Thursday, July 18, 2013

Emotional Starvation: a mother's legacy

The other day I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window and I thought I was looking at my mother!  When did that happen?  For several years now I have heard her voice coming out of my mouth, but I’ve also heard my voice coming from my daughter’s mouth as she interacts with her own daughters!  What is it about mothers and daughters that causes them to perpetuate and repeat the patterns and behaviors of the past?

As I continue my work on the final chapters of my book, I have begun to ask myself, “What’s the point?” By that I mean what would encourage a reader to say, “That’s interesting.  I’d like to know more.” What I hope the reader will take away as a result of all my reading, thinking, research and writing is that the mother-daughter relationship is a mirror reflection of the culture of the times and the emotional condition women and girls are living in.

I began the book with a question, a puzzle that I didn’t understand but wanted to, and a vague sense of what an answer might look like. Why is it that although the women in my family were bright and highly educated, they chose partners in life who were needy and led them into a life of poverty and/or abuse? Why was this pattern repeated over so many generations? I hoped that out of my early research there would emerge a solution-- an idea that seemed promising. So I started writing to see whether I could build a story that would illustrate and shed light on the puzzle.

One of the strongly held themes I discovered was that selflessness by the women in my family was treated as a badge-of-honor that they had learned to wear proudly. Each woman had experienced a change in their understanding of their roles in life.  As each one chose a life partner, they silenced themselves from being strong, independent women to women who accepted invisibility and a belief that caring for others and not herself was “a woman’s lot in life”.  And each had passed this sense of invisibility on their daughters.

As I wrote, I saw in front of me, as if projected on the wall, a time-line of all the abusive experiences, events and emotional neglect my grandmother and mother had experienced.  I say and even felt how each of them had suffered life-stripping emotional neglect because no one had asked them what they needed or felt.  I also felt how each of them had survived this silence and invisibility by learning to believe that it was a normal state for women.

Our emotional needs are the bedrock of our ability to know ourselves, take care of ourselves, know what is right, set boundaries, be authentic and visible in our relationships, and importantly, protect ourselves from abusive people. Silencing women’s and girls’ emotional needs is the same as sentencing women and girls to lives of emotional starvation, invisibility, inequality, and being set-up for abusive relationships.

I began to see how the emotional neglect and invisibility had shaped not just their relationship with themselves, but how it had shaped their relationship with each other. I saw how their shared experience of emotional deprivation had created an emotional hunger in the mothers that they then passed on to their daughters. They didn’t know the words to say or how to feel entitled to claim ownership for their needs or their right to feel heard, visible, and nurtured. This understanding was as foreign to these women as a language they did not understand or had even heard of. Not having anywhere to be emotionally fed, and not knowing how to feed themselves or that they could ask to be responded to, each mother had passed their feelings of emotional starvation on to their daughters.

This left their daughters feeling the same invisibility and emotional neglect that their mothers had felt. It left the next generation of daughters spending their childhood and adult years learning about what others needed rather than learning about what they needed. The mothers had passed on to their daughters their own complete oblivion that something essential was missing. In their flurry to care for others, the daughters did not realize that their own emotional needs were missing and that they didn’t know the language or own the sense of entitlement to claim their needs. Just like their mothers, they did not recognize how emotionally starved they were and that they had learned to accept emotional starvation as normal. In this starved state, they also did not recognize how dangerous it is to be disconnected from your emotional needs. They did not understand that not feeling entitled to ourselves leaves women (and men) vulnerable to being and accepting abusive behavior from others.

Emotional starvation occurs when our basic need to feel important to others is not met. We all need emotional support.  It helps us to feel that our life has meaning beyond our jobs and tangible accomplishments. We are most satisfied when we feel that our hopes, dreams, feelings and desires are loved and appreciated. Emotional starvation occurs when people allow circumstances to bind them so tightly into responsibility roles that no time is available for intimate communication. Focused intimate conversation looks more like taking a quiet walk while you talk privately and listen intently to each other away from the hassles and responsibilities of daily life. It takes place at a slower pace than other forms of communication and it is not outcome driven. There is no final goal to achieve.  The sole purpose derives from the process itself.  For those involved, it is enough to feel symbolically connected via the sharing of their experiences. 

When there is almost no time spent in intimate communication, a bonded relationship will start to dysfunction because emotional needs are not being met.  Most women like to view themselves as more autonomous than they really are. As a consequence, they underestimate or even completely eclipse their own emotional needs from their awareness. It’s as if a person is starving but has no hunger! When this is happening, most people will turn the hurt into feelings of resentment and anger. They become hypersensitive and anger is provoked by even small issues.

In my book this phenomenon is illustrated in the lives of the three predominant women in the story. They act as though they do not have emotional needs.  They act stronger than they really feel underneath, and thus, reinforce the deprivation.  Because they do not expect emotional support, they do not ask for it, consequently, they do not get it. They also choose significant others who cannot or do not want not give emotionally.  They often choose partners who are cold, aloof, self-centered, or needy, and therefore likely to continue to deprive them emotionally.

Because their emotional needs were never met, the women in my story are not even aware that they are emotionally deprived. They suffer from depression, loneliness and other physical symptoms, but never make the connection with the absence of nurturing, empathy and protection. As a result, they deny that their needs are important or worthwhile and believe that strong people do not have needs.  They consider it a sign of weakness to ask others to meet their needs and have trouble accepting that there is a “lonely child” inside them who wants and needs love and connection from others in their lives. I hope my characters can learn to find the balance between strength and vulnerability in life.  To only have one side--to only be strong--is not to be fully human and denies a core part of who they are as people.

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