Sunday, July 27, 2008

True Self

Maybe a year ago I had a dream of constructing some sort of flying vehicle. It was very beautiful, with a sort of bubble, like a helicopter cockpit where I sat. Its construction was finished, and I was receiving instruction in flying it. My instructor was not visible to me, but I heard her voice. I think I may have mastered the basics, of moving up and down and sideways. Now I was moving in a slightly more advanced realm. I was feeling how small subtle shifts affected my position, and how I could use those to gain skill. There was a feeling of a barrier that I was crossing, into, and out of, something. It was a boundary of sorts, and I was practicing negotiating it. I had an unease about whether or not I was trespassing, yet I felt that since I was not doing more than crossing the boundary, using it as a training tool, it was ok. I hoped that was true anyway.

Reading Scattered, by Gabor Mate´, I'm reminded of that dream.

He talks about the basic skill of self-regulation. The ability to maintain a stable inner environment despite fluctuations without. This is the foundation for being able to attend, and to learn. Perhaps self-soothing is another skill, which is even more basic than self-regulation. These are the first skills an infant learns, in the presence of an attuned adult. To learn this skill requires a caregiver who is self-regulated to the point where his/her self is stable despite stressors. This is not a person who is free of anxiety, but is able to tolerate his/her own anxiety.

In watching children operate, especially toddlers around desired objects, I've been sensitive to fluctuations of anxiety: the children's, and my own corresponding. Will my child get what his heart is so desiring right now? In the meantime I see the child who is in possession of the toy responding to the anxiety of the other children with anxiety of his own: will it be taken away? It's mine! The anxiety of the other children increases the desirability of the object many-fold. Some children can't tolerate the feeling: they cry, or they hit. Some children are able to relinquish their desire and move on. Others respond to distraction. Some absolutely can not.

The mother can soothe her child to the extent that she is able to maintain her calm center, her inner temperature despite the rising temperature outside. Adding to the heat are the thoughts: will my child get a turn with this toy? Look how many children are clamoring for it. My child wants it so much! Look how sad she is! What will the other moms do? How will they handle it? Are they judging my child for screaming? Are they judging me because he's screaming? What if he hits someone? I feel self-conscious responding when there are other parents around. Will this kid EVER give up the toy? Look at him hoard it. I HATE him! Look, I can see on the faces of the other moms that they're also concerned that THEIR child get a chance. How can I advocate for my child without being overbearing?

This was the kind of scenario I knew came with the parenting territory, knew was coming when I held my infant in my arms, and dreaded. Parenting-In-Public.

Fortunately, I found a group of moms who were able to hold their centers stable while negotiating these rough waters, and I learned from them. I also learned that children's heart's desires are often fickle, and even if they were heartbroken over something one moment, they were indifferent to it the next.

So the point is well taken that parents who can maintain a serene inner temperature when things are turbulent outside can best teach their children the same skill. This is the foundation of the child developing a stable Self, and the ability to regulate It.

From what Mate´writes it appears that this is essential for the child to develop the brain structures that will affect his ability to learn, to attend, to focus and direct that attention at will, in her future. These neural pathways are laid down in the presence of this safe, undisturbed-by-anxiety core. The agent is the attunement of the parent. These are the conditions that are required for optimum development of these structures.

The features of ADD, immaturity, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, are all normal stages of development that a child passes through. In the absence of the optimal conditions for development a normal stage becomes a state.

This resonates with an intuition I've had, that the tension between Gary and I has been counter-productive to the emotional well-being of our sons. I realize that considering this is flirting with a 'blame-the-parent' (particularly the mother) mentality. However, I do not read blame in Mate´'s writing. I don't feel defensive, because I've been feeling this is intuitively true all along. Perhaps also there is hope in Mate´'s message: development is not static. The human brain is always developing, well into old age.

As I read his description of a stable inner Self, and the skill of Self regulation, his analogy of the warm and cold blooded animals broke open a door and light shone in. There are adults in my life who are cold-blooded animals emotionally. It's not that they're cold people, it's that they require others around them to adjust the environment to their comfort level. Their sense of Self and their well-being are dependent on the conditions outside of them, and they can only tolerate a small level of fluctuation. And it seems perfectly natural to them to expect others around them to accommodate them.

My mother is one of these people. To a lesser extent, so is my father. Gary is, and to a much greater extent so is his mother. Their sense of Self is fragile, and vulnerable to collapse in the face of disagreement and disappointment. In fact, there's a way that my life has been in service to people like this, my objections felt like selfishness to me. I wonder if other people have had this experience?

Anyway, reading Scattered, I felt a place inside. Almost a physical place, It was like a space, perhaps a potential space that has always existed, but I didn't know was there. Now I feel a Presence inside there. Unconsciously, I've been breathing into It. I've found myself breathing into It in potential anxiety situations: driving on the freeway: will there be an opening when I need to take my exit?

And then I think of the dream. So perhaps this is my vehicle, my flying vehicle. I've been constructing It with Sharon, my mentor, and I'm learning how to fly. Learning the basics, and now ready to begin acquiring some skill.


Anonymous said...

The other book of Maté's says much the same thing about a developing child's mind. I can see it with my children. My son was born into a tense relationship in which I ended up leaving before my son was born, then returned and then leaving again. His pre and post natal time with me was filled with tension and distress and sure enough he is ADD. I was much calmer while pregnant with my middle daughter and she is much less impulsive and although she is a drama queen, has much more common sense than my son and ultimately makes better decisions, even though she is six years younger than him.

I was born into a tension filled family as well and I never learned how to self regulate myself until recently. It kinda sucks because I look at other people sometimes, people who came from stable, loving parents and they seem to have such an easier time. They are not adrift in the ocean but rather have the skills to sail to their destination. That's what I'm learning to do now, sail myself but life would have been a lot easier for me if I could have learned it as a child.

I understand why my parents couldn't teach me these skills, they didn't have them either and neither did their parents. Generations of parents without these self regulating skills, parenting the next generation.

So no, I don't blame my parents but I do understand the reason why I am as I am today is because I wasn't taught these skills as a child. Does that make sense?

excavator said...

Hi, Deb!

In Scattered Mate´ says that since ADD is a dis-order of development, then development is it's 'cure'. I guess that's the most hopeful thought I've had for a long time, because it seems realistic. It is possible to create for ourselves the conditions that allow for the development of self-regulation as adults.

I love books that have a specialized subject, but shed a much greater light on the human condition as a whole.

Anonymous said...

That does give me hope. He writing on addictions gave me hope as well. I have long struggled with my brain, my ADD and my depression. It gives me hope, maybe it's not permanent. Actually the past two years have taught me that I can change how I think and as a consequence, how I feel. It's a lot of work but I'm starting to reap the rewards, slowly.