“People have two needs: Attachment and authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity.” ~ Dr. Gabor Mate
The child who endures abuse from a parent is stuck in an impossible bind. If he pushes away, he loses the parent. If he doesn’t, he endures the abuse.
Children generally choose attachment over authenticity. It is a biological imperative to do so that comes from many generations of living in tribal societies where our life depended on being in connection with our community; from being dependent on one another for survival. If that bond was to break and we were outcasted, abandoned, it could mean our life.
Attachment is also biologically wired into us because we need our parents, especially our mother, for nurturing and survival. We know this instinctively. The great climb towards the mother’s nipple is just one beautiful expression of this. Another is the dependency on attachment for our neurological development, such as our ability to self-regulate, which I’ve written extensively about here.
But it is more than biological. It is quite spiritual. The draw to bond with others is a most innate longing that comes from a cellular knowing that we are one with everything. The trees, birds, rivers and stars, these are our extended family of things. This intrinsic knowing is primordial in our bones, in our cells, in our soul. It is a bond that transcends the limits of this lifetime.
As a young child, our parents, and especially our mother, are our Universe. They are Gods in the eyes of a child. They’re our everything. The mother’s womb for the first nine months is the all-encompassing Cosmos for the child. Everything belongs there, and in a deep restful state, the growing infant feels unquestionable belonging. That belonging is the secure attachment, the knowing that all is well and all is being taken care of by the larger body of life.
Turning back to the extreme adversity of childhood abuse, physical or sexual, the child who naturally orients towards oneness is faced with a most devastating existential decision on how to respond. The younger the child is, the more dependent they are on the adult to be their world; which is why, during abuse, instead of pushing or running away (fight / flight), they succumb to the primal instinctive drive to maintain some semblance of relationship, of their world; thus they endure the abuse.
They do this not just to protect themselves from further harm, but because the innate attachment imperative is that important. Fighting off or fleeing would move them away from the needed survival base of unity.
It’s why neglect is considered more harmful to children than abuse. Because at least with abuse there is some sort of attention, some sort of relationship. There is a “We”. With neglect, that biological, soulful imperative for “with-ness” is painfully absent.
And it’s why, later in life, abuse survivors can have a hard time accessing anger. In my work in supporting clients to heal from abuse from their parents, I have witnessed how, when they reach the threshold of anger for what happened, they collapse into sadness.
Anger is the primal energy from which we exercise boundaries, assert our autonomy. It is the red hot emotion that screams, “How dare you!”, “No!”, “Fuck you!”, “Leave me alone!”, “Stop!” Anger pushes away and protects. But anger is not safe if it could mean inviting more physical harm or compromising the relationship. Again, the latter would mean pushing away the same people we need, severing any semblance of attachment. It would mean isolation, which is like death to a young child.
Now in their mid-forties, this aversion to anger is wired tight in my clients’ neurobiology. In my office, on the cusp of unprocessed anger, at the edge of the scream that couldn’t be, the one that wanted to yell “Stop!”, my clients collapse into sadness—the safer place where they receive abuse but not push away. Anger is just too dangerous.
This a profound grief that comes from being at cross-purposes—where the same person they want so badly to love them, and who is supposed to love them, and who they long to move towards, is harming them. They instinctively desire to open to their primary attachment figure, to open their arms, their heart, but cannot in the way that is so natural to young ones. And so there is deep pain. And there is collapse, the only place left to go.
With enough time passed, enough encounters with abuse, collapse becomes the conditioned response of obedience or submission that forges the identity. Attachment and compliance “couple” in the psychology of the child—they learn that (perceived) “security” in relationship depends on some form of submission. This then leads to all sorts of distortions in identity, such as being a “good girl/boy” or a pleaser or accommodator. And it’s the genesis for relationship challenges later in life.
At school the child may be seen as a “star student”, “well-behaved”, but the teacher doesn’t realize that her proclivity to follow the rules has its roots in trauma. At work, in her adult years, we may see similar patterns. Getting the job done, avoiding conflict, being agreeable and nice, all qualities appreciated by her peers (and society), are misunderstood as being her personality (Greek, from “persona”, meaning, “mask”), when in truth, they are enmeshed in survival adaptations.
