According to the Object relations theory, our psyche/self develops in relation to others in the environment during childhood. Since the mother is the “primary object/ person’ that a child relates to, his perception of this primary caregiver determines his perception of himself and the world at large.
If you were lucky you would have grown up with a ‘good enough primary object.’ Growing up we internalize our primary object/person and this unconsciously shapes and influences all our subsequent relations in life.
Attachment & Object Constancy
The quality of our object is determined by the degree of attachment – secure, ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized., A person who has experienced secure attachment ‘is likely to develop a whole object representational model of the attachment figures as being available, responsive, and helpful‘.
According to Allan Schore, the baby’s brain development depends on his relational experiences with his caregiver/s. Primarily how they attune to his needs and emotions. When the mother figure is consistent and reacts to the cues of the baby, he feels secure. Because his mother reflected love and dependability, he grows up feeling safe and confident of his place in the world. He knows the object of his affections can be relied upon. This constancy – the internalization of a reliable loving object/person in his life is the cornerstone of his mental-wellbeing.
Knowing that there is someone out there who has our back is a primal need we all have no matter how old or successful we are.
Failure in the attachment process leads to a lack of development of whole object relations and object constancy which in turn could lead to personality disorders like narcissism and borderline personality.
Trauma and Disruption In Stable Object Relations
Even though I had a fairly well-developed sense of self by age 11 when my mother died, I still ended up struggling with mental health issues all my adult life.
The main reason being my primary object had died. Secondly, the other people in my environment were not good enough to mirror positive states to support my still-developing personality.
Death was followed by violence, sexual abuse, false accusations, and a number of insidious traumas and there seemed no way out. To survive I had to carry on as though everything was hunky-dory, My Apparently Normal Part (ANP) took over and my Emotional Part (EP) stayed stuck at age 13 years when the devastating assault on my vulnerable psyche occurred.
Having a stable object relationship is vital to one’s development all through one’s growing years. In fact, our well-being depends on having loving human connections all throughout our lives. Our primal need for attention, attachment, and affection, does not change just because our bodies do.
Our relationships define us – who we are and who we become depends, on how we are loved and cherished.
Searching For Constancy
My mother’s death and the unrelenting abuse, my sense of constancy was shaken. It was like trying to stand upright during an earthquake. And the only way to survive was to suppress who I was. This smothered my transition into adulthood. Trauma, particularly in the developmental years can disrupt one’s developing identity. We need positive mirrors to mature physically and emotionally.
I searched for alternate loving objects in my father ( he was consistently violent). My brother (he displaced his rage onto me and teamed up with my sexually abusive cousin). Maternal grandmother ( she turned out to be a cold, moody fish). A favorite uncle ( he began lusting for me). Another uncle ( who showed he cared when my mother was alive – began hating me, I am still clueless) why), An aunt (but she turned out to be a narcissist who accused me of seducing her husband).
Like a desperate, drowning puppy I tried to please, bend, cower, and hide my true self, particularly my developing female form. The mirrors in my life sent the message that being womanly was dangerous, my brain shut down from feeling and becoming a woman. I developed scoliosis. Emotionally and physically my development was arrested to age 13.
However, the more I was abused the more enmeshed I felt. I desperately clung on for the sake of my survival. I became the subservient object fitting into the role defined by my abusers who selfishly exploited me. No longer relating to positive, life-enhancing relationships. But being a useful object to be used and abused is how my existence was defined. Survival meant placating my abusive family and the world at large.
Having just one person who could have positively mirrored me would have made all the difference.
Trauma Bonding To Toxic Objects
Being dependent on our caregivers, childhood abuse encodes a helplessnesses in our brains. This program continues into adulthood.
Furthermore, when caregivers alternate between good and bad, hot and cold it creates confusion and mental distress. It is this inconsistent positive reinforcement that creates the toxic tenacity of the trauma bond. The brain gets looped on high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, paired with dopamine. Our body becomes addicted and dependent on having that approval. I used to be hyper-alert and ready to help out even when not particularly asked. And when I was the butt of a joke I’d join in with fake laughter.
