevate her own. She heaped responsibility on us too young, shared her problems with us when we were incapable of understanding them or helping, and verbally abused us. Her failure was in not acting emotionally like a grown-up to her children.

In retrospect, I know that my mother created all of my family's financial suffering through her issues with spending. She had a vision of the life she wanted to live, and part of that was "keeping up with the Joneses". She was devastated when her siblings, especially her 3 sisters, lived a material lifestyle that was clearly superior to hers. Had my mother practiced moderate fiscal control, we would have been alright. We wouldn't have been rich, but we could have been secure and stable. Unfortunately, both of my parents were more interested in using what money we had to do what they wanted (my mother to buy junk and my father to drink alcohol and smoke everyday) than in providing a stable life for their family.

I mentioned in the previous post that food was the co-parent in my childhood, and the support that I carried with me into adulthood. It is the way I "stroke" (comfort, validate, reward, etc.) myself. Unlike my parents, food never hurt me, abandoned me, or disappointed me. It always gave pleasure and asked nothing in return. While my parents were inconsistent and my mother so mercurial at random intervals that I was driven to extreme nervousness and tension at times because of my fear of her wrath, food was the "good parent".

I realize now that my husband has taken on some of the role of a "parent" for me. I ask if he will take care of me because I was never taken care of by anyone as a child and I need to feel cared for and secure. No, I was not abused physically, nor did I starve, but I never felt secure, loved, or worthwhile. Neither of my parents gave me those things because of their own damage and immaturity. I don't blame them for it and this post is not about holding them responsible for my problems. That being said, ignoring the connection would undermine my ability to heal myself. I have to understand the roots so I know where to start tearing out the damaging weeds of my problems and planting more psychologically healthy "plants". Too many people think that "blame the parents" is what excavating your childhood issues is all about and that it's about finding reasons to be mad at them rather than change your life. It is not. It's about finding out what went wrong so that you can figure out how to make it right. My parents messed up. I forgive them. However, if someone breaks a complex mechanism (such as the human psyche), it really helps to know exactly how and where they broke it if you want to repair the damage as quickly and effectively as possible.

While my husband is functioning in part in the role my parents failed at, I know that he can't do it all and that is where the "self-stroking" that I mentioned in the previous post comes in. It's not wrong for him to do some of it because, after all, we all validate, comfort, and soothe our mates. It's part of the role they play. However, the fact that being separated from him for a finite period of time is so difficult for me means that I need to develop certain coping skills in this regard. As I mentioned previously, I used to have food to stroke me in his absence, and now I don't, so I need other things.

After yesterday's realization, I figured out, much to my chagrin, that I still use food to stroke myself and not terribly infrequently. The main difference between how I used it before and how I use it now is that I use extremely tiny portions now. Instead of eating a bag of chips, I eat 2 or 3 nuts. I don't eat a whole candy bar, but might eat 6 M & M's or a mini-candy bar. The calories are low enough to not be an issue, but the comforting still goes on.

That is not to say that every small treat I eat is an act of food-based stroking. Sometimes, it's merely that I want to enjoy these foods. Sometimes, it's a craving for a dessert after a meal (which is common for me anyway). However, there are definitely times when it is an act of stroking. It's not compulsive, but it is an act that tells me that "I'm okay". The food tells me, I'm going to be okay. Everything will be okay. This connection was forged in my childhood, and now I have to work to unravel it. This is the next stage in the evolution of my relationship with food, and I am not looking forward to the emotional fall-out which is certain to follow.

My approach to this is going to be relatively unstructured. That is, I don't plan to forever give up treats or even to swear off of them on a particular day. Rather than take some sort of rigid or Draconian view of food (which I believe is ultimately destructive and untenable), I plan to practice concrete self-stroking exercises at times when I feel I'm grabbing a tiny bite of a treat for self-stroking purposes. I'm also going to try and develop conditioning techniques to self-stroke in a higher order fashion. This is not an easy transition for someone like me, because it involves positive messages about myself to myself. This comes with difficulty because of my feelings of worthlessness, fear of narcissism or self-aggrandizement, and modesty. My mother reinforced again and again that I shouldn't form too high an opinion of myself to make sure I never thought too much of myself. For instance, when I got excellent grades and pushed myself hard in school, she made sure to tell me that I was "book smart", but lacked common sense or other intelligence. Even when I excelled academically and should have felt I was smart, she let me know that I was dumb and shouldn't be too proud no matter what I accomplished. She bragged to her friends about my sister and I, then told us we weren't so hot.

I'm also not the type of person who subscribes to hollow affirmations of my own awesomeness. A lot of people practicing self-acceptance resort to pat mantras about how "good" they are, but this simply does not work for me. My issue is not that I think I'm a really "bad" person and need to tell myself that I'm a "good" one. It is that I feel that I'm in no way special and that my value is less than that of others because my needs are less important than theirs (my mother always told me that it was selfish to put myself before others). Without my husband telling me regularly that I'm important, I can't keep the idea in my mind. I haven't internalized the notion that I am a person of particular value to anyone but him. If I am not with him, I cease to be anything because I am nothing to others. If they see me as anything, it is my feeling that they only do so because they view me as useful in some particular regard. If I cease to be of use, they will not care for me because I'm nothing special to anyone but my husband. I believe that he is the only person who will ever love me, the only one who ever could.

So, what I tell myself in affirmation has to be specific, important, and have deep relevance to me. It can't merely be that I say, "I don't need this chocolate because I'm a good person". I'm not sure what I need to say, just that I need to say some things which strike at the heart of the shortcomings of my childhood. One of those things might be simply to say, "everything will be okay," whether I eat this or not. I doubt that that will be all it takes, but it's a starting point after so many years of my youth being spent being told everything was not okay and I was not okay. As I explore this, I will post more about the process.

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