Angel chapter 18
XVIII. Toxic empathy
While I cannot remember the first time I heard the origin words of Mother’s abuse litany toward me, while I cannot begin to count how many times I heard those words repeated over the 18 years of my childhood, I remember the last time I let my mother say those words to me.
I presented the origin of Mildred’s creation story about me when I came into this world in Story Without Words. Looking back now I can see that every time the litany of words about — how I tried to kill Mother while I was being born, about how the devil sent me to kill her, about how since the moment I was born I was “a curse upon” my mother’s life, about how I had never been anything but trouble to her, how she cursed the day I was born, how I caused more trouble than all of her other children “put together,” all came spewing in vile streams of vomit out of Mother’s mouth — this was always a sign that her psychosis was in operation.
Forever left unchecked Mildred’s litany always ran until it exhausted itself. Fortunately for me as the list of my “crimes” added to this litany grew longer and longer my body correspondingly grew bigger and bigger so I could live through her lengthening beatings. Mildred’s origin story was itself – a horrifying reality. Mother was the record keeper. Mother kept track of time, creating a bizarre, ugly historical account of me in my life that in our family could not be refuted. I knew no other reality.
Even now I cannot account for my own life without hearing Mother’s words. They informed me as I was forming into a human being. I cannot magically make them go away. I cannot forget them. I have been forced to battle with my mother’s madness within me all of my life.
Her words were literally pounded into my body. This body. The only one I have to live inside over the entire course of my lifespan. Her words themselves came from the depths of horror that lived and thrived within my mother. Those words were violence spun through vibrations in the air that never escaped my physical ears. Yet they were also given physical form with every blow matching the rhythm of those words in beatings to my body.
Everyone in my family heard those words. All of my siblings except for John heard them even before they were born. My father heard them. And as I grew bigger over time it became more and more difficult for Mother to keep those words inside her mouth so my grandmother would not hear them. (Mildred owned her own family. She did not own her mother. Words she spoke against me were meant to only be heard in the private sphere which was Mildred’s home.)
If you look at the back of your hand and then flip your hand all the way over to look at your palm, that is how complete the switch was inside of Mother in any given split second of ongoing time when her psychosis switched between her upper all-good and her lower all-bad worlds. Two minds. Two realities. Me belonging to the bad side and everyone else belonging to the good side.
If Mother was alive today I would be very tempted to spend enough time with her to see if I could detect the patterns in her mind that led up to the eruption of her dark side. I have never had any defense inside of me against her creation story about me except through rational logic, and it is now too late to do any experiments of my own to try to identify how Mother’s psychosis actually operated. The powers of reason are pathetic and ineffectual, anyway. They are inadequate to change how I essentially feel about myself in the world.
Mildred’s array of abuse to me had nothing to do with reason or logic (except on the biophysical level of her body-brain). Knowing that Mildred had a severe mental illness can never do more than peripherally help me to understand that the hell I lived in and through had absolutely nothing – NOTHING – to do with me. Yet, how Mildred felt and thought about me and what she did to me could not have been more personal. She all but invaded me and my life.
I was on the telephone with Mother the last day I heard that litany come out of her mouth. I had spent seven weeks in a Minnesota residential addiction treatment facility as I tried as hard as I could at 29 to find a better, different way to live. My therapists had, magically to me, identified in ways I could not conceive of that I had been a severely abused child and that I suffered from severe depression. How did they know that? It was a mystery.
My treatment aftercare plan included weekly therapy. For the first time in my entire life I opened my own mouth and began to tell someone about what had happened to me for so many years. In one session with my therapist in which my husband was present I told about what I began then to refer to as “The Bubblegum Incident,” as I included it at the beginning of this book.
I wasn’t even halfway through speaking about it before both my therapist and my husband melted into tears. I stopped talking about my experience and spent the rest of the session trying to make those two people comfortable again. (I never spoke again to that therapist about the real reasons I was in therapy in the first place, nor did I ever disclose anything further about my abuse to my husband.)
Who were those two people crying for? What inner line of defense did the words I spoke crash through within them? Was empathy in action? Compassion? Sympathy or pity?
This happened during the early summer months of 1980. Over the thirty-plus years that have passed since that time I do believe our culture has matured in important ways so that our personal bubbles have been expanded a little bit further to allow people who have never known early abusive trauma to listen a little bit better to what those who have experienced it have to say.
Empathy may seem common. But if we consider that according to estimates regarding degrees of insecure attachment disorders as they exist in nearly half of our population, we must become very clear that for that half the physiological processes in the body and brain that run true empathy processes have been correspondingly damaged. Without adequate early interactions with caregivers in safe and secure attachment relationships true healthy empathy abilities are compromised because they do not build themselves into the body-brain right in the first place.
Accurate communication and regulation between people requires that each person recognize and express their own emotions, accurately recognize the emotional expressions of other people, and react appropriately to them. The research of Roberta Kestenbaum, Ellen A. Farber, L. Alan Sroufe, as reported in their article Individual Differences in Empathy Among Preschoolers: Relation to Attachment History (published in New Directions for Child Development, Vol 44, 1989, 51-64) clearly showed that disruptions of attachment distort empathy reactions even among very young children. These authors define empathy as “…an emotional and behavioral response to another’s emotional state, which is similar in affective tone and is based on the other’s circumstances rather than one’s own (page 55).”