Unfortunately, we continue to operate from this program right into adulthood because this is the internalized mental image we carry of ourselves and the world at large.
It is this high-low, see-saw that keeps us from breaking free. Our sense of what is right for us gets warped due to continuous confusion.
Trauma bonding occurs after intense, emotional experiences with our abusers. It binds us to them, creating subconscious patterns of attachment that are very difficult to detach from.
Breaking a Trauma Bond
Though we are subconsciously and chemically driven to continue with abusive relationships, we still control our choices. And our rational/logical brain can see things as they are. To break the trauma bond, we have to cut off these abusive relationships. We HAVE to find other objects/persons/experiences to replace our noxious stories
The only way to break a trauma bond is by consciously acknowledging that the situation is detrimental to your emotional and physical well-being. They are not going to change unless you change. You have to accept the fact that people can be deceitful and evil.
You have to cut off these traumatic bonds and find better and more loving relational objects.
It is emotionally hard to actually accept that your family does not love you. In a way, it is a relief, knowing deep down that you really can’t stand their pretense. Acknowledging this is betrayal and understanding it has nothing to do with your intrinsic worth is a gigantic block to overcome but you must in order truly begin healing.
Recovery – Finding New Positive Objects
One of the reasons why healing from childhood abuse is tough is because it is difficult to find someone who truly loves you. Unfortunately, many who are struggling don’t have the financial resources to avail a competent therapist who could help.
Healing cannot happen in isolation we need positive relational objects to witness and mirror us.
A person who will be a good ‘self-object’ so that we can re-experience attuned connections in order to rewire our brain and rebuild our fragmented sense of self.
Furthermore, abuse makes us hypersensitive to non-verbal emotional cues. Even a minor infraction – a fleeting look, of disgust, a change in tone, a dismissive gesture, and our emotional wall goes up. Relationships are difficult to navigate for us survivors.
Without trust, we cannot share our vulnerabilities, However, in order to heal we need to trust again – feel seen, understood, validated, and accepted for who we are.
Staying Away From Unsupportive People
A few months ago when I was feeling much better emotionally I went to visit my mother’s old friend. Since she knew the family, I shared with her what I had been through. Her reaction was simply to shut me down and her eyes conveyed irritation and hate for the black sheep. It felt like a knife cutting through my soul. Mentally I spiraled back to ground zero. Getting back on track was akin to re-climbing Everest after being so close to the summit.
That’s why it is important to never connect with unsupportive people while still healing. Even after healing keep interactions to a minimum.
Healing from a toxic childhood or relationship requires new positive relational models. Just as a child cannot grow in isolation, without human interaction, recovery also requires relationships – positive, loving ones. Importantly, we need to learn good boundaries and how and who to trust again. We need to learn how to connect without getting enmeshed.
Boundaries, Trust, and Becoming Whole
As adults, equal serve and return are vital for healthy relationships. Learning when to cut out someone who does not equally share tasks or just keeps on expecting you to fulfill their needs is a big No. Boundaries, self-preservation, and self-love are the key.
Healthy human interaction–subject and object roles. The people in a relationship need to develop a tradeoff, an ebb and flow, a give and take, between subject and object roles, each playing object to the others’ subject/initiating, then reversing. Alternating subject and object roles are vital for a relationship.
We don’t need therapy to heal. Just loving human connections will get us to a healthy state.
As my favorite author-therapist, Scott Peck states, “no matter how qualified a therapist, in the absence of real love there cannot be any real healing.’
To heal, grow and flourish we have to be unconditionally accepted and loved by another person despite our idiosyncrasies.
All we need is just one loving connection. I am grateful finally I have that one person in my life. It has made all the difference to my mental health. I feel whole and integrated. Life feels wonderful again.
Image source: Pixabay
The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes
Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse by Shannon Thomas
Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist: The Biochemical Bonds That Keep Us Addicted to Our Abusers by Shahida Arabi