And in the context of romantic relationship, she may find herself drawn to abusers who take advantage of her; for her boundaries are thin. She has been wired to couple pain with love, being taken advantage of with connection. Again, attachment over authenticity, even at the cost of one’s dignity, health, and life.
Saying “No”, setting clear boundaries, asserting lines of self-respect and dignity are difficult options for one who, early on, (when the brain was rapidly developing), survived by saying “Yes”. Expressing needs, let alone knowing what one needs, is filled with resistance later in life when needs, as a child, were trampled over; when it was not safe to have them. Standing in one’s truth, taking space, asserting one’s power, as healthy children do so naturally, is hard for the adult who learned that power was associated with pain; who experienced being powered over, again and again; who learned that taking space, being “too much”, would have meant more harm.
Personal worth, value, self-esteem, all get sidelined. They matter less. There is little room for them, for the child’s / adult’s authenticity. The other person, their needs matter more. I don’t matter. Survival is everything.
Pain and love coupled
As adults, pain is “chosen” over love. More truthfully, pain is wired as love. If I feel pain, there must be love. That was the person’s early experiences of what love is. Why else would my beloved parent, my whole world, do this to me?
It’s extreme existential confusion for the child, which is why they will, in most cases, blame themselves for what happened. Blaming themselves keeps the belief alive that there is love, a secure bond (which I’ll get into more). The infallible Godview of the loving parent, which is so vital to the young innocent one, is protected, despite the destructive actions. This couples pain to love by justifying or making sense of it on some unconscious survival level.
Parents have been known to say, “I’m doing this (hitting you) because I love you.” Whether the words are spoken or not, this is essentially the message implied in parent-child abuse—that love equals pain.
For these reasons, pain and love are “coupled”, as we say in professional psychological circles. They are insidiously enmeshed. From those early developmental imprints onward, a deep dilemma is then formed in the psyche, an unconscious bind that says, “If I lose the pain, I’ll lose the love.”
This is a well-grooved belief that keeps so many abuse survivors in dysfunctional relationships that seem normal. The attachment to pain within and the coupling of pain to love draws them to the familiarity of “trauma bonds” (toxic relationships) that can last decades. Whether it be abuse, neglect, or general numbed toxicity, it’s not easy to escape because the psychology believes this painful existence to be love, and because losing it would threaten their most primal need for attachment.
Once again, attachment trumps authenticity. Add layers of societal/cultural conditioning of how one ought to be—not single, not alone, for example—, and how women ought to be—“Stand by your man”; “Love, honor and obey”—, and you create an insidiously toxic condition where people desperately cling to pain to cling to love.
The double bind
“The false self is for survival. The true self is for life.” ~ Andrew Feldmar
We now know “If I lose the pain, I’ll lose the love” is an unconscious bind common to trauma survivors. Pain is associated with love. One must endure pain to experience love.
But this bind is actually a double bind, which makes it even more complicated. Let me explain in a round about way…
Pain held deeply for years or decades creates its own distorted identity, a survival adaptation that rewires “I am”. I am a pleaser, I am nice, I am an accommodator, I am good, etc. We become very attached to this false self because being submissive has saved our life many times, and because we don’t know who we are without it. More to the core, we are attached to it because we are addicted to the fear- and shame-based trauma imprints that give rise to these survival identities.
The source of all addiction, whether that be gambling, drinking or sex, is unresolved pain in the system. The traumatized individual has learned to build a stronger allegiance to pain and its addictive expressions than to their own heartfelt knowing—their authenticity.
For example, in my journey of healing, I realized how I carried the buried belief of “I am wrong.” And when confronted with it in a shamanic healing ceremony, I could feel the tremendous fear of releasing it. For, it had defined me for so long. My allegiance ran deep. Release the belief, release the fear, and I release “me”. I lose who I’ve known myself to be, who helped me to survive (through self-blame), and I step into the unknown.
This is the fear beyond all other fears: loss of control, loss of the self we’ve known ourselves to be. This fear is so core that it forges our identity and drives our decision making from the shadows. It prevents us from expressing ourselves truthfully, taking risks, being vulnerable, and embracing uncertainty—from saying “No!” and leaving that toxic relationship.