Living in a society so vaguely aware of what empathy even is, let alone living within a culture where nearly half of our population lost the ability to develop true healthy empathy before age one due to inadequate caregiving, means that for the most wounded segment of our society very few people can hear what early severe trauma survivors need to say.
From an informed, compassionate point of view I say that the ability to protect one’s self from pain motivates the general shutdown of listening ability among those trying to listen adequately to trauma survivors. This is understandable. Such a self-protective collapse in communications happens when the boundaries that separate people cannot be negotiated in any other way.
True healthy empathy happens when the distress of another person is not responded to with matching distress in the other one. The trick to increasing empathy abilities in adults is connected to our willingness to face our OWN pain. If pain is triggered in the person responding to an abuse survivor’s account of their reality it is always the listener’s own pain that has appeared. This pain has nothing to do with the words being heard, with the person speaking them or with the “crime report story” being told. Nothing.
When the origins of personal pain are not recognized as existing within the person who owns that pain, boundaries separating people are crossed. From that point forward there will be either a contamination of painful experience between these two people in conversation or the listener has to withdraw, in essence saying, “I have reached my own safe limits. I have touched my own pain. I have to stop listening now. I have just found out something about my own woundedness that I need to pay attention to, explore and heal.”
Looked at objectively I can say that everything Mother thought and felt about me and everything she did to me happened because her own empathy circuits were completely broken. Mildred had toxic empathy. She had no ability to recognize or tolerate her own pain so she did everything in her power to give her pain to me.
Not only did she not experience her own pain, she could not process any information about the pain she caused me. When my therapist and my husband innocently yet ignorantly allowed their pain to flood across the line toward what they thought they perceived of my pain, they too were engaged in a toxic empathy process. As I described to them just one massive “rupture without repair” abuse incident from my history each of them responded with a “rupture” of their own. I knew no better than to try to “repair” each of them while I was supposed to be the one receiving therapy.
The writing of Collins and colleagues I mentioned earlier contains a very helpful description about how a person’s need turns on their attachment system. If this person does not or cannot get their attachment need met, they will not be able to adequately “caregive” to another person. An attachment system must be turned OFF in a person before their caregiving system can be turned ON. True healthy empathy is, as I understand it, a caregiving system operation. It is designed to foster an upward spiral of complementary communication leading to resolution of the causes of human difficulties. Toxic empathy creates a spiral in the opposite direction.
SEE: Collins, N. L., Ford, M. B., Guichard, A. C., & Feeney, B. C. (2006). Responding to need in intimate relationships: Normative processes and individual differences. In M. Mikulincer & G. Goodman (Eds.), Dynamics of romantic love: Attachment, caregiving, and sex. New York: Guilford. (pages 149-189)
While it might seem an inappropriate exaggeration for me to equate how my mentally ill psychotic mother responded to me with how my therapist and husband responded to me, I see that the patterns of toxic empathy were present in both situations although obviously to different degrees. Some preoccupation with preexisting traumatic pain contaminated these interactions. Neither the source of personal pain nor the emotional contamination were conscious in either situation.
It is not helpful to blame, shame or guilt one another about our empathy dis-abilities. It is useful to recognize these failings do exist within everyone to some extent, even among the most safely and securely attached autonomous people. Everyone has limitations regarding their tolerance for exposure to pain – their own and pain that belongs to other people. It is within the bigger arena of healing that consideration of how empathy is meant to operate that we might identify changes we wish to make within our self and within our communities.
What quality of life do we want not only for our self but also for one another? We cannot get to the root of what unresolved trauma has to teach us as a species until we increase our tolerance for processing the inevitable pain that trauma causes. Why would we take these lessons seriously if trauma never hurt anyone?
We are designed to hear the truth of trauma through our empathy processes. While we can easily recognize and share with one another our happy side of life, it takes a special kind of often untapped “true grit” for people who have not suffered from abusive trauma and great oppression to truly give a damn about the very real, very pain-full suffering of those who have.
Empathy abilities are one of the greatest resources humans develop within a safe and secure attachment-rich, resource-full early environment. Most people suffering from the lifelong consequences of being neglected and severely abused in their earliest attachment relationships will never receive from other people the empathy they need. I do not see this situation changing until the human race has significantly advanced spiritually from the level our species is currently at.
This leaves every single early trauma survivor in a position of nearly always needing to heal our own self the best that we can. In my case, although I had no possible way to know this to be true on that 1980 day when Mother snapped in two on the phone with me and launched yet again into her “Linda is evil” litany against me, the instant my finger moved to press down the button on my telephone to severe our connection I took a quantum leap in my own healing.
While I cannot erase or even silence the impact Mother’s horrible litany words have had on me all of my life, in that one split second as I hung up on her in mid-thought, for the first time in my life I exercised true empathy with myself. I recognized both my pain and my boundary. I never heard Mother speak those words to me again.
I severed the umbilical cord between Mother and I through which I had been fed all Mother’s pain. I physically felt this happen when at that instant my insides became my own. I had stood before that instant as helpless, powerless, immobile and transfixed as I ever had letting Mother trigger my horror with her words about me from the moment of my birth. I listened to her passively until she had moved onto the words in her litany segment related to the period of time covered in these letters as she spewed at me:
“Your kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Woodward, taught kindergarten for 35 years and she told me you were the worst child she ever had in her classroom in her whole career. You made more trouble than all the other children in your class put together. Never had that poor woman seen a child as bad as you….”
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