Recognizing that most often it is our own comforting for which we are yearning; then giving our selves permission to apply our exquisitely honed nurturing skills to our very own wounded selves.
Comforting Our Selves
When the wounded parts of you feel sad, frightened, unhappy, lonely or yearning…
It's almost always your own attention and comforting they are needing.
Practice taking time and space just to listen to those parts with the same gentle,
loving patience with which you'd listen to the distresses of any beloved friend!
Like so many women, I was raised by a woman whose own emotional limitations and damage left her unable to cope adequately with mothering me. Like so many of us who were poorly or damagingly mothered by such women, I grew up dedicated to trying to mother my mother into wholeness. Even without words or language I and others in this cohort grasped early on that our mothers felt overwhelmed, traumatized or enraged by our needs, pains and fears. Like so many of us, I became precociously adept at protecting my mother from my normal childhood dependencies in order to be safer in her presence. To do this required cutting off from conscious awareness of my own needs.
In this process I, like other women in this cohort, became fiercely independent well before that was developmentally appropriate. (Or socially prescribed.) We became highly empathic: sensitive to and committed to nurturing our supposed nurturer's unnamed neediness. From the shape of our own unacknowledged starvation we understood what these hungry women might need. As remarkably good babies, girls and women we've spent and spend much of our lives being tuned to the unspoken neediness not only in them but, as well, in anyone else who might cross our path. Often we are particularly tuned and responsive to the needs of those who are in roles (supposedly) of providing for us: teachers, mentors, boyfriends, husbands, mates, etc.
We've developed the capacity to anticipate and subtly attend to comforting and nurturing others without their ever having to own either the fact of their neediness or of our tending to it. In our secret hearts, we keep believing that our loving will heal the other into wholeness. A wholeness that we (often less than consciously) imagine will allow them then to nurture and love us back in this same way. The sad truth is that this never happens and they never do.
We become chronic, knee jerk nurturers. Everywhere we go, we are recognized as intuitive, caring and generous "Mommies." In our disconnected and self-serving world, this endears us to a great many people. The people whom we nurture typically see us as sources of limitless caring, complete unto our selves, unlikely to need anything from folks such as they are. They do not intuit back. They rarely give much of anything to us save the gift of their receiving from us and, occasionally, the gift of their gratitude. This rarely deters us from our ministrations.
Over the years, I've realized that this relentless, driven giving away of what we've never gotten is a secret process by which we try vicariously to nourish our own less than conscious hungers. By secretly identifying with the recipient of our bounty, some little starving parts of us can have the illusion of being lavishly fed. We remain unaware of our own suppressed neediness by focusing on the neediness in others.
In the end, it's a poor bargain. The hungers we attend to in the other are most often based in their early deprivations. These ancient unmet yearnings are locked behind the shield of time; inaccessible to ministrations from anyone outside of the person in whom they live. Satisfying these needs can only be an inside job.
But, from early in our lives it was not safe for us to recognize that we had needs of our own that required tending. So, we often stay trapped in this unsatisfying vicious circling. When feelings of sadness, fear, loneliness, yearning push up toward consciousness, we throw our selves into finding someone else to whom we might tend.
What we are drawn to do for others neither fills us up nor fixes what's broken in them. When it doesn't, they sometimes get angry with us. They believe that our nurturing isn't making them feel better because either we're not doing enough or we're not doing it right. We, on the other side of it, throw our selves more avidly into the tending – until or unless we begin to feel resentful about what appears to be the insatiability of their hunger. The little starveling in us believes that we would use such nurturing to much better advantage – were it being given us by someone as loving as we are being. We get resentful that it is always still the other person's turn, that they never get whole enough to give anything to us.
When I dropped out of my complex and successful life in New York City taking to the road westward in my house-on-my-back womb of a van just after my 32nd birthday, I inadvertently broke out of this vicious circling for the first time. (See Pirouettes for more about that transition.) With only my self to be with and take care of and little else to distract me, I gradually became conscious of the hungers that had been disowned and locked away, stored in my body. As I began to listen to my body, a new emotional landscape emerged into my consciousness.