Shams Tabrizi, the spiritual teacher and poet, spoke to this when he wrote, “Every breath is a chance to be reborn spiritually. But to be reborn into a new life, you have to die before dying.” Meaning, you must relinquish your attachment to who you think you are, who you had to be. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle also points to this: “Fear seems to have many causes. Fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of being hurt, and so on, but ultimately all fear is the ego’s fear of death, of annihilation. To the ego (survival identity), death is always just around the corner. In this mind-identified state, fear of death affects every aspect of your life.” He also notes, “Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ and find that there is no death.”
The addiction to this identity is rooted in survival, which makes the fear and attachment to it so strong. As alluded to earlier, if I believed I was wrong, then I didn’t have to believe my abuser was wrong—the person I depended on as a child to survive. And so I had to (instinctively) blame myself. It must be me that is wrong. There must be something wrong with me. Otherwise, why else would he do this to me? Blaming myself also gave me a sense of control. If I believed my caregiver to be wrong, well, my whole world falls apart and I’m dangling by a gossamer thread. But if I blame myself, I gain some measure of limited agency, some control of what’s out of control.
This brings us back to our double bind.
If I lose the pain, I’ll lose the love. But if I lose the love, I’ll lose who I’ve known myself to be. In other words, if I, as an adult, stand up for myself, set clear boundaries, declare this as inappropriate, or even more, if I let go of this toxic relationship and walk away—if I push away love, then I, to some degree, confront, feel and let go of the pain giving rise to “me”.
Any degree of confronting or letting go of the attachment to the other in its existing unhealthy form—what I call “losing the love”—moves us closer to releasing the attachment to the obedient, pleasing, good “me” I learned to be, and I have to be to stay in this trauma bond. Any time we are less tolerant of what we learned to tolerate through self-suppression, we inch closer to “losing who I’ve known myself to be.” We suppress the truth of who we are less, which inches us towards resolving the pain underlying the trauma identity. Space is made for fuller expressions of authenticity.
This is obviously terrifying—speaking out, stepping into the unknown of “me”, of life, of love! Even an inch, which is the degree of movement most take at any one time, can be incredibly scary. It’s why people prefer the familiar “comforts” of numbed, news-watching disconnect over the aliveness of the unknown.
We must understand how deeply this double bind runs, how core the addiction to pain is, and how rooted the identity is in that pain and in survival. Add the biological and soulful imperative for attachment, the fear of being alone, and all the cultural programming, and, well, you can see how absolutely stuck one can be in their trauma bond—inside and out.
Our addiction to trauma within is a bond that manifests into addictive trauma bonds with others. Let that sentence sink in… We are at the meat of it, now. This is what trauma bond means. It is both internal and external. It is addictive bonds to pain that keep us attached—bonded—to painful ideas of self and relationships, and false and dysfunctional ideas of love.
If I lose the pain, I lose me. But my ideas of love, of attachment, trump everything, ideas that started in childhood. So I must keep the pain, which allows me to stay bonded to the identity I’ve only known myself to be, and away from an unknown life lived in my power. My power is terrifying, for reasons already stated, but also because it would compromise everything I’ve known about myself, while pushing away love. And so if I stand in my power, I lose myself, and I lose the love.
Do you see the double bind, now? It’s very complex, and it has scripted our complex history far more than we realize.
Historic power wounds and obedience
A good trauma practitioner is sensitive to this. They are aware that their clients can be quick to be obedient to their suggestions. If a therapist, for instance, invites the client to do a particular exercise, and the client says “Yes”, it’s important that the practitioner tunes into whether the client actually wants to, or if they are simply defaulting to old pattens of giving their power away to others, in this case the therapist, who is in a position of power.
A wise therapist would say, “I invite you to check in with yourself to see if you really want to do this.” He would encourage the person to know, somatically (in their body), where their decision is coming from, and what is true for them. In these moments what’s more important is not doing the activity, but the client learning to safely choose themselves over the other—the opposite of choosing attachment over authenticity.
Imagine if we did this with children, at home, at school. Imagine if we had this level of sensitive attunement and patience.
How many children both today, and in years past, have simply said “Yes” because, in their body, it was incredibly unsafe to say “No”; and because the parent or teacher, like the therapist, held a position of power, a position that so often wasn’t to be challenged (“Seen but not heard”)?
How much have we historically praised performance and obedience at home and in the classroom without a clue about what’s actually going on in the child? And how has this defined our cultural values / ethos, such as ideas on success, compliance and etiquette (being “good”)?