In this new terrain, unfamiliar longings surfaced: a profound hunger for the mothering I'd never received and till then did not consciously miss; an aching for the comfort of caring, accepting touch that till then had not been a particular yearning; a longing for someone outside of me to love me into loving my self in ways I seemed so incapable of doing by my self: this, too, a possibility that till then had never entered my mind.
I wrote in my journal and spent endless hours with these newly conscious and uncomfortable yearnings, learning how to live in the middle of them. In those first days, I believed that only the unconditional love, care and touch of someone outside my self could ever bring me true healing. At the same time, I couldn't begin to imagine how I would ever find such a person much less how I'd be able to trust such a person were I to find one.
So, I practiced living with these now conscious longings without having much hope of ever having them met. I muddled along making room to immerse my self in feeling the feelings when they rose up. In other moments I continued exploring the rest of the newnesses that were emerging in my on-the-road journeying life. Now that I was aware of and being with my neediness, I was no longer inclined to get involved with people in the old let-me-take-care-of-your-wounds way.
Those early days of experiencing what had been buried below the level of my consciousness came almost ten years before I first connected with the Little One(s) inside. Here and there through those ten years and even afterward, I would occasionally meet someone who appeared to offer me some of that for which I was longing. Inevitably, I would quickly discover how impossible it was for me to trust that what was being offered was real or safe or okay or even healthy to let it in.
For example, someone might offer to hold me while I sobbed. Once in their arms, I'd feel as though I had to hurry up and feel better: so that they would feel that they were being effective; so that they wouldn't feel overwhelmed by my neediness; so that they wouldn't be done with giving to me before I was ready to be on my own with my feelings again. And, I'd worry whether they'd offered only because they assumed I'd say no. If I took them up on this offer I was supposed to reject, would there be a price to pay? Would they be furious with me? Would they humiliate and ridicule me later for needing to be held? What would I have to do to redeem my self in their eyes? How often would I be reminded of "all they did for me?" What would I have to do to make us even again? How would they use this against me? How might they use this to manipulate me? How withholding would they become once I'd allowed my self to lean on them? Or, I might wonder what it was they really wanted from me while they appeared to be giving to me? What were they needing or getting out of this giving? All these questions would come up in an eye blink, more a cascade of fears than actual thoughts.
Every fear and worry I would have was what I had learned to have around my mother's so-called nurturing behaviors. Nothing from anyone else felt any safer. The prospect of adding all this worried obsessing to my already upset self made it much easier to refuse all offers. Being with my upset by my self, just bumbling through, was the only safe, if not fully satisfying alternative.
When I began the process of connecting with and re-mothering the Little One(s) inside, everything about this changed. (The Little Ones Story and Coming Home tell that story in more depth.) As soon as I'd met the Little One, I was filled with ferociously protective, unconditional love for her. Suddenly, I had permission to give to my little inner self all the tender nurture that I'd only been allowed to give to everyone else. Day by day I practiced, growing more able to be a safe, loving harbor for my starving Little One. I became the dependable Mommy for whom she had been yearning. Being with my own upset became fully satisfying.
Over the years since I began mommying my self, I am sometimes able to allow my dearest friends to be there to support the Mommy in me as she cares for the Little One. I've learned that it is never safe to let anyone but the inner Mommy relate directly to the Little One. And, in truth, nothing anyone else has to give can reach across the time warp to where the Little One inside lives except by going through the Mommy.
We as women have so much cultural training (on top of whatever familial nurturing history we have) that pushes us to give nurture to everyone but our selves and to look for nurture from anyone but our selves. Practicing and developing our capacity to nurture our selves whenever we need nurturing is vital to our process of becoming more whole. Nurture from others can add on to and amplify what we do for our selves. But to take the very best care of our selves, self-nurturing is the essential baseline from which we must start.
As I watch my own unfolding, and as I write this tale, I'm aware that I am still not comfortable with others' ministrations when I am going through tense or difficult times. Though I no longer go through the obsessive worrying about such help, I typically find it's either not relevant or even distracting for the Mommy. At this moment, I'm not sure that I care about that becoming any different for me. Still, I suspect that as I continue in this process of aging, changes in this may come organically from necessity. It feels like that will be okay with me, too.
Consider bringing your own loving patience and attention to your own hungry or wounded parts.