How well are we serving children if they do not have a level of agency in their learning and development, if we don’t safely encourage them to trust their instincts? Even more reason to support play-based, self-directed learning—education that happens at the child’s own imaginative, self-loving pace. (For more on this particular topic, I strongly encourage you to read this article.)
How well are we serving one’s spiritual growth if we are taught to grant power to the clergyman who is seen as the intermediary to God, and therefore one to give our power to, while denying our divine essence? How well are we serving our people to stand in their power if Churches decree that you must be “good” (submissive) in the eyes of God, or you will be punished (go to hell)?
How well are we serving Mother Earth, and all her inhabitants, if we continue to hold myopic anthropocentric views and agendas, ones that have roots in fear and a need for control; again, determining Gaia to be for the taking, compliant to our litany of greed-driven requisitions.
Clearly, I could go on and on, as I’m guessing you could as well. These patterns are engrained and longstanding. For, we are a culture that holds, at the cellular level, the collective trauma of thousands of years of power wounds rooted in this double bind. A culture that has learned to dominate and control others because of the historic attachment failures and rampant abuse of children (“Spare the rod, spoil the child”). A culture where children carry, in their DNA, the unresolved intergenerational trauma imprints of survival through self-repression. A culture where women and people of colour hold the cellular memory of lifetimes of violent oppression. A culture that carries quantum, collective programming that says it’s not safe to speak up, stand out, be in our power, for there are consequences. Turn to your history books and you’ll see those violent consequences, time and again.
We are a culture that has learned to be afraid of love, and to choose pain over love. And this has manifested ubiquitously throughout, defining our family and societal systems and infrastructure, and without our knowing. We’ve all bought into the programming, and we wonder why the world is as it is.
We are now at a critical crossroads where we must do the healing work so we can choose love over fear. So we can reclaim conscious awareness of our sovereignty as divine humans.
It is time to wake from the dream of pain and into the truth of love.
“Heal. So we don’t have another generation of trauma passing itself off as culture.” ~ Unknown
Healing is of utmost importance. It gives us back to ourselves. It is the courageous and needed reclamation project of learning to safely stand in our power and authenticity, even at the cost of attachment. Of learning to not please, even if it means stepping into the unknown. Of learning to love oneself and others, while releasing all the toxic, conditioned ideas of what love is.
Healing “uncouples” pain from love. In doing so, it uncouples the false self from the real self; the survival identity from our soulful essence; you from that toxic relationship.
Healing creates the necessary space within for truth to shine through, eradicating all the false ideas of what we thought love was, and who we thought we were. It clears the inner bondage to trauma, making space for a love not bound in pain, but freed for authentic expression.
Tend to personal transformation and we automatically shift the world. One person at a time, healing repairs and reimagines a society that has been operating, for the most part, unconsciously and fearfully for millennia. Through our own inner work, we tend to the collective wound that informs everything from how schools run, to how parents interact with children, to how we manage workplaces, to how the Church interprets and disseminates scripture. Dedicated inner work changes how the outer works!
Each of us is the gatekeeper for the transformation of consciousness. We are the portals to the new emerging loving world. Our healing is a blessing for what is here now, but also for our descendants and ancestors. Though not on this planet, those before and those after are not separate from the choices we make here, today. They are beneficiaries of each fear transmuted and each blessing laid.
It begins with us, my friends. We are the ones who must re-write the script that says, “If I lose the pain, I’ll lose the love”. We are the ones who must unbind from trauma so we can securely and joyfully bond to others, and life. Healing supports and teaches us this.
“Love is a place we go when we no longer wish to hide.” ~ Anonymous
In healing the pain, we discover that love was there all along. It never left us, but was only covered for a while, and forgotten. It was disguised through our own disguises. Healing lifts this cover, revealing that it’s safe to no longer hide behind our pain. That we can, in a courageous stance in uncertainty, in our true power, lose the pain, lose who we had to be, and re-discover the love that’s always been there, ready to catch us.
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Healing & Activation: My invitation to you is to participate in my online healing and activation ceremonies. Drawing upon the power and mystery of Starlight and its many emanations, transformation takes place at the quantum or cellular level, creating radical changes in health and empowerment.
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults